The life story of Rama is too well-known to be recounted. It has survived in a variety of forms in numerous languages in South and South east Asia. Epics, plays, poems, songs and novels have been written on the Ramayana. The text has provided a model for kingship, warfare and conduct, and exemplified ethical life in multiple ways. It has also functioned as a wellspring of bhakti in India.
In spite of the many avenues of understanding that the existing literature on the Ramayana opens up, it will be an act of conceit to say that all that could be said has already been said. The Ramayana is rich, dense and layered. The propositions that scholars have made until now do not exhaust its interpretive possibilities.
Historians believe the Ramayana existed in oral forms before its composition as a literary text. The story upon which the epic is based was under circulation at least since the 5th century BC. It was perhaps part of the oral repertoire of the Vedic gathas and narasamsis, which were eulogies of a ruler or his predecessors that used to be recited as part of the sacrifices a king performed. The Ramayana does not seem to have been different in this respect. A hint appears in the episode where Rama’s sons, Lava and Kusa, recite the Ramayana during a horse sacrifice (ashwamedh) their father had organised. It’s said that the names Lava and Kusa bring to mind the expression, kusilava, used for bards and performers in ancient times. The oral origin of the story is more or less a certainty.
As it turns out, we have access to the oldest versions of the story only in written forms. They occur in texts such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Dasaratha Jataka and the Pauma Charia. What the oral version contained is not easy to establish. Oral Ramayanas have survived in some numbers in several Indian languages, but they don’t go back too far in time. A philological examination of the Ramayana, made in the light of insights drawn from historical processes in the first millennium BC, might be of help.
The names of some of the characters in the Ramayana help us draw interesting conclusions. The four sons of Dasaratha, viz., Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata and Satrughna, are married to the four princesses of Videha, viz., Sita, Urmila, Mandavi and Sritakirti, respectively. What might these names be suggesting?
It is well-known that the word sita means a furrow. Studies on the Ramayana acknowledge the possible connections with agrarian rituals that Sita’s legend might have had. The word urmi, from which Urmila is derived, means a line. It might have been a synonym for furrow in ancient times, although there are no attested examples for this usage. We are on firmer ground when we come to the two other names. Mandavi comes from manda or gruel, and the srita in Sritakirti refers to cooked food.
Sita and Urmila are daughters of Janaka, while Mandavi and Sritakriti are of Kusadhvaja. The etymological meaning of Janaka, father, is producer, and can be metonymically extended to refer to a cultivator. The kusa in Kusadhvaja is a synonym for ploughshare. The names seem to point to the possibility that the princesses whom Dasaratha’s sons married, had deep agrarian connections.
Such an association is even more pronounced in the names of the folks related to the demon king Ravana. The etymological source of the name is rava, sound, which is a synonym for thunder. Ravana’s father is Vishravas, the shrava in his name connoting sound. Sound figures in the name of Ravana’s son Meghanad, again referring to thunder. Meghanad is also called Indrajit, i.e., the one who vanquished Indra, the god of rain.
It is farfetched to trace Ravana’s grandfather’s name, Pulastya, to the Dravidian word pulam, an agricultural field. A few other names are certainly less ambiguous. Ravana’s wife is Mandodari, the one with gruel (manda) in her belly (udara). His sister’s is Surpanakha. Surpa refers to a winnowing basket that has been an integral part of agrarian life in India. Interestingly enough, Ravana’s mother Kaikasi is also called Nikasha, a harrow. His stepmother is Ilavida, where ilava signifies a person wielding a plough. The kingdom over which Ravana ruled is Lanka, which refers to, among other things, a grain. One of Ravana’s brothers is Kumbhakarna, kumbha being a pitcher and karna, its handle. His cousin’s name is Khara, meaning a platform on which a cooking pot is placed. His uncle’s name, Marich, has its origins in mari, rain.
Among the villains that Rama kills is Vali, a name derived from vala, cloud. And among the ones he rescues from misery is the sage Gautama’s wife, Ahalya, a proper noun that brings to mind the adjective, a-halya—a field unfit for cultivation.
Towards the end of the epic, when Sita gives birth to two sons, we notice that one of them is named Lava, which means harvesting, and the other Kusa, which means a ploughshare.
The story of Rama in its oral form was, then, a metaphorical account of the acts of a warrior who promoted agriculture through land reclamation, secured control over agrarian surpluses of other territories through warfare and matrimonial ties, and fought back intrusions into his own agrarian holdings. The fact that the Ramayana became a foundational text for religion, spirituality and ethical life in India points to the sway of agricultural expansion on everyday life in India. Not for nothing are most festivals in the subcontinent—including Dussehra with its fabulous Ram Leela celebrations—are deeply intertwined with its agricultural cycles.
The advent of sedentary life based on agriculture was one of the greatest historical truths in Indian history. The Ramayana embodies this truth in the most subtle and enchanting form one can think of.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Ram ke Naam")
(Views expressed are personal)
Manu V. Devadevan is associate professor of history, IIT-Mandi