Ramayana: The Greatest Story Ever Told….Part 1

AK Ramanujan, the great folklorist from India collected  a folktale in which a story and a song once escaped from the mouth of a sleeping woman frustrated that she refused to share them with others. The next morning, when she woke up, she had forgotten both the story and the song that she had kept all to herself.  

This folktale illustrates the importance of story-telling for Indians. Stories have a compelling need to be told, listened to and shared. With time, as these stories get told and retold innumerable times in different formats, they evolve into a tradition. 

Great epics were composed in Greek (Illiad and Odyssey) and Akkadian (the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh) too. But today, they remain merely as distant memories from a forgotten past. Whereas, Ramayana remains a living tradition and continues to fascinate and enrich the minds of every passing generation.

Ramayana, the first Indian epic

In the Indian culture, the Valmiki Ramayana, dated to approximately 3rd century BCE, is considered the Adi Kavya or the first poetic composition in Sanskrit of epic proportions. No other composition earlier had had the vastness or richness of the plot that Ramayana had.  No other story had reflected the ethics and value system of a society as the story of Rama did.
Everyone loves a good tragedy, as Aristotle’s idea of catharsis would tell us. The most enduring stories told, we often find, are either tragedies or love stories. Ramayana, brimming with karuna rasa, was both – a tragic love-story – and therein lay its eternal appeal. The message that God too was bound by the laws of destiny and suffered very human problems struck a chord with the common man facing societal pressures and challenges.

How the epic spread across the Indian subcontinent….

As Adi Kavya, Ramayana became the first or the basic template of a story for all future stories and epics. Several later mythological compositions and religious texts borrowed the textual template from Ramayana. The influence of Ramayana was so profound that almost all the Hindu religious literature ever composed including the Mahabharata and the Shaiva and Vaishnava Puranas narrate the story of Rama.

But imitation, as they say, is the best form of flattery. Valmiki’s composition set forth an explosion of texts, in Sanskrit, Prakrit as well all as the vernacular resulting in at least 300 different retellings of the epic. With every retelling, Rama’s story diffused into the local culture and gradually emerged as the common denominator that united people of diverse ethnicity and culture across the Indian subcontinent.

Ramayana presented the retellers with a staple story and a set of archetypal characters that were suitably altered to fit the milieu. The language changed, the names changed, the relationships between the cameos changed, but the key characters (Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman and Ravana) and episodes from the epic more or less remained the same.
The mode of transmission of the Ramayana was not all textual.

In a sense, Ramayana, which literally means the path of Rama, is a travel story. Rama travels through a very long route called the Dakshinapath that ran from Ayodhya in the north to Rameshwaram in the south, on his search for Sita.

Even as Rama’s adventures took him down south, Valmiki wove into it previously unknown details of the geography, and flora and fauna of peninsular India, along with an account of the lifestyles of the smaller clans and tribes that inhabited these parts. In as much as these details added to the epic’s novelty value, they also widened the reach of the epic through associations of certain sacred geography with specific episodes from the epic.

Ramayana in Indian art

Apart from oral renditions, the story of Rama reached the largely illiterate audience in the form of folk and classical dances, songs, theatre, shadow-plays that used puppets, etc. The Ramayana was also presented as the theatrical re-enactment of Rama’s life (Ramlila) and through scroll painting traditions (that support oral story telling with visual props) such as the Phad tradition from Bhilwara, Rajasthan and Kalamkari painting tradition from Kalahasti, Andhra Pradesh. 

These art forms borrowed the epic’s basic idea and adapted it to suit the local belief systems, social structure and values. Characters such as Lakshmana and Shurpanaka were assimilated into the native culture and embedded into the local tales, where they freely intermingled with other indigenous characters.  For instance, in the Phad story telling tradition, the protagonist Papuji is believed to have been Lakshmana in his previous birth and had married Shurpanakha.

Architecture too developed around the characters and episodes from the epic. The relief at the Prambanan temple complex at Java depicting episodes from the Ramayana and the relief work showing Ravana trying to lift Mount Kailash at Ellora caves are some of the finest examples of story-telling in stone, that were inspired by the epic.

From classical to folk renderings, the story gradually travelled inlands and diffused into the mythology of the tribals too. Gond Ramayani and Bhil Ramayan are two well-known tribal versions of the epic. While Gond Ramayani narrates the story of Lakshmana’s hunt for a bride, in the Bhil Ramayana, Ravana does not battle Rama but returns Sita to him after realizing his blunder.

…….to be continued

Coming up!

Part 2 – How & Why the story of Rama spread beyond India, and other Asian versions of the epic

Check out the Jain version of the Ramayana by clicking the video link:

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