Ramayana, the greatest story ever told….Part 2

Performance of Ramayana in Khon, a Thai traditional dance

How the epic spread beyond the Indian subcontinent

After diffusing widely and deeply into the Indian subcontinent, the story of Rama slowly and surely started to seep overseas.

With the spread of Buddhism and the colonization of several lands in the Indian ocean by Indian kings, the story of Rama entered the South East Asian kingdoms.  

Late professor and Sanskrit scholar Dr. V Raghavan once pointed out that the epic’s popularity in the predominantly ‘Buddhist’ South East Asia can be attributed to its seamless integration into Buddhist writings where Rama was depicted as a Boddhisatva. The Dasharatha Jataka, the Buddhist retelling of the epic, leveraged on the persona of Rama to propagate Dhamma.

Just as Tulsi’s idea of Ramarajya led to the establishment of Rama as the archetypal king for the Indian ruling class, in Thailand, the monarch takes on the title of Rama and rules in his name. In certain Sanskrit inscriptions from Champa (in today’s Southern Vietnam) and Cambodia, we find the local king being compared to Rama.

But Rama was not always the protagonist in these stories…

But this is not to say Rama, was the protagonist in all the versions of the epic. In several versions, the heroic role of vanquishing Ravana was often handed over to Lakshmana, who was perceived to be the more macho of the two. The values that Rama stood for in India (Maryada purushottam and eka patnivrata) were not necessarily endorsed or cherished by every society. In several south Asian versions of the epic, Rama’s commitment and fidelity to Sita is not upheld as a desirable trait and was looked upon as an oddity and often discounted.  However, these variations, sometimes small and sometimes significant, enabled the epic to cut across cultural barriers and find root in diverse societies having different value systems.

 What makes Ramayana a timeless classic?

Whatever be the composer’s raison d’être for the epic, the popularity and timelessness of this evergreen epic can be pinned down to a single notion – its unequivocal endorsement of the family system. For the society at large, the story of Rama is one of domestic relationships, of familial obligations, fraternal bonds and romantic love.

Indian women, for instance, identify with the character of Sita, and the sufferings she underwent, which finds reflection in the Telugu folk song tradition and in the Madhubhani paintings of Bihar. Sita bidai, the departure of Sita for her in-laws’ house, is a common theme in the Madhubani paintings tradition carried on by the women of Mithila, believed to be Sita’s birthplace.

Thus, in the folk art and tribal adaptations of the epic, we often find that the focus is on domestic relationships, and esoteric contemplation on dharma are absent.

Individual ambitions and aspirations have never mattered much in the Indian context. On the contrary, obedience and conformity to a clan’s social structure is encouraged. That is why Ravana’s lust for a woman was punished. Ravana’s was an individual’s aspiration for which he compromised the interests of his clan. Whereas, Rama, even as a manifestation of the divine, did not act for himself, but as a torchbearer for his dynasty and the values it stood for. It is this idea of the superiority of the clan over the individual, endorsed by the epic that continues to resonate deeply with the common man even today.

Ramayana – story or history?

The question whether Rama existed or not is one we endlessly debate. Maybe Rama did exist, and his incredible life story gained the proportions of a magnum opus with time. Or maybe, he didn’t, and was but an embodiment of an ideal man, a society’s idea of a perfect monarch. Either way, the answer does not matter. Historic figures rarely reach the zenith of adulation that mythological heroes do. As the hero of an eternal epic, Rama, the Kavuyapurush, remains immortal in the collective imagination of all the listeners of the Ramayana.

And as long as we keep telling stories, Ramayana will continue to be told and heard…

Click the link below to know about Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayan:

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: