Ramayana: A Shared Heritage of Humanity

The disintegration of India has been a figment of the imagination of westerners ever since independence. It was also a barely hidden desire based on a widely held belief in the west in the superiority of the Christian civilisation in preserving the democratic stability of our nation. It has been a wonder to the westerners that a country of such diversities – sprinklings of all religions of the world, dozens of languages, hundreds of dialects, thousands of castes, et al – could ever remain one without the powerful cement of colonial rules and laws.

Fifty years of the Republic and today few in the west speculate on the disintegration of India. But the west basks in the belief that the British unification of India and the legacy of British laws, administrative structure and the army are what holds India together. The truth is the exact opposite. The above factors are precisely the causes for the atomisation of today’s Indian society resulting in the destructive but wholly artificial divide between secularism and religious zealotry.

Historians and philosophers now agree that the Indian civilisation is the longest surviving societal continuum in human history. While rulers of differing faiths proliferated and invaders came, plundered and went, the people were bound by shared traditions, heritage, ethics and heroes. At the centre of this shared history down the ages are the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The legends of Rama and Krishna ensured the unity of India. Their versions may vary from region to region and from language to language but Rama and Krishna have remained the most enduring and also endearing figures of Veda Vyaasa’s “Bharata Varsha”.

An American theologian, Harry M. Buck, who has authored many books on Ramayana and on Indian spiritual traditions, writes: “Religious traditions are like waves, and as waves pass through their various mediums, individual particles remain in the same area with relation to each other, moving in circular or elliptical paths. The wave itself moves linearally, but when it encounters an obstacle or change in the ocean floor, it responds in new and complex patterns. The particles may be compared to individual phenomena, remarkably similar throughout human society. The wave can suggest a religious tradition passing across generations and cultures, radically changing its characteristics when it encounters new contexts. The figure of Rama is such a wave. It rolled across south and southeast Asia changing with each new medium but maintaining its own vital power.”

Great Literature
“Fundamental human needs lie behind all great masterpieces of religious literature. The great scriptures never appear in a vacuum, but they rather combine various approaches with differing degrees of subtlety in order to invest temporal existence with an aspect of eternity. No book can become an object of veneration unless it both speaks to the spirit of a people and reflects that people’s values. Although such a book can be appreciated throughout the world – Ramayana is often studied as great literature apart from any devotional commitment – sacred books as such remain the peculiar property of faithful communities where they can be nurtured by their accredited teachers.”

The story of Rama had over the millennia crossed the oceans and transcended religious beliefs, but on the Indian soil it has remained part and parcel of the life and lore of its people. Different life habits, languages and cultures have not inhibited the sway that Rama and Ramayana had come to exercise over the people of India. Every province of India has its own Ramayana lore and every language of India has its Ramayana version. The epic has stirred the imagination of Sages, Philosophers and Intellectuals down the ages and influenced and moulded the psyche of ordinary people for millennia.

Doubtless, it is a sacred book but it is much more than a sacred book. It is the story of a folk hero, mythology as higher history inasmuch as it shaped the character and moulded the thinking of generations of people down the centuries. It is also immortal literature and classic poetry. No comparable work by any author anywhere in the world – the works of Homer Milton, Dante, included – is so uniquely influential and so widely discussed in contemporary society as Ramayana. From religious discourses, theological debates, intellectual analyses to street plays, folk arts, paintings and sculptures, and stage and screen versions in diverse languages, Ramayana, like the civilisation and culture it fostered, has been part and parcel of the lives of the people in every generation dating as far back as to the periods that human memory could traverse.

Many Versions

There are thus countless versions of Ramayana, all of them inspired by Valmiki’s “Adikavya” in Sanskrit, but none of them going wholly by the original text. In Sanskrit itself there have been many versions between Valmiki’s Ramayana and Bhavabhuti’s Uttara Ramacharita and Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsam. In between these were the more esoteric but widely current Adyathma Ramayana, Adbuta Ramayana, Ananda Ramayana and the metaphysical and very voluminous Bhusundi Ramayana, besides hundreds of plays written and staged over the centuries on specific episodes of Ramayana.

The pervasive presence of the Ramayana lore among the people of old India is the reason why books of both Buddhist literature and Jainist versions of Rama legends proliferated providing conflicting versions and also promoting the export of Rama and Ramayana to Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Japan and Burma in the east and to Persia in the west. Since Ramayana reached these areas before the advent of Islam, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia continue even today to have stage versions of Ramayana though icons and sculptures have not survived the religious takeover.

Buddhist and Jainist literature has, however, survived in India often giving rise to intense academic debates about the various characters of Ramayana especially Sita, Bharata, Ravana, etc. Thematic variations were as bizarre as depicting Sita as Rama’s sister, Ravana’s daughter, and even as a male warrior. Even the Indian language versions of Ramayana had sharp deviations from Valmiki’s original. It just proves that every poet and playwright used his own linguistic medium and the cultural and traditional environment of his time in presenting the story of Ramayana.

Autonomous Epics

The most outstanding autonomous epics of this genre are the Kambaramayanam in Tamil and Tulasi Das’s Ramacharithamanas. Both Kamban and Tulasi Das wrote immortal verses, which bore no relation to the Sanskrit original except in the story line. While Valmiki’s Ramayana showed the frailties of a human, Kamban never let his hero be seen as anything but God. Tulasi Das drew more inspiration from Adyathma Ramayana than from Valmiki. It would be well nigh impossible to list out all the Rama Kathas in Indian languages. Suffice it to say bits and pieces of episodes from Ramayana are aplenty in all the languages from Assamese to Bengali in the east to Hindi and its dialects like Maithili and Avadhi in central India, in Marathi and Gujarathi as sublime poetry and stage plays and in the four Dravidian languages of South India in the form of verses, sculptures, drama, dance and folk arts. The full length Ramayana in all these languages have been attempted only in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The sway of the trio of Valmiki, Kamban and Tulasi Das and versions of Bhagavatha Purana containing the Rama story seems to have deterred poets and scholars from attempting to write the full length Ramayana in their own languages. Notable among the modern ones are Giridhar Ramayana in Gujarathi, Ramapattabhisheka by Masti Venkatesha Iyengar and Sri Ramayanadarshanam by K.V. Puttappa, both in Kannada. Malayalam and Telugu, both highly Sanskritised in letter and word have had fairly early Ramayana versions based on Valmiki. The most popular work of the Malayalam authors is Ramacharitam by Seramaan, Adhyathma Ramayana by Ezhuttachan and the much later Kannasa Ramayana by Rama Panikkar.

Jainist Influence

Telugu has its own Ramayana comparable as an opus but not in the quality of verses of Kamban’s epic in Tamil titled Raganatha Ramayanam. It dates back to 13th century A.D. and runs into thirty-four thousand six hundred lines of both poetry and prose. The author of this classic is unknown with many poets of different eras cited as its author. Like all regional adaptations the Telugu Ramayana is also different from that of Valmiki and Kamban, more close to the Jain Ramayanas (Pauma-chariya of Vimala Suri and a dozen others). Raganatha Ramayanam depicts Ravana as a noble king and a great warrior. This is in sharp contrast to Bhaskara Ramayana, which runs true to Valmiki. The 16th century composer of songs Annamacharya has done a garland of songs titled Annamyya Ramayana; sadly now, only bits and pieces of this are available.

The Kannada territory has spawned countless Ramayana versions, thanks mainly to the early Buddhist and Jainist influence on its soil. The Jains have left behind numerous stories which show up Rama as a great warrior and human being but Ravana as not wholly evil. From Nagachandra’s Ramayana in the 12th century to Lakshmisha in 16th and Battaleshwara’s Kaushika Ramayana in the 17th century to the didactic works of Masti and Kuvempu the richness of Ramayana has been embellished by the richness of Kannada language.

Infinite is Rama and Infinite is Ramayana. There is a story of C. Rajagopalachari, who, as a school boy, was asked by his teacher why Rama and Krishna are blue in colour. The boy of six said pointing to the sky and the sea: “The sky and the ocean are blue in colour; they are expansive with no beginning or end, so are Rama and Krishna.” In that profound answer one could see traces of the future sage and statesman who authored the most beautiful and deliciously written English versions of this country’s two greatest epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

V. N. Narayanan

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