Three hundred Ramayans
story’s spectacular journey through the ages: An extract from The
Essays of AK Ramanujan
How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand?
At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How
many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories that answer
the question. Here is one.
One day when Rama was sitting on his throne, his ring fell
off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and
disappeared into it. It was gone. His trusty henchman, Hanuman, was at his
feet. Rama said to Hanuman, ‘Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me.’
Now, Hanuman can enter any hole, no matter how tiny. He
had the power to become the smallest of the small and larger than the
largest thing. So he took on a tiny form and went down the hole.
He went and went and went and suddenly fell into the
netherworld. There were women down there. ‘Look, a tiny monkey! It’s
fallen from above!’ Then they caught him and placed him on a platter (thali).
The King of Spirits (bhut), who lives in the netherworld, likes to
eat animals. So Hanuman was sent to him as part of his dinner along with
his vegetables. Hanuman sat on the platter, wondering what to do.
While this was going on in the netherworld, Rama sat on
his throne on the earth above. The sage Vasistha and the god Brahma came
to see him. They said to Rama, ‘We want to talk privately with you. We
don’t want anyone to hear what we say or interrupt it. Do we agree?’
‘All right,’ said Rama, ‘we’ll talk.’
Then they said, ‘Lay down a rule. If anyone comes in as we
are talking, his head should be cut off.’
‘It will be done,’ said Rama.
Who would be the most trustworthy person to guard the
door? Hanuman had gone down to fetch the ring. Rama trusted no one more
than Laksmana so he asked Laksmana to stand by the door. ‘Don’t allow
anyone to enter,’ he ordered.
Laksmana was standing at the door when the sage Visvamitra
appeared and said, ‘I need to see Rama at once. It’s urgent. Tell me,
where is Rama?’
Laksmana said, ‘Don’t go in now. He is talking to some
people. It’s important.’
‘What is there that Rama would hide from me?’ said
Visvamitra. ‘I must go in, right now.’
Laksmana said, ‘I’ll have to ask his permission before I
can let you in.’
‘Go in and ask then.’
‘I can’t go in till Rama comes out. You’ll have to wait.’
‘If you don’t go in and announce my presence, I’ll burn
the entire kingdom of Ayodhya with a curse,’ said Visvamitra.
Laksmana thought, ‘If I go in now, I’ll die. But if I
don’t go, this hot-headed man will burn down the kingdom. All the
subjects, all things living in it, will die. It’s better that I alone
So he went right in.
Rama asked him, ‘What’s the matter?’
‘Visvamitra is here.’
‘Send him in.’
So Visvamitra went in. The private talk had already come
to an end. Brahma and Vasistha had come to see Rama and say to him, ‘Your
work in the world of human beings is over. Your incarnation as Rama must
now be given up. Leave this body, come up and rejoin the gods.’ That’s all
they wanted to say.
Laksmana said to Rama, ‘Brother, you should cut off my
Rama said, ‘Why? We had nothing more to say. Nothing was
left. So why should I cut off your head?’
Laksmana said, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t let me off
because I’m your brother. There’ll be a blot on Rama’s name. You didn’t
spare your wife. You sent her to the jungle. I must be punished. I will
Laksmana was an avatar of Sesa, the serpent on whom Visnu
sleeps. His time was up too. He went directly to the river Sarayu and
disappeared in the flowing waters.
When Laksmana relinquished his body, Rama summoned all his
followers, Vibhisana, Sugriva and others, and arranged for the coronation
of his twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Then Rama too entered the river Sarayu.
All this while, Hanuman was in the netherworld. When he
was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he kept repeating the name of
Rama. ‘Rama Rama Rama…’
Then the King of Spirits asked, ‘Who are you?’
‘Hanuman? Why have you come here?’
‘Rama’s ring fell into a hole. I’ve come to fetch it.’
The king looked around and showed him a platter. On it
were thousands of rings. They were all Rama’s rings. The king brought the
platter to Hanuman, set it down and said, ‘Pick out your Rama’s ring and
They were all exactly the same. ‘I don’t know which one it
is,’ said Hanuman, shaking his head.
The King of Spirits said, ‘There have been as many Ramas
as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth, you will not
find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation
of Rama is about to be over, his ring falls down. I collect them and keep
them. Now you can go.’
So Hanuman left.1
This story is usually told to suggest that for every such
Rama there is a Ramayana. The number of Ramayanas and the
range of their influence in South and South-east Asia over the past
twenty-five hundred years or more are astonishing. Just a list of
languages in which the Rama story is found makes one gasp: Annamese,
Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada,
Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit,
Sanskrit, Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan – to say
nothing of western languages. Through the centuries, some of these
languages have hosted more than one telling of the Rama story. Sanskrit
alone contains some twenty-five or more tellings belonging to various
narrative genres (epics, kavyas or ornate poetic compositions,
puranas or old mythological stories and so forth). If we add plays,
dance dramas and other performances, in both the classical and folk
traditions, the number of Ramayanas grows even larger. To these
must be added sculpture and bas-reliefs, mask plays, puppet plays and
shadow plays, in all the many South and South-east Asian cultures.2
Camille Bulcke (1950), a student of the Ramayana, counted three
hundred tellings.3 It’s no wonder that even as long ago as the fourteenth
century, Kumaravyasa, a Kannada poet, chose to write a Mahabharata
because he heard the cosmic serpent which upholds the earth groaning under
the burden of Ramayana poets (tinikidanu phaniraya ramayanada
kavigala bharadali). In this paper, indebted for its data to numerous
previous translators and scholars, I would like to sort out for myself,
and I hope for others, how these hundreds of tellings of a story in
different cultures, languages and religious traditions relate to each
other: what gets translated, transplanted, transposed.
Valmiki and Kampan: Two Ahalyas
Obviously, these hundreds of tellings differ from one
another. I have come to prefer the word tellings to the usual terms
versions or variants because the latter terms can and
typically do imply that there is an invariant, an original or ur-text –
usually Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, the earliest and most
prestigious of them all. But as we shall see, it is not always Valmiki’s
narrative that is carried from one language to another.
It would be useful to make some distinctions before we
begin. The tradition itself distinguishes between the Rama story (ramakatha)
and texts composed by a specific person – Valmiki, Kampan or Krttivasa,
for example. Though many of the latter are popularly called Ramayanas
(like Kamparamayanam), few texts actually bear the title
Ramayana; they are given titles like Iramavataram (The
Incarnation of Rama), Ramcaritmanas (The Lake of the Acts of Rama),
Ramakien (The Story of Rama) and so on. Their relations to the Rama
story as told by Valmiki also vary. This traditional distinction between
katha (story) and kavya (poem) parallels the French one
between sujet and récit or the English one between story and
discourse (Chatman 1978). It is also analogous to the distinction between
a sentence and a speech act. The story may be the same in two tellings but
the discourse may be vastly different. Even the structure and sequence of
events may be the same but the style, details, tone and texture – and
therefore the import – may be vastly different.
Here are two tellings of the ‘same’ episode which occur at
the same point in the sequence of the narrative. The first is from the
first book (Balakanda) of Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana; the
second from the first canto (Palakantam) of Kampan’s
Iramavataram in Tamil. Both narrate the story of Ahalya.
The Ahalya episode: Valmiki
Seeing Mithila, Janaka’s white
and dazzling city, all the sages
cried out in praise, ‘Wonderful!
Raghava, sighting on the outskirts
of Mithila an ashram, ancient,
unpeopled and lovely, asked the sage,
‘What is this holy place,
so like an ashram but without a hermit?
Master, I’d like to hear: whose was it?’
Hearing Raghava’s words, the great sage
Visvamitra, man of fire,
expert in words answered, ‘Listen,
Raghava, I’ll tell you whose ashram
this was and how it was cursed
by a great man in anger.
It was great Gautama’s, this ashram
that reminds you of heaven, worshipped
even by the gods. Long ago, with Ahalya
he practised tapas4 here
for countless years. Once, knowing that Gautama
was away, Indra (called Thousand Eyes),
Saci’s husband, took on the likeness
of the sage and said to Ahalya:
"Men pursuing their desire do not wait
for the proper season, O you who
have a perfect body. Making love
with you: that’s what I want.
That waist of yours is lovely."
She knew it was Indra of the Thousand Eyes
in the guise of the sage. Yet she,
wrong-headed woman, made up her mind,
excited, curious about the king
of the gods.
And then, her inner being satisfied,
she said to the god, "I’m satisfied, king
of the gods. Go quickly from here.
O giver of honour, lover, protect
yourself and me."
And Indra smiled and said to Ahalya,
"Woman of lovely hips, I am
very content. I’ll go the way I came."
Thus after making love, he came out
of the hut made of leaves.
And, O Rama, as he hurried away,
nervous about Gautama and flustered,
he caught sight of Gautama coming in,
the great sage, unassailable
by gods and anti-gods,
empowered by his tapas, still wet
with the water of the river
he’d bathed in, blazing like fire,
with kusa grass and kindling
in his hands.
Seeing him, the king of the gods was
terror-struck, his face drained of colour.
The sage, facing Thousand Eyes now dressed
as the sage, the one rich in virtue
and the other with none,
spoke to him in anger: "You took my form,
you fool, and did this that should never
be done. Therefore you will lose your testicles."
At once, they fell to the ground, they fell
even as the great sage spoke
his words in anger to Thousand Eyes.
Having cursed Indra, he then cursed
Ahalya: "You, you will dwell here
many thousands of years, eating the air,
without food, rolling in ash
and burning invisible to all creatures.
When Rama, unassailable son
of Dasaratha, comes to this terrible
wilderness, you will become pure,
you woman of no virtue,
you will be cleansed of lust and confusion.
Filled then with joy, you’ll wear again
your form in my presence." And saying
this to that woman of bad conduct,
blazing Gautama abandoned
the ashram and did his tapas
on a beautiful Himalayan peak,
haunt of celestial singers and
Emasculated Indra then
spoke to the gods led by Agni
attended by the sages
and the celestial singers.
"I’ve only done this work on behalf
of the gods, putting great Gautama
in a rage, blocking his tapas.
He has emasculated me
and rejected her in anger.
Through this great outburst
of curses, I’ve robbed him
of his tapas. Therefore
great gods, sages and celestial singers,
help me, helper of the gods,
to regain my testicles." And the gods,
led by Agni, listened to Indra
of the Hundred Sacrifices and went
with the Marut hosts
to the divine ancestors and said,
"Some time ago, Indra, infatuated,
ravished the sage’s wife
and was then emasculated
by the sage’s curse. Indra,
king of gods, destroyer of cities,
is now angry with the gods.
This ram has testicles
but great Indra has lost his.
So take the ram’s testicles
and quickly graft them onto Indra.
A castrated ram will give you
supreme satisfaction and will be
a source of pleasure.
People who offer it
will have endless fruit.
You will give them your plenty."
Having heard Agni’s words,
the ancestors got together
and ripped off the ram’s testicles
and applied them then to Indra
of the Thousand Eyes.
Since then, the divine ancestors
eat these castrated rams
and Indra has the testicles
of the beast through the power
of great Gautama’s tapas.
Come then, Rama, to the ashram
of the holy sage and save Ahalya
who has the beauty of a goddess.’
Raghava heard Visvamitra’s words
and followed him into the ashram
with Laksmana: there he saw
Ahalya, shining with an inner light
earned through her penances,
blazing yet hidden from the eyes
of passers-by, even gods and anti-gods.
(Sastrigal and Sastri 1958, kanda 1, sargas
translated by David Shulman and AK Ramanujan)
The Ahalya episode: Kampan
They came to many-towered Mithila
and stood outside the fortress.
On the towers were many flags.
There, high on an open field,
stood a black rock
that was once Ahalya,
the great sage’s wife who fell
because she lost her chastity,
the mark of marriage in a house. (Verse 547)
Rama’s eyes fell on the rock,
the dust of his feet
wafted on it.
Like one unconscious
cutting through ignorance,
his dark carcass
for true form
as he reaches the Lord’s feet,
so did she stand alive
formed and coloured
again as she once was. (548)
Rama then asks Visvamitra why this lovely woman had been
turned to stone. Visvamitra replies:
‘Listen. Once Indra,
Lord of the Diamond Axe,
waited on the absence
of Gautama, a sage all spirit,
meaning to reach out
for the lovely breast
of doe-eyed Ahalya, his wife. (551)
Hurt by love’s arrows,
hurt by the look in her eyes
that pierced him like a spear, Indra
writhed and cast about
one day, overwhelmed
and mindless, he isolated
the sage; and sneaked
into the hermitage
wearing the exact body of Gautama
whose heart knew no falsehoods. (552)
Sneaking in, he joined Ahalya;
coupled, they drank deep
of the clear new wine
of first night weddings;
and she knew.
to put aside what was not hers,
she dallied in her joy,
but the sage did not tarry,
he came back, a very Siva
with three eyes in his head. (553)
Gautama, who used no arrows
from bows, could use more inescapable
powers of curse and blessing.
When he arrived, Ahalya stood there,
stunned, bearing the shame of a deed
that will not end in this endless world.
Indra shook in terror,
started to move away
in the likeness of a cat. (554)
Eyes dropping fire, Gautama
saw what was done,
and his words flew
like the burning arrows
at your hand:
"May you be covered
by the vaginas
of a thousand women!"
In the twinkle of an eye
they came and covered him. (555)
Covered with shame,
laughing stock of the world,
The sage turned
to his tender wife
"O bought woman!
May you turn to stone!"
and she fell at once
a rough thing
of black rock. (556)
Yet as she fell she begged:
"To bear and forgive wrongs
is also the way of elders.
O Siva-like lord of mine,
set some limit to your curse!"
So he said: "Rama
will come, wearing garlands that bring
the hum of bees with them.
When the dust of his feet falls on you,
you will be released from the body of stone." (557)
The immortals looked at their king
and came down at once to Gautama
in a delegation led by Brahma
and begged of Gautama to relent.
Gautama’s mind had changed
and cooled. He changed
the marks on Indra to a thousand eyes
and the gods went back to their worlds
while she lay there, a thing of stone. (558)
That was the way it was.
From now on, more misery,
only release, for all things
in this world.
O cloud-dark lord
who battled with that ogress,
black as soot, I saw there
the virtue of your hands
and here the virtue of your feet.’ (559)5
Let me rapidly suggest a few differences between the two
tellings. In Valmiki, Indra seduces a willing Ahalya. In Kampan, Ahalya
realises she is doing wrong but cannot let go of the forbidden joy; the
poem has also suggested earlier that her sage-husband is all spirit,
details which together add a certain psychological subtlety to the
seduction. Indra tries to steal away in the shape of a cat, clearly a
folklore motif (also found, for example, in the Kathasaritsagara,
an eleventh century Sanskrit compendium of folk tales; see Tawney 1927).
He is cursed with a thousand vaginas which are later changed into eyes and
Ahalya is changed into frigid stone. The poetic justice wreaked on both
offenders is fitted to their wrongdoing. Indra bears the mark of what he
lusted for while Ahalya is rendered incapable of responding to anything.
These motifs, not found in Valmiki, are attested in South Indian folklore
and other southern Rama stories, inscriptions and earlier Tamil poems as
well as in non-Tamil sources. Kampan, here and elsewhere, not only makes
full use of his predecessor Valmiki’s materials but folds in many regional
folk traditions. It is often through him that they then become part of
In technique, Kampan is also more dramatic than Valmiki.
Rama’s feet transmute the black stone into Ahalya first; only afterwards
is her story told. The black stone standing on a high place, waiting for
Rama, is itself a very effective, vivid symbol. Ahalya’s revival, her
waking from cold stone to fleshly human warmth, becomes an occasion for a
moving bhakti (devotional) meditation on the soul waking to its
form in god.
Finally, the Ahalya episode is related to previous
episodes in the poem such as that in which Rama destroys the demoness
Tataka. There he was the destroyer of evil, the bringer of sterility and
the ashes of death to his enemies. Here, as the reviver of Ahalya, he is a
cloud-dark god of fertility. Throughout Kampan’s poem, Rama is a Tamil
hero, a generous giver and a ruthless destroyer of foes. And the bhakti
vision makes the release of Ahalya from her rock-bound sin a paradigm of
Rama’s incarnatory mission to release all souls from world-bound misery.
In Valmiki, Rama’s character is not that of a god but of a
god-man who has to live within the limits of a human form with all its
vicissitudes. Some argue that the references to Rama’s divinity and his
incarnation for the purpose of destroying Ravana, and the first and last
books of the epic, in which Rama is clearly described as a god with such a
mission, are later additions.6 Be that as it may, in Kampan he is clearly
a god. Hence a passage like the above is dense with religious feeling and
theological images. Kampan, writing in the twelfth century, composed his
poem under the influence of Tamil bhakti. He had for his master
Nammalvar (ninth century?), the most eminent of the Sri Vaisnava saints.
So, for Kampan, Rama is a god who is on a mission to root out evil,
sustain the good and bring release to all living beings. The encounter
with Ahalya is only the first in a series, ending with Rama’s encounter
with Ravana the demon himself. For Nammalvar, Rama is a saviour of all
beings, from the lowly grass to the great gods:
By Rama’s Grace
Why would anyone want
to learn anything but Rama?
Beginning with the low grass
and the creeping ant
he took everything in his city,
he took everything,
of the lord
of four faces,
he took them all
to the very best of states.
Nammalvar 7.5.1 (Ramanujan 1981, 47)
Kampan’s epic poem enacts in detail and with passion
Nammalvar’s vision of Rama.
Thus the Ahalya episode is essentially the same but the
weave, the texture, the colours, are very different. Part of the aesthetic
pleasure in the later poet’s telling derives from its artistic use of its
predecessor’s work, from ringing changes on it. To some extent all later
Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are
meta-Ramayanas. I cannot resist repeating my favourite example. In
several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana,
sixteenth century), when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with
him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual
arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself
in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious.
She bursts out, ‘Countless Ramayanas have been composed before
this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?’
That clinches the argument and she goes with him (Adhyatma Ramayana
2.4.77-8; see Nath 1913, 39). And as nothing in India occurs uniquely,
even this motif appears in more than one Ramayana.
Now, the Tamil Ramayana of Kampan generates its own
offspring, its own special sphere of influence. Read in Telugu characters
in Telugu country, played as drama in the Malayalam area as part of temple
ritual, it is also an important link in the transmission of the Rama story
to South-east Asia. It has been convincingly shown that the eighteenth
century Thai Ramakien owes much to the Tamil epic. For instance,
the names of many characters in the Thai work are not Sanskrit names but
clearly Tamil names (for example, Rsyasrnga in Sanskrit but Kalaikkotu in
Tamil, the latter borrowed into Thai). Tulsi’s Hindi Ramcaritmanas
and the Malaysian Hikayat Seri Ram too owe many details to the
Kampan poem (Singaravelu 1968).
Thus obviously transplantations take place through several
routes. In some languages the word for tea is derived from a northern
Chinese dialect and in others from a southern dialect; thus some
languages, like English and French, have some form of the word tea
while others, like Hindi and Russian, have some form of the word cha(y).
Similarly, the Rama story seems to have travelled along three routes,
according to Santosh Desai: ‘By land, the northern route took the story
from the Punjab and Kashmir into China, Tibet and East Turkestan; by sea,
the southern route carried the story from Gujarat and South India into
Java, Sumatra and Malaya; and again by land, the eastern route delivered
the story from Bengal into Burma, Thailand and Laos. Vietnam and Cambodia
obtained their stories partly from Java and partly from India via the
eastern route’ (Desai 1970, 5).
When we enter the world of Jain tellings, the Rama story
no longer carries Hindu values. Indeed the Jain texts express the feeling
that the Hindus, especially the brahmins, have maligned Ravana, made him
into a villain. Here is a set of questions that a Jain text begins by
asking: ‘How can monkeys vanquish the powerful raksasa warriors
like Ravana? How can noble men and Jain worthies like Ravana eat flesh and
drink blood? How can Kumbhakarna sleep through six months of the year and
never wake up even though boiling oil was poured into his ears, elephants
were made to trample over him and war trumpets and conches blown around
him? They also say that Ravana captured Indra and dragged him handcuffed
into Lanka. Who can do that to Indra? All this looks a bit fantastic and
extreme. They are lies and contrary to reason.’ With these questions in
mind, King Srenika goes to sage Gautama to have him tell the true story
and clear his doubts. Gautama says to him, ‘I’ll tell you what Jain wise
men say. Ravana is not a demon, he is not a cannibal and a flesh eater.
Wrong-thinking poetasters and fools tell these lies.’ He then begins to
tell his own version of the story (Chandra 1970, 234). Obviously, the Jain
Ramayana of Vimalasuri, called Paumacariya (Prakrit for the
Sanskrit Padmacarita), knows its Valmiki and proceeds to correct
its errors and Hindu extravagances. Like other Jain puranas, this
too is a pratipurana, an anti- or counter-purana. The prefix
prati-, meaning ‘anti-’ or ‘counter-’, is a favourite Jain affix.
Vimalasuri the Jain opens the story not with Rama’s
genealogy and greatness but with Ravana’s. Ravana is one of the
sixty-three leaders or salakapurusas of the Jain tradition. He is
noble, learned, earns all his magical powers and weapons through
austerities (tapas) and is a devotee of Jain masters. To please one
of them, he even takes a vow that he will not touch any unwilling woman.
In one memorable incident, he lays siege to an impregnable fort. The queen
of that kingdom is in love with him and sends him her messenger; he uses
her knowledge of the fort to breach it and defeat the king. But as soon as
he conquers it, he returns the kingdom to the king and advises the queen
to return to her husband. Later, he is shaken to his roots when he hears
from soothsayers that he will meet his end through a woman, Sita. It is
such a Ravana who falls in love with Sita’s beauty, abducts her, tries to
win her favours in vain, watches himself fall and finally dies on the
battlefield. In these tellings, he is a great man undone by a passion that
he has vowed against but that he cannot resist. In another tradition of
the Jain Ramayanas, Sita is his daughter although he does not know
it: the dice of tragedy are loaded against him further by this Oedipal
situation. I shall say more about Sita’s birth in the next section.
In fact, to our modern eyes, this Ravana is a tragic
figure; we are moved to admiration and pity for Ravana when the Jains tell
the story. I should mention one more motif: according to the Jain way of
thinking, a pair of antagonists, Vasudeva and Prativasudeva – a hero and
an anti-hero, almost like self and Other – are destined to fight in life
after life. Laksmana and Ravana are the eighth incarnations of this pair.
They are born in age after age, meet each other in battle after many
vicissitudes and in every encounter Vasudeva inevitably kills his
counterpart, his prati. Ravana learns at the end that Laksmana is
such a Vasudeva come to take his life. Still, overcoming his despair after
a last unsuccessful attempt at peace, he faces his destined enemy in
battle with his most powerful magic weapons. When finally he hurls his
discus (cakra), it doesn’t work for him. Recognising Laksmana as a
Vasudeva, it does not behead him but gives itself over to his hand. Thus
Laksmana slays Ravana with his own cherished weapon.
Here Rama does not even kill Ravana, as he does in the
Hindu Ramayanas. For Rama is an evolved Jain soul who has conquered
his passions; this is his last birth so he is loath to kill anything. It
is left to Laksmana who goes to hell while Rama finds release (kaivalya).
One hardly need add that the Paumacariya is filled
with references to Jain places of pilgrimage, stories about Jain monks and
Jain homilies and legends. Furthermore, since the Jains consider
themselves rationalists – unlike the Hindus who, according to them, are
given to exorbitant and often bloodthirsty fancies and rituals – they
systematically avoid episodes involving miraculous births (Rama and his
brothers are born in the normal way), blood sacrifices and the like. They
even rationalise the conception of Ravana as the Ten-headed Demon. When he
was born, his mother was given a necklace of nine gems which she put
around his neck. She saw his face reflected in them ninefold and so called
him Dasamukha or the Ten-faced One. The monkeys too are not monkeys but a
clan of celestials (vidyadharas) actually related to Ravana and his
family through their great-grandfathers. They have monkeys as emblems on
their flags: hence the name Vanaras or ‘monkeys’.
From written to oral
Let’s look at one of the South Indian folk Ramayanas.
In these, the story usually occurs in bits and pieces. For instance, in
Kannada, we are given separate narrative poems on Sita’s birth, her
wedding, her chastity test, her exile, the birth of Lava and Kusa, their
war with their father Rama and so on. But we do have one complete telling
of the Rama story by traditional bards (tamburi dasayyas), sung
with a refrain repeated every two lines by a chorus. For the following
discussion, I am indebted to the transcription by Rame Gowda, PK
Rajasekara and S. Basavaiah (1973).
This folk narrative, sung by an Untouchable bard, opens
with Ravana (here called Ravula) and his queen Mandodari. They are unhappy
and childless. So Ravana or Ravula goes to the forest, performs all sorts
of self-mortifications like rolling on the ground till blood runs from his
back and meets a jogi or holy mendicant who is none other than
Siva. Siva gives him a magic mango and asks him how he would share it with
his wife. Ravula says, ‘Of course, I’ll give her the sweet flesh of the
fruit and I’ll lick the mango seed.’ The jogi is sceptical. He says
to Ravula, ‘You say one thing to me. You have poison in your belly. You’re
giving me butter to eat but you mean something else. If you lie to me,
you’ll eat the fruit of your actions yourself.’ Ravula has one thing in
his dreams and another in his waking world, says the poet. When he brings
the mango home, with all sorts of flowers and incense for the ceremonial
puja, Mandodari is very happy. After a ritual puja and
prayers to Siva, Ravula is ready to share the mango. But he thinks, ‘If I
give her the fruit, I’ll be hungry, she’ll be full,’ and quickly gobbles
up the flesh of the fruit, giving her only the seed to lick. When she
throws it in the yard, it sprouts and grows into a tall mango tree.
Meanwhile, Ravula himself becomes pregnant, his pregnancy advancing a
month each day.
In one day, it was a month, O Siva.
In the second, it was the second month,
and cravings began for him, O Siva.
How shall I show my face to the world of men, O Siva.
On the third day, it was the third month,
How shall I show my face to the world, O Siva.
On the fourth day, it was the fourth month.
How can I bear this, O Siva.
Five days, and it was five months,
O lord, you’ve given me trouble, O Siva
I can’t bear it, I can’t bear it, O Siva
How will I live, cries Ravula in misery.
Six days, and he is six months gone, O mother,
in seven days it was seven months.
O what shame, Ravula in his seventh month,
and soon came the eighth, O Siva
Ravula was in his ninth full month.
When he was round and ready, she’s born, the dear,
Sita is born through his nose.
When he sneezes, Sitamma is born,
And Ravula names her Sitamma.
(Gowda et al 1973, 150-1; my translation)
In Kannada, the word sita means ‘he sneezed’: he
calls her Sita because she is born from a sneeze. Her name is thus given a
Kannada folk etymology, as in the Sanskrit texts it has a Sanskrit one:
there she is named Sita because King Janaka finds her in a furrow (sita).
Then Ravula goes to astrologers who tell him he is being punished for not
keeping his word to Siva and for eating the flesh of the fruit instead of
giving it to his wife. They advise him to feed and dress the child and
leave her some place where she will be found and brought up by some
couple. He puts her in a box and leaves her in Janaka’s field.
It is only after this story of Sita’s birth that the poet
sings of the birth and adventures of Rama and Laksmana. Then comes a long
section on Sita’s marriage contest where Ravula appears and is humiliated
when he falls under the heavy bow he has to lift. Rama lifts it and
marries Sita. After that she is abducted by Ravula. Rama lays siege to
Lanka with his monkey allies and (in a brief section) recovers Sita and is
crowned king. The poet then returns to the theme of Sita’s trials. She is
slandered and exiled but gives birth to twins who grow up to be warriors.
They tie up Rama’s sacrificial horse, defeat the armies sent to guard the
horse and finally unite their parents, this time for good.
One sees here not only a different texture and emphasis:
the teller is everywhere eager to return to Sita – her life, her birth,
her adoption, her wedding, her abduction and recovery. Whole sections,
equal in length to those on Rama and Laksmana’s birth, exile and war
against Ravana, are devoted to her banishment, pregnancy and reunion with
her husband. Furthermore, her abnormal birth as the daughter born directly
to the male Ravana brings to the story a new range of suggestions: the
male envy of womb and childbirth, which is a frequent theme in Indian
literature, and an Indian Oedipal theme of fathers pursuing daughters and,
in this case, a daughter causing the death of her incestuous father. The
motif of Sita as Ravana’s daughter is not unknown elsewhere. It occurs in
one tradition of the Jain stories (for example, in the Vasudevahimdi)
and in folk traditions of Kannada and Telugu as well as in several
South-east Asian Ramayanas. In some, Ravana in his lusty youth
molests a young woman who vows vengeance and is reborn as his daughter to
destroy him. Thus the oral traditions seem to partake of yet another set
of themes unknown in Valmiki.
A South-east Asian example
When we go outside India to South-east Asia, we meet with
a variety of tellings of the Rama story in Tibet, Thailand, Burma, Laos,
Cambodia, Malaysia, Java and Indonesia. Here we shall look at only one
example, the Thai Ramakirti. According to Santosh Desai, nothing
else of Hindu origin has affected the tone of Thai life more than the Rama
story (Desai 1980, 63).7 The
bas-reliefs and paintings on the walls of their Buddhist temples, the
plays enacted in town and village, their ballets – all of them rework the
Rama story. In succession several kings with the name ‘King Rama’ wrote
Ramayana episodes in Thai: King Rama I composed a telling of the
Ramayana in fifty thousand verses, Rama II composed new episodes for
dance and Rama VI added another set of episodes, most taken from Valmiki.
Places in Thailand, such as Lopburi (Sanskrit Lavapuri), Khidkin (Sanskrit
Kiskindha) and Ayuthia (Sanskrit Ayodhya) with its ruins of Khmer and Thai
art, are associated with Rama legends.
The Thai Ramakirti (Rama’s glory) or Ramakien
(Rama’s story) opens with an account of the origins of the three kinds of
characters in the story, the human, the demonic and the simian. The second
part describes the brothers’ first encounters with the demons, Rama’s
marriage and banishment, the abduction of Sita and Rama’s meeting with the
monkey clan. It also describes the preparations for the war, Hanuman’s
visit to Lanka and his burning of it, the building of the bridge, the
siege of Lanka, the fall of Ravana and Rama’s reunion with Sita. The third
part describes an insurrection in Lanka which Rama deputes his two
youngest brothers to quell. This part also describes the banishment of
Sita, the birth of her sons, their war with Rama, Sita’s descent into the
earth and the appearance of the gods to reunite Rama and Sita. Though many
incidents look the same as they do in Valmiki, many things look different
as well. For instance, as in the South Indian folk Ramayanas (as
also in some Jain, Bengali and Kashmiri ones), the banishment of Sita is
given a dramatic new rationale. The daughter of Surpanakha (the demoness
whom Rama and Laksmana had mutilated years earlier in the forest) is
waiting in the wings to take revenge on Sita whom she views as finally
responsible for her mother’s disfigurement. She comes to Ayodhya, enters
Sita’s service as a maid and induces her to draw a picture of Ravana. The
drawing is rendered indelible (in some tellings, it comes to life in her
bedroom) and forces itself on Rama’s attention. In a jealous rage, he
orders Sita killed. The compassionate Laksmana leaves her alive in the
forest, though, and brings back the heart of a deer as witness to the
The reunion between Rama and Sita is also different. When
Rama finds out she is still alive, he recalls Sita to his palace by
sending her word that he is dead. She rushes to see him but flies into a
rage when she finds she has been tricked. So, in a fit of helpless anger,
she calls upon Mother Earth to take her. Hanuman is sent to subterranean
regions to bring her back but she refuses to return. It takes the power of
Siva to reunite them.
Again, as in the Jain instances and the South Indian folk
poems, the account of Sita’s birth is different from that given in Valmiki.
When Dasaratha performs his sacrifice, he receives a rice ball, not the
rice porridge (payasa) mentioned in Valmiki. A crow steals some of
the rice and takes it to Ravana’s wife who eats it and gives birth to Sita.
A prophecy that his daughter will cause his death makes Ravana throw Sita
into the sea where the sea goddess protects her and takes her to Janaka.
Furthermore, though Rama is an incarnation of Visnu, in
Thailand he is subordinate to Siva. By and large, he is seen as a human
hero and the Ramakirti is not regarded as a religious work or even
as an exemplary work on which men and women may pattern themselves. The
Thais enjoy most the sections about the abduction of Sita and the war.
Partings and reunions, which are the heart of the Hindu Ramayanas,
are not as important as the excitement and the details of war, the
techniques, the fabulous weapons. The Yuddhakanda or the War Book
is more elaborate than in any other telling whereas it is of minor
importance in the Kannada folk telling. Desai says this Thai emphasis on
war is significant: early Thai history is full of wars; their concern was
survival. The focus in the Ramakien is not on family values and
spirituality. Thai audiences are more fond of Hanuman than of Rama.
Neither celibate nor devout, as in the Hindu Ramayana, here Hanuman
is quite a ladies’ man who doesn’t at all mind looking into the bedrooms
of Lanka and doesn’t consider seeing another man’s sleeping wife anything
immoral, as Valmiki’s or Kampan’s Hanuman does.
Ravana too is different here. The Ramakirti admires
Ravana’s resourcefulness and learning; his abduction of Sita is seen as an
act of love and is viewed with sympathy. The Thais are moved by Ravana’s
sacrifice of family, kingdom and life itself for the sake of a woman. His
dying words later provide the theme of a famous love poem of the
nineteenth century, an inscription of a Wat of Bangkok (Desai 1980, 85).
Unlike Valmiki’s characters, the Thai ones are a fallible human mixture of
good and evil. The fall of Ravana here makes one sad. It is not an
occasion for unambiguous rejoicing, as it is in Valmiki.
Patterns of difference
Thus not only do we have one story told by Valmiki in
Sanskrit, we have a variety of Rama tales told by others, with radical
differences among them. Let me outline a few of the differences we have
not yet encountered. For instance, in Sanskrit and in the other Indian
languages, there are two endings to the story. One ends with the return of
Rama and Sita to Ayodhya, their capital, to be crowned king and queen of
the ideal kingdom. In another ending, often considered a later addition in
Valmiki and in Kampan, Rama hears Sita slandered as a woman who lived in
Ravana’s grove and in the name of his reputation as a king (we would call
it credibility, I suppose) he banishes her to the forest where she gives
birth to twins. They grow up in Valmiki’s hermitage, learn the Ramayana
as well as the arts of war from him, win a war over Rama’s army and in a
poignant scene sing the Ramayana to their own father when he
doesn’t quite know who they are.
Each of these two endings gives the whole work a different
cast. The first one celebrates the return of the royal exiles and rounds
out the tale with reunion, coronation and peace. In the second one, their
happiness is brief and they are separated again, making separation of
loved ones (vipralambha) the central mood of the whole work. It can
even be called tragic, for Sita finally cannot bear it any more and enters
a fissure in the earth, the mother from whom she had originally come – as
we saw earlier, her name means ‘furrow’, which is where she was originally
found by Janaka. It also enacts, in the rise of Sita from the furrow and
her return to the earth, a shadow of a Proserpine-like myth, a vegetation
cycle: Sita is like the seed and Rama with his cloud-dark body the rain;
Ravana in the south is the Pluto-like abductor into dark regions (the
south is the abode of death); Sita reappears in purity and glory for a
brief period before she returns again to the earth. Such a myth, while it
should not be blatantly pressed into some rigid allegory, resonates in the
shadows of the tale in many details. Note the many references to fertility
and rain, Rama’s opposition to Siva-like ascetic figures (made explicit by
Kampan in the Ahalya story), his ancestor bringing the river Ganges into
the plains of the kingdom to water and revive the ashes of the dead.
Relevant also is the story of Rsyasrnga, the sexually naive ascetic who is
seduced by the beauty of a woman and thereby brings rain to Lomapada’s
kingdom and who later officiates at the ritual which fills Dasaratha’s
queens’ wombs with children. Such a mythic groundswell also makes us hear
other tones in the continual references to nature, the potent presence of
birds and animals as the devoted friends of Rama in his search for his
Sita. Birds and monkeys are a real presence and a poetic necessity in the
Valmiki Ramayana, as much as they are excrescences in the Jain
view. With each ending, different effects of the story are highlighted and
the whole telling alters its poetic stance.
One could say similar things about the different
beginnings. Valmiki opens with a frame story about Valmiki himself. He
sees a hunter aim an arrow and kill one of a happy pair of lovebirds. The
female circles its dead mate and cries over it. The scene so moves the
poet and sage Valmiki that he curses the hunter. A moment later, he
realises that his curse has taken the form of a line of verse – in a
famous play on words, the rhythm of his grief (soka) has given rise
to a metrical form (sloka). He decides to write the whole epic of
Rama’s adventures in that metre. This incident becomes, in later poetics,
the parable of all poetic utterance: out of the stress of natural feeling
(bhava), an artistic form has to be found or fashioned, a form
which will generalise and capture the essence (rasa) of that
feeling. This incident at the beginning of Valmiki gives the work an
aesthetic self-awareness. One may go further: the incident of the death of
a bird and the separation of loved ones becomes a leitmotif for this
telling of the Rama story. One notes a certain rhythmic recurrence of an
animal killed at many of the critical moments: when Dasaratha shoots an
arrow to kill what he thinks is an elephant but instead kills a young
ascetic filling his pitcher with water (making noises like an elephant
drinking at a waterhole), he earns a curse that later leads to the exile
of Rama and the separation of father and son. When Rama pursues a magical
golden deer (really a demon in disguise) and kills it, with its last
breath it calls out to Laksmana in Rama’s voice, which in turn leads to
his leaving Sita unprotected; this allows Ravana to abduct Sita. Even as
Ravana carries her off, he is opposed by an ancient bird which he slays
with his sword. Furthermore, the death of the bird, in the opening
section, and the cry of the surviving mate set the tone for the many
separations throughout the work, of brother and brother, mothers and
fathers and sons, wives and husbands.
Thus the opening sections of each major work set into
motion the harmonics of the whole poem, presaging themes and a pattern of
images. Kampan’s Tamil text begins very differently. One can convey it
best by citing a few stanzas.
The cloud, wearing white
on white like Siva
making beautiful the sky
on his way from the sea
as the face of the Lord
who wears with pride
on his right the Goddess
of the scented breasts. (2)
Mistaking the Himalayan dawn
for a range of gold,
the clouds let down chains
and chains of gleaming rain.
They pour like a generous giver
giving all he has,
remembering and reckoning
all he has. (15)
It floods, it runs over
its continents like the fame
of a great king, upright,
infallible, reigning by the Laws
under cool royal umbrellas. (16)
their lovers’ hair, their lovers’
bodies, their lovers’ limbs,
take away whole hills
of wealth yet keep little
in their spendthrift hands
as they move on: so too
the waters flow from the peaks
to the valleys,
beginning high and reaching low. (17)
The flood carrying all before it
like merchants, caravans
loaded with gold, pearls,
peacock feathers and rows
of white tusk and fragrant woods. (18)
Bending to a curve, the river,
surface coloured by petals,
gold yellow pollen, honey,
the ochre flow of elephant lust,
looked much like a rainbow. (19)
Ravaging hillsides, uprooting trees,
covered with fallen leaves all over,
the waters came,
like a monkey clan
facing restless seas
looking for a bridge. (20)
Thick-faced proud elephants
ranged with foaming cavalier horses
filling the air with the noise of war,
the flood rushes
as for a battle with the sea. (22)
Stream of numberless kings
in the line of the Sun,
continuous in virtue:
the river branches into deltas,
mother’s milk to all lives
on the salt sea-surrounded land. (23)
Scattering a robber camp on the hills
with a rain of arrows,
the scared women beating their bellies
and gathering bow and arrow as they run,
the waters assault villages
like the armies of a king. (25)
Stealing milk and buttermilk,
guzzling on warm ghee and butter
straight from the pots on the ropes,
leaning the marutam tree on the kuruntam,
carrying away the clothes and bracelets
of goatherd girls at water games,
like Krsna dancing
on the spotted snake,
the waters are naughty. (26)
Turning forest into slope,
field into wilderness,
seashore into fertile land,
the reckless waters
roared on like the pasts
that hurry close on the heels
of lives. (28)
Born of Himalayan stone
and mingling with the seas,
it spreads, ceaselessly various,
one and many at once,
like that Original
even the measureless Vedas
cannot measure with words. (30)
Through pollen-dripping groves,
clumps of champak,
water places with new sands,
flowering fields cross-fenced
like a life filling
a variety of bodies,
the river flows on. (31)8
This passage is unique to Kampan; it is not found in
Valmiki. It describes the waters as they are gathered by clouds from the
seas and come down in rain and flow as floods of the Sarayu river down to
Ayodhya, the capital of Rama’s kingdom. Through it, Kampan introduces all
his themes and emphases, even his characters, his concern with fertility
themes (implicit in Valmiki), the whole dynasty of Rama’s ancestors and
his vision of bhakti through the Ramayana.
Note the variety of themes introduced through the similes
and allusions, each aspect of the water symbolising an aspect of the
Ramayana story itself and representing a portion of the Ramayana
universe (for example, monkeys), picking up as it goes along
characteristic Tamil traditions not to be found anywhere else, like the
five landscapes of classical Tamil poetry. The emphasis on water itself,
the source of life and fertility, is also an explicit part of the Tamil
literary tradition. The Kural – the so-called Bible of the Tamils,
a didactic work on the ends and means of the good life – opens with a
passage on god and follows it up immediately with a great ode in
celebration of the rains (Tirukkural 2).
Another point of difference among Ramayanas is the
intensity of focus on a major character. Valmiki focuses on Rama and his
history in his opening sections; Vimalasuri’s Jain Ramayana and the
Thai epic focus not on Rama but on the genealogy and adventures of Ravana;
the Kannada village telling focuses on Sita, her birth, her wedding, her
trials. Some later extensions like the Adbhuta Ramayana and the
Tamil story of Satakantharavana even give Sita a heroic character:
when the ten-headed Ravana is killed, another appears with a hundred
heads: Rama cannot handle this new menace so it is Sita who goes to war
and slays the new demon (see Shulman 1979). The Santals, a tribe known for
their extensive oral traditions, even conceive of Sita as unfaithful – to
the shock and horror of any Hindu bred on Valmiki or Kampan, she is
seduced both by Ravana and by Laksmana. In South-east Asian texts, as we
saw earlier, Hanuman is not the celibate devotee with a monkey face but a
ladies’ man who figures in many love episodes. In Kampan and Tulsi, Rama
is a god; in the Jain texts, he is only an evolved Jain man who is in his
last birth and so does not even kill Ravana. In the latter, Ravana is a
noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon
himself while he is in other texts an overweening demon. Thus in the
conception of every major character there are radical differences, so
different indeed that one conception is quite abhorrent to those who hold
another. We may add to these many more: elaborations on the reason why
Sita is banished, the miraculous creation of Sita’s second son and the
final reunion of Rama and Sita. Every one of these occurs in more than one
text, in more than one textual community (Hindu, Jain or Buddhist), in
more than one region.
Now, is there a common core to the Rama stories except the
most skeletal set of relations like that of Rama, his brother, his wife
and the antagonist Ravana who abducts her? Are the stories bound together
only by certain family resemblances, as Wittgenstein might say? Or is it
like Aristotle’s jackknife? When the philosopher asked an old carpenter
how long he had had his knife, the latter said, ‘Oh, I’ve had it for
thirty years. I’ve changed the blade a few times and the handle a few
times but it’s the same knife.’ Some shadow of a relational structure
claims the name of Ramayana for all these tellings but on a closer
look one is not necessarily all that like another. Like a collection of
people with the same proper name, they make a class in name alone.
Thoughts on translation
That may be too extreme a way of putting it. Let me back
up and say it differently, in a way that covers more adequately the
differences between the texts and their relations to each other, for they
are related. One might think of them as a series of translations
clustering around one or another in a family of texts: a number of them
cluster around Valmiki, another set around the Jain Vimalasuri and so on.
Or these translation-relations between texts could be
thought of in Peircean terms, at least in three ways.9
Where Text 1 and Text 2 have a geometrical resemblance to
each other, as one triangle to another (whatever the angles, sizes or
colours of the lines), we call such a relation iconic. In the West,
we generally expect translations to be ‘faithful’ i.e. iconic. Thus when
Chapman translates Homer, he not only preserves basic textual features
such as characters, imagery and order of incidents but tries to reproduce
a hexameter and retain the same number of lines as in the original Greek –
only the language is English and the idiom Elizabethan. When Kampan
retells Valmiki’s Ramayana in Tamil, he is largely faithful in
keeping to the order and sequence of episodes, the structural relations
between the characters of father, son, brothers, wives, friends and
enemies. But the iconicity is limited to such structural relations. His
work is much longer than Valmiki’s, for example, and it is composed in
more than twenty different kinds of Tamil metres while Valmiki’s is mostly
in the sloka metre.
Very often, although Text 2 stands in an iconic
relationship to Text 1 in terms of basic elements such as plot, it is
filled with local detail, folklore, poetic traditions, imagery and so
forth – as in Kampan’s telling or that of the Bengali Krttivasa. In the
Bengali Ramayana, Rama’s wedding is very much a Bengali wedding
with Bengali customs and Bengali cuisine (Sen 1920). We may call such a
text indexical: the text is embedded in a locale, a context, refers
to it, even signifies it and would not make much sense without it. Here,
one may say, the Ramayana is not merely a set of individual texts
but a genre with a variety of instances.
Now and then, as we have seen, Text 2 uses the plot and
characters and names of Text 1 minimally and uses them to say entirely new
things, often in an effort to subvert the predecessor by producing a
counter-text. We may call such a translation symbolic. The word
translation itself here acquires a somewhat mathematical sense, of
mapping a structure of relations onto another plane or another symbolic
system. When this happens, the Rama story has become almost a second
language of the whole culture area, a shared core of names, characters,
incidents and motifs with a narrative language in which Text 1 can say one
thing and Text 2 something else, even the exact opposite. Valmiki’s Hindu
and Vimalasuri’s Jain texts in India – or the Thai Ramakirti in
South-east Asia – are such symbolic translations of each other.
One must not forget that to some extent all translations,
even the so-called faithful iconic ones, inevitably have all three kinds
of elements. When Goldman (1984-) and his group of scholars produce a
modern translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, they are iconic in the
transliteration of Sanskrit names, the number and sequence of verses, the
order of the episodes and so forth. But they are also indexical, in that
the translation is in English idiom and comes equipped with introductions
and explanatory footnotes which inevitably contain twentieth century
attitudes and misprisions; and symbolic, in that they cannot avoid
conveying through this translation modern understandings proper to their
reading of the text. But the proportions between the three kinds of
relations differ vastly between Kampan and Goldman. And we accordingly
read them for different reasons and with different aesthetic expectations.
We read the scholarly modern English translation largely to gain a sense
of the original Valmiki and we consider it successful to the extent that
it resembles the original. We read Kampan to read Kampan and we judge him
on his own terms – not by his resemblance to Valmiki but, if anything, by
the extent that he differs from Valmiki. In the one, we rejoice in the
similarity; in the other, we cherish and savour the differences.
One may go further and say that the cultural area in which
Ramayanas are endemic has a pool of signifiers (like a gene pool),
signifiers that include plots, characters, names, geography, incidents and
relationships. Oral, written and performance traditions, phrases, proverbs
and even sneers carry allusions to the Rama story. When someone is
carrying on, you say, ‘What’s this Ramayana now? Enough.’ In Tamil,
a narrow room is called a kiskindha; a proverb about a dim-witted
person says, ‘After hearing the Ramayana all night, he asks how
Rama is related to Sita’; in a Bengali arithmetic textbook, children are
asked to figure the dimensions of what is left of a wall that Hanuman
built after he has broken down part of it in mischief. And to these must
be added marriage songs, narrative poems, place legends, temple myths,
paintings, sculpture and the many performing arts.
These various texts not only relate to prior texts
directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through this
common code or common pool. Every author, if one may hazard a metaphor,
dips into it and brings out a unique crystallisation, a new text with a
unique texture and a fresh context. The great texts rework the small ones,
for ‘lions are made of sheep’, as Valéry said. And sheep are made of lions
too: a folk legend says that Hanuman wrote the original Ramayana on
a mountain top after the great war and scattered the manuscript; it was
many times larger than what we have now. Valmiki is said to have captured
only a fragment of it.10 In this sense, no text is original yet no telling
is a mere retelling – and the story has no closure although it may be
enclosed in a text. In India and in South-east Asia, no one ever reads the
Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories
are there, ‘always already’.
What happens when you listen
This essay opened with a folk tale about the many
Ramayanas. Before we close, it may be appropriate to tell another tale
about Hanuman and Rama’s ring. But this story is about the power of the
Ramayana, about what happens when you really listen to this potent
story. Even a fool cannot resist it; he is entranced and caught up in the
action. The listener can no longer bear to be a bystander but feels
compelled to enter the world of the epic: the line between fiction and
reality is erased.
A villager who had no sense of culture and no interest in
it was married to a woman who was very cultured. She tried various ways to
cultivate his taste for the higher things in life but he just wasn’t
One day a great reciter of that grand epic the Ramayana
came to the village. Every evening he would sing, recite and explain the
verses of the epic. The whole village went to this one-man performance as
if it were a rare feast.
The woman who was married to the uncultured dolt tried to
interest him in the performance. She nagged him and nagged him, trying to
force him to go and listen. This time he grumbled as usual but decided to
humour her. So he went in the evening and sat at the back. It was an all
night performance and he just couldn’t keep awake. He slept through the
night. Early in the morning, when a canto had ended and the reciter sang
the closing verses for the day, sweets were distributed according to
custom. Someone put some sweets into the mouth of the sleeping man. He
woke up soon after and went home. His wife was delighted that her husband
had stayed through the night and asked him eagerly how he enjoyed the
Ramayana. He said, ‘It was very sweet.’ The wife was happy to hear it.
The next day too his wife insisted on his listening to the
epic. So he went to the enclosure where the reciter was performing, sat
against a wall and before long fell fast asleep. The place was crowded and
a young boy sat on his shoulder, made himself comfortable and listened
open-mouthed to the fascinating story. In the morning, when the night’s
portion of the story came to an end, everyone got up and so did the
husband. The boy had left earlier but the man felt aches and pains from
the weight he had borne all night. When he went home and his wife asked
him eagerly how it was, he said, ‘It got heavier and heavier by morning.’
The wife said, ‘That’s the way the story is.’ She was happy that her
husband was at last beginning to feel the emotions and the greatness of
On the third day he sat at the edge of the crowd and was
so sleepy that he lay down on the floor and even snored. Early in the
morning a dog came that way and pissed into his mouth a little before he
woke up and went home. When his wife asked him how it was, he moved his
mouth this way and that, made a face and said, ‘Terrible. It was so
salty.’ His wife knew something was wrong. She asked him what exactly was
happening and didn’t let up till he finally told her how he had been
sleeping through the performance every night.
On the fourth day his wife went with him, sat him down in
the very first row and told him sternly that he should keep awake no
matter what might happen. So he sat dutifully in the front row and began
to listen. Very soon he was caught up in the adventures and the characters
of the great epic story. On that day the reciter was enchanting the
audience with a description of how Hanuman the monkey had to leap across
the ocean to take Rama’s signet ring to Sita. When Hanuman was leaping
across the ocean, the signet ring slipped from his hand and fell into the
ocean. Hanuman didn’t know what to do. He had to get the ring back quickly
and take it to Sita in the demon’s kingdom. While he was wringing his
hands, the husband who was listening with rapt attention in the first row
said, ‘Hanuman, don’t worry. I’ll get it for you.’ Then he jumped up and
dived into the ocean, found the ring on the ocean floor, brought it back
and gave it to Hanuman.
Everyone was astonished. They thought this man was someone
special, really blessed by Rama and Hanuman. Ever since, he has been
respected in the village as a wise elder and he has also behaved like one.
That’s what happens when you really listen to a story, especially to the
(‘Three hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and
three thoughts on translation’, extract from The Collected
Essays of AK Ramanujan, edited by Vinay Dharwadker, Oxford University
Press, New Delhi, 1999.)
(Ramanujan first wrote this essay as a lecture delivered
at the Workshop on South Asia at the University of Chicago in 1985-86. In
a revised and expanded form it appeared in Many Ramayanas: The
Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia, ed. Paula Richman
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 22-49, from where it
is reprinted here. The second section of the essay draws on a short paper
on ‘The Ahalya Episode in Two Ramayanas (Valmiki and Kampan)’ which
Ramanujan presented at the Association for Asian Studies Conference in
Boston in 1968. Gen Ed.)
This paper was originally written for the Conference on
Comparison of Civilisations at the University of Pittsburgh, February
1987. I am indebted to the organisers of the conference for the
opportunity to write and present it and to various colleagues who have
commented on it, especially V. Narayana Rao, David Shulman and Paula
1I owe this Hindi folk tale to Kirin Narayan of the
University of Wisconsin.
2 Several works and collections of essays have appeared
over the years on the many Ramayanas of South and South-east Asia.
I shall mention here only a few which were directly useful to me: AK
Banerjee 1983; P. Banerjee 1986; JL Brockington 1984; V. Raghavan 1975 and
1980; Sen 1920; CR Sharma 1973; and S. Singaravelu 1968.
3 See Bulcke 1950. When I mentioned Bulcke’s count of
three hundred Ramayanas to a Kannada scholar, he said that he had
recently counted over a thousand in Kannada alone; a Telugu scholar also
mentioned a thousand in Telugu. Both counts included Rama stories in
various genres. So the title of this paper is not to be taken literally.
4 Through the practice of tapas – usually
translated ‘austerities’ or ‘penances’ – a sage builds up a reserve of
spiritual power, often to the point where his potency poses a threat to
the gods (notably Indra). Anger or lust however immediately negates this
power; hence Indra’s subsequent claim that by angering Gautama he was
doing the gods a favour.
5 The translation in the body of this article contains
selected verses from I.9, the section known in Tamil as akalikaipatalam.
The edition I cite is Kampar Iyarriya Iramayanam (Annamalai:
Annamalai Palikalaikkalakam, 1957), Vol. 1.
6 See, for example, the discussion of such views as
summarised in Goldman 1984, 15. For a dissenting view, see Pollock 1984.
7 See Desai 1980, 63. In the discussion of the
Ramakirti to follow, I am indebted to the work of Desai and
Singaravelu. For a translation of the Thai Ramayana, see Puri and
8 Kampar Iyarriya Iramayanam, Vol. 1, selected
verses from I.1, in the section known as nattuppatalam. My
9 One source for Peirce’s semiotic terminology is his
‘Logic as Semiotic’, in Peirce 1940, 88-119.
10 Personal communication from V. Narayana Rao.
11 I heard the Telugu tale in Hyderabad in July 1988 and I
have collected versions in Kannada and Tamil as well.