The essay by renowned scholar and poet A K Ramanujan,“Three hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations”, has been removed from a Delhi University textbook by the Academic Council, in spite of the fact that three out of four experts on the expert committee convened, and the University’s history department, opposed the move, sparking protests and debate on campuses across the country and in cyberspace. We reproduce the essay here, with permission.
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 should die.’
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 head.’
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 leave.’
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 take it.’
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.