kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

300 Ramayanas and Counting . . .
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Three hundred Ramayanas

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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

with nothing



he took everything in his city,

everything moving,

everything still,


he took everything,

everything born

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 Southeast 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).

Jain tellings

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 brahmans, 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.

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