kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

300 Ramayanas and Counting . . .
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Three hundred Ramayanas

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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.

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