Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation by A.K. Ramanujan

In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana, sixteenth century), when Ram 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).

ramanujan-ramRamayana and Mahabharata are easily identified as the two great Indian epics, though the word “epic” is a weak translation for ‘ithihasa’, popular Sanskrit narrative genre they belong to. In this well researched scholarly article, AK Ramanujan takes readers through the influence of Ramayana in particular, on Indian diaspora and the various tellings of the same basic story structure in South East, Peninsular and Central Asia over past twenty five hundred years.

Author starts by efforts to de-orientalize readers, by differentiating ‘katha’ and ‘kavya’, using ‘story’ and ‘discourse’, ‘sentence’ and ‘speech act’, and finally explains the subtle yet important differences between Ramakatha(Story of Ram) and Ramayana. He uses Ahalya story excerpt from Valmiki Ramyana and Kampan’s Iramavataram to hyphenates the variations in narratives, the increasing God character of Ram in the later, which accordingly was written with knowledge of pre-telling, arguably of the former. Ramanujan carefully compares Thai, Malaysian and South East Asian tellings of Ramayana on the basis of linguistic studies and geopolitical routes over which the ithihasa reached orally, and the culture it got assimilated into. Not to mention the exponential number of variants hosted by Indian vernacular languages in classical and folk traditions.

ravana-3It was fascinating to learn about the Jain traditional tellings which consider Ravana as a noble Shaivite king who met his end by falling for material desires, instead of the classical text book villain figure we are used to (a good place to refer Asura book). There are even traditions where Lakshmana and Ravana are considered as ‘yin-yang’ stye ‘good-evil’ force pair destined to fight time and again, and in this version Lord Ram is venerated as the righteous elevated soul abstaint to violence, which is very understandable once read alongside Jain ideologies. It doesn’t end there, author moves through separate narratives where Sita is Ravana’s daughter, Hanuman is depicted as a ladies man, versions where Vanaras are celstial beings than monkeys, Dashamukha tradition that doesn’t literally considers Ravana’s notorious ten heads and even the variation where Hanuman is credited as the writer of Ramayana who scattered it across the world from Himalayan mountain tops, of which Valmiki is said to have captured only a fragment.

Ramanujan calls for a Ship of Theseus style philosophy and open mindedness to rejoice the similarities, and cherish the differences. He ends the essay with a funny folktale about the power of Ramayana, where the listener is entranced and caught up in the action, who is compelled to enter the world of the epic rather than being a mere by stander, thus erasing the line between fiction and reality.

Few years before, this essay was a hot topic of controversy, over ABVP objecting its inclusion in Delhi University syllabus, under the argument that there is/was only one version of Ramayana. Though Supreme Court ruled out the radical’s arguments, University decided not to include them in syllabus over obvious reactionary discords.

Unlike the Abrahmic faiths, Hinduism has always been a highly decentralized religion, like sages say, Hinduism is different for everybody. While West has Jerusalem or Mecca for pilgrimage, East relish in multiple holy sites; When Semitic religions depend on a single religious founder, Hinduism seem to be little interested in historisizing their religion, not until recently; and while West tend to base their theology on single religious text, East has got multiple religious texts to base it from. All these vast differences had always caused huge discrepancies for Said’s Orientalists in understanding the culture and religion of West.

There is a Vedic philosophy which roughly goes like this – ‘You are limiting God by giving him/her/it human attributes’. My personal view is that, (I could definitely be wrong over educated arguments) In efforts to semitize the religion, like Orientalists, radical nationalists are confining Hinduism to Abrahmic religion lines, than the way of life, which it has always been over centuries; not just for people who identify as Hindus, but for people of different faith and ethnicity over the Peninsular region.