An epic to explore and reinterpret in our disillusioned age
Striving to present a bird’s eye view of the Ramayana — beyond comics, animated films, and the hip, slang-scattered “thrillers” of today — can be a huge challenge.
We begin with the historical fact that the Ramayana is not the work of a single poet at a specific time, the original Sanskrit text evolving from 7 BCE to around 3 CE, and growing through succeeding centuries. Multiple versions in Sanskrit itself, like the Ananda, Adbhuta and Adhyatma Ramayanas become philosophical, metaphysical parables where Sita may turn out to be Ravana’s lost daughter! More changes mark adaptations in the Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions. Not only does every single Indian language have a Ramayana of its own, and by different poets, but Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet and south Asian countries have sprouted variants. Japan knows something of the myth, Mongolia has a shadow play of Rama.
While the Ramayanas of Valmiki (Sanskrit), Kamban (Tamil) and Tulsidas (Avadhi) have the centuries-old authority of scriptures, folk takes surprise us with heterodox ideologies. Tribal retellings can make Rama the villain and Ravana the hero. And, of course, minstrels continue to sing innumerable ballads about the principal characters and their deeds, as part of life cycle ceremonies. Telugu has a bunch of Sita songs for every stage in a girl’s life.
While the living epic is narrated according to orthodox versions, it is also turned inside out in radical modern spin-offs, as novels contemporise the myth. Feminists protest against patriarchy and gender bias, centre-staging iconic Sita or “villainous” Surpanakha. Why not? Ramayana women suffer in multiple ways — Kausalya is humiliated by arrogant Kaikeyi, Sumitra reduced to nonentity-hood, Urmila abandoned for 14 years, Ahalya cursed, Surpanakha mutilated, Mandodari betrayed, Sugriva’s wife becomes Vaali’s concubine, Vaali’s wife compelled to join Sugriva’s harem, Sita is tried by fire and banished to the forest.
Since the Ramayana enjoys the status of a religious text, its protagonist a God appearing on earth to redeem humanity, his consort the ideal of Indian womanhood, western scholars examining the epic as a historical document are ostracised. Objective studies of iconoclastic versions and subaltern narratives are banned. Not surprising in a land where the first serialised Ramayana on television turned couch potatoes into pilgrims. Remember how people across India watched with religious fervour, and performed puja on days when “auspicious” segments were telecast?
The literal reading of the Ramayana has turned it into India’s most politicised work of literature. But looking at Valmiki’s epic as a literary masterpiece reveals a pervasive irony, challenging readers to think about moral dilemmas and free will. Even a god cannot escape blame when he takes a human form. Self-deception and plain deception are constant themes. When Vibhishana seeks shelter with Rama, ally Sugriva says, “How can we trust someone who has betrayed his own brother”, quite forgetting how he himself engineered a fratricide. Surpanakha doesn’t mention motives of personal revenge, but describes Sita’s enchanting beauty, to persuade lecherous brother Ravana to abduct Sita.
The Ramayana’s origin myth is prophetic, poetic, poignant. Hunter Valmiki sees a bleeding sarus crane, pierced by an arrow, falling from the tree, while its mate wails piteously. The image triggers vision, soka turns to shloka, and the First Poet, Adi Kavi, announces, “From my sorrow sprang nothing but poetry.” A less known account from another source has Brahma, the Creator, asking Valmiki to compose the Mahabharata. Valmiki answers, “I have composed the Ramayana, free from doubt, agitation and illusion. Wherefore should I take up another work?”
Does his text justify this claim? I look at random moments in the epic. Says Rama, “Subjects take to ways adopted by sovereigns. The soul of the State is truth. I shall not break the bounds of truth in covetousness, delusion or ignorance. I abjure that morality, which, pretending to be righteous, is low, wicked, greedy, sinful.” Lakshmana prays on the battlefield, “If Rama is righteous and true, O arrow, slay this son of Ravana!” And Indrajit is killed not by a weapon, but by the power of Rama’s dharma and satya, in a triumph of mind over matter. Valmiki’s Mandodari believes that it is not Rama’s arrow, but the blaze of Sita’s grief that killed her husband Ravana. Kambar’s Mandodari says that Rama’s arrow pierced Ravana’s heart to exterminate his lust for Sita therein. And that is how she writes the epitaph of his whole clan: lust, rage and power mania causing their downfall.
The Ramayana is not as sophisticated or intriguing as the Mahabharata. Traditionalists deem this a tale of idealism, but what we see is the constant fall from grace. And, therefore, a relevant site for explorations and reinterpretations in our disillusioned times. After all, it has the features of a great epic: Political insight, philosophical epiphany and poetic brilliance.