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08/10/2019 8:06 AM IST

How Hundreds Of Ramayanas, Across Languages And Cultures, Relate To Each Other

"The number of Rāmāyanas and the range of their influence in South and Southeast Asia over the past twenty-five hundred years or more are astonishing."

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An artist dressed as Ram, performs during the play of Ramleela, in Allahabad on October 11, 2018.

How many Rāmāyanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Rāmāyanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Rāmāyanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question. Here is one. 

One day when Rāma 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, Hanumān, was at his feet. Rama said to Hanumān, ‘Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me.’

Now Hanumān 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 (thāli). The King of Spirits (bhūt), who lives in the netherworld, likes to eat animals. So Hanumān was sent to him as part of his dinner, along with his vege­ tables. Hanumān sat on the platter, wondering what to do.

While this was going on in the netherworld, Rāma sat on his throne on the earth above. The sage Vasistha and the god Brahmā came to see him. They said to Rāma, ‘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 Rāma, ‘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 Rāma.

Who would be the most trustworthy person to guard the door? Hanumān had gone down to fetch the ring. Rāma trusted no one more than Laksmana, so he asked Laksmana to stand by the door. ‘Don’t allow anyone to enter,’ he ordered.

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Illustration from the Ramayana by Valmiki, second half of the16th century. Artist: Mir Zayn al-Abidin (active 1570-1580)

Laksmana was standing at the door when the sage Viśvāmitra appear­ed and said, ‘I need to see Rāma at once. It’s urgent. Tell me, where is Rāma?’

Laksmana said, ‘Don’t go in now. He is talking to some people. It’s important.’

‘What is there that Rāma would hide from me?’ said Viśvāmitra. ‘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 Rāma 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 Viśvāmitra.

Laksmana thought, ‘IfI go in now, I’ll die. But if l 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.

Rāma asked him, ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘Viśvāmitrais here.’

‘Send him in.’

So Viśvāmitra went in. The private talk had already come to an end. Brahmā and Vasistha had come to see Rāma 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 Rāma, ‘Brother, you should cut off my head.’

Rāma 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’II be a blot on Rāma’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 Śesa, the serpent on whom Visnu sleeps. His time was up too. He went directly to the river Sarayū and disappeared in the flowing waters.

When Laksmana relinquished his body, Rāma summoned all his followers, Vibhīsana, Sugrīva, and others, and arranged for the corona­tion of his twin sons, Lava and Kuśa. Then Rāma too entered the river Sarayū.

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Khon Ramakien (Masked played Ramayana) Thailand, during International Ramayana festival organised by ICCR at Kamani Auditorium on October 10, 2016, in New Delhi.

All this while, Hanumān was in the netherworld. When he was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he kept repeating the name of Rāma. ‘Rāma Rāma Rāma ... ’

Then the King of Spirits asked, ‘Who are you?’

‘Hanumān.’

‘Hanumān? Why have you come here?’

‘Rāma’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 Rāma’s rings. The king brought the platter to Hanumān, 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 Hanumān, shaking his head.

The King of Spirits said, ‘There have been as many Rāmas as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth, you will not find Rāma. This incarnation of Rāma is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rāma 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 Rāma there is a Rāmāyana. The number of Rāmāyanas and the range of their influence in South and Southeast 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, kāvyas or ornate poetic compositions, purānas 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 Rāmāyanas grows even larger. To these must be added sculpture and bas-reliefs, mask plays, puppet plays and shadows plays, in all the many South and Southeast Asian cultures. Camille Bulcke (1950), a student of the Rāmāyanas, counted three hundred tellings. It’s no wonder that even as long ago as the fourteenth century, Kumāravyāsa, a Kannada poet, chose to write a Mahābhārata, because he heard the cosmic serpent which upholds the earth groaning under the burden of Rāmāyana poets (tinikidanu phanirāya rāmāyanada kavigala bhāradali). 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.

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KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — Hanuman at Batu Caves Temple - dedicated to Lord Muruga with ornate shrines. 

VĀLMĪKI AND KAMPAN: TWO AHALYĀS

Obviously, these hundreds of tellings differ from one another. I have come to prefer the world tellings to the usual terms versions or variants because the latter terms can and typically do imply that there is an invariant, an original or Ur-text—usually Vālmīki’ s Sanskrit Rāmāyana, the earliest and most prestigious of them all. But as we shall see, it is not always Vālmīki’s narrative that is carried from one language to another.

It would be useful to make some distinctions before we begin. The tradition itself distinguishes between the Rāma story (rāmakathā) and texts composed by a specific person—Vālmīki, Kampan, or Krttivāsa, for example. Though many of the latter are popularly called Rāmāyanas (like Kamparāmāyanam), few texts actually bear the title Rāmāyana; they are given titles like lrāmāvatāram (The Incarnation of Rāma), Rāmcaritmānas (The Lake of the Acts of Rama), Ramakien (The Story of Rama) and so on. Their relations to the Rāma story as told by Vālmīki also vary. This traditional distinction between kathā (story) and kāvya (poem) parallels the French one between sujet and récit, or the English one between story and discourse (Chatman 1978). It is also analogous to the distinction between a sentence and a speech act. The story may be the same in two tellings, but the discourse may be vastly different. Even the structure and sequence of events may be the same, but the style, details, tone, and texture—and therefore the import—may be vastly different.

Here are two tellings of the ‘same’ episode, which occur at the same point in the sequence of the narrative. The first is from the first book (Bālakānda) of Vālmīki’s Sanskrit Rāmāyana; the second from the first canto (Pālakāntam) of Kampan’s lrāmāvatāram in  Tamil.  Both narrate the story of Ahalyā.

THE AHALYĀ EPISODE: VĀLMĪKI

Seeing Mithila, Janaka’s white
and dazzling city, all the sages
cried out in praise, ‘Wonderful!
How wonderful!’

Rāghava, sighting on the outskirts
of Mithilā an ashram, ancient,
unpeopled, and lovely, asked the sage,
’What is this holy place,

so like an ashram but without a hermit?
Master, I’d like to hear: whose was it?’
Hearing Rāghava’s words, the great sage
Viśvāmitra, man of fire,

expert in words answered, ’Listen,
Rāghava, I’ll tell you whose ashram
this was and how it was cursed
by a great man in anger.

It was great Gautama’s, this ashram
that reminds you of heaven, worshipped
even by the gods. Long ago, with Ahalyā
he practised tapas (4) here

for countless years. Once, knowing that Gautama
was away, Indra (called Thousand Eyes),
ŚacĪ’s husband, took on the likeness
of the sage, and said to Ahalyā:

“Men pursuing their desire do not wait
for the proper season, O you who
have a perfect body. Making love
with you: that’s what I want.
That waist of yours is lovely.”

She knew it was Indra of the Thousand Eyes
in the guise of the sage. Yet she,
wrongheaded woman, made up her mind,
excited, curious about the king
of the gods.

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Jakarta's National Wayang Secretariat Sena Wangi stage artiste perform the 'Epic of Ramayana' in Chennai, Nov.18, 2007. 

And then, her inner being satisfied,
she said to the god, ’I’m satisfied, king
of the gods. Go quickly from here.
O giver of honour, lover, protect
yourself and me.”

And Indra smiled and said to Ahalyā,
“Woman of lovely hips, I am
very content. I’ll go the way I came.“
Thus after making love, he came out
of the hut made of leaves.

And, O Rāma, as he hurried away,
nervous about Gautama and flustered,
he caught sight of Gautama coming in,
the great sage, unassailable
by gods and antigods,

empowered by his tapas, still wet
with the water of the river
he’d bathed in, blazing like fire,
with kuśa grass and kindling
in his hands.

Seeing him, the king of the gods was
terror-struck, his face drained of colour.
The sage, facing Thousand Eyes now dressed
as the sage, the one rich in virtue
and the other with none,

spoke to him in anger: “You took my form,
you fool, and did this that should never
be done. Therefore you will lose your testicles.“
At once, they fell to the ground, they fell
even as the great sage spoke

his words in anger to Thousand Eyes.
Having cursed Indra, he then cursed
Ahalyā: “You, you will dwell here
many thousands of years, eating the air,
without food, rolling in ash,

and burning invisible to all creatures.
When Rāma, unassailable son
of Daśaratha, comes to this terrible
wilderness, you will become pure,
you woman of no virtue,

you will be cleansed of lust and confusion.
Filled then with joy, you’ll wear again
your form in my presence.” And saying
this to that woman of bad conduct,
blazing Gautama abandoned

the ashram, and did his tapas
on a beautiful Himalayan peak,
haunt of celestial singers and
perfected beings.

Emasculated Indra then
spoke to the gods led by Agni
attended by the sages
and the celestial singers.

“I’ve only done this work on behalf
of the gods, putting great Gautama
in a rage, blocking his tapas.
He has emasculated me

and rejected her in anger.
Through this great outburst
of curses, I’ve robbed him
of his tapas. Therefore,

great gods, sages, and celestial singers,
help me, helper of the gods,
to regain my testicles.” And the gods,
led by Agni, listened to Indra

of the Hundred Sacrifices and went
with the Marut hosts
to the divine ancestors, and said,
“Some time ago, Indra, infatuated,

ravished the sage’s wife
and was then emasculated
by the sage’s curse. Indra,
king of gods, destroyer of cities,

is now angry with the gods.
This ram has testicles
but great Indra has lost his .
So take the ram’s testicles

and quickly graft them onto Indra.
A castrated ram will give you
supreme satisfaction and will be
a source of pleasure.

People who offer it
will have endless fruit.
You will give them your plenty.“
Having heard Agni’s words,
the Ancestors got together
and ripped off the ram’s testicles
and applied them then to Indra
of the Thousand Eyes.

Since then, the divine Ancestors
eat these castrated rams
and Indra has the testicles
of the beast through the power
of great Gautama’s tapas.

Come then, Rāma, to the ashram
of the holy sage and save Ahalyā
who has the beauty of a goddess.’
Rāghava heard Viśvāmitra’s words

and followed him into the ashram
with Laksmana: there he saw
Ahalyā, shining with an inner light
earned through her penances,

blazing yet hidden from the eyes
of passersby, even gods and antigods.

(Sastrigal and Sastri 1958, kānda 1, sargas 47-8; translated by David Shulman and A.K. Ramanujan)

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Paintings depicting scenes Hindu epic Ramayana at the Sita Amman Temple (Seeta Amman Temple) in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka, on 5 Septermber 2017. 

THE AHALYĀ EPISODE: KAMPAN

They came to many-towered Mithila
and stood outside the fortress.
On the towers were many flags.

There, high on an open field,
stood a black rock
that was once Ahalyā,

the great sage’s wife who fell
because she lost her chastity,
the mark of marriage in a house. [Verse 547)

Rāma’s eyes fell on the rock,
the dust of his feet
wafted on it.

Like one unconscious coming to,
cutting through ignorance.
changing his dark carcass
for true form
as he reaches the Lord’s feet,

so did she stand alive
formed and coloured
again as she once was. [548]

Rāma then asks Viśvāmitra why this lovely woman had been turned to stone. Viśvāmitra replies:

’Listen. Once Indra,
Lord of the Diamond Axe,
waited on the absence

of Gautama, a sage all spirit,

meaning to reach out
for the lovely breast
of doe-eyed Ahalyā, his wife. [551]

Hurt by love’s arrows,
hurt by the look in her eyes
that pierced him like a spear, Indra
writhed and cast about
for stratagems;

one day, overwhelmed
and mindless, he isolated
the sage; and sneaked into the hermitage
wearing the exact body of Gautama

whose heart knew no falsehoods. [552]

Sneaking in, he joined Ahalyā;
coupled, they drank deep
of the clear new wine
of first-night weddings;
and she knew.

Yet unable
to put aside what was not hers,
she dallied in her joy,
but the sage did not tarry,
he came back, a very Śiva
with three eyes in his head. [553]

Gautama, who used no arrows
from bows. could use more inescapable
powers of curse and blessing.

When he arrived, Ahalyā stood there,
stunned, bearing the shame of a deed
that will not end in this endless world.

Indra shook in terror,
started to move away
in the likeness of a cat. [554)

Eyes dropping fire, Gautama
saw what was done,
and his  words flew
like the burning arrows
at your hand:

“May you be covered
by the vaginas
of a thousand women!”
In the twinkle of an eye
they came and covered him. [555]

Covered with shame,
laughingstock of the world,
Indra left.

The sage turned
to his tender wife
and cursed:

“O bought woman!
May you turn to stone!”
and she fell at once

a rough thing
of black rock. [556]

Yet as she fell she begged:
“To bear and forgive wrongs
is also the way of elders.
O Śiva-like  lord of mine,
set some limit to your curse!”

So he said: “Rāma
will come, wearing garlands that bring
the hum of bees with them.
When the dust of his feet falls on you,
you will be released from the body of stone.” [557]

The immortals looked at their king
and came down at once to Gautama
in a delegation led by Brahmā
and begged of Gautama to relent.

Gautama’s mind had changed
and cooled. He changed
the marks on Indra to a thousand eyes
and the gods went back to their worlds,
while she lay there, a thing of stone. [558]

That was the way it was.
From now on, no more misery,
only release, for all things
in this world.

O cloud-dark lord

who battled with that ogress,
black as soot, I saw  there
the virtue of your hands
and here the virtue of your feet.′ [559]

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Artists enact a scene from Ramayana on the eve of Swayamvara Dance Dream 'Shri Ram' organised by Shri Ram Bharatiya Kala Kendra on September 28, 2017 in New Delhi.

Let me rapidly suggest a few differences between the two tellings. In Vālmīki, Indra seduces a willing Ahalyā. In Kampan, Ahalyā realises she is doing wrong but cannot let go of the forbidden joy; the poem has also suggested earlier that her sage-husband is all spirit, details which together add a certain psychological subtlety to the seduction. Indra tries to steal away in the shape of a cat, clearly a folklore motif (also found, for example, in the Kathāsaritsāgara, an eleventh-century Sanskrit com­ pendium of folktales; see Tawney 1927). He is cursed with a thousand vaginas which are later changed into eyes, and Ahalyā is changed into frigid stone. The poetic justice wreaked on both offenders is fitted to their wrongdoing. Indra bears the mark of what he lusted for, while Ahalyā is rendered incapable of responding to anything. These motifs, not found in Vālmīki, are attested in South Indian folklore and other southern Rāma stories, inscriptions and earlier Tamil poems, as well as in non-Tamil sources. Kampan, here and elsewhere, not only makes full use of his predecessor Vālmīki’s materials but folds in many regional folk tradi­tions. It is often through him that they then become part of other Rāmā­yanas.

In technique, Kampan is also more dramatic than Vālmīki. Rāma’s feet transmute the black stone into  Ahalyā  first; only afterwards is her story told. The black stone standing on a high place, waiting for Rāma, is itself a very effective, vivid symbol. Ahalyā’s revival, her waking from cold stone to fleshly human warmth, becomes an occasion for a moving bhakti (devotional) meditation on the soul waking to its form in god.

Finally, the Ahalyā episode is related to previous episodes in the poem such as that in which Rama destroys the demoness Tātakā. There he was the destroyer of evil, the bringer of sterility and the ashes of death to his enemies. Here, as the reviver of Ahalya, he is a cloud-dark god of fertility. Throughout Kampan’ s poem, Rāma is a Tamil hero, a generous giver and a ruthless destroyer of foes. And the bhakti vision makes the release of Ahalyā from her rock-bound sin a paradigm of Ramā’s incarnatory mis­sion to release all souls from world-bound misery.

In Vālmīki, Rāma’s character is not that of a god but of a god-man who has to jive within the limits of a human form with all its vicissitudes. Some argue that the references to Rāma’s divinity and his incarnation for the purpose of destroying Rāvana, 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. Be that as it may, in Kampan, 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 Nammālvār (ninth century?), the most eminent of the Śri Vaisnava saints. So, for Kampan, Rāma 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 Ahalyā is only the first in a series, ending with Rāma’s encounter with Rāvana the demon himself.

Excerpted with permission from A.K. Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Rāmāyanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, Oxford University Press.