Rama Traditions in Thailand: the Texts
Thus far, we have characterized two quite distinctive classical Rama traditions, one clearly Hindu and one clearly Buddhist. With that background in mind, we can now turn to our question concerning the Ramakien tradition established in Thailand in the late eighteenth century. Is it Hindu or Buddhist? Or is it a new kind of crystallization that combines elements of both?
Although modern Thai versions of the Rama story show definite affinities with South Indian, Javanese, and Khmer (Cambodian) versions, there is simply no basis for determining with any degree of precision when, from where, or in what form the story was introduced into the central Thai context. The fact that certain episodes of the Rama story have been geographically localized at sacred sites around the city of Lopburi suggests that the Rama story may have been prominent there during the late centuries of the first millennium C.E. , when Lopburi was the capital of a major Mon kingdom, and/or during the first centuries of the second millennium C.E. , when it was a major provincial center of the Khmer empire ruled from Angkor.
The fact that the most important ruler of the early Thai kingdom of Sukothai took the name Ramkemheng (Rama the Strong) indicates that by the late thirteenth century some form of the Rama story was well established in the area, and that it had already been taken up by the Thai. And it is certain that a classical version of the Rama story played a significant role in the religion and culture of the Thai kingdom that dominated central Thailand from the fourteenth to the late eighteenth centuries. It is not by chance that the capital of this kingdom was named Ayudhya (the Thai name for the city of Rama) and that several of the kings who ruled there took names that included the name of Rama. But the destruction and sacking of Ayudhya in the mid eighteenth century has made it impossible to reconstruct the pre-modern tradition in any detail.
When, in the late eighteenth century, a stable new dynasty was established with its capital at Bangkok, one of the prime concerns of King Rama I was to reconstruct the religious and cultural life of the country. One of the major components in that reconstructive effort was his own specifically
ordered and personally supervised composition of a new crystallization of the Rama story called the Ramakien . This classic text was then supplemented by episodes written by King Rama II (reigned 1809-1824) and by King Rama VI (reigned 1925-1935).
Any reader of these Ramakien texts will be immediately impressed by the Hindu character of the narrative. From the outset the Hindu gods dominate the scene. In the background is Siva as the preeminent deity, the creator of the world, and the continuing presence under whose aegis the narrative unfolds. More in the foreground of the action is Visnu, who at Siva's behest becomes incarnate in the person of Rama in order to save the world from the threat of social and cosmic disorder. The Hindu gods continue to play a role throughout the narrative, and Hindu figures continue to dominate the action.
Conversely, the most crucial elements of the earlier Buddhist versions of the story are simply not present. There is no suggestion whatsoever that the Buddha was the original teller of the tale, and, although there is a clear cosmogonic dimension to the narrative, there are no indications that a distinctively Buddhist version of the cosmogony had any influence on the presentation. And—what is certainly most important—the story is not presented as an incident in a previous life of the Buddha.
But before we jump to the seemingly obvious conclusion that we are dealing with an unambiguously Hindu crystallization of the story, several additional factors need to be taken into account. First, the primary Ramakien text was produced by (and widely associated with) an "author" who was not only a Buddhist king but one especially noted for his support of Buddhism. Second, during the period when the principal Ramakien text was being composed, Thai Buddhists were actively engaged in encompassing and assimilating Hindu elements. This was the period, for example, when authoritative Buddhist texts were being written in which Siva and Visnu were explicitly included among the deities who populate the three worlds of the Buddhist cosmos. Third, since various hierarchical, brahmanical, and dualistic elements that characterize some Hindu versions of the story are not prominent in the Rarnakien , much of the narrative is quite compatible with Buddhist sensibilities. Fourth, a careful reading discerns distinctively Buddhist emphases in the text. For example, Indra plays a more prominent role than in most Hindu tellings, karmic explanations are more common, and Buddhist attitudes toward life are given greater play.
But the strongest argument against viewing the Ramakien as an unambiguously Hindu text (or perhaps even a Hindu text at all) comes from the epilogue attached to the original composition by King Rama I himself. "The writing of the Ramakien, " he asserts, "was done in accordance with a traditional tale. It is not of abiding importance; rather, it has been written to be used on celebrative occasions. Those who hear it and see it performed should
not be deluded. Rather, they should be mindful of impermanence." The Thai word that Rama I uses to convey the notion of delusion is lailong —a direct translation of the Pali moha , a technical term that refers to one of the three preeminent Buddhist vices (delusion, anger, and greed); and the word that he uses when he urges his readers to be mindful of impermanence is anitchang —the Thai transliteration of the Pali technical term anicca (impermanence). Thus in his epilogue Rama I very explicitly highlights his own conviction that those who participate in the Ramakien tradition can and should approach the Ramakien story in a way consistent with Buddhist teachings and insight.
It is clear that both during and after the time of Rama I some participants in the Ramakien tradition were—in his terms—"deluded" by the story and "unmindful" concerning the reality of impermanence. During Rama I's own reign Ramakien performances that pitted dancers associated with Rama I (representing Rama) against those associated with his brother who held the position of "second king" (representing Ravana) occasionally led to pitched battles that resulted in the deaths of some of the participants. It is also true that many participants in the Ramakien tradition, especially in more recent times, have adopted a skeptical attitude toward the Hindu structure of the story, but on the basis of their secular, rather than Buddhist, orientation. However Rama I's notion that the Ramakien is a rendition of a traditional tale that can and should be approached with specifically Buddhist sensibilities has never been totally forgotten.