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Three Ramayana, Rama Jataka, and Ramakien: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Buddhist Traditions
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Ramayana, Rama Jataka, and Ramakien: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Buddhist Traditions

Frank E. Reynolds

In the history and literature of religions few stories have been told as many different times in as many different ways as the story of Rama. For at least two thousand years—and probably longer—various versions of the story have been told in India and Sri Lanka; for over a thousand years—and probably much longer still—these and other versions have been told in Central and Southeast Asia, in China and Japan. Now, increasingly, the story is being told in the West as well.[1]

The story of Rims has been recited, sung, and commented on by bards, priests, and monks. It has been dramatized and danced in royal courts and in rustic villages. It has been depicted in the sculpture and art of innumerable temples in capital cities and faraway provinces. Its characters have been the subjects of worship, and the events that the story recounts have been associated with famous places that mark the geography of various locales.

What is more, certain episodes in the story have been singled out, taking on special significance in particular contexts. Segments of the story have been presented in order to evoke religious devotion, to glorify royal sponsors (often in direct opposition to other royal competitors), to inculcate moral values, to express and cultivate aesthetic sensitivities, and—perhaps most of all—simply to provide popular entertainment. Particular segments of the story have also been performed for other less obviously related purposes. For example, in certain very popular rituals in southern Thailand the enactment of certain episodes from the Rama story (most notably that in which Rama kills Ravana) serves as a substitute for the performance of animal sacrifice.[2]

For the most part the story of Rama has been presented and interpreted as a Hindu story told primarily in Hindu contexts. And there is some justification for this emphasis. Certainly it is within Hinduism that the Rims story has had its most elaborated and sophisticated tellings and has exercised its


greatest popular appeal. This emphasis, however, tends to throw into the shadows the possibility, already raised in Ramanujan's essay, that the story of Rama is better understood as an Indian/Southeast Asian story that has been crystallized (to use his image) in the context of a variety of religious traditions including, but not limited to, Hinduism.[3]

I propose here to consider the religious structure of the classical Rama stories belonging to the Hindu tradition, and the parallel but contrasting religious structure of the classical Rama stories that belong to the tradition of Theravada Buddhism.[4] With this background established, I will go on to raise a fundamental question concerning the great tradition of Rama narratives that has been prominent in Thailand at least since the late eighteenth century. Is this so-called Ramakien (Glory of Rama) tradition essentially Hindu in character, as many scholars have presumed? Or is it—as one might expect given its sitz im leben in Thailand—essentially Buddhist? It is my hope that by exploring this question we will gain a better understanding not only of the relevant literary texts but of the correlated forms of dance, sculpture, and painting as well.[5]

Rama Traditions in Hinduism

Although the Rama story is not, as such, a Hindu story, Hindu versions are very ancient. They have been a prominent element in Hindu religious life over the centuries and continue to play a prominent role in contemporary Hinduism. Moreover, certain dominant features in many Rama traditions— both in India and in Southeast Asia—can be clearly identified as Hindu.

Most of the literary versions of the classical Hindu Rama story are attributed to an author recognized as a religiously inspired sage or poet. In some cases the reputed author (for example, Valmiki) seems from our perspective more or less a mythic figure. In other cases the reputed author is a relatively identifiable historical personage (for example, Tulsidas). Either way, the author is considered to be a Hindu virtuoso possessing special religious insight and poetic inspiration.

For the most part, these Hindu crystallizations set the story of Rama in a primordial time situated at or near the beginning of the present eon when the gods are very much involved in human affairs and the character of the world as we know it is just being established.[6] At a certain moment, the proper order in the cosmos and society is challenged by a countervailing force that threatens to disrupt the world with injustice and disharmony. In order to prevent this situation from getting out of hand, a prominent god (usually Visnu) becomes incarnate in the person of Rama, a prince of a northern kingdom usually identified with the city of Ayodhya in northeastern India. In his incarnation as Rama Visnu is surrounded by a host of companions and helpers, many of whom are themselves the embodiments or descendants


of members of the Hindu pantheon—although the particular deities and the relationships involved vary significantly from one account to another. In some Hindu versions Rama and his companions are presented in a way that highlights Rama's divinity and thus evokes devotion directed toward him. In other versions Rama and his companions are depicted as semidivine exemplars who embody the virtues that Hindus are expected to cultivate. In still other versions a greater degree of moral ambiguity is evident.

In most classical Hindu accounts Rama is denied his rightful succession to the throne through the machinations of one of his father's wives, who seeks the throne for her own son. But the primary opponent of Rama and his illustrious companions—the figure around whom the forces of disorder are most fully marshalled—is Ravana, the ruler of the kingdom of Lanka in the south. Like most of the major characters in the story, Ravana is usually depicted as the embodiment, descendant, or assistant of one of the Hindu gods, generally one not in particularly good favor with the tellers of the tale. As for Ravana himself, he is a more or less demonic figure who acts in ways that generate disorder in the cosmos and turbulence in society. In some tellings of the tale Ravana is presented as a thoroughly evil character with no redeeming virtues. In others he is more a kind of flawed hero whose demise, though necessary and appropriate, is not devoid of truly tragic dimensions.

According to most classical Hindu versions, the battle between the forces of order and disorder, between Rama and his companions on the one hand, and Ravana and his allies on the other, is fully joined when Ravana becomes desirous of Rama's wife, Sita, and kidnaps her. But, after winning the initial round of his battle with Rims, Ravana is twice defeated—first by Sita, who, despite her position as a powerless captive, rebuffs his advances, and then by Rama, who invades Ravana's capital, overcomes his armies, and finally kills him in personal combat. Thus the forces of disorder and injustice that were threatening the cosmos and society are destroyed. With his mission accomplished, Rama returns to Ayodhya with Sita at his side and takes the throne that is rightfully his.

Rama Traditions in Theravada Buddhism

Like the Hindus, Theravada Buddhists have, over the centuries, crystallized their own classical versions of the Rama story, ones whose religious structure clearly establishes their Buddhist identity.[7] The basic components of this Buddhist structure parallel the basic components of the Hindu pattern, but they differ in fundamental respects.

Within the Buddhist context there are two classical crystallizations of the Rama story that need to be considered. The first is the Dasaratha Jataka , a relatively well known text. Some scholars have argued that this text (which they date to the pre-Christian era) is actually the first crystallization of the


Rama story that we possess; others contend that it was written after Valmiki's version. Either way—and my own view is that the evidence is not conclusive—there is general agreement that the Dasaratha Jataka is a very ancient Buddhist crystallization of the Rama story.[8]

The second Buddhist-oriented Rama tradition is much more complex and in many respects much more interesting, though far less widely known and studied than the Dasaratha Jataka . Dating from medieval times, this Buddhist Rama tradition has had a widespread distribution through an area we might call greater Laos, from Yunan in the north through Laos and northeastern Thailand to the borders of Cambodia in the south. The most extensive text that we now possess is the Laotian Phra Lak/Phra Lam (the Laotian names for Laksmana and Rama) which has been published in a two-volume edited version that runs to more than nine hundred pages.[9] In addition, there are a number of "sister texts" that are clearly a part of this same classical tradition.[10]

Within Buddhist tradition, the author to whom the various literary crystallizations of the Rama story are attributed does not vary from text to text. In each instance the "author," in the sense of the first teller of the tale, is said to be the Buddha himself. The Dasaratha Jataka is included in a lengthy jataka commentary that presents itself as a collection of jataka stories (stories of events in the previous lives of the Buddha) that the Buddha preached during his stay at the Jetavana monastery. The classical Rama texts of the Laotian tradition are not included in any of the collections traditionally attributed to the founder. However, each of these independent texts quite explicitly presents itself as a sermon preached by the Buddha during the course of his ministry.

Like the classical Hindu versions, the various Buddhist crystallizations are situated in a special time that is clearly set apart from the present day. In both the Dasaratha Jataka and the Laotian tradition, this time is located in the distant past, when the Buddha was living one of his more eventful previous lives. The Laotian texts also make clear that these previous lives took place at or near the beginning of the present cosmic epoch, at a time when the gods were closely involved in human affairs and the conditions of our present existence were being established. Their account draws heavily on the classical Theravada cosmogony that appears in the Pali Tipitaka, most fully in the Aggañña Sutta. [11]

The Phra Lak/Phra Lain cosmogony begins with the descent of two brahma deities, a male and a female, from the heavens (where they had escaped the destruction of the old world) to the new earth that is taking shape out of the waters.[12] Having been tempted into tasting the "savor of the material world," the two brahma deities lose their divine powers and are unable to return to the heavenly realm. Living now on earth, they found the city of Inthapatha on the banks of the Mekong River and establish a dynastic suc-


cession that divides into two lines. One line—which continues to rule in the original kingdom of Inthapatha—runs from the original divine couple to a great grandson named Ravana. The other line—which founds its own royal city further to the north on the site of the present Laotian capital of Vientienne—runs from the original divine couple to two other great grandsons named Phra Lak and Phra Lam.

In this cosmogonic account Indra, who is an especially important deity within the Theravada tradition, plays a very significant role. Specifically, he facilitates the rebirth processes that result in the birth of Ravana as Ravana and of Rama as Rama. Having been impressed with the intellectual erudition of a deformed child, Indra sees to it that the child's physical deformity is healed and that he is ultimately reborn as Ravana. Later, as Indra becomes aware of the threat to the proper order that Ravana's activities are posing, he sees to it that a bodhisatta (a future Buddha) is reborn as Rama.[13]

As one might expect, virtually all the Buddhist crystallizations of the story identify Rama and his companions as the rebirth precursors of the Buddha and his family or faithful disciples.[14] In the Dasaratha Jataka this is the only source for the sacrality of the major figures in the story, whereas in the Phra Lak/Phra Lain tradition the leading figures often simultaneously participate in the sacrality associated with divinities central to Buddhist cosmology. Even here, however, the primary emphasis is placed on the rebirth connection between Rama and his companions on the one hand and the Buddha and his companions on the other.[15]

These two Theravada Buddhist traditions also interpret the exact identity of the disrupting forces that Rama must overcome rather differently. In the Dasaratha Jataka the enemy is not personified, and the "victory" is purely spiritual. In this distinctive crystallization of the Rama story, the enemy is the kind of desirous attachment that binds persons to this-worldly life; and the victory comes when the exiled Rama confronts the news of his father's untimely death with an appropriately Buddhist attitude of equanimity and an appropriately Buddhist commitment to compassionate activity. In the later Phra Lak/Phra Lam tradition, the enemy appears in his familiar guise as Ravana, and the narrative shares with the Hindu versions many key episodes of encounter and conflict.[16] But in the Phra Lak/Phra Lam context, Ravana, like the companions of Rama, is closely associated with a figure who plays a role in the life of the Buddha. In some cases Ravana is identified as an earlier form of Mara, the personalized embodiment of desire and death whom the Buddha defeats again and again during the course of his final life as Gotama. In other cases he is identified as the rebirth precursor of Devadatta, the Buddha's angry and desire-driven cousin and archenemy who repeatedly challenges him but finally succumbs in the face of the Buddha's superior wisdom and compassion.[17]

Finally, both tellings culminate with the triumphant return of Rama to his


own country and his installation as the legitimate successor to his father. In religious terms, proper order is restored, and a ruler imbued with Buddhist virtues reclaims the throne. In the Dasaratha Jataka Rama returns to Banaras, where his father had been king, and establishes his wise and benevolent rule. In the Phra Lak/Phra Lam tradition Rama returns to and establishes his wise and benevolent rule in the Laotian city of his birth. In both instances, the basic theme is the same: a dynasty that embodies and supports Buddhist values has carried the day and is now firmly in charge.

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.[18] 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.[19]

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).[20]

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.[21] 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.[22]

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."[23] 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.[24]

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.[25] 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.[26]

Rama Traditions in Thailand: the Dynastic Cult

Like other classical versions of the Rama story, the Ramakien tradition has been expressed not only in literature and artistic performance but in sculpture and in painting as well. These visual representations of the tale have almost always existed in temple settings, and it is probable that most of them had, at one time or another, specific associations with cultic practice. Insofar as these practices are historically remote, the character of the relevant cult is impossible to reconstruct. In the case of the Ramakien tradition, however, we are dealing with a relatively recent cult established by Rama I, the same king who sponsored the primary Ramakien text. And, like that text, it remains a vital part of religious and cultural life in contemporary Thailand.

For our purposes the most important iconic expression of the Ramakien tradition is one intimately associated with the so-called Holy Emerald Jewel or Emerald Buddha that King Rama I brought to Bangkok from the Laotian capital of Vientienne, and with the closely related dynastic practices that he subsequently established when he became king and built his new capital at Bangkok.[27] Although there had almost certainly been similar images and dynastic cults in the old central Thai capital of Ayudhya, Rama I bypassed


any Ayudhyan precedents and drew on the heritage of another region, ultimately founding a tradition distinctive to the Bangkok kingdom and its Chakri rulers.

Evidence strongly suggests that the image of the Emerald Buddha and t he rituals associated with it in Vientienne were Buddhist transformations of a Saivite "Holy Jewel" and corresponding dynastic cult established in the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor in the early centuries of the second millennium C.E. Through a long and fascinating process, this originally Saivite tradition was appropriated and transformed by the Theravada Buddhist reformers who subsequently came to dominate the religious life of the area.[28] Although the early phases of this process are hard to trace in any detail, it is certain that thoroughly Buddhized forms of the image and its cult were well established in the northern Thai kingdom of Lannathai by the late fifteenth century. They were transported to the Laotian capital of Luang Prabang in the middle of the sixteenth century and a few years later taken to the Laotian capital of Vientienne.

During this northern Thai-Laotian period, the image and the practices associated with it were closely affiliated with different Buddhist dynasties. There is strong evidence that the image itself served as the palladium of Buddhist kings in each of the three capitals mentioned above, and that the cult was a central element in the ritual structure that legitimated their rule. There is also strong evidence that the stories told about the image and the activities surrounding it involved a wide variety of Buddhist symbols that signified various aspects of royal authority and power. These include notions of the king as a cakkavatti , as an Indra, as a bodhisatta , and (though in proper Theravada fashion this always remained ambiguous) as a Buddha.

When Rama I installed the Emerald Buddha in his new royal temple in Bangkok, the image became the palladium of his dynasty and kingdom, the cultic activities associated with it were regularly performed, and all the earlier associations with Buddhist notions of royal power and authority were retained. But what is especially interesting for our purposes is that Rama I added an important component which, as far as I have been able to discover, had not previously been connected with the image.[29] Along the galleries surrounding the central altar of the royal temple, Rama I commissioned the painting of a set of murals that depicted episodes from the Ramakien . When celebrations associated with the image of the Emerald Buddha were held, he saw to it that performances of episodes from the Ramakien story were included. In visual and ritual terms a clear message was being sent. The "Glory of Rama" had now been incorporated into the Buddhist ideal of royal power and authority manifested in the Emerald Buddha on the one hand and in the reigning dynasty on the other.

As in the literary and performance strand of the Ramakien tradition, so in the iconographic and ritual strand: the pattern established by King Rama I has persisted to the present day. The Emerald Buddha has continued to


serve as the palladium of the kingdom; the Buddhist cult associated with the image has continued to legitimate the rule of the Chakri dynasty; and the iconic version of the Ramakien story has continued to play a central symbolic role. Thus, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the dynasty, the Ramakien murals painted on the walls of the gallery in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha were refurbished by King Rama III.[30] On the one hundredth anniversary they were refurbished by King Rama V, and on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary by King Rama VII. During the 1980s, to mark the two hundredth anniversary, they were refurbished once again, this time by the present monarch, King Rama IX.

Concluding Comments

When the literary, performative, iconic, and cultic aspects of the Ramakien tradition are all taken fully into account, it is necessary to conclude that this rendition of the Rama story—at least since its reformulation in the late eighteenth century—tilts more toward Buddhism than Hinduism. In fact, I would go still further and claim that the Ramakien crystallizations generated by King Rama I and his successors represent a third classical type of Buddhist-oriented Rama story that should be considered alongside the first type presented in the Dasaratha Jataka and the second type represented by the Phra Lak/Phra Lam tradition.

To be sure, the Ramakien versions of the Rama story do not exhibit the full-fledged Buddhist structure characteristic of earlier Buddhist tellings. Nowhere is the story attributed to the Buddha or presented as an account of events associated with one of his previous lives, nor does it occur in the kind of cosmogonic context that Buddhists traditionally affirm.[31] However, it is a tradition which self-consciously sets the Rama story in explicitly Buddhist contexts, thereby giving it an explicitly Buddhist significance. In the literary and performative strand of the tradition, the Buddhist significance remains relatively muted and largely audience-dependent. In the iconic and cultic strand, the vision of Rama as a royal hero who embodies Buddhist values is vividly portrayed for all to see. Coexisting and subtly interacting, these two strands of the Ramakien tradition have, over the past two centuries, maintained the story of Rama as an integral, Buddhist-oriented component in Thai religion, culture, and politics.

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