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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.

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