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Introduction: the Diversity of the Ramayana Tradition

Paula Richman

In January 1987 viewers in India began to tune in each Sunday morning for a Hindi television serial based on the Ramayana story. Observers estimate that over eighty million people watched the weekly broadcasts.[1] In a land where most people do not own televisions and electricity remains in short supply, many gathered at the homes of relatives or at local tea shops to view the epic, while engineers worked overtime to supply adequate current. In some places entire villages joined together to rent a television set. It was not just that people watched the show: they became so involved in it that they were loath to see it end. Despite the fact that Doordarshan, the government-run network, had only contracted with the producer for a year's worth of episodes, the audience demanded more. In fact, sanitation workers in Jalandhar went on strike because the serial was due to end without depicting the events of the seventh, and final, book of the Ramayana .[2] The strike spread among sanitation workers in many major cities in North India, compelling the government to sponsor the desired episodes in order to prevent a major health hazard. Quite apart from such militant enthusiasm, the manner in which viewers watched the serial was also striking. Many people responded to the image of Rama on the television screen as if it were an icon in a temple. They bathed before watching, garlanded the set like a shrine, and considered the viewing of Rama to be a religious experience.

The size, response, and nature of the television Ramayana's audience led Philip Lutgendorf, a scholar of Hindi Ramayana traditions, to comment:

The Ramayan serial had become the most popular program ever shown on Indian television—and something more: an event, a phenomenon of such proportions that intellectuals and policy makers struggled to come to terms with its significance and long-range import. Never before had such a large percentage


of South Asia's population been united in a single activity; never before had a single message instantaneously reached so enormous a regional audience.[3]

Throughout Indian history many authors and performers have produced, and many patrons have supported, diverse tellings of the Ramayana in numerous media. Perhaps not surprisingly, enthusiasm welcomed this new entrant into what has been an unending series of Ramayanas in India and beyond.

The televised Ramayana did, however, disturb some observers, who worried that the Doordarshan version might come to dominate other tellings of the story. Romila Thapar, a noted scholar of Indian history, is among such observers. When the state acts as patron of the arts, argues Thapar, it often favors social groups that wield relatively great influence in that society. In Thapar's analysis, Doordarshan presented a Ramayana telling that reflected the concerns not of the vast majority of Indians but of what she calls "the middle class and other aspirants to the same status.[4] For Thapar, the television Ramayana possessed a dangerous and unprecedented authority. In the past, many performances of the Ramayana have been sponsored by those in political power, but never before had a Ramayana performance been seen simultaneously by such a huge audience through a medium which so clearly presented itself as authoritative.[5] In addition, its broadcasters were self-consciously presenting their version of the story as an expression of mainstream "national culture." Through such a presentation, would something of the Ramayana tradition's richness be lost?

In her critique of the television production, Thapar calls attention to the plurality of Ramayanas in Indian history: "The Ramayana does not belong to any one moment in history for it has its own history which lies embedded in the many versions which were woven around the theme at different times and places.[6] Not only do diverse Ramayanas exist; each Ramayana text reflects the social location and ideology of those who appropriate it:

The appropriation of the story by a multiplicity of groups meant a multiplicity of versions through which the social aspirations and ideological concerns of each group were articulated. The story in these versions included significant variations which changed the conceptualization of character, event and meaning.[7]

Thapar emphasizes that, traditionally, local references and topical remarks play crucial roles in many performances of the Ramayana . Were the television Ramayana and the broadly distributed videocassette tapes of it to achieve widespread acceptance as the version of the epic, Thapar warns of possible negative effects for Indian culture. The homogenization of any narrative tradition results in cultural loss; other tellings of the Ramayana story might be irretrievably submerged or marginalized.

The contributors to this volume desire an opposite fate—that the public discourse and scholarship stimulated by current interest in the Ramayana


draw even greater attention to the manifold Ramayana tradition in India.[8] We take the popularity of the televised Ramayana not as heralding the demise of other tellings but as affirming the creation of yet another rendition of the Ramayana , the latest product of an ongoing process of telling and retelling the story of Rama. In order to illuminate the nature of this process, our essays analyze an array of tellings, the better to display the vitality and diversity of the Ramayana tradition.[9]

Synopsis of the Rama Story

Scholars familiar with the Ramayana story will want to move on to the next section of this introduction. Meanwhile, for other readers, it is useful to provide an outline of the story's basic events. Such an enterprise, however, is fraught with difficulties, for "the story" is inseparable from the different forms it takes, forms which reflect differences in religious affiliation, linguistic allegiance, and social location. Nonetheless, those who are not Ramayana specialists need at least a skeletal knowledge of incidents, characters, and locations in the Ramayana tradition in order to appreciate the essays in this volume, which analyze different ways in which the Ramayana has been told.

I have therefore chosen to present a synopsis of the story of Rama based on Valmiki's Ramayana . Most scholars would agree that Valmiki's Ramayana , the most extensive early literary treatment of the life of Rama, has wielded enormous influence in India, Southeast Asia, and beyond. Many later Ramayana authors explicitly refer to it either as an authoritative source or as a telling with which they disagree. For centuries it has been regarded as the most prestigious Ramayana text in many Indian circles. It has also drawn the most attention from Western scholars.[10]

However, I present Valmiki's rendition here not as an Ur -text but only as the story of Rama with which the majority of Western Ramayana scholars are most familiar. My goal is not to privilege Valmiki's Ramayana but to give the nonspecialist reader some necessary background, since in explaining the components of other tellings of the story the contributors to this volume often take a knowledge of Valmiki for granted. In addition, to tell other Ramayanas here would be to preempt the work of the rest of this volume.[11]

In order to maintain our perspective on Valmiki's telling as one of many Ramayanas rather than as the authoritative Ramayana , I will summarize the story in as neutral a way as possible, avoiding, for example, moral evaluation of the characters and their actions. My aim is to present readers with the plot of an extremely influential Ramayana without encouraging them to view as normative the events, characterizations, and particular ideological commitments of Valmiki's Ramayana .

As the story opens the ruler of Lanka, the demon Ravana, has gained apparent invincibility by winning a promise from the gods that he cannot be


destroyed by any divine or demonic creature: he is vulnerable only to human beings, who are too weak to be of account. Meanwhile in the city of Ayodhya, we learn, King Dasaratha has no male heir. In order to remedy this problem his ministers urge him to perform a special sacrifice, which causes his three wives to conceive sons. Firstborn among them is Rama, son of Queen Kausalya; then come his three half-brothers, Bharata, son of Queen Kaikeyi, and Laksmana and Satrughna, the twin sons of Queen Sumitra. Rama begins his career as a warrior while still a youth, when he defends a sage's sacrifice by killing the demons that threaten its success. Subsequently, Rama wins his bride, Sita, by stringing an enormous divine bow.

When King Dasaratha decides to retire, he chooses as his successor Rama, beloved among Ayodhya's citizens for his wisdom and compassion. Soon, however, the king's youngest queen, Kaikeyi, becomes convinced that if Rama were to become the sovereign, her fortunes and those of her son, Bharata, would suffer disastrous consequences. So Kaikeyi calls for the king to redeem two boons that he awarded her when once she saved his life on the battlefield: she asks first that Rama be banished to the forest for fourteen years and, second, that her own son, Bharata, be crowned in his place. Rama willingly accepts his fate, vowing to honor his father's wishes, and sets off at once for the forest, accompanied by his wife, Sita., and his half-brother Laksmana. When Bharata returns from a visit to his uncle and hears of the events that have transpired while he was away, he goes to the forest to persuade Rama to return. Rama, however, adheres to his vow, whereupon Bharata installs Rama's sandals on the royal throne, agreeing only to serve as regent until Rama's return from exile.

In the forest the threesome meet ascetic sages, travel through both beautiful and frightening landscapes, and eventually settle in a little hermitage. One day there appears a demoness named Surpanakha who falls in love with Rama and boldly offers herself to him in marriage. When Rama refuses her offer, she deems Sita the obstacle to her plan and prepares to eat her. In response, Laksmana mutilates Surpanakha, prompting the demoness to flee to her brother, Ravana. When she complains of the cruelty of the two princes and tells of the extraordinary beauty of Sita, her words arouse in Ravana a passionate desire for Sita. By enlisting the aid of another demon, who takes the form of a golden deer, Ravana lures first Rama and then Laksmana away from their hermitage. Then, posing as a wandering holy man, Ravana gains entrance to the dwelling and carries Sita off to his island kingdom of Lanka.

In the course of his attempt to determine where Sita has been taken and then to gather allies for the fight against Ravana, Rama becomes involved in the politics of a monkey kingdom. There Rama meets Hanuman, who becomes his staunch devotee, and Sugriva, an exiled prince who, like Rama, has also suffered the loss of wife and kingdom. Sugriva and Rama make a pact: if Rama will help Sugriva win back his wife and throne—both currently under the control of his brother, Valin—then Sugriva will aid Rama in his


search for Sita. During a battle between Sugriva and Valin, Rama conceals himself behind a tree and shoots Valin from this position of hiding, an act that violates the warrior's code. Some time later Sugriva sends his warriors off in every direction seeking news of Sita's whereabouts. Finally they learn that Sita has been imprisoned in Lanka.

Hanuman crosses the ocean to Lanka and locates Sita, dwelling under guard in a grove near Ravana's palace. After he watches Ravana alternately threaten her life and attempt to seduce her, he gives her Rama's signet ring, assuring her of imminent rescue. Then, when he allows himself to be brought to Ravana's court, his tail is set afire. Escaping his captors, he sets the city on fire and then returns to help Rama's forces prepare for war, adding the intelligence about the walled city of Lanka that he has gathered to information provided by Vibhisana, a brother of Ravana who has repudiated him to join Rama. The monkeys build a bridge to Lanka so that the army can cross. The ensuing battle sees great losses on both sides. Rama ultimately kills Ravana in one-to-one combat, whereupon Rama makes Vibhisana the new ruler of Lanka.

Rama at first refuses to take Sita back, since she has lived in the household of another man. After she successfully undergoes a trial by fire, however, he deems her worthy to take her place by his side. But continuing rumors questioning his wife's chastity cause Rama to banish Sita—who is now pregnant—from his kingdom. Banished, she finds refuge with the venerable sage Valmiki, to whom the composition of the Ramayana is traditionally attributed, and in the shelter of his hermitage gives birth to twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Eventually, Sita abandons this world to return to the bosom of the earth, whence she came. Bereft by the loss of his wife, Rama finally ascends to heaven with members of his retinue.

The Assumptions and Goals of this Volume

Along with Valmiki's Ramayana , there are hundreds of other tellings of the story of Rama in India, Southeast Asia, and beyond. In confronting the diversity of the tradition, we are challenged to find ways of articulating relationships among these Ramayanas . In the lead essay of this volume, Ramanujan takes up the challenge by looking at five different Ramayanas : Valmiki's Sanskrit poem, summarized above; Kampan's Iramavataram , a Tamil literary account that incorporates characteristically South Indian material;[12] Jain tellings, which provide a non-Hindu perspective on familiar events;[13] a Kan-nada folktale that reflects preoccupations with sexuality and childbearing;[14] and the Ramakien , produced for a Thai rather than an Indian audience.

Ramanujan's exploration of these texts suggests several ways to conceptualize the relations between Ramayanas . He urges us to view different tellings neither as totally individual stories nor as "divergences" from the "real" version by Valmiki, but as the expression of an extraordinarily rich set of re-


sources existing, throughout history, both within India and wherever Indian culture took root. Like the set of landscape conventions of classical Tamil poetry, the elements of the Ramayana tradition can be seen as a source on which poets can draw to produce a potentially infinite series of varied and sometimes contradictory tellings.[15] Ramanujan likens the Ramayana tradition to a pool of signifiers that includes plot, characters, names, geography, incidents, and relations, arguing that each Ramayana can be seen as a "crystallization":

These various texts not only relate to prior texts directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author, if one may hazard a metaphor, dips into it and brings out a unique crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context.

Creation of Ramayanas , Ramanujan's metaphor implies, involves both constraints and fluidity: while certain sets of codes structure expression, the fluidity of tradition accounts for the diversity of tellings. Like Thapar, he also calls attention to the fact that Ramayana tellings take shape in particular contexts. They may be influenced, for example, by the beliefs of individual religious communities, the literary conventions of regional cultures, and the specific configurations of social relations.

In responding to Ramanujan's suggestion that we explore Ramayana tellings in light of their structure, diversity, and context, the contributors to this volume have both reconsidered familiar Ramayanas and explored lesser-known tellings of the story. Those familiar with Ramayana scholarship will recognize the extent to which we have used and built upon the careful research of earlier studies that trace the historical and literary peregrinations of Rama's story. We are grateful to those who preceded us, scholars of extraordinary patience who meticulously charted the many tellings of the tale. [16] Our present goal is somewhat different: to consider the logic that informs, and the relations that exist between, selected tellings of the Ramayana , as well as the cultural contexts of those tellings.

The essays share five assumptions about the plurality of Ramayana tradition in India and Thailand. First, we deem all the incidents connected with the story of Rama and Sita equally worthy of our attention. Philological scholarship on Valmiki's Ramayana has argued that the Balakanda (the first book, which tells of Rama's youth) and the Uttarakanda (the last book, which tells of the events that transpire after Rama's rescue of Sita, including her banishment to the forest) are "late" additions.[17] Their status as possible interpolations into Valmiki's text, however, has had little effect on the popularity of their contents in Indian culture. Whether these events from Rama's early life and from the end of the story were original to Valmiki's text or not, the contributors to this volume treat them in the same way as they treat incidents from other periods in Rama's life.


Second, we accept the idea of many Ramayanas and place Valmiki's text within that framework. Some scholars assume, either implicitly or explicitly, that Valmiki has written the definitive Ramayana . Hence, the diverse non-Valmiki Ramayanas —the "other Ramayanas "—have often been assessed against that standard, according to their angle of divergence from Valmiki's version. While Valmiki's importance is undeniable, we learn more about the diversity of the Ramayana tradition when we abandon the notion of Valmiki as the Ur -text from which all the other Ramayanas descended.[18] We need instead to consider the "many Ramayanas ," of which Valmiki's telling is one, Tulsi's another, Kampan's another, the Buddhist jataka yet another, and so forth. Like other authors, Valmiki is rooted in a particular social and ideological context. His text represents an intriguing telling, but it is one among many.

Third, in part to offset the prevalent attitude toward Valmiki, the contributors seek to foreground non-Valmiki Ramayana texts in order to set out the key assumptions informing different tellings of the story. For example, although in many cases Valmiki and Kampan adhere to the same basic outline of events, Kampan's rendition of particular incidents is shaped by the Tamil bhakti tradition, which gives radically different religious nuances to those events. Kampan's Ramayana is not a divergence from Valmiki; the two are different tellings. Their differences intrigue us because they testify to the diversity of Indian culture, indicating that throughout history multiple voices were heard within the Ramayana tradition.

Fourth, in addition to analyzing textual diversity, we want to emphasize the diversity and significance of renderings of the Ramayana in other genres. Recent scholarship on Indian Ramayana dramas and public culture testifies to the vitality and social significance of epic-related performances.[19] Building on this research, this volume highlights Ramayana tellings found in puppet theater, debate, song cycles, and iconographic traditions. These tellings possess their own logic, their own intended audience, and their own richness.

Finally, we seek to demonstrate that the telling of the Ramayana in India has included stories that conflict with one another. It is true that particular tellings have attained various degrees of dominance and/or popularity (Valmiki, Tulsi, the televised Ramayana ). Nonetheless, there have always been contesting voices. Where Hindu Ramayanas have predominated, Jain and Buddhist Ramayana poets have criticized or questioned those texts by producing their own tellings. Where male dominance has been prescribed in textual traditions, women's Ramayana songs have expressed alternative perspectives that are more in keeping with women's own concerns. Our essays suggest that the Ramayana tradition permits endless refashioning of the story, sometimes in actual opposition to the ways in which the story has previously been told.

The influence of two competing sets of religious tellings of the Rama story are examined in the essay by Reynolds. He points out that, despite wide-


spread privileging of Hindu tellings of the Ramayana , Buddhist tellings of the story form an ancient, continuous, and coherent tradition in South Asia and beyond. He then goes on to show how both Hindu narrative elements and Buddhist values have influenced the composition of the complex and sophisticated Thai Ramakien , shedding light on the ways in which that text has been shaped by the multireligious diversity of the South Asian Ramayana tradition.

Tellings as Refashioning and Opposition

Despite the widespread belief that Rama acts as the embodiment of righteous action, certain deeds that he performs have troubled various authors of Ramayana texts over the centuries.[20] Because the textual treatment of these morally ambiguous deeds often involves dealing with them in creative ways, the study of such incidents can reveal some of the sources of diversity within the Ramayana tradition.[21] In Part Two of this volume, Kathleen Erndl and David Shulman examine how these incidents can be seen as nodes of narrative capable of generating different tellings, each pursuing its own logic.

A number of authors and commentators have puzzled over the ethically problematic way that Rama and Laksmana treat Surpanakha, Ravana's sister. In her chapter for this volume, Erndl brings structural analysis to bear on the mutilation of Surpanakha, an event which ultimately leads to Sita's abduction. The incident's ambiguities stem in various texts from the way that Laksmana contravenes the prescription that a warrior must never harm a woman; from Surpanakha's status as demoness and disguise as a beautiful woman; and from the attempts of Rama and Laksmana to tease and trick her. By examining the portrayal of this incident in a selected set of Sanskrit, Tamil, and Hindi Ramayana texts, Erndl demonstrates how its moral ambiguities have generated a whole array of renditions and commentaries. In doing so, she reveals a fascination within the Ramayana tradition for Surpanakha, a woman who moves about the forest independent of a male protector and boldly articulates her passionate feelings, as a kind of alter ego of Sita, often considered the model of the chaste and submissive wife.[22]

Shulman's essay considers another nodal incident in the narrative, the scene in which Rama repudiates Sita and then is informed by the gods that he is divine. Shulman juxtaposes Valmiki's account of the incident with Kampan's rendition, examining the fundamental motivations of each telling by considering two foci of ambiguity and literary creativity. One dilemma concerns Rama's relationship to his wife, now returned from a sojourn in another male's house: her ambiguous status—there is no proof that she remained chaste—dismays Rama's supporters. Rama's response to her return also raises issues about his own hybrid status as a deity in human form. Valmiki's account of the incident explores the extent to which Rama has


forgotten his divine identity; in contrast, Kampan's account raises questions about the limited extent to which human beings can know the divine and attain union with him. Shulman brings to light both the differences in the two accounts and the ways in which these differences are embedded in different theological contexts.

If Erndl and Shulman focus upon diversity within the Ramayana tradition inspired by moral ambiguities, that tradition also encompasses ways of telling the story that contest the character portrayals, values, and concerns of dominant Ramayanas . Jain and Buddhist writers are not alone in this endeavor. Other tellings that oppose influential Hindu tellings (which I have labeled "oppositional tellings") exist as well. Two papers in Part Two explore the specific ways in which certain texts resist a dominant presentation of the story.

Narayana Rao's essay for this volume, an account of folksongs collected from Telugu women, focuses on a Ramayana tradition that contests the prevailing ideology of male dominance. Narayana Rao sees these songs as statements against what he calls "the public Ramayanas ," pointing out that the latter glorify "the accepted values of a male-dominated world," whereas the Telugu songs relate a story in which public events (coronation, war) are displaced by domestic ones such as Kausalya's morning sickness or Rama getting bathed by his mother. The overall emphasis in these songs differs as well. While Valmiki's Ramayana , for example, concentrates on the virtues of Rama, several of the women's folksongs question Rama's integrity and foreground the theme of the suffering that husbandly neglect causes a wife. Gloria Raheja, an anthropologist studying North Indian women's songs, has cautioned against assuming that "the identity and self-perceptions of Hindu women depend heavily on the set of male-authored mythic themes [such as wifely devotion, subservience to in-laws, and suppression of desire for marital intimacy] condensed into the figure of Sita.[23] Narayana Rao's analysis gives us another perspective, a way to hear another set of voices singing about the relationship between Sita and Rama.

Oppositional tellings of the Ramayana also emerged from the colonial context in South Asia, as Clinton Seely's paper about Michael Madhusudan Dutt shows. Dutt's Meghanadavadha Kavya reflects the complexity of contact between Indian and British culture. Dutt adored Milton, converted to Christianity, embraced blank verse, and composed some major poems in English. Yet he loved Hindu mythology and created a whole new tradition in Bengali writing. Both the rejections and the acceptances in his telling of the Ramayana reveal much about its author and his colonial context. As Seely points out, Dutt based the plot of his epic upon that of the dominant Bengali Ramayana by Krttivasa. Yet at the same time he subtly subverted the image of Rama by carefully interweaving three additional stories that serve to identify Ravana with heroic figures. As a result, the perplexed reader, expecting a


more conventional characterization, often ends up admiring or feeling sympathy for the expected villain of the story. Dutt admitted to a friend that his character portrayal was the result of his contempt for traditional Hindu values like asceticism and his admiration for the enjoyment of possessions and power that was associated with colonial Calcutta.[24]

Such oppositional texts demonstrate the potential plurality of characterization and plot in the Ramayana tradition; analysis of kinds of audience in performance reveals another component of the tradition's diversity. Stuart Blackburn's essay examines a shadow-puppet tradition in present-day Kerala (based on Kampan's twelfth-century Tamil Iramavataram ), focusing on the play's "internal" audience. Unlike the Ram Lila of Banaras, performed before huge crowds, the spectators at the Kerala puppet plays are few—and those few often doze off soon after the performance begins. As a result, the puppeteers perform principally for one another. Aficionados of the genre, they strive to outdo each other in voluminous commentary and witty remarks, incorporating into the telling of the Ramayana verbal treatises on grammar, local references, and satire of pious ideals. This internal audience has thus shaped the many layers and frames of the drama, giving rise to yet another kind of diversity within the Ramayana tradition.

Tellings as Commentary and Programs for Action

Ramayana tellings provide a set of resources on which people have drawn—in their own way and for their own purposes—in order to accuse, justify, meditate, debate, and more. The papers in the final section of the volume, Part Three, explore how and why people select particular incidents from the Ramayana to express their view of reality. Such selective tellings—ones which adopt a nontraditional perspective on otherwise familiar features of the tale—have proved an effective means for conveying political views and for inculcating religious teachings. In Indian exegesis as well as tellings, the diversity of Ramayana tradition makes itself known.[25]

Paula Richman's paper analyzes the logic of E. V. Ramasami's exegesis of the Ramayana . In an oft-reprinted pamphlet intended for a popular readership, he argues that morally ambiguous episodes such as the killing of Valin, Rama's harsh treatment of Sita, and the mutilation of Surpanakha constitute the real core of the Ramayana . Using these incidents to guide his assessment of Ramayana characters and their values, he scathingly attacks Hinduism—especially the worship of Rama—as a North Indian way of subjugating South Indians, while glorifying Ravana, whom he identifies with the values of "Dravidian" culture.[26] Labeling the sanctity accorded the Ramayana , as well as the high status of the Brahmins that the Ramayana seeks to justify, as forms of North Indian domination, he exhorts fellow South Indians to liberate themselves by rejecting belief in Rama both as moral para-


digm and as god. Such a reading of the Rama story functions as a clarion call to cultural separatism.

Medieval Srivaisnava commentators used their own form of Ramayana exegesis to explain a different kind of freedom: spiritual liberation. Patricia Mumme's paper shows how Tenkalai Srivaisnavas regard the actions of Ramayana characters as revealing truths about the relationship between the devotee and the divine Lord. In contrast to theologians from the rival Vatakalai sect, who wrote primarily for an elite audience of learned Brahmins, the Tenkalais addressed themselves to a broader lay audience that included women and non-Brahmin men, edifying this diverse group by incorporating incidents from the Ramayana . In their exegesis, the Tenkalai commentators select what other tellings usually regard as minor incidents, remove them from their usual narrative context, and use them in unexpected ways as parables to thwart the expectations of their audience. Such incidents shock hearers into questioning their ordinary assumptions about the nature of salvation, preparing them to accept Srivaisnava theological claims.

Selectivity generates another kind of power in the rasik sampraday based in Ayodhya, a sect whose religious beliefs and meditational practices Philip Lutgendorf analyzes in his essay. The theology and practices of the rasik tradition assume a telling of the Ramayana that foregrounds the time right after the wedding of Rama and Sita, when the couple savors the pleasures of love in their golden palace. The Ramcaritmanas of Tulsidas (generally known by the shorter title Manas ) portrays this incident only briefly and discreetly; yet members of the rasik tradition elaborate on this account, prescribing various means to identify meditatively with the companions and servants of Sita and Rama during this period. Here we find not the heroic Rama but the erotic one, not the long-suffering Sita but one engaged in exploring life's pleasures. Rasik adepts say that the traditionally emphasized events—exile, war, coronation—constitute the conventional Ramayana , which is easily known; in contrast, true devotees seek the transcendent Ramayana of the love play between Rama and Sita, revealed only to initiates. Their interpretation of the Ramayana enables adherents to actualize heavenly play on earth through meditation.

If selectivity enables rasiks to attain their meditative goals, it is also, as Ramdas Lamb shows in his essay, key to the telling of the Ramayana among the Ramnamis, a militant Untouchable sect of the Chhattisgarh region in eastern Madhya Pradesh. Although the Ramnamis view the Manas as their official text, they reject some sections and stress others, reducing the text of 24,000 stanzas to a corpus of some four to five hundred individual verses. In addition, through ritual chanting and debates, members of the sect continue to personalize their Ramayana text, embellishing it with verses that usually then become part of the corpus. Lamb traces this process, showing how the Ramnamis began by viewing the Manas as inviolate but gradually came,


self-consciously, to cull the text for material consonant with their own beliefs. His research and that of Lutgendorf attest to another kind of fluidity within the Ramayana tradition, showing how even a single, apparently fixed text can be refashioned and thus appropriated to diverse ends.

Some Implications of our Analyses

In the essays that follow we make no pretense of giving an exhaustive survey of all the Ramayanas in India nor do we believe that such is feasible. We thus acknowledge that many significant tellings of Rama's story—such as the Sakta Ramayanas , in which Sita slays Ravana, or the South Asian Persian Ramayanas —go unrepresented here. Our goal has been to be suggestive, rather than comprehensive. Nor have we attempted an analysis of the Ramayanas of each major region in India.[27] Rather, our aim has been to elucidate the compelling logic of a number of intriguing Ramayanas , delineate their context, and juxtapose telling with telling to reveal wider patterns within the Ramayana tradition.

Clearly, each contributor to this volume adds to our knowledge of specific Ramayanas in India and Thailand. For example, Shulman shows how the portrayal of Rama's repudiation of Sita in the Iramavataram has been shaped by the assumptions of Tamil bhakti ; Lutgendorf considers why scholars have neglected rasik tradition; Blackburn points out that the Kerala puppet plays include an antiheroic interpretation of certain events in Rama's story; Reynolds identifies both Hindu and Buddhist elements in the Ramakien . In addition to reflecting specifically on individual tellings of the story, moreover, these essays reveal certain patterns across Ramayanas .

The essays collected here also testify to the validity of Ramanujan's claims about the Ramayana tradition. Ramanujan argues that the Ramayana has become "a second language of a whole culture area," and we have found it to be an extraordinarily eloquent language. The Ramayana provides Kampan with the language to express the complex relationship between god and devotee; it furnishes the Ramnamis with quotations to use in sophisticated debate; it lends Dutt the ability to articulate the colonial dilemma of cultural ambivalence; it provides Thai kings with the vocabulary of political legitimacy. Sita's trials give Telugu Brahmin women a way to talk about a husband's neglect, while Ravana's situation enables E. V. Ramasami to polemicize about Tamil separatism. Theological, sexual, and political discourse: all emerge from the great pool of Ramayana tradition.

The cultural uses of the Ramayana are manifold and ever changing. Particular groups at particular times in history develop an elective affinity for specific characters. Valmiki currently attracts the affection of certain jatis of sanitation workers,[28] Sita has traditionally elicited the empathy of long-suffering wives,[29] and the proponents of a separate Tamil state have iden-


tified with Ravana. Clearly, the significance of the Ramayana goes beyond specific texts to encompass twin processes that lie at the heart of culture. Thus some tellings of the Ramayana affirm the hierarchy found in social, political, and religious relations, while other tellings contest that hierarchy.

Contesting often coalesces around the figure of Ravana. Seely reveals how Dutt has glorified Ravana and his fellow raksasas (demons), presenting them in a sympathetic way, while simultaneously portraying Rama and his followers in a poor light.[30] The same elevation of Ravana predominates in the telling of the Ramayana assumed in E. V. Ramasami's interpretation, but within a political context. There Ravana stands as a paragon of South Indian virtue.

Even if Dutt and Ramasami were the only ones who presented Ravana in this way, their telling would be significant. But they are not. Many "non-mainstream" groups have laid claim to Ravana at different times in history and in different parts of India. Ramanujan's essay outlines how certain Jain Ramayanas portray the story from Ravana's perspective. The Dalits, a group of militant Mahars (considered Untouchables by higher jatis ) in Maharashtra, have embraced Ravana as one of their heroes.[31] The Nadars, a low jati that was composed primarily of impoverished toddy-tappers until some of its members converted to Christianity, claimed Mahodara (Ravana's prime minister) as their ancestor.[32] A number of Dravidian tribals and lower jatis of southern and central India have caste traditions that connect them with Ravana and/or Lanka.[33]

Our conclusions about Ravana suggest ways of looking at other Ramayana characters as well. In a male-dominated society, Telugu Brahmin women's songs present Sita as finally victorious over Rama. The same songs also tell of Surpanakha's revenge on Rama. Perhaps someday Surpanakha will be claimed as a symbol of the physical violence that has been unjustly perpetrated upon women who seek independence from constraining social norms. Similarly, several characters in the Kerala puppet play express the anger of those low in the social hierarchy against those in positions of power and decision making. In the oppositional tellings of the Ramayana , then, we encounter the traditions of those set apart from the mainstream by religious persuasion, social location, or gender, who struggle against an understanding of themselves as presented through the lens of a religious text. Non-Hindu males, men labeled "low-caste," and women of many communities have created and maintained counter-Ramayanas . These groups take the story of Rama and use it to express their own perception of "the way things are."

In addition to resistance expressed through nontraditional perspectives on characterization, other groups have contested dominant Ramayana traditions by selectively dismembering particular tellings of the story of Rama. In such cases, less is often more. When, for their own reasons, particular groups metonymize, appropriate, or abridge parts of the Rama story, these incidents


gain power and richness. For these groups, to use the Ramayana is to claim specific portions of the story as expressing the essence of their ultimate concerns.

A most concise kind of reduction emerges from metonymy, the selection of one small part of the text as representing the essence of the whole; this is what we find among the rasiks analyzed by Lutgendorf.[34] For them, the dalliance of Rama and Sita constitutes the esoteric essence of the Ramayana , their religious elaboration on this section of the text affording them rich meditative experience. The Srivaisnava commentarial process likewise employs highly selective appropriation but yields another kind of fruit. Commentators search through the Ramayana , find incidents that seem to them pregnant with theological meaning, and then assist in the birth of that meaning. These radically decontextualized incidents yield Tenkalai writers tremendously powerful imagery for salvific instruction. When the Ramnamis cull the Ramcaritmanas and create personalized texts, they affirm their commitment to egalitarian ideology, gaining a power that continues m increase with their ever-growing attainment of literacy. Literacy gives them the ability to reject passages praising Brahmins and caste structure and to stress verses that assert Rama's love for all people and the benefits of chanting Rama's name. The Ramnami abridgment of the Manas is yet one more example of the process of recasting the story in consonance with a particular worldview.

The essays in this volume have highlighted that recasting process again and again—the manner in which particular authors, performers, commentators, and communities have embraced the Rama story but have told it in distinctive ways in order to make it their own. Together, the essays in this volume bear witness to the plurality of Ramayana tradition. It is a multivoiced entity, encompassing tellings of the Rama story that vary according to historical period, regional literary tradition, religious affiliation, genre, intended audience, social location, gender, and political context. The Ramayana tradition can be seen as indicative of the range and complexity of narrative traditions from South Asian culture, both in India proper and in spheres of Indian cultural influence. We hope we have revealed something of South Asian culture's diversity, and emphasized its richness and power, through our study of many Ramayanas .

Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation

A. K. Ramanujan

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

One day when Rama 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, Hanuman, was at his feet. Rama said to Hanuman, "Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me."

Now Hanuman 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 (thali ). The King of Spirits (bhut ), who lives in the netherworld, likes to eat animals. So Hanuman was sent to him as part of his dinner, along with his vegetables. Hanuman sat on the platter, wondering what to do.

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

Who would be the most trustworthy person to guard the door? Hanuman had gone down to fetch the ring. Rama trusted no one more than Laksmana,


so he asked Laksmana to stand by the door. "Don't allow anyone to enter," he ordered.

Laksmana was standing at the door when the sage Visvamitra appeared and said, "I need to see Rama at once. It's urgent. Tell me, where is Rama?"

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

"What is there that Rama would hide from me?" said Visvamitra. "I must go in, right now."

Laksmana said, "I'11 have to ask his permission before I can let you in."

"Go in and ask then."

"I can't go in till Rama 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 Visvamitra.

Laksmana thought, "If I go in now, I'll die. But if I don't go, this hotheaded 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.

Rama asked him, "What's the matter?"

"Visvamitra is here."

"Send him in."

So Visvamitra went in. The private talk had already come to an end. Brahma and Vasistha had come to see Rama and say to him, "Your work in the world of human beings is over. Your incarnation as Rama must now he given up. Leave this body, come up, and rejoin the gods." That's all they wanted to say.

Laksmana said to Rama, "Brother, you should cut off my head."

Rama 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'll be a blot on Rama'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 Sesa, the serpent on whom Visnu sleeps. His time was up too. He went directly to the river Sarayu and disappeared in the flowing waters.

When Laksmana relinquished his body, Rama summoned all his followers, Vibhisana, Sugriva, and others, and arranged for the coronation of his twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Then Rama too entered the river Sarayu.

All this while, Hanuman was in the netherworld. When he was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he kept repeating the name of Rama. "Rama Rama Rama . . ."

Then the King of Spirits asked, "Who are you?"


"Hanuman? Why have you come here?"


"Rama'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 Rama's rings. The king brought the platter to Hanuman, 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 Hanuman, shaking his head.

The King of Spirits said, "There have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth, you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rama is about to be over, his ring falls down. I collect them and keep them. Now you can go."

So Hanuman left.

This story is usually told to suggest that for every such Rama there is a Ramayana .[1] The number of Ramayanas 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, kavyas or ornate poetic compositions, puranas 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 Ramayanas grows even larger. To these must be added sculpture and bas-reliefs, mask plays, puppet plays and shadow plays, in all the many South and Southeast Asian cultures.[2] Camille Bulcke, a student of the Ramayana , counted three hundred tellings.[3] It's no wonder that even as long ago as the fourteenth century, Kumaravyasa, a Kannada poet, chose to write a Mahabharata , because he heard the cosmic serpent which upholds the earth groaning under the burden of Ramayana poets ( tinikidanuphanirayaramayanadakavigalabharadali ). 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.

Valmiki and Kampan: Two Ahalyas

Obviously, these hundreds of tellings differ from one another. I have come to prefer the word 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 Valmiki's Sanskrit Ramayana , the earliest and most prestigious of them all. But as we shall see, it is not always Valmiki'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 Rama story (ramakatha ) and texts composed by a specific person—Valmiki, Kampan, or Krttivasa, for example. Though many of the latter are popularly called Ramayanas (like Kamparamayanam ), few texts actually bear the title Ramayana ; they are given titles like Iramavataram (The Incarnation of Rama), Ramcaritmanas (The Lake of the Acts of Rama), Ramakien (The Story of Rama), and so on. Their relations to the Rama story as told by Valmiki also vary. This traditional distinction between katha (story) and kavya (poem) parallels the French one between sujet and recit , or the English one between story and discourse.[4] 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 (Balakanda ) of Valmiki's Sanskrit Ramayana ; the second from the first canto (Palakantam ) of Kampan's Iramavataram in Tamil. Both narrate the story of Ahalya.

The Ahalya Episode: Valmiki

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

Raghava, sighting on the outskirts
     of Mithila 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 Raghava's words, the great sage
     Visvamitra, man of fire,

expert in words answered, "Listen,
     Raghava, 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, worshiped even
by the gods. Long ago, with Ahalya
     he practiced tapas[5] here


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

'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.

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 honor, lover, protect
yourself and me.'

And Indra smiled and said to Ahalya,
     '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 Rama, 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 kusa grass and kindling
in his hands.

Seeing him, the king of the gods was
     terror-struck, his face drained of color.
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
Ahalya: 'You, you will dwell here
     many thousands of years, eating the air,
without food, rolling in ash,

and burning invisible to all creatures.
     When Rama, unassailable son
of Dasaratha, 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 on to 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, Rama, to the ashram
     of the holy sage and save Ahalya
who has the beauty of a goddess."
     Raghava heard Visvamitra's words

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

blazing yet hidden from the eyes
     of passersby, even gods and antigods.[6]

The Ahalya 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 Ahalya,


the great sage's wife who fell
because she lost her chastity,
the mark of marriage in a house.



Rama'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 colored
again as she once was.


In 550, Rama asks Visvamitra why this lovely woman had been turned to stone. Visvamitra replies:

"Listen. Once Indra,
Lord of the Diamond Axe,
waited on the absenceLord of the Diamond Axe,


of Gautama, a sage all spirit,
meaning to reach out
for the lovely breast
of doe-eyed Ahalya, his wife.


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.


Sneaking in, he joined Ahalya;
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 Siva
with three eyes in his head.



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


When he arrived, Ahalya 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.


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.


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.


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


So he said: 'Rama
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.'


The immortals looked at their king
and came down at once to Gautama
in a delegation led by Brahma
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.


That was the way it was.
while she lay there, a thing of stone.
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."[7]


Let me rapidly suggest a few differences between the two tellings. In Valmiki, Indra seduces a willing Ahalya. In Kampan, Ahalya realizes 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 Kathasaritsagara , an eleventh-century Sanskrit compendium of folktales).[8] He is cursed with a thousand vaginas which are later changed into eyes, and Ahalya 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 Ahalya is rendered incapable of responding to anything. These motifs, not found in Valmiki, are attested in South Indian folklore and other southern Rama stories, in inscriptions and earlier Tamil poems, as well as in non-Tamil sources. Kampan, here and elsewhere, not only makes full use of his predecessor Valmiki's materials but folds in many regional folk traditions. It is often through him that they then become part of other Ramayanas .

In technique, Kampan is also more dramatic than Valmiki. Rama's feet transmute the black stone into Ahalya first; only afterward is her story told. The black stone standing on a high place, waiting for Rama, is itself a very effective, vivid symbol. Ahalya'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 Ahalya episode is related to previous episodes in the poem such as that in which Rama destroys the demoness Tataka. 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, Rama is a Tamil hero, a generous giver and a ruthless destroyer of foes. And the bhakti vision makes the release of Ahalya from her rock-bound sin a paradigm of Rama's incarnatory mission to release all souls from world-bound misery.

In Valmiki, Rama's character is that not of a god but of a god-man who has to live within the limits of a human form with all its vicissitudes. Some argue that the references to Rama's divinity and his incarnation for the purpose of destroying Ravana, 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.[9] Be that as it may, in Kampan he 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 Nammalvar (9th C.?), the most eminent of the Srivaisnava saints. So, for Kampan, Rama 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 Ahalya is only the first in a series, ending with Rama's encounter with Ravana the demon himself. For Nammalvar, Rama is a savior of all beings, from the lowly grass to the great gods:

By Rama's Grace

Why would anyone want
     to learn anything but Rama?

Beginning with the low grass
     and the creeping ant
with nothing

he took everything in his city,
     everything moving,
     everything still,

he took everything,
     everything born
of the lord
     of four faces,

he took them all
     to the very best of states.
          Nammalvar 7.5.1[10]

Kampan's epic poem enacts in detail and with passion Nammalvar's vision of Rama.

Thus the Ahalya, episode is essentially the same, but the weave, the texture, the colors are very different. Part of the aesthetic pleasure in the later poet's telling derives from its artistic use of its predecessor's work, from ring-


ing changes on it. To some extent all later Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are meta-Ramayanas . I cannot resist repeating my favorite example. In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the AdhyatmaRamayana , 16th C.), when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile, and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, "Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn't go with Rama to the forest?" That clinches the argument, and she goes with him.[11] And as nothing in India occurs uniquely, even this motif appears in more than one Ramayana .

Now the Tamil Ramayana of Kampan generates its own offspring, its own special sphere of influence. Read in Telugu characters in Telugu country, played as drama in the Malayalam area as part of temple ritual, it is also an important link in the transmission of the Rama story to Southeast Asia. It has been convincingly shown that the eighteenth-century Thai Ramakien owes much to the Tamil epic. For instance, the names of many characters in the Thai work are not Sanskrit names, but clearly Tamil names (for example, Rsyasrnga in Sanskrit but Kalaikkotu in Tamil, the latter borrowed into Thai). Tulsi's Hindi Ramcaritmanas and the Malaysian Hikayat Seri Ram too owe many details to the Kampan poem.[12]

Thus obviously transplantations take place through several mutes. In some languages the word for tea is derived from a northern Chinese dialect and in others from a southern dialect; thus some languages, like English and French, have some form of the word tea , while others, like Hindi and Russian, have some form of the word cha(y) . Similarly, the Rama story seems to have traveled along three routes, according to Santosh Desai: "By land, the northern route took the story from the Punjab and Kashmir into China, Tibet, and East Turkestan; by sea, the southern route carried the story from Gujarat and South India into Java, Sumatra, and Malaya; and again by land, the eastern route delivered the story from Bengal into Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Vietnam and Cambodia obtained their stories partly from Java and partly from India via the eastern route."[13]

Jaina Tellings

When we enter the world of Jains tellings, the Rama story no longer carries Hindu values. Indeed the Jaina texts express the feeling that the Hindus, especially the Brahmins, have maligned Ravana, made him into a villain. Here is a set of questions that a Jaina text begins by asking: "How can monkeys vanquish the powerful raksasa warriors like Ravana? How can noble men and Jaina worthies like Ravana eat flesh and drink blood? How can Kumbhakarna sleep through six months of the year, and never wake up even


though boiling oil was poured into his cars, elephants were made to trample over him, and war trumpets and conches blow around him? They also say that Ravana captured Indra and dragged him handcuffed into Lanka. Who can do that to Indra? All this looks a bit fantastic and extreme. They are lies and contrary to reason." With these questions in mind King Srenika goes to sage Gautama to have him tell the true story and clear his doubts. Gautama says to him, "I'll tell you what Jaina wise men say. Ravana is not a demon, he is not a cannibal and a flesh eater. Wrong-thinking poetasters and fools tell these lies." He then begins to tell his own version of the story.[14] Obviously, the Jaina Ramayana of Vimalasuri, called Paumacariya (Prakrit for the Sanskrit Padmacarita ), knows its Valmiki and proceeds to correct its errors and Hindu extravagances. Like other Jains puranas , this too is a pratipurana , an anti- or counter-purana . The prefix prati , meaning "anti-" or "counter-," is a favorite Jaina affix.

Vimalasuri the Jains opens the story not with Rama's genealogy and greatness, but with Ravana's. Ravana is one of the sixty-three leaders or salakapurusas of the Jaina tradition. He is noble, learned, earns all his magical powers and weapons through austerities (tapas ), and is a devotee of Jaina masters. To please one of them, he even takes a vow that he will not touch any unwilling woman. In one memorable incident, he lays siege to an impregnable fort. The queen of that kingdom is in love with him and sends him her messenger; he uses her knowledge of the fort to breach it and defeat the king. But, as soon as he conquers it, he returns the kingdom to the king and advises the queen to return to her husband. Later, he is shaken to his roots when he hears from soothsayers that he will meet his end through a woman, Sita. It is such a Ravana who falls in love with Sita's beauty, abducts her, tries to win her favors in vain, watches himself fall, and finally dies on the battlefield. In these tellings, he is a great man undone by a passion that he has vowed against but that he cannot resist. In another tradition of the Jaina Ramayanas , Sita is his daughter, although he does not know it: the dice of tragedy are loaded against him further by this oedipal situation. I shall say more about Sita's birth in the next section.

In fact, to our modern eyes, this Ravana is a tragic figure; we are moved to admiration and pity for Ravana when the Jainas tell the story. I should mention one more motif: according to the Jaina way of thinking, a pair of antagonists, Vasudeva and Prativasudeva—a hero and an antihero, almost like self and Other—are destined to fight in life after life. Laksmana and Ravana are the eighth incarnations of this pair. They are born in age after age, meet each other in battle after many vicissitudes, and in every encounter Vasudeva inevitably kills his counterpart, his prati . Ravana learns at the end that Laksmana is such a Vasudeva come to take his life. Still, overcoming his despair after a last unsuccessful attempt at peace, he faces his destined enemy in battle with his most powerful magic weapons. When finally he


hurls his discus (cakra ), it doesn't work for him. Recognizing Laksmana as a Vasudeva, it does not behead him but gives itself over to his hand. Thus Laksmana slays Ravana with his own cherished weapon.

Here Rama does not even kill Ravana, as he does in the Hindu Ramayanas . For Rama is an evolved Jaina soul who has conquered his passions; this is his last birth, so he is loath to kill anything. It is left to Laksmana to kill enemies, and according to inexorable Jaina logic it is Laksmana who goes to hell while Rama finds release (kaivalya ).

One hardly need add that the Paumacariya is filled with references to Jaina places of pilgrimage, stories about Jaina monks, and Jaina homilies and legends. Furthermore, since the Jainas consider themselves rationalists—unlike the Hindus, who, according to them, are given to exorbitant and often bloodthirsty fancies and rituals—they systematically avoid episodes involving miraculous births (Rama and his brothers are born in the normal way), blood sacrifices, and the like. They even rationalize the conception of Ravana as the Ten-headed Demon. When he was born, his mother was given a necklace of nine gems, which she put around his neck. She saw his face reflected in them ninefold and so called him Dasamukha, or the Ten-faced One. The monkeys too are not monkeys but a clan of celestials (vidyadharas ) actually related to Ravana and his family through their great grandfathers. They have monkeys as emblems on their flags: hence the name Vanaras or "monkeys."

From Written to Oral

Let's look at one of the South Indian folk Ramayanas . In these, the story usually occurs in bits and pieces. For instance, in Kannada, we are given separate narrative poems on Sita's birth, her wedding, her chastity test, her exile, the birth of Lava and Kusa, their war with their father Rama, and so on. But we do have one complete telling of the Rama story by traditional bards (tamburidasayyas ), sung with a refrain repeated every two lines by a chorus. For the following discussion, I am indebted to the transcription by Rame Gowda, P. K. Rajasekara, and S. Basavaiah.[15]

This folk narrative, sung by an Untouchable bard, opens with Ravana (here called Ravula) and his queen Mandodari. They are unhappy and childless. So Ravana or Ravula goes to the forest, performs all sorts of self-mortifications like rolling on the ground till blood runs from his back, and meets a jogi , or holy mendicant, who is none other than Siva. Siva gives him a magic mango and asks him how he would share it with his wife. Ravula says, "Of course, I'll give her the sweet flesh of the fruit and I'll lick the mango seed." The jogi is skeptical. He says to Ravula, "You say one thing to me. You have poison in your belly. You're giving me butter to eat, but you mean something else. If you lie to me, you'll eat the fruit of your actions yourself."


Ravula has one thing in his dreams and another in his waking world, says the poet. When he brings the mango home, with all sorts of flowers and incense for the ceremonial puja , Mandodari is very happy. After a ritual puja and prayers to Siva, Ravana is ready to share the mango. But he thinks, "If I give her the fruit, I'll be hungry, she'll be full," and quickly gobbles up the flesh of the fruit, giving her only the seed to lick. When she throws it in the yard, it sprouts and grows into a tall mango tree. Meanwhile, Ravula himself becomes pregnant, his pregnancy advancing a month each day.

In one day, it was a month, O Siva.
In the second, it was the second month,
and cravings began for him, O Siva.
How shall I show my face to the world of men, O Siva.
On the third day, it was the third month,
How shall I show my face to the world, O Siva.
On the fourth day, it was the fourth month.
How can I bear this, O Siva.
Five days, and it was five months,
O lord, you've given me trouble, O Siva.
I can't bear it, I can't bear it, O Siva.
How will I live, cries Ravula in misery.
Six days, and he is six months gone, O mother,
in seven days it was seven months.
O what shame, Ravula in his seventh month,
and soon came the eighth, O Siva.
Ravula was in his ninth full month.
When he was round and ready, she's born, the dear,
Sita is born through his nose.
When he sneezes, Sitamma is born,
And Ravula names her Sitamma.[16]

In Kannada, the word sita means "he sneezed": he calls her Sita because she is born from a sneeze. Her name is thus given a Kannada folk etymology, as in the Sanskrit texts it has a Sanskrit one: there she is named Sita, because King Janaka finds her in a furrow (sita). Then Ravula goes to astrologers, who tell him he is being punished for not keeping his word to Siva and for eating the flesh of the fruit instead of giving it to his wife. They advise him to feed and dress the child, and leave her some place where she will be found and brought up by some couple. He puts her in a box and leaves her in Janaka's field.

It is only after this story of Sita's birth that the poet sings of the birth and adventures of Rama and Laksmana. Then comes a long section on Sita's marriage contest, where Ravula appears and is humiliated when he falls under the heavy bow he has to lift. Rama lifts it and marries Sita. After that she is abducted by Ravana. Rama lays siege to Lanka with his monkey allies,


and (in a brief section) recovers Sita and is crowned king. The poet then returns to the theme of Sita's trials. She is slandered and exiled, but gives birth to twins who grow up to be warriors. They tie up Rama's sacrificial horse, defeat the armies sent to guard the horse, and finally unite their parents, this time for good.

One sees here not only a different texture and emphasis: the teller is everywhere eager to return to Sita—her life, her birth, her adoption, her wedding, her abduction and recovery. Whole sections, equal in length to those on Rama and Laksmana's birth, exile, and war against Ravana, are devoted to her banishment, pregnancy, and reunion with her husband. Furthermore, her abnormal birth as the daughter born directly to the male Ravana brings to the story a new range of suggestions: the male envy of womb and childbirth, which is a frequent theme in Indian literature, and an Indian oedipal theme of fathers pursuing daughters and, in this case, a daughter causing the death of her incestuous father.[17] The motif of Sita as Ravana's daughter is not unknown elsewhere. It occurs in one tradition of the Jaina stories (for example, in the Vasudevahimdi ) and in folk traditions of Kannada and Telugu, as well as in several Southeast Asian Ramayanas . In some, Ravana in his lusty youth molests a young woman, who vows vengeance and is reborn as his daughter to destroy him. Thus the oral traditions seem to partake of yet another set of themes unknown in Valmiki.

A Southeast Asian Example

When we go outside India to Southeast Asia, we meet with a variety of tellings of the Rama story in Tibet, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Java, and Indonesia. Here we shall look at only one example, the Thai Ramakirti . According to Santosh Desai, nothing else of Hindu origin has affected the tone of Thai life more than the Rama story.[18] The bas-reliefs and paintings on the walls of their Buddhist temples, the plays enacted in town and village, their ballets—all of them rework the Rama story. In succession several kings with the name "King Rama" wrote Ramayana episodes in Thai: King Rama I composed a telling of the Ramayana in fifty thousand verses, Rama II composed new episodes for dance, and Rama VI added another set of episodes, most taken from Valmiki. Places in Thailand, such as Lopburi (Skt. Lavapuri), Khidkin (Skt. Kiskindha), and Ayuthia (Skt. Ayodhya) with its ruins of Khmer and Thai art, are associated with Rama legends.

The Thai Ramakirti (Rama's glory) or Ramakien (Rama's story) opens with an account of the origins of the three kinds of characters in the story, the human, the demonic, and the simian. The second part describes the brothers' first encounters with the demons, Rama's marriage and banishment, the abduction of Sita, and Rama's meeting with the monkey clan. It also describes the preparations for the war, Hanuman's visit to Lanka and


his burning of it, the building of the bridge, the siege of Lanka, the fall of Ravana, and Rama's reunion with Sita. The third part describes an insurrection in Lanka, which Rama deputes his two youngest brothers to quell. This part also describes the banishment of Sita, tile birth of her sons, their war with Rama, Sita's descent into the earth, and the appearance of the gods to reunite Rama and Sita. Though many incidents look the same as they do in Valmiki, many things look different as well. For instance, as in the South Indian folk Ramayanas (as also in some Jaina, Bengali, and Kashmiri ones), the banishment of Sita is given a dramatic new rationale. The daughter of Surpanakha (the demoness whom Rama and Laksmana had mutilated years earlier in the forest) is waiting in the wings to take revenge on Sita, whom she views as finally responsible for her mother's disfigurement. She comes to Ayodhya, enters Sita's service as a maid, and induces her to draw a picture of Ravana. The drawing is rendered indelible (in some tellings, it comes to life in her bedroom) and forces itself on Rama's attention. In a jealous rage, he orders Sita killed. The compassionate Laksmana leaves her alive in the forest, though, and brings back the heart of a deer as witness to the execution.

The reunion between Rama and Sita is also different. When Rama finds out she is still alive, he recalls Sita to his palace by sending her word that he is dead. She rushes to see him but flies into a rage when she finds she has been tricked. So, in a fit of helpless anger, she calls upon Mother Earth to take her. Hanuman is sent to subterranean regions to bring her back, but she refuses to return. It takes the power of Siva to reunite them.

Again as in the Jaina instances and the South Indian folk poems, the account of Sita's birth is different from that given in Va1miki. When Dasaratha performs his sacrifice, he receives a rice ball, not the rice porridge (payasa ) mentioned in Valmiki. A crow steals some of the rice and takes it to Ravana's wife, who eats it and gives birth to Sita. A prophecy that his daughter will cause his death makes Ravana throw Sita into the sea, where the sea goddess protects her and takes her to Janaka.

Furthermore, though Rama is an incarnation of Visnu, in Thailand he is subordinate to Siva. By and large he is seen as a human hero, and the Ramakirti is not regarded as a religious work or even as an exemplary work on which men and women may pattern themselves. The Thais enjoy most the sections about the abduction of Sita and the war. Partings and reunions, which are the heart of the Hindu Ramayanas , are not as important as the excitement and the details of war, the techniques, the fabulous weapons. The Yuddhakanda or the War Book is more elaborate than in any other telling, whereas it is of minor importance in the Kannada folk telling. Desai says this Thai emphasis on war is significant: early Thai history is full of wars; their concern was survival. The focus in the Ramakien is not on family values and spirituality. Thai audiences are more fond of Hanuman than of Rama.


Neither celibate nor devout, as in the Hindu Ramayanas , here Hanuman is quite a ladies' man, who doesn't at all mind looking into the bedrooms of Lanka and doesn't consider seeing another man's sleeping wife anything immoral, as Valmiki's or Kampan's Hanuman does.

Ravana too is different here. The Ramakirti admires Ravana's resourcefulness and learning; his abduction of Sita is seen as an act of love and is viewed with sympathy. The Thais are moved by Ravana's sacrifice of family, kingdom, and life itself for the sake of a woman. His dying words later provide the theme of a famous love poem of the nineteenth century, an inscription of a Wat of Bangkok.[19] Unlike Valmiki's characters, the Thai ones are a fallible, human mixture of good and evil. The fall of Ravana here makes one sad. It is not an occasion for unambiguous rejoicing, as it is in Valmiki.

Patterns of Difference

Thus, not only do we have one story told by Valmiki in Sanskrit, we have a variety of Rama tales told by others, with radical differences among them. Let me outline a few of the differences we have not yet encountered. For instance, in Sanskrit and in the other Indian languages, there are two endings to the story. One ends with the return of Rama and Sita to Ayodhya, their capital, to be crowned king and queen of the ideal kingdom. In another ending, often considered a later addition in Valmiki and in Kampan, Rama hears Sita slandered as a woman who lived in Ravana's grove, and in the name of his reputation as a king (we would call it credibility, I suppose) he banishes her to the forest, where she gives birth to twins. They grow up in Valmiki's hermitage, learn the Ramayana as well as the arts of war from him, win a war over Rama's army, and in a poignant scene sing the Ramayana to their own father when he doesn't quite know who they are. Each of these two endings gives the whole work a different cast. The first one celebrates the return of the royal exiles and rounds out the tale with reunion, coronation, and peace. In the second one, their happiness is brief, and they arc separated again, making separation of loved ones (vipralambha ) the central mood of the whole work. It can even be called tragic, for Sita finally cannot bear it any more and enters a fissure in the earth, the mother from whom she had originally come—as we saw earlier, her name means "furrow," which is where she was originally found by Janaka. It also enacts, in the rise of Sita from the furrow and her return to the earth, a shadow of a Proserpine-like myth, a vegetation cycle: Sita is like the seed and Rama with his cloud-dark body the rain; Ravana in the South is the Pluto-like abductor into dark regions (the south is the abode of death); Sita reappears in purity and glory for a brief period before she returns again to the earth. Such a myth, while it should not be blatantly pressed into some rigid allegory, resonates in the shadows of the tale in many details. Note the many references to fertility and rain, Rama's


opposition to Siva-like ascetic figures (made explicit by Kampan in tile Ahalya story), his ancestor bringing the rivet Ganges into the plains of the kingdom to water and revive the ashes of the dead. Relevant also is the story of .Rsyasrnga, the sexually naive ascetic who is seduced by the beauty of a woman and thereby brings rain to Lomapada's kingdom, and who later officiates at the ritual which fills Dasaratha's queens' wombs with children. Such a mythic groundswell also makes us hear other tones in the continual references to nature, the potent presence of birds and animals as the devoted friends of Rama in his search for his Sita. Birds and monkeys are a real presence and a poetic necessity in the Valmiki Ramayana , as much as they are excrescences in the Jaina view. With each ending, different effects of the story are highlighted, and the whole telling alters its poetic stance.

One could say similar things about the different beginnings. Valmiki opens with a frame story about Valmiki himself. He sees a hunter aim an arrow and kill one of a happy pair of lovebirds. The female circles its dead mate and cries over it. The scene so moves the poet and sage Valmiki that he curses the hunter. A moment later, he realizes that his curse has taken the form of a line of verse—in a famous play on words, the rhythm of his grief (soka ) has given rise to a metrical form (sloka ). He decides to write the whole epic of Rama's adventures in that meter. This incident becomes, in later poetics, the parable of all poetic utterance: out of the stress of natural feeling (bhava ), an artistic form has to be found or fashioned, a form which will generalize and capture the essence (rasa ) of that feeling. This incident at the beginning of Valmiki gives the work an aesthetic self-awareness. One may go further: the incident of the death of a bird and the separation of loved ones becomes a leitmotif for this telling of the Rama story. One notes a certain rhythmic recurrence of an animal killed at many of the critical moments: when Dasaratha shoots an arrow to kill what he thinks is an elephant but instead kills a young ascetic filling his pitcher with water (making noises like an elephant drinking at a water hole), he earns a curse that later leads to the exile of Rama and the separation of father and son. When Rama pursues a magical golden deer (really a demon in disguise) and kills it, with its last breath it calls out to Laksmana in Rama's voice, which in turn leads to his leaving Sita unprotected; this allows Ravana to abduct Sita. Even as Ravana carries her off, he is opposed by an ancient bird which he slays with his sword. Furthermore, the death of the bird, in the opening section, and the cry of the surviving mate set the tone for the many separations throughout the work, of brother and brother, mothers and fathers and sons, wives and husbands.

Thus the opening sections of each major work set into motion the harmonics of the whole poem, presaging themes and a pattern of images. Kampan's Tamil text begins very differently. One can convey it best by citing a few stanzas.


The River

The cloud, wearing white
on white like Siva,
making beautiful the sky
on his way from the sea


grew dark


as the face of the Lord
who wears with pride
on his right the Goddess
of the scented breasts.


Mistaking the Himalayan dawn
for a range of gold,
the clouds let down chains
and chains of gleaming rain.


They pour like a generous giver
giving all he has,
remembering and reckoning
all he has.


It floods, it runs over
its continents like the fame
of a great king, upright,
infallible, reigning by the Laws
under cool royal umbrellas.


Concubines caressing
their lovers' hair, their lovers'
bodies, their lovers' limbs,


take away whole hills
of wealth yet keep little
in their spendthrift hands


as they move on: so too
the waters flow from the peaks
to the valleys,


beginning high and reaching low.


The flood carrying all before it
like merchants, caravans
loaded with gold, pearls,
peacock feathers and rows
of white tusk and fragrant woods.


Bending to a curve, the river,
surface colored by petals,
gold yellow pollen, honey,
the ochre flow of elephant lust,
looked much like a rainbow.



Ravaging hillsides, uprooting trees,
covered with fallen leaves all over,
the waters came,


like a monkey clan
facing restless seas
looking for a bridge.


Thick-faced proud elephants
ranged with foaming cavalier horses
filling the air with the noise of war,


raising banners,
the flood rushes
as for a battle with the sea.


Stream of numberless kings
in the line of the Sun,
continuous in virtue:


the river branches into deltas,
mother's milk to all lives
on the salt sea-surrounded land.


Scattering a robber camp on the hills
with a rain of arrows,


the sacred women beating their bellies
and gathering bow and arrow as they run,


the waters assault villages
like the armies of a king.


Stealing milk and buttermilk,
guzzling on warm ghee and butter
straight from the pots on the ropes,


leaning the marutam tree on the kuruntam
carrying away the clothes and bracelets
of goatherd girls at water games,


like Krsna dancing
on the spotted snake,
the waters are naughty.


Turning forest into slope,
field into wilderness,
seashore into fertile land,


changing boundaries,
exchanging landscapes,
the reckless waters


roared on like the pasts
that hurry close on the heels
of lives.



Born of Himalayan stone
and mingling with the seas,
it spreads, ceaselessly various,


one and many at once,


like that Original
even the measureless Vedas
cannot measure with words.


Through pollen-dripping groves,
clumps of champak,
lotus pools,


water places with new sands,
flowering fields cross-fenced
with creepers,


like a life filling
and emptying
a variety of bodies,


the river flows on.[20]


This passage is unique to Kampan; it is not found in Valmiki. It describes the waters as they are gathered by clouds from the seas and come down in rain and flow as floods of the Sarayu river down to Ayodhya, the capital of Rama's kingdom. Through it, Kampan introduces all his themes and emphases, even his characters, his concern with fertility themes (implicit in Valmiki), the whole dynasty of Rama's ancestors, and his vision of bhakti through the Ramayana .

Note the variety of themes introduced through the similes and allusions, each aspect of the water symbolizing an aspect of the Ramayana story itself and representing a portion of the Ramayana universe (for example, monkeys), picking up as it goes along characteristic Tamil traditions not to be found anywhere else, like the five landscapes of classical Tamil poetry. The emphasis on water itself, the source of life and fertility, is also an explicit part of the Tamil literary tradition. The Kural —the so-called Bible of the Tamils, a didactic work on the ends and means of the good life—opens with a passage on God and follows it up immediately with a great ode in celebration of the rains (Tirukkural 2).

Another point of difference among Ramayanas is the intensity of focus on a major character. Valmiki focuses on Rama and his history in his opening sections; Vimalasuri's Jaina Ramayana and the Thai epic focus not on Rama but on the genealogy and adventures of Ravana; the Kannada village telling focuses on Sita, her birth, her wedding, her trials. Some later extensions like the Adbhuta Ramayana and the Tamil story of Satakanthavana even give Sita a heroic character: when the ten-headed Ravana is killed, another appears with a hundred heads; Rama cannot handle this new menace, so it is Sita


who goes to war and slays the new demon.[21] The Santals, a tribe known for their extensive oral traditions, even conceive of Sita as unfaithful—to the shock and horror of any Hindu bred on Valmiki or Kampan, she is seduced both by Ravana and by Laksmana. In Southeast Asian texts, as we saw earlier, Hanuman is not the celibate devotee with a monkey face but a ladies' man who figures in many love episodes. In Kampan and Tulsi, Rama is a god; in the Jaina texts, he is only an evolved Jaina man who is in his last birth and so does not even kill Ravana. In the latter, Ravana is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself, while he is in other texts an overweening demon. Thus in the conception of every major character there are radical differences, so different indeed that one conception is quite abhorrent to those who hold another. We may add to these many more: elaborations on the reason why Sita is banished, the miraculous creation of Sita's second son, and the final reunion of Rama and Sita. Every one of these occurs in more than one text, in more than one textual community (Hindu, Jaina, or Buddhist), in more than one region.

Now, is there a common core to the Rama stories, except the most skeletal set of relations like that of Rama, his brother, his wife, and the antagonist Ravana who abducts her? Are the stories bound together only by certain family resemblances, as Wittgenstein might say ? Or is it like Aristotle's jack knife? When the philosopher asked an old carpenter how long he had had his knife, the latter said, "Oh, I've had it for thirty years. I've changed the blade a few times and the handle a few times, but it's the same knife." Some shadow of a relational structure claims the name of Ramayana for all these tellings, but on closer look one is not necessarily all that like another. Like a collection of people with the same proper name, they make a class in name alone.

Thoughts on Translation

That may be too extreme a way of putting it. Let me back up and say it differently, in a way that covers more adequately the differences between the texts and their relations to each other, for they are related. One might think of them as a series of translations clustering around one or another in a family of texts: a number of them cluster around Valmiki, another set around the Jaina Vimalasuri, and so on.

Or these translation-relations between texts could be thought of in Peircean terms, at least in three ways.

Where Text I and Text 2 have a geometrical resemblance to each other, as one triangle to another (whatever the angles, sizes, or colors of the lines), we call such a relation iconic .[22] In the West, we generally expect translations to be "faithful," i.e. iconic. Thus, when Chapman translates Homer, he not only preserves basic textual features such as characters, imagery, and order of incidents , but tries to reproduce a hexameter and retain the same number


of lines as in the original Greek—only the language is English and the idiom Elizabethan. When Kampan retells Valmiki's Ramayana in Tamil, he is largely faithful in keeping to the order and sequence of episodes, the structural relations between the characters of father, son, brothers, wives, friends, and enemies. But the iconicity is limited to such structural relations. His work is much longer than Valmiki's, for example, and it is composed in more than twenty different kinds of Tamil meters, while Valmiki's is mostly in the sloka meter.

Very often, although Text 2 stands in an iconic relationship to Text ! in terms of basic elements such as plot, it is filled with local detail, folklore, poetic traditions, imagery, and so forth—as in Kampan's telling or that of the Bengali Krttivasa. In the Bengali Ramayana , Rama's wedding is very much a Bengali wedding, with Bengali customs and Bengali cuisine.[23] We may call such a text indexical : the text is embedded in a locale, a context, refers to it, even signifies it, and would not make much sense without it. Here, one may say, the Ramayana is not merely a set of individual texts, but a genre with a variety of instances.

Now and then, as we have seen, Text 2 uses the plot and characters and names of Text 1 minimally and uses them to say entirely new things, often in an effort to subvert the predecessor by producing a countertext. We may call such a translation symbolic . The word translation itself here acquires a somewhat mathematical sense, of mapping a structure of relations onto another plane or another symbolic system. When this happens, the Rama story has become almost a second language of the whole culture area, a shared core of names, characters, incidents, and motifs, with a narrative language in which Text 1 can say one thing and Text 2 something else, even the exact opposite. Valmiki's Hindu and Vimalasuri's Jaina texts in India—or the Thai Ramakirti in Southeast Asia—are such symbolic translations of each other.

One must not forget that to some extent all translations, even the so-called faithful iconic ones, inevitably have all three kinds of elements. When Goldman and his group of scholars produce a modern translation of Valmiki's Ramayana , they are iconic in the transliteration of Sanskrit names, the number and sequence of verses, the order of the episodes, and so forth.[24] But they are also indexical, in that the translation is in English idiom and comes equipped with introductions and explanatory footnotes, which inevitably contain twentieth-century attitudes and misprisions; and symbolic, in that they cannot avoid conveying through this translation modern understandings proper to their reading of the text. But the proportions between the three kinds of relations differ vastly between Kampan and Goldman. And we accordingly read them for different reasons and with different aesthetic expectations. We read the scholarly modern English translation largely to gain a sense of the original Valmiki, and we consider it successful to the extent that it resembles the original. We read Kampan to read Kampan, and we judge him on his own terms—not by his resemblance to Valmiki but, if any-


thing, by the extent that he differs from Valmiki. In the one, we rejoice in the similarity; in the other, we cherish and savor the differences.

One may go further and say that the cultural area in which Ramayanas are endemic has a pool of signifiers (like a gene pool), signifiers that include plots, characters, names, geography, incidents, and relationships. Oral, written, and performance traditions, phrases, proverbs, and even sneers carry allusions to the Rama story. When someone is carrying on, you say, "What's this Ramayana now? Enough." In Tamil, a narrow room is called a kiskindha ; a proverb about a dim-witted person says, "After hearing the Ramayana all night, he asks how Rama is related to Sita"; in a Bengali arithmetic textbook, children are asked to figure the dimensions of what is left of a wall that Hanuman built, after he has broken down part of it in mischief. And to these must be added marriage songs, narrative poems, place legends, temple myths, paintings, sculpture, and the many performing arts.

These various texts not only relate to prior texts directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author, if one may hazard a metaphor, dips into it and brings out a unique crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context. The great texts rework the small ones, for "lions are made of sheep," as Valery said. And sheep are made of lions, too: a folk legend says that Hanuman wrote the original Ramayana on a mountaintop, after the great war, and scattered the manuscript; it was many times larger than what we have now. Valmiki is said to have captured only a fragment of it.[25] In this sense, no text is original, yet no telling is a mere retelling—and the story has no closure, although it may be enclosed in a text. In India and in Southeast Asia, no one ever reads the Ramayana or the Mahabharata for the first time. The stories are there, "always already."

What Happens When You Listen

This essay opened with a folktale about the many Ramayanas . Before we close, it may be appropriate to tell another tale about Hanuman and Rama's ring.[26] But this story is about the power of the Ramayana , about what happens when you really listen to this potent story. Even a fool cannot resist it; he is entranced and caught up in the action. The listener can no longer bear to be a bystander but feels compelled to enter the world of the epic: the line between fiction and reality is erased.

A villager who had no sense of culture and no interest in it was married to a woman who was very cultured. She tried various ways to cultivate his taste for the higher things in life but he just wasn't interested.

One day a great reciter of that grand epic the Ramayana came to the village. Every evening he would sing, recite, and explain the verses of the epic. The whole village went to this one-man performance as if it were a rare feast.


The woman who was married to the uncultured dolt tried to interest him in the performance. She nagged him and nagged him, trying to force him to go and listen. This time, he grumbled as usual but decided to humor her. So he went in the evening and sat at the back. It was an all-night performance, and he just couldn't keep awake. He slept through the night. Early in the morning, when a canto had ended and the reciter sang the closing verses for the day, sweets were distributed according to custom. Someone put some sweets into the mouth of the sleeping man. He woke up soon after and went home. His wife was delighted that her husband had stayed through the night and asked him eagerly how he enjoyed the Ramayana . He said, "It was very sweet." The wife was happy to hear it.

The next day too his wife insisted on his listening to the epic. So he went to the enclosure where the reciter was performing, sat against a wall, and before long fell fast asleep. The place was crowded and a young boy sat on his shoulder, made himself comfortable, and listened open-mouthed to the fascinating story. In the morning, when the night's portion of the story came to an end, everyone got up and so did the husband. The boy had left earlier, but the man felt aches and pains from the weight he had borne all night. When he went home and his wife asked him eagerly how it was, he said, "It got heavier and heavier by morning." The wife said, "That's the way the story is." She was happy that her husband was at last beginning to feel the emotions and the greatness of the epic.

On the third day, he sat at the edge of the crowd and was so sleepy that he lay down on the floor and even snored. Early in the morning, a dog came that way and pissed into his mouth a little before he woke up and went home. When his wife asked him how it was, he moved his mouth this way and that, made a face and said, "Terrible. It was so salty." His wife knew something was wrong. She asked him what exactly was happening and didn't let up till he finally told her how he had been sleeping through the performance every night.

On the fourth day, his wife went with him, sat him down in the very first row, and told him sternly that he should keep awake no matter what might happen. So he sat dutifully in the front row and began to listen. Very soon, he was caught up in the adventures and the characters of the great epic story. On that day, the reciter was enchanting the audience with a description of how Hanuman the monkey had to leap across the ocean to take Rama's signet ring to Sita. When Hanuman was leaping across the ocean, the signet ring slipped from his hand and fell into the ocean. Hanuman didn't know what to do. He had to get the ring back quickly and take it to Sita in the demon's kingdom. While he was wringing his hands, the husband who was listening with rapt attention in the first row said, "Hanuman, don't worry. I'll get it for you." Then he jumped up and dived into the ocean, found the ring in the ocean floor, brought it back, and gave it to Hanuman.

Everyone was astonished. They thought this man was someone special,


really blessed by Rama and Hanuman. Ever since, he has been respected in the village as a wise elder, and he has also behaved like one. That's what happens when you really listen to a story, especially to the Ramayana .

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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