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

I would like to thank Mani Reynolds for her assistance in locating and interpreting Thai texts and materials. Charles Hallisey has, as always, proved a superb critic, offering numerous corrections and suggestions. All have been appreciated, and most have been incorporated into the text.

1. In this connection, I might note that this paper was originally written as the

inaugural lecture for a three-day Brown Symposium held at Southwestern University (Georgetown, Texas) in October 1988. The symposium was devoted to the Thai version of the Rama story and was supplemented by the performance of major segments of the story by a dance troupe from Thailand. [BACK]

2. For a description of these kae bon ("releasing from the promise") rituals, see Chantat Tongchuay, Ramakien kap Wanakam Thongton Pak Tai (research paper no. 8, Institute for the Dissemination of Scientific Knowledge, Sinakharintharavirot University, Songkhla, Thailand, 1979; in Thai), 27-31. [BACK]

3. The tendency unduly to privilege Hindu versions in general, and certain Hindu versions in particular, is evidenced by the common practice of referring to the various tellings of the Rama story by the essentially Hindu term Ramayana . The practical advantages of following this convention are obvious, but the fact that it implicitly privileges some versions over others should not be ignored. [BACK]

4. I do not wish to imply here any radical dichotomy between classical and popular traditions. I use the term classical simply to signal the fact that the tellings of the Rama story that I will consider in this paper are fully developed Rama traditions that have been continuously transmitted over the course of many generations. Although these traditions are associated with particular literary texts, they have also been expressed in a variety of other media including, especially, dance and iconography. [BACK]

5. A great amount of work has been done comparing various versions of the Rama story. Generally, however, the emphasis has been on literary elements of style and narrative detail rather than on differences in religious structure. So far as I am aware, the only wide-ranging attempt to compare Hindu and Buddhist versions that shows any significant concern for their religious structure is Harry Buck's now seriously dated essay, "The Figure of Rama in Asian Cultures," Asian Profile 1, no. 1 (August 1973): 133-58. [BACK]

6. In dance performances and iconographic representations that lack introductory narratives to set the scene, the sense that the story is occurring in a primordial time is often evoked through the use or representation of masks charged with sacral significance. [BACK]

7. In the remainder of this article, unless otherwise specified "Buddhism" refers to the Theravada tradition. The Rama story has, of course, had significant crystallizations in other Buddhist environments, and the Buddhist structure delineated below is to a considerable extent discernible in many of those other contexts as well. However, I have chosen to focus the discussion on Theravada materials. So far as I am aware, the full range of classical crystallizations of the Rama story within the Theravada tradition has never been seriously treated by a Theravada scholar. In part, this serious lacuna in Theravada scholarship can be traced to some very influential Buddhologists, who have concluded from the seeming paucity of classical Rama traditions in Sri Lanka that these traditions do not play a significant role in Theravada culture as a whole. For an example of this kind of over-generalization from the Sinhalese situation, see Richard Gombrich, "The Vessantara Jataka, the Ramayana and the Dasaratha Jataka" in Journal of the American Oriental Society 105, no. 3 (July-September 1985), 497-37. For a very brief but much more accurate assessment of the presence and role of the Rama story, both in Sri Lanka and in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia, see Heinz Bechert, ''On the Popular Religion of the Sinhalese" in Buddhism in C e ylon and Studies on Religious Syncretism in Buddhist Countries , ed. Heinz Bechert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978), 230-31. [BACK]

8. In the article cited in note 7, Richard Gombrich argues that the Dasaratha Jataka is a self-conscious "parody" of the Hindu Ramayana . In my judgment his argument, which seriously underplays some of the most distinctive characteristics of the Dasaratha Jataka that I will discuss, is not convincing. [BACK]

9. The Phra Lak Phra Lam or the Phra Lam Sadok, 2 vols. (New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 1973). For a discussion of this text, which was found in the Laotian capital of Vientienne, see Vo Thu Tinh, Phra Lak/Phra Lam: Version Lao du Ramayana indien et les fresques murales du Vat Wat Oup Moung, Vientienne, vol. 1 of Littérature Lao (Vientienne: Vithanga, 1972). [BACK]

10. Among the "sister texts" that have thus far been identified, there is a north Laotian version known as the P'ommachak (see the reference in Vo Thu Tinh, Phra Lak/Phra Lam ) and a fascinating variant called Gvay Dvorahbi (see Sachchidanand Sahai, The Ramayana in Laos: A Study in the Gvay Dvorahbi [Delhi: B. R. Publishing, 1976]). This latter text, based on the Dundubhi episode in the Rama story, involves the killing of a buffalo, which suggests that this telling of the tale may have served as a correlate or substitute for the buffalo sacrifices that have, in the past, been ubiquitous in Laos. At this point, however, this remains a topic for further research. [BACK]

11. For a Southeast Asian rendition of Theravada cosmology and correlated cosmogony based directly on the Pali Tipitaka (Skt. Tripitaka) and early Pall commentaries, see chapter 10 of Frank E. Reynolds and Mani B. Reynolds, Three Worlds According to King Ruang, University of California Buddhist Research Series no. 4 (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1982). [BACK]

12. When details vary from text to text, I follow the Vientienne version. [BACK]

13. Given that Siva is the preeminent god in the literary Ramakien tradition that was associated with the kings of Thailand in the Bangkok period, and probably in the earlier Ayudhya period as well, it is interesting to note the way he is portrayed in the Laotian tellings of the story. In the Vientienne text, Siva (Lao: Aysouane) is a second name that Indra gives to a Buddhist-type brahma deity, the only son of the original pair of brahms deities who came down to earth and established the city of Inthapatha. In the P'ommachak account from northern Laos, Siva is presented as a relatively minor deity who once became inebriated and as a result fell from heaven to earth. The fallen Siva becomes an ally of Ravana's father and an enemy of Indra and Dasaratha, the father of Rama. According to the story, a battle is fought and Siva and Ravana are defeated. (The P'ommachak version is summarized in Vo Thu Tinh, Phra Lak/Phra Lam , 87.) Though corroborating evidence is not available, it is very tempting to see in these accounts a political polemic in which the Thai monarchs are being "situated" within the Laotian world. [BACK]

14. The one exception to this that I know of is the Laotian Gvay Dvorahbi text mentioned in note 10. In this text the story is presented as a sermon of the Buddha, but it does not (at least explicitly) take the form of a jataka story. [BACK]

15. Within the broader Buddhist context an interesting variant was discovered by H. W. Bailey, which he discussed in his "The Rama Story in Khotanese," Journal of the American Oriental Society 59 (1939): 460-68. In this Khotanese version, Laksmana rather than Rama plays the leading role: the Gotama Buddha who tells the story identifies Laksmana as himself in a previous life, while Rama is identified as one who will be reborn as Metteya (Skt. Maitreya), the Buddha of the future who will appear at the end of the present age. Given the importance of non-Theravada, Sanskrit traditions in the history of the greater Laos area, it is perhaps interesting to note the

primacy seemingly given to Laksmana in the naming (though not in the content) of the Phra Lak/Phra Lain tradition. [BACK]

16. The Phra Lak/Phra Lain narratives exhibit the general Buddhist tendency not to radicalize the distinction between good and evil. As in some (though by no means all) of the Hindu versions, Ravana is presented as a figure who evokes a considerable amount of admiration and sympathy. [BACK]

17. Given that the Vientienne version of the Phra Lak/Phra Lain account identifies Rama and Ravana as the rebirth precursors of the Buddha and Devadatta, it is not surprising that Rama and Ravana are (like the Buddha and Devadatta) depicted as cousins. In this same text the deformed child who was the rebirth precursor of Ravana demonstrates unmatched religious erudition by solving a set of riddles presented to him by Indra. Could it be that the text intends to highlight, in the figure of Ravana, the insufficiency of such religious erudition in the absence of proper attitudes and behavior? Certainly this combination of religious virtuosity with improper attitudes and behavior would make the parallel between Ravana and Devadatta very close indeed: according to the Buddhist tradition, Devadatta was an extremely erudite religious virtuoso who nonetheless harbored a degree of jealousy and anger that caused him to seek the Buddha's death. [BACK]

18. Up to this point the most detailed research has focused on the literary and episodic connections between the modern Ramakien (which presumably preserves the characteristics of earlier Thai versions) and Tamil traditions. See, for example, S. Singaravelu, "A Comparative Study of the Sanskrit, Tamil, Thai and Malay Versions of the Story of Rama ," Journal of the Siam Society 56, pt. 2 (July 1968): 137-85; "The Rama Story in the Thai Cultural Tradition," Journal of the Siam Society 70, pts. 1 and 2 (July 1982): 215-25 (repr. in Asian Folklore Studies 44, no. 2 [1985]: 269-79); and "The Episode of Maiyarab in the Thai Ramakien and Its Possible Relation to Tamil Folklore," Indologica Taurinensia 13 (1985-86): 297-312. [BACK]

19. For a discussion of the available evidence, see P. Schweisguth, Etude sur la littérature siamois (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1951). [BACK]

20. Although the founder and early kings of the Chakri dynasty that founded the present Bangkok kingdom associated themselves closely with the figure of Rama, the now extremely common practice of designating them and their successors as Rama I, Rama II, and so on was not established until the time of Rama VI. [BACK]

21. See, for example, Traiphum lok winitchai, chamlong chak chabap luang (Bangkok, 1913), which describes the Buddhist cosmos, including the various heavenly realms and their occupants. [BACK]

22. The distinctively Buddhist elements are highlighted by Srisurang Poolthupya and Sumalaya Bangloy in Phrutikam Kong Tua Nai Rueng Ramakien Thai Prieb Tieb Kab Tua Lakhon Nai Mahakap Ramayana " (Research Document no. 12, Institute for Thai Studies, Thammasat University, Bangkok, 1981); and by Sathian Koset [Phaya Anuman Rajadhon], Uppakon Ramakien (Bangkok: Bannakan Press, 1972). [BACK]

23. King Rama I, Ramakien , 2 vols. (Bangkok: Sinlapa Bannakhan, 1967), 1068. The rationalistic, skeptical attitude expressed toward Hindu mythology in this passage provides important confirmation of David Wyatt's thesis that the modernist orientation evident in the Buddhist reform movement led by Rama IV in the middle decades of the nineteenth century was prefigured in the workings and actions of Rama I. See Wyatt, "The 'Subtle Revolution' of King Rama I of Siam," in Moral Order and

the Question of Change: Essays on Southeast Asian Thought , ed. David Wyatt and Alexander Woodside (Monograph series no. 24, Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, New Haven, 1982), 9-52. [BACK]

24. Whether or not Rama I was aware of earlier Buddhist tellings of the Rama story, he was in fact following a Buddhist tradition in using an epilogue to indicate the significance of the story he had told. In the Dasaratha Jataka and the Phra Lak/Phra Lam tellings of the tale, the crucial point that most explicitly reveals the Buddhist significance of the story (namely Rama's identity as a rebirth precursor of the Buddha and the identities of the other characters as rebirth precursors of the Buddha's "supporting cast") is always revealed in an epilogue. [BACK]

25. See Mattani Rutnin, "The Modernization of Thai Dance-Drama, with Special Reference to the Reign of King Chulalongkorn" (Doctoral diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1978), 1:14-15. [BACK]

26. This point was strongly confirmed by the Ramakien musicians and dancers who performed at the Brown Symposium at which the original version of this paper was presented. [BACK]

27. Another important iconic telling of the Ramakien story is the set of sculptures now located in Wat Jetupom in Bangkok. Although this set of sculptures is of great artistic interest, it has not—in recent years at least—had a significant cultic function. [BACK]

28. For an extended account of this process, see my essay "The Holy Emerald Jewel" in Religion and the Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Laos and Burma , ed. Bardwell Smith (Chambersburg, Penn.: Anima Books, 1978), 175-93. [BACK]

29. Northern Thai texts contain accounts of processions of the Emerald Buddha image in which unspecified jatakas were chanted, a practice that clearly highlights the association of the image with bodhisatta -hood and Buddhahood. It is theoretically possible that a Rama Jataka was among those jatakas , but I am not aware of any evidence to support this conjecture. [BACK]

30. Unlike his two predecessors and most of his successors, Rama III followed a school of opinion that considered literary and performance renditions of the Rama story too frivolous to deserve the attention of a serious Buddhist. However, his convictions did not inhibit his interest in refurbishing the iconic presentation of the story that was an integral component of the cult supporting the legitimacy of his dynasty. [BACK]

31. The setting of the Ramakien murals on the walls of the galleries around the central altar on which the Emerald Buddha is installed, especially when taken in conjunction with the fact that the chanting of jatakas is a common practice in the cult, is clearly intended to hint that Rama might be a rebirth precursor of the Buddha. There is, however, no evidence that this intimation has ever been explicitly formulated. [BACK]

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