Preferred Citation: Richman, Paula, editor. Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

One Introduction: the Diversity of the Ramayana Tradition

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 .

One Introduction: the Diversity of the Ramayana Tradition

Preferred Citation: Richman, Paula, editor. Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.