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Whose Ramayana Is It Anyway?

When Valmiki wrote his Ramayana, the Buddhist Jataka (Dasharath Jataka) and Vimalasuri’s Jain variant (Paumacariya) are known to have been in existence. Can any text, then, be truly original?
Photo: By arrangement

The following is an excerpt from Whose Ramayana is it anyway? written by Natasha Sarkar and published by Mapin Publishing. 

From the Margins…

…came the Satnamis of present-day Chhattisgarh who were forced by the Hindu varna system to the bottom of the social pyramid as untouchables and were refused entry into temples. Denied access to their god, they had his name tattooed all over their bodies to become inseparable from him, thereby kick-starting the Ramnami movement that appealed to large sections of Dalits in Champa, Janjgir, Raigarh, Bilaspur and other districts. Gradually, ‘Ram-Naam’ became the quintessential mantra on which Ramnami devotional chanting focussed, but its written form (‘Ram’ written in Devanagari script) continued to be inscribed on their homes and clothing apart from their bodies. Many of them have the tattoo not just all over their body but even on their eyelids and tongue. Ironically, Dalits elsewhere, such as those of Pukhrayan in the district of Kanpur Dehat in Uttar Pradesh, choose to look up to the villain and worship him as a symbol of bravery and sacrifice. They take out processions and organise Ravana Melas to protest the burning of the villain’s effigies on Dussehra.

Fig. 80 Unlikely Hero-II
(Gond tribal tradition). Photo: By arrangement

The Dalits are joined by tribal groups that also condemn the burning of the villain’s effigies. Some seventy of such tribal communities including the Gond, Bhilla, Parja and Kolam communities have been celebrating Ravana puja for several decades. In the Gond village of Paraswadi in Maharashtra, festivities begin with a procession of the villain on an elephant float. Made of grass, mud and a coat of paint, the elephant is positioned on high iron wheels like a Trojan horse. The villain—with a yellowish face and a handlebar moustache—sits atop the elephant, the centre of all veneration. Amids chants of ‘Jai Gondwana!’ and ‘Jai Sewa!’, the procession is set in motion (fig. 80).

As is true for most Jain variants of the tale, Vimalasuri, a Jain poet, believes that the rakshasas have been incorrectly depicted as demons for they are perfectly normal human beings. For E. V. Ramasami (affectionately called ‘Periyar’), the tale provided the framework for a deeply political telling. Rejecting the hero as “hypocritical and weak”, he considered the villain to be the true hero of the tale (fig. 81). In asserting Dravidian identity, Periyar identified the villain as the monarch of the ancient Dravidians. This was, of course, part of his campaign against Brahmanical Hinduism. Nevertheless, by momentarily shifting the spotlight away from the hero, he takes away from the tradition of giving precedence to Sanskrit literature which has, for long, been projected as the main cultural tradition in the subcontinent.

The sophisticated and highly stylised Seraikella Chhau dance of Jharkhand had flourished under royal patronage; the princes being not only patrons but also dancers, teachers and mask-making experts. Today, rapid urbanisation and globalisation has made many ancient art forms extinct, the Purulia Chhau being one of them. This has been due to a general lack of interest and funding. Mainly practised in the Purulia, Bankura and Medinipur districts of West Bengal, the low-caste farming communities and Hinduised tribal groups that perform this dance have been struggling to keep this art form alive. Only time will tell if we will get a chance to partake in the celebration of its vigorous intensity, acrobatic and martial elements and tribal drums. 

Fig. 81 Embers Flyin’ in Both Directions (Inspired by E. V. Ramasami’s reading and the Jain tradition.) Photo: By arrangement

Attendant Stories…

…are those that are rooted in the tale, but have a journey of their own, traversing the social and the political, from matters entertaining to those controversial. In short, stories for easy consumption by middle-class folks! While the epic enjoyed phenomenal success on Indian television from 1986 to 1988, the Ram Setu or Adam’s Bridge—a stretch of shoal and sandbank in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka—drew undue attention from those keen on legitimising the story of the bridge built by the monkey army of the hero in order to reach Lanka. This claim was to receive no support in archaeological or literary evidence. Then there’s the story of Ahalya—wife of sage Gautama, believed to have been seduced by Indra, cursed by her husband for infidelity, and liberated from the curse by Rama. Did Ahalya knowingly play with fire or was she a victim of chicanery?. The story has certainly raised endless questions, triggering innumerable retellings. Also, who would have imagined that the “real hero” of the tale—the white monkey with four arms, a trishul and a chakra—would charm his way into the former US President Barack Obama’s pocket!

One Saga, Many a Hand…

…is what it has taken to make a simple tale a legend of epic proportions. To some, Shiva narrated the story to his consort Parvati; others felt they knew better, placing their finger on Narada who, they believed, summarised the very first chapter to Valmiki. To the Buddhists, the Enlightened One himself was the very first narrator, but folk legend spread the notion of Hanuman having penned the original and scattered it in all directions. When Valmiki wrote his Ramayana, the Buddhist Jataka (Dasharath Jataka) and Vimalasuri’s Jain variant (Paumacariya) are known to have been in existence. Can any text, then, be truly original? When nearly a millennium separates Valmiki’s composition from Kamban’s, in addition to the many regional versions, new versions are inevitable. The oral tradition is all there is to the Ramayana and its sharing through different communities across geographies has ensured our consumption of rich and diverse perspectives. As long as further retellings reflect issues that matter to a particular society, the epic will remain relevant to every generation. 

Natasha Sarkar is an academic who has engaged in teaching and research across Asia and the United States. 

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