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Ram Navami 2017: The story of Ramayana changes depending on the narrator

At the start of AK Ramanujan's essay 'Three hundred Ramayanas', he narrates a story from the epic. Briefly:

Ram's ring slips off his finger and falls down a hole in the ground. He instructs Hanuman — who can change his size at will — to recover the ring for him. Hanuman shrinks to the size of a house-fly, and goes down the hole, falling further and further until he reaches the Netherworld itself. There, he meets with the King of Spirits who asks him his business. "I have come to recover Ram's ring," Hanuman says. The King indicates a platter filled with thousands of identical rings and asks Hanuman to pick out the one he came for. When a bewildered Hanuman is unable to, the King explains that each of these rings is Ram's — that every time an incarnation of his comes to an ends, a ring drops down here.

"There are as many Rams as there are rings in this platter," the King tells Hanuman.

Ramanujan's point was that there are as many Ramayanas as there were rings in the platter.

While Valmiki's Ramayana is considered the oldest known telling of the epic, versions exist in various Indian and Southeast Asian languages. Ramanujan's essay estimated that in Sanskrit alone, there were more than 25 versions of the Ramayana across genres (the Adhyatma Ramayana, Agastya Ramayana, Adbhuta Ramayana among them).

"The Ramayana has pluralistic and diverse traditions; there are, in fact, many Ramayanas," says Arshia Sattar, whose English language translation of Valmiki's Ramayana is considered its most definitive. And to examine the multiplicity of the Ramayana is a scholarly effort, and one that would require much time and effort.

From Arshia Sattar's Ramayana for children, illustrated by Sonali Zohra. Image courtesy: Juggernaut

From Arshia Sattar's Ramayana for children, illustrated by Sonali Zohra. Image courtesy: Juggernaut

However, on the occasion of Ram Navami, here's a look at some of the Ramayana's best-known versions in India:

Valmiki's Ramayana

The story of Ram, told in an epic poem of 24,000 verses, Valmiki's Ramayana is the most popular version of the epic. Divided into five 'kandas' it tells the story of King Dasharath and his three wives, the birth of Ram and his brothers, exile, Sita's abduction and subsequent war with Ravan and Lanka, the return to Ayodhya, Sita's banishment, and the birth of Luv and Kush and Ram's reconciliation with his sons even as Sita returns to Mother Earth. It ends with Ram's advent into the heavens, as the mission of his (this particular) incarnation, on Earth, is over.

Kampan's Ramayana

The poet Kambar's (also called Kamban or Kampan) Kambaramayanam is among the better known versions of the epic in the south, especially Tamil Nadu. This version differs from Valmiki's in form — 11,000 verses as compared to Valmiki's 24,000 couplets — in style (Ramanujan described Kampan's technique as 'more dramatic') and in the details pertaining to specific stories.

Vimalasuri's Paumchariya

The Jain versions of the Ramayana attempted to address several (what were perceived as) logical flaws in the tale. The main difference (as seen in Vimalasuri's Paumchariya) was that Ravana was seen more as a tragic figure — "a great man undone by a (misplaced) passion...". In this version, it is not Ram who kills Ravan (because Ram is an evolved soul) but Lakshman.

Krittivasi Ramayan

Just as the Kambaramayanam and Paumchariya placed the story of the Ramayana within the Tamil and Jain contexts, the Krittivasi Ramayan places it within Bengali traditions and culture. Its other major characteristic is the exploration of the concept of 'bhakti'. The original Krittivasi Ramayan is believed to date back to the 15th century and was authored by the poet Krittibas Ojha. Rabindranath Tagore was said to be deeply inspired by this version of the epic.

Bhavartha Ramayana and Ramcharitamanas

When enumerating the most well-known versions of the Ramayana, those by the saints Eknath and Tulsidas always find mention. Eknath is believed to have left his Bhavartha Ramayana (in Marathi) unfinished as he took mahasamadhi. On the other hand, Tulsidas' Ramcharitamanas — which translates into 'lake of deeds of Rama' — was written in Awadhi, and is believed to have contributed to the tradition of Ramlila. Tulsidas' Ramcharitamanas drew from various versions of the epic, and describes the story of Ram being in the mind of Shiva, before he narrates it to his wife Parvati.


AK Ramanujan ended his essay with another anecdote: Of an uncultured lout whose wife hopes to improve his mind somewhat, and sends him to a recital of the Ramayana. The first night, he falls asleep during the performance. But when sweets are distributed at the end, a kindly soul puts a sweet in his mouth as well. So when he returns home and his wife asks him how he found the Ramayana recital, he answers: "Sweet".

The second night, he falls asleep during the recital again. This time, a child climbs onto his shoulder to get a better view of the stage and when the man awakens from his nap, he finds his body is a mass of aches and pains. When his wife asks him how he found the Ramayana this time, he responds: "It got heavier and heavier towards the end".

On the third night, when he falls asleep and lolls onto the ground, a dog urinates near his face. This time, his answer to his wife's question is: "It was terrible!" The wife, who senses by now that something is amiss, presses him to tell her the truth, and when she finds out that he has been sleeping through every recital, decides to accompany him on the fourth night. They sit in the front row and she forces him to pay attention.

The man loses himself in the story being narrated from the Ramayana — of Hanuman carrying Ram's ring across the ocean to Lanka, to present to Sita. At the point where Hanuman drops the ring in the ocean and is worried about finding it, the man — enraptured in the tale — shouts out, "Don't worry Hanuman, I'll get it for you". And so, the man leaps into the ocean, finds the ring and takes it to Hanuman. The other villagers believe this is a man blessed by Lord Rama himself, and he becomes one of the community's wise elders.

This time too, the anecdote Ramanujan chose to highlight had a point. And the point was this: Of the power of the Ramayana, of what happens when you really listen to it, and of even a fool's inability to resist its magic.

Also read — Ramayana teaches us how hard it is to be good to the people we love best: Arshia Sattar

Updated Date: Apr 05, 2017 14:45 PM

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