Once, Aristotle, the famous ancient Greek philosopher, asked an old carpenter how long he had used his knife. Thirty years, the carpenter replied. He had changed a blade a few times and the handle a few times, but the knife was the same, added the carpenter.
Something similar has happened to the Indian epic, Ramayana. Writers in different places and in different languages, have composed the Ramayana down the ages. They carry with them the flavours of local cultures, and each one proudly takes its place in the gallery of Ramayanas.
While Valmiki’s Ramayana or Tulsidas’ ‘Ramcharitmanas have been more dominant, there is the well known Tamil account ‘Iramavataram’ by Kampan, Kannada folktales, a Jain Ramayana and even a Thai Ramayana (‘Ramkien), which points to the influence of Indian culture in South-east Asia in the past.
These are just a handful of the many different versions of Ramayana there are in our country. And in each Ramyana, the importance given to the different characters is unique. This is pointed out by scholar Paula Richman in her book, ‘Many Ramayanas’.
For instance, Valmiki’s focus is on Rama and his early history. He sees Rama as a god-man with human failings. In Kampan and Tulsi, Rama is seen as a god, and Kampan’s Ramyana has some of the most beautiful descriptions of nature of the Tamil countryside. In the Jaina Ramayana, Rama is described as an evolved Jain who is in his last birth cycle. As a Jain he is against fighting; it is Lakshmana who kills Ravana.
The Thai Ramayana, called ‘Ramkien’ focuses more on the war of Rama and Ravana and the details of battle techniques and the weapons. This is so because early Thai history is full of wars. And Hanuman is seen as something of a ladies man. And Telugu folksongs talk more of Sita’s unhappiness in a male-dominated world.
About eighty years ago, one of the most powerful versions of the Ramayana was written by EV Ramasami Naicker, who founded the Dravida movement in Tamil Nadu. His fight was against the caste system that had been kept in place by Brahmins.
Each of these Ramayanas is deeply rooted in the culture that it springs from – the religious beliefs of different communities, the way they structured their families and relationships in society, the duties of different members in a family, among other things.
The Ramyana has remained a top favourite with people down the ages. It has almost become like the story of a typical family that is repeated in different ways in each household, in different places. Some see the Ramayana as upholding the ideal of a good ruler or a dutiful son; some are sad by what they think is Rama’s lack of faith in his wife Sita.
All later Ramayanas refer to previous Ramayanas in an interesting way. In one Ramayana, written more than 400 years ago, Rama does not want to take Sita in exile with him to the forest.
Sita argues with him at first, saying she is his wife and that she must go. When he still says no, Sita bursts out in fury: “Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?”
A variety of tellings of the Rama story also exist in Tibet, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Java and Indonesia. And each one’s Ramayana reads differently. So while the bare bones of the story of Rama may be the same, each telling of the story has got the features of the place it sprang up from.