Monday, June 29, 2015

When Rama is Sita's brother, and Hanuman, a ladies' man!

Don't outrage at the headline yet, for this is no attempt at sensationalism. This is merely letting you know that in a society just a little different from yours, the Ramayana exists differently. India's famous epic is not necessarily the one Valmiki composed, or the Amar Chitra Katha versions we read, or the one we watched on television in the 80s. Ramanand Sagar's televised version, which was adapted from Tulsidas' Ramacharitamanas is the one we are most familiar with. It is the story of virtuous Sita being abducted by the evil Ravana, and her valiant husband Rama rescuing her with the help of his devoted brother Lakshmana and the monkey army after an epic battle. It is the story of familiar moral stereotypes, that is deeply entrenched in mainstream society.

However, different social needs call for different kinds of heroes and the Ramayana has been adapted in varied ways through centuries. These versions were not created to be sacrilegious. While some versions challenged Brahmanical authority, most were the result of adapting a universal heroic figure to fit their social-cultural context. In his famous and sometimes contested essay, 'Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation', A K Ramanujan talks about hundreds of versions of the epic that exist in folk, poetic and dramatic traditions. But here I list five versions which deviate most from the plot and characters we are familiar with.

1. Sita as Kali in the 'Adbhut Ramayana': Let's start with Sage Valmiki himself. Not satisfied with composing just one Ramayana, the great poet sage is said to have composed other versions and extensions like the Yoga Vashistha and the Adbhut Ramayana. The former is more of a philosophical treatise using the context of the epic, while the latter is an adbhut or a wondrous composition. Much shorter than the original maha kavya, the Adbhut Ramayana is especially notable for its characterisation of Sita. She is not the demure, helpless victim here waiting for her husband to rescue her. In fact, when Rama falls wounded and unconscious on the battle field, she assumes the fierce form of Kali and wreaks havoc upon earth. She is eventually pacified by the gods, Rama's consciousness is restored and the story moves on. If you find feminists who decry Sita's submissive role in the traditional Ramayana, point them in this direction.

(Available in an English translation by Shantilal Nagar, BR Publications)

2. Rama and Sita as siblings in 'Dasaratha Jataka': The Dasaratha Jataka is one of the earliest Buddhist versions of the epic. In what might seem like a shocking twist to most, Rama and Sita are depicted as brother and sister in this version. The duo is not banished but sent away to the Himalayas by the king Dasaratha in order to protect them from their jealous stepmother. The stepmother is the only antagonist, for there is no Ravana in this story. When things have cooled down, Rama and Sita return to Benaras and not Ayodhya and get married. As much as your morals are jarred by this incestuous turn of things, bear in mind that some communities make this provision to maintain purity of caste when there are no eligible matches.

(Available in an English translation by V Fausboll, Kessinger Publishing)

3. Lakshmana as the Ravana slayer in 'Paumachariya': One Jain version of the Ramayana is called Paumachariya, which was authored by Vimalsuri. The Jain Ramayana strips all elements of fantasy from Valmiki's version and presents a very rational view of the epic. Ramanujan avers: “When we enter the world of Jain retellings, the Rama story no longer carries Hindu values. … Paumachariya knows its Valmiki and proceeds to correct its errors and Hindu extravagances. Like other Jaina puranas, this too is a prati purana, an anti or counter-purana.”

For example, it rejects the idea of a monkey army and suggests that they were actually a tribe of warrior people with the monkey as their totem/symbol. However, the most important deviation in this version is where Lakshman becomes the slayer of Ravana. That's because Rama, being a perfect Jain, is avowed to nonviolence and cannot be a killer. Here, too, Rama is a hero for he embodies the highest ethic of the Jain religion. His valiance is reflected in his non killing. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

While an English translation of the Paumachariya does not seem to be available, it might be worth checking out some rare Hindi translations.

4. Lakshmana's agni pareeksha in the 'Gond Ramayani': The Gond Ramayani is a series of seven tales told in the folk tradition of the Gond tribe. Folklorist Molly Kaushal, in an interview with a leading journal, says: “The Gond Ramayani is embedded in the socio-cultural context of the Gondi community, its lifestyle and its kinship. Here women, whether they are brides or otherwise are related to the central character, play a definitive role in the movement of the plot and its culmination, which is different from the classical versions.”

This tale really begins where the traditional Ramayana ends, i.e. after Sita is rescued, and Lakshmana and not Rama is the protagonist. In the first tale, Indra's daughter Indrakamani is so besotted by Lakshmana, she flies to earth as an eagle to see him. However, she is unable to wake up or woo a sleeping Lakshmana and in frustration tears off her clothes and jewellery. When Sita sees these remnants, she tells Rama about her suspicion on Lakshmana's licentious behaviour. It is then that Lakshmana has to go through the fire ordeal to prove his chastity. Who says there is no gender equality?

(Not available in English translation, but can be experienced through folk dance performances and paintings such as the ones made under the Ramkatha project of the Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts.)

5. Hanumana as the ladies' man in 'Ramakirti and Ramakien': In the Thai versions of the Ramayana, Hanumana's character takes on quite a central role. He is not the monkey-faced celibate but quite the ladies' man with amorous interests. When he visits Lanka, he has no qualms peeping into people's bedrooms. Even Ravana is conceived very differently in the Thai version of the Ramayana; he is seen as an erudite scholar and a powerful king worthy of respect. His quest for Sita is seen as true romantic love, albeit fatalistic. The 'Ramakirti' and 'Ramakien' are considered great entertainers by the Thai people and not so much as guides to social and moral conduct as Ramayana in India.

(Ramakien is available in an English translation by J M Cadet, Kodansha America Inc.)

This article originally appeared on on May 06, 2015

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