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Tracking the Ramayanas

PUSHPA CHARI
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CHAT Research scholar T. Shankar finds satisfaction in exploring the magic of the evergreen epic. PUSHPA CHARI

T. ShankarPhoto: By Special Arrangement
T. ShankarPhoto: By Special Arrangement

Many versions of the Ramayana have been written since Sage Valmiki first composed his epic. Since then, over 300 original Ramayanas have been composed in Sanskrit as well as in several regional languages of India. Each is a precious work of literature and a priceless philosophical treatise.

T. Shankar, CEO, Management Solutions, and one time director of A.F. Fergussons and Co., is an independent research scholar and an avid student of the Ramayana, who explores the myth and magic of the epic. He gives talks on the subject at various fora, thus sharing his findings. Excerpts from an interview:

There is only one, yet many Ramayanas have been composed through the millennia. What do you think is the reason?

Valmiki’s Ramayana and the subsequent versions were written in Sanskrit. I think poets felt the need to focus on the local language to take the great epic to the people. The subsequent Ramayanas were trans-creations and, therefore, reflect changes over time.

What are the historic landmarks? In his collected essays, A.K. Ramanujam quotes the Belgian priest Camille Bulk – who first translated Tulsidas’s ‘Ram Charit Manas’ from Avadhi into English – as saying that there are 300 plus original Ramayanas. Ramanujam and Bulk also speak of a thousand Kannada and Telugu Ramayanas as well. Malayalam has 300 Ramayanas. Bhasa wrote a play on the epic in 2nd Century BC, Kalidas wrote his poetic ‘Raghuvamsa’ in 5th century AD, and Bhavabhoota wrote a dramatised version of the epic in the 7th century AD. In all, there are 25 Sanskrit Ramayanas. One of the earliest vernacular Ramayanas is Kamban’s Tamil epic written in the 9th or 12th Century. There are many tribal versions including the famous Bhil Ramayana. Could you tell us some similarities as well as differences of the many Ramayanas?

The broad story is the same. Though Valmiki is acknowledged as aadhikavi, every writer of the original Ramayana is a poet and philosopher. And every Ramayana is a master piece. As for differences, in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Sita and Rama meet only when Rama breaks the Siva dhanush, while Kamban devotes many verses to Rama and Sita’s prenuptial meeting in a garden, immortalised in the couplet ‘Annalum nokinaan, Avalum nokinaal.” They are seen here as Vishnu and Lakshmi, while Valmiki sees Rama as a man with the 16 qualities of Purushotam, as described by Narada. The famous ‘Lakshman rekha’ is not mentioned at all in the works of Tulsidas, Valmiki, Kamban and Ezhuthachan. Kritibhasa Ojha in Oriya and the Bengali Ramayana speak of the ‘Lakshman rekha’ while Ranganath Reddy’s 13th century epic refers to seven ‘rekhas’!

What about the social realities and changes reflected in these texts?

My theory is that the prevailing social conditions had a significant bearing on the telling of the epic at various points in time. In the 17th century, when Tulsidas wrote ‘Ram Charit Manas’ and Eknath composed ‘Bhavartha Ramayana,’ Hindu-Muslim tension prevailed in the region. In the social context, Bhavartha Ramayana refers to the plight of widows particularly Kausalya. Maula’s 15th century Telugu epic questions Brahmins about their treatment of other castes. The socio-economic scenario is reflected in many of the Ramayanas. Kamban who wrote at the peak of the Chola glory, speaks of great prosperity and a well clothed and bejewelled populace.

What about the Jain Ramayana?

Composed in the 3rd century AD, the Jain Ramayana claims that Hindus have maligned Ravana. Sita, according to the Jain epic, is Ravana’s daughter and it was not Rama but Lakshmana who killed him.

What made you embark on this odyssey of unravelling and presenting ‘The Many Ramayanas’?

I grew up in a literary atmosphere of Kathakalakshepam. When I started reading the original Ramayana, I realised that many people did not know about the existence of so many Ramayanas. I felt a need to share this with them.


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