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“Ramayana versions reflect period perspectives”

Staff Reporter
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Historian Romila Thapar delivering a lecture during the Ramayana festival at Auroville in Puducherry on Wednesday. — Photo: T. Singaravelou
Historian Romila Thapar delivering a lecture during the Ramayana festival at Auroville in Puducherry on Wednesday. — Photo: T. Singaravelou

The different versions of the Ramayana represent the articulation of different communities and are “reflections of alternate perceptions” that exist in society. Serious attention should be paid to these texts, Romila Thapar, eminent historian of ancient India, said on Wednesday.

Delivering a lecture at the ‘Ramayana' festival, organised by the Adishakti Laboratory of Theatre Arts Research at Auroville here, on the variants in retelling of the story, Ms. Thapar elaborated on the diverse facets through which historians viewed the text. For this, she made a comparison of three different versions of the tale: Valmiki's Ramayana in Sanskrit, the Buddhist version contained in the Jataka Tales in Pali and the Jaina version in the ‘Paumacariyam' in Prakrit.

She said many additions were made to Valmiki's version in a span of 800 years from 400 BC to 400 AD. For example, Hanuman handing over Rama's ring to Sita was held by historians as an episode added to the tale at a later time. “These additions reflected the perspectives of the period of composition.”

The story also differed in each of the versions, she said. In the Buddhist variant, Dasaratha was the king of Benaras and not Ayodhya. Rama, Lakshmana and Sita were siblings born to the first wife of Dasaratha. To protect his children from his second wife, the king sent the three in exile to the Himalayas. Twelve years later, the trio came back to the kingdom with Rama and Sita ruling as consorts. The kidnapping of Sita did not find a place in this version.

“The ideals of Buddhism and its emphasis on the impermanence of life were crafted into the tale when Bharatha met Rama in the forest and tried to convince him to return home,” she said.

Pointing to archaeological evidence from Orissa and other parts of the country and the concept of lineage that played a vital part in the then society, Ms. Thapar said such variants in the story could represent the confrontation of groups during the transition from a clan-based society to kingship.

Noting that the 19 {+t} {+h} century historians focussed more on proving the authenticity of the Valmiki Ramayana, she said the questions “who” was writing the text and “why” and what was the nature of societies then were more important than the historicity of individual characters in the tale.


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