Why bother with Sanskrit?
What Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa tells you that Valmiki’s Ramayana doesn't
A lot can be learned from a comparative study of texts.
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Dussehra marks the end of the epic war between Rāma and Rāvaṇa and Dīpāvalī, the joyous return of Rāma and Sītā to Ayodhyā. In the festive lull between them, my grandmother regaled us with tales of the magical PuśpakaVimāna. Her stories came from Rāmcaritmānas. Tulsidas's driving force was his immense "bhakti" to Rāma, and since the journey didn't present an opportunity to praise him in any meaningful way, the poet did not spend too much time on it. Gran chose to embellish the journey with information from the rest of the text. That was her version. Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa devotes a good six sargas to the journey (Yuddha-kāṇḍa 122- 127). And recently I had cause to read an account of the same journey in Kālidāsa’sRaguvaṃśa. An Inter-textual study yields an understanding of many things, not least of which is the intent of the composer. I hasten to add this is not a hermeneutic study, just a preliminary exploration.
Here I compare Vālmīki’s version to that in the incomparably elegant Raghuvaṃśa of Kālidāsa. While Vālmīki’s version recapitulates for a wider audience key events leading to Rāma’s victory, Kālidāsa, writing for a refined court assemblage, focuses less on the gore and the mundane and more on the sublimity of Rāma’s love for Sītā, and on conveying the intense beauty of nature. Another cause for differences between the two versions stems from the fact that by Kālidāsa’s time, Rāma was unequivocally worshipped as anavatāra, whereas Vālmīki for the most part, portrays him as a man. Rāma’s divinity is referred to for the first time towards the end of the epic, when Mandodir? is lamenting on the battle field (6.111.14-17), Rāma chooses not to acknowledge this. Later, when Sītā is undergoing the fire ordeal, the gods inform him he is Nārāyaṇa, to which he says, I think of myself as a man (ātmānaṃ mānuṣaṃ manye 6.117.11).
Brahma then tells him in detail about his divinity.This has an implication for the two presentations, as we will see.
Kṣatra, martial prowess and victory are fore fronted by Vālmīki’s Rāma. He sets off by showing Sītā the Lankan battle fieldwhich is māṃsaśoṇitakardamam [whose mud is (covered with the) blood and flesh] of monkeys and rākṣasas. Identifying them by name, he points out where each rākṣasa fell and who he was killed by. The ocean crossing is dismissed in two verses - describing it as the abode of Varuṇa, and abounding in oysters and conch shells. (6.123.15,17).
Kiṣkindhā’s beautiful groves get a mention primarily as the location of Vali's killing. Others have a voice too during the journey. Sugrīva speaks up,and his wife and retinue are picked up, an event of no interest to Kālidāsa. Śabari is recalled by Vālmīki’s Rāma, Jaṭāyu is remembered, the killing of Khara is retold, the hermitage of Sutīkṣṇa is described. Chitrakūṭa, Yamunā, Gaṅgā, Śṛṇgaberapura, the Sarayū and finally Ayodhyā is described.
Kālidāsa opens with Rāma as Viṣṇu, stepping into his own space (ākāśa) as he steps into the Vimāna. Several verses then weave the different avatāras of Viṣṇu into the narrative. Next follows apersonal and highly romantic interaction between Rāma and Sītā. Kālidasā’s abilities to express śṛṅgāra rasa and to finesse nature dominate. The ocean, a mass of foam, split by the setu, is the mirror image of a clear autumnal sky (śaratprassanam) sprinkled with bright stars divided by the Milky Way (13.2). The legend of Sagara is told, which Vālmīki considered unnecessary, but strikes just the right note with the Gupta king and his courtiers for whom royal lineage would be important, and for whom Kālidāsa was writing. Rāma points out whales and sea creatures frolicking in the water, cleaving the surface of the ocean and jets of water bursting forth from the spouts on top of their heads. Again, enthralling the court seems to be the purpose.
Rāma tells Sītā that the corals in the sea (vidruma) are vying with (the colour of) her lips (13.13), and the breeze from the shore is adorning her face again and again with ketaka pollen, as if knowing Rāma is unable to bear this waste of time, thirsting for her ruby lips. (13.16). Vālmīki knows that Rāma’s brother, Vibhīṣaṇa, Hanumān, Sugrīva and all the monkeys are in the Puśpaka Vimāna, and this is hardly an appropriate occasion for a romantic exchange, but Kālidāsa is not deterred by this minor detail! A heavenly breeze laden with the fragrance of Airavata and cooled by the waves of the Gaṅgā sips the sweat raised on Sītā’s face by the midday (heat). And when she puts her hand out of the window of the Vimāna, Rāma says it seems like the cloud is offering her a circlet of lightening (vidyutvalaya) as a bracelet (13.20-21).
As they progress over land, Rāma confesses how bereft he was after her abduction. An aspect completely ignored by Vālmīki on this journey, his intent being reconnecting with everyone who had helped Rāma during exile, administrative issues like sending Haunumān ahead to inform Bharata, and such mundane but important matters like providing food for the monkeys. Kālidāsa’s Rāma meanwhile points out the Mālyavata mountain to Sītā where had shed as many tears as a cloud had shed rain. The caves of the mountain,he tells her, reverberated with the rumble of the clouds, reminding him of how she would rush into his arms, terrified by thunder (13.28). On the shores of the Pampā he points out a slender Aśoka tree, whose blossoms had reminded him of her breasts, and he had wanted to embrace them, but Lakṣmaṇa restrained him. The Sanskrit is so very beautiful and intoxicating, it would be worth learning, if only to read Kālidasa in the original.
The treatment of the reception at Ayodhyā varies quite a bit too. Vālmīki spends time on the actions and reactions of each actor, but the emotional aspect is muted. Bharata bows low to greet Rāma, who then embraces him and seats him on his lap. All of one verse is given to this reunion. Kālidāsa on the other hand stresses Rāma’s appreciation for Bharata and their brotherly love. Rāma tells Sītā that Bharata did not enjoy the wealth of the nation even though it was forced upon him by their father. That he has lived like an ascetic, as if practicing the vow of walking on a razor's edge (ugramasidhāramvratamabhyasatiiva. 13.67). That he safeguarded the kingdom in order to return it to Rāma. A rigorous compliance to primogeniture which would please Kālidāsa’s patron, no doubt. Bowing to Vasiṣṭha first as protocol required, Rāma with tears rolling down, embraces Bharata and kisses him on the forehead. Bharata and Lakṣmaṇa too hug tightly, despite the pain it causes the latter due to the wounds on his chest caused by combat with Indrajit (13.70,73).
A lot can be learned from a comparative study of texts. The poet's priorities, his intent, his milieu and his audiences. Kālidāsa’s rendition is ornamental rather than didactic, without compromising on bhakti. His stress on human emotion makes his presentation extremely moving. The two texts compared come from within Hindu orthodoxy. Yet separated by centuries, are remarkably different. Novelist Deepika Ahlawat points out "Subtle differences in the treatment of romantic love in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa and Rāmcaritmānas might be a reflection of changing social mores. The epics shine through the prism of the ages, each time giving a different effect."*
Imagine then the impact of factors like culture, religion, geography, and language. There is Jaina version, a Sikh version, a Bhil version, and Buddhist one, each varying elements of the story to suit their audience.For instance in the Jaina version, Lakṣmaṇa kills Rāvaṇa, because the ideal hero cannot possibly kill.
Through the ages, the Rāmāyaṇa has been written in every important Indian language, reflecting the age, culture and preferences of that linguistic community. In the Bengali Krittibasa version, before battle with Rāvaṇa, Rāma propitiates the goddess Durgā with 99 lotuses and when he can't find the 100th, he resolves to offer one of his eyes to her. Sound familiar? Other language variants include the very important Kamban Rāmāyaṇa in Tamil, Kandali in Assamese, Ramakien in Thai each with their own sensitivities.There is a Cambodian Rāmāyaṇa, a Filipino one, Malaysian Burmese, Tibetan and even a Chinese version. The Muslim Mappila community in northern Malabar have their own Rāmāyaṇa. To explore this idea further AK Ramanujan's one time controversial but highly informative essay is worth reading, whether or not you agree with him.
Kalidasa’s Raghuvaṃśa, trans. KM Joglekar.
Goldman, R, trans, Ramayana.
Ramanujan, AK, 300 Ramayanas.
Critical edition of Rāmāyaṇa (Sanskrit) at Sanskrit documents.org.
*You can follow Deepika Ahlawat, author of Maya's Revenge on Twitter @ahlade.