Another Ram Navami has just gone by and given the cacophony of Indian politics around Sri Ram, it’s only natural to look again at the Ramayana and our relationship with this epic. Indians seem to have three kinds of reactions to the epic – faith, critique and political ploy.
The faith part needs no spelling out, ranging from the literal to the allegoric. Beyond religion, it’s about culture. The way the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are entrenched in language, literature, visual and performing arts, we would be cultural orphans without our shared epic heritage.
The critique part has been dinned into our ears through the English language for decades. But long before we learnt a word of English, Sita’s fate had tortured even the most dedicated Ram-bhakts, including important and influential medieval poets such as Narayana Bhattadri of Kerala and the late medieval Telugu saint-composer Thyagaraja. It was the grain of sand in the story that broke our hearts down the ages and the biggest pearl it produced, as the zeitgeist evolved, was the Constitution of India, which enshrined justice for women like no other document.
The political part, too, has been analysed to shreds but I’ve often wondered if it’s somehow coming from the "Ramcharitmanas" of Goswami Tulsidas. Not that it is in anyway Tulsiji’s fault. Written at the height of Mughal rule, the "Tulsi Ramayan" is a precious and integral part of democratic Indian identity. Some of Tulsi’s fellow-Hindus were against him for daring to retell the epic in the speech of everyday people. Ironically, it was fellow-poet "Rahim" (Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan), then the Mughal governor of Kashi, who protected Tulsi’s spiritual and artistic freedom. However, Tulsi’s Ram is a faultless figure in monochrome gold unlike Valmiki’s more humanly-textured hero. So the thought does occur that since everything has a socio-historic context, was Tulsi’s Ram perhaps north Indian Hinduism’s deeply internalised response to the deity worshipped by the conquerors and cast as a sort of Hindu el-Lah? The repeated political attempts to make Ram a warlike rallying point against "unbelievers" suggest such a possibility. It may be something to clinically consider and consciously delink from our enduring delight in and personal attachment to the "Ramcharitmanas".
The Indian relationship with the Ramayana is so organic that we take it for granted. But what was so gripping about this epic for so many people across Asia, from Mongolia to Japan to Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries that they integrated it into their own culture and folklore and even developed entire art forms for it like the Wayang of Indonesia (shadow puppet-theatre themed on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) and the Ramakien (Ram-akhyan) dance-theatre of Thailand?
(Street Ramayana at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, by Kamlesh Singh.)
A mega Ramayana conference in India was held by the Sahitya Akademi in 1975 and the international research papers shared then are worth looking at to realise how the Ramayana is truly "the Epic of Asia", widely transcending religion and language. I even heard tell in 2011 that Emeishan, the mountain of healing herbs sacred to Buddhism in Sichuan in China, is also folklorised locally as “where Mount Dronagiri landed” when Sri Hanuman flung it away after the Sanjivini was used to revive Lakshman on the battlefield of Lanka. As to which, Southeast Asians instantly recognised Hanuman as an action hero and have celebrated him as that in powerful ways for centuries. Thai boxing, for instance, has sequences of moves dedicated to Hanuman and I have seen grand royal Khon (Ramakien) productions and met Khon actors who are identified with Hanuman’s role while others were famous for their ownership of the role of Totsakan (Dashanan/Ravan). The official title of the present Thai monarch is King Rama the Ninth and his Rajguru recites ninth century Tamil Shaiva verses from the Thiruvachakam during Thai royal rituals. Several Southeast Asian nations excelled in performing the episode of the Golden Deer at an eight-country international Ramayana dance festival in Bangkok in December 2011. The Philippines version of Sita’s Agni Pariksha strikingly displayed its particular cultural mélange with the Fire God in a red dhoti and gold crown, bearing in his arms a Sita in the Christian bride’s white wedding gown.
In the heart of Asia in the Mavrun’nahar (Transoxiana), that green tract between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, I once met the Uzbek national poet Muhammed Jon, head of The Golden Heritage Foundation (their INTACH) who translated the Ramayana into Uzbek slokas. He recited a sloka to me about the field after the fall of Lanka, blooming with swords, not flowers: “Guyoki ushbu zamin/Na bir gul, na bir mysa/Usteripdur ba'hridah yolguz/Shamshiru' nysa” while Qamar Rais, former head of the Indian Cultural Centre at Tashkent translated the Ramayana into a well-known Russian version.
In sum, Asia had a very different response to the Ramayana from Europe, a genuine and deep reaction of positive engagement and actively shared ownership to the extent that this epic became one of the many building blocks of trans-Asian culture.
Due to our colonially-ordered and Delhi-centric notion of history, we may know something of the travels of Buddhist scripture across Asia whereas the Ramayana remains an unsung element in Asia’s cultural bloodstream. This is something that Asians are perfectly aware of but "we" know little about today. Disadvantaged by India’s history books and English discourse, dragged down by Hindutva politics, the Ramayana lacks elegant Indian spokespersons. What we do instead is to repeatedly cut off Sri Ram’s nose and thereby every believing Hindu’s, with uncouth acts and utterances. This is to the scorn and amazement of Asian countries that have created their own exquisite versions of the epic irrespective of being Buddhist, Christian or Muslim and have had no qualms about naming a national airline "Garuda" or decorating city centrums and international airports with gigantic sculptures of the "Parthasarathiyam" (Krishna and Arjuna in their war-chariot) or the "Samudra Manthan" (the Churning of the Milk-Ocean), in cultural celebration of these key events in the mythology shared with India.
It is foolish on our part to use colonial language to describe this phenomenon and wins us no friends to assume a boastful attitude about it. Asians know perfectly well that it is not your achievement or mine – indeed, how many of us today have read the entire epic in Sanskrit or in a bhasha?
The credit goes to the ancient seafarers of our Eastern shores who sang in lands across the ocean of a prince and his three brothers won through the sacrifice of a childless king; that the prince and his brother were taken away by an imperious warrior-sage to rid forest ascetics of demons that harassed them, that the warrior-sage took the princes further to win themselves beautiful princesses.
That the prince was to be crowned king but a palace intrigue not only dispossessed him overnight but exiled him to the forest for 14 years, that his loyal bride and brother went away with him; that his father died of grief; and of the brother’s heartbreak, humiliation and honourable conduct.
They told of a vengeful vamp, a lustful demon-king, an alluring golden deer and a shameful kidnap in disguise; that the princess was hurtled away in a flying chariot to the kidnapper’s sea-girt kingdom; that a brave old vulture died trying to save her. They sang of the prince’s distraught search through the forest, the appearance of a noble vanara, a pact, a flying leap, a talisman ring, the burning of the proud island city, the taming of the sea god, the bridge of boulders, the battle, the healing herb, the victory, the princess’s ordeal by fire and the homecoming in the flying chariot. They spoke glowingly of their immense love for this long ago young prince who always tried to do the right thing as he saw it even when it went against his own interests and inclinations.
In depth and range, the Ramayana is the ultimate Asian drama with not a thing left out – kings, queens, weak people, wicked people, staunch people, family and friends, supernatural beings, a big fight against overwhelming odds and a heartbreaking love story. Is it any wonder that Asian people were entranced and made it their own? Isn’t that our own response to the epic, illumined for many by faith in the hero’s divine nature?
To know the grander reality of the Ramayana is to transcend divisive paltriness. So please leave the Epic of Asia alone, Ram-ranters. Alas, you are what the old poets would call "kupasta-mandukam", frogs in a well. Don’t ruin the genuine relationship that innumerable people independently have with Sri Ram.
As just one example, do watch this upload of a 1988 film song that retells the entire Ramayana through its visuals to a few elegant Sanskrit verses sung by Yesudas.
The music was by Naushad Ali and the song was written by poet-lyricist Yousef Ali Kecheri who was "gathered to God" on March 21, 2015. This was no less than the holy day of Chaitra Shukla Pratipada (Gudipadva/Yugadi/ Navroz) that officially heralds Ram Navami.