Versions of The Ramayana

[For people who don't know The Ramayana at all, here is a short version of the story you can look at to gain some familiarity.]

ramayana agni pariksha.jpg I’ve been following the discussion of an episode of The Ramayana at Locana. The discussion concerns an event near the end of the saga, after Sita has already undergone the trial by fire (Agni Pariksha), proving her fidelity to Rama during the time she was abducted by Ravana. In some versions of The Ramayana, the trial by fire is essentially the end of the story for Sita. A couple of more things happen, but then Rama rules for 10,000 years.

But in the Malayalam version Anand’s father grew up with (the post is actually the text of an article by Anand’s father, N.V.P. Unithiri), the Agni Pariksha isn’t enough to clear Sita’s honor, and persistent rumors force Rama to abandon Sita once again. Here is the passage quoted:

“What the society thinks is important. The Gods too look down upon ill fame, and fame brings respect everywhere. Does not every noble man yearn for it? I fear dishonour, oh, learned men, I’ll even renounce your company and my own life, if needed, for the sake of honour. Sita has to be deserted. Understand my state of mind, I wasn’t sadder on anyday before. Lakshmana, tomorrow you take Sita in Sumantra’s chariot and leave her at our border. Abandon her near the holy Ashram of Sage Valmiki on the banks of the Tamasa river, and get back here soon.”

This episode is known as Sita Parityaga. I’ll be referring to it in this post simply as the abandonment of Sita. With The Ramayana, there is no definitive version. The ‘first’ version, in Sanskrit, dates probably from about 200 B.C.E., but it’s by no means the ‘dominant’ version of the story. There are many written versions, as well as a nearly infinite number of oral variations to be found in India.

A helpful chart of the different written Ramayanas is here. Notably, the first vernacular version of the story was in Tamil. And according to the chart, in at least one version of the story (Tulsi Das’s 16th century version in Awadhi/’Old Hindi’), there is no banishment at all for Sita. And some versions listed have Sita banished, but then (and this seems dignified) she refuses to return.

The classic Griffith English translation (episode here; Table of Contents here) also doesn’t mention anything about Sita’s banishment. The Amar Chitra Katha version is the same — after Sita’s Agni Pariksha, it’s Ram and Sita, happily ever after.

A detailed but still brief English version of a version of The Ramayana that does include Sita’s abandonment can be found at this site at Syracuse (direct link here). In this version, as in the Malayalam version quoted/translated above, Rama instructs Lakshmana to abandon Sita in the forest (interestingly, Rama doesn’t tell her himself what he’s doing). Sita passes out, and is rescued by Valmiki, who takes her to his Ashram. There she gives birth to Rama’s twin sons, Lava and Kusa. As the children grow up, Valmiki composes The Ramayana to tell the sons the story of their father’s greatness. A number of years later, the sons recite the story to Rama, who recognizes it and reclaims them. Sita also returns finally, and is proven innocent through yet another divine test. This time, she asks the earth to swallow her up to prove her fidelity, and the earth opens and she disappears. And Rama’s 10,000 year rule is without her. (A little sad, is it not?)

In the comments of Anand’s post, several of the commentors question Rama’s definition of ‘honor’ in the abandonment of Sita. Dilip D’Souza, for instance, says that if people are casting aspersions on Rama’s wife’s fidelity, it’s his job to stand by her. (Especially since, in this case, she has already been vindicated via a trial by fire. In the passage quoted above, it seems pretty clear that Rama knows Sita was faithful, but is going ahead with the banishment as a matter of public “honor”)

The nice thing about an oral tradition is, you can choose for yourself the version you prefer in your own retellings. (In some oral versions of The Ramayana, for instance, it is Sita who kills Ravana with Rama’s bow in the great final battle in Lanka, not Rama.) Speaking for myself alone, if I were to tell this story to a child, I would probably take out both episodes — the trial by fire and the final abandonment of Sita — and find some other way to introduce the role of Valmiki and the twins (that part I like; interesting self-reflexivity). I don’t see why Rama can’t simply trust Sita when she says she rejected Ravana’s advances.

We do have to acknowledge the many trials of Sita in the early written versions of The Ramayana, as a matter of academic accuracy and respect for the history. And The Ramayana is, like The Odyssey, a great and important epic saga that is an important part of the heritage of world literature. (And I hope nothing in this post comes across as disrespectful of either the story or the broader Hindu tradition in which it plays an important part.)

But in terms of using The Ramayana to transmit values to young people today, specifically the value of trust, I might take a different route. Is that political correctness, or is it simply being responsible?

Another question for readers: what other variants of the story have you heard?

74 thoughts on “Versions of The Ramayana

  1. Last year, I saw a theatrical version of the Ramayana here in the Los Angeles area. I remember being very disappointed by the happy ending. The fact that Sita is rejected despite “passing” the trial by fire was a critical part of the story for me, reaching right into the core of the meaning of it all. It really makes Ram into a much more interesting character. I also learned that when Ram was looking for an heir, he set loose a horse so that anyone who caught the horse would become the heir. Of course, the horse was stopped by Luv and Khush, but when Ram realizes that their mother is Sita, she rejects him and says “Mother, take me back” and returns to the earth.

    Yes, at least from a purely theatrical/story-telling perspective, making Rama severly flawed opens up Ramayana for a much richer and alternate interpretations. It is interesting the horse story was incorporated into the play. It is also one of the more visible changes between the sacrificial old religion and the newer dharmic religion (circa 1000 BC). In the old religion, in one of the main yagnas (sacrifices) the Ashwamedha Yagna, an elaborate ritual would be conducted (incl. the king’s queen simulating intercourse with the horse) and the horse would be sacrificed, roasted and eaten. In the newer versions the horse is not killed but is allowed to roam freely within the kingdom with the king’s men. The land that is covered by the horse belongs to the king and anyone stopping the horse risks war with king. Now I recall, this was the dispute between Luva, Kusa and the king’s men that I mention in comment #4 above. The horse and heir angle is a new one, haven’t heard that before.

  2. Theo, I don’t think that conservative, traditional desis are as unambiguously approving of Rama’s actions as you make out. I remember reading articles by Madhu Kishwar and Ashish Nandy that suggest that North Indian Hindus are often sharply critical of Rama as a husband, even those he’s considered an ideal man in other ways.

  3. I see I was not clear, the whole Luv/Khush /Horse thing was not part of the play. That play ended with the fire trial. I was just trying to tell how I learned the end of the story.

  4. Maitri,

    According to quite a few Swamis and purveyors of lore (mostly Vedantic scholars and austere grandmas), Valmiki’s original Ramayana ends with the reinstatement and coronation of Rama. These people contend that Rama’s rejection of Sita for having lived in Ravana’s house is dookie and an add-on by threatened fundamentalists, and should be treated as such. Think about it – why would Rama have raised the whole racket to save Sita if she were “defiled” by the sheer act of being kidnapped and temporarily imprisoned by another man?

    Yes, I agree that it does seem somewhat odd that Rama would travel all the way to Lanka to rescue Sita only to abandon her for a somewhat trivial reason. I read some place that the Ramayana might be the conflation of three separate stories about three separate heroes – one about the ideal son, one about the ideal warrior, and one about the ideal king. I am not sure if it was claimed whether the conflation happened before the Ramayana was composed or whether it happened after. It might well be an interpolation that occurred later.

    Whether the story of Sita’s abandonment is consistently woven into the story or not, I think it is possible that the ‘historical’ story of the Sita’s abandonment might have arisen in the context of a different hero, but ended up being assigned to the same Rama, as a result of the decision to conflate, or the decision to interpolate, that story into the story related to the conqueror of Ravana.

  5. brimful, In the ACK version, he goes to the ashram where Sita is staying, but is still hesitant to take Sita back. Sita prays to the heavens to prove that she is pure, and the earth does swallow her up. However, it is implied that this is her way of finding peace and returning to her rightful place(if you look at the mythology around Sita’s birth, there is a story that she was found by a farmer in the earth). All of this is from memory, so maybe someone who has read the ACK version more recently can chime in.

    The name Sita is, if I recall correctly, derived from the word for ‘furrow’. This is related to the story regarding the birth of Sita wherein Janaka discovers Sita in a furrow. So, dust to dust, I suppose.

  6. Nina, You’ve hit on one reason I’m making an animated film based on the Ramayana. In fact, I really just wanted to do the Uttar Kanda, but because westerners are so unfamiliar with the Ramayana story, I’m telling that first for background and context.

    I agree with Amardeep that if I were retelling this for a child, I would probably leave out these episodes from the Uttara Kanda.

    It is hard not to think of the story related to Odyssey and Telemachus when thinking of Sita, Janaka, the field and the furrow when thinking of the story related to Sita. The first few books of the Odyssey, the Telemachy, are about the wanderings of Telemachus, and these wanderings in some sense expect and presage Odysseus’ own wanderings. Thus, Telemachus is seen not only as himself, but as his father’s son. The story Sita can be read not nescesarily as that of a long-suffering woman, the daughter of the long-suffering Bhoomidevi, the earth : it can also read as that of a strong woman who always insists on doing the right thing. Sita sticks to the straight and narrow in spite of the circumstances handed to her. Janaka is, of course, known for his discourses with Yajnavalkya, and is something of a philosopher-king. It would be an interesting reading of the Ramayana where Sita is not just her mother’s daughter, but also her father’s.

  7. I don’t see why Rama can’t simply trust Sita when she says she rejected Ravana’s advances.

    Perhaps, it is that the way of God is mysterious and unknowable. The way of Rama is worth following all the way to Lanka. Perhaps the Ramayana dares you to follow it a step further.

  8. The name Sita is, if I recall correctly, derived from the word for ‘furrow’. This is related to the story regarding the birth of Sita wherein Janaka discovers Sita in a furrow. So, dust to dust, I suppose.

    Thanks, Anand, that is an interesting note.

  9. Wow, so many commentst o read, will have to read more. But to address Amardeep’s more directly: I can’t quite remember when I first was told the Uttara-Kand story (5?6?) I’d still stick with the idea that it’s not for small children.

    Just to take a different tack, I’d like to point out that in my experience most Believers are as ardent Sita-bhaktas than they are Ram-bhaktas, and they hold the exile against Ram in much the same way Lakshman and Hanuman did–reproachfully, disagreeably, but fundamentally resepctfully. The respect is due to the office of the king and demands of that office. It’s the toll that people take on Ram. And there is recognition that after Sita the person made most miserable by this is Ram. Anger is also directed at the citizens of Ayodhya. I’ve even heard one ardent Ram-bhakta claim that they–the citizens–didn’t deserve to have a temple there b/c of how shoddily they treated Sita.

    You could get into some complicated theology. Ravan and Khumbakarna are not simple Asuras, but the second births of Jai and Vijay, the doorkeepers. Some might say the separation between the Avatar and His Consort is a lesson is dealing with the pain of separation. angry at having to participate in the exile, Lakshman insists on being born First next time–and is.

    It’s really complicated is all . ..

  10. angry at having to participate in the exile, Lakshman insists on being born First next time–and is.

    Ooh, I haven’t heard the Laxman-reincarnation story. Tell me please!

    Also, here’s some wayyyy out-there musings I’ve had on Sita and Rama. Bear in mind I’m not a Christian, but:

    Sita and Rama seem an awful lot like Jesus and Jehovah (“God”) in some ways. Jehovah renounces Jesus and causes him all kinds of suffering, yet Jesus’ love for Jehovah never wavers, just as Sita’s love for Rama is steadfast through her exile. Christians love “god the father” in spite of his rough – one could say cruel- treatment of his son Jesus. Jehovah is popular because he is strong and all-powerful; Jesus because he is compassionate and understands our suffering, because he’s suffered so much himself. I can’t help but think Rama and Sita have similar attributes: Rama is strong and powerful, Sita is ever-suffering yet ever-loving. Both Sita and Jesus willingly and gracefully accept their martyrdom.

    I don’t mean to offend anyone with this comparison, it’s just something I’ve thought about.

  11. I don’t think that’s a far-out interpretation at all, Nina. I’ve seen scholars of Hinduism (Vasudha Narayanan and David Shulman) take a similar tack: Vishnu/Rama is the stern, masculine, authoritative side of divinity and Lakshmi/Sita is the gentle, feminine, compassionate side. There’s also a weird tension when it comes to the roles of the goddess: on the one hand, she’s the equal of her consort, yet in many Vaishnava traditions, she also a stand-in for the human soul in its relation to the divine. Maybe the way Sita’s treated by Rama reflects that tension.

    As for whether or not the Uttara-Kanda is for kids, that’s not a question I can answer. It’s important to remember that a lot of children’s tales are rather dark, and kids may be capable of more sophisticated readings than adults give them credit for. The ‘let’s go back to Ayodhya and live happily ever after’ ending may be a good way to inculcate piety, but the Uttara-Kanda strikes me as being a heck of a lot more interesting, on a narrative and philosophical level.

  12. Here’s a link to a book called Inside the Drama House by Stuart Blackburn, on the Tamil shadow puppet plays based on the Ramayana:

    http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft5q2nb449/

    I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but it seems that the shadow plays (which are performed by low-caste individuals) explore those aspects of Rama’s behaviour that call his righteousness into doubt.

  13. …Jehovah renounces Jesus and causes him all kinds of suffering… …Christians love “god the father” in spite of his rough – one could say cruel- treatment of his son Jesus. Jehovah is popular because he is strong and all-powerful…

    I don’t know where to begin…anyways.

    Bear in mind I’m not a Christian

    You don’t say.

  14. Hey Nina, I don’t really feel like waxing religious on this forum right now, but if you’re really interested you can email me at Saheli AT Gmail dot Com. I couldn’t figure out your email address from your website.

  15. panin:

    My God, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?” –Matthew 27:46

    “As deeply as all of these things must have grieved our Lord, the greatest sorrow has not yet been considered. It was not the physical pain which our Lord most dreaded. Neither was it the rejection of men, even those who were His most intimate friends. It was the separation from God which caused our Lord to shrink from the shadow of the cross (Luke 22:39-44).

    As I said, I didn’t intend to offend, but I’m not inventing the story of Jesus.

  16. That’s an interesting take on the story Nina. In some accounts I have read, St Paul’s Road to Damascus event can be seen as his great insight that combining the Jesus story, judaism, hellenistic and other old world myths can lead to a religion that is far more powerful and appealing to the masses (otherwise chrisitianity would be another sub-sect of Judaism). Hence it wouldn’t be surprising that a lot of the existing hellenistic and other old world myths got subsumed into the Jesus story. Despite a lot of the myths and the Jesus story being cleaned up and ‘standardized’ (misogyny) during the various councils that followed starting 4th century, we can still see the faint traces of the old myths.

    [repeating Nina's disclaimer not trying to offend, just speculating]

  17. Thats a serious midreading.

    If you would like a discussion, I’d rather take this offline. My email address is in the link.

  18. MoorNam,

    You seem to have a point. Rama, as a king (from the four entities you have mentioned) had to abandon Sita according to you. But as a king himself, didn’t he see the Agni Pariksha that Sita had given to prove herself pure as before. Or as a king he was open to only what the people had to say? At some point I think (and as a human being I can only think and probably understand less) abandoing Sita was not a right thing to do at that point in time. A ‘king’ has to be and should be looking after what people feel and say, but going this way (abandoing Sita) cannot be digested, considering HE was a god in human form (of course, here a king’s role would count and not god’s) and should have set the right example of trust alongwith some logic to come through a particular crisis.

    Srini

  19. I am an American woman interested in Hinduism. I have been happily absorbing every text I can find and enjoying the positive influence on my life and how I interact with others. However, I hit a major stumbling block in the Ramayana. It seems to me that Rama bansishing Sita was tantamount to lying, as he knew that she was pure. In effect, he lied to his people in this act of banishment by agreeing with them, this was the same as saying that their suspicions were true. He owed them the truth which he himself witnessed. By not telling it he lied. He also practically called Sita a harlot thereby besmirching her honor. Also, what kind of message does this send to women: if Sita was the perfect wife, then women who strive to be the best wife they can be stand no chance at all if the perfect wife was used as a tool of destiny and then cast aside like a used tissue, as if her purity and suffering were meaningless. Are the lives of women so unimportant and trivial that they can be so carelessly tossed about at the whims and wills of men, as if women aren’t even human. Please don’t misunderstand my seemingly harsh words. I am trying to understand the sacred writings of mankind. I have many issues with the Jewish and Christian scriptures as well, and find myself more naturally drawn to Hinduism. I am heartened to hear that other people also find the tragedy of Sita as heartbreaking difficult as I do.

  20. This is a response to Nina P: I appreciated your speculation based on Christian scripture. As always it is a good thing to speculate and imagine various scenarios, it is an innocent method of trying to understand. I had a similar idea: If we consider that God incarnates at various times and to benefit mankind, and that Rama and Krishna were incarnations,and Jesus the Christ was also an incarnation, (though much misunderstood in the west). Mother Mary was the perfect woman of her time, pure and chaste, a perfect channel to bring forth a divine incarnation. She was made to suffer. Her chastity was in question and she, by Jewish law could have been stoned to death. But Joseph decided to “put her away quietly”, i.e. to banish her. He, however, was stopped by an angel who attested to her purity. The Talmud at one time contained a story that she prostituted herself to a Roman soldier. (The story has since been expunged). So, people did have difficulty understanding her chastity, but she bore their vile accusations with grace and dignity, As did poor Sita. Was Christ the Rama who stood by his noble mother, Mary, the reincarnated Sita, who for many millions of modern day Chrisians, is the Queen Heaven? A Goddess, as Sita is a Goddess. Possibly they are one in the same. I think the world merely uses different names to worship the same Divine.

  21. The Ashok K. Banker “The Ramayana” series recently became available in the US. This was apparently after some conflict between the publisher (time warner, I believe) and the author – TW wanted him to remove all indian phrases from the novel, but AB refused. Fortunately, the books were published in tact. Just finished reading the first one, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest.

  22. Interesting topic initiated by amardeep. I think most of the Indians including devotees of Rama would agree that Seeta’s banishment was wholly unjustified. Though some scholars sympathise with Rama’s actions that he had to take the decision as a king subordinating his duties as a husband and lover, I am sure many ordinary people and scholars do not agree and those scholars who agree might agree with heavy heart since our devotion to the gods and tradition has been so much deeply ingrained into our blood and arteries. Rama being revered as god, these scholars can not question his acts strongly. Looking at this with a modern educated man and woman’s psyche, when Rama asked Seeta to prove her chastity, she could have asked Rama in turn to prove the same, afterall, he roamed around the places without his ladylove for the same amount of time as Seeta was kept captive in Lanka! And yes, he could have banished himself from the kingdom to go with his love to teach his people a lesson! If he wanted to yield to voice of few people in his kingdom, he should have married again when the same people ask him to do so after Seeta’s exile! Why did he choose not to bend to people’s wishes at that time? Well because, though the author was brilliant, he could not think about all the permutations and combinations of questions people would ask in future about his characters in his great fiction! I tend to think that morals, dharma and ethics have a context, they are accepted in different shades in different eras by different people differently. We accuse this incident strongly and vocally today due to the changes brought in attitudes through thousands of years of evolution and the freedome we enjoy today. On this note, Valmiki could have imagined this great story of an ideal husband/son/king, ideal wife, ideal devotee,ideal brother etc. only to whet his appetite for such people and he imagined few characters which were above the ideals he himself wanted to imagine. He imagined all this whithin the confines of what were perceived to be greatest ideals in the age of deeply partiarhical society prevailing then, though he himself did not seem to accept Seeta’s banishment as a virtue. He possibly did not imagine that the prevailing acceptance to this virtue of sacrifice-for-glory would be treated as a vice as we advance into computer age thousands of years hence! As some people have pointed in this discussion, it’s possible that Valmiki himself did not write the Uttarakhanda but some die-hard fan of more-glory-for-more-sufferings would have added this. It’s also possible that significant amount of details will be changed in future generations as more and more people challenge some of the virtues retold in Ramayana. All in all, I believe we should hats off to the great writer who brought life to characters in his imagination despite few of his blemishes like this which possibly were more accepted at the time of his writing thousands of years ago. By the way, I was awed and accepted Ramayan and Mahabharat as history (i.e. real) as a child but now at the age of 25+ with modern outlook, I think they were just master literary pieces requiring some changes to the idea of ideals so suit to today’s environment.