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. Growing up I heard (and watched) the version where even after the agni pariksha Sita is abandoned by Raam in the forest to preserve his honour. It never sat well with my 10-year old feminist self, and it doesn’t sit well with me now.

    The idea that a man abandons his wife because other people don’t believe her makes no sense. If he was so noble, and if he did really believe her, wouldn’t it have been so much more honourable for him to abandon his throne, and follow her into the forest to prove that HE believed her. By abandoning her, he justifies the peoples mistrust in her.

    However, I don’t think changing the story does anyone any good. If we sanitize what we tell children, we don’t allow them to analyze the harshness of the world. I think political corectness should be used so that we are not insulting people by using derogatory terms. It shouldn’t be used to alter harsh truths (the “truth” in this case being how the story was written). In this case, I’d advocate telling a child the different versions of the story.

  2. Amardeep, thanks SO much for posting this, because I’ve always found the story of Sita fascinating.

    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?)

    Now, I know Amar Chitra Katha definitely cannot be considered definitive. However, since I absorbed a lot of Hindu mythology through the ACK comics, I’ll just share the ACK version of this (I think this is part of a comic that is titled Luv and Kush). In the ACK version, Rama is haunted by rumors amongst his people that Sita is still not considered “pure”, and therefore banishes her. She does go to live with Valmiki in this version and bears Rama’s twins. The twins grow up, and are depicted as strong and mischevious (it is a children’s comic, after all). There is an annual ceremony involving a horse running, and it is through this ceremony that Rama encounters his twin sons.

    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.

    Very dark, in my opinion, but I have to say that it instilled in me, from a very young age, that being a woman can be rough stuff, even if you’re married to a G-d. No disrespect intended.

  3. Not being of Indian heritage, I only “discovered” the Ramayana recently. I am currently reading a 21st century rendition by Indian author Ashok K. Banker. The first 4 books are available through most online book stores. Well worth it!

  4. I saw a movie in an Indian film based on the lives of Luv and Kush. I don’t remember the details just high level stuff but I thought it was an interpretation I never saw before. The film starts with Rama abandoning Sita to the forest after bowing to public pressure. At Valmiki’s ashram, Sita brings up the boys (Luv and Kush) who grow up to be great warriors like their fathers. One day there is some dispute in the forest and the guards from Rama’s kingdom try to arrest Luv and Kush. Of course, they are prompty defeated by the boys (they are still children). Later on, Rama’s brothers one by one – Shatrughna, Bharatha, Lakshamana come to teach the boys a lesson. Each one is humilated by the boys who tie them up and make fun of them. Finally Rama is intrigued and he comes over to free his brothers and deal with the boys. It is an even match and at the end Rama has to resort to the Brahmastra a weapon he has used to kill Ravana. He is stopped just in time by Valmiki who reveals that these boys are his sons. Of course, Rama is overjoyed and all go to meet Sita. Sita is very happy to see the boys united with their father. Rama asks for her forgiveness and beseeches her to come back to the kingdom. Of course, Sita refuses to come back saying her work is done and leaves Luv and Kush to Rama’s care. The earth goddess who is her mother opens and takes in Sita. I remember the little boys crying for their mother as she is swallowed by the earth, Hanuman who is crying too, holds them tighthly. Rama is very devastated by the events. All in all, extremely sad stuff. It is a full circle for Sita who was found by Janaka while he was tilling the earth, now the earth opens up and takes her in. Some allegory about Sita and the produce from Earth, I don’t know.

    When Dasaratha banished Rama to the forest, Rama laments about how foolish his father is to listen to his wife and abandoing his son and daughter-in-law. Nevertheless he follows his father’s wishes though he doesn’t think it is a good idea.

  5. Amardeep, the ACK comic I’m referring to is titled “Sons of Rama.” And it is interesting that it diverges from ACK’s “Ramayana” comic.

  6. One thing which I never fully resolved – do the traditional versions of the Ramayana ascribe some guilt or weakness to Rama for being so suspicious and weak when it comes to his wife? I remember reading some version (probably ACK) which has scenes of Rama moping and regretting the consequences (with some amount of the “maybe I was a bit too hard on her”), but it seemed more like repentance for the consequences of his actions, rather than the actions themselves (cue tie-in to the Gita :)

  7. One excuse I’ve heard for this latter part of the Ramayana is that Vishnu incarnated in Rama and his brothers for the goal of ridding the earth of Ravana and once this was accomplished, the incarnation ended. So Rama was fully human in this episode, with all the faults that entails. FWIW.

  8. Deepa, this is definitely part of the avatar lore that I have read as well. Not a whole lot of consolation, but Rama is supposed to be mortal and human at that point of the story.

  9. Babloo, that’s a really interesting version. It’s interesting that it seems to end on a tragic/sacrificial note. In a way, this whole question is different if we frame The Ramayana as a tragedy rather than as the triumph of Ram.

    (But a story in which a mother is sacrificed hardly seems like a story one would want to tell one’s children…)

    Kenyandesi,

    Interesting points, but I’m not sure I quite see what you’re saying. On the one hand, you say that there’s no point in shielding children from the harshness of the world. And yet you also say you would choose one of the alternate versions of the story…

    Those two approaches seem to contradict each other, slightly.

  10. Amardeep: another insightful post!

    Have you seen Paula Richman’s Many Ramayanas? It’s an excellent resource on the subject, documenting variances across many communities and social groups in South Asia. I found it fascinating that some oral versions among scheduled castes in India actually make Ravana out to be the hero!

  11. Amardeep — It’s nice to see you taking this theme up. A quick comment: Sita Parityaga is part of the Valmiki Ramayana, so, it’s part of the original text (dating back 200 BC or so as you have already pointed out).

    Also I agree with kenyandesi that political correctness (or whatever the terminology is) shouldn’t be used to alter harsh truths (the “truth” in this case being how the story was written).

  12. Jay,

    No, I haven’t checked it out (I will). It’s odd, because I think I’ve met Paula Richman at some point.

    Incidentally, Deepa, according to this site at Michigan State, it’s the Tulsi Das version that introduces the reference to Rama as an incarnation of Vishnu.

    But apparently in the same version, Sita is never actually kidnapped — it’s only a duplicate Sita. (I wonder what happens to the war with Ravana then…)

  13. And yet you also say you would choose one of the alternate versions of the story…
    I’d advocate telling a child the different versions of the story

    Amardeep, I would tell them all the versions, not one.

  14. See http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&ct=res&cd=2&url=http%3A//www.indiastar.com/Bhattacharya1.htm&ei=SW0DQ5WlOIKCYey-nZ8H

    • a review of textual analysis of the Valmiki Ramayana. Basically there are 2 important points in this context:

    i) The Uttara Kanda (describing the banishment and the Lav/Kush story) are not part of the “ur-version”.

    ii) The additions are part of the general evolution of the Ramayana from a lyrical poem to a description of the “ethical ideal” that “purushottam” Rama became.

    The purpose of the Uttara Kanda is to describe the ideal ruler, and the ideal rule – Ram Rajya. The banishment of Sita in that context is really the sacrifice that Rama makes to become a great king. Sita’s suffering is unfair – but so is life.

    Regarding the “political correctness” of removing the banishment from retellings – its worth noting that Tulsidas himself did not see fit to tell that part of the story. And indeed, that was clearly the retelling that made Rama into the popular deity today – the most important Ramayana before Ramanand Sagar’s :-) .

  15. There are two statements:

    1. Rama, the son of Dasharatha, went into exile(with wife and brother) because of his father’s orders. Wrong.
    2. Rama, the husband, ordered his wife, Sita, into the forest because of society’s views. Wrong.

    There are four entities in play:

    1. Rama, the son.
    2. Rama, the husband.
    3. Rama, the subject.
    4. Rama, the King.

    In those days, rightly or wrongly, the king had absolute power over his people. Hence, the people in turn had every right to ensure and demand that the king constantly prove himself worthy of the power.

    Let me rephrase the two statements now….

    1. Rama, the subject of Dasharatha, went into exile(with wife and brother) because of the king’s orders. Right.
    2. Rama, the king, ordered his wife, Sita, into the forest because of society’s views. Right.

    Dasharatha, the king, had made a promise. So, as a king, however much it hurt him, he had to send a subject into exile, even though the subject was dearest to him. Rama, the subject, had little choice in the matter. This has been discussed in detail here and here

    Similiarly, Rama the King, could not afford to have a relationship with any person whose character was suspect. His subjects had control over what friends he made, whom he slept with etc etc. So when they suspected Sita’s fidelity, as a King, he had no choice but to comply.

    It must be remembered that after sending her to the forest, he chose to live as a hermit, even though he was a king. He would sleep on the ground, eat only food available in the forest(roots and berries), do his daily chores(washing clothes etc) himself, refused medicines when sick etc etc. He went into the palace only to carry out his official duties. He refused anything that was unavailable to Sita in the forest.

    In a time when it was customary for kings to have more than one wife, this was Godly.

    M. Nam

  16. The interpretation of the story that I am most familiar with is that after SIta’s abandonment, Rama’s kingdom ultimately feel into drought, poverty and disarray with Rama dying alone.

    The societys fate a result of the injustice that was committed by society collectively to Sita.

  17. I beleive that the basic story of Ramayana is real, although the ornate details in the story are probably due to Valmiki’s rich imagination. I will play the devil’s advocate here: Assume for one moment that Sita was indeed defiled by Ravana while she lived in Ashoka Vana. Rama after bringing her back to Ayodhya learns the painful truth about the twins growing up inside her. He is torn between his love for her and his moral responsibility towards the country he is ruling. So he does what every husband with an inflated sense of self-rectitude faced with a similar situation 2000 years ago would have done: abandons his wife. Valmiki finds Sita, learns the truth but for the sake of the “country” alters the story just enough to make it palatable to the people. If I were to write a book (now that I think of it, I should) that would be my interpretation of Ramayana.

  18. Interesting post as usual Amardeep. I’ve also known the Ramayana through both the ACK versions that Brimful mentions above. The way I understand it, the abandonment is a sort of P.S., an epilogue to the Ramayana. After Sita takes and passes the fire test, Ram tries to hold the kingdom together under his just reign but mutterings about Sita continue to threaten his authority. He instructs Lakshman to take her to the forest and abandon her…finds her years later through his sons as told in ACK, begs for forgiveness and offers to reinstate her as his queen but Sita refuses and asks the Earth to swallow her whole.

    I would never take out either episode (trial by fire or abandonment) because they add color to the story! If anything, putting those in there highlights how unfairly Sita was treated by society (Ram never gleefully abandoned her and as I understood it, was deeply saddened by the sacrifice).

    It’s also worth considering that in India, the group is ALWAYS worshipped together. Ram is incomplete without Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman. In other words, the trial and abandonment have done little to separate Sita from Ram in popular imagination.

  19. Ramayana is not about any run off the mill love story between two individuals. The point of Ramayana was that, in Ram rajya, the king listens to his citizens even at the cost of his personal life. Citizens come before everything– that’s the primary duty of the ruler. Just see the contrast among the current politicians.

    As for their love life, whatever the versions of Ramayana, it’s clear that Ram and Sita loved each other regardless of whatever happened. Constrast this to today where people get divorced at the drop of toilet seat.

  20. 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.

    When I first read the Ramayana, I thought it was misogynist propaganda. Now I consider it moving, brilliant and subversive. The Last Book, so often omitted in retellings because it is so difficult to reconcile Rama’s behavior, is genius, in my opinion.

    Manushi has a great article on why Sita’s suffering is essential to her popularity as a goddess. Here’s another Manushi article on the same theme.

    Of all the episodes I’m telling in Sita Sings the Blues, I’m most looking forward to animating the bittersweet climax, wherein Sita proves her purity one last time by entering the Earth.

    As for what to tell kids, there are zillions of versions of the Ramayana, including many with a happy ending. When kids get older they can easily find more challenging versions. I see the Ramayana as a living thing, still evolving through generations of new storytellers. Any myth is a reflection of the people who tell it, and any storyteller is entitled to tell it their own way.

  21. As for their love life, whatever the versions of Ramayana, it’s clear that Rama and Sita loved each other regardless of whatever happened. Constrast this to today where people get divorced at the drop of toilet seat.

    See, I can understand your argument that Ramayana is a story about being King, and the sacrifices that come with that. But I find your second statement somewhat problematic. Saying Rama and Sita loved each other, even though Rama banished her (without explaining this to her himself, I might add- another sign of weakness, IMO), is difficult to stomach. There’s an undercurrent that a woman should just accept that a man may have to mistreat her under certain circumstances, and that’s just part of love?

    It’s fine to condone Rama’s actions as a sacrifice for his kingdom, but I don’t find it at all romantic or true to the role of a husband. I know your remark about divorce is meant to be somewhat flippant, but I would have advised Sita to seek a divorce under those circumstances, personally.

  22. Nina, thanks for the Manushi links- those encapsulate a lot of my feelings regarding Sita lore much more articulately than I ever could!

  23. Very interesting post, Amardeep. From hearing the story from my grandmother and from watching it on TV, there were a couple parts of the story that I heard a little differently.. - The Sita that was kidnapped by Ravana was a duplicate Sita who had been “created” (?) when they all went into exile, for her protection. (By her divine mother, the earth? My memory is extremely hazy) The TV version of course goes on to show the trial by fire, but my grandmother said that “we” (by we, she meant Pranamis, I guess, which is our little sect of Hinduism) didn’t really give that too much importance. - The TV version actually shows Rama disguising himself as a peasant and eavesdropping on the townspeople’s conversations after he regains the throne. It’s not just that he doesn’t like people trash talking, I thought it was more that he was losing credibility as a Hindu king who followed his dharma.

    I’m going to check out that link to Paula Richman. I first heard about this when I was reading an English translation. The lengthy foreword included the suggestion that the Ramayana had been written as a version of the history of the Aryan invasion, with Hanuman and the monkey army representing some faction of the natives. (Obviously I need to go back and read this again.)

  24. do the traditional versions of the Ramayana ascribe some guilt or weakness to Rama for being so suspicious and weak when it comes to his wife?

    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?

  25. 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?

    Maitri, while I would like to go with the dookie argument, I’m not so sure. You could easily justify that Rama went to save Sita because the whole act of Ravana kidnapping Sita was an affront. She is a damsel in distress, regardless of whether she was defiled or not. When considered from that angle, Sita is more of a symbol, and but an afterthought in terms of what would become of her after being rescued.

  26. Amardeep : As always, an articulate , entertaining, thought provoking posting. Thank you. More questions than answers.

    1. What happened to Raam and his sons after Sita’s death? How did Raam die?

    2. On a related note, if I remember correctly, Nehru wrote of Raam in Discovery of India – not in the sense of Raam as a divine entity, but as a good man, a great king. Does any one know his version of the story? Could you please post..

    3. I did a web search as a follow up to this posting. Pls take a look at an interesting discussion below. What do you think? 25. Was Ram the epitome of honour and nobility and Ramrajya the ideal society?

  27. and please, shall we agree on the spelling for Rama? Phonetically it would be Raama, with a long A sound for the first vowel and a very short a sound for the second one. Let us stick to the standard Rama (maybe with a diacritical mark over the first a. :-) )

    It is definitely not Raam. That is a phonetic mauling done often by Punjabis and perpetuated to other parts of the north. [e.g. Shatughna becomes Shatrughan.] :-P

  28. <

    blockquote>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?

    That inconsistency is the whole point. The Ramayana story is wiser than any of its component characters.

    In my favorite Valmiki Ramayana translation, the Penguin India version by Arshia Sattar, Rama says he vanquishes Ravana to defend his HONOR. And the gods set up the whole thing because Ravana needs to be killed, and no god or demon can do so because of a boon Ravana’s been granted; that leaves it up to Rama, a human in spite of also being an avatar of Vishnu. So Sita’s welfare isn’t Rama’s primary motivator; his honor is. Regardless of whether and how much Rama loves Sita, stealing a man’s wife is a huge insult, one which Rama is duty-bound to redress.

    Of course, in the same version, Rama really does seem to love, miss and care about Sita while she’s missing. Only once he is reunited with Sita does Rama’s genuine love seem to evaporate. I do like the interpretation that once Ravana is killed and Sita tested, Rama is no longer an avatar of Vishnu, just an ordinary, fallible human being. On the other hand, there’s a poignant moment in the Valmiki version where the gods descend as Sita is carried from the fire by Agni. The gods explain to Rama that he is, in fact, Vishnu and Sita is, in fact, Laxmi, and he should shape up and act in a way more befitting to his divine nature. Unlike Krishna, Rama never knows he’s divine except when the other gods bash him over the head with it. Which, I think, is a lesson about the difference between acting out of “godly” self-awareness, and acting out of insecurity, as Rama does when he later banishes Sita.

  29. RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR AAAAAAAAA MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM rrrrr A M M rrr A M M rrrrr A M M r A MMMmmmmmmmM r A M M r a M r A M m m m

    Note the diacritical mark

  30. It is definitely not Raam. That is a phonetic mauling done often by Punjabis

    ok… I was trying to do an ascii art to show the “hulunth” at the end of the m sound and be –precise—… not being weird or childish…

    a joke – ok… just a joke… dont be getting testy now.

  31. Thanks for the clarification, Maitri. The add-on theory sounds plausible (especially since the remaining story was only considered good enough for a sequel ACK :-) , but I agree with others that Godfather style respect would’ve been a good enough reason for Rama to go after Ravana.

    On a mostly unrelated note, a recent Hindi movie Paheli based on an ancient Rajasthani folk tale (repopularized by a modern author) is an interesting exploration of love and fidelity.

    A newlywed, Lachi, is married to the money obsessed heir, Kishan, of a wealthy family. The bridal party stops at a village on the way back from the marriage, where a ghost sees the bride and instantly falls in love with her. The groom spends the wedding night doing accounts, and leaves the morning after on the bidding of his father to set up a trading outpost in some distant location. The ghost sees this, decides to impersonate Kishen, and fools the entire village, but his love for Lachi compels him to tell her the truth in the privacy of their bedroom. Lachi accepts the true love of the apparition over the imagined affection her real husband might have had, and they spend many joyous years together. He even fathers her baby (I guess this ghost is friendlier than Casper!), at which point the original Kishen returns, throwing the village into turmoil and forcing a resolution which I will leave you to find out by watching by movie.

    There were several interesting elements to the story, but what amazed me most was the acceptance of the bride, who was pregnant by an impostor, by the entire village (although they do not know that she is complicit in the deception). This in an ancient folk tale! Interesting counterpoint to the Ramayana.

  32. Nina, thanks so much for the Manushi links. The Madhu Kishwar article in particular is quite good. I was struck by this paragraph in the essay, about the TV version of the Ramayana that was a huge hit in India in the late 1980s:

    Even in the rest of India, very few people endorse Ram’s behaviour towards Sita. He has not been forgiven this injustice through all these centuries, despite his being a revered figure in most other ways. In this context, I am reminded of the time when Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan was being telecast over Doordarshan. As the story began approaching the point when Sita was supposed to undergo her agnipariksha the serial makers were flooded in advance with so many letters of protest against the depiction of Sita going through the fire ordeal that Sagar was forced to deviate from his text and show the agnipariksha to be a mock one. The TV Ram was made to clarify that he did not doubt Sita’s chastity. Clearly, Ram’s injustice to Sita has hung so heavily on the collective conscience of Indians that they are willing to demand that a sacred text be altered. In this new text, determined by contemporary devotees, maryada purushottam Ram was being ordered to behave better.

    Interesting!

    Also, Rahul, I also saw and liked Paheli. It seemed to be casting down this obsession with female ‘fidelity’ in favor of a woman’s prerogative in ‘romance’ (i.e., it’s ok to betray your husband for true love).

    The ending was a bit of a cop-out though!

  33. Amardeep: it’s ok to betray your husband for true love

    I would make the statement gender neutral: It’s ok to betray your spouse for true love.

    Unless of course, the spouse provides true love.

    M. Nam

  34. A lot of comments about various interpretations of the Ramayana. [Amardeep: Where did you pick the 200BC number, that would be more three hundred years after Buddha and Mahavira, quite unlikely.]. I wanted to comment on the semi-historical nature of Ramayana (“The way (vehicle) of Rama”). Couple of things from the semi-historical perspective that I have heard (so no links sorry), since everybody seems to have assigned ramayana a purely mythical status.

    1. The move away from old school “vedic” religion to the newer “dharma” (or simplistically duty) based religion
    2. The exploration of the Indian subcontinent from the Gangetic Plain down to Sri Lanka.

    3. The ramayana can be seen as the codification of thoughts around the principle of Dharma which differs from the old vedic tradition of sacrifice. In the older religious practices sacrifice and singing hymns to gods was of great importance. With Dharma there is some attempt to lay out the principles of a good society. Fundamental to this is the concept that there is an underlying order in the universe and we are bound due our natures (and is our duty) to act in a certain ways. Whenever there is deviation from this duty chaos in the society emerges. So every member in the society has certain duties, they do the duties and a just and good society results. [I don't want to argue the merits of this, whether caste system or misogyny is a direct result of this, after all these theories are around 3000 years old]. Rama as a king has the dharma to behave in a certain manner since his responsibility is to his people more than his family. Sita is no damsel, but her duty as a ‘model wife’ is to agree with her husband. After all, Sita chooses Rama during the swayamwara and also trains her sons who despite being boys run circles around Rama and his men. In turn the gods are responsible for restoring the order whenever there is deviation. In bhagavad Gita, Krisha mentions that whenevers there is a problem (attack on the order, causing problems in dharma), he will re-incarnate to restore the order in the universe. So Rama’s avataar is to restore the order in the universe. In this process, there is great suffering in the family of Rama however a golden age follows in Rama’s rule.

    4. The banishment of Rama to exile, the abduction of Sita, getting to Ravana and finally killing him, all these events really give Valmiki a chance to document the exploration of the Indian peninsula all the way from Saraswati down to Sri Lanka and zigzaging along the west and east, the various aborgines and races that he meets (ex. vanar sena) the various forms of worship (Shiva worship), trees, plants etc. In most versions of Ramayana, Ravana is seen as a scholar who strayed off his dharmic path. Hence Rama sets him straight – polygamy vs monogamy perhaps.

  35. You could easily justify that Rama went to save Sita because the whole act of Ravana kidnapping Sita was an affront. She is a damsel in distress, regardless of whether she was defiled or not.

    Hmmmm, Rama first saves Sita and then banishes her because it’s all about his ego. This theory is plausible from a mythological-track-record-of-irrationality standpoint, but it just doesn’t jibe with the overall feel of the Ramayana.

    I’m going to have to do some chronological research on the writings to truly discover my own opinion on the matter. Thanks for the thought fodder.

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

    Maybe this is beyond the scope of the post or question, but I’ve heard a little about some other versions of Ramayana – a Jain Ramayana (Paumacaryu), the Thai Ramkien, and Reamker, the Cambodian Ramayana (which apparently also comes in comic form), among others.

    An example of a story that does not appear in Indian texts and performance is that of the encounter between Hanuman, the monkey general, and Sovann Maccha, the mermaid, a favorite of Cambodian audiences. [Link]

    Of possible related interest: Lady sings the Blues: When Women retell the Ramayana, addressing Ramayana retellings by Molla, Chandrabati, Ranganayakamma and village women.

  37. Just finished reading the first 3 novels by A.K. Banker – wow! Can’t wait to get my hands on the last 3. Seems that Rama would banish Sita even though he wouldn’t want to, just like he went into exile for 14 years, even though he didn’t want to. He does what is expected of him, no matter what (respectfully – I have very little experience with this history besides these books and an intro. to Hinduism course fr. University) Great sight by the way!!

  38. Interesting discussion, everyone. I have to second the endorsement of Paula Richman’s books on the Ramayana. It’s interesting to note that criticism of Rama’s actions isn’t just present in folk, vernacular culture: it can be found in high, Sanskritic culture as well. In one of Richman’s books, there’s an essay by David Shulman on a Sanskrit play by Bhavabhuti which deals with the latter part of the Ramayana. It’s clear that the playwright didn’t endorse Rama’s actions, and Rama does some pretty serious penance throughout the course of the play.

  39. I recommend Kamala Subramaniam’s Ramayana rather highly. She has also published the Mahabharata and the Bhagvatham.

    Philoshophical treatises in Dvaita, Advaita and other viewpoints on the Ramayana can be read as an adjunct to the work to understand the various schools of thought of Hinduism.

  40. 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.

  41. You all are missing the point here. Of course most desi parents want to tell their children the ending which has Rama reject Sita, even though she is pure.

    They want to socialize their children into realizing that social propriety must ALWAYS trump individual love and happiness.

    This has nothing to do with Sita at all. Even though she is pure and even an incarnation of Laxmi, and even though Ram is an avatar of Vishnu, even so …

    LOVE DOES NOT CONQUER ALL

    Maintaining appearances for society is what counts most.

    What various commentators want to tell their children is a different matter – you may be a more iconoclastic bunch than the average desi. But for most people, I don’t think Rama’s behavior undermines the worth of the story at all. Quite the contrary.

  42. Are there differences in The Ramayana depending in the area is it told ie. North and South. And in the era of mass media (especially tv.

    It’s worth mentioning that the Ramayana spread to South East where was adapted locally and reworked as a national literay epics (beowulf rather old testanment) rather then an religious Even here there are difference versions. Ramakien = Thailand Loik Samoing Ram = Burma Hikayat Seri Rama = Malaysia

    It still retains it’s original name in and is still performed in Muslim Indonesia. If you want to read it or hear it link below to the Northern Illinois University.

    http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Indonesian/ramayana/ramafs.htm

    The Ramayana has been mounted several times on the British stage including The Ramayana new version by Peter Oswald

  43. Amardeep – try also to read the essay Three Hundred Ramayanas by A.K.Ramanajuan from the collected essays of A.K.Ramanujan (OUP).

    Paula Richman says in her interview that she heard AKR lecture on ancient Indian texts, notably Sangam poetry and switched to this field in grad school. She was a Lit major before.

    There are Hindu, Buddhist and Jain versions of the Ramayana in India and then then the Thai Ramakien and the Malayan Hikayat Seri Ram too……

    The treatment of Ahilya ( the cursed woman) also varies in the different versions.