Interpreting the Ramayana as a Means of Creating and Defining Tradition

Illay Cooper. The Ramayana. Print. British Museum.

Illay Cooper. The Ramayana. Print. British Museum.

A reader of Valmiki’s Ramayana stumbles upon instances of questionable moral behavior from each character with alarming frequency. Yet these same characters obtain the absolute devotion of countless Indians across Hindu traditions. How do we as readers outside of the Hindu tradition make sense of this?

The Ramayana is held as “a mirror of the highest ideals in Hindu culture and civilization,” (Hess, 2). The problem is that there exist many traditions within Hindu culture that have incredibly differing ideals and morals. Moreover the ideals of these cultures are always changing as social issues become more or less prevalent. For the Ramayana to continue to be a guide across Hindu culture it needs to constantly be updated and re-interpreted so it can continue to address the issues and lessons prevalent to its readers. The story of Rama is reinterpreted through text, orality, media, and propaganda to acquiesce to the beliefs and morals of those who partake in its tradition. (Hess, 1-32)

Valmiki’s Ramayana is filled with moral ambiguity. Each character partakes in actions that make the reader question if they are indeed worthy of the absolute  loyalty from their devotees. This moral ambiguity cannot satisfy the ever changing and diverse ideals of the individuals that are devout to their specific deities across the Ramayana tradition. Yet this haziness also spawns re-interpretation of the text and oppositional tellings of the story in order to assuage the developing ideals of the traditions and the individuals within them. By looking at the ways that individuals and traditions have re-interpreted the story of the Ramayana, we can see how they make it their own by molding it to their own ideals, ultimately bringing them closer to their faith. (Richman, Many Ramayanas, 3-21)

One way that the Ramayana has been reinterpreted is through oppositional tellings within the text. By observing the ways in which Medieval Bengali society poet Krttivasa changed the text, we can see how he molded it to cater to the ideals and needs of the people. Bengali society was in disarray after Turkish invasion and was in need of cultural rejuvenation. In a society that was predominately patriarchal, Krttivasa’s Ramayana needed to produce a strong Rama figure that was worthy of emulation. In a tradition that believed that saying the name of Rama would bring even the worst sinner salvation they needed an interpretation that solved Rama’s moments of moral ambiguity. One way that Krttivasa does this is by introducing Taranisena and Viravahu, who are absolute devotees of Rama, and want nothing more than to die at his hand. When their heads are severed they continue say the name of Rama. He also emphasizes Rama as the reincarnation of Vishnu and promotes his infallibility. Krttivasa writes over Rama’s imperfections, which suits the patriarchal tendencies of Bengali tradition, making the Ramayana their own. (Mukherjee, 45-51)

Although the Ramayana has become largely a literary tradition, it still exists as a prevalent oral tradition. Through observing Tamil folk tales, poems and plays we can see how these cultures have made the Ramayana their own by incorporating stories and explanations into oral versions of the Ramayana and by doing so make it their own. By observing these changes we can infer their lessons and purposes.

Telugu folk versions of the Ramayana explain Mantara’s motive for convincing Kaieyi to banish Rama to the forest. They say that in Rama’s childhood he used humiliate her by shooting clay balls at her back and making everyone laugh at her. This story could work as a lesson that teaches respect to elders, or ramifications for ones actions. (Pandurangan, 58-65)

Tamil folk dramas often include Rama accepting that he has acted against the warrior code in his killing of Vali, and offers life back to Vali. Although this shows the fallibility of Rama, it also shows the virtue in showing remorse and attempting to right ones wrong actions. (Pandurangan, 58-65)

Instead of the bridge between India and Lanka just being built by the Vanaras people, Tamil folk tales often describe the squirrel that did its part by getting wet in the ocean and rolling in sand to help seal the bridge together. It is told that Rama patted the squirrel on the back, giving it the two white marks that squirrels have.  This detail teaches that even the smallest effort towards helping a noble cause is appreciated and rewarded by the Gods.  (Pandurangan, 58-65)

By introducing new details to Valmiki’s Ramayana, these folk traditions create their own Ramayana to extoll the perception virtue that exists in their culture. Equally as important, these slight variations and explanations of the text in oral traditions allow the Ramayana to be particular to the culture by promoting the ideals that specifically concern them.

The need for the Ramayana to always be adapting to fit changing ideals of cultures can be seen in contemporary media. In the 1987 a nationwide television series rendition of the Ramayana was to be released by Ramanand Sagar. By observing how he altered the story we can see where he feared that Valmiki’s Ramayana sparked contemporary sensitivities. Sagar altered the story of Sita’s fire test slightly in order to paint Rama in a better light for a nation largely composed of Rama and Sita devotees. He has Lakshmana insist that this test would be an injustice to Sita. Rama explains to Lakshmana that he trusts Sita’s purity. When the Rakshasa’s attacked them Rama summoned the Vedic fire God and asked him to protect Sita, so the Sita that Ravana was holding captive was a false Sita. The fire ritual was merely a necessary means for bringing back the real Sita. The fire ritual was not shown as the image of a burning Sita was too strong for many Sita devotees. For the purpose of cultural sensitivity Sagar changed the story so devotees of Rama and Sita could be appeased. By changing this detail we can see how Rama’s treatment of Sita mirrors the contemporary issue of gender inequality within India . The harsh depiction of this scene within Valmiki’s Ramayana would have upset the vast population of Sita devotees. The story needed to be changed so it could be a success and be shared amongst the Indian population. (Hess, p. 1-32)Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan Episode 01 Full [HD Quality]

Interpretations of the Ramayana have implications that spread beyond India’s civilians and into its politics. Historically, varying political interpretations of the Ramayana have caused great consternation in India. Two political adversaries, E.V. Ramasami (a non-Brahman) and C. Rajagopalachari (a Brahman), had differing ideas as to the message of the Ramayana. Rajagopalachari saw the Ramayana as a national epic, and a guide for social and moral behavior and Ayodhya as the ideal city to be emulated. Meanwhile Ramasami was writing pamphlets for Tamil readers about his completely contradicting interpretation of the text. He attacked the Ramayana on the basis of seeing Rama and his people as the Aryan Northern Indians who were oppressing the Dravidian Southern Indians. He saw the Rakshasas as Dravidians, and the Ramayana being a tale of their obliteration. He believed that the typical Aryan view glorified Rama, reinforced Brahmanical oppression, and promoted subjection of women to male dominance. Ramasami’s movement was widely supported, especially in southern India where protests and plays were held and the image of Rama was publically burned. Ramasami as well as the protestors and actors were arrested in the mid 1950’s and India took the form of Rajagopalachari’s conception upon Indian independence from the British. The differences in interpretation of the Ramayana had huge political implications, and swayed the direction of the country. Ramasami came to a contrary conclusion of whom and what is good in the Ramayana than most while reading the same text. His political understanding of the events started an uprising that almost changed the social and political structure of an entire country. Ramasami’s political interpretation is yet another example of how a reader of the Ramayana can use the text to create an understanding that fulfills the needs of the people. The Southern Indians needed the Ramayana to support them in their fight against oppression and they were able to find this support through their interpretation of the moral ambiguity within the story. (Richman, Epic and State, 631-54)

The Ramayana serves as a mirror for the highest ideal of Hindu society, but it cannot do that if it is not specific to a culture and its ideals. The story needs to constantly change and be reinterpreted to keep up with the changing ideals of the many traditions of India. For many devotees seeking darśan, Valmiki’s version of their God would have too great of moral imperfection. The reinterpretations and alternate tellings allow them to have a religious experience that fits their ideals, and allows them to see their God and have their God see them back. (Eck, 6-7)

Work Cited:

Eck, Diana L. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. Print.

Hess, Linda. Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 67. No. 1 (Mar. 1999), pp. 1-32.

Mukherjee, Tapati. “From Valmiki to Krttivasa; A Journey from Elitist to Popular Literature.” Critical Perspectives on the Ramayana. 1st ed. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2001. 45-51.

Pandurangan, A. “Ramayana Versions in Tamil.” Journal of Tamil Studies (1982): 58-65.

Richman, Paula. “Epic and State: Contesting Interpretations of the Ramayana.” Public Culture (1995): 631-54. Duke University Press. Web. .

Richman, Linda. Introduction: The Diversity of the Rāmāyaṇa Tradition. In Many Rāmāyaṇas. ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1991.) 3-21.

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