Ramayana is an epic written by Sage Valmiki. But as is the case for any work of literature, it undergoes changes and adaptations. In oral tradition, the characters undergo a transformation based on the orators understanding and his/her own personality and preference. The same is the case in writing too. In such a scenario, it is quite understandable to find different versions of Ramayana based on the writer’s cultural upbringing and milieu. Just as every generation has its own take and preference, so does every writer who is re-writing the epic for his/her audience.
This adaptation only leads to a newer audience which associates itself better to the epic and thus starts relating to the same. The original English movie “Sound of Music” has seen so many Indian adaptations – be it Gulzar’s “Parichay” or the different versions in Bengali cinema and many others, besides the stage adaptations. Each took it on itself to make changes in characters to suit the understanding of its audience and the cultural setting. Same can be said about Shakespearean plays and many short stories by O’Henry or Dostoyevsky or Maupassant. Closer home, we have seen different versions of Saratchandra Chatterjee’s “Devdas”, of which I have seen at least four Hindi versions and two Bengali versions myself!
Ramayana is no different, except that its age has given it more versions than any other epics.
|Tamil poet Kamban|
Valmiki’s Ramayana is considered to be the oringal and all other versions are thus meta-Ramayanas. However, in South India, Kamban’s Ramayana has given rise to other versions like that of Telegu and Malayalam versions. Needless to say that Kamban’s version has been close to the Valmiki’s version with a minor difference. In Valmiki’s version Ram was not a god, but a human form of god who took birth on earth and ‘died’ a mortal. He was an avatar of Lord Vishnu who took the human form to eliminate the evils of earth and depart once the objective was achieved. However, Kamban’s influence was of the Tamil Bhakti movement and in his version, Ram was a god on a mission to eliminate evil from earth. Kamban also uses a lot of folk-motif in this rendition of the epic, again not found in Valmiki’s Ramayana.
In a folk-version of the Kannada Ramayana, the entire Ramayana is Sita-centric. The epic opens with Ravana (Ravalu, in this version) and his wife Mandodhari pining for a child. Here after a lot of penance, Ravalu and his wife are given a mango to share equally, but Ravalu ends up eating the whole mango with just the seed left for his wife. With a twist in the tale, it is Ravalu who ends up conceiving Sita and Sita comes out of his nose through a sneeze (in Kannada, the word Sita means ‘he sneezed’). Later he leaves Sita in King Janak’s field where she is found in a furrow (once again, in Sanskrit, Sita means ‘furrow’). The epic moves on, but at every step, the epic returns to Sita, her birth, her marriage, her abduction, saving her from Lanka and then again her misery, the birth of her children, etc. This return to Sita every now and then is a far cry from many versions which is very Ram-centric and this again could be due to the orators focus on the state of women in the culture he belonged to.
According to A K Ramanujan, the birth of Sita from a male could also be a case of “male-envy of the womb and childbirth, which is a frequent theme, in Indian literature, and an Indian oedipal theme of fathers pursuing daughters”, which is not alien to Indian mythology. According to a Kannada version, Ravana had molested a woman in his youth and she had vowed vengeance and is thus reborn as his daughter leading to his death. This we see that this version has taken a lot of liberty on many a count from the original Valmiki’s Ramayana.
The richness of any literature lies in its ability to get adapted. The rigidity of any epic will only alienate it with its potential audience and that will be its greatest failure. If Ramayana is still read and told in India, then it is because of its ability to touch every generation through its adaptability. This is not the case with other cultures like the Egyptians and the Greeks, who don’t read their mythology as we do in India. You will find Indians with names like Ramkrishna, Lakshmi, Vaidehi, Bharat, etc. But have you found any Greek with names like Zeus, Adonis and Aphrodite or even Hercules and Atlas? Would you find a Thor or Odin or Loki in the Scandinavia today?
It is the adaptability which enables such assimilation.
Next we will discuss the Jain version of Ramayan.