The Oral Tradition and the many "Ramayanas"

The cover art for a CD entitled "Bhakt Ramayana Vol 1"DASARTHA'S CHOICE

"'You have promised me the granting of two boons, and you have sworn to it in the name of Rama -- your darling son Rama. And now I'll speak out my mind. If you reject my demand, you will be the first of the Ikshvahu race, proud descendents of the sun god himself, to go back on a promise for the sake of convenience.' She took breath and demanded..." (from Valmiki, trans. R.K. Narayan)


by Philip Lutgendorf, Chair, South Asian Studies Program, University of Iowa

Rama is born in countless ways, and there are tens of millions of Ramayanas... - Tulsidas (16th cent.) Ramcarittnanas 1:33:6

All right (you may be asking at this point), just how many of these things are there, anyway? The title of this curriculum guide speaks reassuringly of "The Ramayana" but later subheadings suggest a kind of textual population explosion, speaking of "many," "a thousand," and finally, "tens of millions." Is this just epic hyperbole, like the myriads of arrows that shoot forth whenever the hero Rama releases his bow? And if not, how are American educators and students supposed to get a handle on a non-Western text and tradition that is (as they say) growing even as we speak?

I've been teaching the Ramayana for years, and (like most of the contributors to this guide) have found that it serves as an excellent window through which to open to American students great vistas of the world of Indian civilization. But I always begin by explaining that "the Ramayana" (in spite of the definitive article) is not a single book like "the Bible" but rather a story and a tradition of storytelling. For more than two millennia, this tradition has enjoyed a unique popularity throughout the subcontinent of South Asia (comprising the modern states of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) and beyond - for versions of the tale have flourished in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Although the core story of the travails of Prince Rama and Princess Sita and their companions remains much the same everywhere, storytellers and poets in dozens of languages have chosen not simply to translate some "original" version, but instead have retold the saga in their own words, often modifying and embellishing it according to regional traditions or their own insights and interpretations. At the same time, this tale has been continuously recreated orally - with all the fluidity we expect in oral performance - by a whole spectrum of tellers ranging from traditional bards and singers to modern film and video producers (an epic television serialization of the story held Indian audiences spellbound in 1987-89), and also including countless grandmothers. Indeed, for most modern Indians, the "original" Ramayana is as likely to mean a bedtime story heard in childhood as the 2000+ year old Sanskrit epic of the poet-sage Valmiki.

Since the Ramayana is a story, and a charming one at that, students find it relatively easy to get into - even with four syllable foreign names. Like contemporary fantasy fiction and video-gaming, it ushers them into a world of superhuman heroes and hyperbolic deeds, within which a strangely-familiar scenario unfolds: a handsome prince wins a beautiful princess for his bride, but is deprived of his kingdom by a scheming step-mother and unjustly exiled to the forest, where a wizard-king abducts the prince's wife and imprisons her in a golden island-fortress. The prince then sets out on a daring quest to recover his beloved, aided by talking animals and birds, and ultimately triumphs over his adversary (a villain so egotistical he has sprouted ten heads!) in a cataclysmic battle, to return in triumph and reclaim his throne. This skeletal outline resembles many European folktales, but as students are drawn deeper into the details of its epic plot, they encounter much that is unfamiliar, for the Ramayana encodes many of the cultural values of Hindu civilization: from a cosmology of cyclically-recurring eons, to a stratified social order and a patriarchical, extended-family structure based on arranged marriage, to the overarching theme of Dharma-a central cultural concept suggested by terms like "morality," "duty," "cosmic order," or simply, "the Way." Thus the story can open a portal leading students to encounter with the world-view of a great civilization that both resembles, and markedly differs from, their own and (a process, by the way, which may enable them to realize that they have a world view in the first place.)

The contributions in this guide - the work of educators who have come to value the Ramayana - are designed to help other teachers to facilitate such a cultural encounter by helping them to read "between the lines" of the epic story and to recognize some of the ethical and social values it encodes and the issues it raises. This last point is important, because as a fluid storytelling tradition, the Ramayana doesn't simply provide set answers. It also raises troubling questions that have been pondered and debated by audiences for centuries, and that have resulted, in some cases, in radical reinterpretations of characters and events, or in the creation of such "alternative" retellings as those that give greater prominence to women or that even cast the "villains" as the real such heroes. In this way, it has functioned less as a fixed message than as a kind of language within which South Asian culture thinks about itself, and projects (and argues about) its ideals of the good life and the just society. Since one out of every seven people on earth today lives on the Indian subcontinent, there are literally "tens of millions" of Ramayanas out there - and still others "over here" as well, brought by a prosperous and culturally vibrant group of recent immigrants. Through studying the Ramayana story, you and your students will learn something important about the myriad bearers of this tale, and hopefully about yourselves.