Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010
Ramayana (Valmiki) (ca. 400 B.c.)
The oldest poetic work of Sanskrit literature, the Ramayana (The deeds of Rama), India's beloved Hindu epic, dramatizes an imperial struggle between good and evil. In six cantos and an epilogue, a total of 24,001 slokas (lines), the work took shape orally between the eighth and fifth centuries B.c. The setting is Ayodhya, the capital of Kosala and a center of pilgrimage to the birthplace of Prince Rama in northeastern India. Along the Ganges River basin south of the Chinese border, priests used the sacred water from the river to consecrate hereditary kings and to administer oaths. Composed in four-foot lines of eight syllables each, the formulaic classic passed from the STORYTELLING of the mythical ascetic seer Narada to the written narrative by the poet Valmiki of Allahabad. The narrative's flow complemented the dignity and sincerity of Hindu prayers, hymns, chants, ritual sacrifice, and adages on the subjects of duty and righteousness.
Like Homer's Iliad (ca. 800 B.c.), the Ramayana is an action story that expresses the Hindu character of Valmiki's times. He framed the epic poem to portray the HERO Rama, a fighter of demons and ogres. Through chronological episodes, the narrative describes king making, beginning with Rama's youth, education, selection as heir apparent, and preparation for court duties under his father, King Dasaratha. The story impressed its audiences, who took inspiration and courage from the account of the protagonist's virtues. Subtextually, Rama's marriage to Sita, a pure nature spirit who springs from a fresh furrow, commemorates the establishment of an agrarian society. The breaking of clods with a plow represents coitus and establishes the strict gendering of the narrative, which depicts Sita as a willing handmaiden to her groom.
Nature also bears elements of danger and peril. Like the portentous EPITHALAMIUM of VIRGIL'S AENEID (17 B.c.), ominous bird calls follow Rama's nuptials, and foretell trial by an archery competition and a 14-year exile in central India. Sita embodies the duties of the Hindu consort by pleading to share Rama's banishment as a marital obligation. In book 3, the main conflict, the hero must battle monsters from Ceylon to retrieve his bride from an abductor. At the core of evil, Ravana, Rama's nemesis, takes on satanic qualities: “He sometimes walks on foot and moves about like the wind—he shines like fire and spreads heat like the sun… . He does not know fear” (Valmiki 1894, 1632). Poetic hyperbole intensifies Ravana's threat, enhancing Rama's victory over consummate evil and thus begging the question of conducting a just and necessary campaign. After Rama passes the tests of manhood and defeats Ravana, he accepts his destiny by replacing his deceased father on the throne. False slanders force him to exile Sita, a wife allegedly soiled by her kidnapper, to the forest when she bears Rama twin sons. She returns to face her accusers and vindicates herself.
Rama as Divinity
Unlike the heroes of the Hebrew book of EXODUS (ca. 450 B.c.) and the Greek chronicler HERODOTUS'S
Histories (440 B.c.), India's epic glorifies a twodimensional protagonist free of the complexities and frailties of humankind. Because the hero manifests remarkable might, radiance, sinlessness, austerity, and self-mastery, later Brahmin intellectuals revered Rama as an earthly incarnation of Vishnu, the supreme deity. In a passage on the majesty of royalty, Valmiki's text provides a prayer for a just ruler: “O lord of creatures, do thou also confer upon us a king who shall be foremost among men; by worshipping him we shall be freed from all sins” (1,566). The blend of respect with deification identifies a civilization that holds an emperor in higher esteem than later concepts of respected, but fallible rulers. Like the Essenes who compiled the DEAD SEA SCROLLS (150 B.C.-A.D. 70) in the Middle East, Valmiki anticipates a messianic age marked by the omnipotence of a savior of humankind.
The story of Rama suited the performance of itinerant bards, who carried it west to Benares and on to other nations where citizens regarded hereditary monarchy as the bulwark of the state. The text passed on to the Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese Khmer, Lao, Malay, Maranao (Philippine Islands), Burmese, and Thai realms, each of which interpolated local legend, ballads, laws, allusions to royalty, and genealogy.
✵ From the middle of the Tang dynasty, the Chinese version (Dunhuang [ca.
787]) consists of six manuscripts found in Dunhuang (Tun-Huang), northwest China. These were the result of a command of Governor Wei Chu of Shoa-chou to monastery scribe Fa-hai, a collaborator on the translation.
✵ The Chinese narrative was the source of the Tibetan Ramayana, Tongbao (T’oung Pao) (ca. 800), the work of Buddhist translators toward the end of the Tibetan empire during the reign of Trisong Detsan at a time when Tibetan forces ventured into China and suffered a crippling defeat.
✵ Near the end of Japan's classical Heian Period, Taira no Yasuyori translated the Ramayana into the Hobutsushu (Collection of jewels, ca. 1100). Issued at the height of Japanese court life, this rendition emphasizes the era's refinement of art and verse.
✵ At the end of the Majapahit empire from 1293 to 1500, Tamil transcriptors altered the character of Rama for the Malay version, Hikayat seri Rama (Legend of the great Rama, ca. 1500). The Malayan version inserts Javanese court romance for the amusement of audiences in Bali and the Malay peninsula.
✵ In the period of civil unrest following the collapse of the Khmer Empire, the Reamker (ca. 1550), a Khmer version of the Ramayana, became the Cambodian epic. It reflects the adaptation of Hinduism to Buddhism, a religion that alters Rama's earthly strivings to embrace indifference
to combat and loss. To Khmer readers, the hero is Buddha himself. The poem's action summarizes daily decision making by a king who rules rice farmers.
✵ Initially transcribed on palm fronds, the Lao version, Phra Lak Phra Lam (Beloved Lakshma and Beloved Rama, ca. 1600), confirmed legends of the royal lineage. The narrative, a model of the jataka (godhood story), served the national ballet
as a source of sacred stories about Prince Rama. Images from the story decorate Angkor Wat, a temple complex built in about 1112 in northwestern Cambodia.
✵ The Burmese version of the Rama tales, the Rama Thagyin (1775), was a translation completed by U Aung Phyo in the Mon language preceding a period of invasions by Chinese armies of the Qing dynasty.
✵ A later adaptation, the Thai Ramakien (1797) was the translation of King Rama I the Great (1782-1809), founder of the Chakri dynasty, who added CREATION lore and the tenets of animism. His son and successor, Rama II, applied the narrative to mime or dance drama, a native art form featuring choral readers, themes of vengeance and carnal love, and a dance troupe wearing oversized masks and costumes.
The Ramayana has dominated culture and the arts in India and Southeast Asia up to the present. Segments of the epic undergird sculpture, painted scrolls, shadow plays, and puppetry as well as the film Ramayan (1986) and the animated cartoon Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama (1992).
Bose, Mandakranta. The Ramayana Revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Dumoulin, Heinrich, James W. Heisig, and Paul F. Knitter. Zen Buddhism: A History. Bloomington, Ind.: World Wisdom, 2005.
Valmiki. The Ramayana. Translated by and edited by Manmatha Nath Dutt. Calcutta: H. C. Das, 1894.
----- . Reamker: The Cambodian Version of the Ramayana. Translated by Judith M. Jacob. New York: Routledge, 1986.