Many Ramayanas:
The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia

Paula Richman (editor)

University of California Press 1991
A book review by Danny Yee © 2019
Many Ramayanas is a collection of papers exploring the diversity of the Ramayana tradition and some of the ways it permeates Indian culture and religion.

After an introduction by Paula Richman, the key essay, to which the entire volume is a kind of response, is A.K. Ramanujuan's 1987 paper "Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation". This compares Valmiki and Kampan's versions of the Ahalya story and touches on Jain tellings, South Indian folk Ramayanas, and a Thai version.

Frank Reynolds explains how the Ramakien tradition in Thailand "tilts more toward Buddhism than Hinduism", even if it doesn't exhibit "the full-fledged Buddhist structure characteristic of earlier Buddhist tellings".

Kathleen M. Erndl compares five versions of the mutilation of Surpanakha, in Valmiki, Kampan, the Sanskrit Ahdyatma Ramayana, Tulsidas' Old Hindi Ramcaritmanas, and a mid-20th century version in modern Hindi verse.

"The analysis of a single episode as it appears in selected tellings and interpretations can provide a telling glimpse into the dynamics of the Ramayana as a whole ... the catalyst for the key events ... raises complex questions about Rama's supposedly exemplary character ... sheds light on Hindi attitudes to female sexuality."

David Shulman examines the testing of Sita in Kampan's Iramavataram, contrasting it with the account in Valmiki's.

"There is no doubt that this couple's reunion is far more embittered, in the Tamil text, than in its Sanskrit prototype. They speak to one another with shocking verbal abandon. Rama's doubts and suspicion have turned into violent denunciation, an a priori pronouncement of guilt that focuses on Sita's alleged hedonism and lowly birth."

Velcheru Narayana Rao describes the oral tradition among women in Telugu.

"Like most of the participants in the tradition, these women believe the Ramayana to be fact and not fiction, and its many different versions are precisely in keeping with this belief. Contrary to the usual opinion, it is fiction that has only one version; a factual event will inevitably have various versions, depending on the attitude, point of view, intent, and social position of the teller."

Clinton Seely explains how Michael Dutt's Bengali poem Meghanadavadha Kavya (The Slaying of Meghanada) is on the surface a retelling of a Ramayana episode, but undercuts that by its polysemy and its choice of similes: "one is also presented with a vignette from the Mahabharata as well as the mythic tale of Durga, each bittersweet stories, each in its own way countering the emotional impact of Meghanadavdha Kavya's main story line."

Ramayana shadow puppet plays in Kerala use "a classical Tamil text [Kampan] in a Malayalam folk context"; along with physical separation of audience and performers, this makes performances inaccessible if not incomprehensible to most potential audience members. Stuart Blackburn describes how the puppeteers instead create conversations among themselves, performing to an "internal audience",

Paula Richman describes E.V. Ramasami's reading of the Ramayana, which attacked Hinduism and the worship of Rama and glorified Ravana and "Dravidian" culture.

Patricia Mumme looks at how the Tenkalai school of the Srivaisnava (centering worship of Lakshmi and Vishnu) uses episodes from the Ramayana tradition in its theology; this is compared with the use of parables in the New Testament.

Philip Lutgendorf describes the rasik tradition, which involves a kind of role-playing, intense identification with followers or participants in the story of Rama and Sita. This is usually set in an idyllic period in their life, with detailed visualization of the setting and sometimes with romantic or erotic elements.

The Ramnamis of Chhattisgarh are a sect of untouchables, started in the 1890s, devoted to chanting Rama's name and key couplets from Tulsidas's Manas. Ramdas Lamb describes how this practice cuts across common categorisation of Hindi sacred texts.

"With the realization [as sect members became literate] that the Manas also contained teachings antithetical to their philosophy, however, the Ramnamis were forced to reevaluate the role of the text in their religious life. Their increased awareness of the contents of the Manas subsequently opened the door for the inclusion in their chanting sessions of verses from other texts and alternate tellings of the Ram story."

These are all academic papers, concerned with context and nuance and backed by references, but none of them invoke much theory and all are accessible — they are not performances to an "internal audience". They are scattered and disconnected, but that is perhaps the only way to give a feel for such a manifold tradition.

July 2019

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%T Many Ramayanas
%S The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia
%E Richman, Paula
%I University of California Press
%D 1991
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780520075894
%P 273pp