Anyone who knows the Ramayana only through its most mainstream depictions – the ones with a strong north Indian bias, popularised in recent decades by Amar Chitra Katha comics and TV serials – might be surprised to learn that familiar episodes such as the Lakshman rekha story were not from Valmiki's "original" but were introduced in retellings hundreds of years later. Or that the tale of Shabari feeding Ram berries comes from the Padma Purana, written in the 11th century. Or that Ram's story – in forms that would be almost unrecognizable to the casual Indian reader – is an integral part of the Indonesian, Thai and Malay cultures. (The Thai version of Hanuman is a romantic adventurer, not a devoted celibate servant.) And how about this: one regional (Indian) version presents Sita as the daughter of Ravana's chief queen Mandodari!
In The Book of Ram, mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik takes a look at the many Ramayanas, in the process liberating the epic from tunnel-visioned perceptions. Pattanaik, who has written several other books about myths (here’s an earlier post about one of them, The Pregnant King), shows how the Ram story has been adapted and retold over the centuries to suit the needs and perspectives of the people who have done the retelling and the times they lived in – from Telugu, Assamese, Bengali and Punjabi versions that are a few centuries old, all the way down to contemporary tellings by Ashok Banker and Virgin Comics. He examines the symbolic function of many characters and incidents and discusses what regional variations tell us about value systems and priorities in different places. "Ram cannot be fettered to a particular period or a particular place," he writes. "His story has reached the masses not through erudite Sanskrit texts but through theatre, song and dance performed in local languages. All these retellings of the Ramayan have their own twists and turns, their own symbolic outpouring, each one valid in its respective context." The Book of Ram is a thoughtful primer for the reader who is willing to read Ram's story as a metaphor for human strengths and weaknesses, and as a window to inner divinity.
In earlier posts I’ve discussed how the specifics of ancient myths vary as you travel from one part of the country to another; and that it’s important to acknowledge the fluidity of these old stories in order to derive broader lessons about humanity from them. The religious fundamentalist would of course prefer that everything be set in stone, but for most others (along the spectrum from moderately religious/spiritual to atheistic) these stories are most useful when they can be analysed, engaged with and interpreted in different ways. Being exposed to unfamiliar tellings and variations also brings us out of our comfort zone: it’s a step forward in broadening our minds towards other types of people and other ways of living. In this regard, The Book of Ram makes for good supplementary reading to a straightforward translation of the Ramayana.
P.S. On a somewhat related note, see this post about Prem Panicker’s excellent ongoing translation of M T Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham – the Mahabharata through Bhima’s eyes. Something I find very revealing about the comments on Prem’s Bhimsen posts is how frequently he gets asked to add an extra sentence or two elaborating an incident or justifying the behaviour of another character – Karna, for instance – even though this is not an omniscient-narrator telling; it’s Bhima’s perspective, complete with all his biases and prejudices. (Karna as seen through his eyes wouldn’t be the layered, tragic anti-hero so many of us admire but a pompous, mean-spirited suta who is constantly trying to rise above his station in life by ingratiating himself with Duryodhana. But this is a difficult idea to process when we are only familiar with a single, standard-issue version of the story.)