Friday, November 14, 2008

Notes on The Book of Ram

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.)


  1. The book seems interesting. As you said, there are multiple variations of the myths.

    I haven't read a complete North Indian version of a Ramayana, but I believe they do not have most of the portions which the South Indian portions have, e.g., in South India, Ram and Sita were supposed to have lived in Bhadrachalam during their exile. I am not sure if it's the same in the north Indian versions. There is a piece of rock in Bhadrachalam where Sita supposedly used to dry her saree. This particular assumes an "idol" status in this part of the country, whereas I don't see many north Indians visiting this place.

    When we went to Thailand, we were amazed at how similar their version of Ram is to ours. They too have a Hanuman, and they call their King "Rama". They even have a place in Thailand which they assume is Ayodhya.

    Myths are just that - myths. Better to learn the good from them and move on.

  2. Seems like an interesting book . I will definitely read it . I bought two books on your review and both were good .

    I wonder if you would review Dawkin's work some time . Specially "God Delusion " . it will be interesting to know your view on his writing.

  3. Prashant: I'm a big fan of Dawkins - wrote a post about his popular-science writing here. Have also written about The God Delusion, though that was more like a by-the-numbers review, written with word-length constraints. It's probably a boring thing to say, but I have a very high regard for that book - my own experience with it was that it articulated a lot of things I've felt for a long time but never got around to articulating myself. Helped clear a few cobways in the old mind! I also disagree with the popular opinion that it's an unnecessarily harsh or shrill book - I thought it was measured and thoughtful.

  4. Sangeetha: there are many such pilgrimage spots all over the country that derive their popularity from some episode or the other that supposedly took place there. But many of the stories (understandably) contradict each other and it would be futile to actually map out all these incidents (keeping in mind the time-frame within which they all occurred) for consistency. My favourite story btw is the one about Sati's severed body parts falling in various places along the length and breadth of the country!

  5. I love the severed-body-parts story as well. Hope you like it for its drama and scope and sheer extravagant emotion, not for the gore element!

  6. tss: why can't one like it for the drama, emotion and the gore as well? Gore is good!

  7. Nice post Jai, it is evident that the 'Ramayana' has been a collective set of stories and myths used as per the interpretation of the narrator. The line that it has not come from a single erudite sanskrit text is very relevant for relegious fundamentalists.

    I am quite sure that the 'Agni Pariksha ' scene at the end of the battle again comes from some local myth that must have been construed in the sixth or seventh century or probably even later. In one of your previous posts , I had commented on the specific need for Ram to be born as an Avtaar. I believe that the Ramayana is pretty confusing in its whole tone and texture not to say that it is not interesting. The same ambiguity plagues 'Mahabharata' in some parts though the whole sum of that epic results in a great work of literature deserving to be on the top of some of the best works ever written. The ambiguity is mainly in the myth parts like Ganga being Shantanu's wife and Bheeshma being the eigth vasu ,right down to Arjun's marriage to 'Ulupi' and Bheema being taught a lesson in subtelty by Hanuman.

  8. Sounds similar to the book
    "Many Ramayanas The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia"
    (there's an online version here: )
    except Patnaik is always quite readable and interesting, and I'm sure covers a lot more ground, so should be a nice read. Thanks

  9. I think it's a fantastic attempt to rescue mythology from the disfiguring makeovers at the hands of tv costume catastrophes. My only regret is that this is a book!

  10. Ya,

    Looking forward to reading other versions.

    Along with Islamic legends and the myths surrounding Koh Qaaf from Persian tales, I also heard Ramayana in my childhood.

    When I started reading, along with Urdu magazines for kids, I also read Nandan and Chandamama.

    This generated my interest in Hindu epics and the fascinating world of Hindu mythology.

  11. I would recommend "Many Ramayanas ed. Paula Richman (Univ. of California Press, 1991)" where Buddhist and Jain retellings, and women's local retellings are discussed. The latter include decsriptions of domestic chores and interestingly this varies according to the that upper caste women would sing about sita's wedding gifts and the sita-kaushalya relationship etc, women who worked in the fields sang about Sita's tending to animals in the forest.

    I thought MT Vasudevan's Nair book was translated in English. It's called Second Turn. Looks like you are talking about a new translation.

  12. Fascinating.

    As for the theory about Sita being Mandodari's daughter(!) - as Gandhi famously said: "Hey Ram"!

  13. Once Gandhiji and Birla were chatting.
    Birla said, 'Bapu, you are great. Indians will never forget you.'
    Gandhiji replied, 'Oh, they will forget me in no time. There are only two characters who will never be forgotten,they are Ram and Krishna.'


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    ...and now back to the book of ram. my grandfather who has persistently pursued our vansh back to old man raghu in ajudhya, is one of the millions who will not make the history-mystery-myth dis/connect. the ram charita manas (written around 1574), still claims monopoly over mainstream (at least in the Hindi belt) telling of the tale, in the glaring presence of alternative older versions. Just want to say how this post and the comments have really made me appreciate the imagination that has gone into the making of these myths.

    btw, it's sad how current literary education in english in india (which is becoming a more accessible language in many cases) still revolves largely around the violation of a simple 'park-rule' (no eating the fruit!).

  16. Jai,

    Have you heard of/read the Aubrey Menen version? I chanced upon it in the basement of an octogenerian American gentleman and was blown by how iconoclastic and satirical it was.

  17. PH: no I haven't, but just looked it upon Amazon - seems very interesting. Thaks for the tip.

    Shampa: thanks for the recommendation. Also do check out Panicker's translation at the link I provided (you might have to refresh a couple of times, the site is problematic).

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