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The Rāmāyaṇa: Theme and Variation

Romila Thapar

Page from a Dispersed Ramayana (Story of Rama), graphite with colour on paper, 26 cms x 34.1 cms, first quarter of the 19th century/ Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This essay has been extracted from The Historian and her Craft Collected Essays and Lectures of Romila Thapar recently published by the Oxford University Press and republished here with permission.

The epic can be seen as the expression of a certain historical consciousness, even though the events which it describes may not be historically authenticated. The epic form is in origin part of an oral tradition and comes to be ‘frozen’ into a literary form at a date subsequent to that of the oral composition. It reflects a changed historical situation in which the new is looking back on the old and often doing so nostalgically. The nostalgia is, however, circumscribed by new demands. The continuity of the epic is not merely due to a love for mythology and legend in a particular society. Undoubtedly, the appeal of the narrative, the literary form, the evocation of imagery and symbolism and the ethical emphases, all ensure continuity: but the role of the epic in the making of a historical tradition relates more closely to its potential function in such a tradition.

The popularity and the function of the epic Rāmāyaṇa in the Vālmīki version are manifest at many historical levels. As a poetic expression it had a literary appeal which, with the spread of Sanskrit, was introduced into new areas at specific times. In turn it became the model for the development of epic genres associated with Sanskritic culture. The literary currency of the epic is apparent from allusions in inscriptional records. As a theme it incorporates the great universal ethic of the battle between good and evil with a large number of subsidiary themes relating to ethical behaviour in a range of human relationships. At a wider level it functions as a link between the classical tradition and local culture where the epic form facilitates assimilation from one to the other, for what is pertinent to the local culture can be incorporated into the epic through fresh episodes. In the same way, the geographical horizon of the epic can be extended through the inclusion of local places as the locations of events. An even more significant development in the Rāmāyaṇa is its function as a text to propagate Vaisnavism, with the transformation of the hero-prince into an avatāra of Viṣṇu. To all these may be added yet another aspect: that the Rāmāyaṇa symbolizes the triumph of the monarchical state, and the epic therefore becomes a charter of validation for the monarchical state. As such it can either be used directly where validation is required by groups seeking kinship links with the hero, or else can be virtually reversed if the validation is required for those who were considered the enemies in the original story.

The present paper is concerned with this latter aspect of the role of the epic, and attempts an analysis of three major and different versions of the narrative of events included in the Rāmayaṇa and the degree to which they can be seen as charters of validation referring to distinct and separate groups. The three versions are first, the parallels to the Rāmāyaṇa themes in the Buddhist Jātaka literature, and second, the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa and, finally, the Jaina version of the story, the Paumacariyam of Vimalasūri. Irrespective of when the earliest oral tradition was current, these three versions were composed and compiled in the period approximately between the fifth century BC and mid-first millennium AD. What seems significant therefore is the question of the need for these versions and the reasons for the dissimilarities in treatment.

References to the Rāmāyaṇa as such in Buddhist sources are met with in the commentaries and in the texts of the later period such as the Cūlavaṃsa. The former dismiss the epic with the uncomplimentary remark that it is ‘purposeless talk’. But the Jātaka literature has many scattered fragments which echo episodes from the story. It has been suggested that these fragments or ākhyānas may have been put together in the larger epic, the implication being that both Jātaka stories and the rāma-kathā derive from a common oral tradition. That the Jātaka versions were not an attempt at an alternative version of the Rāmāyaṇa seems evident from the absence of any rewriting of the epic as such in the Buddhist tradition. The stories merely illustrate certain actions by recourse to tales familiar to a wide audience, although the details of the stories often differ from the episodes in the Rāmāyaṇa. These differences are important. The Jātaka stories associated with the Rāmāyaṇa consist either of those which relate events parallel to the events of the Rāmāyaṇa or which contain verses alluding to the narrative of the Rāmāyaṇa or personalities involved in the story. The selection is therefore not arbitrary. There are some Jātakas where the reference is indirect but quite clearly to the Rāmāyaṇa itself as when a verse describes the emotion of Rāma’s mother on his exile to Daṇḍaka or the reference to Sītā’s devotion to Rāma as reflected in her accompanying her husband into exile. Rāma is described as daśaratha-rājaputta in the commentary to this Jātaka. There is also a reference to a Rāma-mātuposaka, an inhabitant of Varanasi who went to Daṇḍaka, a country which was being destroyed by the wickedness of the king. Other Jātakas refer to places, persons and episodes which are also mentioned in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa or can be associated with this text. Thus Daṇḍaki is referred to as the king ruling over Daṇḍaka which is associated with the area extending down to the Godavari river and his capital is at Kumbhavatī. In the Ayodhyākāṇḍa of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa, Daśaratha is forced to agree to the exile of Rāma because Kekeyi invokes a boon which he had given her and the exile of his son is explained by his having to undergo the same fate as the blind parents of the young ascetic whom he had accidentally killed whilst on a hunt. This episode has its parallel in the Sāma Jātaka.

The town of Ayodhyā is known but not very clearly located. On one occasion it is said to have been attacked by the Andhavenuputta, who besieged and subjugated the city and then returned to Dvāravatī. This reference to the Andhaka-vṛṣṇi clans of the Yādava lineage is echoed in Puranic records where mention is made of the Haihayas, a segment of the Yādava lineage, attacking Kosala. The city of Sāketa which arose on the decline of Ayodhyā is more frequently mentioned in Buddhist sources and is often associated with the Śākyas.

Mithilā and Videha are mentioned more frequently in the Jātaka literature. A prince of Mithilā studied together with a prince from Varanasi at Taxila. King Videha ruled at Mithilā and was instructed in the law by four sages. Suruci is referred to as the king of Mithilā in Videha. Similarly, Makhadeva ruled for eighty-four thousand years and became a monk when he saw the first grey hair on his head—a theme often repeated in Buddhist texts. The story is further elaborated upon in the Nimi Jātaka where Makhadeva is reborn as Nimi and acquires renown as one who practises all the Buddhist precepts and virtues. He is therefore invited to visit Indra’s heaven which he does for seven days making a detour via hell. Nimi also renounces the world on sighting the first grey hair on his head and his son Kalāra-Janaka becomes king. The Mahājanaka Jātaka has a long account of the ancestry and tribulations of Mahājanaka who, having lost his right to accession at birth, manages to regain his kingdom but eventually renounces his princely existence and becomes an ascetic. The descriptions of Mithilā in this Mahājanaka Jātaka are reminiscent of the descriptions of Ayodhyā in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa as a city of considerable splendour and wealth. Elsewhere too, Videha is described as a rich land of sixteen thousand villages and with well-filled granaries and storehouses and sixteen thousand dancing girls. Names such as Nimi and Janaka occur in the Puranic genealogies of the Videha branch of the Ikṣvāku lineage. The religious and philosophical activities of these kings are not dissimilar to the descriptions of Janaka in the later Vedic literature except that in those texts the connections are with the performance of Vedic yajñas and the pre-occupation with Upanisadic discourses.

The Jātaka story which comes closest to the theme of the Rāmāyaṇa is, of course, the Dasaratha Jātaka and this has been commented upon at length. Dasaratha is described as the king of Varanasi. He has two sons, Rāma-paṇḍita and Lakkhana, and a daughter, Sītā-devī, from his eldest queen. After her death he raises another wife to the status of queen consort and she demands that her son Bharata be made the heir-apparent. The king, frightened that the new consort will harm the elder sons suggests to them that they flee to the neighbouring kingdom and claim their rights after Dasaratha has died, it having been prophesied that Dasaratha would die after twelve years. Sītā accompanies her brothers and the three go to the Himalaya. Dasaratha dies after nine years. Bharata, refusing to become king, goes in search of Rāma and tries to persuade him to return. Lakkhana and Sītā, on hearing of their father’s death, faint, but Rāma preaches to them on the impermanence of life. Rāma insists that he will return only after the twelve years have been completed and therefore gives his sandals to Bharata to guide him in taking decisions. Finally, Rāma returns to his kingdom, makes Sītā his queen consort and rules righteously for sixteen thousand years.

This is in essence the story of the Ayodhyā-kāṇḍa, the second book of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. But it also carries traces of the origin myths of various kṣatriya clans, pre-eminently the Śākyas and Koliyas, described in other Buddhist sources. King Okkāka, the founder of the Okkāka or Ikṣvāku lineage and the ancestor of the Śākyas, banished the children of his elder queen to the Himalaya and made the son of the younger queen his heir. The exiled children, four sons and fi ve daughters, paired off and became the ancestors of the Śākyas, founding a city at Kapilavastu. The origin of the Koliyas is linked to this story and is traced back to Rāma, the king of Varanasi who was exiled because he had leprosy. He cured himself as well as the eldest daughter of King Okkāka, whom her brothers had left in the forest. They lived together in a kol tree and became the parents of sixteen twins, the ancestors of the Koliyas. Koliyanagara was built at the site of the kol tree. The thirty-two Koliya princes abducted the daughters of their maternal uncles, the Śakyas, in the accepted manner of certain cross cousin marriage systems.

The link between Okkāka and the northern region is emphasized in both these stories as also in a Jātaka story which states that Okkāka sent for a Madra princess for his son Kuśa. On this occasion Okkāka is said to be the king of the Mallas ruling from Kuśavatī. The princess curiously has a hunchbacked nurse. The Madras were the neighbours of the Kekeyas in northern India. That the Ikṣvākus were originally based further to the west and appear to have migrated eastwards to the middle Ganga valley is implied in certain references to them in Vedic literature. In case of such a migration the shorter and more likely route was probably along the foothills of the Himalaya and the northern fringes of the Ganga valley.

At some point the lineage of Okkāka was connected with that of Ikṣvāku. The name Okkāka is said to derive from Okkamukha because when he spoke light seemed to come from his mouth. The Northern Buddhist tradition equates Okkāka with Ikṣvāku and derives the etymology from ikṣu, sugarcane, the usual etymology in Puranic sources. Was the association with the Ikṣvākus a later attempt to link the kṣatriya clans which supported Buddhism with one of the two major royal lineages of the Puranic kṣatriya tradition? This may explain why these clans are given no importance in the Puranic accounts. The relevance of Buddhist origin myths to the epic has to do with the association of these clans with the janapada of Kosala.

The theme of exile occurs more than once in the Jātaka literature, but of these the Sambula Jātaka is the closest in detail to the Rāmāyaṇa story. A prince exiles himself on account of leprosy and his wife accompanies him. She is kidnapped by a rakkhasa in the forest, but Śakra comes to her aid and she returns to her husband. In spite of her many efforts to reassure him he remains suspicious of her chastity. Ultimately they are reconciled. It is, however, the Vessantara Jātaka which is most frequently quoted in connection with the exile theme. Vessantara, the son of the ruler of Sivi, is the epitome of the gift-giving prince since he bestows his wealth in the form of dāna on all who ask for it. Finally, he goes to the extent of gifting his famous rain-inducing elephant to the king of Kaliṅga who asks for it in order to terminate a prolonged drought in Kaliṅga. This incenses the subjects of Vessantara who banish him from the kingdom, the loss of this particular elephant symbolizing the loss of prosperity. His wife, in emulation of Sītā, accompanies him into exile. He travels to the Ceta/Cedi kingdom and lives in the Gandhamadana forest. Even here he is beset by greedy brāhmaṇas. His children are taken away by a brāhmaṇa from Kalinga and another asks for his wife to work as a slave. Eventually Śakra appears and it turns out that the tribulations of Vessantara are a test of his generosity.

Underlying the many stories there are some themes which appear to be significant not only in themselves but also as suggestive of some of the ideas which might have gone into the shaping of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa as well, although from a non-Buddhist perspective. There is first of all the extension of the geographical circumference. Mention is made of the links and alliances between the janapadas of the middle Ganga valley with janapadas in two diff erent directions. One appears to have been along the northern route, the uttarapatha, to the janapadas of the Indo-Gangetic divide, Punjab and the north-west—that of the Kurus, the Kekayas, the Madras, Gandhāra and Kāmboja. The other went in a southerly direction via Cedi to Kaliṅga. The route from Kāśī to Cedi is said to have been infested with robbers. But Cedi and Kaliṅga seem closely associated with a frequency of safe travelling. The geographical dimension is emphasized in the theme of exile where banished princes go either to the Himalaya or southwards, as for example to Cedi.

The Cedi janapada is clearly an important area. The Cetiya Jātaka gives the lineage of the Cedi kings who ruled from the capital of Sotthivatinagara in Bundelkhand. They were descended from Mahāsammata and the succession is given as far as the famous Uparicara, so named because he travelled through the sky. After him the lineage was segmented and his five sons ruled in five different regions, a statement which is confirmed in the Purāṇas. The Vessantara Jātaka mentions that the Cetarattha/ Cedirāṣṭra was full of meat, wine and rice, and inhabited by sixty thousand khattiyas who lived there as cetiya rājās. The Cedi-Kaliṅga link indicated in this Jātaka is historically attested in the Hathigumpha Inscription. Khāravela, the king of Kaliṅga, describes himself as a descendant of Uparicara Vasu, the Cedi king, and takes the title of Mahāmeghavāhana, as do other kings of Kaliṅga of this period. It would seem that the Cedis migrated or conquered the land to the southwest as far as Kaliṅga, thus extending their control from their original base in Bundelkhand.

Exile in these stories often seems to symbolize migration and settlement and even if the exiles return to their original homes, a connection with the area of exile is established. Colonization was probably expressed in the form of exile, perhaps to provide a dramatic context to the theme and an explanation for migration. Where new land was conquered and colonized the justification for the conquest was given in the theme of exile. The actual process of colonization would be similar in each case, irrespective of the story narrated for its justification. The process is described in the Jayadissa Jātaka where fresh land is settled by the king through clearing the land, building a lake, preparing the fields, bringing in one thousand families and founding a village such as will support ascetics by giving alms. New settlements result in the establishment of cities which become the capitals of new janapadas such as Kapilavastu and Koliyanagara. The city in turn symbolizes the spread of a particular cultural system.

Legitimacy is bestowed on the new settlement not by the area having been conquered but by the settlers being linked to the appropriate established lineages. Segments of the existing landowning kṣatriya lineages migrate to new areas and in settling their claim ownership by virtue of kinship links with the established lineages. The connotation of kṣatriya in the Buddhist texts was evidently more that of a landowning group than of a warrior. Thus, those who go into exile are members of the rājakula and not commoners. In some cases, as in that of the Cetiya Jātaka, fragments of their genealogy are given to indicate their status; in other cases it is enough to say that they belong to the Ikṣvāku lineage. The repeated occurrence of sibling parentage may symbolize marriage between two exogamous phratries or tribal subdivisions from the period of the original settlement and the emphasis on cross-cousin marriage which, whether actual or not, does indicate the adoption of a system different from that described in non-Buddhist literature. It has also been argued that this type of marriage is a method of stressing purity of lineage, where ancestry is traced back to a single set of parents. Purity of lineage would again reinforce status. The theme of sibling marriage may suggest some traces of a system of succession where a brother and sister rule as king and queen but without conjugal relations. It appears to have been symbolic, unlike the Ptolemies of Egypt.

In terms of political sanction, these stories reflect a mixture of the gaṇa-saṅgha system of chiefships or oligarchies and the early stages of monarchy. There are references to the many thousand khattiyas or rājās ruling in certain janapadas, such as Cedi, which would indicate a gaṇa saṅgha system. In other cases individual kings are referred to, but in contrast to the two other versions, kingship is still a relatively unstable feature in these stories. Kings can be removed by angry subjects as in the case of Vessantara. Even though he was removed while yet a prince, his father could do nothing to prevent his being exiled. Other Jātakas refer to kings being removed by their subjects as also to kings being elected by popular opinion, or situations of crisis where kings are called upon to abdicate.

These concerns are in turn enveloped in a Buddhist ethos. There is an emphasis on dāna where gift-giving becomes a major criterion of morality, as also the emphasis on karuṇā or compassion, so clearly expressed in the treatment of the story of the young ascetic killed by the king but revived by the faith of the blind parents. The benevolent and helping hand of Śakra assists in this. Central to this ethos is the bodhisattva ideal with the notion of rebirth to help in the salvation of others. In later times the ideal of the king and the bodhisattva were to merge, but at this point there is only the occasional king who is in fact a bodhisattva.

These four themes—the extension of the geographical area, migration and settlement, social and political legitimacy, and religious sanction—are recognized components of charters of validation and occur, as we shall see, in other versions of the Rāmāyaṇa story as well. In the Jātaka literature they are not integrated into a single text but remain as isolated episodes. There was evidently a floating oral tradition of such stories, probably a range of oral epics, and episodes from these were consciously worked into the text of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. That references are made to the text in the Jātaka stories would reflect the wide currency of the text at a period subsequent to the mid-first millennium BC.

It would be worth examining the way in which these four themes run parallel in the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa. This raises the problem of indicating at least some of the interpolations in the text, as also of sorting out the fragments which went into its making. There are two easily recognizable foci to the story, the events which centre on the kingdom of Ayodhyā and those which concern the period of exile. Within each of these a number of sub-fragments can be detected. It is also generally agreed that apart from specific interpolations, which are many, there are two substantial additions, namely, the Bāla-kāṇḍa and the Uttara-kāṇḍa, the first and the seventh books. These additions are largely extraneous to the story and appear to have been added mainly for didactic purposes. Both books carry many of the stock-in-trade myths from the vaṃśānucarita sections of the Purāṇas and from the Mahābhārata. In the case of the Rāmāyaṇa these are primarily the myths connected with the Ikṣvāku lineage. The first and the last books are again the ones in which the role of Rāma as the avatāra of Viṣṇu is highlighted, suggesting that these sections may have been introduced to convert the epic into a part of the Bhāgavata literature. The justification for the killing of Rāvaṇa is sought in the appeal to Viṣṇu to incarnate himself and eliminate evil from the earth. Another aspect of the rise of Viṣṇu is the demoting of Indra, which is apparent in some sections of the seventh book in particular. Indra, who in the Vedic literature is said to have been the protector of the Bharatas and the Cedis and various other clans, was both a warrior-deity as well as a practitioner of magical power as conveyed through yātu and māyā. The use of his vajra, thunderbolt, is symbolic of this. The introduction of Sītā as a fertility goddess and the testing of her chastity and ultimate return to the earth are also included in these additions. It may be suggested that the conversion of Rāma from hero to deity has as its counterweight, the dethroning of Sītā as an independent goddess in her own right.

Apart from these obvious indications of later additions, there are other features which would further support this argument. The first and last books display a heightened consciousness regarding caste differences as compared to the earlier sections. This is particularly noticeable in the insistence on the elevated status of the brāhmaṇa in contrast to the śūdra and the prohibition on the mixing of castes. Although kṛṣi, gorakṣā and vāṇijya are mentioned as the three main occupations, it is clear that herding and agriculture continue to be important. The plough is referred to only in the later books and, curiously, throughout the period of exile no mention is made of anyone ploughing. Merchants adorning the city and the complexities of occupations required for trading societies in the context of developed urban cultures are again features restricted to the first and last books, although references to shops, markets, etc. are made in connection with commerce in other sections of the text. Similarly, in the process of gift-giving on various occasions, cattle, horses and gold take precedence over other forms of gifts. The gifting of villages, although known, is less frequent and is associated with Kosala. A reference to sāmanta in the Bāla-kānda could also indicate a late date for this section unless it was referring to neighbours.

One may therefore assume the validity of the theory that the original text consisted of what are now books two to six and that the first and seventh are later additions, quite apart from specific interpolations in the earlier texts as well. In the earlier sections the societies of both Kosala and the Rākṣasas are relatively less complex and the Rākṣasas approximate to human society to a far greater extent than in the later sections. The Rākṣasas are seen more as enemies than as demons; they perform ceremonies deriving from Vedic sanction and Rāvaṇa’s wife refers to him as ārya-putra. The impression is one of fairly equally matched societies but with different ways of life.

Romila Thapar (born 30 November 1931) is an Indian historian whose principal area of study is ancient India. She is the author of several books including the popular volume, A History of India, and is currently Professor Emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.