The many Ramayans and the futility of finding geography in itihasa
Irony died a thousand deaths when the likes of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) condemned Nepalese PM Oli's statement on Lord Rama and demanded him to be kept out of politics. But why do political forces keep trying to appropriate Ramayan for their own interests? Can itihasa be found and be bound to territory?
One day Rama was sitting on his throne and his ring fell off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and disappeared into it. It was gone and no one in the hall could find it. His trusty henchman, Hanuman, was at his feet. Rama said to Hanuman, 'Look. my ring is lost. Find it for me.'
Now Hanuman, being the master shapeshifter that he is, could shrink his body to the smallest of the small and enlarge it to the largest of the large. So he shrunk his body to the tiniest of forms and went looking for the ring.
As he looked for the ring, he suddenly fell into the netherworld. Meanwhile Rama was visited by the sage Vashishtha and the God Brahma. They had come to tell Rama that his work in the world of human beings is over and his incarnation as Rama must now be given up. "Leave this body, come up, and rejoin the gods," they said.
This led to Lakshmana and Rama entering the river Sarayu and relinquishing their bodies. Meanwhile, when Hanuman finally reached the King of Spirits (bhut) in the netherworld, he demanded that Rama's ring be returned. So the King of Spirits brought him a platter with thousands of rings and asked Hanuman to pick Rama's ring. They all looked exactly the same, so Hanuman, shaking his head, said "I don't know which one it is".
The King of Spirits smiled and said "There have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth, you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rama is about to be over, his ring falls down. I collect them and keep them. Now you can go."
So Hanuman left.
This is just one of the stories in the vast traditions of Ramayana to help explain the many Ramas and the many Ramayans. Scholar and poet AK Ramanujan used this story to explain how in the many different tellings, retellings, and multiple narrative genres in both classical and folk traditions - there have been hundreds of Ramayans that can be found across South and Southeast Asia over the past twenty-five hundred years or more.
On Tuesday, Rama and Ramayana was once again dragged into politics by Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli through his claim that the “real” Ayodhya is in Nepal and Lord Ram was actually Nepalese. Oli also accused India of cultural encroachment by “creating a fake Ayodhya” and said that the real Ayodhya lies at Thori city, west of Birgunj.
As you can imagine, this caused quite a bit of a stir in India, where Rama has truly become a political totem over the last four decades. Angry Indian saints and political leaders quickly dismissed PM Oli's claim, asking Nepal to keep the religious figure out of politics.
"His comments are unwarranted. He must know that Lord Ram was a ‘chakravarti’ emperor and Nepal was also a part of his kingdom. Ties between India and Nepal are even older than history,” said Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, chairman of the Sri Ram Jamabhoomi Tirath Kshetra Trust.
Press Statement:— Vishva Hindu Parishad -VHP (@VHPDigital) July 14, 2020
Ayodhya is one & well known to the world: Alok kumar, VHP pic.twitter.com/7Hv7aHraOf
Sharad Sharma, a regional spokesperson of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), even accused China of being behind the statement made by the Nepalese Prime Minister. “The prime minister of Nepal is making baseless and unwarranted statements at the behest of China. Nothing can be more absurd than this statement. All religious scriptures prove that Lord Ram was born in Ayodhya in India,” he said.
While Raju Das, priest of Hanuman Garhi, said Oli’s statement as a ploy to divert attention from increasing opposition he is facing in Nepal.
“At present, the Nepalese PM is under immense pressure from the opposition to resign from his post. With no option left, he has given this absurd statement just to divert attention of people from ongoing political turmoil in the country,” said Das.
Is itihasa Tangible?
Now, overlooking the irony of VHP and RSS affiliates asking for Rama to be kept out of politics, there is one crucial point that the politicians have missed. That is that epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are itihasa, which is not the same as the western idea of 'history'. In what historian Ranajit Guha terms as "an Indian historiography of India", itihasa is alive in the multiple traditions that aim to contextualise these stories by putting a greater emphasis on the processes of thought and cultures than on the flow of events restricted by territory.
Thus, from the very beginning, it has been futile to find the actual Ayodhya or look for the DNA traces of Rama. When the Ram Janmabhoomi movement took place and the Babri mosque was demolished in the 90s by the Kar Sevaks, it was as much a display of disregard to our tradition of itihasa, as it is in the claims of the Nepalese Prime Minister.
According to Ramanujan, the hundreds of tellings of Ramayana not only differ from one another, but there is not one original version of Ramayana. The story may be the same in two tellings, but the discourse may be vastly different. Even the structure and sequence of events may be the same, but the style, details, tone, and texture - and therefore the import - may be vastly different.
The story of Ramayana travelled all across the subcontinent and beyond, and became highly indigenous with various elements of the tale changing suitably to match the local cultural ethos.
The Many Ramayans
Valmiki's Ramayana is as authentic as Thailand's national epic Ramakein, which derives influences from the Buddhist Jataka tales of Rama's, which in turn is also influenced by the Tamil Ramayana of Kampan.
The spread of Buddhism brought Ramayana to Japan where it came to be known as Ramaenna or Ramaensho. In turn, this gave rise to different iterations like Suwa engi no koto and Bontenkoku. In China, the earliest known telling of Ramayana is found in the Buddhist text, Liudu ji jing. Significantly, and unlike in Japan, the impact of Ramayana on Chinese society was arguably responsible for the creation of a popular fictional monkey king's character, Sun Wukong (Hanuman), in a sixteenth century novel Xiyou ji.
The epic finds mention in the Malay Peninsula in the form of Hikayat Maharaja Wana and Hikayat Seri Rama, composed in the late 16th century. In these, Maharaja Wana (Ravana) and Siti Dewi (Sita) are biological father and daughter - a narrative thread that can also be found in the Jain tellings of Ramayana.
Meanwhile, we find the depiction of various episodes of the Cambodian Reamker on the carved reliefs at the world-famous temples of Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei and Baphuon, built around the 10th century. In Laos too, the epic is prevalent as Myongsing Ramayana, Phra Lak Phra Lam and Guay Duorahbi. In Myanmar, the two variants, Rama Thagyin and Maha Rama, composed in the 18th and 19th centuries respectively, are very popular. The Filipinos know Ramayana as Maharadia Lawana and Vietnam's famous dance-drama lakhon bassac depicts their version of the epic.
In Indonesia, the epic was written in the 10th century as Kakawin Ramayana with its influence also permeating to Wayang Kulit – one of the oldest and most revered forms of shadow puppet theatre in that region.
And these are just some of the iterations of the tale. There are thousands of folk tellings of Ramayana found across India which might differ heavily in details or perspective.
When Adikavi Bhanubhakta Acharya was translating Ramayan in Nepali in the 19th century, he must have written a version that is informed by these hundreds of preexisting tellings and yet would be different from all of them.
So the itihasa is that Ramayan is a result of cultural fusion, intertextuality, and métissage for over hundreds of years.
By making political claims which defeat the purpose and tradition of itihasa like Ramayan, the Nepalese prime minister is making the same mistake that zealots from India did in the 1990s.
After all, you can't look for Ram and Ramayana in small swathes of land. Culture probably doesn't care about territory.