Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana Read online

  Devdutt Pattanaik


  An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana



  A Few Ramayana Beacons across History

  A Few Ramayana Anchors across Geography

  Ram’s Name in Different Scripts

  Prologue: Descent from Ayodhya

  1. Birth

  2. Marriage

  3. Exile

  4. Abduction

  5. Anticipation

  6. Rescue

  7. Freedom

  Author’s Note: What Shiva Told Shakti

  Epilogue: Ascent to Ayodhya



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  To all those who believe that the Mahabharata is more realistic

  and complex than the Ramayana:

  May they realize that both epics speak of dharma,

  which means human potential,

  not righteous conduct:

  the best of what we can do

  in continuously changing social contexts,

  with no guarantees or certainties,

  as we are being constantly and differently judged

  by the subject, the object and innumerable witnesses.

  In one, the protagonist is a kingmaker who can move around rules,

  while in the other the protagonist is a king who must uphold rules,

  howsoever distasteful they may be.

  A Few Ramayana Beacons Across History

  Before 2nd century BCE: Oral tellings by travelling bards

  2nd century BCE: Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana

  1st century CE: Vyasa’s Ramopakhyan in his Mahabharata

  2nd century CE: Bhasa’s Sanskrit play Pratima-nataka

  3rd century CE: Sanskrit Vishnu Purana

  4th century CE: Vimalasuri’s Prakrit Paumachariya (Jain)

  5th century CE: Kalidasa’s Sanskrit Raghuvamsa

  6th century CE: Pali Dashratha Jataka (Buddhist)

  6th century CE: First images of Ram on Deogarh temple walls

  7th century CE: Sanskrit Bhattikavya

  8th century CE: Bhavabhuti’s Sanskrit play Mahavira-charita

  9th century CE: Sanskrit Bhagavat Purana

  10th century CE: Murari’s Sanskrit play Anargha-Raghava

  11th century: Bhoja’s Sanskrit Champu Ramayana

  12th century: Kamban’s Tamil Iramavataram

  13th century: Sanskrit Adhyatma Ramayana

  13th century: Buddha Reddy’s Telugu Ranganath Ramayana

  14th century: Sanskrit Adbhut Ramayana

  15th century: Krittivasa’s Bengali Ramayana

  15th century: Kandali’s Assamese Ramayana

  15th century: Balaram Das’s Odia Dandi Ramayana

  15th century: Sanskrit Ananda Ramayana

  16th century: Tulsidas’s Avadhi Ram-charit-manas

  16th century: Akbar’s collection of Ramayana paintings

  16th century: Eknath’s Marathi Bhavarth Ramayana

  16th century: Torave’s Kannada Ramayana

  17th century: Guru Govind Singh’s Braj Gobind Ramayana, as part of Dasam Granth

  18th century: Giridhar’s Gujarati Ramayana

  18th century: Divakara Prakasa Bhatta’s Kashmiri Ramayana

  19th century: Bhanubhakta’s Nepali Ramayana

  1921: Cinema, silent film Sati Sulochana

  1943: Cinema, Ram Rajya (only film seen by Mahatma Gandhi)

  1955: Radio, Marathi Geet Ramayana

  1970: Comic book, Amar Chitra Katha’s Rama

  1987: Television, Ramanand Sagar’s Hindi Ramayana

  2003: Novel, Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series

  *Dating is approximate and highly speculative, especially of the earlier works.

  The Ramayana literature can be studied in four phases. The first phase, till the second century CE, is when the Valmiki Ramayana takes final shape. In the second phase, between the second and tenth centuries CE, many Sanskrit and Prakrit plays and poems are written on the Ramayana. Here we see an attempt to locate Ram in Buddhist and Jain traditions as well, but he is most successfully located as the royal form of Vishnu on earth through Puranic literature. In the third phase, after the tenth century, against the backdrop of the rising tide of Islam, the Ramayana becomes the epic of choice to be put down in local tongues. Here the trend is to be devotional, with Ram as God and Hanuman as his much-venerated devotee and servant. Finally, in the fourth phase, since the nineteenth century, strongly influenced by the European and American gaze, the Ramayana is decoded, deconstructed and reimagined based on modern political theories of justice and fairness.

  The story of Ram was transmitted orally for centuries, from 500 BCE onwards, reaching its final form in Sanskrit by 200 BCE. The author of this work is identified as one Valmiki. The poetry, all scholars agree, is outstanding. It has traditionally been qualified as adi kavya, the first poem. All later poets keep referring to Valmiki as the fountainhead of Ram’s tale.

  Valmiki’s work was transmitted orally by travelling bards. It was put down in writing much later. As a result, there are two major collections of this original work – northern and southern – with about half the verses in common. The general agreement is that of the seven chapters the first (Ram’s childhood) and last (Ram’s rejection of Sita) sections are much later works.

  The brahmins resisted putting down Sanskrit in writing and preferred the oral tradition (shruti). It was the Buddhist and Jain scholars who chose the written word over the oral word, leading to speculation that the Jain and Buddhist retellings of Ram’s story were the first to be put down in writing in Pali and Prakrit.

  Regional Ramayana s were put down in writing only after 1000 CE, first in the south by the twelfth century, then in the east by the fifteenth century and finally in the north by the sixteenth century.

  Most women’s Ramayana s are oral. Songs sung in the courtyards across India refer more to domestic rituals and household issues rather than to the grand ideas of epic narratives. However, in the sixteenth century, two women did write the Ramayana: Molla in Telugu and Chandrabati in Bengali.

  Men who wrote the Ramayana belonged to different communities. Buddha Reddy belonged to the landed gentry, Balaram Das and Sarala Das belonged to the community of scribes and bureaucrats and Kamban belonged to the community of temple musicians.

  Keen to appreciate the culture of his people, the Mughal emperor Akbar, in the sixteenth century, ordered the translation of the Ramayana from Sanskrit to Persian, and got his court painters to illustrate the epic using Persian techniques. This led to a proliferation of miniature paintings based on the Ramayana patronized by kings of Rajasthan, Punjab, Himachal and the Deccan in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

  A Few Ramayana Anchors Across Geography

  * Locations not drawn to scale

  Across India there are villages and towns that associate themselves with an event in the Ramayana. In Mumbai, for example, there is a water tank called ‘Banaganga’ created by the bana (arrow) of Ram.

  Most Indians have heard songs and stories of the Ramayana or seen it being performed as a play or painted on cloth or sculpted on temple walls; few have read it. Each art form has its own unique narration, expression and point of view.

  The earliest iconography of Ram is found in the sixth-century Deogarh temple in Uttar Pradesh established during the Gupta period. Here he is identified as an avatar of Vishnu, who in turn is associated with royalty.

  The Alvars of Tamil Nadu wrote the earliest bhakti songs that refer to Ram in devoti