“Ramo Vigrahavan dharmah writes Shri Valmiki. Wherever there is Dharma, there is Rama. When Ravana wants to kill Rama, Mareecha, a demon and an ally of Ravana tells him that “you cannot take Rama away from this world because Rama is not a person, he is a concept.”
Vishaka Hari, a Harikatha exponent, spoke about the spread of Ramayana across the world at Namaste 2020. She says when Valmiki met Sage Narada, he asks him: “Can there be a single person, a single hero for all nations?” Is there any person who represents total excellence - “konvasmin saampratam loke gunavaan ”. I want to see that person right now, meet that person, hear about that person."
Different versions of Ramayana can be seen around the world. Every nation has respected Valmiki’s description of the qualities of a leader as expounded by him in Ayodhya Kanda Pratama Sarga. In India itself we have around 40-50 different versions of the Ramayana in different languages - the Kamba Ramayana in Tamizh, Madhava KaNDali in Assamese, Gona Budha’s Ranganatha Ramayanam in Telugu, Jagmohan Ramayana in Oriya, Narahari Ramayana in Kannada to name a few.
Around the world the stories are almost the same but the names, dresses, costumes, the topography, weapons are all adapted to suit that particular nation. Some stories have different versions based on their culture adaptation, says Vishaka.
Reamker is the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. “The story is Dharmic where there is fidelity, trust, loyalty, justice, love. This love should exist among Princes and among giants,” says Cambodian Ramayana.
In Thailand Ramakein is the national epic and means the glory of Rama. “Thailand’s students are taught the Ramayana in school and it is a compulsory subject. It contains ethics, philosophy and also teaches us how to live and not live,” says Vishaka. “Ramakein is a beautiful epic based on the Ramayana and in Thailand, Kings are named as Rama 1, 2 etc. It is universally believed that all humans whether Hindus, Buddhist or Muslims need truth and everybody needs that heroism where good wins over evil.”
In Thailand the inspiration is not only literary but also artistic - reflected in their dance, music, shadow puppetry. Vayang, the shadow puppetry of Thailand is influenced by the Ramayana. “Just like the Indian Bhagavata Mela, the Vaayan puppetry goes on the whole night.”
In Japan ‘Hobutsushu’ and ‘Sambo-Ekotoba’ are the most popular versions. In Ramaenna or Ramaensho, another adaption of the epic, Hanuman is ignored.
In another version is known as Bontenkoku, Tamawaka (Lord Rama) is portrayed as a flute player who rescues Himegini (Sita), his wife who was being held captive by King Baramon (Ravana). In Indonesia, It is called Ramakavaca in Bali, Kakawin or Yogesvara Ramayana in Java and Ramayana Swarnadwipa in Sumatra.
The Indonesian Ramayana traces its roots to the Sri Lankan version of Ramayana written in Tamil by Rishi Kamban and called Ramavataram. In the original Ramayana and the Indonesian version, the first half is the same (Bala Kanda and Ayodhya Kanda), however, the latter part is different. In the Indonesian version Sita is shown as a strong and powerful woman who fights the Asuras herself.
In Java in Indonesia, they have the Kakawin Ramayan. The chandas are Kakawin meter and are inspired by Sanskrit poetry. In Java ballet they make it a point to depict the Ramayana.
In addition, there are the Mongolian and Russian Ramayanas which are translated versions. The Kalmyks of Russia trace roots from Mongolia. In Mongolia, a commentary by Dmar-ston Chos-rgyal of Dbus commentates about the Ramayana in Subhasitaratnanidhi.
In Phillipines, the Maranao version is known as Maharadia Lawana (Ravana). In this one, many characters, names, and events are different from the original since it seems to narrate the adventures and life of the monkey-king, Maharadia Lawana who has a gift of immortality from the supreme gods. The Singkil dance of the Philippines is inspired from this epic.
In Laos it is called Phra Lak Phra Lam. The Lao people believe that Laos was a city of King Lava who was the son of Rama (Lava-Kusa were sons of Rama and Sita) and their mention is found in Phra Lak Phra Ram, the national epic of the Lao’s.
In the Chinese Jataka stories of Rama, Liudu ji jing, a Buddhist text tells the story of Ramayana. In popular folklore, Sun Wukong, a monkey-king bears a stark resemblance to Lord Hanuman.
During archaeological excavations in Iraq, 6000-year old carvings of apes and men have been found in a cave chapel built in Silemania, Iraq. The carvings resemble Warad Sin and Ram Sin of Larsa who ruled Mesopotamia for 60 years. The Jataka tales also confirm that Lord Rama ruled his kingdom for 60 years.
Vishaka says when she went to visit Chitrakoot 20 years ago she saw a beautiful museum called Ram mandir, with almost 345 versions of the Ramayana, not only as texts (from different countries), but also on the walls were paintings and other art forms which were inspired by Shri Valmiki’s Ramayana.
Who is the Real Hero of the Whole World?
Vishaka goes back to Valmiki’s original query, as to the true nature of a hero for all nations, and what should he be like?
Why does Cambodia need the Ramyana, or for that matter Thailand, the people of Burma? “It is because Rama is the universal concept of truth, Dharma, and righteousness. Whether the person is an American, Australian or Russian, he or she would expect some virtues of a typical ideal hero and that is what Valmiki has described,” says Vishaka.
A person who is filled with good virtues, heroic, the knower of Dharma, full of gratitude, the embodiment of Truth, and Rama is such an example.
“chaaritreNa cha ko yuktaH sarvabhuteshhu ko hitaH |
vidvaan kaH kaH samardhashcha kashchaika priyadarshanaH “
Narada says it is difficult to find a universal hero for all nations. A person with such different traits should be combined in one and must be the ruler of the world.
“bahavo durlabhaashchaiva ye tvayaa kiirtitaa guNaaH |
mune vakshyaamyahaM buddhvaa tairyuktaH shruuyataaM naraH”
Rama’s qualities have been expounded by Narada in the form of Samkshepa Ramayana, says Vishaka and the world is fortunate to have found these qualities in one person who is Sri Rama.
Brahma said as long as the mountains exist, as long as the lakes and seas exist, the sun and moon exist, Ramayana will exist because everybody is in need of a Ram Rajya.
We need a Rama today, but not a Ravana:
“Today, the whole world is in need of Rama at this point of time. We need to know what is right and what is not right. Literature shows us what is right and what is wrong,” says Vishaka.
Even Buddhist literature has a Ramayan called Phra Lak and Phra Lam. Lak is Lakshmana and Lam is Rama. In Buddhist Ramayana, there is no Ravana because “ahimsa paramo dharmaha” is Buddhist culture.
“You need not have Ravana, but Rama is needed. Ramayana can exist without Ravana but it can’t exist without Rama” says Vishaka.
In the Buddhist Ramayana, there is no Sita apaharan (abduction) as there is no Ravana. Rama Pandita is considered the previous incarnation of Buddha and Sita is considered as Yashodara.
The Jains also have many versions of the Ramayana. The story of Rama in Jainism is found in Ravisena's Padmapurana (Lore Ravisena's Padmapurana book of the Lotus). In Jain Ramayana, Rama does not kill Ravana but Lakshmana kills Ravana. “This is because Rama is an enlightened soul and Rama, the Jain monk, is totally “sathvik” who believe in “ahimsa paramo dharmaha”. So, the himsa part has to be destroyed and Lakshmana does it.” Jains believe that day RAvana will also be reborn as a Tirthankara and there is scope for every person to go to the next level. As per Valmiki’s Ramayana, every character is important and one can't do away with any character.
In the Jain Ramayana, Ayodhya is known as Saket and is home to five Tirthankaras of the current cycle: the first Rishabha-nath, the second Ajita-nath, the fourth Abhinandan-nath, the fifth Sumati-nath, and the 14th Ananta-nath. Of the 24 Tirthankaras, 22 belong to the Ikshavaku dynasty, which is the dynasty of Ram. Ajita-nath’s son Sagara was a Chakravarti, and an ancestor of Ram, says an article in DailyO.
Vishaka Hari also points to a Muslim Ramayana. The ‘Mappila paatu’, or collection of folk songs from the Malabar region of Kerala in the colloquial Mappila dialect of Malayalam interspersed with Persian, arabic, Hindustani etc are part of this genre.
Sikh gurus, especially Guru Gobind Singh, have spread the philosophy behind the Ramayana. In the Guru Grant Sahib, Ravana is the Ego, Sita is buddhi, Lakshmana is the manas and Rama the inner soul.
The French renditions of Valmiki's 48,000 verses have been lavishly illustrated with 660 miniatures shortlisted from 5,000 Ramayan inspired paintings that Paris based publisher, Diane de Selliers, located during a 10-year search that took her to 42 museums in 37 cities and little towns across 11 countries. Speaking at the release of the Volume, French foreign minister Alain Juppe said the Ramayana is the wisdom that deals with the goals of human life and is the root of the culture.
Says Vishaka “India’s greatest contribution to the world is our Ramayana which we need to cherish. Rama is a concept to be celebrated and followed.”
She ends with a line by Carnatic composer Thyagaraja - “Anupama gunambudhi Yani Ninnu Nera Nammi Anusarincina Vaadanaiti” - "You are an ocean of virtues. I believe that I can imbibe at least one percent of your ocean of virtues. If I do so, it is going to do me so much good."
(With inputs from Hema Srinivasan)