These major deviations in the popular story reflects the social fabric of different eras which called for different versions.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Ramayana as we know it is the one we saw on television. It ran on television during the 1980s and then again during the lockdown due to the covid pandemic. Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana was adapted from Tulsidas’s Ramacharitamanas. Most of us have become so familiar with the story and characters that we don’t realize that there are many versions of this great epic. There exist several tellings of the story in India itself let alone other countries or cultures.
The version that is etched on our minds is the story of virtuous Sita being kidnapped by the evil Ravana. Then Rama, who is Sita’s husband goes to Lanka to rescue her. Rama is helped by his brother Laxman and the monkey army. This is the go-to version for citing examples of morality.
The social fabric of different eras called for different versions. It is also an example of the type of freedom that existed for people of different cultures and times to come up with their versions. These versions were never meant to be disrespectful but were just a celebration of the times.
Adbhut Ramayana (All powerful Sita as Kali)
We all know that Valmiki has to his name one popular version of Ramanaya. You will be surprised to know that Valmiki wrote other versions of Ramanaya too like Yoga Vashistha and Adbhut Ramanaya. Yoga Vashistha is more philosophical in nature with the epic as the backdrop. But the Adbhut version is a deviation from the social standard. In this version, Sita is not helpless who waits for her husband to arrive to help her. When Rama is wounded in battle she assumes the form of Kali and destroys the enemy. The Gods had to come to pacify her. As some feminists detest the other version by Valmiki which portrays Sita as meek, this version will be more to their liking.
Sanghadasa's Jaina version (Sita as daughter of Ravana)
In Sanghadasa's Jaina version of Ramayana, Sita, entitled Vasudevahindi, is born as the daughter of Ravana. According to this version, astrologers predict that first child of Vidyadhara Maya (Ravana's wife) will destroy his lineage. Thus, Ravana abandons her and orders the infant to be buried in a distant land where she is later discovered and adopted by Janaka.
Dasaratha Jataka (Siblings – Ram and Sita)
This is a Buddhist version which might appear shocking at first. Rama and Sita are brother and sister in this version. The Jataka describes the previous birth of Buddha as Rama-Pandita, a Bodhisattva. Bodhisatta, the crown prince, was sent to exile of twelve years by his father, King Dasaratha, as his father was afraid that the Bodhisatta would be killed by his step-mother for the kingdom (of Varanasi). Rama, Laxman and Sita in fact go to the Himalayas. But, the King died just after nine years. The son of the step-mother being kind and honorable refused to be crowned as the right belong to his older brother. They go to search the Bodhisatta and the other two until they found them and tell the three about their father's death. He refused to crown him that time to keep his words to his fathers, as his exile was not completed and give his slippers to rule the kingdom instead. After the exile, the Bodhisatta returned to the kingdom and everybody celebrated the event. There is no Ravana in this version.
Paumachariya (Laxman Kills Ravan)
Written by Vimalsuri the Jain version of the Ramayana is called Paumachariya. In this version, the characters don’t have the so-called superpowers and the story has no fantasy. In a very logical manner, the story mentions about a clan of warriors who have a monkey as an emblem. As Rama is the hero and has taken a vow of non-violence he is not the one to kill Ravana. Rama’s control of his instincts is celebrated in this version and the responsibility of killing Ravan had to be fulfilled by Laxman.
Gond Ramayani (Laxman gives Agni Pareksha)
The Gond tribe of India is world-renowned for their painting and artwork. This tribe has a set of seven tales that depict a different version of Ramayana. In this version, Laxman is the protagonist and Indra’s daughter Indrakamani who is infatuated by Laxman flies to earth to seduce him. When Laxman does not relent she tears off her clothes in agony and frustration. When Sita sees the torn clothes she suspects Laxman of immoral behaviour. Laxman has to go through the Agni Pareksha to prove his chastity.
Ramakien (Hanuman is not a celibate)
Hanuman is in the center of the story in the Thai versions of Ramayana. Hanuman is not celibate. Ravana is depicted as a scholar and a worthy king. His love for Sita is true and he submits to fate in this pursuit. In Thailand, these versions are for entertainment and not a guide for moral conduct as in India.
Adhyatmaramayanam Kilipattu (Maya Sita)
Ezhuthachchan wrote his version of Ramayana in Malayalam named Adhyatmaramayanam Kilipattu. ‘Kilipattu’ refers to ‘bird’s song’ in Malayalam. In this version of Ramayana, a parrot sings and narrates the entire story. The story has a major deviation from the popular versions with the character of Maya Sita or the concept of her shadow. Sita disappears before her abduction and appears during the Agni Pareksha after the war. So as per this version, it was her Maya version which was kidnapped and taken to Ashok Vatika. Even Tulsidas is supposed to have a mention of Maya Sita. In another version, Agni’s companion Swaha had transformed herself into Sita before her abduction. So Agni had already taken Sita to Pataal Lok and kept his own wife Swaha in her place.
Maharadia Lawana (Ravana does Tapas to Allah)
In Philippines, the story of Maharadia Lawana is taught in Madarassas and in households. It narrates the adventures of Maharaja Lawana (Ravana). In this Filipoino Muslim version of Ramayana, Hanuman, Lava and Kusa are fused into a single person and Ravana does Tapas to Allah. The core story is the same but with many stark differences.
In the true depiction, Ramayana can be said to be a story for entire South Asia. There are many representations and versions of Ramayana that have become part of the diverse traditions of different parts of India and abroad. Representations and interpretations of Ramayana are apparent in every corner of India. People belonging to different sections of society have taken part in celebrating this epic tale. Composers of every age and era have contributed to this story. Ramayana and its many tellings and retellings remain to be one of the key cultural constructs of India.