Voyages of Rāmāyaṇa: A Reflective Essay on A.K. Ramanjuan’s Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas

Due to its abundance of influential epics and its long history of oral traditions, India can be considered the “motherland of epics”. In many cultures around the world, epics date back to the ancient times in the history derive from oral traditions and are products of the collective knowledge of the people, therefore, they are not attributed to one particular author. One of the great epics of India, Rāmāyaṇa, however, is closely affiliated with its author Vālmīki. In this brief essay, it is my aim to look at the epic Rāmāyaṇa and its variations in other cultures from a folkloric perspective, and reflect on A.K. Ramanujan's essay Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas.

Regardless of whether Vālmīki retained much of the epic in its earlier form or re-shaped it with his unique perspective, the Rāmāyaṇa placed itself as one of the major folkloric sources in Indian culture. Despite this regional affiliation and well-defined authorship, the Rāmāyaṇa managed to travel across regions and penetrated into the layers of the cultures of many other societies. Literature, as clearly seen in Rāmāyaṇa’s journey across cultures, is not defined by or subject to the boundaries of geographical borders. Its images and messages pass beyond the pre-defined limits, and channel into the lives of people. Development and change that lead to multiple variations for this epic prove that the textual universe of the Rāmāyaṇa is quite diverse and immense.

Rāmāyaṇa’s spread to numerous other cultures and languages during the past two millennia verify that it has provided many cultures with a story wherein people found a sophisticated expression of their deep emotion and aesthetic needs. “Our primaeval poem, our adi-kavya, the Rāmāyaṇa welled forth at the grievous sight of the death of a love-lorn avian couple shot by a hunter. A new metrical measure surged forth in all spontaneity from the anguish and agony of the bird falling dead. The ephemeral shoka of Vālmīki became the perennial shloka of Indian literature. Primal pain was a perennial poem. The leaves, the bird, the air, the falling, the forlorn forest had opened up inside the whole being of a nation. Ever since Rāmāyaṇa has become the lyric of men of Asia from the Urals to Indonesia” (Chandra, 19).

It is the essence of the Rāmāyaṇa that captures a piece of life. It is this greatness found in the composition of the Rāmāyaṇa, which seems to remain and find itself new contexts in which to flourish. The great variety of India’s images in the world derives from the same underlying deep structure on which the images shared across many cultures all around the world. These deep surface structure elements seen in Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa are universal; they represent the dynamics of these deep structures in the choice of the author and articulation of images.

It is the universality of the images found in the Rāmāyaṇa that bound many cultures together; yet, it is the choice of these cultures to transform the images and adapt the story through their unique perspective. The community experience of a society and the events that shape a particular culture require such adaptation, and in turn, provides a literary piece, such as Ramayana, its echoing variations.

The variations of the Rāmāyaṇa have been so wide spread that the scholar, A.K. Ramanjuan, undertook the challenge to trace the variations of the literary piece across cultures. He names his critical attempt Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas, and he aims to reconstruct a reasonable original Rāmāyaṇa that gave the rise to all of the variations. The essay examines the Rāmāyaṇa traditions in Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai and Tibetian.

Ramanjuan shows that each culture hosting the epic in different formats and modes of performance also retained the epic in oral form the sets of themes unknown to Vālmīki. While providing the audience with the varying tellings of the epic, and showing how each culture has internalized the Rāmāyaṇa by adding their own cultural, religious, and linguistic elements into it, Ramanjuan draws a clear picture of the power of the epic that was once originated in India.

Overall, Ramanjuan’s attempt to capture the existing variations of the Rāmāyaṇa in cultures other than Indian, and providing the audience with brief remarks on each piece place the essay Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas and its author at a rather significant place. Whether the essay lends itself to subjectivity while deconstructing the variations immaterial, as any piece written by a human being will have its limitations and display traces of personal perceptions. A good approach to this essay is to read it as an intellectual attempt to draw a road map that has explored the voyages of the Rāmāyaṇa.