1. Key Points/Summary

1.1 Key Terms and Ideas

This section uses quotes from the article to explicate the key terms and ideas used. Commentary is added wherever deemed necessary.


  1. "Where Text 1 and Text 2 have a geometrical resemblance to each other, as one triangle to another (whatever the angles, sizes, or colors of the lines), we call such a relation iconic" (156). In this sense, an iconic relationship is established between the two texts if the second text retains a structural similarity such as order of episodes and approximate similarity in the plot curve.
  2. "In the West, we generally expect translations to be 'faithful', i.e., iconic" (156). As an example, take Text 1 to be a poetic work in the Greek language. Text 2 is a translation of that into the English language. Here iconic can be understood as not only the preservation of the structure of the Greek poetic work but also the reproduction of the meter of the poem as well as an exact copy of the number of lines.


"The text is embedded in a locale, a context, refers to it, even signifies it, and would not make sense without it" (157). An indexical text is one wherein the basic structures such as plot and characters stand in iconic relation to a second text, but the former text has varied in terms of indigenous customs, folklore, language, traditions, philosophies etc. This is a case where two texts bear an iconic relationship, but also have an indexical relation superimposed on the former.


"Text 2 uses the plot and characters and names of Text 1 minimally and uses them to say entirely new things, often in an effort to subvert the predecessor by producing a counter-text" (157). Here, the two texts approach similarity only in their minimal utility of plot and characters, but differ in all other respects like settings and sequence of events. In this case, two texts may sit in stark contrast to one another in their conveyed meaning and message.

Tellings vs Variations

"I have come to prefer the word tellings to the usual terms versions or variants because the latter terms can and typically do imply that there is an invariant, an original Ur-text" (134)

Prof. Ramanujan is clear in his linguistic intent. He seeks to talk about each story as an individual telling, rather than one telling as being superior than another. The distinction is crucial to the crux of the entire article. A telling is an untamed expression of the human capacity or potential, which does not take into account or seriously consider the relative closeness or departure from another telling. The spirit of this idea is found in Prof. Ramanujan's discussion of how Valimiki was inspired to write the Rāmāyaṇa. He writes: "This incident becomes, in later poetics, the parable of all poetic utterance: out of the stress of natural feeling (bhava), an artistic form has to be found or fashioned, a form which will generalize and capture the essence (rasa) of that feeling. This incident at the beginning of Valimiki gives the work an aesthetic self-awareness" (151).

In short, a telling is a direct channeling of the eternal and it carries a kind of force to serve in the quest for rendering man free. A variation or version lacks the courage and bravery in finding its own path to the pathless truth. It is bogged down by self-criticism, evaluation, comparison, and etc. A variation is a convoluted, confused attempt of the former.

1.2 Ideas of Essay

Thesis and Objective of the article

"...no text is original, yet no telling is a mere retelling - and the story has no closure, although it may be enclosed in the text."

Prof. Ramanujan's main objective in the article is purely a literary one in terms of observing texts as they are in themselves. The essay, concerned with what is only, illustrates how "all translations, even the so-called iconic ones, inevitably have all three kinds of elements", which are iconic, symbolic, and indexical. Through the five examples he presents of various tellings of Rāmāyaṇa, he illustrates the difference in the proportion of each of these elements present in the tellings. Through this process of each telling retaining a different proportion of these three elements, no telling remains original, nor does any telling become a retelling. Having done this, Prof. Ramanujan wants to state that "we read [different tellings] for different reasons and with different aesthetic expectations".

Discussion regarding the five different tellings of the Rāmāyaṇa

Prof. Ramanujan draws upon expansive sources across South and Southeast Asia to demonstrate the proliferation of Rāmāyaṇas across space-time. The essay gives a brief glimpse of the expansive depth and magnitude of the Rāmāyaṇa's history, retreating to only five tellings in order to concisely convey the main themes present in the various tellings of the Rāmāyaṇa.

The essay opens with a lengthy story of about the Rāmāyaṇa, detailing Rāma's many reincarnations with the following: "This story is usually told to suggest that for every such Rāma there is a Rāmāyaṇa. The number of Rāmāyaṇas and the range of their influence in South and Southeast Asia over the past twenty-five hundred years or more are astonishing. Just a list of languages in which the Rāma story is found makes one gasp: Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujrati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malayasian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan--to say nothing of Western languages." (133)

However, Prof. Ramanujan adds that "Sanskrit alone contains some twenty-five or more tellings belonging to various narrative genres (epics, kāvyas or ornate poetic compositions, purāṇas or mythological stories, and so forth). If we add plays, dance-dramas, and other performances, in both the classical and folk traditions, the number of Rāmāyaṇas grows even larger. To these must be added sculpture and bas-reliefs, mask plays, puppet plays, and shadow plays, in all the many South and Southeast Asian cultures." (133-134).

The five main tellings Prof. Ramanujan gives as examples are: (1) Vālmīki and (2) Kampan tellings through a comparison of the Ahalyā episode, (3) the Thai Ramakien, (4) Jain tellings, and (5) South Indian folk tellings.

Comparison of the Valmiki and Kampan tellings

Drawing a comparison between Vālmīki's and Kampan's Rāmāyaṇas, Prof. Ramanujan de-privileges the canonical Rāmāyaṇa and synthesizes both the histories and historiagraphies of all the Rāmāyaṇas which make up the body of "Rāmāyaṇa" as a genre itself.

"Kampan, here and elsewhere, not only makes full use of his predecessor Vālmīki's materials but folds in many regional folk traditions. It is often through him that they then become part of other Rāmāyaṇas." (141) Kampan is seen as a nexus point for various transmissions of the Rāmāyaṇa. In this telling, we also see the role of symbolic and iconic elements playing out in translation. With regard to iconicity, Prof. Ramanujan comments:

"[Kampan] is largely faithful in keeping to the order and sequence of episodes, the structural relations between the characters of father, son, brothers, wives, friends, and enemies. But the iconicity is limited to such structural relations."

Southeast Asian Tellings

The Tamil Rāmāyaṇa of Kampan "generates its own offspring, its own special sphere of influence" and becomes "an important link in the transmission of the Rāma story to Southeast Asia" (143).

The effects of Kampan's composition and transmission are best exemplified by the Thai Ramakien, an important representative of the Southeast Asian tellings. "It has been convincingly shown that the eighteenth-century Thai Ramakien owes much to the Tamil epic. For instance, the names of many characters of the Thai work are not Sanskrit names, but clearly Tamil names (for example, Ṛśyaśṛṅga in Sanskrit but Kalaikkōtu in Tamil, the latter borrowed in Thai)." (143) Prof. Ramanujan shows us how the Vālmīki telling does not play a central role in its for the transmission of the Ramakien, so that the lineage of the Ramakien and its successors is that of Kampan's rather than of Vālmīki's telling. The Ramakien becomes a telling, rather than a variant, because the Ramakien, being located in Thai history and culture, focuses greatly on the facets of the Rāma story concerned with war. In the Valmiki and Kampan tellings, war only comprises a small section of the entire epic. The text then becomes a largely symbolic translation. The author makes this case for both the Thai and Jain tellings, when he states:

"Vālmīki's Hindu and Vimalasuri's Jain texts in India - or the Thai Ramakirti in Southeast Asia - are symbolic translations of each other" because of the extent to which each of the Rāma stories becomes "almost a second language of the whole culture area, a shared core of names, characters, incidents, and motifs" (157). One narrative uses this core to make certain statements while another uses them to make totally different statements.

1.3 Summary

Conclusive remarks on the summary/key points

By illustrating the various ways that each of the 5 tellings expresses the three elements of indexical, symbolic, and iconic translation, Prof. Ramanujan asserts with strong evidence that each telling is neither original nor a retelling of another. Using his literary analysis, Prof. Ramanujan is able to argue that the Rāmāyaṇa "is not merely a set of individual texts, but a genre with a variety of instances" (157).

It is then fitting to conclude with the following remark by Prof. Ramanujan in his article:

"To some extent all later Rāmāyaṇas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are meta-Rāmāyaṇas. I cannot resist repeating my favorite example. In several of the later Rāmāyaṇas (such as the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa, sixteenth century), when Rāma is exiled, he does not want Sītā to go with him into the forest. Sītā argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, 'Countless Rāmāyaṇas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sītā doesn't go with Rāma to the forest?' That clinches the argument, ans she goes with him (Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa 2.4.77-78; see Nath 1913, 39). And as nothing in India occurs uniquely, even this motif appears in more than one Rāmāyaṇa" (143).