Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Versions of the Ramayana

[For people who don't know The Ramayana at all, here is a short version of the story you can look at to gain some familiarity.]

I've been following the discussion of an episode of The Ramayana at Locana. The discussion concerns an event near the end of the saga, after Sita has already undergone the trial by fire (Agni Pariksha), proving her fidelity to Rama during the time she was abducted by Ravana. In some versions of The Ramayana, the trial by fire is essentially the end of the story for Sita. A couple of more things happen, but then Rama rules for 10,000 years.

But in the Malayalam version Anand's father grew up with (the post is actually the text of an article by Anand's father, N.V.P. Unithiri), the Agni Pariksha isn't enough to clear Sita's honor, and the persistent rumors force Rama to abandon Sita once again. Here is the passage quoted:

"What the society thinks is important. The Gods too look down upon ill fame, and fame brings respect everywhere. Does not every noble man yearn for it? I fear dishonour, oh, learned men, I'll even renounce your company and my own life, if needed, for the sake of honour. Sita has to be deserted. Understand my state of mind, I wasn't sadder on anyday before. Lakshmana, tomorrow you take Sita in Sumantra's chariot and leave her at our border. Abandon her near the holy Ashram of Sage Valmiki on the banks of the Tamasa river, and get back here soon."

This episode is known as Sita Parityaga. I'll be referring to it in this post simply as the abandonment of Sita.

A helpful chart of the different written Ramayanas is here. Notably, the first vernacular version of the story was in Tamil. And in at least one version of the story (Tulsi Das's 16th century version in Awadhi/'Old Hindi'), there is no banishment at all for Sita. And some versions listed have Sita banished, but then (and this seems dignified) she refuses to return.

The classic Griffith English translation (episode here; Table of Contents here) also doesn't mention anything about Sita's banishment. The Amar Chitra Katha version is the same -- after Sita's Agni Pariksha, it's Ram and Sita, happily ever after.

A detailed but still skimmable English version of a version of The Ramayana that does include Sita's abandonment can be found at this site at Syracuse (direct link here). In this version, as in the Malayalam version quoted above, Rama instructs Lakshmana to abandon Sita in the forest (interestingly, Rama doesn't tell her himself what he's doing). Sita passes out, and is rescued by Valmiki, who takes her to his Ashram. There she gives birth to Rama's twin sons, Lava and Kusa. As the children grow up, Valmiki composes The Ramayana to tell the sons the story of their father's greatness. A number of years later, the sons recite the story to Rama, who recognizes it and reclaims them. Sita also returns finally, and is proven innocent through yet another divine test. This time, she asks the earth to swallow her up to prove her fidelity, and the earth opens and she disappears. And Rama's 10,000 year rule is without her. (A little sad, is it not?)

In the comments of Anand's post, several of the commentors question Rama's definition of 'honor' in the abandonment of Sita. Dilip D'Souza, for instance, says that if people are casting aspersions on Rama's wife's fidelity, it's his job to stand by her. (Especially since, in this case, she has already been vindicated via a trial by fire. In the passage quoted above, it seems pretty clear that Rama knows Sita was faithful, but is going ahead with the banishment as a matter of public "honor")

The nice thing about an oral tradition is, you can choose for yourself the version you prefer in your own retellings. (In some oral versions of The Ramayana, for instance, it is Sita who kills Ravana with Rama's bow in the great final battle in Lanka, not Rama.) Speaking for myself alone, if I were to tell this story to a child, I would probably take out both episodes -- the trial by fire and the final abandonment of Sita -- and find some other way to introduce the role of Valmiki and the twins (that part I like; interesting self-reflexivity). I don't see why Rama can't simply trust Sita when she says she rejected Ravana's advances.

We have to acknowledge the many trials of Sita in the early written versions of The Ramayana, as a matter of academic accuracy and respect for the history. And The Ramayana is, like The Odyssey, a great and important epic saga that is an important part of the heritage of world literature. (And I hope nothing in this post comes across as disrespectful of either the story or the broader Hindu tradition in which it plays an important part.)

But in terms of using The Ramayana to transmit values to young people today, specifically the value of trust, I might take a different route. Is that political correctness, or is it simply being responsible?

Another question for readers: what other variants of the story have you heard?


Blogger pennathur said...


Paula Richman's essay discusses many modern interpretations of the Ramayana. The one by Subramania Bharatiar in Tamizh is my favourite.

2:53 PM  
Anonymous vk said...

I have heard several versions. One where the agni pariksha is a device to switch a "duplicate" Sita with the real one who was being protected by Agni. Another which denies the Uttara Kanda and Sita's banishment into the forest. A very popular English version of the Ramayana is by C.Rajagopalachari, and he finds it extremely hard to
accept the Uttara Kanda. The Uttara Kanda that I heard ends with Sita implicitly condemning Rama for her abandonment by refusing to go back
with him to Ayodhya, and instead returning to her mother (Earth).

It is also believed (at least among many I know) that the avatar of Vishnu in Rama ended with the Agni Pariksha, and many of his subsequent actions are interpreted in the light that he has become
an ordinary mortal in the Uttara Kanda.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

I had always heard that the Uttara Kanda and the story of Rama and Sambuka was "Prakhipta", later additions to justify a closing of the society.

11:09 PM  
Blogger tilotamma said...

apropos of what your first commentor said
it does not answer your question ......

6:29 AM  
Anonymous raj said...

You don't tell kids that Santa Claus is fake. Kids love the fairy tale version of everything. Heroes are nice and villians are bad. You would be robbing the kids of an innocent childhood if you say heroes are bad and villians are bad. When they grow up let them discover their own truth (like people find out that Santa claus is fake).

11:14 AM  
Anonymous vk said...

With regards to the question of trust, It is not suggested in the Ramayana that Rama ceased to trust Sita after the Agni-Pariksha. It is suggested that Rama's opinion in the matter is irrelevant-and because he wants to embody the ideal of kingship, he is forced to choose between his opinion and that of a common washerman's opinion when he decides to send Sita to the forest. There is something very distorted about the Rama of the agni pariksha and the Uttara Kanda. The Agni Pariksha is itself reprehensible, and Rama is rebuked by Agni for it. The stories about the "duplicate" Sita and the end of the avatar of Lord Vishnu are attempts to rationalize this anomalous behaviour.

In my opinion, there are very interesting and valuable lessons
to be learnt about (1) feminism, (2) the consequences of idealism and an attempt at "perfection" and "purity" (very bad). In my opinion, the Ramayana is as much about Sita and her greatness and strength, especially in the Uttara Kanda, as it is about Lord Rama.

2:32 PM  
Blogger tilotamma said...

Ins't that akin to the expression "like Caesar's wife" - Caesar divorced her not because she was an adultress or anything - just because with his position as emperor/king -he thought his wife should be above suspicion.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Amrit said...

Precisely this is the reason why I have never liked the Rama character. If his duty was to listen to a "dhobi", then his duty was also to protect his wife. And why Agni Pariksha? Would Sita had been less pure had she had physical relationship with Rawana? Rawana had abducted her, and he could have raped her. Why did Sita have to prove her purity by walking through fire? All these questions disturb me, and I think through these episodes the author has rightly depicted the condition of women at that time. Women were respected, same as it happens now (I know, it's debatable) but as long as they were "pure".

When you read Ramayana you find Ram is always busy playing this "Maryada Purushottam" image all the time. He was, may be, a doting husband, a loving husband, but he was definitely not a good husband.

3:30 PM  
Blogger gawker said...

I think as long as the children know this is a fairy tale it is fine, it does not matter what you tell them, it is just a story. Once you start deifying Rama, if you tell the story as a supposedly truthful account of what happened, and paint Rama to be a God of the Hindu religion, then the child will associate morality with what Rama did, thus growing up to be a person with a distorted view of women and society.

3:32 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. I must admit I've been a little bad about responding to comments here lately-- I've been trying to keep up with all the posts on Sepia Mutiny.

But the article from Paula Richman is especially helpful. At my university library, I picked up her two edited collections, "Questioning Ramayanas" and "Many Ramayanas," which have lots of really interesting essays. The highlight thus far has been A.K. Ramanujan's essay "300 Ramayanas," where he makes some brilliant points about the connection between translation and revision.

I think I'll have to do another post on Ramayana that reflects all the stuff I've picked up since yesterday, though I'm not sure when I'll have time. School is starting up soon!

3:52 PM  
Anonymous vk said...

I am not so sure about the view of women being distorted because of the deification of Rama. I come from a family of Vaishnava devotees where Rama is
revered as an avatar of Vishnu, but even as a child, I was aware of the unfair treatment meted out to Sita by Rama. In fact, the way I learnt the story of the
Agni Pariksha and the Uttara Kanda, it contained an implicit indictment of Rama's behaviour. The same goes for his killing of Vaali in return for Sugreeva's support. In this case, the accusation is from a dying Vaali. In a religious context, it is understood that the avatar of Vishnu leaves Ram at the Agni Pariksha.

There are a tremendous number of people in India who are devotees of Rama, and who are not necessarily chauvinistic. In India, deities are rather like the Greek Gods of yore. They are often unfair, badly behaved and extremely capricious, and are routinely criticized for their behaviour (e.g the behaviour of Lord Krishna in the Mahabharata). Yet they are revered. This is an older religious tradition unlike the more recent ones, and it shows in this particular respect. To me the most interesting thing about the Ramayana is that it is the only religious work in Hinduism (that I know of) which attempts to define an ideal. At the same time, it describes the inherent conflicts in this idea of perfection by demonstrating the injustices that "perfect" or ideal behaviour causes. Hence, the conflict between Rama's attempts to be a "perfect" ruler who tries to satisfy his subjects and his attempt to be an ideal husband-in the end, the greatest indictment of his character is that he attempted to be "perfect" in the eyes of his subjects and in the process compromised on his basic responsibilities to his wife (in the Uttara Kanda). In this sense, the Ramayana is an argument against a "perfect" or an ideal situation-the danger of attempts towards "perfection" is repeatedly demonstrated by history and the events that happen around us.

11:18 PM  
Blogger Sunil said...

I've read a few different versions of the William Buck's Ramayana, Sita does not under go an Agni pariksha......but in the end, Agni just escorts her from Ashoka vana to Rama.

In the Tamil version written by Kamban (10th century)....(an adaptation of which was told to me by my grandma), the Agni pariksha is more subtle, and Sita asks for it herself. Kamban's Ramayana was written in the early days of the Bhakti movement, and so is more devotional in that respect.

C. Rajagopalachari wrote a very popular english translation......which is exceptional for the simplicity of writing without missing out on chapters. Rajaji tries to reason out various aspects of Rama's deeds (and the deeds of the other protagonists as well).

VK....many of your points taken, but the avatar of Vishnu leaving Rama at the Agni pariksha is just one (later) version.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Prithi Shetty said...

Thanks for the ACK link.
I have C Rajagopalachari's version of Ramayana & Mahabharatha. Yet to read them.
My knowledge of these two epics is limited to what I have heard on various occasions like pujas & discussions. And also the Amar Chitra Katha and Ramanand Sagar version :)

10:14 PM  
Blogger Krishna said...


I think what people are losing sight of here is the fact that there is an original Ramayana. As far as we know from a scholarly point of view, the Ramayana of Valmiki is the original Ramayana, and so its version of events must naturally be given the greatest emphasis.

In the *original* Ramayana of Valmiki, it is abundantly clear that Rama's treatment of Sita is based not on his own desires, but rather on the need to satisfy the expectations of dharma. Rama's character is exemplary, because he put aside his own desire to be reunited with his wife (hopefully we can consider that a sincere desire, he did fight a war to get her back after all) with the need to satisfy the people of her chastity. An American audience might have trouble understanding this, with its culture of non-commitment and casual sex. However, we must understand the epic tale within the context of the culture which created it. In ancient India, the greatest premium was placed on a woman's chastity, which granted a kind of respect and even power that was comparable to that of the severe austerities performed by rishis. There was nothing that a shy and faithful wife could not accomplish according to this view. Draupadi bathed her hair in Dushasana's blood when the latter had insulted her. Satyavati held the Kingdom of Hastinapur together even after Santanu's passing and before a suitable heir could be installed on the throne. Savitri cheated the presiding deity of death into returning her dead husband back to the world of the living. The examples go on and on...

It is commonly misunderstood by Ramayana nay-sayers that Rama was unjust because he ordered Sita to enter the fire (the so-called Agni Pariksha). This is false. In the *original* Ramayana of Valmiki, there is no statement anywhere by Lord Rama to the effect that Sita should immolate herself. What actually happens is this: after killing Ravana and occupying Lanka, Rama has Sita brought to him. Rather than greet her warmly, he indicates to her that she can now go wherever she likes. Everyone present is shocked at this, since they were naturally looking forward to seeing the Divine Couple reunited. This is especially so of Sita, who is so insulted that she prepares the fire herself and enters it. This is Sita's own statement of her fidelity to her husband; she would rather destroy herself than wander about and look for another mate. It is a testimony to the power of her chastity that she would choose the ultimate act of renunciation over the possibility of finding another husband. Such a life would be an affront to her dignity, as she could have no other Lord besides her husband Rama (a fact which she made clear to Ravana multiple times). It's really hard to properly estimate the emotional build-up in the episode. Rama's own mind is carefully concealed by the necessity to prove to the people that he is fair and equitable in his treatment of dharma - he is showing them that the laws of accepting only a chaste wife apply to him also, painful though this is to watch. And Sita's response, in which she chooses self-destruction over choosing another husband, is the ultimate protest against any doubt of her fidelity. The rest is, as they say, history.

The episode of the Sita Parityaga is a little more controversial, since Sita's character was already cleared by Agni. The question naturally arises as to why Rama had to abandon Sita, whose fidelity to him had already been proven. We must understand, however, that the events of the Agni-pariksha were not witnessed by the inhabitants of Ayodhya. The citizens might surely have heard the tale second-hand, but we are not meant to think that the doubts of a select few were necessarily rational. The point here is that, in the eyes of some, Rama had accepted an unchaste wife, and as a righteous king, this was setting a bad example. Rama could have imprisoned the blasphemer or used some other forceful means to correct him, but history proves that oppression cannot silence unspoken doubts. Rama's position must have been extremely akward, since he knew that Sita's character was beyond reproach, knew that the washerman's doubts were foolish, and yet had to set a good example for the moral upliftment of the people. This was the unspoken duty of Vedic kings - they had to practice what they preached so that they could set a proper example for others to follow. This point is alluded to by Krishna in the Gita when he explains to Arjuna that he also performs prescribed duties just to set an example. In this case, the apparent moral faux-pas was that Rama had (apparently) accepted an unchaste wife. Even though he knew this was not the case, he was forced to set appearances straight for the sake of the foolish.

Critics are quick to side with Sita and castigate Rama, yet we must again consult the original Ramayana of Valmiki. Valmiki explains that Rama lived inwardly as if completely renounced. He never took another wife and was always dejected at having to abandon Sita. And Sita, despite being wronged for the sake of protecting the appearance of dharma, never criticized her husband as the feminists would have us believe she should have done. Rather, as Valmiki explains, she continued to worship her husband and raise her sons to revere him.

Now, we can point out how offensive this behavior might be to modern-day feminists. But let us again consider the point that this was a different culture - one which did not have any concept of divorce, what to speak of the 55% divorce rate which marks the Western World's rate of marital dysfunction and breakdown of traditional values. Is it possible that women of today can learn something from these two acts of faith on the part of Sita?

I would argue yes. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that both men *and* women (and by extension, society as a whole) could benefit from the moral lessons the Ramayana imparts to us. Kings and Queens were positions of reponsibility, not privilege. They had to protect even the appearance of dharma even when it meant punishing themselves in the process. The fact is seen when Rama renounces his wife after fighting a painstaking, tooth-and-nail battle to reclaim her just to satisfy a foolish laborer's doubts. It is also seen when Sita remains ever faithful to her husband despite being exiled for no fault of her own. Rama and Sita are tragic characters in a sense, but in a greater sense they are the Godhead (Vishnu and Lakshmi) coming down to our level and teaching us how to live our lives with dignity and respect - by putting the spiritual needs of society (which requires righteous leaders) above our own personal needs.

Some years ago, the (then) President of the USA went on record as stating that he did not have illicit sexual relations with a woman other than his wife. Several weeks and millions of tax-payer dollars later, we found out that he was lying and that he was in fact an adulterer. Does the Ramayana's theme of placing moral values above personal desires have any relevance here? I think that the critics of the Ramayana should consider this point very carefully.

12:51 AM  
Anonymous D. Singh said...

Maybe the comment is a bit late but ... the Ramayana is a Pan-Asian narrative which exist with various changes in characters names, plot etc. in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Cambodia, Laos & even Japan.

I happened to see a 'Ramayana ballet' in Jogjakarta ... Sita is referred to as Shinta about the part of Sitas abduction & Hanuman burning Lanka called Allengka. The whole story was recited in a singsong manner to the accompaniement of music in the Javanese language.

11:15 PM  
Anonymous dee said...

Did Rama consider how his handling of the Sita's purity issue may be misused by later society?
Is this why pregnant wives are sometimes kicked out today?
Is Sita's return into earth- actually a wishy-washy account of a suicide?
How were his kids impacted? Did they hate their father for their mom's suffering?
Did they hate their Praja for their gossip?
Is that why despite Rama we had a slew of bad rulers later?
Has this tale of the dhobi been used to oppress the lower castes as unthinking? Did this lead to the caste system?

Why could Rama not have spoken to his Praja on the importance of compassion on several grounds-
e.g.- on Kakieyes deceit causing her the most loss- of husband's life and sons love.
- on Sita's abduction by Ravana and the emotional trauma this would have caused her. It is immaterial whether she was able to keep off ravanas advances in captivity.
If this would have been his approach the agni pariksha would not have been relavant, nor the need to send her away.
Oppression of women and the caste system may not have occured.
Raped women would not be commiting suicide in fear of being abondoned, but would be able to take a stand against those who hurt them

9:11 PM  
Anonymous dee said...

WE as a nation have learnt the lessons from Rama's acceptance of an unfair exile- to keep peace in the land.
We have been able to absorb the meaning of non-violence and of non-war-mongering; have accepted unfair circumstances as a nation. Have been able to preserve our culture despite invasions, as well as protected cultures that came to us.

We should look at the consequences of not being able to totally absorb the consequences of the Sita Parityaga- and see that we correct this within ourselves for future generations.

Is this why the Parityaga episode is only found in some writings of the ramayana? Was it introduced to create thought?

How do we change our people from just praying, to thinking along the above lines?
How do we get an unenlightened brahmin class into understanding the above?

How long will the efficacy of Kalki Avatar [when he comes] last if we keep repeating our mistakes?

8:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for your most beautiful comment - I am right now reading the Ramayana yet again, and I cannot agree more that this story is a lesson to us mortal souls in Dharma and what fufilment of Dharma really means..and very often entails, no matter what your station in life.


3:12 AM  
Anonymous tamasha said...

There's also Sita Sings The Blues

3:39 PM  
Blogger A Proud Indian said...

WOW! What a site. Very good. very very good. I am really impressed.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Aahuti said...

Hi i am doing my one of my masters assignment on the subject Ramayana and its contemporary meaning. I found your blog so relevant and very helpful...
Indeed a gud thing i have come across!

3:45 PM  
Anonymous balkar said... lengthy as your rebuttal completely misses the point. You speak so highly of Indian values vs the WEST. Please save this last bastion of goodness debate. Infidelity, rape, minors in brothels very much prevalent moreso in India vs the West. The West at least reports its moral deficiencies whereas nations like India live in a false-ego bubble of what is going on around them. Globalization is not the root cause of the infiltration of morally sub-par culture into India. Its the sexually charged youth of cities like Delhi, the Indian movie industry that are just jumping on board which is inherent in all human beings. Shivlingam, kama sutra etc. These works are all an eloquent cover-up for getting busy in the hizzy. Joke. Sometimes indians make me chuckle as they always try to portray themselves on a morally higher standard than the big bad WEST. I love my western culture despite being born in New Delhi as a punjabi. I'd rather be here than anywhere else. Save the righteous speeches. No offense intended, none taken.

Cheers...therefore such as

2:36 PM  

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