I’ve never been an overtly religious person. My idea of prayer has been speaking to who I believe is my personal God for a couple of minutes before I go to sleep. The idea of pujas, rites and rituals have never inspired me and by chance, neither my husband. So the fact that we had never visited a temple since moving to the Philippines wasn’t entirely coincidental. Yet as every Indian knows there are those special festival days that come along a few times a year. And from somewhere within the Indian-ness in your heart beats a little too loudly, and you feel like a ringing a large metallic bell, prostrating on cool floors and spending a little quiet time with God. Not to mention the memories of yummy Prasad. So even though we had always heard that the only Indian temple in Manila was actually a Gurudwara, we still asked around the older members of our Desi group about the existence of a local temple. And lo and behold there was one, just a short distance from the Gurudwara. It was a temple dedicated to Lord Ram. And it got me wondering about how Ram and his story had influenced so many cultures across Asia.
There are so many different versions of the Ramayana that exist we sometimes forget that even India, the country of the story’s birth, has seen many accounts of the epic. While the original epic by Valmiki was reportedly written in the 4th century BC, the oldest existing Ramayana is dated at 1576. While the story caught the imagination of the then vast sub-continent, it seems like different authors from different regions decided to give it their own twist.
In the north, this took the form of Ramcharitmanas, penned by Tulsidas and in the South, the Kamba Ramayan. Whilst the basic theme and back-story remained the same, the characters underwent subtle changes. Changes that explain why Lord Ram was hailed as the perfect man in some parts of the country, and just another God in other parts.
The Ramcharitmanas characterized Ram as the monogamous husband, just and good king and the ideal to which every man should aspire. Sita on the other hand became the supreme model of a virtuous, self-sacrificing and obedient wife. It is thought by many critics to have a patriarchal streak, which is not very evident in the original epic. No wonder why it was the Kamba Ramayan that made its mark in the South of the country, where matriarchal societies have also been the norm for centuries.
And then there is the group that refuses to consider the Ramayan as a religious epic at all, looking at it instead as a colourful retelling of a story that was based in history. It’s nothing but the story of the Aryan invasion over the indigenous Dravidians, some believe. While others say that peel off the layers and you get a story about a Ceylon (Sri Lanka) invasion.
However, whichever group you belong to, the charisma of the story is undeniable. After all people are still talking or reading about it - be it in Hindi, Tamil, Bengali or even Khmer and Japanese. But that’s all for another post!
Stay tuned for more of “On The Ramayana Trail’ in the Faith section here. And in the meantime tell me - is your Ram different from mine?