Apr 20, 2013

Bhanubhakta Ramayana


The Ramayana was first written by Valmiki and spread all over the South Asian subcontinent, to the effect that over the years, many of its local versions are not really similar to the original. Of course, there are bound to be differences in language, and the other minutiae. But even aside from stylistic details, let us look at how our very own Bhanubhakta Ramayana compares to Valmiki Ramayana in some of the major turning points of the story. Most of the times, Bhanubhakta Ramayana retains the simplicity of Valmiki Ramayana, missing out on many dramatic details. 

For example, the sumptuous Swayamvar scene, in which Sita is given away in prize for breaking the Shiva dhanush, does not exist in Valmiki Ramayana. Janak is just demonstrating the bow to Ram when Ram accidentally breaks it, and the impressed Janak decides then and there to wed his daughter to this worthy man. Bhanubhakta follows suit by skipping the Swayamvar, which, according to some modern versions, was attended by Ravan himself.

non-existent?
Lakshman Rekha now defines Ramayan, and is immediately recognizable as one of its key parts. Hence, many readers will be surprised to hear that it does not exist in Valmiki Ramayana. In keeping with the original, Bhanubhakta also has Ravan introducing himself and then carrying Sita off by force, without an intermediary rekha. However, this part deviates significantly from the original in other ways. 
non-existent?

To recap, Laxman was standing guard over Sita while Ram was chasing a deer. After hearing Ram’s cries from the jungle, Sita exhorts Laxman to leave. In Bhanubhakta Ramayana, however, it is not the real Sita who forces Laxman to leave. Rama, being the omniscient god that he is, had already entrusted Sita to the safekeeping of the fire-god Agni, and created a shadow (chhaya) Sita out of Kusha grass. It is the same fake Sita who covets the golden deer, and speaks harsh words to Laxman.

The Chhaya Sita serves many purposes in the story: first of all, it exonerates Sita of her crime of sending Ram after the deer, and also of speaking harsh words to Laxman (sexually explicit content, no less, where she accuses Laxman of lusting after her when Ram is away). Second, it categorically proves Sita’a purity, again, when she is asked to do so by Ram. The Sita who lived with Ravan was made of Kusha, and perishes in the Agni Pariksha. The real Sita, who, being safe with Agni, never even saw Ravan, is handed back to Ram by Agni at this moment. 

Chhaya Sita also highlights an important detail in which Bhanubhakta differs from Valmiki: Ram’s godhood, due to which he was able to foresee Sita’a abduction and thus make a duplicate of her. In Valmiki’s version, Ram goes through all his adventures as a man, but according to Bhanubhakta, he was born a full grown god, and only returned to childhood after his mother expressed a wish to watch him play as a child. After that, at every stage, Ram’s godhood is stressed to the point that it grates in the ears, especially in scenes where Ram is supposed to be emotional. When Ram leaves home, or when Sita is abducted, for example, and Rama starts weeping, Bhanubhakta says that he was “just acting” to appear human. Same thing when Laxman faints after a fatal arrow from Meghnad: he was just acting to appear human.
just acting?

This also means that the little details of Ram’s godhood that we took for granted do not appear in Valmiki Ramayana. The floating stones of Ram Setu, for example. Ram Setu does exist in Valmiki Ramayan, but is built by the gifted architect Nala, and is made of trees, vines and stones that are real and sinking. Bhanubhakta sticks to this version, but a normal, physical bridge is no fun at all, and a man who can make stones float must certainly be a god! So when the idea of the floating stones came around from India (specifically, from an eleventh century version by Tamil poet Kamban), they stuck, and people even began swearing that if “Ram” was written on a stone, it would float. 
fake?

And then there is Ram’s relationship with other characters in the story, that are supposed to be based on his godhood. Vibhishana, for example, is supposed to have recognized early on that Ram was a god, and exhorted Ravan to surrender. But according to Valmiki, Vibhishan was just a hungry man who allied with Ram for the throne of Lanka. Sugriv, similarly, did not worship Ram, but allied with him in a relationship of mutual gain: you kill my brother and give me a kingdom, I find your wife and defeat a kingdom. Quarrels and threats in this so-called relationship of “unending love” are aplenty, cleverly disguised by Bhanubhakta as a relationship between a lord and his devotee.

Since Ram is so deified in Bhanubhakta’a version, it follows automatically that Ravan is vilified in contrast. When he comes to abduct Sita, he already knows what a wretched person he is, and how far out of his league Sita is. Before touching Sita, he rubs his hands in the mud, so that he does not sully Sita’s pure person with his touch. And later in Lanka, when Sita refuses his marriage proposal, Ravan threatens to fry her in hot oil and consume her with delicious spices! Such cannibalism was far from Valmiki’s vision of a gentlemanly Ravan!
did he really rub his hand with mud?

Ravan’s attraction is turned down quite a bit from the original: Valmiki describes that when Hanuman saw Ravan for the first time, he was overwhelmed by the magnetic attraction of Ravan’s regal personality. But of course, Bhanubhakta affords him no words of praise. On the other hand, Ravan’s ferocity is played up quite a bit: his years long tapasya that grant him a boon of invincibility (a clause that can suspiciously be fulfilled only by Ram), his ten heads, and the source of amrit at his navel, are all later inventions that find a prominent place in Bhanubhakta’a version. In Valmiki’s story, Ravan is just a king, and though powerful, he is mortal, has just one head, and the gods have no idea of how his future will unfold. Ram wins the war by dint of his courage and battle skills, not through the knowledge of Ravan’s (non-existent) secrets.

imagined?
When we look at the simple Valmiki Ramayan, and the richly embellished version that we know today, the difference is stark. Later folk additions have given it flavors, enriching the bare bones sketched by Valmiki. It is hard to say which story is the “true” story, because Ramayan is as much folklore as literature. It is the folklore additions that have often captured our imagination so well that they have come to define our understanding of the story and of the social values it expounds. However, what these differences do tell us is that our religious stories are made by human beings, over time, in clearly visible delineations. From a simple adventure story, Ramayan became a religious story that was the object of intense devotion, and the values it endorses changed likewise. It was not handed down by “god”, and hence, it is useless to cling rigidly to any one version of them as the “ultimate truth”. Myths and the morals they preach are made to fit social norms of a particular time, and may easily be reconstructed from time to time to fit changing social settings.
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