Renditions of the Ramayana abound. One might say there are as many versions as there are narrators, giving rise to the rich narrative tradition known as Ram Katha. Each language in India, each region and caste group, has its own and unique version. As historian R S Sharma observed, the ancient epic was “studied with the same zeal and devotion in the land of Tamils as in the intellectual circles of Banaras and Taxila”.
Thus, Lord Rama is everywhere—invoked in daily greetings and in death, in art and sculpture, in classical and popular music, comic books and cartoons, teleplays and street theatre. We find him in the reliefs at Angkor Vat, the pagodas in Myanmar, the folk plays of Indonesia and in temples across India. He knits together a land as diverse as the colours of the rainbow. He is a symbol of cultural values and ideas, the substance of which remains the same across India. That his name was on the lips of the great unifier, Mahatma Gandhi, when he shuffled off the mortal coil is only natural.
The Ramayana is said to have been composed 2,500 years ago (around the 5th century BCE) by the great Sanskrit poet, Valmiki, who must have drawn on existing historical accounts, legends and intellectual traditions. He is believed to have composed 6,000 verses. Gradually, through successive stages, it expanded to 24,000 verses. The process of addition and expansion is said to have continued as late as the 12th century AD.
From the original Sanskrit, it was translated and disseminated in virtually all local languages. It was accessible to all, regardless of caste and gender, unlike the scriptures. Around the middle of the second millennium CE, the Vaisnhavite poet-saint Tulsidas wrote his Ramacharitmanas in Awadhi, a version that was to achieve widespread popularity and give rise to the Ramlila tradition, the theatrical re-enactment of the story of Lord Ram. It is this re-telling that we most often see and hear. But, as said earlier, each group or sub-group continues to have its own version. Lord Rama is not confined to any one, or even several regions—he is in every corner of India.
Lord Rama emerges from these myriad tellings and re-tellings as not just the ideal human, the embodiment of truthfulness, empathy, virtue and self-control, but as an avatar of Lord Vishnu. The very act of reciting or hearing a recitation of the Ramayana yields special rewards, bringing one closer to attaining the supreme brahmana. To Rama are dedicated the adoring verses sung by Bhakti saints.
On the surface a classic hero tale, at its heart the Ramayana is an inquiry into the nature of dharma, how it orders the universe and society and the place of the individual in both. The moral dilemmas it describes are universal and eternal and the ethical system it propounds is the fountainhead of our values. As Deen Dayal Upadhyaya said, a nation is much more than mere geographical boundaries. A nation is its people, bound together by shared values and traditions. In that respect, Ram—the Maryada Purushottam or ideal human being—unites all Indians, quite as much as the belief in the doctrine of karma and transmigration of the soul.
It can easily be said that no other work in history has been as influential in every sphere of human life, including governance. (Even today, 'Ram-Ram' is a popular form of greeting and the dead take their final journey to the sound of 'Ram naam satya hai'.) From the Ramayana arises the concept of Ram Rajya. The purpose of any form of government is to usher in Ram Rajya, a state where justice and truth prevail and the needs of the people are paramount. It is a template for good governance and the standard against which all governments are measured.
Rama is therefore a pan-Indian figure, a potent cultural icon integral to widely differing communities and societies across the length and breadth of India. The temple to Lord Rama at Ayodhya, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi says, is a symbol of unity and national identity. Yes, it can be read as civilisational reassertion, but it is also an assertion of common faith, convictions and values.
The Ramayana offers something for everyone and each person takes away from it what she or he wants or needs to. Ravana varies from tale to tale, as do most of the characters. Modern Indian writers in English, too, have taken up the tale, with their own perspectives. Feminist views on Sita abound, for example. The symbolic value of the Ram Janmabhoomi Temple is likewise a matter of perspective.
Historians have pointed out that excavations at Ayodhya show that it was not settled on any scale before the 5th century BCE and thus, it cannot claim to be Hinduism's most sacred space. The size of Ayodhya as given in the Ramayana, they point out, is exaggeratedly larger than any of the urban settlements of the time—or so archaeological evidence suggests. Some even suggest that the worship of Rama cannot be traced to antiquity and is a more recent phenomenon, perhaps no more than a thousand years old.
But literary sources and tradition have it that Ayodhya was the birthplace and the seat of Lord Rama. That shared faith is enough. The question of whether or not he is a historical figure is meaningless. He is king, warrior, saint and deity, but most of all, he is an embodiment of virtue. Ayodhya itself is a kind of Jerusalem, part of the pilgrim's circuit for Jains and Buddhists as well. We can no more question whether it is indeed Ram Janmabhoomi than we can deny that Buddha or Mahavira sojourned there.
The very fact that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement gathered the kind of force it did, galvanising people throughout the country, is evidence of a pre-existing, live and profound connection with Lord Rama. He is woven into the warp and weft of our lives.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.