Interpretations and reinterpretations of Ramayana

“The Ramayana in India is not a story with a variety of retellings; it is a language
with which a host of statements may be made” (Rao 114) says Velcheru Narayana
Rao, in A Ramayana of their Own. Reinterpretations, interpolations and transpositions
of epics and myths have taken place at all times. Ramayana is one such epic which is
heavily interpreted. More than 300 hundred versions of Ramayana are available
according to Dr. A.K Ramanujan. So a homogenised or the ‘real and ideal’ version of
Ramayana never existed. There are only Ramayanas not the Ramayana. The present
writers who are involved in the reinterpretation of these ancient texts starting from
Narendra Kohli (who brought back the trend or tradition of retellings to modern
Indian context) to Amish Tripathi are merely enriching the rich tradition of this text.
Epics are long narratives which have been celebrated as the great grand genres
across various cultures and times. These oral or written chronicles are heavily
embedded in the cultural matrix of the society in which they were born and bloomed.
Indian epics transformed themselves through the prism of every passing century, so
much so that they cannot be viewed as single texts but as different shades of same
underlying ancestor which have evolved at various places, times, cults and contexts.
These dynamic narrative, literary and storytelling traditions are the bearers of the
collective memories of a land and its people and are capable of creating new identities
and legacies.

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The dichotomy between history and mythology places them in a hierarchy,
with history being equated with truth and mythology with falsehood. But in fact the
dichotomy between history and myth is a complex one and no clear line of
demarcation is clearly visible in the case of historical myths. Attempts to distort
mythology by coming up with one single monolithic standard version of a myth
which is stretched hard to fit into the framework called fact and to elevate it to a
position of history can be seen as attempts made to establish and reinforce an altered
or an adulterated version of truth.
Myths are derived from the Greek word mythos which means story or word. In
Greek and other ancient cultures myths were the stories told to make sense of their
own existence and wider world around them. Myths are traditional narratives in which
people explain the nature of the world and their place in it. They tell the stories of
divine beings endowed with an aura of sacredness around them that were kept alive
and enriched by oral tradition. They constantly underwent alterations and even
distortions as the culture demanded and tradition permitted by keeping the basic seed
preserved in the form of archetype in all of these. Mythology does not have the
limitation of space, chronology, and evidence that is indisputable. In myths space and
time are entirely created in the mind, even as it bears resemblance to reality. A myth
or set of myths does not cease to exist but progressively transforms into a new
mythology or meta-mythology while simultaneously absorbing and recreating
elements in a process of demythification, mythification and remythification. The
mythologies identified in the novels are part of the authors’ creative expression and
the creation of new myths seems to be a natural extension of mythical thought
patterns. Remythification is the intermingling of various myths, legends and fables

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and narrative techniques which is present a core story or an archetype in a more
refreshing and informative manner.
Myths in the strict academic sense serve to complement, supplement and
reinforce the religious ideology of a people. The more popular usage of the term myth
is a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of
the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief or natural phenomenon.
Whereas myth deals with the religious world and natural phenomena, legends are
semi-historical narratives coming from the past that recount the deeds of heroes,
movement of peoples, and the establishment of local customs. Legends serve the
function of entertaining, instructing, inspiring and bolstering the pride of a family,
tribe or nation by using a mixture of realism and the supernatural or extraordinary.
Often historical figures are given attributes, values and ideals that place them above
the real of ordinary people. Myth, which plays an important role in shaping the
cultural heritage of a community puts forward certain idealised icons and images
which becomes the yard stick as well as driving force in the lives of the members of
the community. The portrayal of Rama as Maryada Purushottam, Sita as the epitome
of self-sacrifice, chastity and virtue, Sita and Rama as the ideal couple and Ramrajya
as the ideal kingdom are few such images.“The Gandhian use of Ramayana
metaphors such as Ramarajya for the ideal of independent India and the nationalist
fervour of presenting Indian women as the symbol of purity and passive resistance,
suffering for a noble cause, presented Sita as the supreme role model for all Indian
womanhood. Due to its vast popularity, the Ramayana is mistaken for an epic that
represents the entire range of value systems in India” (Rao 224), notes Velcheru
Narayana Rao in The Ramayana Revisited.

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The Ramayana is an over-interpreted epic where Sita is usually a stereotype of
a perfect Indian wife. Everyone has positioned her character in that manner is a
feminist observation many scholars hold. Sita in the Valmiki version of Ramayana
has been represented as passive, submissive, docile and self-sacrificing woman who is
very much devoted to her husband. She unquestioningly follows her husband into
exile, and remains devoted to him despite the hardships she has to endure. Due to
these qualities which aided patriarchy in creating their own definition of morality of
women Sita in Valmiki Ramayana was often glorified and idealized as a role model
worthy of respect.
Historically the Valmiki version of Ramayana has been seen as the authentic
version of Ramayana. Dated between the 2nd century BCE and 2nd century CE,
Valmiki Ramayana is frequently presented as the foundation of all versions of the
Ramayana. Kampan Ramayana in Tamil, Tuslidas Ramayana in Hindi and Krttivasa
Ramayana in Bengali are other popular versions of Ramayana. Dr. A.K Ramanujan
notes in his famous essay titled Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three
Thoughts on Translation that the number of Ramayanas 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 Rama story is found makes
one gasp: Assamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese,
Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit,
Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan—to say nothing of Western
languages. Through the centuries, some of these languages have hosted more than one
telling of the Rama story. If we add plays, dance-dramas, and other performances, in
both the classical and folk traditions, the number of Ramayanas grows even larger. To
these must be added sculpture, mask plays, puppet plays and shadow plays, in all the

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many South and Southeast Asian cultures. It should also be noted that various telling
of Ramkatha in regional languages tend to incorporate local practices into the story.
Writing in a language accessible to those who do not know Sanskrit enables an author
to reach an audience broader than just Sanskrit schooled elites.
Different versions of Ramayanas vary significantly on their focus of
characters. Valmiki narrated the story as the legacy of Rama. Ravana is the focal point
in Jain Ramayana and Thai Ramayana. In Jain Ramayana, Ravana is a noble hero
fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself, while he is in other
texts an overweening demon and Rama is depicted not as a god in this version but as
an evolved Jaina man. Adbhuta Ramayana dons Sita as a warrior princess who slays a
demon that he husband cannot handle. Kannada and Tamil women oral traditions
focus its attention on Sita. The Santhal (a prominent tribal community) oral traditions
portray Sita as unfaithful as she is seduced both by Ravana and by Laksmana.
Hanuman is depicted as a ladies man appearing in many love scenes in Southeast
Asian texts.
When Ramayana travelled across cultures and cults many took up the role of
crusaders of this abandoned Queen of Rama and many Sitayanas were born and the
practise continues even today. While many consider Sita’s steadfastness as a symbolic
of suppression and slavery to the system and her male counterpart, some others
interpret it as a sign of her emotional strength and not slavery, because she refuses to
forsake her dharma even though Rama forsook his dharma as a husband. Thus born
many versions taking sides of this and many such traits of the character and the text.
The Chandrabati Ramayana, the oral Telegu Ramayana popular among the
Brahmin women community of Andra Pradesh and other South Indian oral Ramayana

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traditions are such examples. Most of them questions Rama’s wisdom, propriety,
honesty and integrity in reference to his decision of letting Sita go through the
Agnipariksha and his final decision to abandon her in her pregnant condition, all this
however is done in a polite fashion. Rama is portrayed as a hard-hearted, tricky, and
deceptive husband and Sita is extolled as an innocent, trusting, and virtuous woman in
many of these women versions of Ramayana. A popular song by Tyagaraja even
suggests that Rama would not have been so great a king, nor would he have been
famous if he had not married Sita. This is the exact opposite to the portrayal of Sita in
Valmiki Ramayana where she has no existence without Rama. Sita is depicted as a
warrior woman in few versions notable being the Adbhuta Ramayana where she even
assumes the fierce form of Kali and wreaks havoc upon earth. In Adbhuta Ramayana
and Jain Ramayana Sita is represented as the daughter of Ravana. There are other
versions which go to the extent of portraying them as siblings.
In one version of Ramayana popular with a certain inward community in
Karnataka, Sita asks Rama “Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this.
Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?”(Ramanujan 9)
when Rama discourages her from following him to the forest. Dr. A.K Ramanujan
mentions about this in one of his essays. Anachronistic and postmodern as it might
sound, this question invites the attention to an interesting issue—how and when does
Sita cease to be ‘Sita’? Clearly, this Sita knows that she must go to the forest because
every Sitain every version of the Ramayana goes to the forest. If Sita does not go to
the forest, she is not Sita and the narrative cannot qualify as a version of Ramayana.
There are many versions of Ramayana which is told from the perspective of Sita or
which sympathise with Sita, in general the versions which portray Sita in a different
light.

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Folk retellings usually are anonymous or attributed to authors about whom
almost nothing is known; composed in folk genres and often in vernacular dialects;
and often performed for religious occasions by non-professionals (who dons the role
for that particular occasion or such occasions).They are sometimes taken up by
travelling story tellers, so folk tradition is more oral than written. Folk retellings
provide more scope for improvisation than do fixed texts, allowing the narrative to be
customized according to the predilections of storytellers and preferences of listeners.
The 20th Century saw the resurgence in epic creations. The epic tales were
used to infuse the punditry-ridden regional languages with a strikingly modern idiom
facilitating their entry into global literature. Most tellings of Ramkatha composed in
regional languages before the twentieth century were bhakti, or ‘devotional’ texts.
Through them the poets celebrates, comments on, and audiences hear the salvific
deeds of Lord Rama. Bhakti tellings of Ramkatha praise Rama as God on earth, rather
than just as excellent king and valiant warrior.
Gudipati Venkatachalam is a great Telegu writer, who is well known for his
play Sita Agnipravesam (Sita enters fire). This play among his several plays questions
the religious and mythological narratives that preach female chastity. The play for the
first time in modern era presents Ram and Sita as human beings similar to us, rather
than as distant and divine characters beyond ordinary human accessibility.
Modern authors of fiction who revisit the epics in an attempt explore the
theme of how myths and epics function as cultural narratives of gender and social
norms of society find infinite possibility in the character of Sita. This shows the large
number of literary works which has emerged in the previous few years. Poems, short
stories, novels, graphic novels, plays and other forms of literary expressions are so

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much engaged in providing a voice to the ideal, respected and repressed Queen of the
epic. In most of these works it is either Sita herself or some side lined or in some
cases an entirely new character tells her tale. Just like their predecessors most of these
tales appear to speak on the behalf of the subaltern, but the real question is whether
we hear the real voice of the real subaltern. Sita: Daughter of the Earth: A Graphic
Novel by Saraswati Nagpal (2011), Sita’s Ascent (novella) by Vayu Naidu (2012),
‘Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana’ by Devdutt Pattanik (2013), Banks of
the Tamasa: A Story of Sita by Vandana Nittoor (2015) are some of the recent books
in the anthology of Sitayanas.
Sita, the most glorified of all mythical heroines who is much known for her
passive acceptance of her fate. Sita, in patriarchal narratives are represented as the
ideal woman, someone who do not complain, a woman who knew how to make
sacrifices without talking or making a great deal out of it. Feminine interpretations
question and subvert the stereotyped images of women in mythology. This new
subverted image no longer upholds patriarchal ideals, but creates its own morality.
Thus, by the process of social change, there is a ‘remythification’ which includes the
idea of ‘demythification’ of the original myth – that is to say, a reconstruction of the
‘original’ myth, and the creation, in its place, of a new myth which subverts,
demystifies and deconstructs the original. However these interpretations are incapable
of presenting Sita as she is, as both lets Sita get constricted to the philosophy they are
advocating and both seeks to create the ideal protagonist for their philosophy. Munnu:
a boy from Kashmir, a graphic novel ends with the protagonist from terror inflicted
Kashmir given a torch as a gift from the authorities as a part of their larger
programme for Kashmir. While returning home with the torch Munnu muses over it.
He understands that the world’s attitude towards everything is like the ray of torch

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light in dark. The world will only shed the light on what it wants to see rather than
seeing the holistic picture and they then develop their stories based on these views.
Certain points are brightened and certain others are left in the darkness forever. Same
is the case with the interpretations and retellings of epics, most of them only shed the
light on selected aspects and at times exaggerating them thereby failing to give real
picture. Even when the subaltern speaks, one should be sceptical to know whether it is
the real voice.
In a land where people continue to articulate the language of Ramayana it is
only natural that more and more retellings of the epics by writers who experiment
with different cultural and literary expressions come up with their understanding of
Ramayana. These modern retellings are often richly self reflexive because they build
upon, as well as respond to past renditions, benefiting from the distinctive narrative
momentum available to writers who participate in an already established story
tradition. Articulating familiar characters in new lights, changing the focus to
characters previously seen as marginal and side lined and giving voice to the so called
villains who were portrayed the epitome of evil have generated some of the freshest
and most original writing in modern India. Along with these tales, the works which
tell the so called ‘authentic’and ‘canonical’ story using modern day settings and props
are also generated. These new reinterpretations try to capture the dynamics of
changing Indian culture. Ramayana series by Ashok K. Banker, Asura Tale of the
Vanquished by Anand Neelakandan, Sita’s Sister by Kavita Kane, Lanka’s Princess
by Kavita Kane, etc are some of the significant retellings of Ramayana in modern
times. They tell Rama’s story in their own way for their own time. However, much
criticism has been earned by them from learned devotees or scholars who say that
these texts lack authenticity, rusticity, devotionalism, respect, or modernity. It should

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be noted that these texts are only fictional realities created by the artistic imagination
of writers.
Epics like Ramayana are the bottomless oceans where one can dive and come
out with his/her version of reality. Ramayana represent different things for different
audience. Studies are still going on regarding how social groups (dis)empowered by
caste, race, and gender have reinterpreted and celebrated the narrative lines of the epic
to inscribe upon it their own understanding of the world that it celebrates, and
sometimes to dispute it. The Ramayana does not belong to any one moment in history
for it has its own history which lies embedded in the many versions which were
woven around the theme at different times and places. Not only do diverse
Ramayanas exist; each Ramayana text reflects the social location and ideology of
those who appropriate it.

Devi C Vandana

(Devi is currently pursuing her MA in English literature from Jamia Millia Islamia)