Diwali marks Ram’s return to Ayodhya, victorious from the battle with Ravan. Ahead of the festival this year, we look at the many versions of the epic, which has shaped our culture, arts and politics. It is a splendidly various tradition, from the rationalism of the Jain Ramayana to the humour of the Mapilla Ramayanam. It is both a political ideal and a deeply personal experience. It is the mega-story that contains a multitude of narratives of India.
Once upon a time, there was a king called Shrenika, who had recently converted to Jainism. He was plagued by doubt about what he had been taught about the Ramayana and hence, sought out a Jain teacher, Gautama. Shrenika wanted to know, for instance, how lowly creatures like monkeys could build a bridge across the ocean and overthrow a mighty rakshasa king like Ravan? How could Kumbhakarna sleep through six months of the year and not wake up even though elephants were made to walk over him and boiling oil was poured in his ears and war trumpets were sounded around him?
All this sounded too fantastical and irrational. Gautama assured him that he was right and that these fantastical details were lies and embellishments peddled by “wrong-thinking poetasters and fools”. He then proceeded to narrate what he said was the true story of what happened in the Ramayana and to correct many of the exaggerations. For instance, he says, the vanaras are not literally monkeys; they are demigods called vidyadharas, who inhabit the city of Kishkindhi and who are called vanaras because their standard and shields and crowns bear the image of a monkey, an animal that is commonly found in those parts.
This story is found in the opening section of the Paumachariyam (Prakrit for Padmacharitam) written by Vimalasuri. Although the date is not clear, it is estimated that Vimalasuri lived in or before the fifth century AD. The Paumachariyam is only one among many in the long tradition of Ramakatha among Jains, although it is the oldest and the best-known.
Dr Eva De Clercq, a Jainism expert who teaches at Belgium’s Ghent University, says, “The theme of the Ram story was quite popular among the Jains. There are dozens of texts available composed by Jain authors from all over India, in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Apabhramsha, but also in several vernacular languages such as Kannada, Gujarati and Hindi. The Jain Ram story is also told as episodes in Jain storybooks, such as the Brihatkathakosha, and in the full accounts of the Jain traditional history, the Jain Mahapuranas.”
These ancient Jain authors told Ram’s story very differently. One thing that set them apart from the Hindus was their insistence on eschewing the more “miraculous” elements of the story, such as the name Vanaras as explained in the Paumachariyam. Another example is that no divine payasam was involved in the birth of Ram and his brothers; they were born in the normal way, according to the Jain texts.
This is because, as AK Ramanujan says in his essay Three Hundred Ramayana: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, the Jains considered themselves to be rationalists, unlike the Hindus “who, according to them, are given to exorbitant and often bloodthirsty fancies and rituals”. Not that this holds entirely true; Dr De Clerq points out, “There are some ‘fantastic’ elements in the Jain versions as well. Rama’s army may not have travelled to Lanka via a causeway built by monkeys; here they fly across the ocean in celestial chariots.”
A fascinating feature of the Jain versions of the Ramayana is the treatment of Ravan. As Dr Kumarpal Desai, a noted Jain scholar and managing trustee of the Institute of Jainology in Ahmedabad, says, “In the Jain Ramayana, Ravan is presented as a great and noble king, and as someone who is learned and who is a devotee of Jainism.” In fact, he isn’t even a rakshasa as popularly understood; like Hanuman and the other vanaras, he, too, is a vidyadhar, only he belongs to the rakshasa lineage. The Jain Ramayanas are in fact very sympathetic to Ravan, even presenting him as a doomed and tragic figure, who has one fatal flaw: lust.
While there has been some study on the subject of Jain Ramayanas, Dr Desai laments that it isn’t nearly enough. He says, “Within the Jain canon, the Ramayana is probably not as important as other texts. It’s not even very well-known within the community, with only a few Jain gurus giving sermons based on it once in a while.” Nonetheless, he feels, there is much to be gained from studying these versions, particularly how they were used as a vehicle for the Jain worldview.
According to traditional Jain history, there were different kinds of Salakapurusas (illustrious persons or worthies), including the Jinas or Tirthankaras, who propagated the Jain faith and Chakravartins or heroic emperors. Baladevas, Vasudevas and Prativasudevas were other such salakapurusas, with Ram (referred to as Padma), Lakshman and Ravan being Baladeva, Vasudeva and Prativasudeva, respectively. These heroes are born in every age, with Vasudeva and Prativasudeva destined to fight each other. Thus it is, that in Jain version, it is not Ram who kills Ravan — it is Lakshman who does so.
This detail is important because it is meant to present Ram as the ideal Jain hero, who has forsaken violence and who, at the end of his life, becomes a Jain mendicant and attains enlightenment. He is the evolved soul who has conquered his passions in what is his last birth. Lakshman and Ravan, on the other hand, go to hell. They don’t attain liberation until they have undergone many more births and deaths. These modifications to Valmiki’s story were necessary to illustrate the Jain principle of karma: if you live a pious life like Ram, you will be rewarded with a better existence in your next life and will slowly move towards attaining enlightenment and if you commit sins, you will go to hell and will remain caught in the kalachakra — the cycle of life and death.
“Popular stories always tend to cross-over,” says Dr Desai. “This fact is important for us to appreciate the existence of these variant Ramayanas within Jainism.” It assumes an even greater importance now, when a homogeneous idea of Hinduism — one that subsumes the various independent Buddhist and Jain philosophies — is sought to be presented. By acknowledging the Jain Ramayanas and by reading and studying them, we also recognise the richness of Indian philosophical systems and make room for alternative narratives.
*The story was originally published with the headline Many Lives, Many Masters
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