The Ramayana, unlike its mighty compere, the Mahabharata, has received compara¬tively less attention from critics and scholars alike. One reason might be the very nature of the epic: its being the first kavya, the conscious¬ly: literary composition, as opposed to the more oral character of the other. Yet, where the Indian family is concerned, the Ramayana is by far the more ‘comfort¬able’ of the two. As Dr Annie Besant had pointed out long back when she wrote her adaptations of the two epics, here black and white are quite clear, and Rama is so trans¬parently the ‘proper man’ that no awkward ethical questions arise for the petit-bourgeois householder to tackle. The Mahabharata, on the other hand, is far too true to real life, with its heroes tainted with lust, greed and struck with inexplicable unmanliness at the most critical moments: be it the disrobing of their wife Or the first day of the war. The Divine-incarnate himself is much too open to reproach in the way Krishna manipulates, schemes and ruthlessly has his way.
Rama is so much, more ‘safe’ and remote; more readily ‘worship¬ful’ as the Avatara. The question is, was it always so? Was the Ramayana always a paean of praise to the Vishnu-avatara, whom Tulsidas brought into every village home of Hindi-speaking areas—‘maryada-purushottama Ramachandra’.
In research-accounts of the socio-economic and politico-cultural conditions of India during the time of the epics, we invariably come across very sweeping and confident generalizations about the prevalence of varnashrama-dharma, the tyranny of the Brahmins over the Sudras portrayed in the slaying of the sadhana-engaged Sambuka by the ‘righteous Rama’; the contempt of the Aryan for the forest dwelling vanaras shown in Rama’s justification of the cowardly killing of Vali; the male chauvinism of forcing Sita through many ordeals just to prove her husband above reproach; and so on. But did the Ramayana portray all this all along or are these accretions which scholars often tend to overlook for the sake of convenient generaliza¬tions?
It has generally been accepted that the first and seventh books of the epic—Balakanda and Uttarakanda—are later additions for strengthening the Vaishnavite deification of Kshatriya Rama. What has not been systematically-exa¬mined so far is the number of additive layers overlaying the original substratum of the epic in Book 2-6. This is precisely what Brockington attempts in ‘Righteous Rama: The evolu¬tion of an Epic’.
The first—and the most difficult—hurdle he faces is that of multifaceted interpre¬tations of the Rama story by a galaxy of European scholars, who played the same confus¬ing game with the Mahabharata. It has been seen as an allegory of a solar myth (the Germans were obsessed with this and insisted on forcing it on all Hindu myths) and of the Aryan expansion into south India; as a metamor-phosis of the Vedic Indra mythology; as an elaboration of the folk-tale motif of one bride (royalty) and two brothers (one moving death-wards, the other to marriage) who lose and recover royal power; a moral tale of true brotherhood versus the fratri¬cidal brothers (Ravana-Vibhishana, Vali-Sugriva).
In the field of comparative mythology, the most important interpretation has been sug¬gested by Georges Dumezil and his school. In the Mahabharata and the Norse myths, Dumezil has traced the three-stage conflict between Good and Evil: an initial triumph for the latter through trickery; a mighty battle leading in the decisive elimination of Evil; and the golden rule of the Good.
The applicability of this theme to the Ramayana needs no elaboration. Even leaving out the later additions making the goddess Sarasvati influence Kaikeyi through Manthara, the fact of Rama’s banishment as a result of Kaikeyi’s machi¬nations is an integral part of the original epic. Besides this, the tri-functional theme characterizing most of Indo-Aryan mythology is also appa¬rent. Priest, warrior and agriculturist, this inter-linking relationship can be traced in the three Ramas; the Brahmin Parasurama, the Kshatriya Rama and the plough-bearing Balarama, who appear in that consecutive order, seeming to substantiate Dumezil’s theory.
Brockington perceptively points out that all such “trans¬formational interpretations” are easily applicable not to the original epic but to its accreted form. Arguing for the historicity of the event around which Valmiki built his epic, Brockington asserts very right¬ly that, ‘myth is a final stage in the development of a hero, whose historicity and parti¬cularity are transmuted in the popular memory into a mythi¬cal and universal form’.
Starting with this, he plunges into a linguistic and stylistic examination of each book, to bring out five distinct layers. From such close textual analy¬sis he arrives at conclusions, which relate to the composi¬tion of the epic, its dating, and its very nature, the impli-cations of which are momen¬tous in terms of Indology. What is particularly admirable is that he does not start a priori with an assumed view of the epic, and mould the evidence to fit it, as in the inter¬pretations mentioned above. He proceeds to ground himself firmly in the text as it stands, and presents the evidence from the language at length in statistic terms, allowing the conclusions to emerge inevi¬tably and organically.
From this analysis, we find that Books 2-6 depict consi¬derable variations of language and style revolving around a core which is quite direct and cohesive, and which seems to be distinct from the Sanskrit described by Panini. This cor¬pus, which incorporates into a single whole the events of Ayodhya, Kishkindha and Lanka, in a simple, fluent style, constitutes the first stage, the original layer, of the epic. Here we find a continuous narrative flow, not held up by poetic elaborations or mora¬lizing. For instance, Rama’s banishment has a very drama¬tic and realistic cause in the: psychological black-mailing of Dasaratha by Kaikeyi, which is reduced in force by the subsequent overlaying of the story of the blind sage’s curse on Dasaratha, which empha¬sizes the supernatural at the expense of the psychological.
The interpolations or expan¬sions in Books 2-6 are desig¬nated as the second stage in the evolution of the text, a peculiar stylistic feature of which is verses in longer metres, many of which divide the epic into sargas quite art ideally. Books 1 and 2 constitute the third stage of growth, characterized by being non-literary and puranic, occurrence of stereotyped phrases, often from the Mahabharata stock, and addition of episodes lacking direct relevance to the Rama-Sita narrative (e.g. the Visvamitra episode, Vishnu’s incarnation as Rama, Agastya’s narrative, etc).
The fourth stage is those parts of the text which have been relegated by the Baroda Criti¬cal Edition of the epic to the Appendix as additions sub¬stitutions. Here we find con¬siderable elaboration of the literary aspects, along with the addition of various, pura¬nic events in a bald, didactic manner. The fifth stage (the justification of this appears rather slight) consists of such additions which are found only in a few, or even one, manuscript.
An important insight into the differences between the two great epics comes to light during such an examination. The Mahabharata, in the course of its evolution, shows a steady tendency to shift to an ethical viewpoint for depict¬ing the narrative. The Ramayana, on the other hand, shows a ‘change from the poetry of action to the poetry of feel¬ing’, with the emphasis grow¬ing on the emotional and lyri¬cal aspects at the expense of the heroic. That is why it became the archetypal arti¬ficial or literary epic for Sans¬krit literate.
For the reader, however, this detailed examination does throw up virtually undigestable data such as these: out of 858 J verses in longer metre, 497 are tristubh, 3101/2 vamsastha, 27 puspitagra, 11 aparavaktra, 6 rucira, 4 praharsini, 1 vaisvadevi, 1 asambadha, and 1 un¬identifiable. Or again: Agastya’s narrative (Uttarakanda 1-36) has 1407£ stanzas (aver¬age 39) which exceeds that of 37-100 at 13121/2 (average 201/2) containing 29 longer verses against 5 in the rest, 301 similes (21.39 per cent) against 77 (5.87 per cent) and 561 long compounds (39.86 per cent) against 326 (24.84 per cent), while the frequency of periphrastic future is lower (6 against 13) but the propor¬tion of them increases with lateness!
From this laborious, statistical examination, Brockington pro¬ceeds to a valuable exposition of the economic life, the flora and fauna, the political scene, the society and the religious condition which emerges from each of the five stages. The evolution of these stages is a clear picture of the develop¬ment of the Indian economic and socio-religious scene, the likes of which have never been analysed so distinctly and with such indisputable grounding in a stratified view of the text. He carries this further through a survey of the adaptations of the epic in Sanskrit and in other languages, including its spread to South-east Asia.
One of most daring attempts by Brockington is the dating of each of the five stages on linguistic and stylistic evi¬dence. Thus, the first stage is placed approximately in the 5th century B.C., the second to the 3rd century B.C. (when mutual borrowing with the Mahabharata and the divergence into Northern and Southern recessions begins), the third stage is assigned between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD (this deve¬lopment appears to be an attempt to fill in the gaps in the story), the fourth stage begins in the 4th century AD, while the fifth stage appears to have come in the 12th century AD.
This stage-wise division brings out extremely important findings about the geographi¬cal base of the epic, and its political situation. In the Mahabharata the power-centre is around the Delhi region, while in the Ramayana it shifts to the upper Ganga area with the limit of settle¬ments southwards being the Yamuna and Ganga rivers, with vague knowledge about the Vindhya and Mahendra mountains.
The martial outlook is pre¬dominant in the first stage, with a very simple social pattern having no reference to the castes but speaking only of urban and rural popu¬lations. Neither the tribal groups, nor women are depicted as inferior, and even widow remarriage is envis¬aged. The king is by no means a divine figure, and levies taxes in return for protecting his subjects. The royal priest is merely a ritual specialist, and not the powerful adviser of later stages. This is a picture tallying with the oldest parts of the other epic.
It is in the third stage that the religious emphasis becomes prominent and the king’s duty is emphasized as being to maintain the caste-system rigidly. In warfare, emphasis shifts to conventions and the theoretical aspects, and in religion Vishnu and Shiva eclipse Indra and Brahma. In the fourth stage, the geographical horizons expand, the position of women and tribals deteriorates markedly, and the additions made emphasize the didactic and the aesthetic, including frequent references to actors and dancers, which is probably a pointer to the heights of popularity achieved by the theatre between the fourth and seventh centuries AD. Stage 5 continues this tendency.
The evolution of the epic is also a record of how Hindu society transformed Rama from a warrior with exemplary devotion to duty, the ideal Kashatriya, to a divine incar¬nation. It is fascinating to see how the comparison and the association with Indra in the initial stages come to be seen as a blind alley as far as the ultimate stature of Rama is concerned, because of the morally reprehensible conduct of this king of the gods. For elevating Rama to avatara-hood, the Uttarakanda first concentrates on building up Ravana to cosmic propor¬tions, and then leads up, through a series of identi¬fications of Rama with various deities, to the disclosure of Vishnu having incarnated as Rama.
This identification leads to interesting developments owing to the fundamental difference between the Ramavatara and the Krishnavatara; the one is an ethical example; the other a teacher. Yet we come across attempts to turn Rama into a teacher as well through the Ramagita in the Adhyatma Ramayana, and by providing him with a teaching role in the Agni Purana and even in the Anushasanaparva of the Mahabharata. Similarly, Rama’s childhood is also sought to be modelled on Krishna’s (Bhushundi and Adhyatma Ramayanas). A natural corollary to the defication of Rama is the development of the myth of the Maya-Sita, in order to preserve her chastity beyond any reproach.
The reason for the wider acceptance of the Rama story in Buddhist, Jain, Tibetan, Khmer and Malay traditions, compared to that “of Krishna, lies in the heart of the first stage of the epic: the hero as an embodiment of righteous¬ness and duty: What can be compressed into a single word: DHARMA, with Rama as its embodiment. For it is he who is the resounding reply to Valmiki’s query to Narada: ‘Who in the world, today, is exemplary, righteous, courageous and dharma-knowing, truthful, resolute and full of gratitude? Who is it that cleaves to virtue? Who is kind to all?’
Pradip Bhattacharya is Registrar of Cooperative Societies, West Bengal, belongs to the I.A.S., has written several books including The Secret of Mahabharata and a book on T.S. Eliot.