- Ramayana Stories in Modern South India: An Anthology
Compiled and edited by Paula Richman, Ramayana Stories in Modern South Asia: An Anthology is a combination of primary texts and secondary criticism. Its aim is to present to the noninitiate the rich tradition of the Rama stories (Rama katha) in modern South India. The primary audience for the book is the North American classroom, where Richman sees her collection being used to introduce students to the narrative and religious diversity of India. In the pursuit of this objective, Richman presents canonical as well as counter-canonical tellings of Rama katha. A secondary objective seems to be to educate readers about the cultural milieu of South India. Accordingly, Richman's volume brings together versions of Rama katha in Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and Malayalam (the major languages of South India, excluding English) surrounded by scholarly material. In its objectives, the collection is successful, though with some qualifications.
The importance of Rama katha to India cannot be overstated. In India, Rama's images are everywhere—in little shrines in shops and homes, on calendars, [End Page 406] and on television (where during the 1980s his story was told week after week on Sunday mornings to millions of rapt television viewers). In the political life of India, no god, in this land of many gods, casts a longer shadow than Rama. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), one of India's main political parties, and allied organizations of the Hindu right (commonly referred to as the Sangh Parivar) have successfully integrated Rama into a modern political movement based on hurt Hindu pride. Such is the company Rama has been forced to keep in recent years.
In contrast to BJP's exclusionary and severe interpretation of Rama, Richman's collection demonstrates the diversity of the Rama katha tradition. "How many Ramayanas?" A. K. Ramanujan, the well-known poet, translator, and scholar of South Asia who taught for many years at the University of Chicago, once asked rhetorically. "Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been?" ("Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation"). The answer (no prizes): countless. Despite the Hindu right, there are as many Ramayanas as there are tellers of the story; what individual or organization could ever claim to provide the singular, authoritative account of a culture hero (which is what Rama is)?
Despite the variations in the Rama katha tradition, the essential elements of the Rama story are easily summarized. Rama—Vishnu incarnated on earth to destroy the enemies of good—is the eldest son of Dasaratha. He is of exemplary virtue and destined to succeed to the throne of Ayodhya. But when the time for Rama's accession to the throne arrives, Dasaratha's second wife, Kaikeyi, uses two boons granted her once upon a time by Dasaratha to force him to exile Rama for fourteen years and to bestow the throne on her own son, Bharatha. Though Bharatha does not want the throne, Rama—model son that he is—insists on fulfilling the two requirements so his father's honor may remain unsullied. He will not allow his father's sworn word to be rendered meaningless. While in exile, Rama's wife, Sita, is abducted by Ravana, and Rama must fight with the help of his greatest devotee, Hanuman, and his monkey allies to win her back. Many versions of the Ramayana end with the death of Ravana, the reunion of Sita with Rama, and the return of Rama to Ayodhya as king; some continue on to present the subsequent exile of Sita from Ayodhya.
Richman approaches the daunting task of presenting this tradition of stories—or at least aspects of it—by making two important exclusions. She removes both North India and Rama from her purview. The Hindu fundamentalist appropriation of Rama noted above is largely a North Indian affair. By excluding North India, Richman neatly sidesteps the most knotty political questions regarding the contemporary manifestations of Rama katha. Similarly, the...