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Religion 101: Ancient Story Of Ramayana & Powerful Influence in ASEAN Countries

election wayang kulit shadow play art kelantan ramayana

It is said that the events mentioned in Ramayana are about 7,000 years old and with the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism from India saw the story of Ramayana retold in many cultures including the Malays who used it as a core story in shadow plays (wayang kulit) until the short-sighted PAS politicians decided that it is unIslamic and banned the story-telling. Image source: Wikipedia

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ramayana burmese hinduism

The above artwork showing the monkey army building a stone bridge to cross the sea on way to Lanka was created in or before the 19th-century in Myanmar (Burma). Literary and historical records suggest that the Ramayana story was orally transmitted within Burma by the 11th-century. Text & Image source: Wikimedia

The History of Ramayana

It is said that Valmiki wrote the story of Ramayana as a poem after hearing the story from Narada who recalled actual events.

Valmiki is celebrated as the harbinger-poet in Sanskrit literature. The epic Ramayana, dated variously from the 5th century BCE to the first century BCE is attributed to him, based on the attribution in the text itself. He is revered as Ādi Kavi, the first poet, author of Ramayana, the first epic poem.

The Ramayana, originally written by Valmiki, consists of 24,000 shlokas and seven cantos (kaṇḍas). The Ramayana is composed of about 480,002 words, being a quarter of the length of the full text of the Mahabharata or about four times the length of the Iliad. The Ramayana tells the story of a prince, Rama of the city of Ayodhya in the Kingdom of Kosala, whose wife Sita is abducted by Ravana, the demon-king (Asura) of Lanka.

Valmiki’s Ramayana is dated variously from 500 BCE to 100 BCE or about co-eval with early versions of the Mahabharata. As with many traditional epics, it has gone through a process of interpolations and redactions, making it impossible to date accurately.

(Source: Wikipedia)

ASEAN Variety of Ramayana Story

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This is an interesting presentation of Ramayana from the view of countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Philipines, Myanmar and even Singapore who over the years have infused their own local flavour. Do you notice the missing entry from Malaysia?

Ramayana – Myth or Real?

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Here Sadhguru attempts to explain the question to IIM students – Is Ramayana Just a Fiction or a True Story?

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This is interesting from the Ted Talk where author, Christopher C. Doyle explains some of the unanswered mysteries from the Hindu’s ancient text, Mahabharata.

adam's bridge ramayana

The bridge between mainland Indian and Sri Lanka – is it a natural-based or man-made bridge. Interestingly there is a reference to this bridge in an old text when there were no satellite images. Image source: NASA

Ramayana – History Fictionalised

Here is another interesting post from Dr Nanditha Krishna who is a historian and an environmentalist and director of the CPR Institute of Indological Research in Chennai. Her argument is that Ramayana was an actual history but when Valmiki heard the story and wrote it down, he put in his own creativity to make the story more interesting.

The actual story of the Ramayana is very simple. It starts with Valmiki, the ascetic, asking Narada, the chief of hermits (and a generic name), as to who was the greatest man who ever lived.

Narada narrates the story of Rama, King of Ayodhya, a man of virtue, knowledge, prowess, righteousness, truthful, resolute, of right conduct, friendly to all, powerful, handsome, who subdued his self, conquered anger, and many more virtues—but all human. Valmiki was a contemporary of Rama, as confirmed by Narada himself.

This is the original story of Rama, a historical biography, as narrated by Narada, which Valmiki uses as a prologue to his epic. Narada is very clear that Rama is a man, descended in the line of Ikshvaku. The pushpaka is the only extraordinary part of it.

Creativity distinguishes Valmiki’s poetic epic from Narada’s factual report. Rama is not a god, either to Narada or to Valmiki. But Valmiki is a poet. He goes on to elaborate the story in poetry, partially deifying Rama and creating the Ramayana. We have contemporary examples of people deified in their lifetime, such as the Shirdi and Sathya Sai Babas. Valmiki’s epic is filled with supernatural beings and events—flying monkeys, a ten-headed demon and so on. But why not? After all, his work had to be readable.

The Ramayana is linear, with perfect geography. Every site on Rama’s route is still identifiable, with continuing traditions or temples to commemorate Rama’s visit. Around 1,000 BCE, no writer had the means to travel around the country, listing local plants and animals, inventing a story and fitting it into local folklore, least of all building a temple to commemorate Rama’s visit.

Valmiki’s flying monkey Hanuman has made the authenticity of the epic suspect. But Narada does not describe the vanaras as monkeys (kapi). They were the vana naras (forest people) or vanar vansh (monkey lineage), people of the forest as described by the Jain Ramayana, written by Acharya Ravisen in the book Padam Puran. The Jaina Ramayana mentions that Hanuman was a vana nara, and the banner of the vanaras was the vanara dhvaja (monkey flag), thereby reinforcing the totemic theory.

Similarly, Jatayu would have been the king of the vulture-totem tribe and Jambavan of the bear-totem tribe. Kishkinda, where Hanuman was born and Jambavan (the bear) lived, still has the peculiar combination of two primary animals—langurs and bears. The bear and the monkey people were totemic tribes—after all, the whole story is about tribal India.

However, Valmiki, the poet, preferred the exotic to the mundane. He made them into flying monkeys, talking bears and fighting vultures—much more interesting than the vanara dhvajas!

(Source: Open The Magazine)

This argument seems valid considering how filmmakers usually will take a substantial creative approach in retelling true events so to make the story more interesting and excited for the audience. Further, in those ancient times, stories were handed down by means of verbal narratives instead of written text.

Final Say

I have a book of Ramayana in my small library at home which “came to me” when I was at Batu Caves with my cousin. A Hare-Krishna ISKCON devotee was selling some books at the temple entrance and he had the last 2 books in his bag and wished us to buy the last 2 books. I was fast to get hold of Ramayana before my cousin realised what was the title so my cousin got another book that talks about karma.

It is a tragedy that Malaysia has forgotten their history when it comes to Ramayana which was part of their old culture especially in the East Coast state of Kelantan. Unlike all other countries in the region who had preserved their variety of Ramayana in art and music, Malaysia in particular in Kelantan where it once flourished actually had it banned on the petty excuse of religion instead of art or history.

If one takes out the fact that the story derived from India which it has become as part of a religious text, Ramayana at the very basic is a great story that has bravely, treachery, rescue, love, patience and more. Just look at how the great Mani Ratnam took the gist of the story for his 2010 movie starring Vikram. Couple that with dance and shadow play, it becomes very lively.

If you have not read the book, it is on sale online at Lazada and Shopee.

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