Along with the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is the principal source of Hindu social and religious doctrine for Southeast Asians. The importance of these works to the cultures of India and Southeast Asia is comparable to the significance of the Bible to Western culture. Virtually everyone in India has been exposed to these two religious texts. Further, these stories accompanied the Hindu culture of Brahmanism wherever it spread, including Southeast Asia.
The Ramayana literally means 'concerning Rama'. It is the love story of Rama and Sita. Legend claims that it was written about 1500 BCE; while according to religious scholars the Ramayana was written about 400 BCE. Scholars and legend agree that it was written by one author, Valmiki. In a state of pure inspiration, he composed this 24,000 stanza Sanskrit poem. On the other hand, the Mahabharata, like many other great religious texts, was the work of many authors over a long period of time. This compilation probably developed between the 5th century BCE and the 4th century CE.
Because the Ramayana is a story, it has been retold in many different versions. Many great writers have rewritten the story for their own culture. Each of the different languages of India has its own version of the Ramayana, and Thailand has its own version called the Ramakian. This is not simply a translation, but a rewriting of the story that reflects Thai cultural perspective regarding this ancient tale.
"Of all the classical Thai literature, the Ramakian is the most pervasive and influential in the Thai culture. The Indian source - the Ramayana - came to Thailand with the Khmers 900 years ago." (Lonely Planet, 1999, p. 48)
This book is so influential in Thai culture that one of their theater forms, the khon, is based entirely upon the book. The Thai royalty sponsored this form of theatre, which was expensive to perform due to the elaborate costumes. It almost died out, but has been revived in modern times.
The symbolic significance of the Ramayana is also reflected in the religious art of Southeast Asia. Scenes from the Ramayana appear on stone reliefs in the temples of northeast Thailand and central Java. The well-known Angkor Wat of Cambodia exhibits magnificent scenes within the temple ruins. Further, these stories are also found on the painted walls of the king’s Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Initially Valmiki’s story of the Ramayana was spread to the populace of Southeast Asia, including Thailand, as part of an oral tradition. The Thai version of this story was finally written down during the reign of the Thai king Rama I (1782-1809). The two written versions have some significant differences. This difference in storytelling reflects how each culture makes the Ramayana their own. The Thai version contains 60,000 stanzas, about 25% longer than the original. It also includes more detail about the demon king, Ravana and a different perspective on the monkey king, Hanuman, who helps Rama succeed in his mission. In the Thai version, Hanuman is very flirtatious, while his Indian counterpart made a strict vow of chastity.
Our primary source book for our interpretations of the Ramayana come from the successful novelist, R. K. Narayan. His writing process reflects the tendency to retell this famous tale. He bases his 1972 English version of the Ramayana on an 11th century CE version that was written by the renowned Dravidian poet, Kamban. Kamban composed his Tamil rendition during the day, after translating the original Sanskrit 5th century BCE version by Valmiki at night. Each author relies upon an earlier source, but each contributes a unique cultural reinterpretation to the story.
Due to the importance and complexity of the original version of the Ramayana to Eastern culture, let us relate the story in abbreviated form. This summary will give us insight into why it had/has such a huge cultural impact. The scholar may interpret the Ramayana on many different levels. Our primary focus, however, is upon interpreting the overt implications of the story’s plot, rather than upon the more arcane symbolic implications. Audiences of an oral culture encountered the Ramayana through the basic plotline, rather than the written Hindu philosophy contained in the book.
Before entering a discussion of the plot, we ought to consider the political/cultural context that spawned the Ramayana. The plotline of this story is steeped in the culture of the warrior-king. The assumptions of this militaristic/hierarchical worldview are not as well received today, as they were during earlier times. The role model of Ramayana culture is consistent with the role models of the Old Testament Abraham, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and other warrior kings. However, in our times, this ancient model has to confront modern political assumptions, which favor sexual equality and democracy. It’s important for us to be able to sift through the plot to discover its insights, while holding at bay our acceptance of the underlying assumptions of the antiquated warrior-king model.
One of the fundamental assumptions of the militaristic culture of the warrior-king is that royal bloodline is an essential requisite for leadership. As the king is a powerful warrior, the ruler must also be male. Accordingly, the king must have a male heir to continue the dynasty. The lack of a male heir supplies the dynamic tension that drives many plotlines and many historical events, as in the prototypical case of England’s Henry VIII.
The necessity of male succession in the royal line is the assumption upon which the Ramayana begins.
Our discussion of the plot begins with Dasaratha, the great king of Kosala. He lived in his splendid capitol city of Ayodhya. Yet sadly, he was childless. He went to the High Priest Vasishtha, a sage and his mentor, to ask his advice.
The High Priest remembered an inner vision. In his vision, all the gods go to Vishnu to beg his assistance in fighting Ravana, the ten-headed demon king, and his brothers.
Gods: "The Demons 'have acquired from us extraordinary powers through practicing austerities and prayers, and now threaten to destroy our worlds and enslave us. They go along recklessly in their career of tyranny, suppressing all virtue and goodness wherever found.' Because they acquired their powers through Shiva, the Destroyer, and Brahma, the Creator, we are helpless against their powers. That is why we have come to you, Vishnu, the Protector. You must do something to save us."
‘Vishnu promised, "Ravana can be destroyed only by a human being since he never asked for protection from a human being. I shall incarnate as [the son of the King], … and all the gods here shall take birth in the world below in a monkey clan – since Ravana has been cursed in earlier times to expect his destruction only from a monkey." (R.K Narayan, The Ramayana, pp. 4&5)
Without relating any of his vision to the king, the High Priest recommended that the king perform a sacrifice, a yagna, presided over by another great sage. The King followed his advice. The sacrifice took a full year. At the end of the year, a supernatural creature emerged from the fire bearing a silver plate with some sacramental rice on it and gave it to the King. The Sage who had presided over the sacrificial ceremony told the King to give the rice to each of his three wives, and he did so. They immediately became pregnant and bore him four sons, which included Rama, the eventual hero of the tale.
The next big event in the Ramayana occurs after the King has had the joy of raising his four sons to young adulthood. They are given individual tutors to nourish and foster their skills, which include both martial arts and yoga-like disciplines. The four boys, especially Rama, are loved by all. The good King builds a new assembly hall, where he hears all the complaints of the people and attempts to judge fairly. He performs his public duties selflessly.
Into town comes the renowned Sage Viswamithra. The Sage had renounced power as a great king and conqueror. Through spiritual practices, austerities and such, he became a sage with seemingly magical powers. Due to these achievements, he was highly respected.
King: "What can I do for you?"
Sage: "I want to perform a great yagna, a ceremonial sacrifice, at a holy place far away. The yagna will purify the world by ridding it of evil spirits. This will also make the gods happy. Because of the intensity of the task, it has unfortunately attracted demons who are trying to interrupt the ceremony. I need some help in keeping these demons away."
King: "I'll be glad to come."
Sage: "I just need Rama."
The King gulps. Rama is his pride and joy and everyone's favorite.
This is a gripping scene. The King must let go of his son, but doesn't want to.
King: "I'll send armies; I’ll go myself."
Sage: "I just need Rama."
King: "But he is so young."
Sage: "It is OK to say No. But I must leave now. I have failed my mission. But that is all right." He turns to go.
The King is stunned.
Previously, the King’s High Priest had a vision into the deeper workings of the Universe. As his advisor and mentor he informs the king: "There is a divine purpose at work. The Sage does not make requests lightly. We should be honored that he has chosen Rama for this important yagna."
The King desolate, but realizing the necessity of this movement: "But it is so far away.”
Sage: "Don't worry. I will take care of him, although he will really be taking care of me."
King: "How about his brother? Can he go too? They have never been separated."
(Note Rama’s brother was the incarnation of the serpent that protected Vishnu.)
King, stuttering: "When?"
King, in an attempt to delay the departure: "What about the preparations?"
Sage: "We are ready."
The poor King. He must part with his favorite son.
The Sage attempts to console him: "Physical proximity is unimportant. Rama will also leave me at a certain point. It is in the nature of Being. Holding on only stunts the growth. The acorn doesn't grow in the shade of the mighty oak."
The King is asked to sacrifice his favored son to a greater purpose. The universal nature of the story addresses the responsibility of parenthood. The responsible parents must not let their strong attachment stand in the way of their child's destiny. And releasing the child is painful.
The King's pain is acute when his son departs on his dangerous mission. This suffering is not uncommon. Many parents feel this same pain when their children leave home to make their way in the world. If the parent is successful, the son or daughter is passed on to other mentors, who in turn will pass them on to others. We are required to let go of this parental attachment, no matter how painful it is.
The Author speaks from personal experience. "I'm just grateful that I was honored to be my children's caretaker and guide for that blink of an eye called childhood. Then came the inevitable.
Letting go, as they were ripped from my grasp.
Feeling the pain of my skin being stripped from my body, where we were connected.
Knowing that my skin will grow back.
It is still excruciating.”
The pain of separation is difficult whenever it occurs. Infants cry when their parents leave them with a new babysitter. Parents cry when their children go away to college. Children cry when their parents leave this plane of existence.
The pain of separation is an ordinary everyday example of the notion: to live is to suffer. It is natural to love our children. To love them is to care for and nurture them as they are growing up. If the parents’ cultivation process succeeds, then their children leave home to fulfill their destinies – their dharma. The departure of loved ones is always painful. It is one of the great pains of life. It means we have loved. The depth of our pain frequently reflects the depth of our love.
The King's pain was very deep, reflecting his love for Rama. Life is pain to one who loves, because separation is an inevitable part of Life. Death itself is an inevitable and permanent form of separation, and yet, life's many changes bring many deaths. The pain of separation can serve as a powerful reminder that we are truly alive.
Since separation is unavoidable, it is advisable to allow the process to happen naturally. Clinging to loved ones only makes things worse for them and us. To avoid the pain of loss, we desperately hold on to the familiar, even as it slips from our grasp. Our security blanket of permanence is an illusion that Time cheerfully consumes.
At one point in the tale, Rama must leave the kingdom because of circumstances beyond his control. Grief stricken, the King falls into a fatal swoon. He was holding on too tightly. Instead of resisting change, he could have embraced the pain of loss and let go of his attachment to his son.
The Reader can easily apply this same metaphor to the illusion of a permanent self. One of the primary themes of Hindu culture is the illusory nature of personal identity. Instead of holding on tightly to who we consider our self to be, we can allow our selves to evolve naturally over time and circumstance. Fighting the inevitable just leads to emotional suffering. We have the potential to let go of personal attachments and flow effortlessly to worlds beyond imagining.
The Sage provides us a positive role model in this regard. He was totally detached from the results of his work. Although he saw that Rama needed to be trained, the Sage was willing to let it all go. If the King had said no to his request, he was willing to walk away, even though he knew that it was meant to happen. He bore no resentment to the king for attempting to hold onto Rama; ultimately it was the King’s choice. The Sage was not going to curse the King or offer wisdom; he wasn't going to plead or try to convince the High Priest to intercede on his behalf. He did what he was supposed to do and then detached from consequences. He was not emotionally invested in the success of his mission.
When expectations are not met, emotional investment leads to bitterness. Although the Sage had journeyed far to deliver his message, he did not strike out in angry argumentation, threats, or curses when Rama's father objected to his well-intentioned request. This detachment from results is an important part of the underlying message of the story. In contrast, Rama’s father provided a fatal example of the consequences of excessive emotional attachment. Detachment from anticipated results is an important theme in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy.
In summary, the Ramayana speaks to every parent. If we raise heroes, we must expect that they will leave the safe confines of a nurturing home to battle the dangerous demons of a frequently hostile world. This transition, the separation of parent and child, is painful, but necessary. To live is to love; and to love is to suffer.
Further, clinging to our children to avoid the inevitable pain of separation is detrimental to this natural process. At best, the child pursues his or her personal dharma despite the emotional pressures from unbalanced parents, as did Rama. The death of Rama’s father provides an extreme example of excessive attachment to results. These themes must have impressed every parent that heard a recitation of the Ramayana’s story. Whether they heard it around a campfire, watched a tribal or courtly performance, or read the book, the message would have been clear.