The Rama story is not confined to different Hindu or Hindu-derived secular tellings. It has also surfaced, from an early date, in a variety of Buddhist and Jain contexts. These narratives may send up the Rama story, as Richard Gombrich, scholar of Buddhist traditions, argues of the Buddhist Dasharatha Jataka (Gombrich 1985). By contrast, they may use it as a model for good government (see more on the Thai Buddhist Ramakien).
Or they may make key characters into followers of the Jina, exemplifying Jain values of compassion and ahimsa (refraining from harm). So in Vimalasuri’s Paumacariya (possible fourth or fifth century CE), it is Lakshman who has to kill Ravana, since, as an exemplar of Jain ascetic values, Rama should not engage in violence.
As well as many tellings in Southeast Asia, we now know that Ramayana stories were known to Buddhist monks in China. The ‘Dasharathavadana’ in the Za baozang jing tells the story of Rama and Lakshmana being banished to the forest in favour of Bharata. Interestingly, no mention is made of Sita whatever, and the whole story is told to emphasise the important Chinese value of filial piety. As Rama and Lakshmana still respect Bharata’s mother, though she behaved badly, when Rama returns to rule, ‘the land enjoyed bumper harvests and there was no plague’ (Ji Xianlin 2012: 190).
In the Chinese Sad-paramita-samgraha-sutra, the forty-sixth story tells of a Bodhisattva (the Buddha in a previous life) who ruled a country which was falling into ruin because his wicked uncle was slandering him. He therefore went away with his queen for the sake of his country wandering among mountains and forests. But the queen was kidnapped by a fierce dragon, who pretended to be a monk to capture her. She is rescued by the monkeys, the dragon is killed and the queen avows her virtue:
“Although I stayed for some time in the filthy dragon’s cave, I remained intact like a lotus out of mud. If my words are faithful, let the earth crack under my feet.” The moment she said so a chasm appeared. And the queen said, “This proves my words are true.” The king said, “Good! To remain chaste is what a Buddhist should practice.” Since then, over all the country, merchants were not so greedy, officials were not so ambitious, those who were in high positions could tolerate the underprivileged, the strong did not want to bully the weak, all resulted from the king’s enlightenment. Wanton women changed their behaviors and could remain chaste even at the risk of their lives, cheats became faithful, liars began to tell the truth. All this was due to the queen’s example.
The Buddha concludes: “The king was myself, the queen was Kuyi, the uncle was Devadatta, and Indra was Maitreya. ” The way the Buddha identifies characters in this story of a previous life, with himself and those around him in his present life, is typical of Jataka stories in Sanskrit too. Here, then, the story of Rama and Sita is not only used to underline chastity in this new context, but also the virtue of patience, which the Bodhisattva displayed by enduring the insults of his uncle for the sake of the country as a whole. An Indian story told in a Chinese Buddhist text in a way which chimed with Buddhist and Chinese values.