Ramkatha: a multi-faceted textual tradition

So far we have glimpsed some of the many ways in which the story of Rama and Sita has been told across South Asian religious traditions themselves. 

Ravana, the ten-headed demon

Ravana, the ten-headed demon

It is clearly one which is able to surface in innumerable contexts:  Sanskrit hero tales (the core of Valmiki’s tale); Sanskrit epic struggles regarding the nature of dharma – cosmic, ritual and social order; folk traditions combining all sorts of different motifs; bhakti traditions of devotion to the Lord; new Advaitin understandings.  Then there are the local tellings in women’s songs, different by region, caste and social status, and politicised readings, both those which legitimate a ruler or particular group and those told oppositionally to undermine a dominant narrative.  These multiple tellings show how the story works in many ways across a whole range of South Asian religious and other traditions.

The whole corpus of narratives about Rama is often referred to as ‘Ramkatha’, or recitations/stories about Ram.  This helps us to understand that what we are dealing with is more of a multi-faceted textual tradition than a single text or numerous versions deriving from a single original. 

Ramayana Re-imagined, British Library Oct 2013

Ramayana Re-imagined, British Library Oct 2013

The term ‘katha’ (with the ‘th’ pronounced as in ‘hothouse’ and the last ‘a’ as in ‘guitar’) can just mean ‘a story’.  It can also refer to a particular form of recitation where the storyteller recites and comments on the story as he or she goes. This is important as it reminds us that the story has been told and performed in many different ways, and is primarily a story to be handed on and made one’s own.

A.K. Ramanujan, the South Indian-born poet and scholar, tells the story of Rama’s ring to illustrate how very many times the Rama story as a whole has been re-embodied (the narrative itself suggesting that there is one for each time that Rama himself is re-embodied on earth in different cosmic eras):

One day when Rama was sitting on his throne, his ring fell off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and disappeared into it.  It was gone.  His trusty henchman, Hanuman, was at his feet.  Rama said to Hanuman, “Look, my ring is lost.  Find it for me.”

          Now Hanuman can enter any hole, no matter how tiny… [by chanting Rama’s name endlessly, he attracts the attention of the King of Spirits and tells him the problem]

            The king looked around and showed him a platter.  On it were thousands of rings.  They were all Rama’s rings.  The king brought the platter to Hanuman, set it down, and said, “Pick out your Rama’s ring and take it.”

            They were all exactly the same.  “I don’t know which one it is,” said Hanuman, shaking his head.

            The King of Spirits said, “There have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter.  When you return to earth, you will not find Rama.  This incarnation of Rama is now over.  Whenever an incarnation of Rama is about to be over, his ring falls down.  I collect them and keep them.  Now you can go.”

            So Hanuman left…

(Ramanujan 1991: 24)

Hanuman gives Rama's ring to Sita

Hanuman gives Rama’s ring to Sita

The text with which we started, the Adbhuta Ramayana, does not actually include this episode.  But, in its closing chapter, it points out the special results of reciting or hearing its telling – attaining the Supreme Brahman and being liberated from the world of rebirth – and concludes:

A person attains the reward of studying 25,000 Ramayanas through just a single verse of this one (27.15).

Perhaps we cannot find 25,000 narratives, but if we think of the number of times the story will have been told, from grandparents to grandchildren, in local performances, through temple carvings, and TV viewings, we start to get an idea of how important this story has been and still is.  But also how varied are its tellings.  You might want to look at different incidents or characters in a selection of Ramayana tellings to see how very different their agendas can be.  On the following pages, you will find an example of two episodes concerning Sita and how she is portrayed as well as some modern understandings of Sita by British Hindu women and men.

Here are two contrasting examples of contemporary tellings:

For a lively contemporary cartoon version, you might like to watch Sita Sings the Blues! 

You will get an excellent feel for the importance placed on such recitations by watching a contemporary reciter at work.  Here is an example of the preparations for the well-known Gujarati reciter, Morari Bapu, giving a 9 day Ramkatha in Leicester, UK, in July 2006. You can also hear the beginning of his recitation.

Buddhist and Jain tellings

Indo-Islamic love stories and the Story of Rama and Sita

More about Sita in different tellings