The two philosophical Ramayanas which are believed to be earlier than the Adbhuta Ramayana are the Yogavasistha Ramayana (? 12th/13th c. AD) and the Adhyatma Ramayana (? 16th c. AD).
The Yogavasishtha is a massive rambling text of around 32,000 verses which has grown over the centuries. It also circulated in a shortened form (still fairly long!) called the Laghu-Yogavasishtha. This has been a very popular text, translated into numerous modern Indian languages as well as English. Over the centuries it has influenced some Advaita traditions to adopt yoga practices of posture, breathing and meditation to overcome ignorance and illusion. It is probably this shortened form which was quoted by the Advaitin (non-dualist) scholar, Vidyaranya, who was working in the fourteenth century AD and himself combined yoga practices with his understanding of brahman as non-dual. His primary audience was male ascetics.
The Yogavasishtha focuses on a dialogue between the sage-teacher, Vasishtha, and his pupil, Rama. Its aim is to help Rama remove the illusion that the world is something other than brahman, the ultimate reality. As a result of this dialogue, and by following yoga practices, Rama becomes a jivanmukta, one who is liberated while still living (not having to wait till death for full liberation). As such, he can become an exemplar for others to show that this is possible. While the Yogavasistha does know the whole Valmiki story, it is not very interested in it. Sita does not feature.
To give you a flavour of this text, you might like to listen to a Scottish practitioner, Gurugillies commenting on the Yoga-vasishta. Don’t forget to ask questions about his viewpoint and interpretations.
The Adhyatma Ramayana, another Advaitin (non-dualist) text, also sees the world as an illusion superimposed upon brahman. In this text, the devotee is enabled to cast illusion aside and realise the nature of brahman as the blissful ultimate, through the grace of Lord Rama. Unlike in the Yogavasishtha, narrative is very important indeed in this text. Like it, however, the heart of the text is based in conversation, this time between Rama, Sita and Lakshmana (Bala Kanda 1.25). It is hearing this conversation that leads to liberation. The conversation is presented as recounted by Rama, who shows his grace through his own telling of the story. Just as in the way some other Ramayana tellings are framed, however, the Adhyatma‘s telling is provoked by questions the goddess Parvati asks her husband, Lord Shiva. In the excerpt below, the phrasing of the second question shows that this text circulates in a devotional context where Rama is the focus of worship:
Parvati to Shiva: They say that Rama is one, foremost of all beings, above the flow of the attributes of Maya, and that those who carefully worship him day and night, attain to the supreme abode through realization of self.
Some say that though supreme, Rama did not know his nature through the influence of his own Maya. He, however, knew the nature of the supreme self when roused by another.
If he knew his true self, why did he, the supreme, grieve over the loss of Sita? If he did not know his own self, who would worship him, for he is then equal to embodied creatures?
(Bala Kanda 1.12-14, tr. Baij Nath)
Shiva commends his wife for being a devotee of the Supreme Self (i.e. Rama) as she seeks the truth of Rama’s real nature; the whole text is presented as an answer to this question for others who seek the truth too.
In this text, Sita is the Yoga-Maya of Vishnu, that is his power of illusion which can both conceal reality and reveal it. The god Brahma pleads with Lord Vishnu to intervene and provide a solution as Ravana, the ten-headed demon, is oppressing the earth. Vishnu’s response is that his Yoga-Maya will be born as Sita, the daughter of Janaka: ‘With her I shall accomplish everything’ (Bala Kanda 2.28). He himself will incarnate as Rama, the son of the righteous king, Dasharatha. The importance of Sita here is quite clear.
This, however, is one of the Ramayanas where it is not the real Sita who is kidnapped by Ravana. The real Sita (who is the power of illusion herself!) is concealed in the fire and a ‘shadow’ or illusory Sita is created. This is the Sita Ravana sees and kidnaps. The real Sita is thus in no danger of being sullied by her contact with the ten-headed demon. It is the shadow Sita who is rescued by Hanuman. In an allusion to the agnipariksha, the fire test which Sita undergoes, the fire carries Sita back to Rama and urges him to take back Janaki (Sita) who has been in her care all the time. The shadow Sita, made by Rama in order to destroy Ravana, has now disappeared, her purpose fulfilled (Sundar Kanda 13.21). Yet there is a twist in this devotional text. Ravana himself recognised that Rama is really Lord Vishnu and Sita the goddess Lakshmi. So he kidnaps (the shadow) Sita in order for Rama to kill him so that this contact with Rama will remove Ravana’s impurities and allow him to ‘attain the feet of Hari (the Lord)’. Thus he will be liberated from the ocean of the world of rebirth. And such liberation will be granted to all who hear the text too.
Because the Adhyatma Ramayana is clearly linked with a devotional tradition which regarded Rama as Supreme, John Brockington (1984: 252 n.51), the renowned Epic scholar, suggests it may have stemmed from the Ramanandi sect based in Varanasi which flourished from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries onwards.
An Indian Postage stamp bearing a picture of Ramanand was issued in 2002. The link will give you both the picture and the information that was published with it. You might want to think of some questions to ask about the way this information is presented…
You can also watch and listen to a recitation of the salutation at the beginning of the Adhyatma by a Malayalam reciter, Kavalam Srikumar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5BHTAPVg2Ek