"The Ramayana" is not a single book like "the Bible" but rather a chronicle of history and a tradition of storytelling. Ramayana serves as an excellent window through which the great panorama of the Indian civilization is opened. The story of Rama depicted in the Ramayana unlocks a gateway leading the readers in an any part of the globe to encounter with the world-view of a great civilization that both resembles, and markedly differs from their own and a process which enables them to realize that they should have a world view in the first place.
The Ramayana tradition has enjoyed a unique popularity throughout the subcontinent of South Asia (comprising the modern states of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka) and beyond - for versions of the tale have flourished in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
Although the core story of the travails of Prince Rama and Princess Sita and their companions remains much the same everywhere, storytellers and poets in dozens of languages have chosen not simply to translate some "original" version, but instead have retold the saga in their own words, often modifying and embellishing it according to regional traditions or their own insights and interpretations. Thus we have today different versions of Ramayana in various languages indicating the deep penetration and influence of the personalities of Rama and Sita in the hearts and minds of the Indian people.
India is very vast and has varied cultural and literary traditions. It has always maintained and nurtured plants and flowers of different kinds, colors and shapes. Therefore an assortment of varieties and traditions of Rama Katha has been flourishing here not only in Sanskrit but in all the other Indian languages since centuries. Sri Rama, even now, is the pet subject of poets, novelists, story writers, cartoonists, philosophers, thinkers, dramatists, film-makers and management consultants besides contemporary politicos of different hues.
Valmiki Ramayana, Adhyatma Ramayana, Vasishta Ramayana, Ananda Ramayana, Agasthya Ramayana in Sanskrit, Ranganatha Ramayana in Telugu, Kamba Ramayana in Tamil, Tulasi Ramayana or Ramacharitamanasa in Hindi, Kirtivasa Ramayana in Bengali, and Ezuthachan’s Adhyatma Ramayana in Malayalam are some of the well known versions.
For all these works on the saga of Rama, Ramayana authored by Valmiki who is called Aadi Kavi has been the basis which is called Aadi Kavya.
Adhyatma Ramayana - Date and Authorship
Tradition ascribes the authorship of Adhyatma Ramayana to Vedavyasa since it is said to be an integral part of Brahmanda Purana. However, some scholars attribute it to the period 14th -15th century AD and the author as unknown.
Adhyatma Ramayana is the portrayal of a conversation between Lord Siva and Goddess Parvati (as reported by Lord Brahma to Sage Narada). It is this work that provided Tulasidasa with the inspiration to compose his immortal work, the Ramacharitamanasa.
Adhyatma Ramayana has about 4000 verses and is popular amongst the devotees of Rama and also among the Vedantins. Written in mellifluous Sanskrit, the work sums up the main events of the Valmiki Ramayana. Discussions pertaining to Advaita Vedanta philosophy, the path of Bhakti (devotion) in general and Ramabhakti in particular and several hymns in praise of Rama are the hallmarks of this work.
Adhyatma Ramayana is essentially a Puranic work demonstrating the inquisitiveness of Parvati and unambiguous expositions by Mahadeva. But in the orthodox circles of Rama devotees, the Adhyatama Ramayana is considered to be a Mantra-sastra, a sacred book, each stanza of which is revered as a Mantra (mystic syllable) and devoutly repeated in a ceremonial way.
A question naturally arises why Adhyatma Ramayana when Valmiki Ramayana is already there. The answer could be that the purpose behind the work was not to narrate Rama Katha but to propound ideological principles of Bhakti in co-ordination with Advaita Vedanta. The very title ‘Adhyatma Ramayana’ indicates this as otherwise it would have been christened as Vyasa Ramayana as in the case of Valmiki Ramayana. This is to be viewed against the picturisation of Sri Rama by Valmiki as a perfect human being, a maryada purushottama, with embodiment of Dharma.
In Adhyatma Ramayana we see Rama as Brahman - omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient, the cause without a cause and the One without a second. The factors that caused Him to incarnate Himself in a human form were, as stated in the Gita, to protect Dharma and destroy the evil.
Comparison with Valmiki Ramayana
In a study of Adhyatma Ramayana it is essential to know where it differs from the Valmiki Ramayana.
Valmiki’s object seems to describe Rama as an ideal human character though he accepts him as an avatar of Maha Vishnu; but the divinity of Rama is always kept latent. This objective of Valmiki is made clear at the very beginning of the epic in verses 1 to 18 of Chapter 1 of Bala Kanda. Here Valmiki asks Narada the following questions:
1. “Who in the world today is a great personage, endowed with all virtues, who is courageous, who knows the secret of Dharma, who is grateful, who is ever truthful and who is established in sacred observances”?
2. “Who has great family traditions, who has got sympathy for all creatures, who is most learned, who is skilful, and whose outlook is ever kindly”?
3. “Who is courageous, who has subdued anger, who is endowed with splendor, who is free from jealousy, who, when angry in the field of battle, is a terror even to the Devas”?
In reply to this question, Sage Narada narrated in brief the entire Rama Katha which formed the basis for Valmiki to expand and make it a vast, beautiful and unique epic poem of great literary value which came to be called Valmiki Ramayana. (Narada’s brief exposition of Rama Katha to Valmiki is called ‘Sankshepa Ramayana’ which is used in many households for the purpose of daily recitation).
The object of an epic which begins with such a description of its hero is obviously to give us a picture of human perfection. But this does not mean that Valmiki did not recognize divinity in his hero. When a person is described as a Deity, it happens that ordinary human beings start worshipping him and are not inclined to treat him as a role-model to imitate and follow. This probably must have been the reason for Valmiki to propound the divinity of Rama in subdued tones and paint him prominently as a great human being with all the human frailties and weaknesses so that the people at large may learn from his life.
While Valmiki’s great epic is the saga of Rama in respect of its direct approach, Adhyatma Ramayana is a direct elaboration of its spiritual implications. In the former Rama is a great hero, in the latter he is a deity- Maha Vishnu, covered in thin apparel - held before all to worship. This is made clear in the very first chapter of the book entitled ‘Sri Rama Hridaya”.
The text of Adhyatma Ramayana projects Rama as the Supreme Self; but while doing so it takes care to see that Rama is also a Personal Deity, the Supreme Isvara, who is to be prayed and sought after by all those who seek knowledge of non-duality. It teaches Bhakti of the most intensive type and stresses that through devotion to Rama alone the saving Jnana would arise in the Jiva. The teaching of the Adhyatma Ramayana is an extension of the declaration of the Svetasvatara Upanishad, “it is only in one who has supreme devotion to God and to his spiritual teacher that this truth - knowledge of the non-dual Self - when taught will shine”.
Thus to establish Rama’s divine status, as an object of worship and devotion and to teach that Bhakti and Jnana are not only reconcilable but always go together is the prime object this great text. In order to achieve this objective, the Adhyatma Ramayana, while sticking to the main trends and incidents of the Rama Katha described in Valmiki’s epic, makes various deviations in the course of its extensive narration. A few such instances are cited below.
Another feature which distinguishes the Adhyatma Ramayana from the Valmiki Ramayana is the large number of hymns sung by the various personages in the narrative and the many philosophical discourses that are spread in various parts of the text. Besides teaching intense devotion, these give us a very simple but profound exposition on non-dualism. Valmiki’s Ramayana contains no such hymns and discourses.