Many versions of the RAMAYANA

  • By M R Narayan Swamy
  • October 26, 2023
Pic by Benoy k Behl
  • Know about the different versions of the Ramayana and some key differences between them.

Was Sita present when Rama bent the bow to win her hand in marriage? As per the Ramayana authored by both Valmiki and Kamban, the news of Rama breaking the bow was sent to Sita through her female companions. But the Tulsi Ramayana insists that Sita was present at the Swayamvaram hall when the auspicious and awe-inspiring event took place.


According to yet another version, Sita, in fact, prayed for the weight of the bow to reduce so that Rama could easily fulfil the requirement to win the contest. And as soon he broke the bow, she adorned his neck with the garland of victory.


Isn’t it surprising that there are two versions of this incident? There are, in fact, a number of versions of the Ramayana, some of which are of foreign origin. There are at least 48 versions of the Ramayana in various languages including Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Tibetan, Tamil, Old Javanese, Japanese, Telugu, Assamese, Malayalam, Bengali, Kannada, Marathi, Hindi/Awadhi, Odia, Kashmiri, Persian, Malaya Burmese, Maranao, Thai and Laotian. They reflect the far-reaching influence of the epic over the cultural canvas of South-east Asia.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal. 


Scholar Dr. A. A. Manavalan carried out a critical study on the different versions of the epic. The book has been translated from Tamil into English as Ramayana: A Comparative Study of Ramakathas (Vitasta Publication). It brings out the fascinating aspects of the epic which has moulded the Hindu way of life, perhaps like none other.


According to the renowned writer and critic Indira Parthasarathy, the story of Rama entered the collective consciousness of ancient Indian tribes in the distant past. It may have been passed down generations in the oral form for a very long time before finding expression in the Jataka tales in the 5th century BCE.


Sage Valmiki probably collected the various myths and legends of his time from different parts of the Indian subcontinent and integrated them with the Rama story. He created a narrative, set on a vast canvas that spread from Nepal to Sri Lanka, criss-crossing the huge Indian landmass. Thus, the Ramayana became an intrinsic aspect of the Indian cultural psyche. As the story became hugely popular, it began to appear in various languages, both within and outside the country. Some of these Ramayanas acquired a stature of their own, including the ones in Tamil by Kamban and Awadhi (Hindi) by Sant Tulsidas.


Although some texts, as also folk songs, claim that Sita was Janaka’s own daughter, as per the Valmiki Ramayana, Sita was found by Janaka in the furrow of the field. However, the Bhagavatam, probably composed during the 7th century CE, states that Sita was an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi. Adhyatma Ramayana describes Sita as an incarnation of Prakriti (nature). 

It is a well-known fact that Kaikeyi’s companion Manthara (Kooni) corrupted her mind when it became clear that King Dasaratha planned to hand over the reign of his kingdom to Rama and not to Kaikeyi’s son, Bharata. But why did she act in such a scheming manner, triggering epoch-making events that led to Rama’s exile, Sita’s abduction and ultimately the battle of Lanka? 


Various forms of the Ramayana differ on this vital issue. Valmiki Ramayana suggests that Manthara was an expert in intrigue and had a crocodile-like disposition and was prone to causing harm to others. The Agni Purana (post-8th century CE) was the first to suggest that Kooni turned against Rama because of the various injuries he had caused her when he was a child. So, she bore a grudge against him. Kamban argues on the same lines, saying Rama had in the past made fun of Manthara.


The Bhusundi Ramayana is the first to state that Goddess Saraswati, conceding the request of the celestials, came down to the earth, entered Manthara’s mind and made her corrupt so as to make her act against Rama. Madhava Kandali’s Assamese Ramayana claims-it is the only one to say this-that Manthara was in love with Bharata, and so she wanted to see him as the king of Ayodhya. 


Surprisingly, there are variations even over the time duration that Rama spent in exile. In the Mahabharata, Anamakam Jatakam and Pauma Chariyam, there is no mention of the time limit for the exile. Texts like the Dasaratha Jataka, Dasaratha Kathaanam and Vasudeva Hindi state that the duration of exile was 12 years. From the Valmiki Ramayana onwards, the period of exile is 14 years. The Tibetan Ramayana maintains that Rama went alone to the forest. The Sinhalese Ramayana also says that Rama lived on his own in the forest, but only for seven years.


What weapons were given to Rama by Sage Agastya, who also suggested that Rama, Lakshmana and Sita could live in Panchavati? Almost all the major Ramayana stories have different versions. All of them, for example, agree that Rama got a bow from the sage. The Valmiki Ramayana calls it Lord Vishnu’s bow, designed and made by Vishwakarma; Kamba Ramayana insists that the bow was made by Lord Brahma; Adhyatma Ramayana says the bow was handed over to Agastya by Indra; Bhaskara Ramayana calls it a bow of Lord V ishnu; Ezhuthachan’s Ramayanam refers to it as a bow of Indra; Tulsi Ramayana makes no reference to any weapon; Thakkai Ramayana states it was a bow of Lord Siva. 


Who disfigured Ravana’s sister Surpanakha when she comes to attack Sita after falling in love with Rama the moment she sees him? While the Buddhist and most of the Jain Ramayanas make no mention of this incident, some texts claim that it was Rama who cut off her ear and nose and chased her away while the dominant version is that the violence was perpetrated by Lakshmana, to save Sita.


Although the different versions of the great epic may vary in details, the heart of the life-defining story is the same: divinity and truth finally prevail.


This article was first published in the Bhavan’s Journal, 1 October 2023 issue. This article is courtesy and copyright Bhavan’s Journal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai-400007. eSamskriti has obtained permission from Bhavan’s Journal to share. Do subscribe to the Bhavan’s Journal – it is very good.


Also read

1. Ramayana in South-east Asia

2. Exploring the legacy of Sant Tulsidas

3. Rama’s Will Prevails

4. Adhayatma Ramayana

5. Ramayana – The Game of Life

6. Ramayana around Rameshwaram

7. Chitrakoot ie. Closely associated with Sri Ram

8. Life of Sant Tulsidas

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