Did Rama have an elder sister? Yes, he did, according to a popular tele serial. She is referred to in Balakanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana, as Dashratha and Kaushalya’s daughter who is given in adoption to Rompada, king of Anga, and who marries Rishyashringa, who conducts the yajna that gives Dashratha four sons. The story is elaborated in later regional and folk Ramayanas. For example, in Andhra folk songs, Shanta, Rama’s elder sister, is an important character participating in family rituals. Was it a later interpolation? What we don’t realise is that many of the tales that we take for granted as part of Ramayana today were never part of the oldest Sanskrit texts that were written over two thousand years ago. Stories such as those of Lakshman’s wife Urmila who sleeps for 14 years, completing her husband’s quota of sleep and the story of the chaste and noble Sulochana, wife of Meghanada, who recovers his body from the battlefield and even the famous Lakshman Rekha came into being in regional and folk Ramayanas composed less than a thousand years ago. The Mahabharata was also written in this very same period as Valmiki’s Ramayana and there we have the Ramopakhyana, the story of Rama told to the Pandavas by the sage Markandeya. Here Brahma tells a Gandharvi, Dundhubi, to be born as Manthara, “poison the mind of Kaikeyi so that Rama goes to the forest and kills Ravana”.
We don’t find this story in Valmiki Ramayana. Recently, scholars in Kolkata discovered a 6th century Ramayana from the Vahni Purana, with only five sections, not the traditional seven. It begins with Dasharatha’s decision to make Rama king and it ends with the coronation of Rama after numerous adventures including his forest abduction of Sita and killing of Ravana. This version has no mention of Rama’s abandonment of Sita. The Buddhists had a very different understanding of Rama. Dasharatha Jataka tells the story of a king called Dasharatha of Benares who had two sons and a daughter called Ram, Lakkhan and Sita, respectively. When his wife died, he married again and the second queen begat a son called Bhadda. Observing the ambitions of his wife, the king called the children of his first wife and told them to go into the forest and stay there until his death which would be 12 years later according to astrologers. Ram, Lakkhan and Sita did as advised. But the king died in nine years and Bhadda refused to be king. He went to the forest and told Ram to return as king. Ram refused. ‘I promised our father I would stay in the forest for 12 years. You return home with Lakkhan and Sita and you three govern the kingdom well till I return three years later. ‘Three years later, Ram returned and was crowned king. This wise prince of Benares, Ram-pandita, was a Bodisattva, Buddha in a previous life. Was this story inspired by Valmiki Ramayana or was Valmiki Ramayana inspired by it? In the Ramayana of the Jains, Kaikeyi is described as generous and kind. Rama goes to the forest and becomes an ascetic to prevent Kaikeyi’s son, Bharat, from doing so. In this Ramayana, Ravana is killed by Lakshmana, not Rama, who upholds the Jain virtue of nonviolence. Between the 5th and 10th centuries, Rama was portrayed as the great king, and the great hero, an avatar of Vishnu, in various puranas, Sanskrit plays and poetries, as we find in the works of Bhasa and Kalidasa. In Bhavabhuti’s 9th century Sanskrit play, Mahaviracharita, Rama meets Sita in Vishwamitra’s ashram well before her swayamvara. The girls are taken there by Janaka’s brother, Kushadhvaja. This follows the Sanskrit kavya tradition of hero and heroine falling in love in the garden before their wedding is fixed. But after the 10th century, something dramatic happens.
Rama comes to be seen as God. And his tale is retold in regional languages: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Odia, Bengali, Marathi, and finally after 15th century in North Indian languages such as Awadhi, in which Tulsidas writes his famous Ram-charitmanas, going out of his way to bridge the rivalries between Shiva-worshippers and Vishnu-worshippers and between vedikas and tantrikas, prevalent at that time, by making Shiva and Shakti the deities worshipped by both Rama and Ravana. In its long history, many stories of Ramayana changed. Ahalya who was just rendered invisible by the curse of Gautama in Valmiki Ramayana is turned into rock and liberated by the touch of Rama’s foot. Shabari who meets Rama in Valmiki Ramayana in Matanga ashram is turned into a berry-feeding tribal or ‘low’ caste woman only after the 18th century in the bhakti tradition. It reveals the shifting stature of women in Indian society as well as the rise of caste hierarchy, and the location of God in these socio-political equations. The Hijra community has its own oral Ramayana. They say when Rama returned from Lanka, he found a group of hijras outside Ayodhya waiting for him. When questioned as to why they were living outside the city, they said, ‘While going, you told the men and women of Ayodhya who wanted to follow you to the forest to return home. But you said nothing to us hijras, who are neither men nor women. So we are waiting here for you, for your instructions, and maybe you will take us home with you.’ Take your pick. Choose the Ramayana you like best. Or savour the flavours of the many versions. If this is not liberalism, what is?