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Many Ramayanas

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“Many Ramayanas,” edited by Paula Richman is an excellent compilation of stories and observations on Ramayana.

In his key-note essay, “Three hundred Ramayanas,” A.K. Ramanujan begins with this beautiful folk tale.

“How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question. Here is one.

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. He had the power to become the smallest of the small and larger than the largest thing. So he took on a tiny form and went down the hole.

He went and went and went and suddenly fell into the netherworld. There were women down there. “Look, a tiny monkey! It’s fallen from above? Then they caught him and placed him on a platter (thali). The King of Spirits (bhut), who lives in the netherworld, likes to eat animals. So Hanuman was sent to him as part of his dinner, along with his vegetables. Hanuman sat on the platter, wondering what to do.

While this was going on in the netherworld, Rama sat on his throne on the earth above. The sage Vasistha and the god Brahma came to see him. They said to Rama, “We want to talk privately with you. We don’t want anyone to hear what we say or interrupt it. Do we agree?”

“All right,” said Rama, “we’ll talk.”

Then they said, “Lay down a rule. If anyone comes in as we are talking, his head should be cut off.”

“It will be done,” said Rama.

Who would be the most trustworthy person to guard the door? Hanuman had gone down to fetch the ring. Rama trusted no one more than Laksmana, so he asked Laksmana to stand by the door. “Don’t allow anyone to enter,” he ordered.

Laksmana was standing at the door when the sage Visvamitra appeared and said, “I need to see Rama at once. It’s urgent. Tell me, where is Rama?”

Laksmana said, “Don’t go in now. He is talking to some people. It’s important.”

“What is there that Rama would hide from me?” said Visvamitra. “I must go in, right now.”

Laksmana said, “I will have to ask his permission before I can let you in.”

“Go in and ask then.”

“I can’t go in till Rama comes out. You’ll have to wait.”

“If you don’t go in and announce my presence, I’ll burn the entire kingdom of Ayodhya with a curse,” said Visvamitra.

Laksmana thought, “If I go in now, I’ll die. But if I don’t go, this hotheaded man will burn down the kingdom. All the subjects, all things living in it, will die. It’s better that I alone should die.”

So he went right in.

Rama asked him, “What’s the matter?”

“Visvamitra is here.”

“Send him in.”

So Visvamitra went in. The private talk had already come to an end. Brahma and Vasistha had come to see Rama and say to him, “Your work in the world of human beings is over. Your incarnation as Rama must now he given up. Leave this body, come up, and rejoin the gods.” That’s all they wanted to say.

Laksmana said to Rama, “Brother, you should cut off my head.”

Rama said, “Why? We had nothing more to say. Nothing was left. So why should I cut off your head?”

Laksmana said, “You can’t do that. You can’t let me off because I’m your brother. There’ll be a blot on Rama’s name. You didn’t spare your wife. You sent her to the jungle. I must be punished. I will leave.”

Laksmana was an avatar of Sesa, the serpent on whom Visnu sleeps. His time was up too. He went directly to the river Sarayu and disappeared in the flowing waters.

When Laksmana relinquished his body, Rama summoned all his followers, Vibhisana, Sugriva, and others, and arranged for the coronation of his twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Then Rama too entered the river Sarayu.

All this while, Hanuman was in the netherworld. When he was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he kept repeating the name of Rama. “Rama Rama Rama . . .”

Then the King of Spirits asked, “Who are you?”

“Hanuman.”

“Hanuman? Why have you come here?”

“Rama’s ring fell into a hole. I’ve come to fetch it.”

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.

This story is usually told to suggest that for every such Rama there is a Ramayana.”

Each article is enlightening and a delight for anyone who is interested in Ramayana. A cheaper Indian edition is available on Amazon or Flipkart now.

I gifted this book to my friend Anisa, when we met for dinner at one of my favourite restaurant, “Indigo Deli” at Lower Parel in Mumbai.

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Stories from far and near

Rama’s anquish

Rama was looking at the direction of Ayodhya. Seated on a rock, near a stream, his eyes were moist. It was only a couple of days, after Bharat had announced that his father had passed away. Half-dozen scenes raced through his mind, scenes that featured the King of Ayodhya; as victor, ruler, avenger, warrior, husband, lover, father. A sparrow landed next to him distracting his thought stream. The sparrow looked at him, while making sharp head turns. “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me,” Rama told himself.

He had spent many days by himself and Sita mindful of his need to be alone, allowed him to grieve. Sita was saddened by the look on Rama’s face, when he reached their dwelling. Rama’s body was bathed in perspiration from the long walk from the brook, as well as the heat of the late afternoon. He had been there for some hours. At the sight of Rama’s sweat-wreathed face, Lakshman began to untie his ang-vastra, but Sita waved him away. She gently used the corner of her saree to wipe the sweat off Rama’s chest and shoulders. When she had finished, she gave him water. He drank mechanically, but spilled some on his chest. After that he sat silently for a long time. His eyes were gazing at some distant horizon within the landscape of his memory, some place she could neither visit nor visualise. Sita waited patiently until she could take Rama’s silence no more.

“It’s time to move on Rama,” she said “it is several weeks now.”

Rama pulled himself from his deep thought, and looked at her with distant eyes.

He nodded in agreement, and moved slowly to sit near the steps next to the door. He seemed to grow more remote.

“I still remember how Bharat mentioned of my father’s last words.” “Rama I am sorry”. Sita was equally shaken when she had heard those words. She had hated her father-in-law for forcing them to the forest, over a promise he had given to his lover.

“My father had suffered from the pain of attachment, memory, and guilt”, he sighed and buried his face in his hands. “I have always been pained at leaving my mother for Kaikeyi ma, but he had always been a great father and a mentor. Sometimes it seems to me, that the only end of men is a sad and tragic end. Guilt, regret, resentment, pain…are these the only rewards that lie ahead of us?”

Sita had never seen Rama speak like this before. The words shocked and frightened her. “Of course not,” she said with more vehemence than she intended. “Well it is very sad and disturbing, what happened to your father. Are you not forgetting what he has got us into? For no fault of us? I strongly believe that life is a celebration and death is part of the journey. It is men who want a tomb-stone with their achievements written on it after death. We are happy, sad, afraid, elated and one day we die. Please don’t generalize Rama.”

“Yes, yes,” Rama said. “You are right, of course. I know these as well as you do. It just seems, so cruel. Must the Gods make us suffer even after we repent? Is there no forgiveness, no heed paid to good intentions?”

“You know there is Rama. You have yourself said it many times. Why do you speak so morosely today? Why do you lose hope all of a sudden?” she was concerned.

He looked up to her, “my faith is not shaken, Sita. I miss him and the times that I have been around him. His affection, care and love for me and everyone whom he cared. I only speak these thoughts aloud to help me understand the way of things. Sometimes the minds of Gods are difficult to fathom. I am only a man. Forgive me if I falter from time to time or show a moment of weakness.”

She caressed his arm. “There is nothing to forgive my love. I can truly empathise with your grief. Whatever has happened to us, he might have been careless, but he would have never desired even in his wildest dreams. You are now going through an emotional upheaval Rama, but please share it with me. You will definitely feel better. I never doubt that you will find your way to your rightful place, Rama.”

He smiled and kissed her hand. “With you beside me, even in my darkest hour, your presence lights up my world.”

That evening, they sat quietly, comfortable in one another’s silence. The sounds of the jungle began to vary with the passing of every day.

“Rama?”

“Yes, my love?”

“I wish to have children.”

“We will definitely have them.”

“I wish to have them as soon as possible.”

“Very well, my jaan.”

“But not here, not in the jungle. I want our children to be born in Ayodhya, in the comfort they deserve.”

“It shall be as you say.”

“They shall be princes. Or princesses. I do not mind either. Do you?”

“They are our children and I will love them dearly.”

“And someday, we shall tell them of years in the forest.”

“We should.”

“And whatever happens, we shall never let them suffer the same fate. Our children will never be exiled like us, live like hermits, searching for food, battling demons and wearing torn cloths.”

Rama was silent.

“Promise me, Rama.”

“Promise me that our children will never be exiled as we were.”

He looked at her surprised, “do you think I would let that ever happen?”

She averted his eyes. “No. But even your father never dreamt of sending his much loved son to the forest. Yet he did so of a promise that he had made to Kaikeyi.”

He smiled. “Do I have to be worried about what promises that I should be making later after this? I hear that the princess of Nagas is a beauty and the King wants me to marry her.” He laughed with a roar.

“If you ever dare to even contemplate such a thing, I would put her eyes out and you will have to do with a blind second wife.” She ignored his laughter. “I want you to promise me that you will never do anything that will subject our children to our fate.”

He controlled his laughter with some difficulty. “So be it.”

“Say it!”

“I promise.”

“What do you promise?”

“That I will not banish my own children to the forest or would subject them to any hardship or suffering. Or you happy now?”

“No matter what?”

“No matter what.”

She kissed him on his cheek and sighed in relief. He wrapped her around him, while both of them looked at the dark bluish sky, eagerly waiting for the dawn.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Stories from far and near

Wrath of Ahalya

“I have come here to see Ram.” Senapathi was shocked at the audacity of this young lady. Before he could react, “It is important and urgent, and I would like to meet him in private.” She was definitely not a threat, but no one has ever dared to call the King of Ayodhya by his name. Senapathi was of a wise age, but was not known to be impulsive or short tempered.

She was a beautiful lady and he was specially struck by her glowing skin. “What is your name lady, and where are you from?” asked senapathi.

“My name is Ahalya, daughter of Bramma and I am from the hermitage of Sage Gautama,” she was firm, to the point of being rude. This was no ordinary woman. Women have composed songs, in praise of her virtues. He sent word to Rama, about her arrival.

Rama came up to the door to welcome Ahalya. He was not a stickler to the customs of Kings, when it came to people he loved. “Welcome Ahalyaji. It is an honour to have you among us,” Rama welcomed her with a beaming smile. Ahalya touched his feet as pranams, but smiled at him customarily. She had the greatest regard for him, for he resurrected her from the curse of Sage Gautama. She looked deeply disturbed today.

After they sat down, Ahalya began, “Lord Rama, I am very troubled about what you have done to ma Sita. I learn that you have banished Sita devi to the forest? Why did you do that Lord?” Her eyes were red of crying continuously.

Rama, already missing his Sita, was deeply pained at being reminded of the tragic loss. “It was a very unfortunate loss, and a painful decision for me to make. But I had to do it, for the sake of dharma.”

“I am very disappointed at your decision, my majesty. I could not eat or sleep on hearing the news, and I plead that you to reconsider your decision”. She held her ground.

“Ahalya, I am able to relate to your pain. I am extremely pained as Rama the husband and lover of Sita, but I am now the King of the Suryavansha dynasty. I had to take that decision for protecting the laws of Manu and for being the role-model that a king should be. I am no ordinary husband of a woman,” Rama had the slow baritone voice, which would convince even the hardest critic.

“Lord, what about your dharma as a husband? What about your commitment to her? You have vowed before Agni, that you will take care of her, at all times, in happiness and sadness. You will have complete faith in her and would consult her in every action of yours. Have you forgotten?”

“Ways of men always surprised me. Why are you men so selfish when it comes to women? Your work, pride, dharma and everything else, takes precedence before us? Did you ask her side of the story, before you banished her to the forest?”

“Exactly the same way, Sage Gautama made me a stone. This news brought back all the tragic memories of the terrible day, when Indra preyed on me. Why was I reduced to a stone for no fault of mine? How easy is it, for you men, to pass judgments on us?” she was livid. Her fair skin had become dark bluish-grey.

Rama remained silent, but actively listened to her.

“I will tell you something that Maharishi Viswamitra did not mention, the day you resurrected me,” she continued. “I was entrusted to Sage Gautama by my creator Bramma. He sincerely and wholeheartedly fulfilled his wishes. He was both my father and guru. He was a mother too, for I learnt to distinguish between affection and love. But he should have stopped it there. He didn’t. He married me. Even if Bramma gave me as his bride, why did he take the offer? Did both Bramma and the Sage ask me, just like the way you never consulted Sita devi, but judged against her, not once, but twice?”

“Someone who was like his child became his wife. Did I have a say in this matter? Never!” she paused briefly.

“Why do you men, lose all your senses, when it comes to women? You men don’t care a hay for your wives. The butcher made the eater happy. The eater made the butcher happy. But where did the lamb disappear? The poor lamb has lost its identity. From lovely lamb to meat, from mutton to food, from delectable dish to feaces and from foul-smelling feaces to earth again”, she was furious.

“So what right does he have to curse me, when he did, what he did to me?”

“If banishing Sita devi, was about upholding dharma, how is it that your father had ten thousands wives? What happened to the laws of Manu then?”

Rama showed displeasure, when she referred to his father, but allowed to vent her anger.

“Without sounding ungrateful, I was so happy, locked inside the stone, for I had no man lusting me, no man judging me, no man banishing me, and no man to rescue me”.

“Rama, you have lost your wife, Sita devi. She is beyond the petty morals of mortals. Like me, I am sure she does not consider living in the forest any hard, but she would have been shattered, when you broke her heart, and her trust in you”.

“You might be the mightiest of kings, and world might praise you as the upholder of dharma and virtue, but you have lost the respect of a woman, who loved you, and you alone”, she got up.

“Rama let me tell you something, I have not shared with anyone. When kama Indra was making love to me in the guise of my husband, for a moment, I realized that it was no Sage Gautama. But I was so consumed in the pleasure that I gave in. Yes I was guilty to that extent”, she paused, “but Rama, your Sita, did not even raise her head to see the mighty handsome Ravana. How can you give her up so easily?”

“Rama, I came here to plead for mercy and request that you reverse your decision, but in hindsight, destiny was right. You could have not got a better punishment than this, for abandoning your wife. You will always be lonely Rama, and the guilt will eat you till the seas part”, she left the room without waiting for his response.

Rama stayed in his throne, while his disturbed eyes searched for his Sita.

This story is part of the series titled, “Stories from far and near” that includes adaptations from Indian folktales, classical poetry and mythology. Copyright © 2012 Sriram V. Ayer. This story may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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