The Ramayana constitutes the epic literature of India along with the Mahabharata and Puranas. Its been deeply influencing the Indian social religious and moral thought as well the Indian literature.
To quote Swami Vivekananda “the Ramayana and Mahabharata are the two encyclopedias of the ancient Aryan life and wisdom portraying an ideal civilization which humanity has yet to aspire after”.
MacDonnell says “probably no work of world literature secular in its origin has ever produced so profound an influence on the life and thought of people as the Ramayana.”
As all the other literary forms the origin of epics can be traced to the Vedas. The Samveda hymns styled as ‘ancient ballads’ by Winternitz are supposedly the source of both epics (developed from the narrative) and drama (developed from the dramatic elements of the ancient ballads.)
The ‘gatha narasamsis’ were songs in praise of men, ‘akhyans’ were narratives, ‘itihas’ was the legend or history and puranas were ancient tales in the Brahamanas and their recital formed an essential part of religious ceremonies at the sacrificial and domestic rituals, they supplied real parallelisms with epic poetry thus carrying on further the development of epic literature. In due course of time these developed from short extent and simple subject matter to lengthy ballads and song cycles of intricate plots. The Ramayana is a fine example of this it must have had an intermediate stage too but as a finished product had many subplots and story lines. Another thing to be kept in mind is that the Vedic literature evolved among the priestly section of society and was confined to it whereas the epics though may have originated in the same class was meant for transmission to the general public as they were taken up by the sutas [professional bards] who were instrumental in popularizing them amongst the masses. These sutas or bards could be Brahmins sages or the reciters of Puranas or could be progeny of pratiloma marriage. Later they served as charioteers also and gave vivid first hand descriptions of wars and battles as they were a witness to it.
The earlier literature comprised praises of deities, sacrificial details and high philosophical speculations; the epics described the deeds of kings and heroes, wars socio moral patterns of society and practical philosophy once these epics came into the hands of the sutas they reached a large circle of the populace.
The traveling singers or Kusilavas also played a significant role in this phenomenon.
The Ramayana takes pride in calling itself a ‘kavya’ an ‘aakhyana’ and an ‘itihas’ and also deals with ‘dharm, arth and kaam’.
The Valmiki ‘Ramayana’ literally means ‘ history of Rama ‘ comprises 7 books of 24000 stanzas.
Though the whole story of Ramayana is a unit in itself, various scholars from time to time have declared Ramayana to be an amalgamation of two three or four elements – namely the palace intrigue resulting in Rama’s banishment, abduction of Sita, legends about Hanuman and ape worship, about Ravana and his final downfall and death. It is said only one element had a historical basis and that
was Rama’s banishment.
According to Lassen who is said to be a pioneer of Ramayana studies, Ramayana developed in four stages, suggesting that it is an allegorical representation of the Aryan conquest of the south. He says original version of this poem was just till banishment of Rama to the Himalayas and factors that led his wife and brother to accompany him. Then a revision must have followed that changed the place of banishment to Godavari and Rama providing protection to hermits from aboriginal onslaughts the next revision described the attempts to subdue the inhabitants of the Deccan and the final amplification described Rama’s invasion on Lanka which must have been incorporated by Hindus’ learning about island of Ceylon.
Weber is another scholar who has discussed the problems of the Ramayana comprehensively. He concludes that the ‘ Dashratha Jataka ‘ is the source of Valmiki’s Ramayana. The idea has been conflicted by many scholars including Bulcke on grounds that Dashratha jataka is a later work based on oral tradition in Ceylon, witnessed centuries after the Ramayana. However Dashratha jataka is also silent about Sita’s abduction and fight details. Weber promulgated his theory of Valmiki’s indebtedness to Homer which has been assailed by subsequent scholars like Telang, Jacobi, Vaidya, Hopkins and Bulcke.
Jacobi is credited with comprehensive and systematic treatment of several topics in his ‘Das Ramayana’. He believes it’s a mix of history and allegory. Exile and palace conspiracy have historical basis but the second part Sita’s abduction and ‘Ravan Vadh’ has its source in RigVeda -terrestrial events based on mythological elements from Rig-Veda. Sita is the goddess of agriculture in Rig-Veda in Ramayana she’s the daughter of earth and finally disappears into her mother’s arms. Her husband would then represent Indra and his fight with Ravana symbolises the Indra Vratra conflict. Significant use of name ‘indrashatru’ is referred to by Jacobi an epithet of Vratra in RigVeda, in the Ramayana its Ravana’s son Indrajeet. Rama’s chief ally is Hanuman or Hanumat whos called the son of maruti or Marutinandan hinting Indra’s association with the storm Gods. A witch Sarma crosses the river rasa in search of captured cows for Indra and she occurs in the Ramayana as the demoness who consoles Sita. Jacobi thus believes there is a blend of history with Rigvedic myth.
Winternitz calls Julian V Negien’s attempts to discover outline of Rama Sita legend in the Vedas ‘fantastic expositions’.
D.C.Sen on the other hand traces the origin of Valmiki’s Ramayana to three principal sources:
Dashratha Jataka, cycle of legends from south India about a great and noble Brahmin hero called Ravana and a floating group of legends about ape worship once popular in India. Valmiki, Sen maintains welded together material from these three sources into an immortal poem.
The introductory portion of Valmiki Ramayana deserves special mention. It’s said Valmiki questioned Narada about the qualities of a perfect man. Narada narrated to Valmiki the story of Rama from the Ikshvaku dynasty in reply. Valmiki thanked and honored Narada duly and went to a river for daily absolutions. He saw a pair of Kronch birds together and was a witness to the killing of the male bird by a hunter and the female’s cries of mourning. He was seized by deepest pity and uttered in that psychological state a shloka. Sorrow felt by Valmiki found perfect expression in his perfect shloka. Its said then Brahma appeared and asked him to compile the story he was told by Narada assuring him of a clear vision of all events outward and inward visible and invisible open and secret connected with Rama’s life. Valmiki then composed a poem with all relevant details he also taught Rama’s twin sons Lava and Kusha born to Sita after her abandonment in Valmikis hermitage and were bred there.
Both the young bards sang the poem called the ‘Ramayana’ to the accompaniment of a lyre for the first time in the distinguished assembly at Rama’s horse sacrifice.
The traditional account thus invests the text with a historical character.
According to Bulcke in Dashratha Jataka there is no mention of Sita’s abduction or Hanuman or even the Rama-Ravana fight. In fact Bulcke’s critical examination of Das jataka and Ramayana proves that the former is a perverted form of the Ramayana story. Hence idea of Ramayana being split into many elements on basis of Das jataka does not hold water and also Das jataka was just an account of a bereaving son at the death of his father, hence no need of Seeta and Rama episode.
Bulcke’s investigations confirm the view that Ramayana is a complete unit and a historical story with a few inevitable scenes of divine intervention and a little artistic exaggeration necessary for effect. The story of Valmiki Ramayana creates an impression that it is factual and all of it may have happened in those wonderful days of yore as tradition maintains.