So long as the sun and moon shine, the mountains and the rivers exist, the epic poem Ramayan and the name of Bhagwan Ram shall inspire the world. The epic Ramayan originated in ancient Bharat, where the great poet and sage Maharishi Valmiki wrote it in Tretayug. Sage Valmiki himself was a witness to the events in Ramayan. During the coming centuries, this epic has been re-written in several versions throughout the Asian continent and the Indian sub-continent.
The Universal Relevance of Ramayan
‘Ramanama is for the pure in heart and for those who want to attain purity and remain pure.’ – said Mahatma Gandhi. Valmiki’s Ramayan is one of the rare literary masterpieces that are eternally relevant and useful. The various types of situations depicted in Ramayan are very similar to those that commonly occur in our lives and, hence, relevant to all mankind.
Ramayan and Mahabharat, the two ancient Sanskrit epics of India exerted a profound impact upon the cultures of South East Asia and have played no small role in the Indianisation of the major portion of that region. Out of ASEAN TEN, at least seven nations, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, have received the influence of Hindu culture since the early days of Bharatiya contact. The epic Ramayan written in Bharat traveled to South East Asia more than one thousand years before. Cambodia had Reamker and Thailand had the Ramakien. Indonesians, Malays, Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Mongols, Siberians, Tibetans, Burmese, Shri Lankans, Nepalese, Pakistanis, the ancient Turks, Arabs and the Persians also had their own versions of Ramayan. The Ramayana story was recomposed as Yama Watthu in Myanmar. The capital of early Thailand was called Ayutthaya, named after Shri Ram’s capital of Ayodhya. Another ancient city in Thailand is Lavpuri, which was named after Ram’s son Lav. The previous Royal king in Thailand was called ‘Bhumipal Athulyatej, Rama IX’. The country Laos is named after Ram’s son Lav. Influenced by Ramayan, many countries have adopted Sanskrit names and Hindu cultural symbols. Burma is named after Bhagwan Brahma and the old name for Vietnam is Champa. Singapore is called the lion city from its Sanskrit origin. The capital city of Brunei is Bandar Shri Bhagwan and that of Indonesia is Jaya Karta the city of Victory. Ramakian (Glory of Ram) is one of Thailand’s national epics. A painted representation of the Ramakian is displayed at Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew (Mandir of Emerald Buddha), and many of the statues there depict characters from it. Thai kickboxing, which is based on the military skills of Vali and Sugreeva, is now an event in the International Olympics.
Despite Islam’s ban on theatre and dance, the performing arts based on Ramayan and Mahabharat have survived in Malaysia and Indonesia
The story in Myanmar does share some features with the Thai version due to the conquest, but there are important differences, notably the absence of a Buddhist tone to the epic in spite of the fact that most people in Myanmar are followers of Buddhism. From 1967 to 1979, Cambodia was waging bitter guerrilla and civil wars. About 1.7 million Cambodians, or about 20 per cent of the population, were worked, starved, or beaten to death under Pol Pot’s regime. Yet the Ramayan tradition managed to survive under the most terrible conditions in Cambodia, proof of its strong and lasting appeal.
Popularity of Hanuman in South East Asia
Ramayan story through puppet shows, art, Mandirs, stage shows, etc., continues to exert its influence in all Asian societies. The role of Shri Hanuman is also beyond comparison in all these versions. In Thailand, tattoos or images of Shri Hanuman worn on their bodies bestow strength, courage, endurance and protection against pain. The Southeast Asian Games in 1997 used Shri Hanuman as its mascot. He is a popular figure or deity in all these countries.
Ramayan Scriptures in South East Asian Languages
Many Asian cultures have adapted the Ramayana, resulting in other national epics. Kakawin Rāmâyaṇa is an old Javanese rendering of the Sanskrit Ramayana from ninth-century Indonesia. It is a faithful rendering of the Hindu epic with minimal variation. Serat Ram is another Indonesian version. According to Hindu scriptures, Vishnu incarnates as Rama (7th avatar) and later as Buddha (9th avatar), thus enabling the previously Hindu Khmers to continue accepting the epic and spreading it wherever their vast empire reached. Numerous bas-reliefs of the epic at the 10th century Banteasy Srei Mandir and 12th century Angkor Wat Mandir are proof of this Hindu-Buddhist syncretism. Thailand’s popular national epic is Ramakian (Glory of Rama). In Ramakien, Sita is the daughter of Ravana and Mandodari. Vibhisana (P’ip’ek), the astrologer brother of Ravana, predicts calamity from the horoscope of Sita. So Ravana has her thrown into the waters, who, later, is picked by Janaka (Janok). While the main story is identical to that of the Ramayana, many other aspects were transposed into a Thai context, such as the clothes, weapons, topography, and elements of nature, which are described as being Thai in style. It has an expanded role for Hanuman. Ramakien can be seen in an elaborate illustration at the Wat Phra Kaew Mandir in Bangkok, a must see for any foreign visitor. Southeast Asian adaptations include Ramakavaca of Bali (Indonesia), Maradia Lawana and Darangen of the Philippines, and the Reamker of Cambodia. Aspects of the Chinese epic Journey to the West were also inspired by the Ramayana, particularly the character Sun Wukong, who is believed to have been based on Hanuman.
Ramayan in the West
“India was the mother of our race and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages. She was the mother of our philosophy, mother through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics, mother through Buddha of the ideals embodied in Christianity, mother through village communities of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.” Will Durant (American Historian 1885-1981).
Hindutva is fast influencing the modern western world in the form of Sanskrit, yoga, Bhagwad Gita, vegetarianism and Ayurveda. In the ancient past too Sanatan Dharma influenced pre-Greek and pre-Roman Etruscan civilisation. Wall frescoes and terracotta portraits of 700 BC show scenes from Ramayan. Extensive practice of divination, concepts like God permeates entire universe, cremating the dead, medicine, mathematics, grammar and Aesop tales were due to Hindu influence. Later, Etruscans passed on these values to Greek and Roman civilisations, and it is no wonder that Greek and Roman languages and later many European languages like German, French, Scandinavian, and Slavic languages have rich Sanskrit content.
The March of Ram, written in French and produced by Alexis Martin and Daniel Briere, was running to packed audiences in Montreal, Canada, in April 2007. The first-ever Ram Navami celebration in the House of Commons (London, UK) in March 2005 was attended by 240 guests. Shri. Tony McNulty (MP), the Minister of State, was the host. The audience, made up of several community leaders and a significant number of MPs. Kaun Banega Ramayan Expert’ is the name given to a quiz competition for children of USA conducted in 2006 – 07 by Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, America. 3,000 children participated. While preparing for the quiz, the children kept nagging their parents and grand-parents for answers to Ramayan related questions and that brought generations closer.
More than 16,000 people poured into De Anza College, Cupertino (“Silicon Valley” USA) to be part of an exciting day, to celebrate the Hindu way of life. Hindu Sangam, a one-day grand cultural program aimed at displaying the various Hindu intellectual, cultural and spiritual contributions made over thousands of years, was organised by Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh with support from over 40 San Francisco Bay Area organisations.
Fortis Bank in Roermond, the Netherlands, honors RAAM currencies. It is currently used side by side with local currency in around 100 shops in the Netherlands. It can be exchanged at a rate of 10 euros for 1 RAAM NL. The US Raam can be acquired at the rate of US$10 for 1 RAAM.
Ramayan in Islamic Countries
Ram’s life story is so interesting and inspiring that not only Hindus but also people belonging to other religions are influenced by it. In Hikayat Seri Rama of Malaysia, Dasharatha is the great-grandson of the Prophet Adam. Ravana receives boons from Allah instead of Brahma.
The ministers in Malaysia take oath of office in the name of Bhagwan Ram’s Paduka ‘Urusan Seri Paduka’ and the President takes oath of office in the name of the dust of Ram’s Paduka ‘Urusan Seri Paduka Dhuli’. Even if a masjid has to be built in Malaysia, the government orders are issued in the name of ‘Urusan Seri Paduka’ or Bhagwan Ram’s Paduka.
Despite Islam’s ban on theatre and dance, the performing arts based on Ramayan and Mahabharat have survived in Malaysia and Indonesia. In Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic nation, Ramayana and Mahabharata are compulsory subjects in most of the universities. In the Indonesian version of Mahabharata, Draupathi has only one husband. Shri Sudarshan, who is an Indonesian Muslim and director of the Art department, once explained: “Here in Indonesia, it is our custom to inscribe a verse of Mahabharat or Ramayan in the Javanese language on the tombstone when someone dies. Though we are Muslims, we deeply adore Ram and Krishna.”
Between the 13th to 19th centuries, the Persian and Mogul sultanates adapted Hindu culture into Islaamic art and literature, resulting in such works as the 16th century Dastan-e-Ram O Sita and Razmnama from Persia (Iran). In 18th century Pothi Ramayan was composed in Urdu, the language of Pakistan. Mullah Abdul Qadir Badayuni translated Ramayan into Persian.
Out of the so many Ramayanas in Persian, there are two important ones; the first is the Ramayan-e-Masih, composed by Sheikh Sadullah Masih Panipati, the contemporary of Emperor Shahjahan and Jahangir. It was published in 1899 by Munshi Naval Kishor Press, Lucknow. The other is entitled Balmiki Ramayan, written by S. Mohar Singh who was employed in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army. It was published in 1890 by Ganesh Prakash Press, Lahore.
Ram belonged to the Sun dynasty and Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, shah (king) of Iran (1941-1979), prided himself as Arya Mihir ‘Sun of the Aryans’. The shah saw himself as heir to the kings of ancient Iran, and in 1971 he held an extravagant celebration of 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. A concise book containing stories based on sections from Ramayan was published in Arabic language in recent years.