Rama belongs as much to Tamils as to the world

While Valmiki’s Ramayana is an epic, Kamban’s Ramavataram is a lyric masterpiece. The story has been hewn into local traditions all over Asia too.
Image used for illustrative purposes only.
Image used for illustrative purposes only.(Express Illustrations | Sourav Roy)

Today, at 97 years of age, I recall that my entry into politics was in 1942, when, as a student of 16, I participated in the Quit India movement. That call was given by Mahatma Gandhi, who envisaged Rama Rajya as a society in which virtue, morality and justice are the core ideals around which day-to-day interactions between citizens and between citizens and the State occur.

The Ramayana is neither a mere story, nor a mere epic poem. Rama is both god and man. As Aurobindo declared, “The Ramayana is at once history, legend and a poem unmatchably sublime, supremely artistic and magnificently dramatic.” Valmiki, the adikavi, has inspired poets of this land to retell Rama’s glorious life in their respective tongues.

Kavichakravarthi (emperor of poets) Kamban’s Ramavataram, Rama’s story in six books, is both a landmark in the history of Tamil literature and an exemplary masterpiece. There are few lovers of Tamil who have not been entranced by its beauty of expression, richness of imagery and ethical grandeur. Revolutionary patriot VVS Iyer would claim for Kamban’s Ramavataram an “individuality distinct from Valmiki’s”. He confidently asserted that Ramavataram will stand favourable in comparison with the Mahabharata too. He also avers that it excels Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Rajaji, one of the greatest men of our times, translated in verse form in English the Ayodhya kandam of Kamban’s Ramayana, and has this to say in his preface: “Kamban sang the story of Rama as of god come down on earth to suffer, chasten, uplift, help and guide men. Apart from this difference in the treatment of the hero, there is considerable difference in poetic form between Valmiki and Kamban. Kamban’s Ramayana is a lyric, while Valmiki’s is an epic. The lyric is a string of cut gems with glittering facets sparkling at every turn. It is not a solemn march of predestined sadness like Valmiki’s epic.”

Rajaji further states, “I cannot in an English rendering bring out the rhyme, sparkle or lilt in Kamban. I can only attempt to do some justice to the wealth of substance and the brevity of presentation.”

Yet, I was audacious enough to attempt such a rendering in the form of a book—Kamba Ramayanam: An English Prose Rendering—published in 1996 by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and released by President Shankar Dayal Sharma.

Justice MM Ismail, who was an ardent scholar of Kamban, states in his foreword to my book: “Dr Hande… has very wisely refrained from making any attempt to translate the whole of Kamban’s Ramayan in English in verse form. What he has done is an easy English prose rendering… It is remarkable that Dr Hande, whose mother tongue is Kannada, and who studied Telugu in his scholastic career, has taken the trouble of going through the Ramavataram in Tamil and given it in English in prose form. It is not surprising that he has taken eight years to complete the entire work.”

Justice Ismail said that barring a short prose version by  R K Narayan, no one to his knowledge had attempted a rendering of the Ramavataram in English even in a running prose form.

Thus, there is a deep-rooted connect between Tamilians and Shri Rama of Ayodhya. Rama is ingrained in the cultural ethos of our nation and every Indian admires and adores him—not because he is a supreme being, but because of the gracious manner with which he faced the difficulties of life. Therefore, it is a specious argument put forth by some that Rama doesn’t belong to Tamil Nadu or Tamilians. The chief minister under whom I had the privilege of serving as health minister for two terms was himself named after Rama—MG Ramachandran—and he was a devout bhakt.

As former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee often said, Ram belongs to the whole world. There are versions of the Ramayana written in various lands and languages beyond India. It has had a significant influence on cultural and religious traditions across Asia.

The Ramayana has a rich tradition in Indonesia, where it is performed as a ballet through a traditional Javanese dance form and is considered one of the country’s most cherished cultural treasures.

In Japan, it is known as the Rama-ten. It was introduced there through Buddhist and Hindu influences, and several adaptations and retellings exist in Japanese literature and performing arts.

It has influenced Chinese literature, drama and art. It is known as Luo Ma Jing in Chinese, and there have been various adaptations and retellings.

Thailand has its version called the Ramakien. It is considered the national epic and is deeply woven into Thai culture, art and architecture.

In Korea, it is known as the Samguk Yusa, a collection of historical records, legends and myths that incorporates elements of the Ramayana along with Korean folklore.

While the Ramayana is not as widely known in Russia, there have been translations and adaptations in Russian language.

It has influenced Vietnamese culture, particularly through performing arts and puppetry. It is known as Truyen Kieu and has also influenced Vietnamese literature.

Mongolia has its version called the Dari Rama, an epic that combines elements from the Ramayana with local folklore and traditions.

In India, I see that there is a lot of confusion among the ranks of the opposition who for years doggedly opposed the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Today, the temple is a fait accompli, leaving them no option but to accept it. The sensible thing for them would have been to take part in the consecration of the temple. They should have put an end to their egregious behaviour. When history looks back, their non-participation in the temple event would haunt them.

As a commentator said, “The stones may be old, but they are chiseled afresh. The civilisation may be ancient, but it is born again. The people may be young, but they never forget. The year may be like any other, but it marks a new dawn.”

(Views are personal)

Dr HV Hande, Five-time Legislator, twice health minister and has translated Kamban’s Ramayana into English

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