The Ramayana by R. K. Narayan

  Not surprisingly, Narayan wrote his abridged version of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata only in the seventies, after having produced some of his finest fiction: Swami and Friends (1935), The Financial Expert (1952), Waiting for the Mahatma (1955), The Guide (1958), and The Vendor of Sweets (1967). “I was impelled,” he once said, “to retell the Ramayana and the Mahabharata because that was the great climate in which our culture developed. They are symbolic and philosophical. Even as mere stories they are so good. Marvellous. I couldn’t help writing them. It was part of the writer’s discipline.”2

  The writerly compulsion Narayan expresses through his choice of words—“impelled,” “couldn’t help”—seems to have been greater than the one felt by a storyteller alighting upon good material. There is a mythic and religious dimension to Narayan’s later fiction, in which acts of personal devotion, self-effacement, and renunciation become a shield against the hard demands and uncertainties of the modern, impersonal world.

  This religious aspect of Narayan is explicit in his Ramayana. His admiration for Rama as a cultural and social ideal is clear throughout the book. It leads him to preface his chapter on the controversial killing of the monkey king with these rueful words.

  Rama was an ideal man, all his faculties in control in any circumstances, one possessed of an unwavering sense of justice and fair play. Yet he once acted, as it seemed, out of partiality, half-knowledge, and haste, and shot and destroyed, from hiding, a creature who had done him no harm, not even seen him.3

  Rama’s cruelty to Sita at the end of his battle with Ravana is one of the strangest episodes in The Ramayana—one which directly challenges Rama’s image as an exemplary moral being. In fact, the Tamil poet Kamban, Narayan’s literary inspiration, makes Rama say some unsettlingly harsh things to Sita.

  You stayed content in that sinner’s city, enjoying your food and drink. Your good name was gone but you refused to die. How dared you think I’d be glad to have you back?4

  But Narayan drops Kamban’s account at this crucial moment in the book and chooses to bring in Valmiki’s much more moderate version of Rama’s decidedly odd behavior. It is as though he cannot fully acknowledge Rama’s lapse into cruelty, although such an omission may also be due to Narayan’s aversion to scenes of overt violence, verbal or physical—an aversion that his fiction with its careful avoidance of extremity makes clear.

  Happily, Narayan doesn’t linger much over battle scenes, where his prose seems to be weighed down by untranslatable archaisms. The realistic fiction writer in him is more at ease with the detail of everyday life. Here is a description of the great crowd walking to attend Rama’s wedding.

  Another young man could not take his eyes off the lightly covered breast of a girl in a chariot; he tried to keep ahead of it, constantly looking back over his shoulder, unaware of what was in front, and bumping the hindquarters of the elephants on the march.5

  Many of Narayan’s virtues familiar to us from his fiction are present in this retelling of The Ramayana—particularly an English prose so lucid and lightly inflected that it loses its foreign associations and seems the perfect medium of swift and action-packed storytelling. Indeed, The Ramayana contains some of Narayan’s finest prose set-pieces. Here is how he describes the end of the monsoons:

  Peacocks came out into the sun shaking off clogging droplets of water and fanning out their tails brilliantly. Rivers which had roared and overflowed now retraced their modest courses and tamely ended in the sea. Areca palms ripened their fruits in golden bunches; crocodiles emerged from the depths crawling over rocks to bask in the sun; snails vanished under slush, and crabs slipped back under ground; that rare creeper known as vanji suddenly burst into bloom with chattering parrots perched on its slender branches.6

  And so instinctively scrupulous and fair-minded is Narayan as a writer that not only Rama but also Ravana emerges as a fully rounded, even somewhat sympathetic, character. Though a dedicated sensualist, Ravana does not seem intrinsically bad or evil. Narayan shows clearly how he is led astray by greed, and then succumbs to the particular illusion of power: the dream of perpetual dominance. As his younger brother, who defects to Rama’s side, tells him,

  “You have acquired extraordinary powers through your own spiritual performances but you have misused your powers and attacked the very gods that gave you the power, and now you pursue evil ways. Is there anyone who has conquered the gods and lived continuously in that victory?”7

  How often in Narayan’s fiction does one come across a similar pragmatic realism, a gentle refusal to regard good and evil as unmixed, and a melancholy sense of the real limitations of life? It is this ethical and spiritual outlook that attracted countless people to The Ramayana for more than a millennium. In Narayan—the sage of Malgudi who always knew how to connect our hectic and fraught present to a barely remembered past—this ancient tale found its perfect modern chronicler.


  1 A. K. Ramanujan, Paula Richman, ed., “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” Many Ramayanas (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), 46.

  2 R. K. Narayan, The Indian Epics Retold: The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, Gods, Demons, and Others (New Delhi: Penguin, 2000), xi.

  3 R. K. Narayan, The Ramayana (New York: Penguin, 2006),90.

  4 P. S. Sundaram, trans., N. S. Jagannathan, ed., The Kamba Ramayana (New Delhi: Penguin, 2002), 387.

  5 Narayan, The Ramayana, 29.

  6 Ibid., 109.

  7 Ibid., 126.

  Books by R. K. Narayan


  Swami and Friends (1935)

  The Bachelor of Arts (1937)

  The Dark Room (1938)

  The English Teacher (1945)

  Mr. Sampath—The Printer of Malgudi (1949)

  The Financial Expert (1952)

  Waiting for the Mahatma (1955)

  The Guide (1958)

  The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961)

  The Vendor of Sweets (1967)

  The Painter of Signs (1976)

  A Tiger for Malgudi (1983)

  Talkative Man (1986)

  The World of Nagaraj (1990)


  *Dodu and Other Stories (1943)

  *Cyclone and Other Stories (1945)

  An Astrologer’s Day and Other Stories (1947)

  *Lawley Road and Other Stories (1956)

  A Horse and Two Goats (1970)

  Malgudi Days (1982)

  Under the Banyan Tree and Other Stories (1985)

  The Grandmother’s Tale and Selected Stories (1993)

  * Published in India only


  Gods, Demons, and Others (1964)

  The Ramayana (1972)

  The Mahabharata (1978)


  My Days: A Memoir (1974)


  *Mysore (1939)

  *Next Sunday: Sketches and Essays (1960)

  *My Dateless Diary: An American Journey (1964)

  *Reluctant Guru (1974)

  *The Emerald Route (1977)

  *A Writer’s Nightmare: Selected Essays 1958-1988 (1988)

  *A Story-Teller’s World (1989)

  *Indian Thought: A Miscellany (1997)

  *The Writerly Life: Selected Non-fiction (2001)

  * Published in India only

  To the memory of my uncle

  T. N. Seshachalam

  who had steeped himself in

  Kamban’s Ramayana, and who expressed

  a last wish that I should continue the study

  Valmiki the poet explained to Rama himself: “Owing to the potency of your name, I became a sage, able to view the past, present, and future as one. I did not know your story yet. One day Sage Narada visited me. I asked him, ‘Who is a perfect man—possessing strength, aware of obligations, truthful in an absolute way, firm in the execution of vows, compassionate, learned, attractive, self-possessed, powerful, free from anger and envy but terror-striking when roused?’ Narada answered, ‘Such a combina
tion of qualities in a single person is generally rare, but one such is the very person whose name you have mastered, that is, Rama. He was born in the race of Ikshvahus, son of King Dasaratha....’ ” And Narada narrated the story of Rama.


  The Indian epic, the Ramayana, dates back to 1500 B.C. according to certain early scholars. Recent studies have brought it down to about the fourth century B.C. But all dates, in this regard, can only be speculative, and the later one does not diminish in any manner the intrinsic value of the great epic. It was composed by Valmiki in the classical language of India—Sanskrit. He composed the whole work, running to twenty-four thousand stanzas, in a state of pure inspiration.1 It may sound hyperbolic, but I am prepared to state that almost every individual among the five hundred millions living in India is aware of the story of the Ramayana in some measure or other. Everyone of whatever age, outlook, education, or station in life knows the essential part of the epic and adores the main figures in it—Rama and Sita. Every child is told the story at bedtime. Some study it as a part of religious experience, going over a certain number of stanzas each day, reading and rereading the book several times in a lifetime. The Ramayana pervades our cultural life in one form or another at all times, it may be as a scholarly discourse at a public hall, a traditional story-teller’s narrative in an open space, or a play or dance-drama on stage. Whatever the medium, the audience is always an eager one. Everyone knows the story but loves to listen to it again. One accepts this work at different levels; as a mere tale with impressive character studies; as a masterpiece of literary composition; or even as a scripture. As one’s understanding develops, one discerns subtler meanings; the symbolism becomes more defined and relevant to the day-today life. The Ramayana in the fullest sense of the term could be called a book of “perennial philosophy.”

  The Ramayana has lessons in the presentation of motives, actions and reactions, applicable for all time and for all conditions of life. Not only in areas of military, political, or economic power do we see the Ravanas—the evil antagonists—of today; but also at less conspicuous levels and in varying degrees, even in the humblest social unit or family, we can detect a Rama striving to establish peace and justice in conflict with a Ravana.

  The impact of the Ramayana on a poet, however, goes beyond mere personal edification; it inspires him to compose the epic again in his own language, with the stamp of his own personality on it. The Ramayana has thus been the largest source of inspiration for the poets of India throughout the centuries. India is a land of many languages, each predominant in a particular area, and in each one of them a version of the Ramayana is available, original and brilliant, and appealing to millions of readers who know the language. Thus we have centuries-old Ramayana in Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Tamil, Kannada, Kashmiri, Telugu, Malayalam, to mention a few.

  The following pages are based on a Tamil version of the epic written by a poet called Kamban of the eleventh century A.D. Tamil is a Dravidian language of great antiquity, with its own literature and cultural values, spoken by over forty millions who live in south India.2

  Kamban is said to have spent every night in studying the original in Sanskrit by Valmiki, analytically, with the help of scholars, and every day in writing several thousand lines of his own poetry. Of his task in assimilating Valmiki in the original and reinterpreting him in Tamil verse, Kamban says, “I am verily like the cat sitting on the edge of an ocean of milk, hoping to lap it all up.”

  Etched on palm leaves, Kamban’s work, running to ten thousand five hundred stanzas, must have mounted into an enormous pile, as my own copy in a modern edition is in six parts, each of a thousand pages (with annotation and commentaries).

  I have taken for my narration several contiguous sections of Kamban’s work. Mine is by no means a translation nor a scholarly study, but may be called a resultant literary product out of the impact of Kamban on my mind as a writer. As a fiction writer, I have enjoyed reading Kamban, felt the stimulation of his poetry and the felicity of his language, admired the profundity of his thought, outlook, characterization, and sense of drama; above all the love and reverence he invokes in the reader for his main figure, Rama—who is presented to us as a youth, disciple, brother, lover, ascetic, and warrior; and in every role we watch him with awe and wonder. I have tried to convey in the following pages the delight I have experienced in Kamban.


  Mysore, 1971

  List of Characters

  (If not otherwise indicated, the “a” is broad, as in “ah”; the “th” is a soft “t” as in “thyme”; the “u” is “oo” as in “cool”; the “i” is “ee” as in “seen”.)

  DASARATHA (da sa ra’ ta): Emperor of the Kosala country with Ayodhya as its capital.

  SUMANTHRA (soo man’ tra): Dasaratha’s chief minister.

  VASISHTHA (va see’ shta): royal priest to Dasaratha.

  VISWAMITHRA (vee swa’ mee tra): mentor to Rama and Lakshmana; in his early years a warrior and conqueror, he transformed himself by sheer will power and austerities into an adept, teacher, and saint.3

  KOONI (koo’ nee): Kaikeyi’s handmaid, whose mischief created mighty consequences.

  JANAKA (ja’ na ka): King of Janaka.

  SITA (see’ ta): his foster-daughter, also called JANAKI, heroine of the Ramayana (ra ma’ ya na).

  SOORPANAKA (soor’ pa na ka): a demoness, sister to RAVANA (below), KARA: commander of her army of demons.

  JATAYU (ja ta’ yoo): a great eagle pledged to guard the lives of Dasaratha’s children.

  SAMPATHI (sam’ pa ti): Jatayu’s elder brother, deformed for challenging the sun, restored on hearing Rama’s name.

  VALI (va’ lee): ruler of Kiskinda, peopled by a giant monkey race.

  SUGREEVA (soo gree’ va): his brother, who engineers his death with Rama’s help.

  TARA: Vali’s wife.

  ANGADA (an’ ga da): Vali’s son.

  HANUMAN (ha’ noo man): Sugreeva’s ally, also called ANJANEYA (an’ ja nay ya), the greatest devotee of Rama; son of the god of wind, possessing immeasurable strength, energy, and wisdom.

  JAMBAVAN (jam ba’ van): one of the wise elders of Hanuman’s search party, now in the form of a bear.

  THATAKA (ta’ ta ka): a demoness, daughter of SUKETHA (soo keé ta) and wife of SUNDA (soon’da).

  SUBAHU (soo ba’ hoo) and MAREECHA (ma ree’ cha): her sons.

  In the Tales:

  GAUTAMA (gow’ ta ma): a sage who cursed his wife, AHALYA (a hal’ ya), turned to stone for infidelity.

  BHAGIRATHA (ba ghee’ ra ta): who by his stubborn effort brought the Ganges down to earth in order to obtain salvation for his ancestors by washing their bones in its waters.

  MAHABALI (ma ha’ ba lee): a demoniac conqueror of several worlds; to end his tyranny Vishnu incarnated as a pigmy called VAMANA (va’ ma na).

  MAHAVISHNU (ma ha’ vish noo): the Supreme God, who divides himself into a trinity named Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva for the actual functioning of the universe with all its beings.


  In keeping with the classical tradition, Kamban begins his epic with a description of the land in which the story is set. The first stanza mentions the river Sarayu, which flows through the country of Kosala. The second stanza lifts your vision skyward to observe the white fleecy clouds that drift across the sky towards the sea, and later return in dark water-laden masses to the mountaintops, where they condense and flow down the slopes in streams scouring the mountainside of its treasures of minerals and essences (“verily like a woman of pleasure gently detaching the valuables from her patron during her caresses”). The river descends with a load of merchandise such as precious stones, sandalwood, peacock feathers, and iridescent flower petals and pollen grains, carrying it through the mountains, forests, valleys, and plains of Kosala country, and, after evenly distributing the gifts, ends its career in the sea.

  The poet then describes the countryside with its gardens and grov
es; its men and women fully occupied, their activities ranging from tilling, harvesting, and threshing to watching cock-fights of an afternoon. In the background, the perpetual groan of mills crushing sugarcane or corn, bellowing of cattle, or clamour of bullock-drawn caravans loaded with produce departing for far-off lands. Different kinds of smoke rise in the air, from kitchen chimneys, kilns, sacrificial fires, and fragrant wood burnt for incense. Different kinds of nectar—juices of sugarcane and palmyra, the dew in the heart of a chrysanthemum or lotus, or the well-stocked hive under aromatic trees—these fed the honey-bees as well as tiny birds that survived only on such nourishment; even the fishes relished this sweetness dripping and flowing into the river. At one temple or another, a festival or a wedding is always being celebrated with drums and pipes and procession. Kamban describes every sound, sight, and smell of the country, even to the extent of mentioning garbage heaps with crows and hens busily scratching and searching them.

  Kosala was an extensive country and few could claim to have crossed it end to end. Ayodhya was its capital—a city of palaces, mansions, fountains, squares, and ramparts with the King’s palace dominating the landscape. The city was imposing and compared well with the fabulous city of Amravati which was Indra’s or Alkapuri of Kubera. Presiding over this capital and the country was King Dasaratha, who ruled with compassion and courage and was loved and honoured by his subjects, and was blessed in many ways. His one great sorrow in life was that he was childless.

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