Posted on July 5th, 2024


This series titled BUDDHIST VIHARAS AND EELAM ends with a discussion on the Hindu Ramayana viharas” sprouting in Sri Lanka. The Ramayana is one of the two great epics of India, the other being the Mahabharata. Ramayana is a part of the Hindu mythology of India and is an important part of the Hindu canon. The two best known versions of the Ramayana are the Valmiki version and the Ramacharitamanas by Tulsidas. There may have been earlier Ramayanas before the one written by Valmiki, said Romila Thapar.

Critics say that Valmiki’s Ramayana is a literary epic and has no historical value. It is a poem and not a historical document. Historian H.D. Sankalia dates the work to the 4 century BC . Romila Thapar dates it to 8th century BC. A.L. Basham says Rama may have been a minor chief who lived in the 8th or the 7th century BC. T. Paramecia Ayer said that Ravana was a Gond chief. The Dhur-Gonds are known as Ravana-Vamshis in Central India.

In the Ramayana story, Rama is an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Ravana, a rakshasa, is the king of Lanka. He is portrayed as a powerful demon king. Vishnu incarnates as the human Rama to defeat him.

According to the Ramayana, Rama was the son and heir of King Dasaratha   of Kosala. He married Sita and together with his brother Lakshmana went to live in the Dandaka forests in exile. At Dandaka he killed several demons that were harassing the villagers. This angered the demon king, Ravana, who, in retaliation, captured Sita and took her to his kingdom in Lanka, in his aerial car.

The monkey king Hanuman discovered her there. Having received Hanuman’s report on Sita, Rama and Lakshmana proceed with their allies towards the shore of the southern sea. There they are joined by Ravana’s brother Vibhishana. The monkeys named “Naal” and “Neel” constructs a floating bridge (known as Rama Setu) across the ocean, and the princes and their army cross over to Lanka. A lengthy battle ensues and Rama kills Ravana. Rama then installs Vibhishana on the throne of Lanka. At the expiration of his term of exile, Rama returns to Ayodhya with Sita and Lakshmana.

Historian Romila Thapar said that the Ramayana by Valmiki was not a sacred book. It was a narrative cast in epic style. It contains the usual heroics, kidnapping, rescue, battles, flying monkeys, demons and an aerial chariot. Unlike the Vedas which are confined to Brahmin priests and are meticulously memorized,   the Valmiki Ramayana was recited the way it was freely remembered,  at rituals, feasts and   the Raja’s court.

There are many   versions of the Ramayana. Oral epics tend to have multiple versions. The Ramayana in North India differs from that found in South India and the rest of South-East Asia, said Thapar. There were regional versions in Tamil, Telegu, Kannada, Bengali, and Marathi. The Tamil poem draws on the Bhakthi tradition.

The Ramayana story is   contained in the Dasaratha Jataka of the Buddhist literature. There were also a series of Jain versions. There is the Rama katha which is a collection of bardic stories in variant versions. The multiple versions of the   Ramayana are more interesting historically, said Thapar. There were plays and poems also written on this story.  

The Hindu religion and the Ramayana were exported to South East Asia. Hinduism did not take root, but the Ramayana did. There is an extensive tradition of oral storytelling based on the Ramayana in Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Laos.

There are several versions of the Ramayana in Indonesia. Bhattikavya or the Ravanavadham of Bhatti is the most influential.  There is the Ramakavaca of Bali. Kakawin Ramayana is an old Javanese version.  Yogesvara Ramayana  is in a mixture of Sanskrit and Archaic Javanese language .The Javanese Ramayana differs markedly from the original Hindu version .  

The Cambodian version of Ramayana, the Reamker,  holds   an important position in Khmer literature. Its Hindu concepts  are adapted to Buddhist themes. The Reamker has several differences from the original Ramayana, including scenes not included in the original and emphasis on Hanuman. Reamker, has  influenced the Thai and Lao versions. Reamker  is seen  in all Cambodian art forms,  sculpture, Khmer classical dance, theatre ,poetry and the mural and bas reliefs seen at the Silver Pagoda and Angkor Wat.

Thailand’s popular national epic Ramakien is derived from the Hindu epic. In Ramakien, Sita is the daughter of Ravana. Astrologers  said that Sita would bring calamity, So Ravana has her thrown into  water to drown, but  she is rescued. It has an expanded role for Hanuman and he is portrayed as a lascivious character. While the main story is identical to that of the Ramayana, many other aspects  were given a Thai look, such as the clothes, weapons, topography. Ramakien can be seen in  elaborate illustration at the Wat Phra Kaew temple in Bangkok.  Analysts also observe that   all the Thai kings are named Rama.

In Hikayat Seri Rama of Malaysia, Dasharatha is the great-grandson of the Prophet Adam. Ravana receives boons from Allah instead of Brahma. In many Malay language versions, Lakshmana is given greater importance than Rama. There is  the  Ramayana Maharadya Lawana and Darangen of Mindanao (Philippines), and the Yama Zatdaw of Myanmar. Phra Lak Phra Lam is a Lao language version, where the story of Lakshmana and Rama is given as the previous life of the Buddha.

Indian Law courts are careful where the Ramayana gods are concerned, said the media. In India temples are owned by the gods, not the trustees. In 2007, Indian Supreme Court summoned the two Hindu gods, Ram and Hanuman to appear in court in order to settle a land dispute in eastern state of Jharkhand. The temple priest said the land belonged to him, given to his ancestors by the king.  The locals said it belonged to the two deities.  Dispute had been going on for 20 years. It was settled in favor of the locals but the priest is contesting this, reported the media. 

IN 2007, the Indian government decided to cut through the Adams Bridge which exists between Tamilnadu and Sri Lanka to create an 83-km-long deepwater channel that will link Mannar with Palk Strait.

This Sethusamundran  project” called for extensive dredging and removal of the limestone shoals that constitute the Ram Sethu. Ram Sethu, also known as Adam’s Bridge, is a continuous stretch of limestone shoals that runs from Pamban Island near Rameshwaram in South India to Mannar Island off the northern coast of Sri Lanka.  Geological evidence suggests that in the Ice Age, the stretch used to be a land connection between India and Sri Lanka, explained the media.

In response to the Indian government decision, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) filed a petition in court against Sethusamudran. The petition said Hindus objected to the Sethusamudran  project on the grounds that it will damage the Ram Sethu Bridge which is mentioned in the Ramayana. This bridge is sacred and should not be destroyed. It was built by Rama and his army of monkeys.

The media announced, The Sethusamudran canal has brought the Ramayana to the attention of the Supreme Court of India.”Court took note of the objection and called for a response from the Government. The Government of India stated that there is no scientific evidence to indicate that the events described in the Ramayana ever took place or that its characters were real.

 The Archaeological Survey of India had stated that there is to date no evidence to conclusively prove that Rama actually existed. Further, the Setu was not mentioned in some versions of the Ramayana. If at all,  the  Ram Setu of the Ramayana was more likely located in a small stretch of water in Central India and not in the Palk Strait.

The Hindus declared, ‘The controversy whether the formation is nature-made or man-made is not relevant. The important thing is that millions of Hindus believe that it is the bridge built by Rama.’

The government bowed to the strong BJP opposition and government backed off. In 2008, Instead of providing ‘yet another affidavit’ against Valmiki’s Ramayana,  the Indian Government  withdrew the affidavit, and stated that they would try to find an alternative route. In 2012,Janata Party chief Subramaniam Swamy filed a petition in Supreme Court   asking  Court to order the government to declare Ram Sethu a national monument as a matter of faith.

Ram Setu  had come under the microscope some time before. Geological Survey of India did a three year study of the area between Rameshwaram in India and Mannar in Sri Lanka 2003-2005 . The Survey said that the bridge was not a man made (or monkey made) construction. The sequence of clay, limestone and sandstone which emerged could not have been manmade.

 Geologists suggest that the formation was due to circular wind driven ocean currents. Sediment may have converged in the sea to create this formation. This line of islets may also be due to tidal movements which pushed the sand into place and retreated.  This sand over time formed sandstones.

The Space Applications Centre, Ahamedabad, looked through satellite in 2003  and said that the ‘bridge’ is not man made. They thought the formation was associated with a previous shore line. There are similar reefs in other parts of India, such as Lakshadweep. . NASA satellite pictures, (2002 , 2007)  also indicated that the bridge was formed through the sedimentation of clay and lime stone.  NASA said the bridge was about 1.75 million years old.

  In 2017 USA’sDiscovery Communications-owned ‘Science Channel’ aired a  video providing scientific evidence that Ram Setu was a man-made bridge, using satellite imagery from NASA and other evidence. The rocks connecting India and Sri Lanka are sitting on a sandbar, also known as a shoal and the investigators believe that the sandbar is natural, but the stones sitting on top of that sandbar, are not. Stones that have been brought from afar and set on top of sand bar island chain” said a geologist.

Geological Survey of India pointed out that studies of sea level showed that the area between Rameshwaram and Sri Lanka was exposed, not submerged under the sea, in the period between 18,000 years and 7000 years ago. About 6000 years ago, the sea level was a mere 17 meters below its present level and the sea bed was partially exposed. There was no need for a bridge. There was also the technical issue of building a bridge across a wide stretch of water, in ancient times.  (Continued)

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