(This is not from AK Ramanujan’s essay. I have taken this up from my study on Tribal Mythology, but is relevant to our present series on the different versions of the epic, Ramayana)
|A Gond painting depicting Ramkatha|
The Gonds are amongst the prominent tribes of Central India. One of their sub-tribe is the Baiga tribe. Both the tribes have a rich collection of folklores and stories, many of which have been collected and published by the likes of Verrier Elwin and Durga Bhagvat. The following folklore is from one of the stories collected by Durga Bhagvat as told to her by a Gond from Mandla in Madhya Pradesh, and is more commonly known as “The Lachhman Jati”.
Before we get into the synopsis of a long story, it must be understood that the prime deity of these tribes was Mahadeo, who is depicted in the form of Shiva – here Ram is not a prominent deity. Further, the hero of this version is Lakshaman, (referred to as Lachhaman) and not Ram, and Sita is not the chaste woman as is the case of all the versions of Ramayana known to us!
According to this folktale, Ram is playing dice with Mahadeo and on a particular day, he has forgotten his dice at home. Ram sends Lachhaman to his hut to go and bring the dice for him. When Lachhaman goes to get the dice, Sita is at home alone. Sita is enamoured with Lachhaman and is secretly in love with him. She asks Lachhaman to spend some time with her, but Lachhaman, a staunch celibate, does not agree to her evil designs. Sita is insulted and bolts the door trying to hold him in the room. But Lachhaman, breaks open the door and leaves.
Sita is angry at this denial and decides to avenge the insult. She tears up her saree, and breaks her necklace and sits disheveled waiting for Ram. When Ram comes home, he sees the broken door and the disheveled Sita. On asking, Sita tells him that Lachhaman tried to make love to her! Ram gets angry and beats up Lachhaman. When Lachhaman pleaded his innocence, he was asked to prove his innocence by jumping into boiling oil. Lachhaman, come out of the oil absolutely unscathed, but feels insulted at not being asked and given a chance to explain. He leaves the hut in penance. He goes on a long expedition and this takes him through a series of adventure where the story keeps taking its twists and turns, all to show his heroism and brave acts.
The story has a dramatic end. After Lachhaman leaves his brother and wife, they fall in hard times. Ram had to take up work with a potter and Sita had to collect fuel from the forest. When the heroic Lachhaman returns home he sees them in a sorry state and feels very bad. He changes everything and the old glory is brought back and in the end Lachhaman asks everybody that from then onwards, people should take the name of Ram with the same respect as Mahadeo!
The above is a very concise version of the story and a few notable differences here are as follows –
y As mentioned earlier, Ram is not the hero, rather the characterization of both Ram and Sita is quite poor to the extent that towards the end Ram is even punished by having to work as a menial at the potters and Sita is made to collect sticks in the jungle.
y Sita is quite contrary to what we have read till now and is shown here as scheming and has her sight on Lachhaman, her brother-in-law. It is important to mention here that in the tribes of Central India, illicit relationship between a woman and her brother-in-law (devar-bhabi) is quite common and there are a number of folk-songs which mention this relationship both overtly and covertly. This is also a common theme of many folk-stories across the belt. This could just have been taken up to show the relationship in bad light and condemn it – what many scholars term as the ‘process of sanskritisation’ whereby people try to follow the norms of the civilized society by giving up their uncivilized and unacceptable behaviour.
y There is no mention of Ravana here, though during the course of Lachhaman’s adventure, some evil characters are mentioned, but bear no semblance to Ravana.
y Hanuman is a minor character here with no major role to play, but has been mentioned nevertheless to bear some resemblance to the original. However there is a mention of Bhima (of Mahabharat epic) meeting Hanuman, which again is a reference to the Puranic myth.
y Finally, the trial and tribulations that Lachhaman has to undergo is very common to the hardships that the tribals undergo on a regular basis. Their nomadic lifestyles, their need for land and the regular movement due to afforestation and famine are a constant test on their endurance. In the entire adventure of Lachhaman, he comes across one hardship after another, which he overcomes nonetheless. It is this aspect of the story which has been assimilated well by the tribals.
Please note that there are different versions of the aspect which led to Lachhaman leaving for his adventure, but I have mentioned only one. Some later versions have changed the seduction by Sita to that by Indrakamini, an apsara from Indrasabha – this could be again due to the acceptance of Ram and Sita in the present religious context.
Once again, a classic case of assimilation and adaptation as per ones cultural milieu. What is surprising here is the change of roles. In the original, it is Sita who has to prove her innocence, but here it is Lakshaman. In the original, it is Ram who is the hero, whereas, in this, it is Lakshaman who is the hero and Ram is a poor shadow of what he is known for. Also, Lakshaman is a tragic hero, who suffers in silence and during his adventure too he goes through lot of trouble, but endures it all. This is the main aspect of the assimilation where every tribal member in the audience empathises with the character based on their own condition.
Times have changed and there has been an improvement in the condition of the tribals – but the tale is recorded for the sake of posterity. It does not hurt sentiments, but gives way to debate. Such tales have been told and retold – this has not diminished the status of the epic or the central characters of the epic. Such adaptations only give us a window to the world of the particular culture – nothing beyond.
People who indulge in politics with such tales are sheer cultural-opportunists who have nothing to do with literature. They are insecure and in such protests, they actually undermine the strength of such works of literature. So many versions, have not diluted the effect of such epics and awful politicization of the epic has not enhanced the status either.
Discussions and debates are the hallmark of any progressive society. Unfortunately our illiterate political brethren are stone deaf to such discourses.