Journal of Vaishnava Studies



How to Cite

Phil Lutgendorf. (2022). Journal of Vaishnava Studies. Journal of Vaishnava Studies, 12(2), 201–212. Retrieved from (Original work published May 11, 2022)


A. K. Ramanujan, commenting on the rich profusion of the Ramayana tradition, liked to cite Kumaravyasa, a 14th-century Kannada author who claimed to have written a Mahabharata rather than a Ramayana because “he heard the cosmic serpent which upholds the earth groaning under the burden of Ramayana poets” (Ramanujan 1991: 24). Poor Shesha’s load would only increase in subsequent centuries, and what we may now term the “Ramayana industry” shows no sign of slackening in the 21st—which is not surprising given the cultural and political capital that continues to reside in Rama’s exalted name. Yet one of the most striking features of this three-millennia-old storytelling tradition has been the absence of an authoritative written text, in the literal (and literary) Western
sense. Thus, despite the prestige of the Sanskrit epic attributed to Valmiki and its acceptance as the adi-text of the tradition, accurate shloka-by-shloka translations of this text (itself found in numerous variant recensions) into vernacular languages were virtually non-existent prior to the late colonial period, when Western orientalists became interested in identifying an Ur-Ramayana. Instead, each generation of Indian narrators assumed the right to retell the beloved story in an original manner, invariably beginning with praise of the Valmikian archetype, but then freely departing from it in numerous significant ways, altering details of plot and character and sometimes reordering the chronology of events. And the influences on would-be Ramayanis (as the storytellers in this tradition are often called) have not been confined merely to earlier versions of the Rama tale, but have included other literary works and narrative traditions, as well as the cultural and political circumstances of the eras in which they were composed. Thus it has been argued that Kampan’s Tamil epic Iramavataram displays the literary conventions of ancient cankam poetry (as in, e.g., the description of
Shurpanakha’s lovesickness after her first glimpse of Rama, or in the characterization of Ravana as an idealized, though flawed, Tamil monarch) while also reflecting the imperial ambitions of the Cola dynasty. And a whole set of 17th- and 18th-century Hindi retellings reflect the impact of the Bhagavata purana and the devotional cult of Krishna by re-imagining the famously-monogamous Ramachandra engaging in erotic sports not merely with Sita but with 16,000 nubile sakhis.

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