Ashok Banker's book will surprise and disturb readers who have only been exposed to Ramanand Sagar's TV Series and grandma stories. In all honesty, I was angry, put off and confused for a while until I began to understand him. If my grandfather had tried to read the book, he would have been very offended and would not have continued. He would have dismissed Banker as a Karunanidhi clone and said "nonsense blaggod". This is why you should read the preface of the book, an introduction titled “The Retelling” that Banker has at the beginning of every book. It puts his Ramayana in perspective and teaches us a thing or two about putting anything in perspective, tactfully. Its a hard thing to pull off and he does. It is true that not many have actually read the original Ramayana. Most of the stories that we heard that were called Ramayana had little resemblance to Valmiki's Ramayana. Most people who have various adverse/positive comments on Ramayana have not read the original. They simply do not know how different it is from the masala story they have heard. For example, did you know that Lakshmana-Rekha episode (the line that Lakshman draws and the line that Seetha should not cross) never existed in Valmiki's Ramayana.
Version Control: The case of many Valmiki Ramayanas
Who has the authentic Ramayana? Probably nobody? But there are many people/temples who have a version of Valmiki Ramayana that is very very ancient. That might bring us to the question of the delta that exists between Valmiki's work and the one that is purported to be his work. Sanskrit verses are done in meters. It is very precise and consistent throughout the poem. If you mess with one word the whole math gets awry and (sometimes) people can spot the exact location of the illegal insertion. For example the line 'Om namo Bhagavathe Vasudevaya' does not exist in Vishnu Sahasranama. The Anusasanaparvan chapter of Mahabharatha does not have it. I was shown by an expert on Sanskrit that it is also a zip file where you can condense longer verses into shorter verses and using a simple decoding algorithm re-expand it. Again V. Sahasranama is an example of this trait. So it is quite difficult to alter existing poems. But people who have superior knowledge of the language can do so. The most controversial parts of the Ramayana are the Balakhanda and the Uttara khanda. There are also arguments among many Ramayana experts that sections of Valmiki ramayana have been wholly added by a variety of authors later on. I am not averse to additions and alterations. I can see where that is useful and necessary. But given the fact that it is impossible to determine the exact nature of additions or if they inded happened, I am un-willing to make any comment on their implications. I think we have a basic cognitive bias towards suspecting anything historical that is even remotely connected to religion. Thats how cynical we are built in these times. We suspect a holcoaust when there is not just smoke, but air. So I, as a suspcious animal, am incompetent to reverse my bias and make a sensible argument surrounding this topic. I am willing to take the proverbial 'It is what it is' line.
This summer I visited Badrinath and on the way to Badri, 93 kilo meters from Rishikesh, is a place called Devaprayag (Prayag's are confluences where two streams join to make a river). Devaprayag is the origin of Ganga. At Devaprayag, two rivers called Alaknanda and Bhagirathi combine to form river Ganga. There is a Rama temple very close to the confluence. This temple is # 102 in the 108 Vaishnava Divya Kshethras. Purushottama is the name of the central deity. The priest of the temple informed me that they have been saving a version of Valmiki's Ramayana for several centuries. The book lies on a cradle wrapped in silk near the main deity. It is an interesting temple as parts of it fall under ASI protection since a rock there contains old Brahmi script (Thamizh words in Brahmi were present too, Ill post pictures later). At that time I was reading Banker's 4th book and had for comparative purposes a bounded/print out of all pages from this webpage purported to contain Valmiki's real deal. What would I have given to take a peek into that book?
The Authors Of Ramayana and their styles:
The earliest author in the post-Valmiki era is Krishna-dwaipayana (Veda Vyasa). While he narrates the Mahabharatha, he allocates some space to quickly summarize Ramayana. Later, some Budhist literature follows Vyasa's narration of Ramayana. Then comes the retelling of Ramayana by an explosive author whose work, in my opinion, has greatly influenced Ashok Banker's narrative style. Not content but just style of narration. It was in the 9th (Banker incorrectly calls it out as 11th century in his preface) century AD that the Thamizh Poet Kamban writes a fiery and dramatic retelling of Ramayana. Kamban was named so because his family was devotees of Lord Nrihasimha, who as per Vishnu Purana's narration of Vishnu's avataras, emerges from a pillar to protect his devotee Prahalada. 'Kambam' is the Thamizh word for pillar and so Kamban got his name. On the month of Panguni and on the day of the Uttaram star, Kamban, funded by the charitable Thiruvennainallur Sadayappan, presented his majestic poem to a large gathering of people and poets inside the Srirangam temple. Today the place, where he presented, is named the Kamban Mandapam. Velukudi considers Valmiki’s Sanskrit to be modern for its time and very radical. Banker takes the same view that the Krounchiya style is ‘avante garde’. However, Kamban's story was about love more than anything else. Kamban had an over-the-top narrative style full of rhetoric that he was rightly called Kavi Chakkravarthi or Kamba Nattalvar.
Tulasidas wrote Ramacharitamanas a few hundred years later. Banker draws our attention to the fact that while Kamban at least held on to the name Ramayana(m), Tulsidas changed the name completely to signal the fact that he was deviating largely from the Sanskrit original. And yes, Tulsidas retold the story with an explicit assumption that Rama was divine and made the content and style of narration reflect that assumption. In the end although Valmiki, Kamban and Tulsi assumed that Rama was divine the first two narrated his story as a human treatise to the extent that Kamba Ramayanam is considered literature and not religious, whereas Tulsi's Ramayana is a religious text from which the Hanuman Chalisa arises. Banker also points out his favorite Ramayana book, which is C. Rajagopalachari's English translation of Rajaji's Thamizh series Chakravarthi Thirumagan. I felt so happy on reading that. Rajaji’s small book was an endearing attempt and pleasure to read as a child. However, Rajaji's book loosely based on Kamban's work deviates greatly from Valmiki's book. Banker also rightly describes R.K.Narayan's take on Ramayana a poor attempt. It was. I was sorely disappointed with the super-abridged version. It has nothing to do with the massive reputation of the author. It was just a nothing retelling.
Various authors of the Ramayana had their own unique styles. Banker points out that when Veda Vyasa retold it, he mentions Brahma aiding Vishnu or Vishnu himself taking a mortal avatara. And that Manthara and Ravana were aware of their own evil but were orchestrating it for a grander purpose. Kamban keeps the story human but relocates it to Thamizh Nadu. He, as most Thamizh people know, invents new places, new characters, changes the dress, the idioms, the references to everything Thamizh. He even deletes complete chapters and invents whole new ones. But in the essense of it all he remains true to Valmiki. If a person read the text of Valmiki and Kamban today without knowing who the author is, they'd file a lawsuit for religious offense. Banker uses an excellent example to illustrate this. In Valmiki's original narration, when Rama decides to leave Sita and go for vanavasa, she initially pleads with him but when Rama refuses, she launches into a diatribe calling Rama - a woman dressed in a man's clothes, a fake, an actor, a frightened coward. This passage and their argument alone is apparently longer than the Bala Khanda. Kamban in his own inimitable style is more practical; Sita attributes Rama's want to enjoy and stray around in the forest, as a motivation for leaving her. Whereas Tulsidas has Sita weeping in grief for a few brief moments before Rama accedes.
There are a few foreign authors of Ramayana. Most, if not all of them, have written utter nonsense. In my opinion, westerners have no locus-standi to write anything about Ramayana. Their best work would not even scratch the surface of what I think would be an interesting retelling. It will most certainly never be honest. The Indian context is complex and I dont expect a westerner to get the current context let alone something 3000-4000 years ago. I have read William S. Buck's book that Banker points out and it is total nonsense. Infact very immature. If you don't want to read a long book and just want to listen to someone narrate it to you to the most authentic level that is possible and tell you the differences between authors -please listen to Velukudi Krishnan's Upanyasam on Ramayana (available in both English and Thamizh). He essentially narrates entire Valmiki Ramayana with most of its slokas. I am simply amazed at his memory power, his mastery over both Sanskrit and Thamizh (and English). But most of all, his analytical approach, without too much preaching, is simply a delight to listen to. He essentially narrates Valmiki's Ramayana but wherever appropriate he describes the differences between Kamban and Valmiki. Gita Press has a Hindi translation of Valmiki Ramayana. Most people I have spoken to consider that to be the most authentic.