This edition of the Ramayana makes it very clear that the story has been condensed into an abridged, prose version of the original Ramayana, which consists of over ten thousand stanzas of poetry. Further, Narayan draws his story from a Tamil version of the Ramayana by the medieval poet Kamban, who in turn created his version from the original Sanskrit version by Valmiki. Because of this, it's made very clear by its structure and history that the Ramayana is a product of many different time periods and individuals who had a hand in creating the story. Though particulars vary from version to version, it remains an instrumental and extremely popular morality tale and religious text.
Both introductions to the book by R. K. Narayan and Panjak Mishra state several facts that are necessary to understanding the cultural significance of the Ramayana. They note that the Ramayana was first, and for many years, an oral story that existed long before the sage Valmiki put it in writing sometime between the fifth and first centuries BCE. They then stress that the Ramayana, and the life story of Rama in general, are major guiding forces, if not the most important guiding forces, in Indian society. They state that every child is encouraged to be like Rama, and the Ramayana itself is recited during various holidays and festivals throughout the year.
Narayan's writing style seeks to showcase the best or most interesting elements of Kamban's work, rather than treating it as simple source material. By referring at times to Kamban as "the poet," pointing out inconsistencies, or making comments about a particular plot point, Narayan makes it clear to the reader that the tale has many different iterations and is at time reflective of different beliefs or, possibly, different authors. This also makes it clear that the Ramayana functions as a historical text as well as a morality tale, as it reflects the individual histories of those who wrote a particular version. It's thus absolutely necessary to consider the Ramayana as a story with multiple authors and a rich history, which in many ways colors the way in which the different authors deal with the idea of Rama's morality. In particular, Narayan states clearly his intent to leave out the ending of the Ramayana, in which Rama banishes Sita to the forest after questioning her fidelity a second time. He states that this ending is generally considered to be a later addition to Valmiki's Ramayana, and one that majorly calls Rama's morality into question. By choosing to end his narration with Rama triumphant as the ruler of Ayodhya, and Rama and Sita's marriage intact and happy, Narayan demonstrates how storytellers have the power to dictate which moral questions the story asks. This version paints a far more flattering image of Rama, and one that's intended to appeal to more audiences.
Narayan casts himself as a mere messenger rather than an independently driven author, particularly when he prefaces the chapter in which Rama kills the monkey king Vali for questionable reasons. He notes that even though Rama is normally ethical and reasonable to an extreme, this action is very out of character for him, as he shoots Vali before hearing Vali's version of events. By making this observation about Rama's break of character, Narayan suggests that Rama is as much an avatar for Vishnu as he is a reflection of the people who wrote the story, people who aren't perfect and instead sometimes made rash and poorly considered decisions. This brings a distinctly human element to the otherwise saintly perfection of Rama's character. By allowing Rama flaws and lapses in judgment, a storyteller can then help an audience understand that attempting to emulate Rama is indeed possible. Everyone, even Rama, makes mistakes, but it's also possible to try to be good and moral, as he does.
Storytelling, Teaching, and Morality ThemeTracker
Storytelling, Teaching, and Morality Quotes in The Ramayana
You will learn the answer if you listen to this story—of a woman fierce, ruthless, eating and digesting all living creatures, possessing the strength of a thousand mad elephants.
Just as the presence of a little loba (meanness) dries up and disfigures a whole human personality, so does the presence of this monster turn into desert a region which was once fertile.
The sun set beyond the sea, so says the poet—and when a poet mentions a sea, we have to accept it. No harm in letting a poet describe his vision, no need to question his geography.
He is perfect and will be a perfect ruler. He has compassion, a sense of justice, and courage, and he makes no distinctions between human beings—old or young, prince or peasant; he has the same consideration for everyone. In courage, valor, and all the qualities—none to equal him.
"My father's name is renowned for the steadfastness of his words. Would you rather that he spoke false? ... I am thrice blessed, to make my brother the King, to carry out my father's command, and to live in the forests. Do not let your heart grieve."
Rama's whole purpose of incarnation was ultimately to destroy Ravana, the chief of the asuras, abolish fear from the hearts of men and gods, and establish peace, gentleness, and justice in the world.
The perfect man takes a false step, apparently commits a moral slip, and we ordinary mortals stand puzzled before the incident. It may be less an actual error of commission on his part than a lack of understanding on ours; measured in Eternity, such an event might stand out differently.
"We should not become too analytical about a friend, nor look too deeply into original causes; but accept only what appears good to us in the first instance, and act on it."
"Creatures in human shape may be called animals if they display no knowledge of right and wrong and conversely so-called animals which display profundity cease to be animals and will have to be judged by the highest standards."
"You have done incompatible things. You have desired to appropriate another man's wife, which is against all codes of conduct, and now you are thinking of your prestige, reputation, fame, might, and eminence."
The gods, who had watched this in suspense, were now profoundly relieved but also had an uneasy feeling that Rama had, perhaps, lost sight of his own identity. Again and again this seemed to happen. Rama displayed the tribulations and the limitations of the human frame and it was necessary from time to time to remind him of his divinity.