Friday, December 02, 2005

33] Enculturalization of the Ramayana and Mahabraratta

“The Ramayana and the Hikayat Seri Rama : A Brief Analysis of Some Comparative Aspects”
by Azly Rahman Abstract The purpose of this paper is to present a brief comparative study of two versions of Ramayana; the Indian and that adopted by the Malay; Hikayat Seri Rama. Some of the aspects of the discussion deal with the Hindu and Islamic values/ideas transmitted in the epics, the styles they were written with, and lastly, the few instances and the extent by which the Indian version of the Ramayana has been Malaynized. In general, Malay sources are used in this study, and I have personally translated the various referential instances. These translations may not be excellent in quality, nevertheless, the purpose; that of referential nature, I believe, and hope, would be well served. Valmiki’s Ramayana, to say the least, has had its tremendous impact, to some extent or another, in shaping and inspiring the classical literary tradition of the respective cultures that it has come in contact with. The widespreading of this epic, pure Hindu in its undertone, it not only throughout multi-cultural India, its birthplace, but also, parallel to the spreading of Hinduism and Buddhism, to a major part of South East Asia.
Nevertheless, Ramayana spread not without undergoing to some degree or another, the process of acculturation and assimilation, to suit the believes of the people and cultures that had come to accept the epic as part of their literary classic. Some has given a new name to the epic, some has totally altered and modified the storyline, breathe a new life to it so as to render the epic approvable to their value system and cultural characteristics.
In Thailand, this epic in its written form, dating from the 18th century, is called “Ramakian” or “Ramakrti” and Rama is presented very Siamese. The Burmese and Kherian version of Ramayana is called “Rama-ya-kan” and “Reamker”, respectively, and to a great extent, both have been largely influenced by Buddhism. (Abadi,, pp. 30).
The Malay world did have its share of this ancient tradition too since the first century A.D.. The Malay people, as Dr. William Fredericks of Ohio University puts it “tends to adopt the philosophy in vogue” namely, Hinduism and Buddhism, to replace, or rather improve the code of moral ethics that they were hollding on to at the time; animism.
Probably at around this period too the epics of India, namely Ramayana and Mahabharatta was slowly being incorporated into the Malay literary tradition. Though the version of Ramayana translated at this time was not of Valmiki’s (considered the standard version) rather of the South Indian version, this epic inevitably did undergo the process of acculturation too.
In fact, classical Malay literature, or the “hikayat Melayu tua” has been, to a considerably large degree, been influenced and inspired by, besides Vyasa’s Mahabharatta, Valmiki’s Ramayana (Abadi,,1979. pp.23). At around this Hindu period, the Malaynization of Indian epics happened, especially to those two major literary works mentioned.
Mahabharatta was adopted and modified to be known as “Hikayat Pandawa Lima”. (The Epic of the Five Pandavas) or “Hikayat Pandawa Jaya”. Ramayana was changed to be called “Hikayat Seri Rama” (The Epic of Sri Rama). It is the central focus of this article of discussion, in the general sense, the Malaynization of Ramayana; its differences with the Indian version and in particular, the “Islamization” of the epic after the religion came to change the Malay people’s value system after the Hindu period.
As mentioned earlier, the Malay Ramayana is known as the “Hikayat Seri Rama” and there are various differences with the Indian version that the hikayat has taken to model from. It is vital to this comparative discussion of the epic that the history of the “Hikayat Seri Rama” be discussed.
This hikayat contained elements of Hinduism of various parts of India, to start with; from the south, north, and also east. In Java, traces of this epic was found in the temple of Lara Jonggrang in Prambanan. About the year 925 A.D, Yogiswara translated the epic into classical Javanese. This version was not popular though, when the language itself was not widely used anymore. Than came different versions of the hikayat, for example the “Serat Rama” and “Rama Kling”. From these versions too came the dramatic treatment. The Malay versions, that written in 1843 by Roorda Van Eysinga and that by Shellabear and Maxwell, are related to the dramatic versions mentioned (Abadi,, pp. 61).
For the purpose of a focused discussion, the article will resort to some of the many versions of the Malay Ramayana, namely the Shellabear and Maxwell versions, as referential and comparative points of the Hikayat Seri Rama. W.E. Maxwell’s version, written at the end of the 19th. century was derived from the narration of a reknown folk romance storyteller, MirHasssn. This version, though unmistakably revealed that the hikayat is Hindu in origin, is very much Malay in treatment in terms of its structure and inspiration. In fact, this version has beeome part of the tradition of the Malay folk romance.
The Shellabear version, on the other hand, is different from the derivative of the narrative version mentioned above, it is closer in treatment and plot to the original Indian epic (Ahmad, 1981, pp. 113). For the Indian version, on the other hand, references will be made from William S. Buck’s retelling of Valmiki’s Ramayana for the reason that, as quoted by B.A. Van Nooten in his “Introduction” section, the author has succeeded in capturing the most important characteristic of Rama’s story with many variations of detail particularly “the most important characteristic of the Ramayana; the simple religious tone that prevades the Indian original.” (Buck, 1976, p.XXII).
Hence let us now look at the focus point of our discussion; the Malaynization/Islamization of the great Indian epic, referring to some of the major elements in both of the Malay versopms mentioned.
Why did the Malaynization of the epic happened, we may ask ourselves. In answering this question, a major point to be noted is that: by “Malaynization”, the whole discussion will also mean Islamization of the Malay people to a large extent, larger than that done by other religion that has come into contact with the Malays before the coming of Islam. A point in history need to be dealt with here - the coming of Islam and its impact on the Malay civilization.
Around the circa of 13th. to 14th. century, Islam came to this region and succeeded in changing, to a major extent, the value system of the Malay people. Brought by Indian and Persian traders, this ‘new order of morality’ has not only introduced itself as a ‘new religion’, but succeeded in introducing the Islamic cultural values of Persia and India to the Malays.
The Malays, very receptive and adaptative in nature, towards foreign ideas and values, in due time assimilated these values into their lives. The Islamic values, could not however, easily scrape completely the cultural values the Malay people inherited from the pre-Islamis period. Thus, Hindu values, among other pre-Islamic values, is incorporated together with the ‘new order’; Islam.
This is evident, for instance, in the Malay language itself, the use of Sanskrit words like “puasa” (fasting), “neraka” (hell), “syurga” (heavan), and “agama” (religion) maintained for explanatory purpose of the idea of Islamic reverance and religious practices of the Malay people. Perhaps, the most important contribution of the Islamic civilization to the Malay people is the Arabic writing system, popularly known as the “jawi script”.
Almost without exception, the products of the classical Malay literature in general, including those that originated from the Hindu tradition, were written, originally in this form of writing. It is in this “jawi script” that the Malay version of Ramayana, the Hikayat Seri Rama was written. Hence, too, it could be said that the product of the Malay classical literature that reached us in the form of manuscripts, a major portion of it, came from the Islamic period. (Ahmad, 1981, pp. 110).
The popularity of Ramayana and other Hindu epics at the time of the arrival of Islam, without suspect, brought major concerns to Islamic preachers at that time. In fact, a religious writing by an Islamic scholar from Gujerat, India who served in the court of the Sultan of Acheh in the early part of 17th. century condemned the Hikayat Seri Rama as “unfit for Muslim readers”. Sir Richard Winstedt, a critic of the classical Malay literature was not far from being right when he mentioned that the first task of the Islamic preachers was to replace the heroes in Indian epics with Islamic warriors. (Ahmad, 1981, pp.110).
The spread of Islam was so very intense that Hinduism held by the people of this region was reduced to their social customs only; marriage, birth and funeral ceremonies. From time to time the Hindu beliefs were replaced by customs characteristic of Islam. As told in another classical Malay epic, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, the Hindu idols were from time to time destroyed. Hinduism became very weak, hence.
This condition manifested itself in the development of the Malay literature, Hindu elements that originated from the Hindu holy scriptures, for instance, the Ramayana and Mahabharatta that glorified Vishnu, Siva, Brahma and other gods and godesses were replaced with Islamic concept of the Supreme being (Hamid, 1974, pp. 77-78).
To illustrate the point above, let me compare two passages of the epic in its Indian version (as told by William S. Buck) and to the one in Shellabear’s version of the Hikayat Seri Rama. These passages concern with the Rakshasha King Ravana’s coming into power: Ravana held the knife to his throat, when Brahma appeared and said, ‘Stop! Ask me a boon at once!’
I am glad that I please you,’ said Ravana. ‘Please me!’ said Brahma. ‘Your will is dreadful, too strong to be neglected; like a bad disease I must treat it. Your pains make me hurt. Ask!’ ‘May I be unslayable and never defeated by the gods or any one from any heaven, by Hell’s devils or Asuras or demon spirits, by underworld serpents or Yakshas or Rakshasas’. ‘Grated!’ said Brahma quickly. He gave Ravana back his burnt heads better looking than before. They rose living and smoothed down his black moustaches. Brahma told Vibhishana, ‘Ask’. ‘May I never forget Dharma in peril or in pleasure, in comfort or in distraction’. Brahma said, ‘Yes; and you will be immortal on Earth and exempt from death or oblivion; and my truth knows no turning’. (Buck, 1976, pp. 23). Here in the Indian version, Lord Brahma, the creator is presented as the one approaching King Ravana. In the Malay version, there was a middle man who dealt with what Ravana’s wishing for, the prophet Adam, first man on Earth.
With the blessing and power of Allah (SWT) the prophet Adam was hence descended from heaven for come period of time on earth. Once upon a time, at dawn, the prophet was walking apon the Earth when he met Ravana, meditating, hanging upside down. The prophet asked
‘O Ravana, why art thou doing as such to thyself? How long has thou been this way?’
Ravana replied, ‘O Gracious prophet of Allah. I have been as such for twelve years’ Adam then said, ‘O Ravana, what is it that thou hath begged from Allah (SWT) that thou hath acted as such? Ravana answered, ‘O My Lord Propheth of Allah, if it would be at all possible that thou would asketh Lord Allah’s granting of my wish. I would hence proclaim the nature of it’ The prophet Adam then said, ‘O Ravana tell me the nature of the wish of thou’. (Shellabear, 1964, p.3) Thus Ravana told the prophet of his wish, that Allah grant him four kingdoms: on earth, heavan, underworld and the seas. The prophet then told Ravana:
Hence, at this moment, thou hath to promise me, that whenth thou doth commit wrongdoings or thou subjects doth doings as such and thou blesseth thee therein and not judge other wise, thou hath to accept the wrath of thy Lord Allah. Whereas thou agreeth upon this promise. I would hereby asketh upon Lord Allah thou’s humble wishes. (Shellabear, 1964, p.2) From the three passages quoted above, there are several differences that could be accounted:
(i) The concept of the creator in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Brahma is replaced by that of Prophet Adam as the one who approached Ravana.
(ii) Brahma, as the god who creates, seem to be portrayed as weak, threathened by Ravana’s meditative acts.
‘Please me!’ said Brahma, ‘Your will is dreaful too strong to be neglected; like a bad disease I must treat it. Your pains make me hurt. Ask!’ (Buck, 1976, p.23).
In Hikayat Seri Rama, Ravana in the beginning of his coming to power, had to ask the utmost consent of the Supreme Being Allah, to grant him the four kingdoms. His wish could not possibly be shanneled directly to Allah, rather, the prophet Adam was asked to present his wish. Here the concept of Brahma as the Supreme Creator and Allah is very different in a way, that Brahma’s supremity is shaken by Ravana’s meditative act and hence, Brahma had to grant whatever the Rakshasha was asking for to save himself.
On the other hand, Islam does not see the power and might of the Supreme Being, Allah as nowhere in the position of that portrayed by Brahma. This leads to another discussion of the conception of God; The Hindus divided God into three dieties: (1) Brahma, the Creator, (2) Vishnu, the Freserver and (3) Shiva, the Destroyer.
This led to idolatory and images being made out of these dieties and cults formed to worship one or the other of these gods (Akhbar, 1983, pp. 52). The concept of god in Islam is such that, Allah is “Unit and Indivisible”. He is born of none and has given birth to none, there is no sharer in His authority and that He is the Creator, Nourisher, and Sustainer of all universe, and has full sovereignty over them and everything in them for destroying and recreating. (Akhbar, 1983, p.71).
Therefore, the passages and commentaries presented above showed the difference in the conception of Good in the treatment of both epics; the original being very Hindu and the derivative of the Ramayana, the Hikayat Seri Rama given an Islamic treatment. The next major differences between the two epics is in the way they were written. The original Ramayana was written in Sanskrit poetry whereas the Malay version is written in prose-form.
In Java, the version is different than the Ramayana, the Mahabharatta is written in poetry-form called “kakawin”, a Javanese adaptation of the Sanskrit poetry. The difference in form between the Malay and the Javanese version might be due to the fact that the Hindu influence on the Malays was not that great compared to that on the Javanese.
Hence, the Malays did not adapt the epic in the Sanskrit-like poetry-form. Besides, the existing Malay poetry, the “pantun” could not be used for story telling and thus, the poetry nature of the Indian epic couldn’t possibly be adapted to the Malay “pantun”. The “syair”, musical-poetry was not yet known until the coming of Islam from Persia. (Hamid, 1974, pp. 58-59). Both the hikayat mentioned in this article, the Maxwell and Shellabear versions were written in prose-form.
It has been illustrated, in the preceeding paragraphs the differences that exist between the Indian version of Ramayana and that of the Hikayat Seri Rama. The two major aspects discussed, namely the Hindu/Islam concept and portrayal of the Creator in both epics and at a latter discussion, there is the distinguishing between the form the epics were written; poetry in Ramayana and prose in the hikayat.
The next and last, certainly not the least, major aspect that I feel vital in this comparative discussion of both kinds of literary work are characterization, events and theme of both types of literary work.
Certainly, between the two Malay versions, Maxwell’s, derived from Mir Hassan’s narrative version is very Malay in treatment; various plots, not to mention the changes in the characters’ names, were modified, added to the Indian version to suit the style of the Malay folk romance. Interestingly, in this folk version, the main hero is not Rama anymore, unlike the Shellabear version which still maintained Rama as the hero, but Rama’s son who manifested himself in the form of a monkey.
No doubt, he is Hanuman, Rama’s monkey warrior. Expelled by his father (Rama) for his disgusting looks, Hanuman became a vagabond. His adventures, nevertheless, includes the plots presented similarly in the Indian Ramayana; for instance. Hanuman served Rama in rescuing Sita from Ravana, including too, the burning of the Rakshasha King’s palace.
Most importantly, however, the plots in this version has been presented in a way that is suitable with the schemes of a typical Malay folk romance. An example would be that Hanuman, the hero, in one of his adventures, met a princess who later became his wife after he changed into a human form. And like a typical traditional Malay romance, Hanuman later became King and lived happily ever after.
The names of the characters in this romance seems to be takem from combinations of various literary traditions. The names “Tuan Puteri Sekuntum Bunga” is a local Malay name for Sita and “Shah Numan” for Hanuman evidently is Persian in nature. However, the names “Seri Rama”, “Rawana” and “Raja Laksamana” are definitely taken from Ramayana. The names of places are either taken locally, like “Negeri Tanjung Bunga” or translated from written version, like “Kacapuri” for “Langkapuri”.
The setting of the hikayat is definitely Malay. The King Seri Rama resides in a Malay palace, the “istana” with “a garden of mango trees”. Coconut trees, a familiar scene for the Malays, are grown around Ravana’s palace. Probably the intention of the folk narrative storytellers is to present the listeners with the grandeurs and might of the world of Kings but instead, the image of the serenity and simplicity of the local setting manifested itself.
In this version too, the royal wedding is attended by dignitaries such as the local religious people; the “lebais” and “hajis”. “Anachronism”, like the use of guns and the waring of the white flag to indicate surrender in war can also be found. These elements, evidently, were added from time to time to the epic because, research has shown that these symbols has never been found in the Malay “weltanschauung” before the 18th. or 19th. century.
Hence, this Malay folk romance that has shaped itself by combining traditional and foreign literary elements has come to be accepted by the Malays as their priced literary posession. (Ahmad, 1981, pp. 113-114). As mentioned earlier, the Shellabear version of the hikayat did not undergo alterations as drastic as that of Maxwell discussed previously.
The differences lie probably in the slight changes of names of the major characters, like Rama to Seri Rama and Sita to Sita Dewi and in another instance, the marriage ceremony of Rama and Sita in the Indian version is depicted in detail with much “color” whereas in the Malay version, not much grandeur is mentioned. Nevertheless, the version, is unmistakably given an Islamic flavor with the mentioning of the prophet Adam and the Supreme Being Allah to replace the respective Hindu characters.
With the discussion and illustrations presented in the preceeding paragraphs, it is hence conclusive that when Valmiki’s Ramayana came to the Malay world, the epic did, from time to time, “change itself” to “suit the existing” philosophy of the people. The philosophy here is Islam and the culture is Malay, hence, the Malaynization and Islamization of the work mentioned is taken rather synonymously.
The major aspects also touched briefly the Islamic and Hindu concept of God manifested in the two versions of the epic. The acculturation of the epic could be found in both versions of the hikayats mentioned; namely in the way the style of writing is treated: Sanskrit poetry form in the Indian version, the prose-form in the Malay version. Maxwell’s version of the hikayat is treated in a fairly lengthy discussion to show the extent of the Malaynization of the Ramayana.
Certainly, this paper does not attempt to analyze in a comprehensive manner the differences of the great Indian epic with that of the Malay versions. Certainly this would be almost impossible, taking into account the very many aspects and magnanimous scope that the discussion should justifiably fall into.
Not to mention too the numerous versions that exist of both the Indian and the Malay, Ramayana, thus, I account for the mentioning of two representative versions of the hikayat, namely, those of Maxwell’s and Shellabear’s: the former treating the Ramayana more Malay than the latter.
And hence, too, in my discussions, I have limited the scope to that of:
(i) the concept of God and some religious values/ideas transmitted in one of the sections of the epics.
(ii) the styles in which the two kinds of epics were written in... and
(iii) some aspects of the characterization, setting, and plot that both kinds of Ramayana differ in due to, as mentioned, the prosess of literary acculturation.
This paper too, nevertheless, implied that at one point in the history of Malay civilization, there was a Hindu period, along with other foreign civilizations, that has shaped the literary tradition of the people of this region. This period had undeniably played a significant role in the process mentioned above.
Not only has the Ramayana and Mahabharatta been adopted and modified and later be included alongside with other major works of the classical Malay literature, these two epics have also paved the inspirational path of among others, two classics of the Malay literature, the Sejarah Melayu and the Hikayat Hang Tuah.
Evidently, in the latter, the protagonist, Hang Tuah, also idolized as the archetypal figure of the warrior class of the glorious Malacca sultanate, in one of the episodes of the epic, when he was playing a duel game with his friends in his childhood days, was called upon by one of them. “Lo, Laksamana my foe!” (Hamid, 1974, p. 61)
‘Laksamana’ mentioned here is none other than Rama’s half-brother, and, the great Malay warrior has taken the same name later in his life to indicate glorification of the Malay sea warrior class. Interestingly enough, till this day, the Malay people has taken this term as a designation to honor the highest chief of the Malaysian naval force. So everlasting, thus, is the influence of Ramayana! BIBLIOGRAPHY 1. Ahmad, Jamilah Haji, Kumpulan Esei Sastera Melayu Lama. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1981. 2. Abadi, Drs. Jihaty.; Rahman, Azran.; Abdulhamid, Amida., Sari Sejarah Kesusasteraan Melayu-Indonesia. Kuala Lumpur: Adabi, 1979. 3. Hamid, Drs. A. Bakar, Diskusi Sastera Jilid 1 : Sastera Tradisi. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1974. 4. Akbar, ‘Ali, God and Man : The Holy Quran and Modern Science. Petaling Jaya : MARICANS, 1983. 5. Shellabear, Rev. W.G., ed., Hikayat Seri Rama. Singapore : Malaysia Publishing House Ltd., 1964. 6. Buck, William., retold., Ramayana. Ontario : New American Library, 1978.

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AZLY RAHMAN is an educator, academic, international columnist, and author of nine books on Malaysia and Global Affairs. He grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University doctorate in international education development and Master’s degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies communication, fiction and non-fiction writing. Twitter @azlyrahman.