The Jain Ramayana

Posted: 01.10.2016

The ancient legend of Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, and the search for his kidnapped wife Sita, is one of the most popular and influential stories in and beyond South-Asia. This is evident from the great number and variety of adaptations of the story, which we find in so many different forms, from the reliefs at the Prambanan temples in Indonesia, to the classical dances of Thailand. What many Jains are unaware of, is that since antiquity there have been Jain versions of the story as well. Tradition holds that this Rama story was told by Mahavira himself. The teachings of Mahavira were compiled by his immediate followers into twelve texts, the Angas, of which the twelfth, thought to contain the original Jain Rama legend, has unfortunately gone lost. What remains are later poems in Sanskrit, Prakrit and vernacular languages by poets narrating the Rama story as they have learned it from their respective teachers. Vimalasuri’s Paumacariyam, "the deeds of Padma", with Padma referring to Rama, is the oldest available Jain Ramayana. According to a manuscript of this text, the poet belonged to the first century, however, several scholars suggest he rather lived in the third or fifth century. Vimalasuri’s narrative was followed by many later authors, the most notable of whom is the famous Acarya Hemacandra (12th century).

This Jain Ramayana first narrates the history of the different dynasties in which the protagonists are born. The originator of the Ikshvaku dynasty, to which Rama and his relatives belong, was the first Tirthankara, Adinatha Rishabha. When Rishabha renounces the world, he distributes his land among his relatives, who all form their own branches. At the time of the second Tirthankara, Ajita, a new dynasty arises in Lanka, the Rakshasa dynasty, named after a vidya, a magical power which protected (from the Sanskrit root raksh.) the city of Lanka. Contrary to other versions these Rakshasas, here meaning "descendants of the Rakshasa dynasty", are not demons, but a noble race of humans. Generations later, the Rakshasa king donates the island of Vanara to his brother-in-law, giving rise to the Vanara dynasty, also a race of humans, not monkeys. At the time of the twentieth Tirthankara, Muni Suvrata, Ravana is born in the Rakshasa dynasty. He grows up to be a great and noble king. At the same time, in another great dynasty, the Ikshvakus of Ayodhya, Dasharatha ascends the throne and begets four sons: Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrughna. One day, neighbouring king Janaka is overrun by hostile tribes and requests Dasharatha’s help. Rama and Lakshmana are sent to his aid and Rama is awarded the hand of Janaka’s daughter Sita in return. Some time later Dasharatha is struck by the ephemeral nature of the material world, and he decides to abdicate and renounce the world. Bharata shares his father’s feelings and also wishes to take diksha. When his mother Kaikeyi hears of this, the dread of losing both her husband and her son at the same time, is too much to bare. Therefore, she asks Dasharatha, by way of a boon, to make Bharata the new king instead of Rama, prohibiting Bharata’s renunciation. Hereupon Rama decides to go into voluntary exile to facilitate Bharata’s rule. Sita and Lakshmana accompany him. The threesome head towards the south to start a life in the forest. On their way they encounter many devout Jain rulers in distress. In return for Rama’s aid, all become allies of the kingdom of Ayodhya. After settling in the Dandaka forest, one day Lakshmana goes out for a walk and spots a magical sword hovering in the air. He takes the sword and hacks into a bamboo shrub nearby to test its qualities. As he pulls the sword back, the head of a young boy rolls out of the shrub. While Lakshmana runs to Rama to inform him of what happened, Ravana’s sister, Candranakha, arrives there to visit her son who had been performing austerities for years to obtain that magical sword. Arriving near the shrub, she finds his decapitated body. Looking around for his killer, she sees Rama and Lakshmana in the distance and immediately falls in love with them. She approaches them, but when the brothers politely decline her, she runs away and sends armies of Rakshasas after them. All are slain by Lakshmana. When Ravana himself goes to the battlefield, he notices the beautiful Sita nearby and falls in love with her. Using one of his vidyas he lures Rama away from her, quickly grabs her and flies with her to Lanka. Meanwhile, Sugriva, the king of the Vanara dynasty, is banished from his kingdom by a doppelganger, in fact a disgruntled suitor of his wife Tara. Roaming through the woods with a few loyal servants, Sugriva heads towards where his long-term allies, the Rakshasas, are fighting Lakshmana, to ask for their help. Arriving there, he witnesses Lakshmana obliterating the Rakshasa forces and grows even more desperate. Running out of options, he approaches Rama and Lakshmana for help. Rama promises Sugriva to help him, provided that Sugriva assist Rama in the search for his missing wife Sita. Rama himself kills the doppelganger and reinstates Sugriva. To fulfil his end of the agreement, Sugriva sends troops in every direction to look for Sita. The troop going south encounters a man who has witnessed a crying woman, Sita, being flown to Lanka by Ravana. When Rama hears of this, he vows to kill Ravana. The Vanaras send their close ally, Hanuman, to Lanka with a message of reassurance for Sita. After visiting Sita, Hanuman attempts to persuade Ravana to solve the matter peacefully, but to no avail. Upon hearing Hanuman’s account of his visit, Rama prepares for battle. Together with his allies, he sets out for Lanka. The war begins and duels between Rakshasas and Vanaras are fought, with casualties and imprisonments on both sides. When Lakshmana is mortally wounded, Rama sends Hanuman to Ayodhya to get the magical healing bathwater of Kaikeyi’s niece, Vishalya. Vishalya herself accompanies Hanuman to Lanka and heals Lakshmana and several other wounded soldiers. The war comes to an ultimate duel between Ravana and Lakshmana, in which Lakshmana kills Ravana with his own cakra. Rama and Sita are happily reunited and return to Ayodhya where Bharata renounces the world. When Rama receives news that the citizens of Ayodhya doubt Sita’s chastity in Lanka, he feels obliged to conform to the will of his people and banishes her. His charioteer abandons pregnant Sita in the forest where she is found by a distant relative, who takes care of her as a sister. Sita gives birth to two sons. When years later, the boys come to hear of the treatment their mother received from Rama, they attack Ayodhya to avenge her. Rama learns of the identity of the two, embraces them and asks Sita to undergo a fire-ordeal to prove her chastity. Sita reluctantly accepts and as she enters the fire, it magically transforms into a beautiful pond in which Sita appears on a lotus in divine attire. To Rama’s dismay, Sita immediately thereupon takes diksha. In due course, the other main characters of the story die or renounce the world. Rama in the end attains the kevala knowledge and moksha.

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