Indian epics are a great source of “soft power”, but the exercise of this soft power to connect with Asian countries is perhaps much below its potential.
For over a period of one thousand years Valmiki’s Ramayana and Vyasa’s Mahabharata have acquired a special space in the hearts of millions of people in the Southeast Asia who take pride in regarding them as a part of their national identity. Countries, such as Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia were ruled by Hindu-Buddhist kings of Srivijaya, Sailendra and Matram dynasties between 700AD and 1600AD. It is on record that five to six hundred ships from Balasore of Odisha, carrying salt, used to sail to the ports of Rangoon, Madras, Ceylone and far-off islands such as Java, Sumatra and Bali. Since that period the Ramayana has become their cultural property which they used in form of drama, dance, music, painting and sculpture. The story of the Ramayana was retold in almost all Southeast Asian languages such as Burmese, Cambodian, Thai, Javanese, Khotanese Laotian, Malay, Indonesian and Tagalog. The Ramayana is called Ramakein in Thailand, Serat Rama in Indonesia, Hikayat Seri Rama in Malaysia, Yama Pwe in Myanmar and Maharadia Lawana in Philippines. Prof. Balakrishnan Muniapan of Wawasan Open University of Penang has discovered in Valmiki’s Ramayana the theory of leadership and leader development which is fit to be studied by students of Human Resource Management. The Ramayana got localised as Kakawin Ramayana. It has not only enriched the Southeast Asian literature, but also has become the only theme for expression of their art and culture.
The Mahabharata, as a symbol of Indian life and thought, occupies a prime position in the academic and cultural life of Bangladesh. It represents the multilateral character of Hinduism; its monotheism and polytheism, priest-craft and anti-priest craft and contains a detailed account of the functions of states and regimes. The violence of war and Krishna’s words of enlightenment are of great academic interest. It is included in the syllabus of all the universities of Bangladesh and taught with the help of audiovisual presentation. They follow the text edited by Rajsekhar Basu. The retold versions in Bengali which are quite popular are by Kabindra Parameswar and the one by Kashiram Das. It is interesting to note that it is also taught to the students of the Department of Criminology and Police Science, with special emphasis on Kurukshetra war strategy. In social sphere, character-based plays are performed very often and films on many of its episodes are produced. Upendra Kishor Ray’s Cheleder Mahabhara is included in children’s literature. The various themes of the Mahabharata have become the focus of attention of the creative writers of Bangladesh whose poems, stories, novels etc. are never hesitant to give a delightful expression to them. The New Media is no exception; videos, debates, discussions and criticisms are regularly held which are of great interest to the people of various sections of the society.
In India, there are more than three thousand vernacular avatars of the Ramayana, and, may be, a similar number of the Mahabharata. At the national level, Adhyatma Ramayana in Sanskrit and Ramcharitamanas in Hindi are quite popular. The local versions take the liberty to shape the text their own way. Additions, deletions, changes and innovations in the local texts are plenty in number that sometimes make a world of difference between the source text and the localized ones. Kamba Ramayana in Tamil, Ezhuttachan Ramayana in Malayalam and Bichitra Ramayana by Siddheswar Das in Odia are a few examples. The same case with the Mahabharata, for the simple reason that the local writers were neither translators nor imitators, they were authors as Vyasa was. Sarala Das, the author of the Odia Mahabharata, was a sudra by caste, belonging to peasant family in a remote village of the 15th century Odisha who had no access to Sanskrit language. He wrote the Mahabharata in oral tongue for the enjoyment of the lay man.
The discovery of Sarala Das’s Odia Mahabharata in Japan is strange, but true. It is for the first time that a vernacular edition based on Vyasa’s text has created a sensation among the scholars of a Southeast Asian country. A palm-leaf manuscript of Sarala Mahabharata, the first vernacular epic in India, was found in Tsuschima-cho village of Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku island. Popularly known as Tsushima Baiyo, it was said to be transmitted to the said village in the middle of the 18th century during the Edo period. It is now declared as the Important Cultural Property of the city. It is a voluminous text having 221 folios (inscribed on both sides), containing the first part of Sarala Mahabharata, the Aranyaka Parba. In recent years a scientific research work was conducted with a grant from Japan government. The diplomatic edition in romanised diacritical form is complete. A research work of the critical edition with a Japanese translation is in progress.
*** The author is a professor at Centre of Indian Languages, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi ***