I use the hybrid Greek-Sanskrit word para-rāmāyāṇa for all rāma-kathā-s other than that of Vālmīki. These span a great diversity of literature going back to relatively early times in Indo-Aryan tradition. Lots of people have said a lot of things on this matter and we are hardly going to review any of that here. The Rāmāyaṇa itself is enigmatic in some ways. There is no allusion to the main characters of the epic in the Vedic corpus just like the central pāṇḍu heroes of the Mahābhārata. Yet the late Vedic tradition belonging to the Paippalāda branch of the Atharvaveda remembers king Hiraṇyanābha Kauśalya a descendant of Rāmacandra Aikṣvākava. On the other side a remote dynastic predecessor of Rāma emperor Trasadasyu is one of the greatest heroes of the ṛgveda. Another mighty dynastic predecessor who is remembered in the ṛgveda is emperor Bhajeratha Aikṣvākava who is known by his more widely used name as Bhagīratha from the time of the Samaveda brāhmaṇa-s. Another great hero and dynastic predecessor of Rāma who is remembered in the RV is emperor Mandhātṛ. The founder of this dynastic throne Ikṣvāku appears as a rājarṣi in the RV. However, of the later occupants of the famed Ikṣvāku throne we know little from Vedic literature, which often talks of the occupants of the thrones of the Kuru and the Pañcāla. This, we suspect, reflects the dynamics of the invasions and the subsequent conquest of the sub-continent by the Indo-Aryans warriors coming in from their ultimate homeland in the steppes – Ikṣavāku group branched away from the pañcajana group and moved eastwards without major participation in the later Vedic consolidation of the śrauta ritual. However, their hero Rāmacandra was to have a major impact of Hindu tradition from his para-Vedic sphere.
The first of the para-rāmāyaṇa-s is the Rāmopākhyāna of Mārkaṇḍeya from the Mahābharata. Many have suggested that this mini-Rāmāyaṇa was the precursor of Vālmīki’s text. We however feel this is rather incorrect. The Rāmopākhyāna has several text fragments in common with Vālmīki while being just over 700 verses in length in its most basic form reconstructed by Sukthankar. Thus, we posit that it simply represents a para-Rāmāyaṇa tradition that might have branched off by contraction from an earlier “Ur-Vālmīki-rāmāyaṇa from which the extant Vālmīki text also evolved subsequently as part of the epic system (by epic system I mean the phase when the two national epics were similarly handled by a common set of transmitters, probably sūta-s, as evidenced by a certain similarity in phrase usages between them). It also appears that the rāmāyaṇa itself was orally transmitted longer than the rāmopākhyāna itself. The Rāmopākhyāna has feel of of being a “refresher” for people who knew the general rāmāyaṇa story and we suspect this prior knowledge was due to the existence of an earlier Vālmīki text that was widely known at that time. It is important to note that the mahābhārata repeatedly uses rāmāyaṇa as a source of metaphors and allusions but not vice versa. Hence, there is no reason to give into a white indological assertion that the Rāmāyaṇa is a post-Mahābhārata tradition. However, we do suspect that the old Vālmīki that was around at the time of the Mahābhārata’s old composition was distinct from the current version.
The Rāmopākhyāna has several distinct features from Vālmīki-s version; hence, we suspect that it had already branched off and preserved as a separate tradition again providing indirect evidence for the antiquity of the original Vālmīki. Its notable features includes:
-The god Tvaṣṭṛ is said to have made Sītā specially as a wife for Rāma. This is a reflection of the Vaidika tvaṣṭā rūpāṇi piṃśatu; tvaṣṭā rūpeva takṣyā; tvaṣṭā rūpāṇi hi prabhuḥ…
-No mention of any putrakāmeṣṭi for the birth of the four Ikṣvāku princes.
-Viśravas has 3 wives: Puṣpotkaṭā who bears Rāvaṇa and Kumbhakarṇa; Mālinī who bears Vibhiṣaṇa; Rākā bears Khara and śūrpankhā as twins.
-While well-versed in the śruti, with the exception of Vibhiṣaṇa, they were paradoxically anti-brāhmaṇa.
-Vibhiṣaṇa joined the yakṣarāṭ Kubera who made him the lord of the rakṣas-es who were under him (they are alluded to in the Vaidika ritual to Kubera specified in the Taittirīya-śruti )
-The remaining piśāca-s and man-eating rakṣas-es elected Rāvaṇa as their overlord. He is said to have 1.4*10^8 piśāca-s and 2.8*10^8 rakṣas under his command.
-Brahmā sent the gandharva woman Dundubhi to be born as the hunchback to set the rāmāyaṇa in motion.
-Rāvaṇa meets Mārīca at Gokarṇa, a Rudra-tīrtha to recruit him for his cause.
-Rāmā pursuing the golden deer is described with the simile of him looking like Rudra pursuing the stellar deer with his bow.
-Rāma kills Vālin with a huge bow with a mechanical device (yantra; a cross-bow?).
-Sītā informs the ape Hanūmat of an old respected rakṣas known as Avindhya who had told her of the emperor of the apes and his councillers.
-No indications that Vibhīṣaṇa was in Lankā with Rāvaṇa. He simply arrives with his four ministers and joins hands with Rāma against his brothers.
-Many apes suggest crossing the sea by means of boats but Rāma goes for the causeway strategy arguing that they did not possess sufficient boats for landing a huge army in Lankā.
-Rāma places his ape and bear force in the midst of a forest in Lankā so that they would have ample supplies.
-A simile of Añgada smashing four rakṣas-es like a tiger in conflict with four hawks.
-The bears under their king Jāmbavant are explicitly described as being sloth bears.
-Several imp-like piṣāca-s launched the first wave of attack named: Parvana, Pūtana, Jambha, Khara, Krodhavaśa, Hari, Praruja, Aruja and Praghasa who were invisible to the apes and bears. But Vibhīṣaṇa broke their invisibility and they were killed by the vānara-s.
-Rāvaṇa is said to have arrayed his troops in the battle formation invented by the great bhārgava of yore Uśanas Kāvya. Rāma arrayed his troops using the method of the god Bṛhaspati.
-Vibhīṣaṇa kills Prahasta (in VR the great ape Nīla kills him). Battle between Dhūmrākṣa and Hanūmat is described as being like that between Indra and Prahlāda.
-Kumbhakarṇa leads the assault accompanied by the brothers of Dūṣaṇa named Pramathin and Vajravega. He captures Sugrīva. Lakṣmaṇa pursues him and after a fierce fight kill him with brahmāstra. Then Hanūmat and Nala kill the other two rakṣas-es.
-After the fall of Kumbhakarṇa, Megannāda enters the field and after a fierce fight became invisible in the sky and struck down Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa with his missiles. Then he tied them with his magical arrow net. Vibhīṣaṇa having successfully accomplished victory against the rakṣas on another front came to the place and seeing the fallen heroes revived them by using the prajñāstra. Then Sugrīva treated them using the viśalya herb and mantra-s. The coming of Garuḍa is not found in the original Rāmopākhyāna. It was only inserted into some recensions – it is clearly an interpolation without basis because the preceding text of the Rāmopākhyāna does not talk of the nāgapāśa.
-Then Vibhiṣaṇa informed Rāma that Kubera has sent a guhyaka with magic water that will allow them to see invisible objects. Upon applying the water to their eyes the ikṣvāku brothers and the apes and bears were able to see the invisible Meghanāda. Under the guidance of Vibhīṣaṇa, Lakṣmaṇa then attacked Meghanāda and after a fierce fight fired three āgneya weapons that respectively cut his bow-wielding hand, the other hand which was holding a naraca missile and finally his head.
-Rāvaṇa then wanted to kill Sītā but Avindhya persuaded him from doing so and urged him to go and fight Rāma directly. After a some fierce fighting with the army of Sugrīva, Rāvaṇa started emitting numerous warriors from his body who resembled Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa. Rāma saw through this illusion and killed the impostor Rāma-s while directing Lakṣmaṇa to kill those who looked like him.
-Then Indra sent down his own chariot with his charioteer Mātali. Rāma this time thought it to be an illusion of Rāvaṇa and did not want to board the car. However, Vibhśaṇa informed him that it was no illusion and really Indra’s chariot.
-In course of the great battle that followed the vānara-s scattered in terror from the fury of Rāvaṇa but Rāma finally deploying the mighty brahmāstra “turned Rāvaṇa to plasma” for the lack of a better usage. The Sanskrit goes thus:
sa tena rākṣasa-śreṣṭhaḥ sarathaḥ sāśva-sārathiḥ |
prajajvāla mahājvālenāgninābhi-pariṣkṛtaḥ ||
He the lord the rākṣasa-s with his car, horse and charioteer were set ablaze by [the brahma missile] and surrounded with a great fiery conflagration.
tataḥ prahṛṣṭās tridaśāḥ sagandharvāḥ sacāraṇāḥ |
nihataṃ rāvaṇaṃ dṛṣṭvā rāmeṇākliṣṭa-karmaṇā ||
Thus, seeing Rāvaṇa slain by Rāma of unperturbed deeds, the gods with the gandharva-s and cāraṇa-s were gladdened.
tatyajus taṃ mahābhāgaṃ pañca bhūtāni rāvaṇam |
bhraṃśitaḥ sarvalokeṣu sa hi brahmāstratejasā ||
By the energy of the brahma missile the five elements abandoned him [Rāvaṇa] of great opulence and he was deprived of all the worlds.
śarīra-dhātavo hy asya māṃsaṃ rudhiram eva ca |
neśur brahmāstra-nirdagdhā na ca bhasmāpy adṛśyata ||
All his bodily substances, indeed his flesh and blood, were burnt by the brahma missile such that not even ash was seen.
-Rāma then conferred Lankā on Vibhīṣaṇa. He along with Avindhya came out bringing Sītā.
-Rāma then tells Sītā that she is free and may go wherever she would like. He says that he has done his duty of freeing her but irrespective of whether she was chaste or not he was not going to consort with her again.
-The gods then arrived in person and Sītā swore by the elements constituting her body that she was pure. This was confirmed by the gods Vāyu, Agni and Varuṇa. Then the god Brahmā explained to Rāma that Sītā had been protected from being raped upon abduction by Rāvaṇa due the curse of Nalakūbara the son of Kubera.
-Then the ghost of Daśaratha appeared and congratulating Rāma asks him to return to Ayodhyā with Sītā. There is no Agniparīkṣa of Sītā in the original Rāmopākhyāna. It has been inserted into a regional variant and is clearly an insertion for it simply does not fit with the rest of the coherent narrative of this part.
-Rāma then bows to all the deva-s and Kubera and confers boons on the demon Avindhya and the demoness Trijaṭā for being good to Sītā.
-The gods offered Rāma boons: He asks for firm adherence to dharma, invincibility in battle and restoration of the lives of the apes killed in the battle. They also offered the yellow-eyed ape Hanūmat the boon of life as long as the Rāmāyaṇa is known, and access to divine food and drink.
-Rāma and his retinue then crossed the ocean by the same bridge by which the came to Lankā and on reaching the other shore he rewarded the apes richly for their services.
-The with the Puṣpaka air-ship he returned to Kishkindha with just Sugrīva and Vibhīṣaṇa to show it to Sītā and install Aṅgada as the crown-prince.
-Upon being united with Bharata, Rāma was crowned the king by Vāmadeva and Vasiṣṭha. After which he respectfully returned the Puṣpaka airship to Kubera.
In conclusion, the upākhyāna clearly represents a distinct tradition but generally recapitulates all the key elements of the extant VR. Notably, in the this version Vibhīṣaṇa is a major positive figure – he does not appear a like traitor, having joined Kubera early in his life he plays a major role in the war. Lakṣmaṇa-s profile is also higher in this version. No special role is allotted to Hanūmat such as bringing the medicinal mountain from the Himālaya or in the war to the exclusion of the rest. Yet, he is recognized as a key figure for his reconnaissance leap to Lankā.