The Rāmāyaṇa and a para-rāmāyaṇa in numbers-I: epic as religion

This note may be read as part of our studies on the Rāmāyaṇa and para-Rāmāyaṇa-s of which an earlier part is presented here.

A study of the epic in Indo-European tradition suggests that there were two registers of the old Indo-European religion. While today both of them survive together with any vigor only among the Hindus, until not too long ago these registers showed some survival even among their Iranian cousins. From these it is apparent the first register is the “high religion” which manifests as śrauta and smārta performance. Among the ārya-s this further evolved into other manifestations as seen in the tantra-s of the sectarian traditions. Nevertheless, the Vedic base remained the model for most of these later developments. On the other hand the lay manifestation of religion was by the medium of the epic or itihāsa-s in India. Their religious value elsewhere in the Indo-European world was apparent in Greece. Indeed, in the classical Greco-Roman confluence the last attempt of reviving the religion by emperor Julian, which was being swept away by the “Typhonic” evil of the preta-moha, involved a focus on the religious facet of the Homeric epics.

In both India and Greece there are two epics, which have numerous parallels in their motifs, and resonate even in their overall themes. However, in India each has a distinct character. The Rāmāyaṇa is what might be termed “the universal epic of ideals.” The Mahābhārata is on the other hand our national epic, the epic of the first ārya nation in India, the foundation on which the modern Hindu nation rests. The Iranians have a comparable national epic in the form of the Kśathāya-nāmag and its precursors but apparently lack the universal epic. Among the Greeks to an extent the Iliad probably played a national role but tended towards the universal in the later phase. It was the universal epic, the Rāmāyaṇa, which was the vehicle of the ārya-dharma beyond boundaries of Jambudvīpa. In its role as the foundation of the “lay religion” it was remarkably tenacious and withstood the assault of the other Abrahamistic evil in the form the marūnmāda in Indonesia. It also served as a means of preserving the ārya-dharma in both India and in the east against the assault of the Aryan counter-religions promulgated by the naked-one and the ground-toucher. Indeed, in India the powerful force of the itihāsa-s was realized by successors of both these heterodox promulgators, who either attacked the itihāsa-s or tried to have people not attend their exposition.

The remainder of this note we shall look at the Rāmāyaṇa via numbers, which was part of my self-discovery of its key religious facet. Most importantly, it reveals something about the deep layers of the ārya-dharma and its evolution over time. Before we get started, a few caveats should be stated upfront: The texts I am using are the so-called “critical editions” of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata for the first para-Rāmāyaṇa, the Rāmopākhyana of Mārkaṇḍeya. These critical editions have their faults but are available in electronic form and are thus amenable to semi-automatic text analysis by regular expression searches. Almost all of these analysis were performed by means of such. The Heidelberg system has a very sophisticated text-parsing mechanism for several Sanskrit works but I did not use it except for one word search (inspired by an interlocutor on Twitter), which will be discussed as part of another note, as it was not quite compatible with my command line pipeline. So my system could have some deficiencies but manual checking of the results shows that it is largely correct and the magnitudes should be taken as genuinely representative. In general for this activity you need to have a good knowledge of the various names of the gods, characters and weapons used in the text. Although not a paṇḍita, being a brāhmaṇa, I believe that I have a level of command of this as a reasonable representative of my varṇa should, so the results might be taken as generally reliable. Finally, I am aware that in white indological circles some work in this direction has been done by the likes of Brockington. However, I did not consult his papers as I wanted to have my own unbiased experience of the data and conclusions from it. More generally, wherever there is tractable data I believe that an educated man should analyze it himself rather than wholly relying on hearsay of others.

First we shall look at the gross features of the Rāmāyaṇa (Figure 1):

ramayana_statsFigure 1

-The text has seven kāṇḍa-s, which are composed of multiple sarga-s, which in turn are composed of śloka-s. The Ayodhyā, Yuddha and Uttara have much more than median number of sarga-s and śloka-s.
-However, it is notable that except for Yuddha the other kāṇḍa-s have a nearly constant median śloka count per sarga (~24-27). This was the likely count maintained by Pracetas and his son Vālmīki the original composers of the Rāmāyaṇa for a typical kāṇḍa, probably aiming to be around 25 śloka-s. The Yuddha in contrast is longer both in terms of number of sarga-s and also the number of śloka-s per sarga. Clearly, this is a distinct composition suggesting that a different style was adopted on purpose for the military narratives typical of Indo-European epics. Unlike the median, the mean śloka count per sarga is higher with anomalies for both the Yuddha and Sundara. We shall take a closer look at this in Figure 2


Figure 2.

-Here we see the actual frequency distribution of the sarga length across the Rāmāyaṇa and per kāṇḍa in śloka-s: Here the differences are more apparent.
-The first three kāṇḍa-s are “tighter” in distribution with modal sarga length close to the median length. The Kiṣkindhā shows some divergence in the form of a fat tail with several sarga-s in of great length (40-70 śloka-s).
-The Sundara is most unusual in having a bimodal distribution with short sarga-s peaking less than 20 in length and longer ones peaking around 35. This pattern suggests a deliberate compositional shift perhaps reflecting the peculiar nature of the Sundara as an avenue for display of poetic beauty.
-The Yuddha is clearly distinct with the general peak and median length being shifted to being between 30 and 40. There is also a sizable fraction of very long sarga-s above 40 going all the way to well over 80. This again emphasizes the distinctness of the battle narratives where the long recitations perhaps appealed to the war-like ancient ārya audience who might have been in similar battles in their own lives.
-Finally, Uttara shows a typical median distribution of sarga length with a major fraction of sarga-s distributed around this value. However, it is distinct in showing a bimodality with two peaks one with length between 10-20 śloka-s and another with length between 40-45 śloka-s. This suggests a certain composite character with the shorter sarga-s probably representing the several short narratives included in it and the long ones relating to battle-sequences comparable to the Yuddha.

Now coming to the core issue of religion we shall look at the frequency of occurrence of the gods in the Rāmāyaṇa (Figure 3)

deva_ramayanaFigure 3

-It is apparent that Indra is literally the leader of the gods. He occurs nearly twice as frequently as the next contender Prajāpati or Brahmā. He is the standard for all comparisons and the hero of the Rāmāyaṇa is frequently likened to him. Indeed, there is a the tacit understanding that Indra used his māyā to take the form of a man in order to slay Rāvaṇa. This is suggested by Mandodarī’s lament upon her husband’s death:

atha vā rāma-rūpeṇa vāsavaḥ svayam āgataḥ |
māyāṃ tava vināśāya vidhāyāpratitarkitām || R 6.99.10

Or indeed Indra himself appeared in the form of Rāma,
for ruining and slaying you using impenetrable illusion.

Thus, it is hinted that Indra, who right in the Ṛgveda is famous for his māyā, uses it to kill the rakṣas.

Now again, though the core kāṇḍa narrative itself mentions Rāma taking the weapons of Viṣṇu from Agastya, in the preamble it is mentioned that they were the weapons of Indra himself.

agastyavacanāc caiva jagrāhaindraṃ śarāsanam |
khaḍgaṃ ca paramaprītas tūṇī cākṣaya-sāyakau || R 1.1.34c

At Agastya’s words Rāma verily took up Indra’s bow,
sword and the excellent inexhaustible quiver.

Of course the grand finale of the Yuddhakāṇḍa has Rāma ride the chariot of Indra steered by Mātali himself and using Indra-s weapons:

sahasrākṣeṇa kākutstha ratho ‘yaṃ vijayāya te |
dattas tava mahāsattva śrīmāñ śatrunibarhaṇaḥ ||

O descendant of Kakutstha, the slayer of foes, one of great strength and opulence, the thousand-eyed Indra has given for your victory this chariot.

idam aindraṃ mahaccāpaṃ kavacaṃ cāgni-saṃnibham |
śarāś cādityasaṃkāśāḥ śaktiś ca vimalā śitāḥ ||R 6.90.9-6.90.10

[He has also given] this great bow of Indra and his armor which glow like fire,
as also these arrows blazing like the sun and this bright sharp spear.

Finally, to slay Rāvaṇa he is said to use the missile made by Brahmā. But even here it is a mighty missile made by Brahmā in the manner of Tvaṣṭṛ in the Veda for Indra to conquer the three worlds:

brahmaṇā nirmitaṃ pūrvam indrārtham amitaujasā |
dattaṃ surapateḥ pūrvaṃ triloka-jayakāṅkṣiṇaḥ || R 6.97.5c

[The missile] was formerly made by the god Brahmā of immeasurable might for the sake of Indra. It was given to the lord of the gods [Indra] when he formerly sought to conquer the three worlds.

The missile itself has characteristics that are clearly suggestive of the vajra of Indra:
ratha-nāgāśva-vṛndānāṃ bhedanaṃ kṣiprakāriṇam |R 6.97.8c”
The swift acting [missile] was the smasher of [entire] troops of chariots, elephants and horses.
dvārāṇāṃ parighāṇāṃ ca girīṇām api bhedanam |R 6.97.9”
It was capable of smashing its way through through bar-reinforced doors and also mountains”

Tellingly it is described as “vajrasāram” (imbued with the essence of the vajra), and “yama-rūpam” (of the form of Yama). The latter epithet directly recalls the the first person statement of Indra in the 10th maṇḍala of the Ṛgveda where he says that he wields a missile that is like Yama himself.

The deployment of this missile by Rāma on Rāvaṇa is again thus described thus:

sa vajra iva durdharṣo vajrabāhu-visarjitaḥ |
kṛtānta iva cāvāryo nyapatad rāvaṇorasi ||

The missile, difficult to defend against like the vajra hurled by the arm of Indra, unstoppable like the causer of death (Yama), hit Rāvaṇa on his chest.

Thus struck Rāvaṇa fell:

gatāsur bhīmavegas tu nairṛtendro mahādyutiḥ |
papāta syandanād bhūmau vṛtro vajrahato yathā || R 6.97.021

His life-breath having departed the lord of the nairṛta-s of fierce speed and great luster fell from his battle-car to the ground like Vṛtra struck by the vajra.

Thus, to the ancient ārya audience this recitation would have immediately evoked the imagery of the Ṛgveda, where Indra’s heroic deeds in battle are praised in the ritual.
In conclusion, this makes it is clear that the original Rāmāyaṇa was composed in a setting where the aindra flavor of the ārya-dharma was the still the main expression of the religion. It is indeed likely that that it was tacitly implied that Rāma was a manifestation of Indra in human form to kill Rāvaṇa.

Now what about the rest of the Vaidika pantheon. Was it like the late Vedic age or the saṃhitā-s themselves?

-We see considerable prominence for Sūrya, Vāyu, Viṣṇu, Yama, Rudra in addition the Prajāpati/Brahmmā. However, the Aśvin-s, the Marut-s, the distinct āditya-s are not prominent. Agni has a moderate presence although primarily in the sense of poetic similes. This suggests that period of composition while still marked by Aindra dominance was one which was probably positionally distinct and temporally much later than the saṃhitā period. Of the prominent deities the indistinct solar deity suggests the rise of the new Indic solar cult with links to the older Āditya system but certainly very distinct in its manifestation with parallels to those seen in the Iranian world.

The prominence of Vāyu is related to his association with Indra in battle against the dānava-s, a feature which was prominent in both the Veda and the para-Vedic tradition. The latter is partly reflected in the Rāmāyaṇa and also relates to the importance of his son, Hanumat in the epic. We should mention here that in counting Vāyu we have almost entirely avoided including the incidental occurrence of his name as a epithet of Hanumat. A similar situation accounts in part of the prominence of Viṣṇu; however, his story has more which will be further discussed below. If Indra is identified with Rāma, and the role of Vāyu is taken by Hanumat, then it is rather obvious that the place of Viṣṇu is taken by Lakṣmaṇa. The Rāmāyaṇa makes this obvious in the statement:

vikramiṣyati rakṣaḥsu bhartā te saha-lakṣmaṇaḥ|
yathā śatruṣu śatrughno viṣṇunā saha vāsavaḥ || 6.024.029c

Your husband [Rāma] with invade the rakṣas with his brother Lakṣmaṇa even as the foe-killing Indra against his foes along with Viṣṇu.

sa dadarśa tato rāmaṃ tiṣṭhantam aparājitam |
lakṣmaṇena saha bhrātrā viṣṇunā vāsavaṃ yathā || R 6.87.9

He then saw the undefeated Rāma standing with his brother Lakṣmaṇa like Indra with Viṣṇu.

Like in the Veda the most frequently referred act of Viṣṇu are three world-conquering strides suggesting that this old motif was still of great importance in the age of the Rāmāyaṇa rather than later elements like his incarnations or battles with certain demons. His weapon, the cakra is frequently mentioned, unlike in the Veda, where other gods are described as wielding it but not Viṣṇu. This suggests that the Rāmāyaṇa marks a stage after the saṃhitā period where the cakra became established as the favored weapon of Viṣṇu. However, it does preserve the memory of Indra’s cakra mentioned in the śruti in R 1.26.5. Notably, Viṣṇu is mentioned as killing the demon Naraka in a conflict which was perhaps coupled with Indra’s battle with Śambara:
śambaro devarājena narako viṣṇunā yathā | R 6.57.7

Thus is appears possible that this exploit of Viṣṇu was transferred to his avatāra Kṛṣṇa in a later retelling of the legend. Indeed, the whole Kārṣṇī retelling has Viṣṇu only thinly veiled by the Yadu hero.

-Of the other gods, Garuḍa and Kubera despite having a presence in the Veda are not prominent there beyond specific rituals. Nevertheless, even there, there is an under-current that they had a role of some note in household rituals. Their importance clearly comes out in the Rāmāyaṇa. In particular it is clear that the whole epic has a frame that tries to highlight the might of Rāvaṇa as the expense of Kubera, implying that he was an important deity of the time. He is named as one of the great regal gods along with kings Varuṇa and Yama and his greatness is repeatedly mentioned. This importance of Kubera, as we have seen before has a strong para-Rāmāyaṇa tradition too as laid out in the Rāmopākhyāna. Notably, in that relatively short text he is 3rd most frequently mentioned deity (Figure 4) suggesting that his importance was visible throughout the whole early phase of the Rāmāyaṇa tradition.

deva_ramopakhyanaFigure 4

His importance is also implied by his airplane the Puṣpaka playing a notable role in the epic. His son Nalakūbara is also seen as cursing Rāvaṇa resulting in the protection of Sitā’s chastity upon her abduction. Kubera is also described as providing a secret missile to Lakṣmaṇa in his dream that allowed him to counter the Yama weapon of Meghanāda in their final encounter.

lakṣmaṇo ‘py ādade bāṇam anyaṃ bhīma-parākramaḥ |
kubereṇa svayaṃ svapne yad dattam amitātmanā ||

Lakṣmaṇa of fierce valor also deployed another missile, which given [to him] by the incomparable Kubera himself in a dream.

When the two missiles collided a great explosion is said to have taken place with a fire breaking out as they neutralized each other – in a sense implying that Kubera is no less than the god of death in his might.

-Yama in the Ṛgveda is strictly associated with the context of the funerary and ancestor rituals. However, there is again the under-current in the other saṃhitā-s that he was an important deity in regular existence as the god of death. This role of his in the Rāmāyaṇa is rather prominent and both in terms of numbers and the way he is referred to as a great king suggests that he was an important god in the ārya-dharma of the time. The death-dealing rod of Yama and entering his abode are common similes.

-Prajāpati: This deity is hardly present in the core clan-specific works of Ṛgveda – he is mentioned only twice outside of maṇḍala-10. But in maṇḍala-10 he has already risen to being the supreme deity in certain sūkta-s. He is conceived as both the overlord deity as well as the protogonic “golden-egg”. Now this would suggest that he was a late-emerging deity, probably specifically in the Indic setting after the ārya-s had left their ancestral steppe regions. However, we do not think this is the case. Comparisons with protogonic deities in the Greek realm suggest that such a deity predated the Greco-Aryan split. Rather we posit that he was not a key protogonic deity of the normative Indo-European pantheonic system but was the focus of one of several Indo-European cults outside the standard polytheism. Some deities who were part of the standard polytheism were also foci of such extra-normative cults but others like Prajāpati were solely cultic to start with. In both India and Greece the proponents of such protogonic deities started acquiring great prestige and religious centrality. In India this is reflected in the late Ṛgveda of the maṇḍala-10 and the brāhmaṇa-s where we witness the meteoric rise of Prajāpati. In the process of his rise he began to eat into the dominance of Indra, the head deity of the standard IE model.

In the itihāsa-s his ectype Brahman is likewise prominent as the head of the pantheon, though he is already beginning to face competition from the radiations from the cultic foci around Skanda, Rudra and Viṣṇu. What we see in the Rāmāyaṇa is that he is without any close competitor the second most frequently mentioned deity (Figure 3). His prominence in this itihāsa seems to be similar to what we see in the brāhmaṇa-s: As a deity at the head of the pantheon Brahman shares the position with Indra, but his prominence is clearly eating into that of Indra. This suggests two possible scenarios: 1) He was already a prominent figure from the very beginning of the Rāmāyaṇa tradition and his “power-sharing” with Indra is reflective of the parallel scenario in the brāhmaṇa-s were he had already risen to the highest rank. Thus this would imply that both aindra and prājāpatya memes were already active as the epic was being composed. 2) The Rāmāyaṇa as proposed above was primarily an aindra epic and Brahman secondarily encroached on Indra’s share in an independent replay of what happened in the brāhmaṇa-s.

On historical grounds we favor the second scenario. A comparison of the nāstika productions of the ground-toucher and the naked-one’s cults clearly indicate that at their time the prājāpatya strand of the religion was primarily among brāhmaṇa “intellectuals”. This intellectual link continued to later times when we see mathematical and scientific authors like Āryabhaṭa and Brahmagupta invoke Brahman as their deity (contrast with older scientific tradition in the Caraka-saṃhitā where Indra is dominant). The rest of the people in large part seem to have still followed the aindra religion until pretty late in Indian history with some competition from the other cultic foci mentioned above. This is indicated by the fact that the two nāstika teachers accepted this aindra mainstream as their background and mention the prājāpatya tradition primarily in the context of their brāhmaṇa rivals. Notably, in the first of the many Rāmāyaṇa of the jaina-s, the Paumacariyaṃ, Vimalasūri explicit calls out the stupidity of the āstika versions on grounds of their denigration of the great god Indra. This historical background would imply that the prājāpatya-s first rose as a dominant force inside the Vedic intellectual circles. The mark of this rise was first seen in the brāhmaṇa texts. Then as the prājāpatya-s “conquered” the intellectual landscape they extended their influence to more “secular” intellectual activities such as the itihāsa-s and mathematics/science. This was when Brahman came to prominence in the Rāmāyaṇa tradition. However, by the time the purāṇa-s started taking shape in their extant form, the other cultic sectarian foci had radiated enough to catch up and supersede Brahman. Of the old cultic foci, Skanda after an initial rise faded away. In contrast, Viṣṇu and Rudra came up to Brahman and soon overtook him to the point that despite the three of them being acknowledge as a trinity Brahman sunk to the “junior” position of the trinity. In part the tale of him having no temples might reflect the inability of the intellectual-centered Prājāpatya system to capitalize on the rising āgama-dharma, despite an early attempt hinted by the Atharvaveda pariśiṣṭa-s.

So what do the numbers from the text tell us? First looking at the Rāmopākhyāna we find that Brahman/Prajāpati has gone ahead of Indra (Figure 4). It was created by an author(s) who were clearly Prājāpatya and did not see any need to emphasize or maintain the position of Indra beyond what was absolutely unavoidable. What this tells us is that the Rāmāyaṇa tradition passed through a distinct phase after its original composition where Prajāpati had become important in it and it was in this phase that the fork leading to the Rāmopākhyāna was created. More tellingly, this proposal is supported when we look at the by kāṇḍa counts of key deities (Figure 5: shown as percentage of verses featuring particular deva). Here we see that Brahman has a peculiar distribution that is distinct from that of Indra and Vāyu. While the latter two show clear kāṇḍa-specific differences, they are more uniformly distributed across the kāṇḍa-s. In contrast the occurrences of Brahman show a significantly higher occurrence in the Bāla and Uttara kāṇḍa-s while being greatly under-represented in the rest. We know that both these kāṇḍa-s were clearly subject to reshaping after the core epic was composed because they try to explain things which were not clear elsewhere in the epic (e.g. the origin of the heroes and villains of the text). This together with the above observation clinches the case for the second of the above proposals: after the original epic in an aindra form was composed the Prājāpatya-s refashioned it by primarily redacting the first and last kāṇḍa-s.

deva_kandaFigure 5

-Viṣṇu again: Two other major deities show a similar of kāṇḍa-wise pattern of distribution as Brahman: Viṣṇu and Rudra. Importantly, they are minor in their presence in the Rāmopākhyana (Figure 4). This suggests that the vaiṣṇava and śaiva redaction occurred later than the forking of the Rāmopākhyāna and acted in manner very similar to the prājāpatya action before them. That they were also directly in conflict with each other is suggested by the fight between Rudra and Viṣṇu which is inserted into the bāla-kāṇḍa. Another key point is that the vaiṣṇava material show no strong hints of the avatāra doctrine nor the early pāṅcarātrika tradition which is strong in the Mahābhārata. This suggests that the vaiṣṇava redaction comes from an early stream of the sect that underwent further evolution by time of the redaction of the Bhārata.

-Rudra: In the Rāmāyaṇa has his characteristic features of being dark-throated, three-eyed, with braided locks (Kapardin), having a bull as his banner/vehicle, holding a great bow, having Umā for this wife and displaying great ferocity. His destruction of the Tripura-s is frequently mentioned. Additionally, his slaying of Andhaka gets multiple references. These references frequently come in kāṇḍa-s 2-6 suggesting that they are indeed the ancient similes involving the deeds of Rudra. E.g.

sa papāta kharo bhūmau dahyamānaḥ śarāgninā |
rudreṇaiva vinirdagdhaḥ śvetāraṇye yathāndhakaḥ || R 3.29.27

He, Khara, fell to the ground being burnt by the fire of the missile even as Andhaka [fell] burnt down by Rudra in the White Forest.

Most of these features have direct or indirect reference in the Veda, often going back to the oldest layers. However, we do not hear of his exploits made prominent in the purāṇa-s like the killing of Jalandhara or Śaṅkhacūda. Thus Rudra in the Rāmāyaṇa has not changed in any notable way from his Vedic form.

-Finally one may note that in this Kāṇḍa-wise distribution Kubera is mostly uniform across kāṇḍa except for the uttara – paralleling Vāyu to an extent. This we believe suggests his ancient and intrinsic importance to the text with the Uttara merely serving as a receptacle for lore relating to him and Vāyu.

In conclusion, we can say with some confidence that the great Rāmāyaṇa of sage Vālmīki was originally an epic encapsulating the popular register of the Indo-European religion as manifest among the Indians – the ārya-dharma. Its heroes were set in the mold of the great deities Indra (Rāma and Vālin), Vāyu (Hanumat), Viṣṇu (Lakṣmaṇa), Kubera (perhaps some of the Kuberian element transferred to Vibhīṣaṇa), the opaque popular Āditya (Sugrīva), with simile-linkages to Rudra and the Maruts (encompassed in Hanumat). Despite the later sectarian redactions starting from the prājāpatya-s casting it in different light, it retained this ancient religious spirit of the ārya-dharma. It was this that erupted forth like the great ape Hanumat to animate the Hindus in their life and death struggle against the unadulterated evil of Mohammedanism when they seemed all but lost. That is why a memorial to the epic should be built at Ayodhyā after destruction of all marūnmatta elements in the holy city.

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