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Hindu Stories: The Ramayana in Southeast Asia

A Battle scene from a manuscript of the Ramayana (Story of Rama), approx. 1790. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Colors on paper. Gift of Margaret Polak, 1992.95.

A Battle scene from a manuscript of the Ramayana (Story of Rama), approx. 1790. India; Himachal Pradesh state, former kingdom of Guler. Colors on paper. Gift of Margaret Polak, 1992.95.

Hindu Stories and Bali
Hinduism has a number of holy texts or scriptures. The best known are two epic poems, the Ramayana (Story of Rama) and the Mahabharata (The Great Chronicle of the Bharata Dynasty).

Ramayana actually means “Rama’s journey.” The entire epic was originally in Sanskrit. The poet Valmiki, in what is still considered to be the classic version of this great story, first wrote it down 2000 years ago. Like all epics, the Story of Rama was orally transmitted, weaving together over time a bit of history with various strands of myth and legends.

How did the Story of Rama reach Southeast Asia? The religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, and, later, Islam, with their related literatures, were carried to Southeast Asia by merchants and pilgrims. As the story became embedded into the life and culture of Southeast Asia peoples, they created their own versions that reflected their own social aspirations and ideological concerns. As a result, there are literally hundreds of versions of the story of Rama in India alone, not to mention versions in Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and even Japan. Each version takes a different approach to embroidering the basic narrative and characters. For example:

  • In India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia, royalty associated themselves with Rama and looked on him as ideal, whereas in South Asia, Sri Lanka may be the Lanka of the epic and, perhaps for that reason, demons become more noble and heroic.
  • In Bali, Rama is considered an important person. In India, he is worshipped as an actual god.

The Influences of the Ramayana
Like most great stories, the Story of Rama combines adventure, excitement, and moral lessons with touches of comic relief and strange occurrences based on magic and divination. But the story of Rama is more than just a great story—over the centuries the Story of Rama became comparable to other religious texts: a source of moral lessons and spiritual inspiration. A belief developed that whoever read and repeated the story of Rama would receive many spiritual blessings. Its main character Rama took on divine nature and became revered as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Today the worship of Rama is one of the most popular and widespread in India. Indeed, Rama’s very name in Hindi, Ram, has become the word for God.

By the sixteenth century, the celebrated Indian poet and composer Tulisidas could say with confidence: “Rama is infinite, infinite are his virtues and immeasurable the dimensions of his story.” Immeasurable the dimensions of Rama’s story—that statement is true in many ways. In fact, the story of Rama has transcended the boundaries of India to become a part, sometimes a crucial one, of cultures and peoples throughout most of Asia.