epic translation

Why the Uttara Kanda changes the way the Ramayana should be read

The final book of the Ramayana shifts the focus from free will to predestination.

On the one hand, we could say that nothing much happens in the Uttara Kanda, that it exists only to reinforce the idea of Rama-as-Vishnu. The overall atmosphere of the kanda is calm and serene. Secure in his kingdom, Rama listens to the stories that Agastya tells him, mainly stories about Ravana’s ancestors and the rakshasa clan to which he belongs.

On the other hand, we could say that everything that is of any lasting significance happens in the Uttara Kanda: Rama banishes his beloved Sita because he is persuaded by town gossip that a good man would not take back a wife who had lived in the house of another man; Rama kills Shambuka, a low-caste man practising austerities that are above his station, in order to secure the health and well-being of the brahmins in his kingdom; Rama is reunited with his sons, whom he now believes to be his legitimate heirs, at the sacrifice that he conducts, the same sacrifice at which he loses his wife forever; Rama watches over the voluntary death of his devoted brother Lakshmana who submits to the curse of the sage Durvasa.

The Uttara Kanda is the seventh and last book of what we call the Valmiki Ramayana.

The word Uttara has many meanings, among them, “after”, “epilogue”, “ultimate” and “answer”. This Uttara Kanda performs the functions of all those meanings: it comes after Rama’s adventures as an exiled prince and then as a reinstated king are over; it acts as an epilogue to the main story where loose ends are tied up and narrative closure is provided with Rama’s ascent to heaven; it is the ultimate moment in his long tale and in his theology; and it provides a series of complex answers to questions that the previous story suggests.

The most important aspect of the Uttara Kanda is that it provides answers – not simply to questions that had actually been raised, but also to questions that might have been imagined then and might be imagined even now.

The most obvious ways in which the Uttara Kanda provides answers is by telling and re-telling stories. In the Kishkindha Kanda, it is from Jambavan that we learn about Hanuman’s super-simian powers by hearing the story of his birth and all the boons he received when he was struck down by Indra’s thunderbolt. Hanuman also hears this story, perhaps for the first time, and he is immediately both empowered and inspired to leap over the ocean in search of Sita.

At that moment, a discerning reader might ask, how come Hanuman didn’t know he had these powers? But the larger story rushes onward, flying with Hanuman to the next narrative moment, and has no time to answer that question. The Uttara Kanda has, however, noted that lacuna, that dangling thread, and neatly weaves it in to the multiple closures that an epilogue can provide.

Agastya tells Rama the story of Hanuman’s birth because he has never heard it. And Agastya’s version adds the crucial episode in which young Hanuman, made mischievous by his many boons, starts to harass the sages as they perform their rituals. The sages curse him to forget his powers until he is reminded at the moment when he most needs them. The discerning reader is now satisfied, the narrative has corrected itself and the story can go further without embarrassment.

These corrective mechanisms demonstrate that the “text” knows itself.

But they also indicate that some parts of the text (and even perhaps of the story itself) came later. Scholars are more and more clear (with more and more evidence to support their argument) that the Bala and Uttara Kandas are later additions to what we call the Valmiki text.

Given the language and tone of these first and last books, they clearly come from a later linguistic and, more importantly, a later theological period when Vishnu has become a deity who has avataras, a deity who acts in the world for the benefit of human beings. This he does by “saving” dharma in various ways, usually by killing those who perpetuate adharma, for example, Ravana.

The Bala and Uttara Kandas are also the books in which it is explicitly stated that Rama is god, that Vishnu was persuaded by the other gods to take human form and kill Ravana. Rama’s story as god later becomes a central part of Vaishnava bhakti as versions of the Ramayana appear in different languages across the subcontinent and beyond.

(These) are also the only books of the Valmiki Ramayana where Valmiki himself appears, framing, as it were, the story that he is about to tell, a story that will eventually be presented to Rama by his estranged sons. Valmiki is in the opening verse of the Ramayana, but he is not in its last few pages.

He appears to exit the story after Sita enters the earth but in an unexpected Möbius strip moment, it’s entirely possible that he stays in the wings of the action and continues to narrate/describe the rest of Rama’s life as it happens. Valmiki’s presence in only the first and last books might also reinforce the idea that these were written later, bookends for a story that has suddenly changed its tone and purpose.

Apart from the Rama-as-god theme placing the Valmiki Ramayana in a wholly different universe of texts, the politics of the Uttara Kanda also seem to diverge from what we experience in the middle books. In the Uttara Kanda, Rama, who had taken Sita back after her captivity on Ravana’s island, is persuaded to send her away because of what people are saying. Narada convinces Rama to kill a low-caste man who is practising austerities. Lakshmana wilfully places himself in the way of a curse that will end his life and Rama does nothing to prevent the curse from being fulfilled.

There is a noticeable difference in the way the story now reacts to so-called transgressions (of dharma) by women and lower castes. Rama must act as a king at all times, whether it be towards his wife, his brother or his citizens.

Like all epilogues, or books that provide answers, the existence of the Uttara Kanda demands that we then read the text backwards, or rather, retrospectively.

From the stories that the Uttara Kanda tells, we learn why people did what they did, what they had done before and what their motives for their actions might have been. Because we are placed in a universe where boons, curses and past lives are all operational, we find also that our characters move further away from making free choices to their lives being determined by their past actions.

The way we see Rama and his story after reading the Uttara Kanda is substantially different from how we would see it if we had stopped reading the story at the end of the yuddha Kanda. Ravana, in particular, is dogged by a series of curses that affect his actions and make his death at the hands of Rama a certainty: Vedavati declares that a woman will be the cause of his death; Rambha ensures that he cannot touch a woman against her will; Nandi predicts that monkeys will be responsible for the death of his clan; Aranyana promises that an Ikshvaku king will be born for his destruction.

When a text employs such a multitude of causes for a single event, we see the narrative strategy of overdetermination at work. Leaving nothing to chance, the text and its creators make sure that Ravana will be felled by one of the many reasons that his backstory provides. We might want to ask why the Uttara Kanda is so anxious that Ravana’s actions and his death be so utterly overdetermined. And that we be reminded many times over that he is a rakshasa, and that he has the nasty temperament as well as all the predilections of that antagonistic category of being.

Could it be because the middle books of the Ramayana hint at Ravana’s nobility, his majesty? Or, do some parts of the main story stretch credulity, such as a powerful rakshasa king and his kingdom being defeated by a ragtag army of forest dwellers armed with trees and stones?

Or, does the Ramayana hint at Ravana’s genuine love for Sita? Or, are there other books (Puranas and the like) being composed at the time of the Uttara Kanda that have turned Ravana into a Shiva bhakta, respected and protected through hard-won boons by the god who is Vishnu’s sectarian rival?

In the overdetermined case of Ravana, we see that the Uttara Kanda attempts to answer all of these questions, some of which have only been alluded to by the story as it unfolds. None of these questions have actually been asked, inside or outside the text. We have moved from anticipating the discerning reader to cutting off the arguments of the suspicious reader, the sceptical reader.

And so we see that there are many agendas at work in the Uttara Kanda, which together make the entire story all the more subtle, ethically complex and therefore, fascinating. This powerful text provides an emphatic (if not satisfactory to all) conclusion to the story of king Rama as well as to the story of Rama-as-Vishnu.

As a king, Rama reverses his previous act of taking his wife back after she has been in the custody of another man because the queen and the king must be above reproach. Also as a king, Rama ensures that a strict hierarchy of caste behaviour prevails in his kingdom by killing Shambuka. Further, he makes sure that all unruly elements around his kingdom are subdued (for example, Lavana) by his brothers.

He conducts the sacrifice to establish the supremacy of the Ikshvakus in the region and, eventually, settles his nephews and sons in kingdoms of their own. Having ordered his temporal tasks, he completes his divine duties by ascending to heaven to rejoin his real essence as Vishnu. As a god acting in the world of men, he has restored dharma by killing Ravana, as an avatara should.

But the neat end that the Uttara Kanda offers has consequences, both social and political, for the way the entire text of Valmiki’s Ramayana is read and inhabits our culture. It also points to the enormous changes that occurred within Hinduism and its surrounding polity in the centuries between the time when the first and the last verses of the Valmiki Ramayana were composed. It is important that we receive and read this foundational text of religion and literature as a reflection of the historical moments through which it has passed.

Excerpted with permission from Uttara: The Book of Answers, translated by Arshia Sattar, Penguin Books.

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