The dissemination of the epic occurred at the same time as the eastward spread of Hinduism and Buddhism.
As people of India revisit the whole sequence of events of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement amidst the bhoomi pujan for building the Ram temple at Ayodhya, I deem it as an opportune moment to talk about Ram and Ramayana in China, an often-forgotten episode in the Indic civilisational construct, owing to various reasons including knowledge of Chinese as a barrier. Amidst the lingering border standoff, India and China may also reflect on as to the state of their frontiers at the time Ram made inroads in folk traditions of various nationalities of present day China. This article is based on my forthcoming translated book on India-China literary exchanges.
History of Oriental Literature compiled by Professor Yu Longyu and Meng Zhaoyi, while introducing Mahabharata and Ramayana, posits that the epics are “eternal fountains of the Indian literary creation”, and “not only are valuable collections of the great literature of the Indian people, but are also priceless treasures of the world”. These are not just literary works, but at the same time are religious, political and ethical texts, and have had an invariable and immeasurable impact on the thought, philosophy, culture, art, customs, social life of the Indian people. When and how did China get to know about them? What was the reception and in what shape and form the Indian epics exist in China? Here, I will delve into the question of Ramayana alone.
The dissemination of the epic occurred at the same time as the eastward spread of Hinduism and Buddhism. Three Jataka stories—King Dasharatha, Monkey King, and Shambuka—are the earliest and most conclusive texts of dissemination of the Ramayana to China. All narrate Ramayana, but in a Buddhist setting; tweaking with the characters, while time and place have certain digressions. The first story is exactly the same except for the 14-year exile of Ram. The second story has more variations such as Ram is Bodhisattva, who upon losing his kingdom to his evil uncle, retreated to the forests with his queen; Ravan is replaced by a sea dragon who abducts the queen; Sugrib is depicted as a doleful monkey who was also robbed of his kingdom by his uncle; Ashok Vatika is replaced by the dragon’s cave, etc. The translation goes back to the 3rd, 5th and 6th centuries. One of the tallest Indologists of China, Professor Ji Xianlin, has done an in-depth study on the digressions from original Ramayana in Buddhist translations.
The earliest Chinese scholar, who carried out the most systematic exposition of the relation between the Chinese translation of Buddhist texts and the Ramayana, is Jin Kemu. According to him, Collection of Writings About the Six Paramitas, Volume 5, translated during the Three Kingdoms (Wu state, 3rd century AD) tells the story of the Monkey King; the same text contains another story titled the Shambuka Jataka, which talks about the antecedent reason for Ram’s father punishing his son (who killed Shambuka), however it does not reveal the result, and the name of the kingdom is not correct either; during the Liang and Chen dynasties (6th century AD), the Biography of Vasubandhu, translated to Chinese by an Indian monk Paramartha, refers to how a person mistakenly recited the Legend of Ram instead of the sutra. Buddhacarita translated during the Northern Liang (5th century), and Mahavibhasa Sutra (volume 46) translated by Xuanzang during the Tang Dynasty (7th century) also have references to Ramayana. Xuanzang’s The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions also mentions stories from Ramayana in the Kingdom of Peshawar and Kingdom of Pushkarvati sections. The Lankavatara Sutra also deals with Ram and his enemies. These translations were prevalent mostly among various polities of the present-day Xinjiang and highly defragmented polities ruled by the Han Chinese—the route obviously was the Central Asian route.
As regards the dissemination of the epics to Southeast Asian countries, Chinese sources often refer to a 6th century AD stone tablet found in Cambodia that mentions of the Mahabharata. After 9th century AD, countries like Thailand, Myanmar, Java, Malay etc., had already begun translating the Ramayana in their native languages, one after the other. From Thailand and Myanmar, it quickly reached south and southwest China. It could have also travelled through the Assam-Burma-Yunnan route, which was one of the most important routes between India and China, even older than the Central Asian route. The Dai nationality of China, perhaps, was the first to assimilate Ramayana (Lang ka sip ho and Ta Lamma versions in Dai) in its folk tradition with almost a similar line of characters.
In the words of Ji Xianlin, “The 22 sections of the Lang ka sip ho, can be divided by contents into five sections. The main plot of the first four parts is basically similar; the fifth part narrates how Tsau Lamma (Dashratha) chose a queen for his son and fought with Mangkosol. Finally, the two polities forge an alliance and Tsau Lamma gave up the throne for his son Loma (Ram). This episode is mostly a creation of the Dai with stark variation. For example, in the Lang ka sip ho, Nangsida (Sita) is said to be the daughter of Dasaratha, and is thrown into a river by him. Tsau Lamma left home secretly, not because of court intrigues and exile. In the Xishuangbanna version of the Lang ka sip ho, the aunt of Ravana, not Mareech changes into a golden deer to lure Tsau Lamma. Another digression is that the mother of the ten-headed king was a widow. After harming the Nangsida, the ten-headed king put her and his wife together on a raft and let it drift away in the ocean. The waves turned the raft over and pushed it to the shore; the wife came ashore and cursed the ten-headed king every day. Later the wife married a monkey and gave birth to two sons, one of whom was Anuman, who avenged his mother by killing her enemies. Names of the places have been localized, that is to say, names from Yunnan. For example, Anuman threw the Fairy Grass Mountain from heaven into the Dai region of Yunnan. The war between Tsau Lamma and Mangkosol is also fought in the Dai region of Yunnan.”
The Mongol version is mostly similar to the Tibetan version as it was disseminated from Tibet. The Khotanese version of present day Xinjiang, presents Ravana begging for amnesty and agreeing to be Ram’s subject. When Ramayana was disseminated to China, different nationalities like the Han, Dai, Tibetan, Mongol etc., made use of it to serve their different political needs. The Hans used it to propagate Buddhism, and often emphasised on morality, loyalty and filial piety. The Dai used it to praise the feudal lord system and to sing praises of Buddhism. Tibetans used the Golden Age of Rama to praise local governors.
A direct translation of the two epics into Chinese is something that happened only in recent years. Mi Wenkai’s translation is perhaps the first when he rendered the epics in prose in 1950. In 1962, Sun Yong also translated both the epics, however, these were translated from English versions. Ji Xianlin became the first Chinese scholar to translate Ramayana from Sanskrit into Chinese during the height of the Cultural Revolution, risking his life. It took him almost a decade to render this gargantuan epic with 200,000 odes and nearly 90,000 lines in 8 volumes published in 1984. Since then, many Chinese scholars have ventured into Ramayana studies. Recognising Professor Ji’s contribution to Indology, Government of India, awarded him Padma Bhushan in 2008.
Since Buddhism and Hinduism are born of the same roots, therefore, their influence on each other is inevitable. No wonder, contents related to the two epics, especially the Ramayana have been discovered in numerous Chinese translations of Buddhist texts.
B.R. Deepak PhD, is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.