Gods, princes and demons

Like Hinduism itself, the Ramayana epic is open to many interpretations. Herein lies its true beauty

Walking through a temple, you might form the impression that Hindus take their idols lightly. Here, a god is stealing the clothes of damsels frolicking in a lake; there, another god encourages his brother to cut off the nose and ears of an admirer. On many walls of great temples, minor gods and goddesses engage in sexual acts that would never be shown on television before the watershed.

Hindu gods are imperfect, and act in morally ambiguous ways, using trickery, treachery and subterfuge. They also show nobility, courage and valour. In an uncertain universe, Rama, for many Hindus, is maryada purushottam - the ideal human being who sacrifices his interests for others. His is the kind of life towards which lesser mortals should aspire; his heroism is based not simply upon battlecraft, but upon his ability to place the interests of others above his own.

The Sanskrit epic Ramayana dates back at least 2,000 years. Divided into seven cantos, it has some 24,000 verses. The story runs roughly thus: Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, is about to be crowned king when Kaikeyi, one of the wives of his father, Dasaratha, demands that her son Bharata be crowned instead. Rama is forced into exile with his wife Sita and brother Laksmana. In the forest, Ravana, the king of Lanka, who has coveted Sita, abducts her. Rama assembles an army of monkeys and they invade Lanka, killing Ravana and rescuing Sita. She proves her chastity through a trial by fire. After 14 years, Rama finally rules Ayodhya, leading to a golden age.

This story has countless variations in India and beyond. The walls of Bangkok's Temple of the Emerald Buddha carry images from Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana; Indonesia has Kakawin Ramayana, and in Java wayang kulit artists tell the story through shadow puppetry. Stunning dances such as kecak (fire and trance) keep the story alive in Bali. The Malays have Hikayat Seri Rama, the Laos have Phra Lak Phra Lam and the Khmers have Ramakerti. Thai kings call themselves Rama (the current king, Bhumibol, is Rama IX). In India, Rama is everywhere: people from a sect called the Ramnamis tattoo his name all over their bodies. Mohandas Gandhi's last gasp, as an assassin shot him 60 years ago, was, "Hey Ram." His name has also been invoked to justify heinous acts, such as the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindu extremists in December 1992.

The Rama that we encounter in the British Library's impressive exhibition "Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's Great Epic" is the kinder, gentler incarnation. The display comprises more than a hundred manuscripts from the 17th century, from the courts of Jagat Singh and Raj Singh, rulers of the House of Mewar. The manuscripts represent a monumental effort over seven volumes. Much of it is the work of the court artist Sahib Din, who combined attention to detail, a hallmark of Rajput miniatures, with the scale and grandeur of the Mughal School.

These remarkable manuscripts, reverential in tone, are accompanied by an innovative exhib ition that tells the story of the Ramayana's spread beyond India, and the story's contemporary significance. There will be talks by experts such as Vidya Dehejia, wayang kulit workshops and Indonesian gamelan performances. We see that, while the orthodox Ramayana narrative ends with the triumphant return to Ayodhya, there are more complex versions. In one that is ascribed to the author Valmiki, unpopular with Hindu nationalists, the story turns adverse: a washerman turns away his straying wife, saying that unlike Rama, he won't accept a woman who has lived with someone else. Rama hears of it and banishes the pregnant Sita in order to maintain his reputation among the ruled. Some years later, they meet, and once her sons are reunited with their father, she chooses to be swallowed by her mother, earth.

This is the version that inspired Sita Sings the Blues, a lively animation by the American film-maker Nina Paley that will be shown as part of the British Library exhibition. Paley draws parallels between Sita's story and her own (she became fascinated by Sita after breaking up with her husband). Sita Sings the Blues won a special mention at this year's Berlin Film Festival, and will be shown here in July. The director describes her heroine as "not docile; she is a lively, assertive, emotional woman". Sita emerges from her film as a sensuous woman who ultimately secures a delightful victory.

Feminist critics have long had problems with the Ramayana. As Gauri Parimoo Krishnan, senior curator at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, has observed: "Valmiki's Rama yana has been wrongly ascribed canonical status, giving rise to a sort of patriarchal, literate, pan-Indian elitism, which in recent times has been scorned." Among the scorners are the Indian feminist writers Nabaneeta Dev Sen and Madhu Kishwar, both of whom have written powerful critiques of the masculine interpretation of India's great epic. In her latest book on Indian myths, the Bangalore-based scholar Arshia Sattar explores these dilemmas further.

Clearly, Rama's story is no longer a literary or spiritual project in India; it is political. As if to demonstrate that, in late February, Hindu acti vists stormed into the history department of the University of Delhi to protest over the assignment of an essay they considered blasphemous. The essay, "Three Hundred Ramayanas", celebrated the sheer variety of versions of the Ramayana. Embedded in the many retellings of the tale are stories that reflect the social aspirations and ideological concerns of its many different interpret ers through the generations.

In a Kannada version, Sita is Ravana's daughter. In certain tribal renderings, Sita is unfaithful to Rama. Elsewhere, Ravana occasionally acts in a humane way. In the Malay version, Laksmana is the brave brother, Rama is weak, occasionally beating his wife, and Ravana is a descendant of Adam. In some Thai versions, Rama is Buddha and Ravana is his cousin.

These variations interfere with the Hindu nationalist project, which casts Rama as a strong, virile lord, a warrior-king. This is an image now reinforced by Virgin Comics in India, which has produced swashbuckling adventure strips in clud ing Ramayan 3392AD. The exhibition will also show some of the 1980s TV serial Ramayan, which enthralled millions of Indians. Academics have argued that the serial partly aided the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to political prominence in the 1990s. Other academics have identified, in Rama's portrayal as a militaristic hero, an element of insecurity in the Indian psyche. The American Martha Nussbaum has written: "For centuries, some Hindu males think, they were subordinated by a sequence of conquerors . . . So a repudiation of the sensuous and the cultivation of the masculine came to be seen as the best way out."

Elevating a masculine Rama over other gods makes Hinduism seem monotheistic, however, a point the late Morarji Desai, a former prime minister, astutely noted in the late 1980s, when the BJP embarked on the campaign to reclaim the site of the Babri Mosque: "They are creating a cult of Rama. They are converting Hinduism into Islam - a religion with one book, one place of worship and one God. That is not Hinduism."

On the contrary, Hinduism's essence is unity in diversity, and this is a point the British Library's exhibition warmly celebrates.

"The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's Great Epic" is at the British Library, London NW1, until 14 September. Details: http://www.bl.uk/

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?