Traces of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in Javanese and Malay Literature

Patrick Vanden Berghe

No other epic tales have had such a tremendous impact and influence on cultures, other than the one they originate from, than the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Be it cultural, political, or philosophical, both tales have inspired many people outside India. Taken along economical and cultural routes they have always been welcomed, interpreted, integrated, and become part of already existing systems and paradigms. But in this process of acculturation both tales have resisted singularity. Thousands of handwritten manuscripts of Valmiki’s text survive until today, but no two are identical. Ramayana and Mahabharata can definitely be considered as ‘open’ texts, having triggered alterations, additions, and different interpretations during the centuries after their composition.

No other cultures have taken in so much from the Ramayana – and to a lesser extent the Mahabharata – than the (Old-)Javanese and Malay probably. From monuments and statues to dance and literature, without the influence of both epics they would not be what they are today. Local renderings of these two epics in Malay and Javanese have existed since the 9th century, starting with the composing of the OJ Ramayana, which was primarily based on the Bhaṭṭikāvya (a 7th century Sanskrit poem).

In 2014, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore hosted a conference on the role of these two epics in the Javanese and Malay literatures. The initiative for this event was taken by Ding Choo Ming. The papers presented at this conference have been collected in the book under review – Traces of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in Javanese and Malay Literature. The chapters in this volume explore the many ways that the Ramayana and Mahabharata have survived and have shaped more recent Javanese and Malay culture. Having come ashore in Southeast Asia in the first centuries CE, these two epics found expression in various forms: literature, dance and theatre, painting, etc. The epics remained after the Indian culture, from which they stemmed, collapsed and disappeared. The chapters in this publication show what happened during transmission, adaptation, and borrowing; they do not limit themselves to the literary traditions, as Helen Creese’s contribution is an excursion into the field of Balinese pictorial art.

Professor and eminent scholar on Javanese literature Stuart Robson is indisputably the right person to kick off the book with an overall view of  the history of Rama and Sita, from the OJ Ramayana up to more recent renderings dating from the 17th and 18th century. Robson combines this with looking at periods in which new copies of the original story were made and concludes tentatively that these periods coincide with key moments in Javanese literary activity. One may regret that this book does not include an identical chapter concerning the history of Javanese texts referring to the Mahabharata.

Influence of both epics stretches into our own days, as can still be seen in renderings of wayang theatre. Less studied is the influence on popular literature. Harry Aveling takes as an example the 1987 short story Nostalgia by Indonesian writer Danarto. Unintentionally the publication of the book Traces of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in Javanese and Malay Literature came weeks before Danarto’s passing away in April 2018. Aveling was not unfamiliar with Danarto’s work, since he was the translator of amongst others Danarto’s collection of short stories Abracadabra. In his contribution Aveling takes as his subject the well-known episode of ‘Abimanyu’s death’ from the Mahabharata, whose treatment he follows in four different periods in four different forms of literature. These four stories (the original story, a Javanese version of 1157, an undated Malay version, and the aforementioned story by Danarto) propagate different ideas and ideals.

Many scholars have paid attention to the mechanisms of lending and borrowing between Javanese and Malay literature. In their view, Malayan poets and scribes included elements with explicit Javanese associations in their writings in a process that is seen as ‘received’. Bernard Arps, in the fourth chapter, tries to show that this borrowing was an active deed – a conscious use of themes and ideas to pass on a message. This process did not only express admiration, it also left room for dealing with aspects considered problematic for a Muslim society. Arps proposes the term ‘Javanaiserie’ for this way of integrating elements from the ‘other’ Javanese culture into the ‘own’ Malay culture.

This influence of Javanese story lines can also be seen in the contribution by Gijs Koster where he concentrates on a Malay hikayat (epic) of a Panji romance. By retelling the story (to which a large part of the chapter is devoted) the contributor tries to stress the intertextuality and the use of ‘mirror-texts’ (the primary story contains an embedded story that seems to mirror the first text). Another element at play here is the imaginative amplification in which the author stresses the fictionality of a work. In such a way the author could send out messages without being at harm.

The last two chapters take the reader to the field of pictorial art. Creese studies one particular section in the 12th-century Baratayuda (the Javanese rendering of the battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas), the Salyawadha (the death of Salya). She takes us on a trip through various representations of the Salyawadha in Balinese pictorial art. Edwin Wieringa finally brings to light three manuscripts of the Astabrata (the eight rules of life) from the OJ Ramayana. The title refers to the eight Hindu deities who are portrayed in a wayang style in the manuscripts. He is interested in the relationship between the pictorial language (the puppet like figure) and the language of the written text.

This volume offers some interesting and new ideas and invites the interested reader to study the Indian epics and their Javanese and Malay counterparts again or in more detail.