Vaishnavism in Bengal is generally considered to be synonymous with the Gaudiya Vaishnava sampradaya where the focus is on Sri Krishna and Radha. However, while this is the dominant tradition of worship, the worship of Sri Rama and presence of the Ramayana tradition in literature, sculpture, folk cultural arts, sacred sites and in the cultural life of Bengal is present both within the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition and also in its own right, sometimes also as a part of the Ramanandi tradition which also had and has a presence in Bengal. In fact, the worship of Sri Rama pre-dates the Sri-Chaitanya-led Gaudiya Vaishnavism and forms an important strand in the regional cultural complex.
The Sri Rama tradition in Bengal dates back to the ancient and early medieval period with evidences such as sculptures and other literary references found in some Puranas and Upapuranas, believed to be composed in the eastern region during this time. However, overtime it became overshadowed by the overwhelming emphasis placed on Sri Krishna and the Srimad Bhagavatam in the Gaudiya Vaishnava movement, and it continued as a sub-strand within this tradition. From about 1700 to 1900 we see a resurgence of Sri Rama worship independent of the Gaudiya Vaishnava fold spearheaded by Ramanandi sants from northern India who built centres and temples in various parts of Bengal at this time. However, not much academic literature is available on the subject which has scope for a comprehensive study. Bani Das has brought out a book dealing with some of the pertinent features of the Krittivas and other Ramayanas in Bengal entitled ‘Bangla Sahitye o Bangalir Jatiya Jibone Ramayan’. Recently, Swapan Kumar Thakur has come up with an edited collection entitled ‘Bange Rampuja o Ramayan Sanskriti’ which is a collection of some fieldwork articles. Also Vivekananda Kendra has, in the past year edited a collection entitled ‘Bangabhumite Ramayan Charchar Aitihya’. The latter two books are mostly fieldwork articles. However, there is scope for a more comprehensive study involving the linkages between the Krittivas Ramayan, the sacred landscape of Bengal and the various Rama traditions of worship which arose at different times which I have tried to point to in this article.
Valmiki’s Ramayana had been translated and transcreated into almost all Indian languages and also many non-Indian ones through the ages and has resonated with the people of all linguistic regions throughout the subcontinent thus making it almost a de facto national epic of India. It has shaped not only the culture but also the values, the outlook and worldview of the people of India and beyond. An important factor in this bonding of the Ramayana with the diverse cultures of this vast land is the regional versions of the epic which have played the most significant role in bringing the Sanskrit epic into the hearths and homes of the common people. The regional Ramayanas have been instrumental in the popularization of the Rama Sita Akhyana and also in preservation of the cultural identity of the country in the face of aggression and attempts at cultural genocide in the medieval period.
The earliest complete version in Bengali and the most popular too, which has become a part and parcel of the cultural landscape is the Sri Sri Ram Panchali by Krittivas Ojha, believed to be composed in the fifteenth century. Just as Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas in Avadhi is considered to be the authentic Ramayana in the northern part of India, it is Krittivas Ojha’s version which is foremost and followed by the people of Bengal to this day. Apart from Krittivas Ojha’s Sri Sri Ram Panchali, there have been many other Bangla retellings of the tale like Adbhut Acharjer Ramayana by Nityananda Acharya in the 16th or 17th century which was almost a literal translation of Valmiki, Dwija Lakshmana’s Ramayana in the 18th century, etc. Some other attempts and incomplete translations were made by Kailash Basu, Bhabani Das, Kabichandra Chakraborty, Mahananda Chakraborty, Gangaram Das, Krishnadas, Ramananda Ghosh, Shankar Chakraborty, Chandravati, etc. apart from the modern and contemporary versions like Rajshekhar Basu’s Valmiki Ramayana, etc. There were also some pre-Krittivas Sanskrit retellings of the story in Bengal like Abhinanda’s Ramcharit during the rule of Devapala and Sandhyakar Nandi’s Ramcharit Kavya in the reign of Ramapala which narrated the story with double meaning referring to both Sri Rama as well as Ramapala.
Krittivas Ojha’s Ramayana was not a mere translation from Valmiki but rather a transcreation placing the events of the Ramayana in a Bengali cultural setting. His characterization of Sri Ram, Devi Sita and others are so close to the Bengali ethos that they have become folk heroes of the region and are part of the cultural life of the common people. This paper would try to look at the processes by which Krittivas transcreates the epic and takes it closer to the people of this region. In this, it would look at the points of divergences between the Valmiki Ramayana and Krittivas’s Ramayana, the omissions, alterations and more importantly, the additions. It will also explore the overwhelming and continuing influences of the Krittivas Ramayana on the life, culture, literature and arts of Bengal. These influences have become an integral part of the cultural framework of Bengal, leaving a significant mark in the region’s geo-spatial heritage.
(Figure 1: Credit: Facebook – Akaal Bodhan)
In many ways, Ram Panchali was Ojha’s original composition where he has incorporated incidents from diverse sources like various Puranas, other Sanskrit works, folk stories etc., thus integrating all these elements into the Ramayana corpus for the people of Bengal. His most important incorporation was the incident of Sri Rama’s worship of Devi Durga in Sarat Ritu (autumn season) during the Lanka war known as the ‘Akaal Bodhan’ or the ‘Untimely Invocation’ which today is the biggest festival of Bengal, the Durga Puja in Sarat or the autumnal season. In this way, Krittivas linked the Vaishnava tradition of Sri Rama as the avatara of Vishnu with the Shakta tradition of Bengal and eastern India and established a bridge between the two, thus making it easier for the Shakta and Vaishnava sampradayas to coexist in Bengal. Incidentally, the original Durga Puja was in the month of Chaitra during the Chaitra Navaratri and it was called Basanti Puja because it was in the Vasanta (spring) season. In the Valmiki Ramayana, the Rama-Ravana war does not take place in autumn and
Shri Rama chants the Aditya Hridaya Stotram before the war but no such worship of Devi Durga either before or during the war is mentioned, but here Krittivas mentions it as Sarat in order to link the prevalent Durga Puja with Shri Rama. This incident in fact has been mentioned in the Kalika Purana, Devi Bhagavata, Brihatdharma Upapurana, etc., from where Krittivas borrows and makes it a staple part of his Ramayana. It is speculated that these Puranas were composed in eastern India around the 9-10th century; also many folk Ramayanas, apart from Valmiki, were also prevalent. Krittivas says that it was Brahma who advised Sri Rama to worship Devi Durga for the sake of killing Ravana and that Rama did Chandi Paath and then himself shaped the earthern image of Durga and did Bodhan (invocation) on Shashthi evening. He also mentions the pujas done on Saptami and Ashtami by Sri Rama himself according to the Tantric rituals and then Vibhishana advises him to worship the Devi by offering 108 blue lotuses. After Hanuman brings the 108 lotuses and hands them over to Sri Rama after counting them, the Devi herself steals one of them. On seeing one short, Sri Rama is about to take out one of his own eyes with an arrow when the Devi appears and holds his hand and then blesses him to gain victory in the war.
The second important addition in the Krittivas Ramayana is the killing of Mahiravana and his son Ahiravana in patal loka, the netherworlds. Mahiravana was Ravana’s son who worshipped the Devi Mahamaya or Yogadya and on being commanded by Ravana, kidnapped Rama and Lakshmana and brought them to the underworlds for sacrificing them to the Goddess. However, Hanuman took the form of a fly and asked the Devi whether she had sanctioned this sacrifice. The Devi Mahamaya advised Hanuman to tell the two brothers not to bow down to her when asked by Mahiravana, but rather ask him to demonstrate to them how to bow down. Sri Rama and Lakshmana did exactly as planned. They told Mahiravana that they did not know how to do pranaam (salutations) and Mahiravana should show them the process. On Mahiravana getting down on his knees to show them, Hanuman who was behind the Goddess immediately took her khadga and killed Mahiravana. At this, Mahiravana’s unborn child Ahiravana emerged from the womb and immediately engaged in desperate battle with Hanuman. Ultimately Hanuman succeeded in lifting the Rakshasa child by his legs and throwing him upon the ground thus killing him. This incident was taken by Krittivas from the Kubjikatantra composed around 9th century and was subsequently mentioned in some later texts too, like the Annadamangalkavya of the 18th century. However, there is an interesting ending to this incident which has a bearing on Bengal’s sacred geo-spatial landscape too. After the killing of Mahiravana and Ahiravana, the three of them were preparing to return back from patal when suddenly the Goddess rebuked them. The Krittivas Ramayana says,
‘Shatrure mariya jatra koilo tinjon
Mahir pujito devi kohen tokhon.
Sadhiya Ramer karya cholila satvar
Seva ke koribe mama patal bhitor.’
(After killing the enemies the three of them started on the return journey when the Devi worshipped by Mahi told them, you are returning back quickly after doing Ram’s work but who will worship me in the netherworlds?)
At this Hanuman salutes the Goddess and rescues her from the netherworlds –
‘Eto shuni Hanuman kori namaskar
Devire patal hote korilo uddhar.’
Krittivas’s story of Devi Mahamaya or Jogadya ends here but we get the continuation in another Bangla text of Yogadya Vandana:
Bamskandhe Lakshman dakshin skandhe Ram
Mathaye pratima kori jailen Hanuman.
Martyadesh madhye ache Kshirgram nam,
Tathaye rakhilen toma Bir Hanuman.
(With Lakshman on his left shoulder and Rama on his right shoulder, Hanuman set out with the idol of the Devi on his head. There is a place on the earth called Kshirgram where Hanuman kept the Devi.)
(Figure 2: Credit: Facebook – Jogadya Mata, Kshirgram)
Incidentally, this Kshirgram village is today situated in Purba Barddhaman district of West Bengal where Devi Yogadya is worshipped and in the month of Baisakh there are three days of Puja when Ramayana songs are sung in the Devi temple. In fact the Devi is kept immersed in a pond throughout the year and taken out only during these three days, perhaps because of the fact that she originally resided in patal, i.e. the netherworlds. This incident is depicted in many terracotta temples of Bengal popularised by Krittivas, resulting in its inclusion in the region’s folk lore of the region. It also signifies the convergence of Vaishnava and Shakta traditions in the Sri Rama and Ramayana connection of the Devi who is otherwise worshipped as Ugrachandi or Bhadrakali.
Another significant connection of this same incident with the local geo-spatial heritage is the existence of a stone column of uncertain dating. This column extends deep into the ground and is located on the outskirts of Katwa in Purba Barddhaman, not far from Kshirgram. Locals worship it as Hanuman Lathi. The story prevalent in the region says that when Hanuman flew over this area with the Devi, Sri Rama and Lakshmana, he crossed the Ganga resting his weight on a Lathi (stick). He left the Lathi in an upright position, which is today the stone column known as Hanuman Lathi. Some other villages nearby also believe that Hanuman rested his knee in a particular place and his foot in another etc. Needless to say, neither this entire incident nor these places have any mention in the Valmiki Ramayana. Thus, this shows that the Krittivas Ramayana not only had a deep cultural and emotional impact on the people of Bengal, but also the incidents mentioned exclusively in the Krittivas Ramayana found a connection with the sacred landscape and geo-spatial heritage of the region which exists to this day.
Apart from the above-mentioned two incidents, the other events and incidents which find mention in Krittivas but not in Valmiki are regarding the transformation of the dacoit Ratnakara to Rishi Valmiki by merit of Ram Nam (Sri Rama’s name), Ganesha’s birth, Shani Deva’s effect on Dasaratha’s kingdom, Hanuman’s subjugation of Suryadev and holding him, incident of Soudasa-Dileepa-Raghu, killing of Sambarasur, retrieving of Ravana’s fatal weapon (mrityuvaan) by Hanuman from Mandodari in the guise of a ganaka (fortune-teller), Birbahu and Taranisen’s battle, Rama taking lessons in administration from Ravana on the latter’s deathbed, Lava-Kusha in battle against Ayodhya army, etc.
Of note, we do not find any mention of Vibhishana’s son Taranisen in the Valmiki Ramayana. But in Krittivas we find a young and heroic Taranisen, who in fact was a secret devotee of Rama, fighting the war on behalf of his uncle Ravana and fighting with such skill that Sri Rama fails to defeat him. Vibhishana then advises Rama, who does not know that the valiant prince is the latter’s son, to use the Brahmastra against him otherwise it would not be possible to defeat him. Rama does so and immediately the severed head of Taranisen falls to the ground. Here Krittivas takes the emotion of the reader to a high by describing the scene as,
Dui khondo hoye Bir pore bhumitole,
Taranir katamunda Ram Ram bole.
(The valiant hero fell to the ground cut into two and Tarani’s severed head kept saying Ram, Ram!)
Vibhishana starts crying and when Sri Rama asks him why he is grieving, he then reveals that the slain prince was his son. At this, Sri Rama also starts crying and rebukes him by saying that he should have revealed this fact earlier. Vibhishana replies by saying that he was not grieving for his son as the latter would surely ascend to Vaikuntha or Go-loka but rather he was grieving for himself that he was not as fortunate as his son in ascending to Vaikuntha by being killed at the hands of Sri Rama and said, my son has gained everything but what have I gained by serving at the feet of the Lord?
In this way we see that Krittivas has transformed the Veer-rasa (heroic flavour) of the Valmiki Ramayana into the Karun-rasa (tragic flavour) which laid the base for the Bhakti movement which was at that time sweeping through Bengal and India. Apart from Taranisen, we also learn of another son of Ravana born in the womb of Chitrangada named Birbahu, who again was a Vaishnava devotee and waged a tremendous battle with Rama knowing well that he was an Avatara of Vishnu, all for the purpose of being killed at the hands of the latter.  In fact, when the two were almost evenly matched in battle, it was Birbahu himself who suggested to Sri Ram to use the Vaishnava Astra (weapon) against him and it was this weapon which ultimately felled him. Krittivas says,
Bhumete poriya mundo Ram Ram bole,
Bibhishan dilo mundo Ram padatale.
(On falling upon the ground the severed head continued to say, Ram, Ram and Vibhishana laid the head at Rama’s feet.)
We see that the ferocious and unrepentant Rakshasas of the Valmiki Ramayana are here transformed into bhaktas and Vaishnavas, all of which serve to highlight the emotional play which Krittivas aims to kindle in his readers and which helped to spur the Bhakti wave of the time. In fact Ravana himself is also portrayed as a secret devotee of Rama who did everything for the sake of being killed at his hands. Here, even Sri Rama’s heroism, courage, love, humanity etc., are framed in an emotional mould with bhakti rasa (devotional flavour) and a Bengali regional ethos. Krittivas’s Sita is not a fiery Kshatriya lady but a soft and blushing Bengali housewife. For example when the Rishipatnis (wives of the Rishis) asked Sita for Rama’s introduction, she blushed and lowered her face as any common Bengali wife would do –
Laaje adhomukhi Sita na bolen ar,
Ingite bujhan swami ini je amar.
(Face lowered with embarrassment, Sita could not reply any further but conveyed through gestures that he is my husband.)
In the episode of Sita’s vanavas (banishment to the forest) he depicts a humorous exchange between Lakshman and Sita as a typical banter of a Bengali dewar (husband’s brother) and boudidi (elder brother’s wife).
Krittivas’ work was composed in simple and attractive Bengali verse in panchali style. It could easily be set to tune and sung and most of the Ramayana gaan (songs) and palas (enactments) were based on Krittivas. It could be very successfully recited due to the use of poyar chhanda, a type of metre which easily lent itself to dramatisation. The impact of his work and of the Sri Rama tradition in general can be seen in terracotta temple sculpture in Bengal, in literature and specially folk arts like patachitras (colourful paintings on cloth), jatra palas (folk dramas), Ram Gaan, Rama Jatra, Ram Panchalis, etc. which formed a very vibrant Ramayana folk culture in Bengal particularly in the rural areas of the state but which unfortunately is on the decline for the last three decades and quite marginalised today due to the effects of globalisation and cultural erosion and also political hostilities.
(Figure 3: Mandir built by Gopal Das Babaji at Village Dadhiya in Barddhaman district)
In the pre-Chaitanya era Krittivas paved the way for Vaishnava bhakti to sweep Bengal. Though later Shri Krishna became the main focus of Vaishnava devotion in Bengal through the Radha-Krishna worship preached by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, yet both the avataras are worshipped equally in the Mahamantra preached and popularised by Sri Chaitanya. In the period of the 17th to 19th centuries various centres of Sri Rama worship was built in Bengal mostly under the influence of the Ramanandi and Ramayet sants who visited and also settled in Bengal from northern India in this period. One of the biggest melas (fairs) of undivided Bengal, at Dadhiya Bairagyatala in Barddhaman district is centred around a Ramanandi sadhaka of this period named Gopal Das Babaji who built a temple and math (monastery) which is still there including the annual fair which still takes place. Many prominent families of Bengal worship Sri Rama in the form of Raghunath Shila as their kuladevata. It is pertinent to note that much later in the 19th century, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who’s Kuladevata (family deity) was Sri Rama worshipped in the form of Raghunath Shila, spoke copiously of Sri Rama, Sita and Hanuman in his preachings and talks with his devotees which have been compiled by his devotee Sri M in the Ramakrishna Kathamrita. In fact Sri Ramakrishna has spoken of his vision of Sita Mata walking up from the Ganga ghat and through the gardens of the Dakshineswar temple, whom he recognised when he saw all the monkeys in the neighbourhood coming and prostrating at her feet. His most famous disciple Swami Vivekananda had often spoken of the need to popularise Sri Rama and Hanuman worship in Bengal in order to inculcate the spirit of heroism, strength and masculinity in the then emasculated and enslaved population. In fact, Sri Ramakrishna had met and been influenced by Jatadhari, a well-known Ramanandi sant, who always carried a vigraha of Ramlala with him.
Thus we see the Krittivas Ramayana had played and still plays a very important part in the cultural, literary, social and religious life of Bengal and he had consciously adapted the Ramayana to the Bengali cultural ethos of the time and also the psyche of the people of the region and had thus brought the Ramayana close to the common people. He had also successfully built a bridge between the Vaishnava Sri Rama tradition and the Shakta tradition of Devi worship which interlinked the two in various ways and thus broke down the mutual exclusivity between the two religious sampradayas of the period. The impact of the Krittivas Ramayana is reflected not only in the literature, arts, sculpture and architecture of Bengal but mostly in the folk songs and dramatisations and also in the traditions associated with the various temples and sacred spaces of the region. Today it is necessary to give due importance to the contribution of the creators of the various regional versions of the Ramayana, who have not only imparted diversity and regional flavour to the text but have also strengthened and preserved the Ramayana culture that has shaped this country and its people.
- Basu, Rajshekhar, Valmiki Ramayan, Debalaya Library, Kolkata, 2017.
- Bose, Anita, ed., Bangabhumite Ramayan Charchar Aitihya, Vivekananda Kendra, Kolkata, 2022.
- Das, Bani, Bangla Sahitya o Bangalir Jatiya Jibane Ramayan, Mahabodhi Book Agency, Kolkata, 2000, reprint 2010.
- Majumdar, Subodh Chandra, ed., Krittivas Rachita Sampurna Ramayan, 5th edition, Prabodh Chandra Majumdar Bros., Kolkata, 1341 B.S.
- Thakur, Swapan Kumar, ed., Bange Rampuja o Ramayan Sanskriti, Karigar, Kolkata, 2022.
 Subodh Chandra Majumdar ed., Krittivas Rachita Sampurna Ramayan, 5th edition, Prabodh Chandra Majumdar Bros., Kolkata, 1341 B.S., (hereafter Krittivas Ramayan), p. 388.
 Ibid., p. 389.
 Ibid., p. 393.
 Krittivas Ramayana, pp. 368-379.
 Ibid., p. 379.
 Cited in Swapan Kumar Thakur ed., Bange Rampuja o Ramayan Sanskriti, Karigar, Kolkata, 2022, p. 20.
 Krittivas Ramayana, p. 330.
 Ibid., p. 340.
 Ibid., Uttarakanda.
 Anita Bose, ‘Bangiya Adhyatmik Itihaser Jagate Ramayan o Sri Ramchandra – Ramkrishna Bhabdharar Aloke’, essay in Anita Bose ed., Bangabhumite Ramayan Charchar Aitihya, Vivekananda Kendra, Kolkata, 2022.
Feature Image Credit: Akash K
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