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The Ramayana and the Study of South Asia

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The Ramayana, while a tradition that is several thousand years old, is also arguably the most important story in India today, for it is the birthplace of the hero, Rama, that has been the center of the Hindu-Muslim controversies at Ayodhya in recent years. In 1994, Syracuse University, along with the American Forum for Global Education, hosted an NEH Summer Workshop for high school teachers focusing on this epic tradition. The Rama story tells of the events leading to the forest exile of Prince Rama, accompanied by his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman, and of the happenings during their 14-year banishment. During their forest stay, Sita is abducted by the demon Ravana. The war to recover her, the royal couple’s return to their kingdom, and their subsequent coronation culminate in many oral and pictorial retellings of the story. Our goal was to understand the Ramayana, as a tradition, as a story, as a series of popular practices even today, that provides a lens for understanding Hindu culture in India. Beginning with a focus on the story itself, in its oldest known Sanskritic rendition, we moved outwards to comparisons with other retellings of the Ramayana in both time and space, both as verbal art and as sculpted, painted and danced art. We also looked at the ways in which the Ramayana has been used over time, examining the practices associated with it, including that most modern of practices, its association with Hindu fundamentalism and a holy war between Hindus and Muslims.