The two great epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata have been so popular in expressing human nature and prescribing Dharma that every author, every culture has adopted them to suit their founding principles.
The essay Three Hundred Ramayanam by A. K. Ramanujan is an excellent material for the comparative study of these various versions of that one eternal story between good and bad from the north Indian version of Valmiki to the south Indian one by the great Tamizh poet Kamban to the Jain version and the one popular in Bali and Indonesia.
Every version puts some nuances into it, which, keeping the story line intact, teach the listener something interesting about the culture in which they were written. For a complete reading, I would highly recommend to read the original article.
I'll finish my post with certain observations,
Kambaramayanam (Kamba's Ramayanam) was much more into bhakti-rasa than the previous version by Valmiki in Valmiki Ramayanam. Although he was proclaimed as an Avatara of Vishnu, the text by Valmiki portrayed him well within human limitation.
In Valmiki, Rama’s character is not that of a god but of a god-man who has to live within the limits of a human form with all its vicissitudes. Some argue that the references to Rama’s divinity and his incarnation for the purpose of destroying Ravana, and the first and last books of the epic, in which Rama is clearly described as a god with such a mission, are later additions. Be that as it may, in Kampan he is clearly a god. Hence a passage like the above is dense with religious feeling and theological images. Kampan, writing in the twelfth century, composed his poem under the influence of Tamil bhakti. He had for his master Nammalvar (ninth century?), the most eminent of the Sri Vaisnava saints. So, for Kampan, Rama is a god who is on a mission to root out evil, sustain the good and bring release to all living beings.
The highly non-violent Jains, for whom even killing an insect or plant is a sin tried to keep Rama, the protagonist from killing Ravana. Instead, they made Lakshman do the dirty work.
According to the Jain way of thinking, a pair of antagonists, Vasudeva and Prativasudeva—a hero and an antihero, almost like self and Other—are destined to fight in life after life. Laksmana and Ravana are the eighth incarnations of this pair. They are born in age after age, meet each other in battle after many vicissitudes, and in every encounter Vasudeva inevitably kills his counterpart, his prati. Ravana learns at the end that Laksmana is such a Vasudeva come to take his life. Still, overcoming his despair after a last unsuccessful attempt at peace, he faces his destined enemy in battle with his most powerful magic weapons. When finally he hurls his discus (cakra), it doesn’t work for him. Recognising Laksmana as a Vasudeva, it does not behead him but gives itself over to his hand. Thus Laksmana slays Ravana with his own cherished weapon. Here Rama does not even kill Ravana, as he does in the Hindu Ramayanas. For Rama is an evolved Jain soul who has conquered his passions; this is his last birth, so he is loath to kill anything. It is left to Laksmana, who goes to hell while Rama finds release (kaivalya). One hardly need add that the Paumacariya is filled with references to Jain places of pilgrimage, stories about Jain monks, and Jain homilies and legends.
In a particular dalit oral version, Sita is Ravana's daughter and was cursed by Shiva for not keeping his word.
This folk narrative, sung by an Untouchable bard, opens with Ravana (here called Ravula) and his queen Mandodari. They are unhappy and childless. So Ravana or Ravula goes to the forest, performs all sorts of self-mortifications like rolling on the ground till blood runs from his back, and meets a jogi, or holy mendicant, who is none other than Siva. Siva gives him a magic mango and asks him how he would share it with his wife. Ravula says, ‘Of course, I’ll give her the sweet flesh of the fruit and I’ll lick the mango seed.’ The jogi is skeptical. He says to Ravula, ‘You say one thing to me. You have poison in your belly. You’re giving me butter to eat, but you mean something else. If you lie to me, you’ll eat the fruit of your actions yourself.' Ravula has one thing in his dreams and another in his waking world, says the poet. When he brings the mango home, with all sorts of flowers and incense for the ceremonial puja, Mandodari is very happy. After a ritual puja and prayers to Siva, Ravula is ready to share the mango. But he thinks, ‘If I give her the fruit, I’ll be hungry, she’ll be full,’ and quickly gobbles up the flesh of the fruit, giving her only the seed to lick. When she throws it in the yard, it sprouts and grows into a tall mango tree. Meanwhile, Ravula himself becomes pregnant, his pregnancy advancing a month each day.
Then Ravula goes to astrologers, who tell him he is being punished for not keeping his word to Siva and for eating the flesh of the fruit instead of giving it to his wife. They advise him to feed and dress the child, and leave her some place where she will be found and brought up by some couple. He puts her in a box and leaves her in Janaka’s field.
South East Asian Ramayanam has its own quirks here and there,
Though many incidents look the same as they do in Valmiki, many things look different as well. For instance, as in the South India folk Ramayanas (as also in some Jain, Bengali and Kashmiri ones), the banishment of Sita is given a dramatic new rationale. The daughter of Surpanakha (the demoness whom Rama and Laksmana had mutilated years earlier in the forest) is waiting in the wings to take revenge on Sita, whom she views as finally responsible for her mother’s disfigurement. She comes to Ayodhya, enters Sita’s service as a maid, and induces her to draw a picture of Ravana. The drawing is rendered indelible (in some tellings, it conies to life in her bedroom) and forces itself on Rama’s attention. In a jealous rage, he orders Sita killed. The compassionate Laksmana leaves her alive in the forest, though, and brings back the heart of a deer as witness to the execution.
The reunion between Rama and Sita is also different. When Rama finds out she is still alive, he recalls Sita to his palace by sending her word that he is dead. She rushes to see him but flies into a rage when she finds she has been tricked. So, in a fit of helpless anger, she calls upon Mother Earth to take her. Hanuman is sent to subterranean regions to bring her back, but she refuses to return. It takes the power of Siva to reunite them.
Again as in the Jain instances and the South Indian folk poems, the account of Sita’s birth is different from that given in Valmiki. When Dasaratha performs his sacrifice, he receives a rice ball, not the rice porridge (payasa) mentioned in Valmiki. A crow steals some of the rice and takes it to Ravana’s wife, who eats it and gives birth to Sita. A prophecy that his daughter will cause his death makes Ravana throw Sita into the sea, where the sea goddess protects her and takes her to Janaka.