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When Brahma became Allah or Selected aspects of the transcultural transformation of the Hindu epic The Ramayana into the Malay hikayat Seri Rama


In this essay I present a brief comparative study of two versions of Ramayana; the Indian and that adopted by the Malays; Hikayat Seri Rama. Some of the aspects of the discussion deal with the Hindu and Islamic values/ideas transmitted through the epics, the styles they were written, and lastly, the few instances and the extent to which the Indian version of the Ramayana has been Malaynized. In general, Malay sources are used in this study, and I have translated the various referential instances.

        Valmiki’s Ramayana or The Story of Rama, to say the least, has had its tremendous impact, to some extent or another, in shaping and inspiring the classical literary tradition of the respective cultures that it has come in contact with. The widespread of this epic, pure Hindu in its undertone, it not only throughout multi-cultural India, its birthplace, but also, parallel to the spreading of Hinduism and Buddhism, to a major part of South East Asia.

Nevertheless, Ramayana spread not without undergoing to some degree or another, the process of acculturation and assimilation, to suit the beliefs of the people and cultures that had come to accept the epic as a major part of their literary classic. Some have given a new name to the epic, some have altered and modified the storyline, breathe a new life to it to render the epic approvable to their value system and cultural characteristics.

        In Thailand, this epic in its written form, dating from the 18th century, is called “Ramakian” or “Ramakrti” and Rama is presented as very Siamese. The Burmese and Khmerian version of Ramayana is called “Rama-ya-kan” and “Reamker”, respectively, and to a great extent, both have been largely influenced by Buddhism. (Abadi, et.al..1979, pp. 30).

        The Malay world had its share of this ancient philosophical and cultural tradition too since the first century A.D. The Malay people, as a scholar of the region Dr. William Fredericks of Ohio University, puts it “tend to adopt the philosophy in vogue” namely, Hinduism and Buddhism, to replace, or rather improve the code of moral ethics that they were holding on to at the time; animism.

        Probably at around this period too the epics of India, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata were slowly being incorporated into the Malay literary tradition. Though the version of Ramayana translated at this time was not of Valmiki’s (considered the standard version) rather of the South Indian version, this epic inevitably did undergo the process of acculturation too.

        Classical Malay literature or the “hikayat Melayu tua”, to a considerably large degree, has been influenced and inspired by, besides the blind poet Vyasa’s Mahabharata, Valmiki’s Ramayana (Abadi, et.al.,1979. pp.23). At around this Hindu period, the Malaynization of Indian epics happened, especially to those two major literary works mentioned.

Ramayana 1

        The Mahabharata was adopted and modified to be known as “Hikayat Pandawa Lima”. (The Epic of the Five Pandavas) or “Hikayat Pandawa Jaya”. Ramayana was changed to be called “Hikayat Seri Rama” (The Epic of Sri Rama). It is the central focus of this article of discussion, in the general sense, the Malaynization of Ramayana; its differences with the Indian version and in particular, the “Islamization” of the epic after the religion came to change the Malay people’s value system after the Hindu period.

        As mentioned earlier, the Malay Ramayana is known as the “Hikayat Seri Rama” and there are differences with the Indian version that the hikayat has taken to model from. It is vital to this comparative discussion of the epic that the history of the “Hikayat Seri Rama” be discussed.

        This hikayat contained elements of Hinduism of various parts of India, to start with; from the south, north, and also east. In Java, traces of this epic were found in the temple of Lara Jonggrang in Prambanan. About the year 925 A.D, Yogiswara translated the epic into classical Javanese. This version was not popular though when the language itself was not widely used anymore. Then came different versions of the hikayat, for example, the “Serat Rama” and “Rama Kling”. From these versions too came the dramatic treatment. The Malay versions, that written in 1843 by Roorda Van Eysinga and that by Shellabear and Maxwell, are related to the dramatic versions mentioned (Abadi, et.al., pp. 61).

        For a focused discussion, the article will resort to some of the many versions of the Malay Ramayana, namely the Shellabear and Maxwell versions, as referential and comparative points of the Hikayat Seri Rama. W.E. Maxwell’s version, written at the end of the 19th. century was derived from the narration of a renowned folk romance storyteller, Mir Hassan. This version, though unmistakably revealed that the hikayat is Hindu in origin, is very much Malay in treatment in terms of its structure and inspiration. This version has become part of the tradition of the Malay folk romance.

       The Shellabear version, on the other hand is different from the derivative of the narrative version mentioned above, it is closer in treatment and plot to the original Indian epic (Ahmad, 1981, pp. 113). For the Indian version, on the other hand, references will be made from William S. Buck’s retelling of Valmiki’s Ramayana for the reason that, as quoted by B.A. Van Nooten in his “Introduction” section, the author has succeeded in capturing the most important characteristic of Rama’s story with many variations of detail particularly “the most important characteristic of the Ramayana; the simple religious tone that pervades the Indian original.” (Buck, 1976, p.XXII).

Hence let us now look at the focus point of our discussion; the Malaynization/Islamization of the great Indian epic, referring to some of the major elements in both of the Malay versions mentioned.

        Why did the Malaynization of the epic happen, we may ask ourselves. In answering this question, a major point to be noted is that: by “Malaynization”, the whole discussion will also mean Islamization of the Malay people to a large extent, larger than that done by other religion that has come into contact with the Malays before the coming of Islam. A point in history needs to be dealt with here – the coming of Islam and its impact on the Malay civilization.

        Around the circa of 13th. to 14th. century, Islam came to this region and succeeded in changing, to a major extent, the value system of the Malay people. Brought by Indian and Persian traders, this new order of morality has not only introduced itself as a ‘new religion’ but succeeded in introducing the Islamic cultural values of Persia and India to the Malays.

        The Malays, very receptive and adaptative, towards foreign ideas and values, in due time, assimilated these values into their lives. The Islamic values, could not, however, easily scrape completely the cultural values the Malay people inherited from the pre-Islamic period. Thus, Hindu values, among other pre-Islamic values, are incorporated together with the ‘new order’; Islam.

        This is evident, for instance, in the Malay language itself, the use of Sanskrit words like “puasa” (fasting), “neraka” (hell), “syurga” (heaven), and “agama” (religion) maintained for the explanatory purpose of the idea of Islamic reverence and religious practices of the Malay people. Perhaps, the most important contribution of the Islamic civilization to the Malay people is the Arabic writing system, popularly known as the “jawi script”.

        Almost without exception, the products of the classical Malay literature in general, including those that originated from the Hindu tradition, were written, originally in this form of writing. It is in this “Jawi script” that the Malay version of Ramayana, the Hikayat Seri Rama was written. Hence, too, it could be said that the product of the Malay classical literature that reached us in the form of manuscripts, a major portion of it, came from the Islamic period. (Ahmad, 1981, pp. 110).

        The popularity of Ramayana and other Hindu epics at the time of the arrival of Islam, without suspect, brought major concerns to Islamic preachers at that time. Religious writing by an Islamic scholar from Gujerat, India who served in the court of the Sultan of Acheh in the early part of the 17th. century condemned the Hikayat Seri Rama as “unfit for Muslim readers”. Sir Richard Winstedt, a critic of classical Malay literature was not far from being right when he mentioned that the first task of the Islamic preachers was to replace the heroes in Indian epics with Islamic warriors. (Ahmad, 1981, pp.110).

        The spread of Islam was so very far and wide that Hinduism held by the people of this region was reduced to their social customs only; marriage, birth, and funeral ceremonies. From time to time the Hindu beliefs were replaced by customs characteristic of Islam. As told in another classical Malay epic, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, the Hindu idols were from time to time destroyed. Hinduism became very weak, hence.

        This condition manifested itself in the development of the Malay literature, Hindu elements that originated from the Hindu holy scriptures, for instance, the Ramayana and Mahabharata that glorified Vishnu, Siva, Brahma, and other gods and goddesses were replaced with the Islamic concept of the Supreme being (Hamid, 1974, pp. 77-78).

To illustrate the point above, let me compare two passages of the epic in its Indian version (as told by William S. Buck) and to the one in Shellabear’s version of the Hikayat Seri Rama. These passages concern with the Rakshasa King Ravana’s coming into power: Ravana held the knife to his throat when Brahma appeared and said, ‘Stop! Ask me a boon at once!’

I am glad that I please you,’ said Ravana. ‘Please me!’ said Brahma. ‘Your will is dreadful, too strong to be neglected; like a bad disease I must treat it. Your pains make me hurt. Ask!’ ‘May I be unslayable and never defeated by the gods or anyone from any heaven, by Hell’s devils or Asuras or demon spirits, by underworld serpents or Yakshas or Rakshasas’. ‘Granted!’ said Brahma quickly. He gave Ravana back his burnt heads better looking than before. They rose to life and smoothed down his black mustaches. Brahma told Vibhishana, ‘Ask’. ‘May I never forget Dharma in peril or in pleasure, in comfort or distraction’. Brahma said, ‘Yes; and you will be immortal on Earth and exempt from death or oblivion, and my truth knows no turning’. (Buck, 1976, pp. 23).

 Here in the Indian version, Lord Brahma, the creator is presented as the one approaching King Ravana. In the Malay version, there was a middle man who dealt with what Ravana’s wishing for, the prophet Adam, the first man on Earth.

        With the blessing and power of Allah (SWT) the prophet, Adam, was hence descended from heaven for some time on earth. Once upon a time, at dawn, the prophet was walking upon the Earth when he met Ravana, meditating, hanging upside down. The prophet asked:

‘O Ravana, why are you doing as such to yourself? How long have you been this way?’

Ravana replied, ‘O Gracious prophet of Allah. I have been as such for twelve years’ Adam then said, ‘O Ravana, what is it that you have begged from Allah (SWT) that you have acted as such? Ravana answered, ‘O My Lord Prophet of Allah, if it would be at all possible that you would ask Lord Allah’s granting of my wish. I would hence proclaim the nature of it’ The prophet Adam then said, ‘O Ravana tell me the nature of your wish’. (Shellabear, 1964, p.3) Thus Ravana told the prophet of his wish, that Allah grants him four kingdoms: on earth, heaven, underworld, and the seas. The prophet then told Ravana:

Hence, at this moment, you have to promise me, that when you commit wrongdoings or your subjects’ doings as such and you bless them therein and not judge otherwise, you have to accept the wrath of your Lord Allah. Whereas you agreed upon this promise. I would hereby ask upon Lord Allah your humble wishes. (Shellabear, 1964, p.2) 

From the three passages quoted above, several differences could be accounted:

(i) The concept of the creator in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Brahma is replaced by that of Prophet Adam as the one who approached Ravana.

(ii) Brahma, as the god who creates, seems to be portrayed as weak, threatened by Ravana’s meditative acts.

‘Please me!’ said Brahma, ‘Your will is dreadful too strong to be neglected; like a bad disease I must treat it. Your pains make me hurt. Ask!’ (Buck, 1976, p.23).

        In Hikayat Seri Rama, Ravana at the beginning of his coming to power had to ask the utmost consent of the Supreme Being Allah, to grant him the four kingdoms. His wish could not possibly be channeled directly to Allah, rather, the prophet Adam was asked to present his wish. Here the concept of Brahma as the Supreme Creator and Allah is very different in a way, that Brahma’s supremacy is shaken by Ravana’s meditative act and hence, Brahma had to grant whatever the Rakshasa was asking for to save himself.

        On the other hand, Islam does not see the power and might of the Supreme Being, Allah as nowhere in the position of that portrayed by Brahma. This leads to another discussion of the conception of God; The Hindus divided God into three deities: (1) Brahma, the Creator, (2) Vishnu, the Preserver, and (3) Shiva, the Destroyer.

        This led to idolatry and images being made out of these deities and cults formed to worship one or the other of these gods (Akhbar, 1983, pp. 52). The concept of god in Islam is such that, Allah is “Unit and Indivisible”. He is born of none and has given birth to none, there is no sharer in His authority and that He is the Creator, Nourisher, and Sustainer of all universe, and has full sovereignty over them and everything in them for destroying and recreating. (Akhbar, 1983, p.71).

        Therefore, the passages and commentaries presented above showed the difference in the conception of Good in the treatment of both epics; the original being very Hindu and the derivative of the Ramayana, the Hikayat Seri Rama given an Islamic treatment. The next major difference between the two epics is in the way they were written. The original Ramayana was written in Sanskrit poetry whereas the Malay version is written in prose-form.

In Java, the version is different than the Ramayana, the Mahabharata is written in poetry-form called “kakawin”, a Javanese adaptation of the Sanskrit poetry. The difference in form between the Malay and the Javanese version might be because the Hindu influence on the Malays was not that great compared to that of the Javanese.

        Hence, the Malays did not adapt the epic in the Sanskrit-like poetry-form. Besides, the existing Malay poetry, the “pantun” could not be used for storytelling and thus, the poetry nature of the Indian epic couldn’t possibly be adapted to the Malay “pantun”. The “syair”, musical-poetry was not yet known until the coming of Islam from Persia. (Hamid, 1974, pp. 58-59). Both the hikayat mentioned in this article, the Maxwell and Shellabear versions were written in prose-form.

        It has been illustrated, in the preceding paragraphs the differences that exist between the Indian version of Ramayana and that of the Hikayat Seri Rama. The two major aspects discussed, namely the Hindu/Islam concept and portrayal of the Creator in both epics and at a later discussion, there is the distinguishing between the form the epics were written; poetry in Ramayana and prose in the hikayat.

        The next and last, certainly not the least, major aspects that I feel vital in this comparative discussion of both kinds of literary work are characterization, events, and theme of both types of literary work.

        Certainly, between the two Malay versions, Maxwell’s, derived from Mir Hassan’s narrative version is very Malay in treatment; various plots, not to mention the changes in the characters’ names, were modified, added to the Indian version to suit the style of the Malay folk romance. Interestingly, in this folk version, the main hero is not Rama anymore, unlike the Shellabear version which still maintained Rama as the hero, but Rama’s son manifested himself in the form of a monkey.

        No doubt, he is Hanuman, Rama’s monkey warrior. Expelled by his father (Rama) for his disgusting looks, Hanuman became a vagabond. His adventures, nevertheless, include the plots presented similarly in the Indian Ramayana; for instance. Hanuman served Rama in rescuing Sita from Ravana, including too, the burning of the Rakshasa King’s palace.

        Most importantly, however, the plots in this version have been presented in a way that is suitable with the schemes of a typical Malay folk romance. An example would be that Hanuman, the hero, in one of his adventures, met a princess who later became his wife after he changed into a human form. And like a typical traditional Malay romance, Hanuman later became King and lived happily ever after.

        The names of the characters in this romance seem to be taken from combinations of various literary traditions. The names “Tuan Puteri Sekuntum Bunga” is a local Malay name for Sita and “Shah Numan” for Hanuman is Persian. However, the names “Seri Rama”, “Rawana” and “Raja Laksamana” are taken from Ramayana. The names of places are either taken locally, like “Negeri Tanjung Bunga” or translated from written version, like “Kacapuri” for “Langkapuri”.

        The setting of the hikayat is Malay. King Seri Rama resides in a Malay palace, the “istana” with “a garden of mango trees”. Coconut trees, a familiar scene for the Malays, are grown around Ravana’s palace. Probably the folk narrative storytellers intend to present the listeners with the grandeur and might of the world of Kings but instead, the image of the serenity and simplicity of the local setting manifested itself.

In this version too, the royal wedding is attended by dignitaries such as the local religious people; the “lebais” and “hajis”. “Anachronism”, like the use of guns and the waving of the white flag to indicate surrender in war can also be found. These elements were added from time to time to the epic because research has shown that these symbols have never been found in the Malay “weltanschauung” before the 18th. or 19th. century.

        Hence, this Malay folk romance that has shaped itself by combining traditional and foreign literary elements has come to be accepted by the Malays as their priced literary possession. (Ahmad, 1981, pp. 113-114). As mentioned earlier, the Shellabear version of the hikayat did not undergo alterations as drastic as that of Maxwell discussed previously.

        The differences lie probably in the slight changes of names of the major characters, like Rama to Seri Rama and Sita to Sita Dewi and in another instance, the marriage ceremony of Rama and Sita in the Indian version is depicted in detail with much “color” whereas, in the Malay version, not much grandeur is mentioned. Nevertheless, the version is unmistakably given an Islamic flavor with the mentioning of the prophet Adam and the Supreme Being Allah to replace the respective Hindu characters.

        With the discussion and illustrations presented in the preceding paragraphs, it is hence conclusive that when Valmiki’s Ramayana came to the Malay world, the epic did, from time to time, “change itself” to “suit the existing” philosophy of the people. The philosophy here is Islam and the culture is Malay, hence, the Malaynization and Islamization of the work mentioned are taken rather synonymously.

        The major aspects also touched briefly on the Islamic and Hindu concept of God manifested in the two versions of the epic. The acculturation of the epic could be found in both versions of the hikayats mentioned; namely in the way the style of writing is treated: Sanskrit poetry form in the Indian version, the prose-form in the Malay version. Maxwell’s version of the hikayat is treated in a fairly lengthy discussion to show the extent of the Malaynization of the Ramayana.

        Certainly, this essay does not attempt to analyze comprehensively the differences between the great Indian epic with that of the Malay versions. This would be almost impossible, taking into account the very many aspects and magnanimous scope that the discussion should justifiably fall into.

        Not to mention too the numerous versions that exist of both the Indian and the Malay, Ramayana, thus, I account for the mentioning of two representative versions of the hikayat, namely, those of Maxwell’s and Shellabear’s: the former treating the Ramayana more Malay than the latter.

        And hence, too, in my discussions, I have limited the scope to that of:

(i) the concept of God and some religious values/ideas transmitted in one of the sections of the epics.

(ii) the styles in which the two kinds of epics were written, and

(iii) some aspects of the characterization, setting, and plot that both kinds of Ramayana differ due to, as mentioned, the process of literary acculturation.

         This essay too, nevertheless, implied that at one point in the history of Malay civilization, there was a Hindu period, along with other foreign civilizations, that has shaped the literary tradition of the people of this region. This period had undeniably played a significant role in the process mentioned above.

        Not only have the Ramayana and Mahabharata been adopted and modified and later be included alongside other major works of the classical Malay literature, these two epics have also paved the inspirational path of among others, two classics of Malay literature, the Sejarah Melayu and the Hikayat Hang Tuah.

        Evidently, in the latter, the protagonist, Hang Tuah, also idolized as the archetypal figure of the warrior class of the glorious Malacca sultanate, in one of the episodes of the epic, when he was playing a duel game with his friends in his childhood days, was called upon by one of them. “Lo, Laksamana my foe!” (Hamid, 1974, p. 61)

        ‘Laksamana’ mentioned here is none other than Rama’s half-brother, and, the great Malay warrior has taken the same name later in his life to indicate glorification of the Malay sea warrior class. Interestingly enough, to this day, the Malay people have taken this term as a designation to honor the highest chief of the Malaysian naval force. So everlasting, thus, is the influence of Ramayana!


1. Ahmad, Jamilah Haji, Kumpulan Esei Sastera Melayu Lama. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1981.

2. Abadi, Drs. Jihaty.; Rahman, Azran.; Abdulhamid, Amida., Sari Sejarah Kesusasteraan Melayu-Indonesia. Kuala Lumpur: Adabi, 1979.

3. Hamid, Drs. A. Bakar, Diskusi Sastera Jilid 1 : Sastera Tradisi. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1974.

4. Akbar, ‘Ali, God and Man: The Holy Quran and Modern Science. Petaling Jaya: MARICANS, 1983.

5. Shellabear, Rev. W.G., ed., Hikayat Seri Rama. Singapore: Malaysia Publishing House Ltd., 1964.

6. Buck, William., retold., Ramayana. Ontario: New American Library, 1978.

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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