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Traces of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in Javanese and Malay Literature.

Ding Choo Ming and Willem van der Molen (eds.), Traces of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in Javanese and Malay Literature. Singapore: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2018, ix + 229 pp. ISBN: 9789814786577, price: USD 29.90 (softcover), 9789814786574, USD 24.00 (e-book).

This collection of essays emerged from a conference on the Ramayana and Mahabharata held in Singapore in 2014, and represents an overview of recent European and Australian scholarship on how these two epic traditions evolved in Indonesia and Malaysia. According to one of the volume's editors, Willem van der Molen, the Ramayana and Mahabharata have been a "constant element amidst change, resisting the threat of oblivion" (p. 1) in the region's cultures for over a millennium. These narratives continue to serve as a resource of images, ideas, and values for the peoples of the archipelago, even as their societies have been transformed by religious conversion and modernization. The key to this longevity is the profound adaptability and translatability of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the traces of which are explored in this collection.

Six contributions are collected in this book. Stuart Robson gives a historical account of how Javanese-language versions of the Ramayana have evolved since the ninth century. This account is informed by theoretical reflections on the idea of translation, which is considered from a range of angles throughout the collection.

Harry Aveling offers a comparative study of four renditions of the Death of Abhimanyu episode of the Mahabharata: the canonical Sanskrit version, a twelfth-century Javanese version, a classical Malay telling, and a twentieth-century Indonesian adaptation by the novelist Danarto. Aveling shows how each retelling draws out different values and themes from the episode: the moral duties of the warrior class in the first case, the beauty of love and warfare in the second, the dignity of public service in the third, and a mystical perspective on death in the fourth.

Bernard Arps explores the intriguing notion of 'javanaiserie' in classical Malay literature, which he defines as a representational strategy for Malay-speakers to imagine a Java that "functioned as a zone, both other and the same, onto which certain aspects of Malay culture could be projected" (p. 86, original emphasis). Arps productively applies this concept to a Malay version of the Nawaruci story, and his approach has the potential to offer new insights into many other Malay texts in which Javaneseness is depicted.

Gijs Koster traces the intertextual allusions to the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics in a Malay text from another tradition, the Panji story-cycle. According to Koster, these allusions self-consciously draw attention to the artifice of storytelling as a tactic for disarming the religious hazard of telling these epic stories in a Muslim context.

Helen Creese examines the Javanese poem Salyawadka ('The Death of Salya'), which was written in east Java in 1157 as part of a larger whole, the Bkdratayuddka ('The Bharata War'), and was subsequently recast into other forms and languages in Bali, including paintings in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Creese's findings demonstrate how this episode was transmitted through creative reimagination: in Java by the poet's narrative interventions into the earlier Sanskrit story, and in Bali by the translation of the Javanese poem into new textual and visual expressions.

Edwin Wieringa focuses on the Astabrata ('The Eight Principles'), a didactic passage on leadership that first appeared in the ninth-century Javanese Rdmdyana poem, and subsequently became integrated into the Islamic court culture of central Java. Wieringa examines two illuminated manuscripts of the Astabrata from the Pakualaman court, giving an account of their text and of the illuminations that accompany each of the eight principles.

One strength of these essays is the nuance with which they handle questions of cultural linkage. Through their comparative approaches to various expressions of the epic tradition, the scholars are able to show the diverse ways in which these narratives moved and changed from one setting to another. As Van der Molen states, the contributions "go beyond mapping epic presence" (p. 1) by scrutinizing the many different tactics of cultural sharing at play: appropriation, reconfiguration, translation, disavowal, intervention, and misconstrual. Conventional theories of one-way cultural influence, whether from India to the archipelago or from Java to Bali and the Malay world, are shown to be inadequate to explain the diverse manifestations of the Rdmdyana and Makdbkdrata in the region. The essays remind us how complicated such acts of cultural sharing were, and they affirm the agency of the creators who drew on these epic repertoires.

Another strength of the collection is the expertise of the volume's contributors. The detailed textual and art historical studies undertaken here require considerable specialist training in languages, philology, and iconography. The rigor and depth of the research in this volume are due to the fact that these scholars are among the most experienced in the field. Most of the essays engage directly with unpublished manuscript materials that are inaccessible to the vast majority of readers, which magnifies the value of their contributions. Rob-son's comment about the amount of "spadework" still to be done on these manuscripts (p. 25) shows how vital such philological skills are, if we are to properly understand the cultural history of the Rdmdyana and Makdbkdrata in this region.

This collection of essays shows that the Ramayana and Mahabharata were key points of reference for over a thousand years, and that they continued to be relevant in a diverse range of contexts. The enduring importance of the epic tradition to the cultural identity of twenty-first century Indonesians and Malaysians cannot be denied. This collection is welcome because it explains the historical trajectories that led to the exalted status of these two narratives in the present day. If we are to understand why the Ramayana and Mahabharata mattered and still matter in the region's life, this kind of expert scholarship is indispensable.

Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan

University of Sydney

DOI: 10.1163/22134379-17501009
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Author:Sastrawan, Wayan Jarrah
Publication:Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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