Hindu life will lose all its meaning and charm without Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, the two colossuses that have strode the Hindu heart for the last few millennia. If the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmikī has been the basis on which the Rāma personality has been built up, no less important are its numerous imitations and adoptions that have kept alive the Rāma cult and the Rāma community leading to the development of Rāmālogy. Perhaps, one of the most important Sanskrit works of this type is the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa which is very popular in North India, not only among the devotees of Rāma but also among the Vedāntins. In fact, it is this work that provided Tulasīdāsa with the inspiration to compose his immortal work, the Rāmacaritmānasa.
Though depicted as a part of the Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa, respected as a canonical work of the Vaiṣṇavas and begun in the Tantra style of conversation between Śiva Mahādeva and Pārvatī, scholars ascribe it to the period 14th-15th cent. A.D. Nothing is known of the author, though the Rāma tradition believes it to be Vedavyāsa since it is said to be an integral part of the Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa.
Like its original source, the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa also has seven kāṇḍas or books, named in the same manner, except for the sixth, the Yuddhakāṇḍa, which is sometimes designated Laṅkākāṇḍa. The total number of verses is 4200 spread over 65 sargas or chapters. Written in mellifluous Sanskrit, the work admirably sums up the main events of the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki omitting only the minor details, or descriptions of war and nature. On the other hand new material pertaining to Vedānta philo-sophy, the cult of bhakti in general and Rāma-bhakti in particular and several hymns in praise of Rāma have been liberally added.
A few of the changes and innovations made, departing from the original may be noted here: The major alteration in the facts of the story is the introduction of a shadow Sītā throughout the period of her abduction, the real Sītā having disappeared into the fire just before the golden deer episode. She re-emerges from the fire at the end of the war when the shadow Sītā enters into it. The whole drama is preplanned and enacted at the bidding of Rāma himself (vide 3.7). Other alterations though minor in nature, are: the earth accompanies the gods in the form of a cow (1.2); Sumitrā gets more of the sacred pudding than Kausalyā and Kaikeyī (1.3); Ahalyā after being cursed by her husband, the sage Gautama, becomes a stone (1.5); Rāvaṇa treats Sītā with the respect due to a mother (3.7.65); Rāma establishes a Śivaliṅga at the site of the bridge to Laṅkā (6.4.1-2).
Coming to the additions to Vālmikī’s story, five paurāṇic episodes need be mentioned: the stories about Vālmīki himself (2.6), Śuka (6.5) and Kālanemi (6.6) who warn Rāvaṇa about Rāma’s divinity and the need to propitiate him, Vālī and Sugrīva (7.3). The dialogue between Rāvaṇa and Sanatkumāra is another addition (7.3).
But the major contribution of the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa lies in its casting of Rāma in the role of a spiritual teacher and in the several exquisite hymns sung in praise of Rāma. There are four occasions when Rāma assumes the role of the teacher and gives philosophic disquisitions. In response to Lakṣmaṇa’s questions on three different occasions he teaches know-ledge, devotion, detachment (vide 3.4), methods of worship (4.4) and the way of emancipation (7.5). In reply to Kausalyā’s query, he teaches the three yogas of karma, jñāna and bhakti (7.7).
The well-known Rāmagītā is part of the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa and is the teaching given to Lakṣmaṇa on the last occasion already referred to (7.5). It contains a rather strong dose of Advaita Vedānta though couched in beautiful poetry. In fact some scholars feel that this Rāmagītā and Rāmahṛdaya (1.1) were independent works incorporated later into this Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa.
As regards the laudatory hymns, we find quite a good number of them: by Brahmā (1.2; 6.13), Kausalyā (1.3), Nārada (2.1), Vālmīki (2.6), Jaṭāyu (3.8), Vibhīṣaṇa (6.6) and all the gods (6.15).
However the real contribution of this work is in its repeatedly propounding the doctrine that Rāma is Brahman the Absolute and that Sītā is his Māyāśakti or Prakṛti, thereby raising the personality of Rāma to the highest level and providing a firm base to the cult of Rāma. No occasion that gives a chance to do this is missed. Not only sages, gods and devotees, but even the enemies of Rāma—not excepting Rāvaṇa himself !—recognise his divinity and divine mission. Their only duty is to cooperate in the cosmic play of the Divine and be blessed. This task has been admirably fulfilled by the book.
In the orthodox circles of Rāma devotees, the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa, is considered to be a mantraśāstra, a sacred book, each stanza of which is revered as a ‘mantra’ (mystic syllable) and devoutly repeated in a ceremonial way.
It is worthwhile noting that the well-known Hindi work, Rāmcaritamānas of Tulsīdas (A. D. 1532-1623), is based almost entirely on the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa.