It is not without reason that Sauti tells his audience in the Adi Parva (2.387, p.71):
"Even as the body
depends on the food it eats,
the stories of the world
depend on the Bharata."
Anyone new to the unabridged Vana Parva will be taken aback to find that it includes the story of Rama which is the subject of India’s other maha-kavya, the epic Ramayana. During the twelve years of forest-exile that the five Pandavas and Draupadi suffer, many a tale is narrated by various sages—somewhat on the lines of "That passed away, so will this" refrain of the Old English poem "Deor’s Lament"—to console the "Used-to-happiness/now-in-distress" Pandavas and their common wife. Thrice the story of Rama is referred to—more than any other—testifying to its significance as a narrative to learn from.
Early in the Vana Parva when immortal Markandeya sees the Pandavas, he smiles—much to their pained astonishment. The sage explains that he smiled neither out of joy nor out of pity, but because he was reminded of a parallel: the fourteen-year exile of Rama (25.8-10, pp. 121-122), a period longer than what is the Pandavas’ lot. Without narrating the story (the brothers do not ask for it) he leaves them with the assurance that ultimately they will regain the kingdom.
The second occasion on which Rama is referred to is in Lomasha’s account of Bhrigu-teertha (Diptodaka), where Parashurama regained the powers he had lost to Rama. Here the single incident of the humbling of this nemesis-of-Kshatriyas by the stripling prince of Ayodhya is recounted, featuring Rama as an awesome incarnation of Vishnu (99.42-66, pp. 488-490).
The Rama-katha is narrated in full on the third occasion, following Jayadratha’s abortive attempt to abduct Draupadi. After her rescue, Yudhishthira turns to Markandeya to ask if there has been anyone as unfortunate who has had to suffer the ignominy of his wife abduction. Markandeya responds with the story of Rama.
The education of the princes does not seem to have included gathas (legendary ballads) or akhyanas (puranik tales), for Yudhisthira has not heard of Rama, Sita and Ravana and eagerly requests to be enlightened. This indicates that Ramayana as a kavya had not yet taken shape in the hands of Valmiki and was still an exciting katha (tale) of loss (bheda) of both kingdom and wife (like the Nala-Damayanti katha), war and victory (jaya)—virtually the template for the story of the Pandavas.
Markandeya’s account concentrates on the war and not, unlike Valmiki’s, on the thirteen years of exile in the forest and the search for Sita. While the births of Rama and Sita are disposed of in three verses innocent of any miraculous element, Ravana’s ancestry, birth and conquests (relegated to the last book by Valmiki) receive much greater attention, running to 56 verses and the narrative is logically developed. Therefore, the European scholars’ brushing aside this portion of the Ramayana’s Uttarakanda as a later addition may not be justified.
There are interesting details about Ravana’s ancestry in Markandeya’s account. Kubera, Pulastya’s son, abandons his father to follow his grandfather Brahma. Pulastya, in anger, creates Vishravas. In order to assuage his animosity, Kubera sends Vishravas three Rakshasis: Pushpotkata, Raka and Malini. Obviously they were attractive enough to divert the sage. The first gives birth to Ravana and Kumbhakarna; the second to Khara and Surpanakha; the third to Vibhishana, the handsomest, who becomes Kubera’s general (a detail not found elsewhere). There is no incident of his arguing with Ravana in favour of Sita’s release and being kicked out of Lanka. Instead, here he comes direct to Rama—presumably from Kubera’s realm—with four advisers,. Brahma despatches a Gandharvi named Dundubhi to take birth on earth as Manthara and bring about Rama’s exile—a detail not found in Valmiki.
The incidents involving Vishvamitra prior to Rama’s marriage to Sita, including the killing of the Rakshasi Taraka and her son Subahu, the rehabilitation of Ahalya and the breaking of Shiva’s bow are all missing—another indication that these are later additions by Valmiki to the Mahabharata narrative. Without any elaborate pretence at anger, Kaikeyi achieves her objective in just a couple of verses with a seductive smile. Bali and Sugriva fight their duel over a woman (11.48—presumably Tara, providing the psychological cause for Sugriva’s fascination with her even after he wins back his wife Ruma that Valmiki portrays). Bali ignores Tara’s sound advice, suspecting that she loves Sugriva (280.25). This provides more convincing motivation for fraternal strife than what we find in the Ramayana. In Lanka an old Rakshasa named Avindhya (absent in Valmiki) bolsters Sita’s morale through Trijata and prevents Ravana from killing her after Indrajit’s death. In recognition, Rama richly rewards him at the end. Avindhya’s dream, full of portents, contains an image of Lakshmana seated on a heap of bones, gulping boiled milk-and-honey rice (280.70) which is repeated by Karna to Krishna in the Udyoga Parva, also before the war. In Karna’s dream the image is the same, with Lakshmana replaced by Yudhishthira. Ravana assures Sita that he will never enjoy her by force because he loves her deeply—an insight into his character missing from Valmiki. Of Mandodari there is no sign. Sita’s hair in imprisonment is well-braided, shining, falling like a black snake—the same image that is used to describe Draupadi’s hair when she laments before Krishna in the Udyoga Parva. However, in Hanuman’s account to Rama he describes it, perhaps diplomatically, as "uncombed". Traditionally, the wife separated from her spouse would wear her hair in a single plait instead of dressing it elaborately. There is no signet ring of Rama for Hanuman to show Sita (a reference that scholars have argued to be an interpolation, such rings not being known then) and merely a passing reference to his setting Lanka ablaze (282.71). As evidence of his having met her, Sita sends back a gem with Hanuman along with the story of how Rama blinded a crow that attacked her (282.68-70).
There is a detailed account of the war but no incident of Garuda reviving the brothers entwined in Indrajit’s serpent arrows, nor does Hanuman fetch anything to resuscitate the mortally wounded Lakshmana. Instead, Vibhishana washes the brothers’ eyes with a special solution sent by Kubera whereby Lakshmana can see through Indrajit’s veil of invisibility and slay him. Thus, surreptitiously through Vibhishana, Kubera avenges himself on Ravana. After the war when Rama rejects Sita suspecting her chastity, she collapses but there is no fire-ordeal. It is left to Brahma to announce that because of Nalakubera’s curse Ravana did not dare to rape her. The story ends with the return to Ayodhya after Rama has sent Hanuman in advance to ascertain Bharata’s intentions. There is no touch of avatara in this Rama and Sita.
Markandeya urges Yudhishthira not to lament but to use arms to achieve success, particularly when Rama, without the help of four heroic brothers as Yudhishthira has, could destroy the mighty demon and his huge army assisted merely by "black-faced bears/and beast-like tree-men".
Yudhishthira now shifts tack from himself to ask if there has been any woman as famous and as dedicated to her spouse as Draupadi. That elicits the riveting story of Savitri.