Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Epics! In particular, the Ramayana

When one writes a blog, one wonders if anyone reads it. If no one comments, or checks one of boxes, you have no idea - unless you check the stats. If you have been looking over my blog you may have seen three copies of the Ramayana our on my 'books read this year' list. I finished my latest copy last week. And this week bought a new copy!

Hanuman, Shatrughna, Rama, Sita, Bharata, Lakshmana
Over this summer and up into this October I have been reading the Ramayana. I read it a while ago, specifically the Penguin Classic Shortened Modern Prose version of the Indian Epic by R.K. Narayan. I was not a big fan of it then. I gave it another shot this summer, but something seemed missing. I watched a cartoon movie, more to figure out how to pronounce the names, and discovered there was a lot missing. I bought Ramesh Menon's Ramayana, A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic, published by North Point Press. There was a lot missing in the Penguin version, I discovered. Then I bought Bulbul Sharma's Ramayana for Children. That had more of the story in it than the Penguin edition. This is not to put down the Penguin Classic, I just did not enjoy the style. Maybe because it had to be so short, it became choppy, or because of the missed sections caused it not to flow as well as it might have.

So what IS the Ramayana? It is not just an Epic poem (the above mentioned retellings are all in English prose), but a treatise on life, on dharma. Dharma, in this case, is about your life's path, or fate, and being true to your path and yourself. At least as a high level overview. The Ramayana and Uttra Kanda (the Kanda is what we might call verses or book, and there are seven in this wonderful story) are worshiped by brahmans and the most holy of rishis. The Sanskrit version is about 24,000 verses long, 500 cantos, and in 7 books - the Kandas.

The basic story is of a ten-headed rakshasa demon king called Ravana. He prays for penance and in his praying he gains boons from the gods Brahma and Siva, but these boons, or gifts make him invincible to all but monkeys and humans. Ravana believes they are both too puny to be of any threat to him. The devas (deities) go to Brahma and Siva to ask for help as Ravana wants to take over the three worlds - the above, the below, and this plane we live on - but as they gave Ravana the boons there is nothing they can do. Vishnu says he will be born as a human and defeat Ravana.

Rama is born - the 7th avatar of Vishnu. Rama is one of four sons born to the three wives of their father. They live happily in Ayodhya. Sadly, Rama is cast out from his home, due to political family shenanigans, for 14 years. His new wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana go with him. They fight many adversaries and live in the quiet of the forests of India while Rama's brother Bharata rules reluctantly.

Unfortunately Ravana's demon sister Soorpanakha shows up at Rama and Sita's ashram and tries to take Rama away. She is disguised as a beautiful woman. Rama and Lakshmana refuse and after Soorpanakha sees Sita and realizes she has lost, turns into her demon form. Seeing this, Lakshmana cuts off her nose to get rid of her. Soorpanakha goes to Ravana and tells her brother what happened. Well, her version of events. Ravana goes to seek revenge but when he sees Sita, falls in love with her. Ravana tricks both Rama and Lakshmana away from their home and Ravana steals Sita away.

This is when things go bad for Ravana. All the evil deeds he has done over his extraordinarily long life begin to come back to haunt him - massive karma! To try and keep things here short, Rama and Lakshmana go searching for Sita. The king of the birds who tried to save Sita, is found by the brothers and tells them who took Rama's wife away and the direction he took her in.

The brothers come into the kingdom of the vanara - monkey people - help Sugriva become king of the vanara over his brother who has sworn not to fight against Ravana. With Sugriva and the great champion Hanuman, the vanara go in search of Sita. When they reach the southern shore of India, Hanuman leaps to the island of Lanka to see if Sita is there. She is. He has a token from Rama which he gives to Sita who is overjoyed to find her husband is still looking for her. Sita will not go with Hanuman because she wants no one else but her husband to touch her. So Hanuman returns to the main land and tells Rama of his wife's whereabouts.

Because of travel, monsoons, and other issues it is now almost a year since Sita had been kidnapped by Ravana. With the help of the sea god (who Rama nearly destroys), the vanara, the bear people led by Jambavaan, the brothers build a bridge to Lanka and a huge battle ensues.

Many of Ravana's family are killed, including his son Indrajit who was one of the best rakshasa warriors. Sita is returned to her husband. Because she has spent a year on Lanka as a prisoner of Ravana, many of the army say that Sita is no longer pure, that she must have succumb to the wiles of Ravana, as have all woman of all beings he had taken. Rama has her walk into a fire, an agnihotra, and the fire god Agni comes out of the flames asking why she had been sent to burn, that even her thoughts had been pure and only for Rama. All those present hear this and are overjoyed.

But wait! There's more!

Sita and Rama are reunited and return with Lakshmana to their home in Ayodhya. The 14 years are up. Bharata is glad to give up kingship. Rama and Sita are crowned. The people are thrilled. Things go well for a time, but rumors begin to spread. The people of Ayodhya think that Sita cannot be pure, because of Ravana. Rama casts her out to live at an ashram where a great sage, a powerful rishi - Valmiki lived. Sita lives in the women's ashram. She is pregnant with Rama's seed and gives birth to twin boys.

When the now young boys come across Rama and it is discovered who they all are, a great feast and sacrifice is to be held. Sita is sent for as the boys sing the Ramayana, as taught to them by Valmiki. When Sita arrives with the great sage, Valmiki, she says: "If I have not loved any other man but Rama, if I have worshiped only Rama in both my thoughts and deeds, then let my mother, Bhumi Devi, now receive me in her embrace." The earth opens up and Sita disappears into the ground on the throne of her Earth Goddess mother. The boys sing the final Kanda the next day and tell of the future and the success of Rama's rule.

Many, many years later, a rishi enters the palace to talk to Rama alone. He says that none can hear what he has to say, and no one is to enter the room while he is with Rama. Anyone disturbing them would have to be killed by Rama's own hand. Lakshmana guards to make sure none enter, knowing of the fate of any who enter. The rishi tells Rama it is time for his life to pass and tells Rama his history and creation story, that he is the avatar of Vishnu.

As this conversation is going on another rishi arrives and demands to be seen by Rama. Lakshmana tells Rishi Durvasa to wait. Durvasa is known for his power and his short temper and threatens Lakshmana and Rama and their brothers and sons with a curse. Knowing what will happen to him, but also knowing that doing this will save his brothers and nephews, he enters the room. Durvasa is treated well, fed and he leaves.

Rama cannot bring himself to kill Lakshmana and prepares to die. Lakshmana is sent away. To Lakshmana this is as if Rama had killed him. Indra himself came down to take Lakshmana to the other world awaiting him. As the word spreads that Rama will soon give up his life, the rakshasas who helped Rama win his battle over Ravana, the bear people, and the vanara came to be part of the ceremony.

As the news spread over Ayodhya the people came out crying. They rose like a tide before Rama and told him they would follow him to the after life. Sugriva, the rakshasas, and vanaras, said they too would follow Rama. And so it was.

There is so much more to this tale, this poem. I have summed up what I read in three books in a few lines. The original Sanskrit epic poem was 24,000 verses long, as I wrote earlier. The characters are full, rounded, filled with life and all the emotions and drive we have. The locations are real. It is said that Lanka is actually what we now call Sri Lanka.

Ravana is one of the nastiest pieces of work ever portrayed, but he does what he does for himself and his people. Or at least one can see that in some of his actions. Does this make him a good 'demon'? No, of course not. Is Rama being a complete numpty having his wife do a trial by fire? I think he has to have her do it. He believes in her innocence, after all he is the avatar of Vishnu, but Rama has to prove to others that their future queen is pure after living in Ravana's home for a year. Rama hopes this proves beyond doubt the greatness of Sita.

Rama and Ravana are not the only ones who worship Sita. Hanuman and Lakshmana also show love for her and with that love, the greatest respect and honor. In some ways, Hanuman and Lakshmana are every bit as pure as Sita and Rama, even better than Rama in some aspects. Lakshmana always brings Rama around when the king doubts himself. He is the rock for Rama.

Sita is abducted, and held prisoner, but she is a powerful woman. She decides to go into exile with her husband into the wilds. She helps set up home, when they end their travels over India. She refuses Ravana, the Rakshasa King - no small feat when you know what he is like and what his past is! When Sita is driven to the forest to live at Rishi Valmiki's ashram, she does not fall apart but teaches her sons all they need to know to be future kings. She is a powerhouse.

Hanuman is an extraordinary character, and one of my favorites. One of the Kandas is the story of Hanuman's journey to Lanka and is the only Kanda which does not have Prince Rama in it. Hanuman is another who doubts himself at the beginning, but becomes who he really is - the son of the wind, with amazing powers. Although in his youth he was a bit of a rapscallion, when his powers (which he does not understand at that point) are taken from him, he becomes one of the greatest students of the vanara and one of the most knowledgeable. He learns to use his powers wisely and justly and does not let this strength he has go to his head. When only part of the Ramayana is told, it is usually this Kanda, the Sundara Kanda which is told, and it is said that the telling of this part also imparts blessings on the venue and on to the people where it is told.

Ravana's family is large, with brothers and sisters and sons. Each have their own power, their own character. One of Ravana's brothers, Vibhishan, keeps warning Ravana that his abduction of Sita is wrong and he should stop and ask forgiveness. Vibhishan is so adamant about this, Ravana calls his brother a traitor and casts him out of Lanka. Exiled like Rama was. Ravana's brother goes to help Rama he is so disgusted with the Rakshasa King.

If you have never read the Ramayana, do so. It is worth the read. If you want a full, but quick read, I would highly recommend the sadly out of print Ramayana for Children, by Bulbul Sharma. If you want to go deeper and read all the grim, gruesome adult stuff which is left out of the kids version, then of the versions I have thus far read, try Ramesh Menon's The Ramayana, a modern retelling of the Great Indian Epic.

If you are Indian, or Hindi, I would love to have a conversation with you about this epic poem. Are there versions I should get my hands and eyes on that are better than the three I have? I would love to learn about it, and make sure I can pronounce the names as properly as I can! I want to learn from it. Give me a shout!

This is a great and complex tale which cannot be told in a blog post! It cannot be fully told in Menon's 686 pages I am sure! I hope I have whetted your whistle and got you interested in reading something that has been around since the 4th or 5th century, BCE and captures a way of thinking about what is right, being honest, allowing your emotions to be seen, being able to be strong without being over powering, and is a cracking good story!

Thanks for reading this!