Saturday, December 11, 2010

The language of the Ramayana: Sanskrit

MS 2165
MS in Sanskrit on cream coloured paper, Rajasthan, India, ca. 1800, 256 ff. (complete), 17x32 cm, single column, (11x26 cm), 14-16 lines in Devanagari script, by several scribes, verse numbers highlighted in orange-red or with red strokes.
Binding: Rajasthan, India, ca. 1800, roughly carved varnished wooden boards with accumulation of chundum, poti without cord holes.
Provenance: 1. Sam Fogg cat. 17(1996):46.
Commentary: Ramayana is the shorter of the 2 great epic poems of India; composed in Sanskrit ca. 300 BC by the poet Valmiki in ca. 24.000 couplets in 7 books, about 3 1/2 times as long as the Iliad. The division of the Adhyatma-Ramayana into 18 books of roughly equal length was made for didactic purposes. The epic describes the royal birth of Rama in the kingdom of Ayodhya (Oudh), his success of bending the god Shiva's mighty bow and his family's adventures and fights with kings, demons and gods.

Sources and Ramayana related webpages

Doniger, Wendy. The Hindus, An Alternative History. “Chapter 9 Women and Ogresses in
the Ramayana”:
400 BCE to 200 CE. The Penguin Press (New York, 2009) Print.

Lutgendorf, Philip . "Monkey in the Middle”: The Status of Hanuman in Popular Hinduism." Religion 27.4 (1997), 311-332.

Narayan, R.K. The Ramayana. Penquin Books (New York, 1972) Print.

Parkhill, Thomas. The Forest Setting in Hindu Epics, Princes, Sages, Demons. The Edwin
Mellen Press (Lewiston, 1995) Print.

Sperl, Stefan . "Epic and Exile: Comparative Reflections on the Biography of the Prophet Muhammad,

Virgil's Aeneid, and Valmiki's Ramayana." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 26.1 (2006), 96-104.

Vyas, S.N. India in the Ramayana Age. Atma Ram & Sons ( Delhi, 1967) Print.

Zacharias, Usha. "Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation." Social Text 19.4 (2001), 29-51.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sita the Ideal Woman?

This is an interesting web artice which reviews modern Indian reactions to the rejection of Sita.
Sita being taken away by Mother Earth

Yet another twist, Sita rejects Rama

That said, the archetypes ring true: Rama the warrior hero obsessed with duty and abandoned/orphaned Sita becomes a hero of her own through her suffering.  This shows how to get the best picture of these stories, understanding things like archetypes, scenes and setting show us how the writer, such as Valmiki, used these tools to give us a deep understanding of motives and actions of characters.    Without these we would miss out on so much.
                I would like to close my paper by going back to Valmiki’s lament over the cries of the female bird after the death of her mate.  I could not help to meditate on the fate of Sita.  In life arrows of fate can interrupt our lives and sometimes there is no good reason.  Life happens.  This seems to happen to Sita.  Sita marries a prince and gets kicked out of the kingdom, gets abducted by the King of Demons, and gets dumped by the ideal man twice.  To me, it is Sita that become the true hero.  It takes real power to overcome the adversities and injustices in our lives without becoming demons in the process.  I think this is what Valmiki is getting at.  In this way, Sita achieves the ideal of her archetype; resilience.

Understanding Rama's Rejection of Sita

My research in general showed me that in Rama’s obedience to his duty to be an ideal man or ruler he had to reject Sita, because he could not rule the people with these rumors flying around.  He had to be perfect.  Again, throughout the Ramayana, Rama chooses the interests beyond himself and ordinary affairs.  But did he not have an obligation to Sita?  Our ideal man makes comes off cold and too rigid in his blind devotion to his perceived “duties”. Who mourns for Sita? Not Rama.  Can you imagine Odysseus giving Penelope the boot?
Doniger explains Rama’s treatment of Sita  is likely a reaction to  Kaikeyi’s  manipulation King Dasaratha.  Doniger quotes Lakshmana “The King (Dasaratha) is perverse, old, and addicted to sex, driven by lust”.  Rama says as much himself: “He’s an old man, and with me away he is so besotted by Kaikeyi that that he is completely in her power, and capable of doing anything.  The King has lost his mind. I think sex (kama) is much more potent than either artha or dharma. For what man would give up a good son like me for the sake of a pretty woman?”

                Doniger's reasoning continues “Rama, cares for Sita only as political pawn and an unassailably chaste wife (artha and dharma over kama). Rama thinks that sex is putting him in political danger (keeping his allegedly unchaste wife will make the people revolt).”  So our ideal man must have an ideal wife to run his ideal kingdom.

Unexpected Tragedy: Rama's Rejection of Sita

One would think that after destroying evil, Rama and Sita would head back to the palace or forest and live happily ever after.  But the story takes and important and shocking, at least to me, twist.  Rama rejects Sita.
                Social Text  writer Usha Zacharias examines this tragedy and summarizes it well “Sita is captured through an illusive trick of King Ravana, who wishes to avenge Rama’s mocking rejection of his sister’s sexual advances. She spends the next eleven months as a captive in Ravana’s island kingdom of Lanka, known for its abundance in every kind of material luxury and for indulgence in sensual excess. Rejecting Ravana’s lustful overtures and his offer of material pleasures, she passes torturous months in Lanka as the epitome of ascetic womanhood, meditating exclusively on Rama. When Rama finally wins the war against Ravana, he does not wish to take Sita back, since she has been desired and touched by Ravana. To prove her integrity, Sita leaps into the fire before the contending armies and emerges unscathed by the flames, her purity validated by the gods”.

                Surprisingly, after this “trial by fire” Rama later rejects  Sita again,  as Zacharias continues to explain “These sections narrate how Rama, after his victory in the battle and reinstatement sovereign, abandons the pregnant Sita in the forest after hearing rumors that question the sexual propriety of her relationship with Ravana. Cast out of the kingdom, Sita finds shelter at the hermitage of the lower-caste ascetic, Valmiki, who brings up her twin sons and becomes their guru. At Valmiki’s insistence, Rama once again summons Sita to prove her purity publicly but instead of undergoing a second trial by fire and returning to Rama, Sita prays to the earth, her mother, to receive her back again. The earth splits open and Sita descends into its depths on a throne of snakes, and Rama is left to rule the kingdom for another ten thousand years with her golden image by his side.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The mother of all battles

The Ramayana quest concludes with an epic battle between Rama and the monkey army against the demons and their King Ravana.   Mere archery will not due.  Rama summons divine weapons and magical incantations to destroy Ravana at his lair on the island fortress of Lanka.   Victorious in battle, Rama is reunited with Sita and the mission is completed. 
Rama ready to attack Ravana at his lair on the island of Lanka

The island of Lanka off the Indian Coast, home of Ravana

The battle for Sita and the destruction of the demons begins

Rama and the monkey army confont Ravana and his troops

The battle rages on (notice the use of chariots)

The tide has turned in favor of Rama and Ravana is and his City of Lanka is destroyed.

Introducing Lord Hanuman

Through trickery, Ravana, the King of the Rakaswas, abducts Sita in order to make her his queen.   Rama and Lakshmana rush off in pursuit of Sita with the aid of an army of monkeys. 

Rama chases a deer

Ravana and Sita

Especially beloved by the Hindus is Rama’s monkey friend Hanuman. Religion writer Phillip  Lutgendorf give us the back-story of the importance of Hanuman and monkeys “Hanuman and his va¯nara cohorts (a word that appears literally to mean ‘forest creature’,and that became one of the most common Sanskrit synonyms for ‘monkey’), make their first appearance in Indic literature in the fourth book of the Valmiki Ra¯ma¯yana (ca.fourth century BCE), when Ram, searching for his kidnapped wife, penetrates into their forest realm of Kishkindha.

Unlike most of the other categories of non-human beings who occupy the crowded cosmos of Sanskrit epic literature—devas, gandharvas, asuras, ra¯ksasas, na¯gas, etc.—Valmiki’s highly sentient simians, endowed with sharp claws and luxuriant tails, but also with the faculty of speech and with such supernatural talents as shape-shifting and flight, appear to be without parallel or precursors in other early texts; indeed, the epic itself explains this circumstance by making them the offspring of celestials, fathered on va¯nara women for the specific purpose of assisting Vishnu-Ram in his earthly task of subduing demons”.   Further, Hanuman is presented as having absolute devotion to Rama.  As Rama has absolute devotion to his cause against evil, Hanuman the archetypal servant/innocent, has absolute devotion to Rama.

Movie Time: The Abduction of Sita

Clip One

Clip Two

Life in Forest Exile

Banishment to the forest gives me an opportunity to discuss the forest setting in this story, which is a part of our focus in the Society and Identity Discovery Unit.    In order to understand the forest archetypal scene, I turned to Thomas Parkhill’s The Forest Setting in Hindu Epics.  Parkhill offers many explanations as to the meaning of these forest settings.  He explains that “going to the forest” can mean many things, but primary it means in Indian culture
 “renouncing the world”.    Parkhill explains that in Hindu epics, the forest, as opposed to the city-states, is where sages, demons and talking animals coexist.   It can also be understood as a place to “come of age”.   It is this environment which Rama his brother Lakshmana and wife Sita are sent to exile.   I interpreted Parkhill’s work as presenting the forest scene as a preparation place for Rama’s quest.  It reminded me of the Christian story of Jesus being led to the desert to be tempted by the devil for forty days, prior to his ministry.   Perhaps exiles in these settings express the idea that we need to remove ourselves from society in preparation for our quests.  In other words, the cares of society, culture, and civil duty could impede Rama’s duty to destroy evil.  Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East writer Stefan Sperl expresses Rama’s duty as “Righteousness,’ as the Sanskrit word dharma is translated here, means the unquestioning acceptance of the fate that destiny has reserved for one, even if it involves renunciation of all one’s privileges and rights. Thus Rama departs into exile to face fourteen years of hardship ,deprivation, and, eventually, war”.

Rama, Sita and Rama's brother Lakshmana enter the Dandaka Forest

How Rama meet Sita and began his quest

By successfully stringing Lord Shiva’s bow, a feat impossible for a normal human, he  wins the hand of Sita, also of divine birth, as his wife.

After the marriage of Rama and Sita,  King Dasaratha announces his intent to make Rama his heir and crown prince.  However, King Dasaratha made a promise in the past to this wife Kaikeyi that she may make two requests of him in the future, which King Dasaratha must fulfill without conditions or reservations. 

Sita's birth in King Janaka's Field.  Sita can be understood as Mother Earth's daughter and King Janaka's adopted daughter.


After some palace intrigue, and a complete meltdown of King Dasaratha,  Kaikeyi’s son is named crown prince instead of Rama.   

Kaikeyi demands King Dasaratha honor her demands

For her second request Kaikeyi demands that Rama is banished to the forest for 14 years.  Rama does not complain, or even seek an alternative.  He submits, because his destiny is to vanquish evil, not become a King.  To Rama, maintaining the cultural understandings of the importance of oaths and boons are more important, and Valmiki presents Rama as an “ideal man” who follows lofty ideals.  This discipline reinforces the warrior archetype and guards our Rama from chaos and out-of- control feelings which may tarnish him or impede him against the demons.  Rama must always think of the greater good.

To the Forest

City of Ayodhya, Birthplace of the Ideal Man

Born in the Northern Indian City of Ayodhya to the warrior caste family of King Dasaratha, Rama is educated in the culture, philosophy and literature of his people as well as archery.   He uses these skills at archery to travel with religious leaders to destroy certain Rakshasas and restore the Hindu rituals.  As I stated earlier, Rama is an archetypal warrior hero and meets all of the qualities listed in the description on the course webpage.   One that I noticed throughout the text was Rama’s discipline, especially the fact that he will follow commands and do his duty without reservation.  Rama is presented as person who will always do the “right thing” and will do nothing that will take him away from his quest. He is known as he "ideal man".

City of Ayodya:

Golden Temple Located in the City:

The Crisis and the Solution

The Ramayana begins with explaining the need for our warrior hero Rama. There is a crisis in the order of the universe.  Dr. Vyas relates the background of the crisis, which I will summarize.    Sometime in the distant past, the Hindu Gods made a pact with a certain group of creatures called Rakshasas.  These Rakshasas maintain order in the universe for these Gods in exchange for immunity from destruction.  They are in fact, untouchable, and could only be destroyed by a human.  However, as absolute power has a tendency to corrupt; the deal backfires as the Rakshasas begin to misuse power over humanity.   They become evil personified.  Further, the Rakshasas can change their appearance and they often harass the religious caste of India by interfering with religious rituals and human affairs.  With evil run amok, the Gods hatch a plan to incarnate Vishnu as the human Rama and make it Rama’s destiny to wipe out the evil clan of Rakshasas, which we would understand as a type of shape-shifting demon.  Their prime target is the demon King Ravana.




Origins of Indian Storytelling

One of the best resources on the history behind the Ramayana I found, was Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, An Alternative History.   Doniger relates how the stories such as the Ramayana were created and transmitted by charioteers in the army, who told these stories to the troops round the camps at night.  I can imagine that this was used to inspire the troops for   
the long marches and battles which lie ahead.  Further, I speculate that these stories may have sparked discussions by the soldiers, perhaps discussions of honor and duty.   Valmiki’s Rama would have been quite an inspiration to these men as his archetype is clearly that of the warrior hero.

Music Break

 Dr. Vyas explains that later that still deep in thought, Valmiki is encouraged by the God Brahma to speak about this injustice by telling the story of the ideal man Rama and use the poetic style of the curse as the format of Ramayana.  Further, it is said that the Ramayana was taught to Rama’s sons by Valmiki and then to the people. In this light, we could understand the origin of the Ramayana as addressing injustice.  I will address later what I think is the greatest injustice in the story; Rama’s rejection of Sita.


By tradition, the Ramayana is attributed to a forest sage and poet by the name of Valmiki.   According to Dr. Vyas in his book India in the Ramayana Age, the story goes that one day this Valmiki was meditating in the forest.  During these meditations, Valmiki becomes focused on a male and female bird engrossed in romantic play.  This scene is violently interrupted by the errant arrow from an unseen archer, which deprive the female bird of her mate.  Valmiki is crushed by the tragedy and utters a poetic curse to the hunter:
No fame be thine for endless time,
 Because, base outcast, of thy crime,
Whose cruel hand was fain to slay
One of this gentle pair at play.

Purpose of this Quest

For my special research project, I choose to research the Ramayana by Valmiki and the Discovery Unit on Society and Identity.  It is my belief that the Ramayana is best understood through the “lens” of this Discovery Unit, as it has much to say regarding the societies of Ancient India and the characters in the epic.   Also, the Ramayana is influential and relevant today, as it is still revered and discussed by the people of modern India and East Asia as well.  To me, the Ramayana is more than just a collection of old myths and folklore to be passed on for amusement or entertainment, but the Ramayana is a complex epic narrative that address the issues of its day and important philosophical concepts, which I believe are meant to engage the reader in meditating on these matters.  In other words, the Ramayana is meant to teach as well as entertain or transmit culture.  While delving into archetypes and social structure of this story, I would also like to review the literary and historical elements of the Ramayana, and share the yields of my research.      I began my quest by reading the Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Ramayana, which is based on the Tamil version of the epic, in its entirety, as well as our assigned readings. It is my understanding that there are many different versions which vary by geographic regions.  Also, some versions have different presentations of the warrior hero Rama and different endings to the story. 

A little morning music to envoke the Muse.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Our Journey Begins............

The Ramayana Project/ MUSEUM PROJECT III
Ron Vest
Dr. Carol Robinson
Great Books I
Kent State University