Epics over time: Reinterpreting Ramayana in a modern context
The Beginning : Understanding the Epic as a Child
I just recently read Anand Neelakantan’s Vanara, a very good retelling of the Vaali-Sugreeva tale from Vaali’s perspective and it compelled me to write a few words on my take of Ramayana(for folks who dont know Ramayana, a quick link to its recap- its one of the best known mythologies in India that has huge relevance even today and Ram is in the news recently with the historic verdict in India).
As a child, when my grandmother -a raconteur par excellence, animated these epic tales to life there was one implicit understanding that was expected. We needed to agree that Ramayana was beyond debate and that Lord Ram’s action were beyond question. The entire Ramayana (and Mahabarata) works ethically and morally if we make one underlying assumption: Ram is God and what he does for uplifting justice will always have meaning however wrong it may seem in the human sense of fairness . We needed to show complete surrender to Ram (like Hanuman) and accept his doings as the work of God. This holds true for a majority of believers in India, still.
However as an inquisitive adult one begins to ask question and draw parallels from the happenings of the world around you and in the society. And there were some dubious elements in the narration of Ramayana that brought out gray elements in Lord Ram’s characterization. Not everything was black and white as my grandmother had once narrated to me. In fact this was constantly highlighted as free thinkers as a reason to disparage the ethic itself. And this got me asking a basic question on the authorship itself.
The Continuation : Re-interpreting it during my journey as an Adult
For a person who is deified as an incarnation of God and who is venerated for ages to come with temples and hymns, why would an author like Valmiki create the epic with some dubious occurrence that may lead to an interpretation that questions the intentions of the main character. After all, Valmiki could have glossed over these events in his narration. For example he could have skipped the Vaali episode and just written that Ram killed Vaali without getting into the specifics. He could have cast a stronger aspersion on Sita and made it seem all the more justified for Ram to ostracize her. Why would someone paint a story around God that may throw the intentions of God open to question years down the line.
To me — this is precisely the reasons for the permanence of these tales through the ages. It is possible to say Ram had specific reasons for his actions that cuts across the fabric of space and time through multiple births and we cannot understand all the workings of God with our human mind(in Hinduism you can also explain any happening as a karmic justice, with a backstory that goes back to previous births). But that would be injustice to the authors of these epics themselves and in some sense to the Gods themselves who wanted it to be written a certain way. To me these character flaws (if you could call them that) is essentially a retelling of the times the characters lived in and the constraints under which they operated in. It is not super hero story of a person who could do no wrong (unfortunately most Indian movies stick to super hero narratives) but that of a warrior who believed in certain just causes and abide by it but at a cost to his own personal happiness and sometimes with convoluted moral justifications in his quest to obtain what he believed was right. It is like how a once ideological Trotsky explained away the brutality unleashed during the Red Terror as the end justifying the means, since the larger goal was to install a Communist state and not return to monarchy.
To me, these episodes in Ramayana was a foreboding of how convoluted morality and human kind would become in the 4th age or Kali yuga (current age), where injustice would super-cede and it would become difficult to follow one’s ideologies if one needed to achieve the so called “success” or “victories” in life. In the specific example of Ram killing Vaali by unfair means, it is a perfect example of how an upward mobility happens in corporate world. Vaali and Sugreeva , two brothers of Vanara kingdom were in conflict over the right to rule. Vaali the elder and stronger one was the current ruler and Sugreeva was exiled. Ram had to kill Vaali in order to gain support of Sugreeva (Vaali’s brother) and his army of Vanaras in order to fight his enemy Ravana. And Ram could only kill him by shooting an arrow from hiding as it was impossible to face him in a dual. Vaali’s strength was in arm to arm fighting and Ram’s was in archery. One needs to use the strength to their advantage when it comes to winning. Vaali was a man who was naive to believe winning was needed by integral means. He was a man from a previous era where he believed the code of conduct of war. Sugreeva was more practical and realized he needed to win with a more powerful ally than face up to a suicidal cause even if it could be construed as cheating. It already showed a slow transition of the times, from Tretta Yuga to the upcoming Dwapara Yuga (the one where Mahabharata happened) and how right and wrongs were going to be more skewed in the next one.
Whether Vaali was justified in his anger and in ousting Sugreeva and taking back his wife is not the question. There have been kings with anger before and in the laws of those times probably it was accepted practice for a king to cohabit with his brother’s wife if he won the brother in a duel. This was a battle between two brothers and Rama for all purposes was not directly connected to either of them. In fact Rama’s interest in this could be argued as more mercenary , for he needed an army to fight Ravana and here by siding with one brother he would be able to get one.
Hence ushered in an age in India where internal conflicts were resolved by inviting a third person who would then expect something else return (there is no free lunch!). How is it different from the later rulers of India, who invited the British in order to resolve internal disputes thus selling their throne to be a puppet of the British in return for ousting their cousin or brothers? And this is where the power of the epic stands that we still debate them after thousands of years. No man was perfect and God even in a man’s perform is operating under the constraints of a man. He has decisions to make and consequences to face. His actions have interpretations and his interpretations may not always be favorable. But in this they depicted how humanity has to operate in the coming years and how humanity will navigate
The Conclusion : My acceptance as an adult in today’s context
To me this epic is great for this specific reason. It does not say precisely that this is right or that is wrong. It does not glorify Rama beyond all wrongs. It basically puts the responsibility of one’s actions on oneself and a forbearing that the law of Karma will eventually bear upon the individual depending on his actions. Neither Rama or Krishna enjoyed their life even after their victories. Ram , after his eventual victory of Ravana and regaining his throne in Ayodhya had to do away with the very wife he fought to win. His life after was considered a heaven for its citizens but whether Ram was truly happy in his loneliness is something to be pondered. In fact ,connecting the dots across space and time, it is said that Vaali was re-born as the hunter Jara, during the next age who then shot an arrow at Krishna and brought about his death and the end of that avatar. This was Karmic justice as per the epics.
Whether it be the curses of the hapless women (Gandhari in Mahabaratha and Tara, Vaali’s wife in Ramayana) or whether it is Karma catching up with them- it left a more telling message echoing the eons of time- even GOD cannot escape the consequences of laws of nature. That to me were the essence of the epics in itself.