This week is Epics week in my Religions of South Asia course. So yesterday I talked about the Mahabharata and today I talked about the Ramayana. Summarising an epic and exploring the issues that arise from it in 50 minutes is a challenge to say the least, especially when you also want to share some film clips (from Peter Brook, the Hindi TV series, and Nina Paley’s awesome Sita Sings the Blues – available here if you haven’t yet seen it).
Towards the end of this morning’s lecture I asked the students which story they preferred, and the answer was overwhelmingly in favour of the Ramayana. It set me wondering why this might be (and there was not time to ask!). A few thoughts:
– The Ramayana is a simpler story overall, and with a straightforward rationale of good vs evil. This contrasts with the complexity of the Mahabharata family tree and the problems of relating to a story essentially about warring families.
– The problematic aspects of the Ramayana plot (especially the way Sita is treated) are pretty juicy and easy to relate to and debate. So even though (female) students tend to prefer the character of Draupadi to that of Sita, they are still happier to discuss Sita’s predicament.
– The Ramayana has clearer role models – Rama as king, Sita as wife, Laksmana as brother, Hanuman as loyal friend – even if these are contested. In contrast it is difficult to pick out a hero in the Mahabharata. Yudhisthira might be the ideal king, but he also gambles away his kingdom and family, and has a massive meltdown after the battle. Arjuna is heroic yet somehow hard to relate to, and even he has some underhand battle tactics. Vidhura and the other wise advisors are good dharmic characters but far too often ignored. Krishna is a good friend but also involved in pushing the battle to its horrendous conclusion. Who in this huge and complex story can we really relate to or admire?
Of course it is the very complexity of the Mahabharata and its myriad of characters that intrigues me and keeps me reading on. But being so engrossed in that larger epic I had forgotten temporarily about the intrinsic appeal of a simpler story of love, abduction, banishment and the triumph of good over evil.