Ramayana vs Mahabharata

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.


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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6 Responses to Ramayana vs Mahabharata

  1. That must have been some class if you covered all that in 50 minutes!

    I owned a VHS copy of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata (and loved what he did with casting), have seen Sita Sings The Blues and have watched chapters of the Hindi series on Hulu. I also watched a stage production of The Ramayana put on in Chicago 30+ years ago by the International Society For Krishna Consciousness (of which I was a proud member at the time). A woman who does second level support for my company visited from India a few weeks ago. Somehow we got to talking about Indian movies, which I had given up on a long time ago. She suggested some films if I wanted to give Indian Cinema another chance, and one was Maya Bazaar which turned out to be available on You Tube. Once I found that I soon discovered a bunch of other Telugu films based on the epics and the Puranas, like Bhakta Prahlada. It is clear that these old stories still capture people’s imaginations.

    There was a time when I may have liked the Ramayana better than the Mahabharata. I think now that the Mahabharata is actually the better story. In ISKCON we knew that both Rama and Krishna were incarnations of Vishnu, but Krishna was who we were most interested in. I like that the characters in the Mahabharata are not perfect. There is something about how none of the important characters in the story have a conventional birth that appeals to me as well.

    If your students want to read these epics (and are not committed enough to go through the full text) the versions by William Buck are pretty good.

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  5. Ritesh says:

    Hi Naomi! I read all your Mahabharata posts and loved each one of them. I have been a Mahabharata junkie for a long time. I have read the RK Narayan version which is very popular in India and Ramesh Menon’s version which was pretty good. I have also watched the Hindi TV series which aired here in India in the late 1980s. However, what gave me great insight into the Mahabharata and the struggles of its various characters, is the collection of essays written by Irawati Karve. It is called ‘Yuganta – The End of an Epoch’. It has just about 200 odd pages, but every page has a nugget of wisdom. I would strongly recommend it. Please keep writing about the Mahabharata and your insights on this timeless epic.

    • Thanks so much for your comments Ritesh. I am always happy to hear from others who love the epic! I am not sure how much more I will be blogging about it now that I have finished it and moved onto the Ramayana, but thank you for the book recommendation! Naomi

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