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10 reasons you should read the Ramayana
An ancient epic covered in flowers, rainbows, and scented with sandalwood
Retold by William Buck
University of California Press
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The Ramayana is like the Illiad, Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Genesis, Revelation, Camelot, Narnia, and the Wizard of Oz all rolled into one. That may sound like an exaggeration, but it honestly feels like an understatement.
William Buck’s 1976 version is a retelling of the ancient Indian epic, not a direct translation. This makes it difficult to separate which parts are original and which parts are Buck’s own writing style and interpretation of the story. Setting that aside, Buck’s Ramayana absolutely floored me. It’s crammed with vivid detail and works on so many levels. It’s a religious and mystical story, of course, but it’s also a very entertaining epic fantasy tale that rewards the reader on every page.
It’s impossible to summarize, so let me just give you a sample of reasons why I found this book so wonderful:
1. The imagination
There are green people, red people, blue people, yellow people. Demons with many heads and many arms. Flying elephants. Mountains with wings. Cave cities and underground palaces. Souls the size of a thumb. Demons who ride into battle on giant goldfish. A mind-driven, city-sized flying chariot. Rain-horses. Cloud fortresses. Mermaids. Ghost-birds. Magic swords that follow you around. Magic sandals that beat together when injustice is done. Bear warriors covered in war paint. A mountain of herbs transplanted from the moon. An “anger room” where you go when you are angry. Birds placed as alarm systems. Mechanical water-operated robots. The wishing forests of the Treasure God.
And that’s about 1% of the dizzyingly imaginative things in this book.
2. The descriptions
The descriptive passages in the Ramayana are long and lush. But there are also great individual lines, like when Hanuman the monkey (transformed into a cat) sneaks into the demon king Ravana’s palace and eyes him sleeping:
Ravana lay like a collection of wrongs, a mass of harm and injury and brutality and darkness of heart.
When Hanuman finally discovers Sita, imprisoned in the Demon King’s inner garden, she looks like “a torn leaf from a doubtful book” and “a prayer unfinished.”
3. The dialogue
There’s some great dry wit in this book. In one scene, a charioteer runs to a priest in a panic:
“Brahamana, the world is without support, it is gone to Hell. The old Kishatriya Dharma is vanished forever. Sorrow will kill the King, shackled by lust to a vile prostitute posing as our Queen.”
Vasishtha said, “Truly I find the world much the same as ever.”
“They say that Death has met us all.”
“Many times, I have heard.”
Ravana, the Demon King, quips:
“My time is far too valuable to waste on anything but daydreams.”
My favorite retort comes when Ravana’s advisors are pleading with him to turn back from his wicked ways to save himself.
“Ravana all your wealth is wasted, what’s the use of being rich if you won’t spend your gold to do good for other people?”
“Someone said that already,” replied the Demon King.
In a short line, we feel all the world-weariness of a lord who has everything on earth, has heard it all, and just doesn’t care anymore.
4. The characters
There are many characters in the story, but the minor characters are richly drawn and filled out—and much of what happens with them at the start pays off in the end.
Near the beginning, we meet Kumbhakarna, a giant who is granted any wish. He wishes to sleep for six months for every day he is awake because he finds the world so “stupid.” When he is awakened later in the story, he says, “Behold the magnified evils of being awake and subject to reason. My only law is dreams…”
We also meet Guha the Hunter King, who is a kind of Robin Hood character with his merry men in the forest. He stands outside civilized and religious worlds and yet we can tell he is a good person, but in a wild sort of way.
The demons are also complex characters, with conflicting philosophies and goals. Like the fallen angels in Paradise Lost, they are evil but noble. The wisest of them seem to understand their place, their role, in the big sweep of the universe, and this makes them much more interesting as villains.
Finally, there’s a wife at the beginning of the tale who is the source of much of the trouble in the book. And yet, near the end of the story, seemingly out of nowhere, we are told about her childhood, reframing her whole life and making the reader see her in a completely different light.
5. The battles
The climax of the book centers around an epic battle between demons and monkeys and bears. It absolutely doesn’t disappoint. Each duel is wonderfully drawn, and each fight somehow tops the one before. Every beat is carefully placed in a way that you can visualize it second by second, without any confusion.
The head of the demon army, General Prahasta, chugs down a glass of soma stolen from heaven and eats a string of red peppers, then crunches the glass in his mouth and swallows it.
Then we get a description of his chariot:
Things were loaded all over Prahasta’s chariot. He had slaughter-sledges, butcher knives and meat-hooks, chains and claws and clamps; he carried bombs and rockets and poisons and appalling jealousies; delusions and bad dreams, diseases and ambitions, many crises and confusions. Wrong-way road signs and false maps of mirages were tied on with broken promises.
It goes on from there, including “puzzles with essential parts missing.” Truly evil stuff.
6. The deaths
One thing that struck me was how vividly and poetically the deaths are described in this book. That may not seem like a selling point, but one of the big themes of the book is mortality, and these descriptions are almost like meditations on dying. When Rama’s brother Lakshamana dies he is sitting by a river. “With open eyes he looked around him and saw all things as Rama, thought of them as Rama. … The life-centers stopped spinning and went out, and Lakshmana’s energy … rose step by step up along his backbone…”
In heaven, Lord Indra heard empty stone vault doors closing one after another in echoes. Sight was closing, hearing closing, mind turning away. Spirit was rising and leaving empty rooms. The ether space within the heart was empty, fires and lamps turned off, locks and threads snapped and untied, and all released.
7. The wisdom
The Ramayana is a very entertaining story, but there’s also a lot of wise adages scattered throughout. Here are just a few that have stuck with me:
“Rama, demons do not love men, therefore men must love each other.”
“Princess, war is within us, it’s nothing outside.”
“Men are mines, Men are precious mines. Oh, Rama, did you think that dark was bad?”
“Everything counts, and so be kind.”
“We look at man’s life and we cannot untangle this song / Rings and knots of joy and grief, all interlaced and locking”
8. The moral
There are a lot of morals to the story in the Ramayana, but the most surprising to me was the theme of forgiveness. The opening of the book describes the universe as “a bright jewel set firm in forgiving and held fast by love.” “The entire worlds are watching your deeds, and therefore forgiveness is Dharma.”
Tales of forgiveness are woven through the epic, and by the end everyone (and I mean everyone, even demons) is forgiven. I guess this surprised me because all my life I’ve associated forgiveness with Christianity. Through Jesus, Christians are forgiven and thus called to forgive others. I’ve even kind of thought of forgiveness as the opposite of karmic justice. In U2’s song “Grace,” Bono sings that grace “travels outside of karma.”
I kind of thought of forgiveness as a uniquely Christian virtue, but here it is in this Indian epic everywhere, like some kind of massive forgiveness pinball machine.
My speculation for how forgiveness “works” based on the stories collected in the Ramayana is that it is, in fact, a way to break the cycle of reincarnation. At one point, a character is doomed to an eternal cycle of bad lives, unless they are forgiven. That seems a pretty straight forward case.
There’s also two other concepts in the story that may relate as well: That everything is an illusion and that everything is Dharma (justice?). If everything we experience is an illusion, then forgiveness is simply an acceptance that whatever wrongs we experience are nothing but bad dreams. Alternatively, if everything in the universe follows just laws, then bad things happening are only apparent evils that ultimately serve righteous ends. We forgive wrongs when we see how they are part of a larger, better order of things.
How these two ideas fit together (maybe they don’t) is unclear to me and surely requires some further knowledge of Indian philosophy and religion.
9. The worldview
The great thing about classic books is that they feel like they could’ve been written yesterday. The Ramayana is no different. It seems to relate to so many contemporary ideas swarming around in our culture today. Are we living in a computer simulation? Do we live in a multiverse? What is the nature of consciousness? The story itself has the kind of eclectic randomness of a online role playing game or a LitRPG story with overpowered main characters. It seems to fit right in to a culture where the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominates popular imagination.
And another thing: Time is massive in this story. The entire epic occurs in a previous age of the earth, which had ages before and ages yet to come. And the characters cycle through multiple lives over many eons of time. (One character holds his breath for a thousand years.) And there are some stories that play out over and over again.
And so even though most Americans don’t believe in reincarnation, this ancient epic does seem to resonate with the scientific narrative of life we have embraced, of living in a universe measured in millions of years, of generations of creatures unknowingly playing out the same dramas over and over again in infinite repetition.
As Willa Cather once said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
Or as the Barenaked Ladies sang in 1998, “It’s all be done before.”
10. The ending
The ending of the Ramayana is the very best part, in my opinion. And yet I don’t even know how to describe how it made me feel.
It’s nothing I was expecting. It’s mystical. It’s weird. It’s the height of poetry, in which images express some profound mystery of existence you can’t describe in any other way. It’s not what you expect to happen and yet somehow it seems exactly right. It left me in wonder and awe.
It’s like the end of a play and the start of an adventure at the same time. It’s that feeling you get when people you love die but then seem bigger and more alive than they were before. They become an invisible part of the world you inhabit, as if their embodied life was just the seed of something much, much bigger; and you realize in a flash the invisible threads that were connecting them to everything—everything—that exists. Every door out is a door further in.
As Willa Cather once said, “The end is nothing. The road is all.”
Or as Semisonic sang in 1998, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
Special thanks to my friend Josh for recommending this book.
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