Dec 25, 2011

The Scaffoldings of Ramayana

If you have ever wondered how gods are made, one look at the Ramayana narrated within the Mahabharata is enough to illuminate this process.  Yes, there is a Ramayana inside Mahabharata, and it is substantially different from the Valmiki Ramayana. Ramayana is supposed to be older than Mahabharata, and we can see how in a few generations, myths have sprung up about the major characters and deified them.
The context of this story is provided by Jayadrath who abducts Draupadi. The Pandavas fight him and bring her back, after which Yudhishthir converses with Brahmans. “We have suffered a lot because that wretch abducted our wife” he says. “Have other men ever suffered like us?” In reply, Markandeya narrates the story of Ram and Sita to the Pandavas who listen with rapt attention.
Markandeya is more or less faithful to the original storyline, but he certainly exaggerates the story and shifts the paradigm from history to myth. From the very beginning Markandeya depicts Ram as an incarnation of Vishnu while Valmiki Ramayana treats him as a human hero for the most part. Ram’s strength and prowess in war are vastly exaggerated. For example, In Valmiki Ramayana, Ram kills Ravan with an arrow that clefts his chest apart. But in Mahabharata, Ram sets Ravan and his chariot afire, so much so that not even his ashes can be found later!
Several magical properties of Ram that were not found in Valmiki Ramayana, but have now become a staple of folklore, can be found inside Mahabharata. For example, there are no floating stones in the original Ramayana, the Ram Setu is simply built by a skilled architect Nala out of ordinary material. By the time of Mahabharata, the stone have started floating. Thus Ram makes the transition from human being to God.
There is also an attempt to fit Ram into the mold of what would later be known as “Maryada Purushottam”. The incident of Ram killing Bali is generally considered a stain in his character, and even his most ardent devotees struggle to justify this step. Markandeya presents Bali as simply an enemy, and omits the back story. In doing so, he erases any question of Ram’s dubious ethics. In Valmiki Ramayana, Ram is portrayed as skilled politician given to frequent displays of temper. But according to Markandeya, he is a godly figure whose aura precedes him, to which Vibhishan is attracted. Vibhishan is portrayed as his saintly devotee, though again, in the original Ramayana, Vibhishan betrays his brother and makes an alliance with another human being to gain a kingdom. Thus is Ram’s reputation as a famous deity cemented.
A larger than life villain was also required to complement this exaggerated hero, as it would be underwhelming to have him battle an ordinary villain. Ravan has only one head in Ramayan, but by this time he has acquired nine more. To make him appear really dangerous, Markandeya even has him cut up one of those heads and offer it to Brahma.
Ravan’s character has grown in inverse proportion to his power: as he grows more powerful, he grows more despicable. In Valmiki Ramayan, Ravan was portrayed as a scholar, veena player, and extremely intelligent person. He had a magnetic personality that even Hanuman felt attracted to at first sight. In the Mahabharata, however, Ravan has degenerated into a despicable wretch. In Ramayan, Ravan chooses of his own volition to not lay hands on Sita. In Mahabharata, he has been cursed by a sage that he will die if he lays hands on an unwilling woman. Thus Markandeya mythologizes Ravan’s villainy by implying that if not for the curse, he would ravage Sita.
This part also mythologizes Sita by proving her chastity beyond doubt (since Ravan is alive, he could not have touched her). Sita’s character, meanwhile, has also made the grand transition from a damsel in distress to goddess. As grandness goes, the Agni Pariksha scene is the grandest of all. Instead of the three gods present in the original, (Agni, Indra and Brahma), Markandeya cites the entire host of gods including Ram’s deceased father Dasharath in “divine and effulgent form”! Sita does NOT walk into the fire, but instead calls out to the elements (air, water, and fire) to prove her purity.  The gods Vayu, Varun and Agni materialize and say that since they are always present in Sita’s body, they know she is pure. Thus, Markandeya has Sita validated by several different gods instead of just one.
There are also many subtle differences that don’t have a large impact but change the story’s tone. For example, in Ramayan, Kaikeyi blackmails Dasharath by wearing ugly clothes, messing up her hair and barring the door of her room. In Mahabharata, she does the opposite by putting on a pretty dress, makeup, and speaking sweetly.
It is interesting to note that when Markandeya mentions Ram and Sita, the Pandavas are blank. They frequently cite older kings like Indra, Sivi and Nahoosh, who seem to be the popular folk heroes of the time, but have never heard of Ram. In contrast, today those gods like Indra and Nahoosh have faded, some have even disappeared, while Ram has emerged from the background to become one of the most revered gods. His fame owes no little to these new embellishments, as some of the most iconic bits that would later come to define the story were added at this point. For example, Ravan’s ten heads and Ram and Sita’s godly personalities. Valmiki Ramayana was nowhere near being the most well known Hindu tale, but it was on its way. Other mythologized parts like the Lakshman-Rekha and the pot of amrit at Ravan’s navel are conspicuous by absence (both in the original and in Markandeya’s version), and would be added later from other sources. Hence, what we see here is a half built myth.  Like a building with its scaffolding still present, it shows us that gods are not born, but made, brick by brick, through such a process of mythologizing.



Shyam said...

What a great read! When I heard the stories since when I was a child, I knew in my heart that they did sounded embellished and evolved over the centuries--as well as sounding like myths and fiction, of course. I wish I didn't have to wait almost four decades to read such analytical evidence :)

Shyam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bal said...


sewa said...

thanks for liking shyam and bal :)

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