Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Ramayana

There are many, many versions of this Indian epic, the Ramayana, from comic books to plays. The back cover of this version says, "One of India's greatest epics, the Ramayana pervades the country's moral and cultural consciousness." I've only read two versions, R. K. Narayan's short prose version (which I loved) and a graphic novel version from the perspective of Sita by Samhita Arni. And I've just begun this one, my third. A hefty near-700 pages, it's a translation of the Sanskrit text by Valmiki, probably written between 750 and 500 BCE. The translation is by my friend, the talented and witty Arshia Sattar, who I met at the Sangam House writers' retreat.

In the introduction she writes,"the question that looms large over the Ramayana is that of the relationship between myth and history, ie. is the Ramayana a true story?...Early Orientalists [found that] Indians seemed to mix up their human heroes with their gods...Most scholars of epic believe that an epic grows around a core legend or tale that probably did occur. Thus it is possible some king (perhaps not named Rama) did exist, that his wife was abducted and that he fought a war to get her back." 

And that gives you a taste of the plot. Like the Odyssey, this is a story of complex personalities and relationships, twists and turns of fate and human weakness and, above all, dharma, a word that roughly translates as "duty" or "right." And if ever there was a use for the shorthand WTF, it comes at the end of the Ramayana.

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