Certainly, an appreciation for the divine purpose that operates within Life’s drama is present in the Ramayana. In this case, the Hindu gods, especially Vishnu, incarnate in this world on behalf of humanity. In this role, Vishnu is the original avatar. As Rama, he acts in human form to enforce the divine Dharma.
Let us contrast the Ramayana’s view from the East with one of the undeniable pillars of the West – the Greco-Roman tradition. How do the Greeks view their gods? To answer this question, we will examine Homer’s classic theIliad, the companion novel to the Odyssey. The impact of these 2 novels upon Western civilization is inestimable. They have exerted a considerable influence on art, literature and mythology. Rather than presenting an isolated view, the Iliad provides a central example of ancient Greek attitudes.
The Iliad is a particularly advantageous model for such a comparison. It exhibits many parallels with Hinduism’s Ramayana. In both cultural novels, war is waged due to the abduction of a wife. An epic battle ensues. Both conflicts end with the ‘rescue’ of the wife. Further, the Greek and Hindu gods play a significant role in the dramatic tension of both tales. While the comparison conveniently offers similar plotlines, the underlying differences are quite significant. They reveal diverse cultural attitudes regarding both the relationship between men and women and the relationship between humans and the gods.
Initially, let’s briefly examine the basic plotline of the Iliad. King Menelaus is in ‘love’ with Helen. Paris, the prince of Troy, steals her away. Menelaus’ plight leads his elder brother Agamemnon to successfully wage war against this neighboring kingdom to retrieve Helen, Menelaus’ wife.
While the love between Rama and Sita is mutual, there is no evidence that love motivates Helen or Menelaus. Because of her beauty, Helen has many suitors. To avoid conflict among the eligible warrior leaders, lots are drawn between the competitors. The winner of this lottery gets to claim Helen as his prize, and thereby avoiding outright. Helen’s preferences are not considered.
Lust for beauty seems to be the prime factor where Menelaus and the other suitors are concerned. Menelaus views Helen as a stolen possession, rather than as an abducted soul mate. In fact, his wife is known even today as Helen of Troy, not Helen of Greece. In contrast to the Ramayana, love does not motivate the heroic action portrayed in the Iliad.
The Iliad is primarily about the interaction between the military heroes on both sides of the decade-long battle. The separation and reunion of Helen and Menelaus are merely the bookends for the battle. Paris actually abducts Helen before the novel begins. This abduction merely provides the justification for the epic war between the Greeks and the Trojans.
The story of the motivations behind the abduction is not even a part of the Iliad. Supplemental mythologies do discuss different motivation scenarios for Paris’ apparently rash behavior. While neglecting the love element, these stories do reveal much about the Greek attitudes concerning their gods.
In both novels, the gods are significant players in the drama. Just as they are a motivating force behind Ravana’s fatal attraction for Sita, they are also behind Paris’ fatal attraction for Helen. However, it is here that the similarity ends.
In the Ramayana, the variety of attractions, positive and negative, are designed to inspire Rama to action for the good of humanity and the gods. In the Iliad, the attractions are due to petty squabbles between the gods and have no redeeming motive. The Greek gods, far from incarnating on the behalf of humanity, are playing with humans as they would with toy soldiers.
Three Goddesses have an argument as to who is the most beautiful. To resolve the dispute, they appear before Paris, arguably the most handsome man in the world, and ask him to decide. To entice Paris to choose her, Hera offers him a great kingdom – political power. Athena promises him wisdom and Aphrodite offers him the most beautiful woman on earth. With the unbridled exuberance of youth, Paris chooses beauty.
Everyone knows that Helen, the daughter of Zeus and Leta is the most beautiful woman on earth. Unfortunately, she is already married to King Menelaus. This is not a problem for the Goddess Aphrodite.
Despite warnings to the contrary, Paris sails from Troy to Greece to claim his prize. According to one version, Aphrodite arranges for the love god Cupid to shoot Helen with an arrow, causing her to fall madly in love with Paris. Contrast this storyline with the Ramayana’s portrayal of Sita’s consistent rejection of Ravana’s advances.
Helen accompanies Paris on his return to Troy. King Menelaus appeals to his brother Agamemnon for justice. Together, they lead an army of Greek warrior-heroes in an attempt to retrieve his abducted wife. The epic war ensues. Miffed that Paris chose Aphrodite as most beautiful, the Goddesses, Athena and Hera, side with the Greeks, while Aphrodite enters on the side of the Trojans. After 10 years of pointless destruction, Troy is leveled to the ground.
This classic story provides an instructive example of cultural differences between Greek civilization and Ramayana-based cultures. The Greek attitude regarding the motives of the gods is revealing. These gods have no elevated motive as they manipulate human events. Petty squabbles among the gods over a beauty pageant lead to widespread social disruption. Ultimately this conflict results in the complete destruction of an entire kingdom in the most barbaric of fashions. In this sense, the Greek gods do not inspire reverence for a divine plan, but rather seem to represent the excesses of human emotion.
In the Ramayana, Ravana the demon king plays the role of Paris. Despite advice to the contrary, he steals Sita from Rama. This act of passion, like that of Paris, leads to the doom of his kingdom. However, the Hindu gods oppose Ravana. They do not side with him. In other words, the motives of the Hindu gods are elevated, especially in contrast with the petty motives of the Greek gods. Vishnu incarnates as Rama to restore social justice. His motives are straightforward: Return the human world to the Dharma path.
The contrast between the 2 sets of gods is stark. Both the Greek and the Hindu gods interact with the human world. While the Greek gods are not exactly malevolent, their motives are suspect and conflicted. Conversely, while the Hindu gods accept the role of discord in this world, they intervene to play a benevolent part. Vishnu’s periodic incarnation in human form as an avatar to set the world on the right path is a central example of this divine benevolence. Rama, Krishna, and Buddha are just 3 of his many incarnations.
The Hindu notion of the gods acting in a positive fashion to assist humans is very different from the capricious behavior of the Greek gods. Hinduism’s Ramayana addresses the popular notion that divinity plays a potentially positive role in human affairs. This is akin to the Biblical notion of Providence.
The Iliad addresses a contrasting, yet compelling, perspective that also has broad popularity. The motivations of the gods are at best apathetic, and at worst malevolent, to the human condition. The behavior of the Greek gods appears to be almost random and at times reckless. From the Greek perspective, passion blinds both gods and men, while the Hindu perspective embraces passionate love as a divine inspiration.
The notion that there is an active divine force with a meaningful and positive plan for humanity is certainly an attractive feature of the Ramayana. This theme is definitely looked upon with extreme skepticism by the modern secular world, based as it is upon the scientific mentality.
Instead of gods acting in a positive fashion in the human arena, science posits the automatic interaction of molecules, genes, or neurons as the determining factor in human behavior. The uncaring Greek gods have evolved in a modern scientific society toward the indifference of a universe governed exclusively by the material laws of necessary outcomes.
Due to the ascendancy of Science and Reason, the notion of Providence, whether Biblical or Hindu, is rejected as a superstitious residue of the past. The modern secular world prefers a faith in a Big Bang as the Prime Mover in human affairs. According to this viewpoint, an impersonal explosion set things in automatic motion for time immemorial. All the beauty of Life and its cultural manifestations, i.e. music, art and literature, are reduced to the microscopic interactions of inert substances deposited as fallout from the Big Bang.
The exclusively rational mind, epitomized by the mathematical empirical scientist, is driven toward a conclusion that embraces a predictable, yet indifferent universe. This drab and potentially nihilistic position is commonly called the Clockmaker perspective. The life of the spiritual person gasps for air in this dry and mechanistic climate. The dissatisfied spirit yearns to breathe more freely and transcend the limits of the inductive/deductive model that is the hallmark of Scientific Reasoning.
The Ramayana offers a perspective on human experience that is widespread, perhaps universal. People across cultures and throughout history have sensed that there is a seemingly divine presence that acts in human affairs. Often this presence can be thought of as assisting and guiding us along our path. Vishnu’s incarnation as Rama the Demon Slayer reflects this shared human experience of a benign divine presence. This optimistic perspective, which challenges the arguable indifference of the modern universe, could be yet another reason why the Ramayana continues to exert an influence even unto modern times.
In summary, the Ramayana has had a huge impact upon Southeast Asian culture. Composed in the 4th century before the Common Era, the story spread relatively rapidly throughout India and then into Southeast Asia. Two prominent ruins provide evidence of its ancient and powerful appeal. Scenes from this classic Hindu story are etched into the sandstone walls of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, as well as in the Prambanan temple complex in Java.
The influence of the novel is not limited to the past, but has endured for millennia, even unto modern times. The story of the Ramayana is also painted onto the existing walls of Bangkok’s Grand Palace complex in Thailand. This novel continues to live as a drama that is still regularly performed in Java, Thailand and Bali.
We have posed and attempted to answer the following questions: What themes are responsible for the enduring popularity of this Hindu classic? What features of the Ramayana ignited human imagination? While we have noted some sexist, patriarchal themes that are unpalatable to the modern reader, the storyline also contains thematic lines that transcend historical context.
Let us review some of the plot elements that we suggest have contributed to the popularity and endurance of the Ramayana.
1) On Parenting: The plotline exhibits the importance of parents allowing their children to follow their Dharma path. The integrity of our children’s paths may necessarily lead far away and into danger. Are we brave enough to let them?
2) Social activism: Instead of retreating from the world to seek enlightenment or union with God, Rama fights for justice against Ravana, an evil warrior king. This feature of the plot line is especially inspirational because a collective force of humans and animals is able to defeat the superhuman army of Ravana the Demon King. Inspired by their sense of injustice, the weak join forces to overthrow the powerful.
3) Positive Leadership: Just as Ravana embodies the negative features of a ruler, Rama embodies the positive features. He dispenses justice fairly, treats everyone, including women, with great respect, and is not arrogant or filled with pride. As such, Rama, the classic god king/, provides an excellent example of leadership that many Southeast Asian rulers attempt(ed) to emulate.
3) Soul mates: The passion between a couple can be a positive spiritual force. The power of love does not present an obstacle to self-realization. The power of love can energize our Dharma path.
4) Desires: Desires associated with divine devotion can inspire us to transcend ourselves, perhaps even motivate us to perform heroic deeds. We must recognize that at times obsessive desires are real and must be confronted. Somehow we must somehow go through the experience to gain insight.
5) Judgment: Don’t be too hasty to judge. Things are not always as they seem. Our perceptions of our ‘friends’, ‘enemies’ and circumstances may be illusory. Beware.
6) Providence: The Universe is infused with an active divine force assisting us on our Dharma path.
All of these underlying themes have contributed to the popularity and endurance of the Ramayana. Let us now turn our gaze to the Mahabharata. Together these novels transformed the peoples and cultures of Southeast Asia.