Chapter 19 Commentary: Comparative Myth

Comparative Myth


Indian Epic: Mahabharata and Ramayana

Mahabharata

The 

Mahabharata

 (300 B.C.-200 A.D.) remains the great national epic saga of India. Within Indian culture it has served as the embodiment of social, moral, and religious norms, much as the 

Iliad

 did for the Greek imagination. Though the kernel or heart of the poem is of great antiquity, the epic saga, because of its central importance in Indian life, has absorbed into it a dizzying array of mythic strands from many different cultural epochs, and it has taken shape, much as Homer’s 

Iliad

, over the course of many centuries.

The central theme of the epic is a great war fought between the sons of Pandu and the sons of Dhritarashtra. The Pandavas and the Kauravas, as they were called, were, in fact, cousins, and the tales of their origins and increasing antagonism make up a great part of the narrative. Over the course of this immense epic, the intrafamilial strife that arises leads with seeming inevitability to a great war that takes on cosmic significance for the human race. The field of battle becomes the field of ultimate heroism, duty, and destiny, much as the Trojan War becomes the field of exemplary heroic 

arete

.

Immediately before the great battle, Arjuna, one of the five sons of Pandu and a hero renowned in deeds of arms, quails at the thought of the impending slaughter of his kinsmen. His strength gives way and he drops his weapons. At this point, Krishna, a character of central significance in the final redaction of this great epic and Arjuna’s divine chariot driver, attempts to strengthen Arjuna’s resolve, explaining to his friend the nature of action in this world by revealing the true aspect of reality. The conversation between Krishna and Arjuna and Krishna’s revelation to Arjuna have become perhaps the most well-known part of this great saga outside of India. This section of the 

Mahabharata

 is called the 

Bhagavad-Gita

, or “Song of the Blessed One.” The song begins with the words “Dharmakshetre kurukshetre,” which can be translated “On the field of dharma, on the field of the Kauravas.” By so doing the 

Gita

 makes a precise identification with the specific, temporal field of the coming battle between the Pandavas and Kauravas (Kurukshetra) and the cosmic, atemporal field of human struggle that everyone is destined to face (dharmakshetra).

In the course of their dialogue Krishna reveals that he is an avatar or incarnation of the god Vishnu, and he teaches Arjuna that the soul is eternal; that to speak of killing or being killed is meaningless; that the warriors arrayed before them have always and will always exist; and that in this world of appearance and illusion one would be foolish to become distracted by an attachment to the results of actions. Rather, we must enact our 

dharma

 or destiny, precisely because it is ours, indifferent to the consequences.

Arjuna gains fortitude and strength from this philosophical, mystical vision and launches himself into battle with determination. The great war will devastate both sides, but a remnant will survive to maintain the continuity of the world.

Ramayana

In Indian mythology Rakshasas are brutish, semidivine beings of terrifying aspect. They can assume many guises and commit noisome acts of depravity. Interestingly, they are not naturally wicked creatures; rather, one might say that it is the nature of their 

dharma

 (“destiny” or “duty”) to play a crucial, if malevolent role in the world. One such Rakshasa was the ten-headed Ravana, king of Lanka. His depravity was such that the sun itself was struck senseless and gaped at him. To make matters worse, Ravana had performed ritual austerities of such power that the god Brahma granted him a boon: Ravana could not be killed by any of the gods. Because of this immunity, the pitch of Ravana’s villainy rose to greater and greater heights. To put an end to Ravana’s wickedness, the god Vishnu decided to descend to the earth as a man and battle the Rakshasa. Ramachandra, or simply Rama, was Vishnu’s seventh avatar or incarnation, and the tale of his effort to destroy the evil demon-king is the subject of the second of India’s two magnificent epics, the 

Ramayana

, attributed to a poet named Valmiki.

Rama was born to Kausalya and Dasaratha, king of Ayhodhya. Rama grew to be a youth of great beauty, courage, virtue, remarkable devotion to his father, and unswerving fidelity to his wife; he also excelled in all manner of deeds of skill and arms. His achievements, however, provoked the animosity of one of his stepmothers, through whose machinations Rama was compelled to go into exile in the forest. In Indian mythology the forest becomes the locus of a deep, spiritual struggle.

Sita was Rama’s wife and herself an incarnation of Lakshmi, Vishnu’s wife. When Rama goes into exile, she accompanies him, though he tries to dissuade her by relating the terrors and hardships they will face. But Sita is the exemplar of the perfect wife in Indian culture. Her role is to follow her husband and share his good fortune and endure his misfortune. And so they went into exile. Sita, however, had roused the lust of Ravana, and so while they were living in the forest, Ravana lured her way from Rama and then abducted her, carrying her off to his kingdom. There are superficial similarities here with the 

Iliad

, in the tale of the stolen wife. It may be that both epics in their simplest form go back to similar, legendary Indo-European sources, but that is impossible to know with any certainty. What should be remembered, however, is that Sita, unlike Helen, is never depicted as a willing paramour of her abductor; she remains pure and devoted to her husband.

Much of the rest of the epic poem is about Rama’s efforts to rescue his wife and kill Ravana. This exciting and moving tale is much too long and varied to relate here, but Rama is eventually successful in his endeavors with help coming from various quarters. One of the most important sources of aid and one of the great characters in Indian epic literature is Hanuman, commander of the monkey host. He serves as a reminder of a very significant difference between Indian epic and Greek epic: it is the presence of a deep sympathy with the animal realm. The natural world does not stand for an elemental barbarism or represent a world fundamentally opposed to the human. It is filled with powers and creatures that the Indian mind imbues with feeling and thought, with beings who are seen as our kindred companions in this world.

Guirand, 351.