I finished reading the Ramayana. Or at least I think I did.  What I read was a modern retelling, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic, by Ramesh Menon. The author explains that previous retellings were “too short” as well as too Shakespearian, while he finds scholarly translations lacking “poetry and mystery”, and even more archaic in language. Besides, who has really read Rāmāyaṇam except those who have plowed through its 24,000 verses in Sanskrit?

(By the way, you might like to know that the accept goes on the antepenult: ra-MA-ya-na. Same rule as Latin, actually: two final short vowels in CV syllables are unstressed.)

Ravana and Rama

The story, for an epic, is simple enough.  Ravana, the king of the rakshasas (the race of demons or perhaps daemons), makes a tapasya— a period of penance and self-mortification.  He has ten heads; after each thousand years of tapasya, he cuts off another head and throws it in the sacrificial fire.  At the end of ten thousand years, he prepares to cut off his last head. Shiva appears and grants him a boon. He asks for strength above all creatures.  (He also gets his nine heads back.)  Unsatisfied, he sits for another tapasya, this time to Brahma, the Creator.  When Brahma appears, he asks for the boon that no god may kill him, no rakshasa, no asura or daitya or gandharva or any other divine or demonic being. This granted, he goes off to conquer the three worlds– earth, heaven, and hell.

(If you’re a conworlder, pause to admire that opener.  Would you have created an origin story like that for your Big Bad? Where he takes a perfectly valid spiritual path to get his superpowers?)

He has made only one mistake: thinking them beneath him, he omitted to ask for protection from humans.  Or monkeys, for that matter.

Eventually Ravana’s crimes (what are they?  we’ll get back to this) become too much, and the gods petition Vishnu for relief.  He agrees to incarnate as a human being, one who will eventually slay Ravana.  His avatar will be Rama, son of king Dasaratha of Ayodhya.

The overall bones of the story are already in place, but some more complications are needed. Rama must go on a few missions to get out of the palace and level up. He meets Sita, daughter of the king of Mithila.  As Rama is the perfect man, she is the perfect woman, and an avatar of Lakshmi.  They are married right away.

The king has three wives, and one of them is tempted by her evil servant to ask for a boon.  This is to send Rama into exile for fourteen years and make her own son Bharata crown prince. She had saved Dasaratha’s life once, so he has to fulfill her wish; Rama, being perfect, acquiesces gracefully.  He takes Sita and his brother Lakshmana, goes into the jungle, and lives like a rishi, a holy man– wearing barkskin clothes and dreadlocks, hunting to support themselves.

Even this is too much bliss for a heroic character, and after Rama gets into an altercation with a colony of 14,000 rakshasas and kills them all, Ravana takes notice– and kidnaps Sita.  Oh, now it’s on, ten-head dude.

So how is it?

Initial reaction: those ancient Indians knew how to epic.  If you like big fantasy epics you’ll probably dig it. In fact it’ll probably satisfy your fantasy hunger better than (say) the Morte Darthur, or the Iliad. Bronze age or medieval warfare, after all, is just humans of similar powers and mentalities killing each other.  In the Ramayana you get different species, magical powers, and excursions into spirituality and romance.

If you’re used to fantasy, you probably crave unusual worlds, but may balk at unusual narrative conventions. A traditional epic was normally told to people who already knew the story, so there is no attempt to hide how it ends. It’s also a religious story, and there’s little of the modern interest in finding the sins of the good and the charms of the evil. For that matter Menon is quite happy to tell you, and often, that Rama is good and Ravana is evil.

I’d also say that Menon hits a sweet spot of modern but not slangy English. Epics shouldn’t sound dusty.

I did see one review that mused that Menon might have tried too hard to Westernize the source materials. Maybe it seems that way if you’ve chewed on the original, or on more scholarly translations, but for the rest of us, Menon’s version is plenty non-Western. The one criticism I’d have, in fact, is that he is a little too devoted to Sanskrit terms.  I understand the impulse– Sanskrit is beautiful, and mistranslation or poor translation can be heartbreaking.  But I don’t know that it adds that much to have Sanskrit terms that are simply glossed “weapon” or “lake” or “trident”.

(I do have to say that Book Six goes on for a long, long time. It’s the final battle, and it takes over a hundred pages.  Every single one of Ravana’s family and commanders has to go up against Rama and his army. If you like superhero comics or movies, it’s basically that. But I tire of superhero comics, too.)

Good and evil

In some ways Ravana is the prototype of an evil overlord. But in many ways he’s not.

You expect Sauron’s lair to be hard iron and rock, all midnight black and lava red. Ravana has a city, which is… preternaturally beautiful. It’s rich and lovely, and full of happy rakshasas.  Ravana knows his Vedic lore, and he has his own rakshasa brahmins.  He’s described as regal and magnificent, and he certainly has the unforced loyalty of his family, his commanders, and his army. We’re even told that many of the women in his harem submit to him quite happily, sighing only that his visits are so infrequent.

So what is his crime?  Well, he’s a warmonger, of course, going so far as to attack and defeat Indra in heaven, and Yama, Death himself, in hell. This is hardly a sin, however– conquering people is pretty much how an emperor is expected to behave.

Rakshasas do have a nasty habit of eating rishis. They like interfering with the rishis’ sacrifices and meditation, and even more than that they like eating animal and human flesh. That’s pretty bad, but you could also say it’s their role in the ecosphere.  Rather like Greek polytheism, Hindu cosmology comes across as ethically neutral.  Gods can sin; demons may be wise kings or scholars; the great trinity will grant boons to anyone who can muster a tapasya. And they’re all related anyway. (Ravana is the great-grandson of Brahma.)

Ravana’s big failing, it turns out, is women– of many species.  To be blunt, he’s a rapist.  Though by the time he meets Sita, this has already bitten him where it hurts: one of the husbands he’d wronged curses him, and this is a world where curses hurt: if he rapes another woman his heads, all ten of them, will explode.  So when he kidnaps Sita he doesn’t try to force himself on her; he merely tries every variation of threat and cajoling for months on end. His wiser councilors tell him, not to ease up on the rishi-munching, but to return Sita and apologize to Rama. But he’s fallen in love with her and is willing to fight to the end.

To clarify, as a religion of course Hinduism is very pro-virtue (dharma). Humans are supposed to be virtuous.  And gods are too… when they do sin, they have to do penance or suffer.

The problem of Sita

For a modern reader, the most disturbing aspect of the story are instances where, after Ravana has been defeated, Rama makes a big deal of Sita spending so many months with Ravana, and being tainted.  The text is quite clear that Sita is entirely innocent.  In both cases Rama claims that he never doubted her, but has to be severe in order to put other people’s doubts to rest. And I’m sorry, avatar of  Vishnu or not, that is a dick move.

One of the instances is in the 7th kanda or book of the poem, and supposedly there are doubts that it was original. (The story really ends with book 6; the 7th is largely a prequel, telling the story of how Ravana got to rule the three worlds, and includes a few stories of what happened during Rama’s 10,000-year kingship.)  The other instance may be an interpolation as well… or the fact that people say so seems to indicate that disquiet over the treatment of Sita isn’t new.

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is a response to Sita’s mistreatment, and a lot of fun in itself.


One of the more enchanting bits of the Ramayana is the nature of Rama’s army: besides his brother, it’s all monkeys.  (His brother Bharata is ruling back in Ayodhya, and it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to send a human army.)  Rama makes the acquaintance of Hanuman, a vanara or intelligent magical monkey, and he leads him to the king of the monkeys. They turn out to be a pretty good set of allies, and as they remind Ravana, he forgot to ask Brahma to protect him against monkeys, too.

This raises the question of whether Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King of Journey to the West, is based on Hanuman or on any of the other vanaras. They both have transformation powers, they both help achieve a spiritual mission, they both have magical leaps, they both combine heroism with a little mischief, they both were more arrogant in their youth.  Buddhists don’t directly read the Ramayana, but versions of the story are popular in Buddhist areas, and the Monkey King probably owes a large debt to Rama’s helper.

More speculatively, I wonder if the avatar idea influenced Christianity. The Ramayana was written no later than about 300 BC, at a time when Hellenic kingdoms bridged the gap from the Mediterranean to the Indus. That gods could take a temporary human form was of course no great imaginative leap, but the Hindu idea was of a god living an entire human life, fully human and not always conscious of his divinity. It seems like a strange idea to have occurred to strict Jewish monotheists, of all peoples.

I also wonder if JRR Tolkien ever read some version of the Ramayana. The idea of multiple sentient races, some close to God, some near-demonic, was not commonplace in fantasy before him, and there it is in the Ramayana. The general atmosphere– an evil lord far to the south, kings in exile, valued and powerful gurus, numinous elder races, key actions by eagles, various ages of the world each declining from the last, all remind me of LOTR. I’m reminded that C.S. Lewis’s brother in his childhood was fascinated by India– it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch that a British writer in the time of the empire might have heard some of these stories.

Finally, if you’re an AD&D player of my generation, you will remember rakshasas from the very fine illustration of a tiger rakshasa in the Monster Manual. They are a little underpowered, and I don’t know where they got the tiger bit.