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The Story the Storytelling Tells: A Note on the Ramayana

Every God has his consort, his corresponding Goddess—so Brahma, the Creator-God, has Saraswati, the Goddess of arts and letters, a match made in heaven, so to speak. Shiva’s consort is Shakti. “Shakti” is interesting because the name of that Goddess functions, in modern Hindi and Gujarati, as a common noun as well, meaning power.

This hints at a larger concept in Hindu metaphysics—that the Female principle is thought to be “active,” and the Male principle, “passive.” So Shiva is portrayed as a meditating ascetic, lost in samadhi, unaware, atop Mount Kailash, of the world below—while Shakti’s various demon-slaying forms include one that rides a tiger and swings a sword, and another who dances wearing a necklace of men’s skulls and whose name is synonymous with Time.

This contrast finds dramatic form in one of India’s most popular epics, the Ramayana. Before the Gospels, and for a long time afterward, this was the world’s most viral story; for those unfamiliar with it, a prince and princess are in exile, the princess is kidnapped by a ten-headed demon-king, and the prince goes to war to get her back.

Sounds like a fairy-tale, right? The ending is where the pattern breaks and things get complicated, ambiguous, unhappy. The happily-ever-after ending has just begun—Rama and Sita have returned to their rightful capital and are ruling as King and Queen—when nasty rumors start going around that Sita slept with Ravana, and that she is pregnant with that demon-king’s twins. King Rama does something that has haunted his reputation for centuries: He sends Sita back into exile in the forest, where she arrives at the ashram of the sage Valmiki. (In one of the earliest known metafictional moments in literature, Valmiki goes on to write the Ramayana itself—Borgesian!) There she gives birth to Rama’s twins, and years later, when Rama tries to invite her back, there’s a dramatic scene where she refuses his hand and vanishes into a chasm in the earth. We are far from a fairy-tale ending and into the territory of tragic epic—of Hector dragged behind the chariot of Achilles, and Roland blowing his horn with his last breath.

There is much I could talk about regarding this epic—earlier this year, I published in India a polyphonic retelling of the epic, Sitayana, which gives voice to every character but Rama. But for the purposes of this brief note, let me illuminate the relationship of the active-passive, female-male principle as it relates to this epic.

For most of the epic, Rama and Sita are either soon to be united, together, or forcibly separated. The most furious action sequences of the epic take place when they are forcibly parted by the demon king; their stretched connection is a source of extreme tension. An idyllic forest life of exile switches into desperate search, the invasion of the demon’s island kingdom, the siege, the battles, the liberation. The active principle beckons and energizes the passive one; in theological terms, the Male principle (Rama) becomes active only through the impetus of the Female (Sita).

Now, consider that last book of the epic (called the “Uttarakanda”), which actually covers a great amount of time (decades) relative to the earlier books. Rama exiles Sita from Ayodhya; he consciously and willfully severs his connection to her, though it causes him great grief to do so. The Male principle has cut itself off from the Female principle…and so the male has regressed to nothing more than himself, the Passive principle, a car without an engine.

Sure enough, nothing of much interest happens in those years. After Sita’s refusal to reunite with him, the epic gives a fantastically long period of time as Rama’s reign: eleven thousand years. (This is not to be taken literally; it’s the equivalent of “really really long,” the same function the number one thousand has in I would walk five hundred miles / And I would walk five hundred more / Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles / To fall down at your door.)

What happens during those eleven thousand years? Nothing much, as it turns out. The other heroes of the epic are still around—the heroic divine monkey, Hanuman; the valorous younger brother, Lakshman—but everyone’s adventurous and demon-slaying days are over. There is no forward motion, no resistance sought and overcome. The story enters an essentially infinite drift until the main characters enter a river in their old age, returning, metaphorically, to the flow of time. The rest of Rama’s long life would be spent governing well—Indians think of the “Rama-rajya” the way Gibbon thought of the Age of the Antonines, as “the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.” Yet there is nothing much worth recording, from Valmiki’s perspective, or worth reading about, from ours.

The Hindu epic’s structure gives dramatic form to a fundamental principle of Hindu metaphysics. This is a feature of mythological religion: The externalities of art and story mimic the interiority of idea and concept. Shiva Nataraja’s hand gestures down and across at the foot raised to trample creation, but his other hand is held flat, palm out, in the figural sign language of “Do not fear”; his planted foot crushes a demon, Apasmara, who represents ignorance. There are other details of the image that each convey something, until the physical structure of the image embodies multiple ideas in dynamic still-life. The Ramayana does in narrative form what that sculpture of Shiva Nataraja does in stone: It transfigures its own structure into language and communicates.