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Ramayana: a learning curve

books Updated: Oct 13, 2008 16:19 IST
Kushalrani gulab
Kushalrani gulab
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

There are two ways of looking at why mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik wrote The Book of Ram. One: Penguin, the publishers, asked him to. Which is true, but ends the conversation right there.

Two: Ram is Pattanaik's favourite mythological character Which is also true and, since it leads to questions, that's the way we choose to go.

Because this is the very point Pattanaik wants to make with The Book of Ram. That, when it comes to mythology (or actually, when it comes to anything at all) what you make of it is what you choose to make of it. What you see in the light of your own experience; your own point of view.

And when it comes to Ram avatar of Vishnu; the perfect man; the perfect king - what many of us want to make of him is, these days, sharply polarised.

"When you use the word Ram in conversation, the energy in the room turns negative," says Pattanaik. "Women instantly attack because of the way he treated Sita.

That's the feminist approach.

Some people attack from a fundamentalist point of view. That's the right wing approach. There's a left wing approach too. All this makes thing awkward and that's not the Ram I know."

The Book of Ram, then, is meant to show the Ram Pattanaik knows. Or rather, the Ram Pattanaik finds when he views the avatar / man / king from various points of view. Dashrath's Son.

Vishwamitra's Student. Sita's Husband. Ravan's Enemy. Hindutva's Icon.

Nowhere in the book does Pattanaik focus on Ram himself as an individual. "I believe Ram is Bhagwan, so I will only know him through a medium," says Pattanaik. "Each one of those is a medium. A window through which I will hopefully know Ram." The Ramayana, feels Pattanaik, is a story about kingship. There are other interpretations of course. It's often seen as a love story - the most perfect love story of all, between the perfect man and the perfect woman. Or it's seen as a tale of the divine - there are later interpolations in the 2,000-yearold epic that suggest Ram knew he was Vishnu's avatar. But essentially this is the story of the perfect king. Another of Vishnu's avatars, Krishna, was a kingmaker, but Ram was a king. The supreme head of mankind, in society "His role is manifest through duty," says Pattanaik. "Duty dominates. Romance is incidental.

Love is passion - what we want.

The Ramayana is about what we have to do. The struggle between wanting and having." Ram may have been the perfect man, but to become the perfect king, he had to make the same journey we all make in our lives.

He had to learn and grow. He couldn't do or have anything without making some very tough deciS1011S.

"As Vishwamitra's student, aged 13, he had one of his first lessons. That decisions must be made in context," says Pattanaik. On the one hand, Ram had to protect the rishi Vishwamitra's yagna from the rakshasi, Tadaka, which means he had to kill her But wasn't killing a woman - a creator of life -one of the worst crimes in the Vedic world? On the other hand, with one touch of his hand, he liberated Ahalya, wife of the rishi Gautam, who had been sexually unfaithful and cursed to turn to stone. But wasn't infidelity a sin? "It showed him that everything had to be dealt with in context," says Pattanaik. "When do you kill a woman? When do you save a woman? Tadaka had to be killed whatever her sex because she interfered with dharma.

Ahalya had to be saved because after all, infidelity is a very human folly It may deserve punishment, but not for ever" For Pattanaik, then, the Ramayana is a book about rites of passage. About learning, growing and understanding the depths of one's duty All that Ram goes through are what we'd call 'learning experiences' today He's about to be crowned king - but at the last minute, is sent into exile for 14 years. "Could it be that he wasn't ready to be king yet?" asks Pattanaik. "Maybe he needed to learn the lesson of detachment." He was the only king in the history of Indian mythology to have and be faithfu1to only one woman. Yet, he feels he must first put Sita through an agni pariksha and later send her away so gossip mongers have no fault to find with the kingdom.

This is one of the more controversial episodes in the Ramayan, as is the story of Shambuka, the shudra who dared to break the rules of caste and perform tapasya, and was beheaded by Ram for that. But Pattanaik has included these episodes to show Ram in the context of Ayodhya's King.

"There are many ways to interpret Ram and the Ramayana, but the point is what story does to you," says Pattanaik. "The stories at first glance may seem like fantasy, but when you pay attention, think and keep thinking, you understand. We're usually in a hurry to react. To say Yeh hi hai when it should be Yeh bhi hai. But, at the end of your interpretation, do you feel you've touched the divine? Or do you feel you've found backing for your prejudices? If your interpretation has not made you a better person, you need to go back."