Disclaimer: Going by the recent events, this post is not meant to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments. This is purely an evaluative opinion on two books and its central characters.
I have always been a little guilty over me vociferously insisting that the Mahabharata was better than the Ramayana when my knowledge was largely based on stories told by my grandfather and Amar Chitra Katha. So I decided to solve this once and for all, I went and found Ramesh Menon’s copy of the Ramayana in the Public Library and decided to give it a fair shot.
And the guilt vanished more and more as I read.
Where, in my opinion, the Mahabharata lies eons above the Ramayana is its multiple shades of grey. Nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. You abandon babies, kill somebody when they are defenseless, gamble your kingdom away and insist that an entire war be fought just for revenge. People are, in fact, people with all emotions, jealousy, greed, anger and lust.
In the Ramayana on the other hand, all the central characters are perfect or as near perfect as they can be. We have a father who dies pining for his son within a matter of days, a princess who leaves the palace because her place should be with her husband, one brother who abandons his own wife to be with his brother and another who refuses to rule the kingdom his mother won for him. All for one person.
And Rama makes no mistakes. I was very consciously trying out to pick out some human failing in the central character and failed miserably.
I thought I had my first chance when he, a kshatriya warrior, kills Vali while being hidden and from behind which is against all ethical principles. Vali looks into Rama’s eyes and asks him the very question that was swimming through my head at that time ‘Why did you kill me from behind? Why did you have to interfere in a fight between brothers that did not concern you at all?’. There it was, my human moment. Or so I thought. Rama begins a long speech about how Vali is a vanara and that the normal rules of fighting do not apply to him while how the rest of the book continues to talk about how these vanaras were not mere animals but creatures of great intellect and might. And there it was again, the perfect man who could not make a mistake.
I was sure I had my second chance, when for no reason at all, after rescuing Sita, he becomes concerned of what his subjects think of him and his duty as a king and sends her away while pregnant. And there it was, the justification again, about how Vishnu was cursed to be separated from his wife and he chose to do this when he was born as a avatar.
It made me miss the totally human moments of Mahabharata: Yudhishtra with his head hung in shame after gambling his wife away, Draupadi seething with anger when the peace talks begin insisting that the war must take place for her revenge, Gandhari cursing Krishna for the absolute destruction of her clan, Arjuna hesitating with fear at the beginning of battle despite being touted as a great warrior and Yudhishtra uttering a lie to kill his guru just to win at any cost. All are beautiful, poignant and more importantly, realistic.
I cannot digest a Sita who says to Lakshmana after being abandoned in an ashram for no fault of hers ‘I forgive your brother. I understand why he had to do this’ nor can I accept a Bharata who lives like a mendicant in the forest in a self imposed exile because he isn’t meant to rule or a Vali who dies with a smile on his face despite being killed unfairly?
Surprisingly, the only characters with any possible shades of grey are the Rakshasas in Lanka. Vibeeshana, torn between doing the right thing and loyalty to his brother. Kumbakharna, who warns his brother that it is folly to keep another man’s wife but is willing to go out to battle and give up his life for him. And the most important character of all, Ravana. The whole character was so beautifully etched that I couldn't help feeling conflicting emotions of both awe and despair when I read about his life.
He was a powerful king who was very aware of the awe he inspired. The prosperity of Lanka, Antapuras filled with women who were madly in love with him, Indra being intimidated by him, his penance being strong enough for Brahma to grant him this powerful boon and all of this threatened by one major failing- Lust.
You cannot help but feel sorry for the majestic king who cannot help himself against wanting the only woman who resists his charms. He is warned multiple times and you can almost discern how helpless the man is. The beauty about this depiction is that even his love or Sita isn’t ideal. When he is maddened with grief at the loss of his sons in battle, he rushes into the Ashokavana to kill Sita the cause of all this destruction and Sita is saved in the very nick of time by another lucky coincidence.
Now I can safely say without a guilty heart, The Mahabharata continues to be my favourite. If the aim of the epics was to show us how the gods lived and for us to learn from the same, then I would rather look at a Karna who was willing to refuse his own mother for the sake of loyalty to his friend than a man who was picture perfect and seems like an impossible ideal to achieve.