Teaching the Ramayana

The Ramayana, a sacred Indian epic poem over two thousand years old, is one of the world’s best-loved romantic adventures.  Having survived in formats as varied as Indonesian shadow puppet shows, serialized television dramas, and full-length animated feature films, the Ramayana is no dead relic but a living, breathing cultural force that continues to inspire and shape societies and individuals.

The text follows the perils and triumphs of the Indian prince Rama (seventh avatar or incarnation of the god Vishnu) and his consort Sita (incarnation of Vishnu’s consort Laksmi) as they follow the path of dharma, a religious/philosophic code with cosmic significance that permeates every aspect of life for both Hindus and Buddhists.   Filled with shape-shifting demons, heroic monkey warriors, a flying chariot, a mystical kingdom at the end of the world ruled by a demon king, even a Brahma missile of mass destruction, the Ramayana is fun to teach on the very basic level of a heroic adventure like The Iliad, a complicated love story like Romeo and Juliet, and the good-versus-evil narrative common to many epic stories.

What makes the Ramayana particularly satisfying to teach in North America is its relative novelty outside India and Southeast Asia.  The Ramayana can be taught in courses such as Philosophy, Comparative Religion, World History, World Literature, and Mythology, and is highly adaptable to a wide range of college educational goals.  In fact, Anne E. Monius, Professor of South Asian Religions at Harvard University, is teaching the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (the other great Indian epic) this Fall (2017) in a course titled “Indian Religions Through Their Narrative Literatures,” wherein she describes her desire to teach these works not merely as religious and philosophical texts but as literature—as “narratives that speak to virtually every aspect of human experience.”[1]

In the college classroom, I give students a brief introduction to the primary tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism and describe how the story of the Ramayana traveled and transformed between these religions.  It is important that Western students understand the fluidity of the story. It is said that there are a million Ramayanas rather than one standard text because it has been adapted during transmission from the ancient Aryan North to the Dravidian South and then throughout South Asia as each culture needed it to for their own purposes.  To give students a familiar touchstone, I mention Hebrew Scripture/Old Testament stories like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, then ask them to imagine multiple endings—one where Abraham actually kills Isaac and Isaac is resurrected; another where Isaac dies at Abraham’s hands and Abraham is punished; and yet another where Abraham refuses God’s command and he and Isaac live in peace without any more divine tests.

Next, I point out the connecting philosophy of dharma that both religions share, a way of life that insists that all actions, however small, have cosmic implications.  I typically cover three central episodes in the Ramayana most often included in textbooks, both online and in popular anthologies such as The Norton Anthology of World Literature and the Oxford Companion to World Mythology: King Dasharatha’s choice to either keep his promise to a young trophy wife and grant her two boons, or to honor the wishes of his people and crown Rama king; Lakshmana’s dilemma in the forest when forced to choose between Rama’s command to stay by Sita’s side and Sita’s command to go to Rama’s aid; and the kidnapping of Sita by the demon king Ravana and his evil horde of rakshasas, and her subsequent trial by fire to prove her purity (some versions exclude this book—Rama’s reaction is harsh and unheroic).  I typically put students in groups of two or three, give them handouts from the excellent online site sponsored by the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, South Asia Center, Syracuse University, and have them debate what dharma would demand of King Dasharatha, Lakshmana, Rama and Sita.  The nice thing about dharma is that there is not just one obvious action to take—students get a taste of judging these stories based on both their new understanding of dharma and their own potential choices in a similar situation.

Another way to teach the Ramayana is with a feminist focus on the role of Sita, who is often represented as the ideal wife—loyal, devoted, unquestioning, and beautiful.  Modern scholarship illuminates Sita’s emotional abuse at Rama’s hand at the time of her rescue and, in some versions, his abandonment of the pregnant Sita, who chooses to return to her mother, the Earth Goddess.  Feminist readings have led to imaginative narratives exploring Sita’s agency, such as a play (The Ramayana … As If Sita Mattered) set in twenty-first century New York City, and an award-winning animated film (Sita Sings the Blues) that connects Sita’s abandonment by Rama with the creator’s own abandonment and divorce.

If an instructor chooses to focus on the South Asian roots of the many incarnations of the Ramayana, particularly its links with Sri Lanka, he or she will discover that the bulk of the narrative is given over to the epic battle between humans (and their animal allies) and the Demon King of Lanka (most often identified as the modern island of Sri Lanka).  One of the more famous translations of the Ramayana is one by the twelfth-century Tamil poet Kampan, who highlights the flawed humanity of Rama as he rejects Sita; the heart-wrenching text spends more time than any other version on the unfairness of Sita’s abandonment, and changes her mere submittal to a test of purity by fire into a demand for such a test.  It is also of interest that in the Ramayana’s transmission from Northern India to Sri Lanka, Ravana’s role is often transformed, changing him from an evil demon king to a beloved ruler who made the mistake of falling in love with a beautiful woman.

As with many other great works of world literature, the Ramayana is complex enough to warrant the devotion of an entire semester to the study of its themes.  However, in the traditional college survey course, we as instructors typically can devote no more than one or two days to the text.  By developing class activities that prompt students to consider the Ramayana’s underlying philosophy (“what would dharma have me do?”) while focusing on the entrenched mores of a patriarchal society that likes its women pure and pliant, students can balance this epic battle of good and evil with a more complex look at the unexamined biases found within cultural norms.