The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Legend of Ram... The Big Brother



Most tales that talk of the victory of good over evil talk also of the merits of unity and universal brotherhood. But the epic of Ramayana outdoes them all, by being exclusively a tale of many sets of brothers, full and half. Each set of siblings seems to serve as the vessel for a different message, but the fact that the story revolves around fraternity is the biggest message of them all.

The Children of Kekasi
The Ramayana is very accurately the tale of the rise & fall of Ravana, Kekasi’s first born. It is interesting to note that every event in his downfall was the doing of one of his siblings.
It is Surpanakha who introduced Rama to her brother, and instigated him to avenge her humiliation and the massacre of her clan at Janasthana by targeting Sita as Lakshmana had targeted her. Blinded by rage to the fact that the attacks were not unprovoked (a fact that Ravana didn’t know or care about), she goaded her brother to wage a war that he would never return from.
Both Kumbhakarna & Vibhishana gave him good counsel, and tried desperately to save their family. And while both made widely different choices after their counsel was rejected, both are equally responsible for Ravana’s downfall.
Vibhishana’s desertion only brought things to a conclusion, in the sense that he revealed Ravana’s mortal weaknesses and aided the progress and health of the monkey army. But Kumbhakarna’s support, however unwillingly given, actually served to encourage Ravana towards his end. Had he followed his younger & wiser brother, Ravana might have changed his mind.
It is to Kumbhakarna’s credit, however, that when on the battlefield, he recognised Rama & the other leaders to be the prime enemy, not his brother.

The Kings of Kiskindha
Bali and Sugreeva had different fathers, but monkeys being matriarchal creatures, it never bothered them. Here too, the elder brother falls when he fails to listen to his brother’s explanations. If ego was Ravana’s folly, rage and spite were Bali’s. Unlike Vibhishana, however, Sugreeva’s motives in allying with Rama were not so much about siding with righteousness, as it was about delivering his vengeance.
In his vindictiveness, in his sheer impatience and even in physical appearance (as a frustrated Rama found out), Sugreeva matched Bali. But even as he repented on his deathbed, Bali could not match Sugreeva‘s grief over losing him.

The Grandsons of the Sun
Oddly enough, the paragon of brotherhood in this tale seems to be a pair of vultures, Jatayu and Sampati. In their childhood, the brothers had started a race to the very top of the skies. But as they got nearer to the sun, it very nearly scorched Jatayu. Sampati, the elder, rescued his brother at the cost of his own wings. Later, even as he learnt of his brother’s death at Ravana’s hands, Sampati finished what Jatayu had started, by pointing out Lanka to Hanuman and his team of searchers.

The Half-Brothers of Kosala
In sharp contrast to the full siblings who caused the downfall of their eldest, and consequently their clan, are set the heroes of this story, who stand together in spite of the heavy politics of the women’s quarters. Such unity among step brothers is unheard of even in the Treta yuga, and Valmiki’s emphasis on the bond between Rama and Lakshmana, and Rama and Bharata, and Bharata and Shatrughna, portrays his own tone of surprise at such an occurrence.
The relation between the identical twins, on the other hand, is taken for granted, and while each twin favours a different half-brother, neither is shown to be indifferent or hostile to the other’s favourite.  Even Lakshmana’s suspicions about Bharata are only short-lived, and severely chided by Rama.
Of course, it may be argued that the half-brothers’ closeness is attributable to their being parts of Vishnu’s essence – or the Charu, and the order in which it was administered to the 3 queens. But even this argument is just demonstrative of the scepticism against such a thing occurring naturally. Besides, birth order is just as easily a determinant of the twins’ favourites. Eldest and youngest stick together, as do the ones in the middle.
But the fact is that they all stick together, hear each other out (unlike the monkeys), take each others’ counsel (unlike Ravana), and watch out for each other (very like the vultures). And it is such fraternity that is the foundation of strength and prosperity – this is Valmiki’s message.

प्रगटे है चारों भैया, अवध में बाजे बजैया 

2 comments:

Amit Sondhi said...

Very beautiful compilation, and very well explained. The comment on Sugreeva's behavior stuck with me. Vengeance hidden under the cover of righteousness. How. Typical.

Although I haven't read Sugreeva and Bali's story in detail, Rama's consent to kill Bali by deception does stick out like a sore thumb in his tale of right conduct, the only other such instance being Sita's banishment. The "animal is killed by stealth" excuse doesn't sound convincing to me. What say you?

Ishita Roy said...

Technically speaking, the allegiance between the exiled regents Rama & Sugreeva was a treaty of allegiance - in exchange for Rama's services as a hitman (another parallel to the Don), Sugreeva would place the troops of Kishkindha at Rama's disposal. After Bali's death and the ensuing regrets (& tearjerking drama) and Rama's practical suggestions, and the deepening fraternity between Hanuman & Rama, the relation between Rama & Sugreeva grew stronger.