epics

Odyssey (Book VI)

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Book Review: The Ramayana (retold by R. K. Narayan)

The Ramayana itself is, of course, one of the great works of world literature. It is the story of a prince, Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, who has been unjustly exiled from his kingdom just as he was to be crowned king. During his exile in the wilderness, his beautiful wife Sita is kidnapped by a powerful demon. With the assistance of Hanuman and other members of an intelligent race of monkeys, Rama is able to defeat the demons, rescue his wife, and is restored to his kingdom.

The overarching storyline itself is a great field from which to extract allegories for the spiritual life. Rama, to unite himself with beauty (of which Sita is the embodiment), must overcome evil, with its weapons of delusion, ignorance, and temptation. Once the soul is able to unite itself with beauty, it is restored to the Kingdom from which it fell and was exiled.

The mini-stories within the Ramayana also each present such possibilities for extracting ethical and spiritual allegories. Sprinkled throughout the Ramayana are jewels of wisdom and always present is the remarkable example of Rama, a man of perfect virtue.

From the perspective of a Christian, the Ramayana can be seen as one of those many pre-Christian foreshadowings of the Incarnation of Christ. Rama, as an incarnation of a god who suffers to restore justice in the world and defeat the forces of evil, and whose deeds are often mysterious and occasionally even apparently morally questionable but which are always done with great wisdom and the knowledge that good will be the final result, can be seen in these senses as a type of Christ-figure. He can also be seen as a symbol of the human soul, exiled from the Garden and seeking its way back through overcoming of self and of the external evils of the demons, to be finally united with the eternal beauty in the Kingdom of God.

This particular telling of the story, a shortened prose version by the acclaimed author R. K. Narayan, is a wonderful introduction to the Ramayana as it provides an engaging outline of the story while weaving some insightful commentary about the epic and its reception in Indian culture throughout. I also recommend viewing the opera Ayodhya by S. P. Somtow, an operatic version of the Ramayana composed in 2006 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the coronation of the king of Thailand.