ILAS 225
Southeast Asia
: Crossroads of the World
Professor Patricia Henry

Dept. of Foreign Languages

I. (Hindu) Cultural Concepts Underlying the Ramayana and the Mahabharata

A. Karma: every action has a result.

B. Rebirth: after death, one is reborn according to one's karma in one's  previous life.

C. Caste: humans are born into a particular caste which they cannot change except through rebirth.
1. brahmana = specialists in religion and ritual
         2. ksatriya = specialists in war and governing
         3. vaisya = artisans
         4. sudra = peasants

D. Dharma: duty, virtue, righteousness; doing what is appropriate to one's position in life.

E. Meditation: concentration on the inner truth of fundamental reality; not being distracted by the multiplicity of the world as it appears through the senses; seeing this world as an illusion.

F. Release: through meditation as a result of the power gained to remove oneself from the circle of karma and rebirth.

G. Powerful language: instead of being of being used for release, this power may be used in this world; words of a powerful rishi (“sage”), who has gained strength through meditation, can modify the world.

II.  The Ramayana – The Story

A.  An evil raksasa (=giant, demon) named Ravana has meditated with such intensity that his power threatens the world, and the other gods beg Vishnu to help defeat him.  Vishnu incarnates in Ayodhya as a human, the crown prince Rama, since Ravana is immune to attacks by gods and demons. (Rama’s brothers Laksmana, Bharata, & Satrugna, born to the king’s other wives, are also lesser Vishnu incarnations).

B.  After assorted adventures, Rama wins the princess Sita in a contest, and returns to Ayodhya.  Bharata’s mother, jealous of Rama, demands that her son be heir to the throne.  (She had saved the king’s life in battle years previously, and he had promised her a wish which she now demands to be granted.)

C.  Rama selflessly vows to stay in exile in the forest, along with Sita and Laksmana. The king dies of a broken heart, and Barata tries in vain to get Rama to come back.  In the forest, Rama, Sita & Laksmana are seen by Ravana’s sister, Surpanaka; when she can’t get either Rama or Laksmana, she tells her brother about Sita’s beauty, and Ravana is smitten.

D.  The Golden Deer:  Ravana sends one of his demons disguised as a golden deer, and Sita is so captivated that she sends Rama and Laksmana to catch it.  Left alone, she is kidnapped by Ravana and taken to his island kingdom of Langka.

E.  Trying to find Sita, Rama & Laksmana enlist the help of the white monkey Hanuman and an army of monkeys.  He finds Sita, tears up the garden where Ravana is keeping her, and sets Langka on fire, but Rama must come to free Sita.  The monkeys build a causeway and march on Langka.

F.  After a huge battle, Ravana is killed and order is restored.  Rama and Sita, along with Laksmana and Hanuman, return to Ayodhya.  People suspect Sita’s purity, and she undergoes a test of fire.  She passes, but eventually goes into exile again.

III. The Mahabharata – The Story

A. Conflict among two sets of cousins over the throne of Hastinapura (=Astina).
          1. The Pandavas: five sons of King Pandu (actually they are of semi-divine origin).
              Yudisthira (son of god of Justice, Dharma)
              Bhima (son of god of Wind, Vayu)
              Arjuna (son of god of Rain, Indra)
              Nakula & Sahadeva (twin sons of twin gods, the Asvins)
          2. The Kauravas: 100 sons of King Dhritarashtra, Duryodana, and others
Krishna: kinsman of both sides, ally of the Pandavas, an incarnation of Vishnu.

B. Childhood and youth of the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
          1. Early conflict
          2. The wax-palace plot
          3. The dividing of the Kingdom; Indraprastha for the Pandavas

C. The Dice-game.
          1. The Kauravas cheat, with the help of Sakuni
          2. Humiliation of the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi.
          3. Banishment of the Pandavas.

D. The return of the Pandavas.
          1. Attempts to avert war are in vain.
          2. The Bhagavad Gita: "God's (i.e. Krishna's) Song", a dialogue between Arjuna,

              who can't face killing his kinsmen, and Krishna, who persuades Arjuna that he 
              must do his duty as a ksatriya.
          3. The Bharatayuddha: "Bharata-war." There is a great loss of life of both sides; the Pandavas eventually destroy the Kauravas.

E. The restoration of Hastinapura to the Pandavas.

IV.  Conflicting loyalties in the Ramayana
A.  Rama and Barata:  Rama goes into exile, Barata holds the throne for him.
B.  Sita and Laksmana:  Her doubt brings disaster.
C.  Ravana’s brothers:  “My brother, right or wrong” vs. “What’s right is right.”
D.  Rama and Sita:  Rama believes in her purity, but must satisfy the people’s doubts.

V. Curses, oaths, and promises in the Mahabharata:
A. Vasishta's curse: results in birth of the hero Bhishma, from King Santanu and Gangga.
B. Santanu's promise to the goddess Gangga: She leaves him after giving birth to Bhisma.
C. Bhishma's oath of chastity: Satyavati, grandmother of P's and K's, marries King Santanu.
D. Vyasa's curse: handicaps of King Pandu and King Dhitarashtra.
E. The Curse of Pandu: unable to father children.
F. Kunti's boon: divine fathers of Pandavas.
G. Draupadi's vow: eventual destruction of the Kauravas.

VI.  Telling the Story
A.  Valmiki teaches the story of the Ramayana to Rama’s sons, who sing it to Rama after Sita’s exile.

B. Vyasa dictates the story of the Mahabharata to the god Ganesha. Vyasa is in the story itself as the father of Pandu and Dhritarashtra.

C. The sage Vaisampayana tells the Mahabharata to the King Janamejaya, the great-grandson of Arjuna.

D. Another sage, Suta, tells the Mahabharata to the sages in the Naimisa forest.

V. The Role of Language in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata

A. The (relatively) simple story of the Ramayana lends itself to wide-spread re-telling and performance throughout Southeast Asia; the more complex Mahabharata is not as much a part of the performance tradition, except in Java where it forms the basis for much of the wayang shadow theatre repertoire.

B. The main events of the story are motivated by language: blessings, curses, oaths, especially those spoken by sages who by the power of their asceticism must speak the truth; whatever they say comes true.

C. The telling of the story itself is an auspicious use of language. Reading it, especially aloud, and listening to it, are seen as good in and of themselves. Those who read it are protected, benefited and taught about the reality of the world.