Ramayana is an interesting story to hear. It is purportedly the story of a perfect man. ‘Perfect’, depending on the mood could be a taboo in today’s world. It could even evoke defensive reaction. Is Ramayana interesting because we are curious about possible exceptions to the 'nobody is perfect' rule? Over centuries people have not made up their minds on the topic of perfection and continue to make despicable statements surrounding it. In today's age, the same person who humbly submits, 'I am not perfect, nobody is perfect' also, in another time and place, doles out sagacious advice that goes like: 'if you can't do it perfectly, you shouldn't do it at all. That is my policy'. Never mind, that the same person also thinks that 'something is better than nothing' is a fantastic policy. Confused people exist today and it wouldn't surprise me if the existed in Rama's time too. I always wondered, what would happen if an oddball guy suddenly showed up and he was 100% perfect. Would the skepticism inherent in people allow them to appreciate that? More importantly, would our ignorance allow us to recognize that? Wouldn’t we immediately start with our “logical” questions 'perfect according to what dimension - Perfect Kshathriya? Perfect Husband? Perfect King? Perfect Son?' Well, let us dismiss all that and say he was perfect in everything. Let us assume Narada was right and Rama was indeed The perfect man. Everything is a very complex phenomena. Have we accounted for Everything? Are we smart enough to put everything Rama did, in proper context? My constant ponderings on perfection always leads to two things (a) Perfection is not necessary and it may not even be sufficient to achieve many things we want (b) There will always be people, who will certainly dislike a perfectionist - for starters the man himself will hate his life.
Perfect, Maybe. But was Rama a happy man?
On the topic of sadness: Rama’s life is a series of frustrating experiences one after the other. This aspect is well known but rarely a point of focus. Everything works in extremes for him. As a kid I have heard Balakrishna Sastrigal, a legendary figure at the Ram Samaj/Ayodhya Mandapam, wax eloquent about Rama’s misofrtunes, Velukudi Krishnan has had his say, and Krishna Premi has shed his tears. Banker brings out his take on Rama’s frustrating life by painting him as a son of an ignored queen – as a frustrated son of a philistine king. Banker has him frustrated with Dasaratha to the point where Rama decides to be monogamic. To draw a rough sketch of his life from Banker’s book and Velukudi’s narration, at the age of 14 he is taken by Vishwamithra for an adventure, much to the dismay of Dasaratha. Rama gets married at 14 and then spends 10 years as a happily married person. Right, when he is about to begin his journey to the throne, his exile begins at the age of 25. His only happy moment after that seems to be life at Panchavati and even there Seetha is kidnapped just when things seem to getting better. In Banker's book she is kidnapped even before Rama knows that she is pregnant. He recovers her when she is very pregnant and returns back to Ayodhya as a 39 year old. Since Seetha is very very pregnant when she is sent to the forest, it does not appear that they were together ‘happily ever after’ in the post-Ravana life. His progression towards happiness seems to get truncated rather rudely. Most of us feel the same way towards our own life but the severity of the truncation for Rama is rather extreme.
Velukudi draws from Rama’s example and beautifully puts life in perspective. Not many will appreciate this, but it resonated with me. He describes happiness thus; “you are climbing a branch to grab a fruit. The part of the branch you are perched on, which is directly above a deep well, breaks and begins to tilt downwards. You are hanging on to dear life. At that time a snake crawls on to the branch and begins to move towards your hand. A hungry lion approaches the well and waits there just in case you try to swing hard, avoid the well and fall to the ground. You can't go up the branch, the snake will bite you. If you fall into the well it is certain death. Swinging and avoiding the well is free lunch for the lion. As the branch slowly breaks and begins to detach from the tree, a drop of honey from a beehive above falls on your face. You lick it and experience sweetness, happiness. For a moment, you forget the snake, the well, and the lion. This is how happiness works in life. In life you go through many troubles, trials and tribulations and in the middle you somehow manage to sneak in happiness in the form of a peaceful moment, a vacation, family, wealth and children.”
Banker’s Books and his writing style:
If I was asked to rank the number 1 segment in all of Banker’s books, I would choose the description of Seetha’s kidnapping by Ravana. I think if there was a segment where Banker outdid Valmiki, Kamban and everybody else, it was this segment. It is hard for me to imagine that a reader would not be brought close to tears when reading that segment. There were several segments in Banker’s books that brought a lump to my throat. I was so close to tears that I would look up and find myself in a flight or van or train – and feel all embarrassed that someone might’ve seen me. Every time Hanuman weeps for Rama, I’d get throttled. Banker evokes, in me, a resonation with Rama’s plight better than any other author. I never thought I could be emotionally moved, so easily. I have to shamelessly admit that Banker got me maudlin several times.
Banker writes 6 books in all. They are Prince Of Ayodhya, Seige of Mithila, Demons of Chithrakut, Armies of Hanuman, Bridge of Rama and King of Ayodhya. I somehow thought it mirrored the 6 Khandas of Ramayana (Bala Khanda, Ayodhya Khanda, Aranya Khanda, Kishkindha Khanda, Sundara Khanda and Yuddha Khanda – with Utthara Khanda excluded). Well, it was only partially true. The books aren’t strictly arranged as per the Khandas. Some Khanda’s name is mentioned by its original name, suddenly, in the middle of the book and some Khanda names aren’t mentioned at all. Banker displays a fantastic writing style. He mixes one word sentences and long sentences very well. His writing style is flashy, descriptive and very much like a screenplay for a movie. You don’t have to imagine a lot because the scene is vividly described to you. Initially, I got a feeling the series was like Lord of the Rings look alike and I can see the comparison to Tolkien’s book arises in many people (more on this later). I was terribly wrong about that. Banker’s books are really fast paced. Unlike the steady pace of Tolkien, he explodes into dimensions beyond story narration. The first 50 pages of the first book will be the most difficult. I took a year to cross those first 50 pages. I read the other 5.9 books in 1 month. It was that "unputdownable". Given all this, when I progressed to the book - Bridge of Rama, I couldn’t help but look forward to Sundara Khanda. Sundara Khanda is really an acid test for any reteller of Ramayana. Its the phase where Hanuman goes in search of Seetha, Rama awaits his return, Seetha suffers in Ashokavana and Ravana debates with Hanuman. Kamban’s Sundara Khandam is simply an extraordinary literary effort. It communicates so many different emotions in such colorful language. It takes you to that pleasant mental spot and carries you to so many different moods. I was somehow expecting Banker to take me through a similar journey. While, he maintains his high standards through Sundara Khanda, he does not make the leap that Kamban makes. I know it is an unfair comparison but I can’t help but make that.
The Force of the Brahman
Banker, overall, weaves a wonderful narration. He sticks to the framework of Valmiki with rigor (credits Arshia Sattar’s translation of Valmiki’s book for helping him Navigate). But while doing that he makes his own leaps into imagination without losing integrity. A key piece of narration, which I think is Banker’s own interpretation, is the imaginative influence of ‘force of the Brahman’ on the key characters of Ramayana. This by far is my most favorite aspect of the book. Brahman is the vedic term that represents the monotheistic ‘god’ of the Vedas. Brahman, as per the Vedas, is a continuum that pervades all the beings of the world (a concept debated fiercely by the proponents of a/vishishta/(d) vaitha). Force of the Brahman, is used similar to the way the ‘force’ is used in the Star Wars (I don’t mean to compare or equate but just trying to give a frame of reference to the modern reader). The use of the Brahman force in narrative segments serves as an excellent tool. In that - through this tool Banker reconciles a lot of ‘cosmic’ things more elegantly than it has ever been done before. What can I say to this piece of imagination – hats off!. Banker does not leave many loose threads hanging. As you read it you will realize that all loops are closed properly, all loose ends are tied and there is a meaning to every character, event and principle. It is done very elegantly. I mention is casually, but I can imagine this is not an easy to end to meet. However, Banker looses steam in the last book. His description of trivial battle situations was so fantastic that the ultimate Ravana-Rama conflict promised to be larger than life. Let us just say that I was disappointed in the end.
In the narration, preface, the prologue and epilogue, one gets the sense of the kind of person that Ashok Banker is. I had this paragraph in rough draft but decided against posting this after Banker made an appearance in the comment section. But dash it. I have to mention this. Authors who discourage readers from buying their book don’t come knocking every day. I was surprised by Amazon’s classification of Ramayana. One can debate this for years together, but I have nothing more to add on the topic beyond what the author has already said. I can see many authors take such a marketing ploy in their stride and count the sales money. But I respect Banker’s letter to buyers in Amazon.com. It is easy to regard him as eccentric, tough or high maintenance, maybe he is. So be it. To me it was a rare purism that is less understood. Whatever term you use to describe that attitude, I like that. It is very impressive (btw - a non-Thamizh who spells the language as ‘Thamizh’ always has my admiration).
Banishment of Seetha and The Ambush of Vali
Ashok Banker does have his failings though. He portrays Ramayana as a love story much the way Kamban did. However, he becomes too attached to his Rama. Banker strongly believes his Rama will never banish Seetha. Banker's Rama is so much in love with Seetha that he is unable to bring himself to write Utthara Khanda. Kamban also did not write the Utthara Khandam. Maybe Kamban also couldn’t bring himself to write it. Valmiki could. Valmiki wasn’t required to be concerned about acceptability or believability. He could see (in fact saw) the character in the character’s setting. Banker sees Rama through today’s eyes. I am a big fan of Utthara Khanda. To me, the banishment of Seetha was the most logical and obvious aspect of Ramayana. Rama’s obsession towards rules and principle points to it, Banker’s description of the Rakshasa cruelty points to it, they way he factors in Seetha’s pregnancy points to it. So, I was disappointed that Banker did not cross that bridge and bring himself to see why Rama could have done that. I wonder if he read what Mr. Tulsidas had to say about the whole 'Agni Pariksha' episode. His handling of the Vali episode also disappointed me. Vali is not ambushed by Rama in Banker’s book, but is killed (albeit nir-ayudha-paani) in reflex. Banker has a dying Vali arguing with Rama, much like Valmiki’s narration had. But the subject of Vali’s argument in Valmiki’s book was the ambush. It was all about the ambush. In Valmiki’s version and Kamban’s version, Vali after an extended argument finally concedes that Rama had not violated dharma by killing him - and then dies. Banker’s book focuses on Vali’s counter offer to help Rama regain Seetha. While Valmiki's version covers it - this to me was a moot issue. Banker had this wonderful opportunity to weave a thread surrounding the sparing of Ravana’s life the day-before his death, Mareecha’s death, and Vali’s death (all three have a dialog with Rama as they die) and he misses it.
Banker's Deviations From Valmiki
Banker’s deviations from the original book have been collected in Wikipedia. I’ll mention a few that I deduced myself, some of it is not in wiki and a few is there. People who have seen Crazy Mohan’s drama “Crazy Kishkintha” will recollect that Angada, son of Vali, files a case in Madras high court against Rama for the ambush :-). In Banker’s book Angada is son of Sugreeva. This to me was perplexing and seemed like a basic error. The killing of Ravana’s sons was (he had several) not handled well. Lakshmana’s role in Yuddha Khanda was minimal. His duel with Indrajit is absent. Kumbakarna, in Valmiki’s book, is actually a very good person, very benevolent and Hanuman is defeated by him many times. Kumbakarna gets fleeting mention in Book 6. It was almost as if Banker had to stop with book 6 and had run out of space. The whole 9-day war, Sanjeeva Mountain has been abridged and changed. Sugreeva’s ability as a warrior in Banker’s book is a pale shadow of the superman he was in Valmiki’s book. These to me were understandable deviations. I also did not mind Surpanaka’s extended (she gets more space than Seetha) role, Manthara and Vali’s cooked-up connection to Ravana etc. However, I was not impressed with the pre-swayamvara courtship period of Rama and Seetha. I am okay with deviations but this one did not appeal to me.
Saptha Rishis and Veda Vyasas
Agasthya, contrary to what A.Banker says in his book, is not one of the seven sages/Saptha Rishi (although I've heard that Mahabharatha mentions that he is). Atri, Bharadhvaja, Gauthama, Jamadagni, Kashyapa, Vashishta, and Vishwamithra are the seven rishis as per the upanishads and brahmanas. Sometimes even Vishwamithra isn't considered to be among the Saptha Rishi (much to the anguish of Kausiga Kothram folks). Vashishta's role is vital in Ramayana. Velukudi Krishnan, in his upanyasam, informs that Vashishta was the first Veda Vyasa. During Ramayana the vedas were a single unit but geographically fragmented (Banker mentions this in his book). Vasishta began the process of dividing the vedas. 'Vyasa' means 'to divide'. Veda Vyasa means the classifier/divider of Vedas. Vasishta was Veda Vyasa I. Vasishta's son Shakthya continued the work, later Shakthya's son Parashara continued to divide and categorize Vedas. The final categorization into 4 vedas was finally completed by Parashara's son Krishna-dwaipayana (who wrote Mahabharatha). Krishna-dwaipayana's son was Sukha, who wrote Srimad Bhagavadham.
To conclude, Banker is a fantastic author and a convincing debater. He has a segment in ‘King of Ayodhya’ – which like Valmiki’s version has demons taunting, teasing, abusing Seetha every minute of the day for days, weeks, months together in an attempt to wear her down (Both versions have Ravana showing a fake dead body of Rama to Seetha) . There is a 2-page segment which has a demoness retell Ramayana, to Seetha, in a way that shows Ravana to be the just person and Rama as an annexing ruffian. This was simply an awesome segment. In two pages, the author makes a fantastic concise argument that is as convincing on the surface as the entire book was for Rama. One needs considerable talent to do this. This indirectly credits the will of Seetha. It is not easy to not believe such a forceful argument. Ravana gets significant space in Valmiki’s book and was not all that bad as he is made out to be on TV. It is good to see Banker describe Ravana (physically and otherwise ) and devote so much space for him. I was very impressed by the importance given to Ravana and the integrity in dealing with Ravana. Banker has 2 more Ramayana books coming up beyond the six. While, I am happy to see Banker change his mind about Utthara Khanda, I am skeptical about his book on Ravana. He can’t beat his high on Ravana. Then again it is perplexing to see him skim over the departure of Vibishena from Ravana’s camp. This was a mega event in Valmiki’s narration and its neglection was disappointing. Ravana, to put it simply, was on the side of a-dharma and was up against a person who would even sacrifice himself to uphold it. As our dear Velukudi says,” when you are on side of dharma even monkeys will help you, when you are on the side of a-dharma your own brother will desert you” .
Post Script : Some trivia on Rama's journey
1.Srirangam, the worlds largest active temple, is Rama's parting gift to Vibhishena. Vibhishena unable to carry the deity places it on the banks of Cauvery. It is probably the only temple in S.India that faces south (quite startling in a region where south-facing is typically inauspicious).
2. Ravana was a Pulastya Brahmin. Rama and Lakshmana were immediately cursed with Brahma-hathya curse after they killed him and his family. DevaPrayag temple is a pointer to that.
3. Nathan temple near Kumbakonam, Valvil Raman Temple, Kolavalli Raman Temple and many other Rama temples near Kumbakonam archives small small details about Rama that are very interesting. While in Kumbakonam also visit the Rama Swamy temple for its architecture.
4. Sundara Khanda(m) is read by many women in S. India when they are pregnant. The extraordinary cohesion of sadness and happiness of this khandam, is said to be soothing to the mind. Many women strongly believe that the unborn child can hear the recitation of it.
5. Ramayana books (including Banker's one) describe Rama & Lakshmana as doing Sandhya-vandhanam in the Ganges. Doing so in the ganges is considered as very auspicious by many even today.