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"The Ramayana" as told by Aubrey Menen

Jul 21, 2015 | Books

The Ramayana is an epic poem originally written in Sanskrit and attributed to the poet, Valmiki. It’s considered to be one of the two great works of Indian literature. Yana means journey, so it’s the tale of Prince Rama’s journey. The full version is seven volumes long and there are at least 300 versions of it. So, British-Indian author Aubrey Menen figured it was okay to give it his own slant.

All Menen took from the original poem is its skeleton, including the Indian ideals: the ideal wife, the ideal son, etc. He believes his retelling is what the original poet meant before it was, well, “shaped” over the years by Brahmins so that it may not resemble Valmiki’s work at all. Menen seeks to remedy that.  I have no idea if he does, but it’s a great story.

Rama, one of the avatars – or human manifestations – of the supreme god Vishnu, is tricked into exile by his father precisely because he is the ideal son and his father is far from the ideal king. Rama’s wife, Sita, and his brother Luxmun go with him when he leaves Ayoda. The trio eventually stumble upon a sect of holy hermits who call themselves the Gluttons. Most holy hermits are seriously into self-deprivation. The Gluttons are not, because of their “observation … of the fact that when a man does not eat he dies.”

The head of the sect is, wait for it, Valmiki! He tells the party straight out that he has committed 4,000 crimes, all of which, one assumes, are crimes only in the eyes of the Brahmans, who are very strict about things being done in accordance with Vishnu wishes. That is, what they say are Vishnu’s wishes, including, of course, giving lots and lots of money to the Brahmans. Unsure of their safety, but having little choice, they stay with him and do not wake to find they have been robbed or killed.

It is said one of Valmiki’s crimes is the killing of a Brahman. When Luxmon asks if this is true, Valmiki responds, “What would be the use of killing one Brahman?” A little while later, he shows Rama how his father tricked him into exile. Rama suggests sending Luxmun back to Ayoda to expose the lie and insist on enough money to return. Valmiki suggests telling the king that Rama plans to return, at which point they will pay very handsomely for him to stay away. That’s what happens.

They stay with Valmiki for a long time, Rama keeps studying with him, Rama’s wife is “kidnapped,” they fight a war to get her back, which they win, of course. Then the step-brother who was made king when their father died comes to Rama and asks him to return and take over the throne because he now realizes it should have been Rama’s all along. You can check Wikipedia for the details of the story. That’s not the point of Menen’s retelling.

The point is to show the follies of civilization and the ruling classes. It’s filled with stories that convey wisdom. I guess. I have to admit I didn’t get some of them. But they’re entertaining. And it’s a really fun book. Plus you do get the bare bones of the original Ramayana, so you get to feel quite erudite as you read.