Most ancient stories, including several considered sacred by contemporary societies, are riddled with sex, violence, and gore. In the Old Testament, Samson goes berserk and murders a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey. In the Iliad, Achilles goes berserk and drags a corpse across the battlefield, hoping to defile the body of his foe. In the Edda, Thor goes berserk and starts smashing skulls with his hammer.
In the Ramayana, an army of monkeys and an army of demons meet murderously on the battlefield. From Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, and Barend van Nooten’s translation of the Ramayana:
In that terrible darkness they slaughtered one another in battle: the monkeys crying, “Are you a demon?” and the demons crying, “Are you a monkey?”
“Kill!” “Rend!” “Come on!” “What, running away?” Such were the tumultuous cries that were heard in that darkness.
A tremendous din could be heard as they roared and raced about in that tumultuous battle, though nothing at all could be seen.
In their towering fury, monkeys killed monkeys, while demons slaughtered demons in the darkness.
And as the monkeys and demons killed friend and foe alike, they drenched the earth with blood, making it slick with mud.
The weapons described in the Ramayana are so fantastical that some Hindu nationalists cite these passages as evidence that ancient Indians had access to advanced military technology, like atomic bombs. Which, um, they didn’t. These claims are equivalent to the Christian archaeologists who scour rocks for evidence of Yahweh’s genocidal flood in the Old Testament.
Ancient myths tend not to be literally true.
But, even to a generation raised on Mortal Kombat and action flicks, mythological battle scenes are pretty intense. Especially in the Ramayana, what with those magical weapons, flying monkeys, and angry demons. Luckily for us, Vijayendra Mohanty and Vivek Goel have collaborated to produce The Ravanayan, a gorgeous series of comic books depicting this story.
Divine arrows that explode on impact? Yup.
The Ramayana is an intricate, expansive myth. Whenever I attempt to summarize it to someone, I begin tentatively – the story includes deep meditations on fate, and its chains of causality often seem involuted and intertwined. One action causes another, but the second action also caused the first.
For instance, Rama kills Ravana because Ravana kidnapped Rama’s spouse. But also, Rama was born for the express purpose of killing Ravana. Their collision was pre-ordained.
In some tellings, Ravana is a demon. A monstrous figure who, like Lucifer, initiates an assault on the gods and must be stopped. Because Ravana is immune to harm from deities, though, Vishnu must be incarnated as a human to slay him. During Vishnu’s tenure as a human, other characters intentionally waste his time because they are waiting for Rama / Vishnu’s divinity to fade sufficiently for him to be able to fight Ravana.
In other tellings, Ravana is an enlightened figure. Ravana is vegetarian, whereas Rama’s vice-like passion for hunting is so strong that he abandons his spouse in order to pursue (and kill) a particularly beautiful deer. By way of contrast, Ravana exemplifies asceticism, forebearance, and learning … but is doomed by love. In the essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” A.K. Ramanujan writes that:
In the Jain texts … Ravana is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself.
And, in some Shaivite interpretations of the Ramayana, the supposed villain has orchestrated the entire affair for the good of the world. In these tellings, Ravana is like Jesus, intentionally sacrificing himself to potentiate salvation for others.
Mohanty and Goel’s Ravanayan follows this tradition. In addition to stunning illustrations (seriously, check out Goel’s pictures of Brahma, a creator who contains galaxies), their books offer deep psychological insight, especially in their explanations for Ravana’s seemingly irrational behavior. In their telling, Ravana is perfectly aware of the pain that he is causing, but he believes that the only way to save the world is by sacrificing himself and those he loves.
Goel often depicts Ravana alone, repulsed by the suffering that he himself must cause in pursuit of greater good.
Precisely because Mohanty and Goel do such an excellent job depicting other portions of the Ramayana, I was disappointed that their series skips the Shoorpanakha episode. In this scene, an adventurous woman is traveling alone when she meets Rama and his brother. The two are so gorgeous and charming that she feels smitten and begins to flirt. The brothers tease her briefly … then mutilate her face by hacking off her nose and ears, a standard punishment for sexual impropriety.
As it happens, the woman whom Rama and his brother have abused is Ravana’s sister. Shoorpanakha returns to her brother’s kingdom to show Ravana what was done to her. Only then does Ravana decide to kidnap Rama’s spouse, hoping to punish the brothers for assaulting his sister.
In ancient India, it was unacceptable for a woman to travel alone. Much worse, Shoorpanakha felt infatuated and attempted to act upon her desires. Female desire was seen as inherently dangerous; Rama and his brother could been seen as exemplary men despite this assault because Shoorpanakha deserved to have her face sliced open.
Although Mohanty and Goel don’t show Rama and his brother disfiguring Shoorpanakha, her depiction in the first volume of their series is decidedly unsympathetic. She is described as “wildness itself, chasing after anything that moved.” When she and her siblings find an injured jungle cat, her younger brother says they should nurse it back to health; she wants to eat it.
And then, as part of his plan to sacrifice himself for the sake of the story, Ravana murders Shoorpanakha’s husband in order to send her mad with grief. Because no sane woman would be so bold, possessed of such unnatural appetites, as to want to seduce the beautiful, charming, divine men she meets while traveling.
The Ramayana is thousands of years old. It’s unreasonable to expect ancient stories to mirror contemporary sensibilities. We know now, obviously, that many people whose cells contain two x chromosomes enjoy travel, adventure, and sex. They shouldn’t be judged for their desire. And certainly not assaulted in retribution for it, as Shoorpanakha was.
Except that … they are. The New York Times recently ran an article on some of the women who have been attacked while (and quite possibly for) traveling alone.
Women are still punished for their appetites. For perfectly acceptable behavior, things that would seem strange for men to fear.
If the world were different, I probably wouldn’t fault Mohanty and Goel for their depiction of Shoorpanakha. After all, they’re working with ancient source material. The original audience for the Ramayana would have shared a prejudice against adventuresome women.
But, until our world gets better, I feel wary of art that promotes those same prejudices.
A beautiful comic book could change the way kids think about the world. In The Ravanayan, Mohanty and Goel push readers to feel empathy even for a story’s traditional villain. I just wish they’d done more. Our world still isn’t safe for women. Shoorpanakha, too, has a story that deserves to be heard.