Returning to the epics to find pandemic metaphors not in war but in acts of generosity and kindness
Rama, Sita and Lakshmana leaving for 14 years of exile from Ayodhya by Sahib Din (Photo Courtesy: British Library)
FOR ME, one of the most disturbing revelations of this year-like-no-other-in-living-memory has been the seamless and easy militarisation of our vocabulary when we speak about the coronavirus. Words such as ‘battle’, ‘attack’, ‘frontlines’ and ‘warriors’ have become the signposts and milestones of our pandemic landscape, altering the way we think about this crisis that threatens to change our modes of interaction for years to come. If our modified behaviour is here to stay, one thing that should concern us is what we are doing to ourselves and to our perception of the world around us when we choose the words of war to describe our successes and failures in our encounter with the virus.
We often use metaphors to describe an extreme and frightening situation. We use them especially to talk about things that threaten us, for occurrences that we do not fully understand nor can adequately protect ourselves from. Susan Sontag’s example was ‘illness as metaphor’ which became a crucial component in the public discourse about the HIV epidemic which struck a few years after her book was published. But in the decades between then and now, our preferred metaphor to describe our zeitgeist has become war. We have the ‘war on drugs’, the ‘war on terror’ (rather than terrorists) and so on.
As we borrow words and pictures from arenas of actual armed conflict, we begin to think of ourselves as ‘under siege’ and ‘embattled’. Our sense of safety and community shrink and we believe the people who tell us this is a war and that the enemy is everywhere. But war has not always been a metaphor, a set of images and comparisons carefully manipulated to teach us suspicion and distrust and hatred, to persuade us to fear the very things that we once knew and loved. We create narratives with the vocabulary of war and claim that they best address and explain our latest collective discomfort and fear. In doing so, we propel the somewhat unnerving process of domesticating war by bringing it closer to ourselves, out of its real and very brutal context. With this appropriated vocabulary, real wars and the incredible devastation they unleash become even more remote, aestheticised almost to the point of erasure.
Every narrative of war, however, is not a stand-in for something else. Like in many other cultures, our beloved stories from the past almost always feature war, sometimes as the central event, as in the Mahabharata, and sometimes as a means to an end, as in the Ramayana. Whichever culture they come from, these stories typically present the war they are describing as a conflict between good and evil. Hence, for one side in the conflict, the war is righteous and therefore, justifiable. But even when the war is righteous, texts such as the Mahabharata and the Iliad, for example, do not glorify war. In characters such as Achilles and Yudhishthira, we see a turning away from battle, a disgust with the spoils of war, a crippling sadness at the futile deaths of heroic young men. Even Arjuna, the greatest warrior of them all, comes to a moment of crisis when he realises that he is required to take up arms against his elders and his teachers. It’s a good idea to return to these stories every now and then, just to remember the truth about war and what it does, not only to the defeated but to the victorious as well.
The heroes of our epics, Rama and Yudhishthira, are Kshatriyas. They are born to fight, war is not only their destiny, it is their duty. War makes them who they are. They are trained physically, emotionally and spiritually to be warriors even more than they are trained to be kings. They mature into a naturalised code of conduct, Kshatriya dharma, the rules by which a warrior lives and dies. A Kshatriya carries with himself, as a necessary companion, the possibility of violence. A warrior’s life gains meaning on the battlefield, it is here that he is truly tested and proves himself in the only way that matters.
It should not surprise us that both Rama and Yudhishthira must fight a great war before he can claim the throne that is rightfully his. Epics are about warriors and we should not be surprised when our heroes display their prowess on the battlefield. What can surprise us is that Rama and Yudhishthira spend more than a decade in exile, in a forest, where they experience a life radically different from their own and which leaves a deep impression on them.
I was working with the Mahabharata during the early days of the lockdown and as I tried, like so many others, to realign my expectations of what was possible, I wondered how the characters in the epics felt when they were in exile, when everything that they knew, all the comfort and ease of the routine and the quotidian had been stripped away. For the first time in my long relationship with these texts, I began to glimpse the existential terror of what it might mean for a life’s orientation to disappear such that the present seems alien, to have no way of understanding what is appropriate or required in the moment, to be incapable of imagining what could lie ahead.
Life in the forest is an enormous rupture in the lives of Rama and Yudhishthira, they are driven away from all that is familiar and manageable into a liminal zone where neither time nor space functioned as they should. Amidst the many confusions of displacement and dislocation, the princes meet ascetics and sages, forest dwellers who are peaceful and undisturbed. The lives of the sages, so alien to the ones that these royal warriors have been brought up to lead, force Rama and Yudhishthira to consider other ways of thinking and being.
Life in the forest is an enormous rupture in the lives of Rama and Yudhishthira, they are driven away from all that is familiar and manageable into a liminal zone where neither time nor space functioned as they should
Yudhishthira, his brothers and his wife are exiled to the forest for 12 years as part of the final bet in the catastrophic game of dice in which Yudhishthira loses everything. They settle in the forest, their lives bound by a frugal simplicity that irks Draupadi and unsettles the brothers. Arjuna spends much time away, collecting divine weapons and making political alliances through marriage. Bhima’s purpose is to protect the family while the twins are involved with their own concerns. Yudhishthira, always contemplative and unwilling to act before thinking, spends his time talking to sages. With them, he discusses the things that bother him but more than that, he listens to the stories they tell, stories that seem to be directed at the circumstances of his life. Yudhishthira hears about Nala who gambled everything away and lost his wife, about Rama whose wife was abducted and who had to fight a great war to win her back before he returned to his kingdom. Slowly, Yudhishthira begins to see himself in the stories that he is hearing, more and more, they become mirrors which aid his self-reflection.
But below the surface of these easy conversations and storytelling sessions which begin a journey to self-knowledge, there is also something else going on. Yudhishthira is starting to appreciate the lives of the sages, the lack of fuss and ceremony, the time to talk and listen, their vast fund of knowledge, the possibility of living gently and quietly. He realises that one can live a life that is not predicated on violence, as a Kshatriya’s necessarily is. Of all the Pandavas, it is Yudhishthira who has consistently opposed war with his cousins. His persistence in seeking a peaceful solution has made his brothers impatient and their wife angry, but the time in the forest and with the sages convinces Yudhishthira that war cannot be the solution to everything, that another way of life is not only possible, it is desirable.
Rama, too, is sent into exile in the forest. His loyal brother and loving wife decide to go with him. Before they enter the dark and dangerous Dandaka forest, where they are beset by danger and from where Sita is abducted, the princes and Sita had lived peacefully in Chitrakuta, with forest-dwelling sages and ascetics. Their lives were calm and they enjoyed the company of the wise men and their wives. It would appear that Rama was particularly taken with the quietude of these people who had left the city behind and whose days were now filled with serene contemplation and punctuated only by the performance of various rituals. The women of these forest communities treated Sita as they would a daughter and Sita, too, was moved by the simplicity of their lives. The idyll ends when Rama is asked by the sages to move away as his presence agitates the rakshasas and endangers their fragile communities.
In his time with the sages, Rama, like Yudhishthira, has been shown another way to be, a way that does not encompass violence, that does not need conflict or aggression to be fulfilling.
Already disturbed by the consequences of Kaikeyi’s ambition and by his father’s weakness in relation to his young wife’s whims, Rama is moved by the possibility of a simpler life, one with fewer obligations and demands on the individual.
At the end of the Valmiki Ramayana, Rama, too, recognises himself in a story that he hears in the form of a beautiful poem recited by two young bards at his sacrifice. The boys had been telling the story for days and Rama had listened, apparently unaware that he was hearing the story of his own life. But when the boys mention Sita’s banishment, Rama is moved to ask, ‘Whose story is this?’ Surely Rama had anticipated the answer. In any case, he calls for Sita and asks her to prove to his citizens that she was, indeed, pure.
How wonderful that a story can teach you something not only about the world but also about yourself. How poignant that a story can carry such significance when it reaches you at a time when you are seeking the questions that make sense, if not answers. Rama hears his own story, like Yudhishthira, at a moment of disabling stasis in his life. He has returned from exile, triumphant, having won back his wife. But he is compelled to send her away when his people criticise her. Rama is devastated by her departure and by the fact that his sense of kingship made it impossible for him to do otherwise. Rama had surrounded himself with sages when he returned to Ayodhya and spent his time listening to the stories they told him. Perhaps his own story was the one he was waiting for, the one that would prove that he could, in fact, bring Sita back.
Rama and Yudhishthira cope with the seismic shift in their lives by listening to stories. They are soothed by conversations that go beyond the immediate and point to things hitherto unseen and unconsidered. It is also true that they seek out these conversations with people with whom they did not ordinarily engage. As such, Rama and Yudhishthira are able to look at how they had lived thus far from another perspective. Perhaps they were even persuaded to examine themselves and their actions in the context of a larger dharma which encompassed more than their individual lives.
If we read ancient stories not only for the religious truths they might contain but also for human ones, we will see that we have a chance, through our own volition, to overcome what threatens us
IT IS NOT easy to give up what one has been brought up with, the thoughts and behaviours that we have been naturalised into, the ones that create order and meaning in our worlds. And so it is with Rama and Yudhishthira when they are attracted to another way of life. Despite the fact that they strip themselves of their royal clothes and ornaments when they go into exile, they take their weapons with them. Even in the forest, their bows and arrows, their swords and shields are polished, sharpened and worshipped as they would be in the daily life of any warrior. It is Sita who gently says to Rama that it is not appropriate to behave like a Kshatriya in the forest. She has heard Rama denounce Kshatriya dharma on more than one occasion, in response to something that is presented to him as the way a Kshatriya could behave (for example, imprisoning his father who had just exiled him or, reclaiming the throne once his father had died). But Sita worries that in the forest, Rama’s proximity to weapons will lead him to violence, that he could be tempted to use them against the innocent and the defenceless. And so, she speaks to him such that Rama is reminded of his own discomfort with a dharma predicated on the constant readiness for armed aggression.
In his early rejection of Kshatriya dharma, Rama is like Yudhishthira. Even before they reach the forest, both men are unconvinced about a life based on the primacy of violence. Time and conversations with sages and ascetics only confirms their belief that even though they are Kshatriyas who will soon rule their ancestral lands and people, they can consider rejecting violence as a necessary aspect of their kingship. As it turns out, neither of them is able to prevent the war that awaits him and neither is happy with his victory. Yudhishthira never comes to terms with a war that destroyed his family and left him a kingdom of widows and orphans. He is eager to give up the kingdom and return to the forest. Rama remains detached from the celebrations when he returns triumphant to Ayodhya. After he settles into a life without Sita, he makes a golden statue of her as a reminder to himself and his people of what he has sacrificed to be king.
The forest placed Rama and Yudhishthira in extreme circumstances that demanded they give up older ways of seeing and behaving and both men responded to that call for change. Perhaps they had heard the call as a whisper before and the forest merely amplified what they had not made time to listen to eralier. Significantly, however, they carried their new insights back to the city and tried to integrate the newer understanding of themselves and their place in the world into the lives they had previously lived.
As 2021 dawns after our own unprecedented rupture, we will try and piece our lives back together, as Rama and Yudhishthira did when they returned from their exile and after the wars they fought. For both of them, the return to ‘normalcy’ and the familiar was not simple. They remained uneasy with what they had lost and what they had gained. Like them, we can be sure that the pieces we gather of our fragmented lives will now form a different picture of ourselves and our world. Some pieces will have changed in shape or colour, some will have disappeared, we might add entirely new ones or ones that we hadn’t considered important before. How will we accommodate this year, however ‘cancelled,’ into the new jigsaw that we will be compelled to create? If we have remained healthy and financially secure, we might give thanks for our good fortune and turn our thoughts to those that have not been protected by individual privilege or by public policy. If we have been in company, like Rama and Yudhishthira were during their interrupted lives, our jigsaw might include the stories we listened to and the conversations that helped us think about ourselves and our world differently. If we have been alone, we might have become aware of all that we do not need to keep our lives rich and full.
Equally important to the jigsaw we are assembling (a process rather than a circumscribed event) will be what we choose to carry forward from the life we used to know. What will we consider valuable enough to bring with us into this incompletely charted and not-fully-imagined time and space? Will we revive the memory that unrestricted contact with other people is a fundamental human pleasure? Will we recall that the truths of relationships are more clearly felt in person than they are through a mediating screen? Will we resurrect the idea that the greatest good has compassion, love and justice as its foundation and not hatred and suspicion? If we do, we will see that our militarised vocabulary is corrosive to our souls and detrimental to the species on our planet. If we read ancient stories not only for the religious truths they might contain but also for human ones, we will see that we have a chance, through our own volition, to overcome what threatens us. We will be free to speak of those who are at the forefront of the encounter with the virus as healers instead of warriors. We will find our metaphors not in war but in acts of generosity and kindness, courage, faith and solidarity.
A familiar story from the Ramayana became a revelation a few nights ago during a conversation with a friend. In order to reach the island of Lanka where Sita was held captive, Rama’s army of monkeys and bears had to build a bridge across the waters. They took to their task with joy, singing and laughing and jumping in and out of the waves on the shore. Even a little squirrel did his bit by ferrying bits of grass for the wattle which would hold together the stones and boulders and tree trunks that the larger animals gathered. The bridge brought an unlikely collection of forest animals who carried no weapons to the gates of a heavily protected citadel, bristling with mighty warriors armed to the teeth. Even more than the actual battle with the magical animals, it was the building of the bridge that signalled Ravana’s doom, the end of his reign. Constructed by a solidarity of ordinary creatures who had come together across differences that resonate with those of caste, creed and persuasion, this bridge can be the metaphor for our times. For we, too, have demons in our midst that we must overcome.