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Ashok Banker’s Ramayana: Books 1-3

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I can’t think of a greater delight than discovering an author whose work I’ve never read before. In the last few months I’ve been fortunate to discover four such wonders. Even better, as far as I was concerned, was that each of them have published either a continuing series of books or a completed series, so there is no end of fodder for my considerable appetite. I have something to do while waiting for the next installment of Harry Potter!

I don’t have any specific process for picking out new books; I usually wander through the aisles of a book store or library, and if a cover catches my eye, or I spot a title that sounds good to my ear, I’ll take the book off the shelf to give it the once-over. Most books have some sort of plot summary, either on the back cover or the fly leaf, and that will be the first thing I check. As these are invariably written by the author’s publisher, they aren’t much use as assessment of the book’s quality, but they usually give enough detail to offer clues as to whether the book merits attention.

Primarily when it comes to fiction I seem to be drawn to the world of what’s known as speculative, or fantasy, and even then my interests narrow the field further. The standard sword-and-sorcery tale holds little or no interest, nor the typical space adventure. What draws me to this genre is that, of all fiction, it most resembles story-telling, and so the nature of the story is of utmost importance. Ones that extrapolate from the various traditions of original peoples are a major attraction, or conversely, invented a world with its own past and peoples.

Ashok K. Banker’s adaptation of the 3,000-year-old epic of the Indian sub-continent, Ramayana, falls into the former category. At first glance, it could appear to be too exotic and unapproachable for a Western reader who knows little or nothing about that history or culture. But the author has ensured that no one’s enjoyment be diminished by their background. (Interestingly enough, he has published separate editions for Indian consumption, whose only differences are a different prologue and the exclusion of the glossary.) He seamlessly tells the story while integrating instruction and education through the context of events. The inclusion of an extensive glossary of Sanskrit words and concepts at the back of each volume is an added benefit, if clarification is needed, but I found such moments few and far between.

When I began my reading, the first three books of six had been published: Prince of Ayodhya, Siege of Mithila, and Demons of Chitrakut. In the first book we are introduced to an India of ancient times. There has been peace for thirty years between the mortals and the demon Asura, who occupy the island kingdom of Lanka. Prince Rama’s father, the king of Ayodhya, had repelled their last invasion with assistance of the other city states, and now lived out his days enjoying the pleasures of his wives.

But as we learn, all is not right in the world, and even now the demons, led by their lord Ravana, are plotting their return to dominance. Why, if they could invade and defeat the Gods in their own city, what hope do mortals have? Through dark magic, their forces have infiltrated to the very heart of the kingdom, and set in motion events that could very well see the end of mortal kind.

Prince of Ayodhya outlines the various plots being hatched and introduces us to the principle characters. The battle lines are drawn, and Rama is prepared for his destiny through training and tasks. The book also begins our education in the concepts and beliefs that guide the actions of our hero, and shows how he is prepared to be the exemplar of all that is ideal.

Siege of Mithila introduces us to the woman who is to be the love of Rama’s life, the princess Sita. She is the daughter of the King of Mithila, a man who after the end of the last war had renounced all violence, and turned his state into a haven for all things spiritual. Of course, this means it is the ideal place for the demons to begin their martial conquest. But as with all good villains, the Demon lord Ravana has more then one arrow in his quill. In Demons of Chitrakut, when Rama returns in triumph from defeating the demon armies with his new bride in tow, instead of being feted as a hero he is sent into exile for fourteen years, along with his brother and his wife. Through his black arts, Ravana has managed to corrupt the king and bring about this drastic turn of events.

The Ramayana was written by the original good thief Valmiki, who far predates the one mentioned in the story of Christ. As atonement for his past sins, he became a sage, and wrote down the story of Rama to teach the values needed to lead the exemplary life. As in all epics, there is a Hero, Rama of Ayodhya, a beautiful princess (his wife Sita), his loyal companions, the flawed but basically good father, and a villain.

Ashok Banker’s adaptations are lushly written with love and devotion. He has taken an epic poem and set it into more approachable prose. Written in English for an English speaking audience, we know that nothing is being lost in translation. The books are a fine introduction for those of us who have little or no understanding of the culture and history of one of the oldest societies in the world, and our guide is one of the more accomplished writers in India. If you are like me&#8212your understanding of India has been limited to seeing the occasional Bollywood movie, and various western interpretations of eastern beliefs&#8212these books are a breath of fresh air. Alive and vital, they manage to entertain and educate simultaneously.

At no time during the reading of the stories did I feel Mr. Banker overtly explaining concepts and ideas central to the belief system extolled to the detriment of the story. His wise use of incidents and characters (which is the manner of all good epics and parables) served to fill in the copious blanks in my knowledge without once making me feel like the story was being interrupted. Soon after beginning I was able to just sit back, and enjoy the lush panorama unfolding before me without worrying about missing out on any key points of the tale.

A word of warning. Do not do what I did. That was sit down and attempt to read through all three books in sequence one after the other. As with all piquant items, one must give the palate a rest between course,s or risk a dulling of the senses. These are books to be savoured as a delicacy; take your time and don’t rush, or you run the risk of missing out on the nuances of taste at your disposal.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    This sounds like a 20-course dinner of a series. I have read only excerpts (in English, of course) of the Ramayana, but the thought of taking on the entire saga (to read, let alone to write) is seriously daunting.

    Do you plan to review all the volumes?

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Excellently written and detailed review. Do not assume any authenticity for this version, however – it is intended and written as fantasy/sci-fi.

    Enjoyable, but derivative.

    The original story was the tale of the Aryan invasion of India transformed into social myth through the usual processes.

    Many fine translations exist – the Banker books and a couple of good translations have been added to the post above

  • http://www.pippensqueak.blogspot.com gypsyman

    Thanks for your comments. As to the authenticiy note, I reccomend you go over to Ashok’s homepage http://www.epicindia, or his blog and ask him about that. Further note on Aryan invasion. According to Indian sources there is now a lot of doubt about the veracity of Ayrans actually coming from outside of India, but perhaps originating there. For this reason characters in Ashok’s Ramayana have blond hair and blue eyes.
    I did place the ISBN’s for the first three books in the the fields but perhaps did something wrong so they were not read. I would appreciate though people not adding items that are not being reviewed in the current article. Since I have published a review of Armies of Hanuman separately I have listed the ISDN with it.
    Thank You.

  • http://bhattathipad.sulekha.com bhattathiri

    Reading and preaching Ramayana in this month will bring peace and happiness in all families.
    Kowsalya supraja Rama poorva sandhya pravarthathe Uthishta narasardoola karthavyam daivamahnikam (Twice)

    Sri Rama! Kausalya’s endearing son! Wake up, dear; You have to do Your day-to-day duties; Do wake up please.

    Uthishtothishta Govinda uthishta garudadhwaja Uthishta kamalakantha thrilokyam mangalam kuru (Twice)

    Sri Govinda! All the three worlds are under Your rule; they have to prosper. Wake up, my child.

    Holy Ramayana is one of the the most widely read epics in India. In Kerala Ramayana month begins on 1st karkadakam (17th July 2006). In almost all Hindu families one will read the holy Ramayana and other members will listen. The climate during the period is almost rainy and many people will not have any work and it is also considered as a month for preventive treatment. Elaborate arrangements will be made in the temples to read Ramayana and preach the divine message to lead an ideal life. Paramacharyal of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam in his characteristic simple language has said “There are two powerful ‘Taraka Namas’. One is Aum and another is Ramá. All mantras have to be prefixed with Aum for obtaining the benefits of those mantras, whereas there is no need to prefix Aum when the name ‘Ramá’ is recited because the name itself is ‘Tarka Namam’ “. We do not seek a preceptor when we are not in trouble or when we feel that there is nothing lacking in us. The more we are besieged by troubles the more often we go to worship in temples or seek the darshan and advice of great men. “Just as the Veda Purusha (Virat Purusha) was born as Dasaratha’s earthly son, the Vedas are born from Prachetasa (Valmiki) in the form of The Ramayana.”
    The Ramayana is the very form of the Vedas that have come down to us from the heavens to the earth. The Vedas are divided into four parts, viz., Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharvana Veda. Lord Rama is the embodiment of Rig Veda, Lakshmana, the Yajur Veda, Bharata, the Sama Veda and Satrughna, the Atharvana Veda. The four Vedas became the four sons of Dasaratha and played at his palace. The Rig Veda and the Yajur Veda consist of Mantras which are related to Yajnas and Yagas. That is the reason why Sage Viswamitra took Rama and Lakshmana along with him to safeguard his Yajna. While Rama was in exile, Bharata left Ayodhya and stayed in a village called Nandigrama, all the time singing the Divine Name of Rama for 14 long years. It is for this reason that Bharata is described as the personification of Sama Veda. It was Satrughna who safeguarded the places of sacred rituals like Yajnas and Yagas from the invasion of evil spirits and demons. Do not think that the Ramayana is different from the Vedas. In fact, it is the very essence of the Vedas. Rama exemplified three kinds of righteous behaviour (Dharma), namely, the
    Dharmas relating to 1) the individual 2) the family and 3) society. To uphold these three-fold Dharma, Divinity manifested in a triangular flow, in the form of the Trimurtis (the Triune form). The Ramayana manifested to elaborate the human values. The period of the Mahabharata was well over 5000 years ago and the Ramayana was enacted aeons earlier. Even after the passage of countless ages, if it is still occupying the hearts of the people at large, you can well imagine its importance. There are two kinds of messages dominating Ramayana: One pertains to Rama and the other to Ravana. It is said “aakarah vishnu vasaha ” that is to say in aakara resides Vishnu. In Aum, aakara leads and in Ramá he resides. Lord Parameshwara says that by chanting Ramá nama thrice one can obtain the benefit of having chanted the thousand names of Lord Vishnu i.e., Vishnu Sahasranamam. Such is the
    greatness of this Ramá nama. It is believed that breathing one’s last in the banks of holy Ganges in Kasi puri the mokshapuri one gets mukthi, moksha, for Lord Parameshwara is ever chanting the Ramá nama here as Kathyayini Kamukan in the ears of all people in Kasipuri. Listening to or uttering the name Ramá at the time of death relieves everyone from sins and the jevathma obtains the mukthi. Hence the Kasipuri has come to be known as mokshapuri.

    Since the jevan transcends samsara to moksha , mukthi by the Ramá nama, the Ramá nama is Tharaka nama , Tharaka mantra.

    The Ramayana (The Journey of Rama) belongs among the world’s oldest literature. Cherished throughout India and Asia for millennia, it has been faithfully preserved and passed on in varied forms of popular _expression – epic poems, folk tales, music, dance, drama, puppet shows, sculpture, painting and even films and comic books. Its story and characters have captured the hearts and minds of countless generations. Despite its huge popularity in Eastern cultures and even though it is recognized by many Western scholars as a literary masterpiece, most people in the West have never heard of Ramayana.

    The story of Lord Rama is both a spellbinding adventure and a work of profound philosophy, offering answers to life’s deepest questions. It tells of another time when gods and heroes walked among us, facing supernatural forces of evil and guided by powerful mystics and sages.

    Revered throughout the ages for it’s moral and spiritual wisdom, it is a beautiful and uplifting tale of romance and high adventure, recounting the odyssey of Rama, a great king of ancient India. Rama, along with his beautiful wife, Sita, and faithful brother Laksmana, is exiled to the forest for fourteen years, where Sita is kidnapped by the powerful demon Ravana. Along with his brother Laksmana and a fantastic army of supernatural creatures, Rama embarks on a perilous quest to find his beloved Sita.

    The Lord Himself says in Ramayana, “If one surrenders unto Me sincerely, saying, `My Lord, from this day I am fully surrendered unto You,’ I always give him protection. That is My vow.” Since the ultimate benefit of hearing the Ramayana is increased faith in Lord Rama, everyone will want to read this important book.

    Ayodhya

    Lord Rama was born and had many of His pastimes here. It is a very holy city and is an important pilgrimage site. It is said to have once had the perimeter of 96 miles and was the capital of Kosala. It is on the banks of the Gogra (Sarayu) River, bathing in which is supposed to destroy even the sin of killing a brahmana.

    Rama Janmabhumi

    At Rama Janmabhumi Lord Rama have taken birth. There is a small Lord Rama temple here. At this location there used to be the Babri Mosque, constructed in the 15th century by the Moghuls. The mosque was destroyed in 1992 and at the present time there are plans to build a grand Rama temple here.

    Guptar Ghat

    At Guptar Ghat there are some nice temples and nearby there is a nice park. Gupta means disappearance. It is said that Lord Rama disappeared at this spot. The three temples in the area are called Gupta Harji, Chakra Harji Visnu and the Raja Mandir. In the Cakra Harji Visnu temple there is an imprint of Lord Rama’s feet.

    There are over 100 temples in Ayodhya. At Janma Sthana Lord Rama have been brought up.

    There is a popular temple dedicated to Hanuman called Hanuman-gadhi. It is located right by the main road where the tempos from Faizabad stop. Kanak Bhavan, which is an interesting temple, and Kala Rama temple, by the river, have both Deities of Sita-Rama.

    There is a nice area by the river surrounding Laksmana Ghat. Laksmana, the younger brother of Rama, is said to have bathed at Laksmana Ghat.

    Vasistha Kund is a temple with a small round kund (pond) like a well.

    Rama is said to have performed a yajna (sacrifice) at Treta Ka Mandir. There are Sita-Rama Deities in this temple.

    Kausalya, the mother of Rama, is said to have established the Ksiresvara Natha temple for Sita.

    Bharata Kund, at Nandigram, 20 km from Ayodhya, is the place where Bharata ruled while Rama was in exile for 14 years.

    One half km north of Janmabhumi is Svarga Dvara or Rama Ghat, which is an important bathing ghat.

    Ramesvaram

    There are four dhamas – Badrinath, Jagannath Puri, Ramesvaram and Dvaraka. Ramesvaram is located at the southeastern end of the Indian Peninsula. Ramesvaram is on an island, which is the shape of a conch shell, in the Gulf of Mannar. The island is sanctified by the footprints of Lord Rama. It is said that Lord Rama bathed at Dhanushkodi, where the Bay of Bengal and the
    Indian Ocean meet. There is a major Lord Siva temple here called the Ramanathasvami temple. This name indicates that Lord Siva is a great personality, whose worshipable Deity is Lord Rama. This temple is very popular.

    Temple Story

    It is said that the Siva-linga in the the Ramanathasvami temple was installed by Sri Rama on His return to the mainland from the island of Lanka, after killing Ravana. Rama wanted to install a Siva-linga in Ramesvaram to absolve Himself of the sin of killing Ravana, who was a brahmana. Rama sent Hanuman to Mount Kailas to get the linga. Since Hanuman was late when the auspicious time for installation neared, Sita made a Siva-linga out of sand. This linga was then installed by Rama and is known
    as the Rama-linga, because it was installed by Lord Rama.

    At the time Hanuman came with the Siva-linga from Mount Kailas, he was disappointed to find a linga already installed. Rama told Hanuman that he could remove the linga made by Sita and install the one He brought in its place. Hanuman took hold of the linga with his hands but could not move it. He then wrapped his tail around it and tried to pull the linga out, but it did not move. The linga is said to still have the marks of Hanuman’s tail on it. To pacify Hanuman, Rama had the linga he brought, the Visva-linga, installed alongside the Rama-linga. He ordered that puja (worship) be performed first to the Visva-linga, which is still being done today.

    Gandhamadhana Parvata

    This two-story temple is on a small hilltop, about 2.5 km northwest of the Ramanathasvami Temple. There is a set of Lord Rama’s footprints on a cakra here and the small Ramjharoka temple. There is a good view of the island from here. The place is called Vedaranyam. It is said that Hanuman made his great leap to Lanka from here.

    Kothandaramsvami Temple

    There are Deities of Sri Rama, Sita, Laksmana, Hanuman and Vibhisana here. It is said that Vibhisana, Ravana’s brother, surrendered to Lord Rama at this place. A series of paintings inside the temple tells the story. In 1964 a cyclone wiped out everything in the surrounding area. The only thing left was the temple. It is located about 8 km from the southernmost tip of the
    island going toward Dhanushkodi.

    Dhanushkodi

    This is the place where the bay meets the ocean. Pilgrims are supposed to bathe in the small lagoon here called Ratnakara. This is a place to offer sraddha to the ancestors. It is especially auspicious to bathe here in May.

    Dhanushkodi is about 20 km southeast of Ramesvaram. It is said that Lord Ramacandra destroyed a small bridge with His bow here due to the request of Vibhisana.

    Darbha Sayanam and Adi Jagannatha Temple

    At Darbha Sayanam (Tirupallani, Pullanranyam) Sri Rama observed penance, lying on darbha grass here for three days. It is said that Adi Jagannatha appeared before Him, gave him the weapon called Divya Chapa, and blessed Him with success.

    5 km south of Darbha Sayanam at Adi Setu is the Adi Jagannatha Temple. The Deity of Sri Visnu here is in a reclining posture on Sesa Naga. It is said that King Dasaratha, the father of Rama, came here to pray for a child, when all his wives were childless. Hindu couples still visit this temple to pray for children. The place where Lord Rama built His bridge is not far from here.

    It is said that at the coastal town of Devi Patnam (Navapasanam) Lord Rama put nine stones standing upright in the shallow bay. They are supposed to represent the nine planets that He worshiped for success.

    Other Places

    There are many pastime places connected with the Ramayana in the area. There is a temple near the bridge that you cross to enter Ramesvaram with a floating rock inside. When Lord Rama went to Lanka with the monkey army, they crossed the ocean on a bridge of floating rocks. Near this temple, close to the bridge, is Laksmana Tirtha and Rama Tirtha. Lord Rama is said to have bathed in these two tanks. Kodi Tirtha is supposed to be a spring that Lord Rama created by shooting an arrow into the ground. It is said that at Jata Tirtha, Sri Rama washed His hair to get rid of any sins that He might have incurred in the battle at Lanka.

    Hampi (Vijayanagara)

    Hampi was once the capital of the powerful Vijayanagar empire, which for two centuries was one of the most powerful empires in Indian history.Vijayanagara means “the city of victory”. It was considered at one time greater than Rome and “the best provided city in the world”. At its height half a million people lived in the city, and the Vijayanagara empire had an army of over one million.

    At this place Lord Rama first met Hanuman. It is also said to be the spot where Parvati (known as Hampi) met and married Lord Siva.

    Kiskindha

    The town of Anegundi, about 5 km from Hampi, is situated on the north bank of the Tungabhadra River. Local people believe this to be the ancient place known as Kiskindha where Rama met Hanuman and Sugriva. By Hampi is also the Rsimukha Mountain mentioned in the Ramayana.

    The ancient place, Kiskindha, was ruled by two monkey-chiefs, brothers Sugriva and Vali. After a quarrel with Vali, Sugriva along with Hanuman were driven out. They then went to stay at Matanga-parvata Hill. You can get a good view of the surrounding area from the top of this hill. While searching for Sita, who had been kidnapped by Ravana, Rama and Laksmana came south and met Sugriva and Hanuman. Rama killed Vali and restored the kingdom to Sugriva. While Hanuman went to search for Sita, it is said that Rama stayed at Malyavanta Hill, which is on the road to Kampili, about 6 km east of the Virupaksa temple. There is a Ranganatha temple there with a large Deity of Lord Rama.

    On the way between Virupaksa temple and Vitthala temple there is a cave on the bank of the Tungabhadra where Sugriva is said to have hidden Sita’s jewels for safety. There are marks and streaks on the rocks, which are said to have been made by Sita’s garments.

    There is a huge mound of scorched ash in the nearby village of Nimbapuram that is said to be the cremated remains of Vali. The birthplace of Hanuman is said to be a little to the northwest.

    Other Places to See

    The Hazara Rama temple (“one thousand Ramas”) is believed to have been a private temple for the royal family and was originally called Hajana Rama, which in Telegu means the “palace temple”. It was originally dedicated to Lord Rama in the 15th century and contains many interesting sculptures of scenes from the Ramayana on the walls. It is no longer active. From the Virupaksa temple of Lord Siva along the path on the river bank toward the Vitthala temple, there is a natural cavern marked with painted stripes where Sugriva have hidden the jewels that Sita dropped after Ravana abducted her.

    At the Kodandaram (“bow-bearing Rama”) temple there are large Deities of Sita Rama and Laksmana. It is opposite the bathing ghat. Here Rama crowned Sugriva as the monkey king.

    The very ornate 16th century Vitthala temple is dedicated to Lord Vitthala, after the Deity in Pandharpur. It is on the southern bank of the Tungabhadra. It has musical pillars, which make different sounds when struck. It is considered to be the most outstanding temple in Hampi.

    The Virabhadra temple is at Matanga Hill, where Lord Rama have stayed.

    Nasik

    Nasik is a holy city located about 5 hours northeast of Bombay (187 km). Lord Rama stayed here for some time during His exile and Sita was carried off by Ravana from this place. Nasik is on the banks of the Godavari river, which flows to the bay of Bengal. Laksmana cut off the nose of Surpanakha, the younger sister of Ravana, here. That is why this place got the name Nasik. Kumbha Mela takes place here every 12 years. Sri Caitanya visited here.

    The Rama Kunda area is the main pilgrimage place in Nasik. Here Rama and Sita used to bathe, so the tank is considered especially sacred. It is also called Asthi Vilaya Tirtha (“bone immersion tank”) because bones dropped here dissolve. In recent years the following people’s bones were dropped in the Tirtha after they died: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and many other famous people. Lord Rama is said to have performed funeral rites in memory of His father, King Dasaratha.

    Citrakuta

    Lord Rama and Sita are said to have stayed in the forest here during Their 14 year exile. Citrakuta is by the border of Uttarpradesh and Madhyapradesh, due south of Lucknow. It is 132 km south of Allahabad.

    Lord Rama and Sita lived here for 11 years of Their 14 year exile. Citra literally means “beautiful” and kuta means “mountain”.

    Bharat, the brother of Rama, came to Citrakuta and begged Rama to return to Ayodhya, but Rama would not disobey His father’s order. Rama stayed on Kamadgiri (“the hill which can fulfill all desires”).

    Lord Rama would daily bathe in the river here. Sita’s footprints are on the rocks at Janaki Kund, where Sita took bath. How is it that Rama could destroy the Rakshasa hordes singly? Really Rama is not a single person. He has got many forms. Sahasra Seersha Purushah Sahasraksha SahasraPat., (Myriad headed, myriad eyed and myriad footed is the PURUSHA..) A mere sight of His presence was enough to reduce the Rakshasa hordeto un-consciousness.

    “Sweeter than sugar, tastier than butter, sweeter indeed than the essence of a beehive, constant repetition of this nectarine sweet name makes you taste the very divine Amruta itself. Therefore, contemplate on this sweet name incessantly.”Don’t associate with anyone who is afflicted with jealousy even at the cost of losing your life Lakshmana said to Sita, “It is even possible to count the waves in the ocean, but there are no words to describe the manifold powers of Rama. In Rama, there are transcendental powers which transcend the Trigunas Let us chant the name of Ramá for obtaining the “moksha” or salvation.

    RAMA RAMA JAYA SITARAM

    “Ramam Dasaratham vidhhi, maam vidhhi Janakaatmajam Ayodhya mataveem vidhhi, gaccha thaatha yattha sukham” (Consider Rama as your father Dasaratha, Sita as your mother and the forest as Ayodhya; may the journey be a blessed one).

  • SFC SKI

    Thanks for this tip, I have long been interested in the history and mythology of the Near East, and I think these books will be worth reading.

    It will be good to read some non-Eurocentric fantasy, so much of it has become formulaic.

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