"Jai Sri Rama!" (“Praised Be Rama!”) was the exultation that roared from over half a million throats gathered on the fields of battle in the island kingdom of Lanka. These are words that have been repeated for the past 3,000 years by those who have read Valmiki's Ramayana. They are the words taken up and repeated for readers all over the world in the 21st century by Ashok K. Banker in his modern retelling of The Ramayan.
An ambitious project that has spanned six volumes and overcome seemingly insurmountable odds just to make it to bookstores in some countries, it has grown beyond being a simple retelling of a great epic and come to epitomize the qualities that have led millions of voices down through the generations to utter "Jai Sri Rama!"
For as Rama adheres strictly to his dharma, no matter how tempting it may be to choose an easier path and no matter how much everyone would understand and forgive him if he were to bend even just a millimetre, this retelling of The Ramayana has stayed the course over its six volumes. Not once, as far as my eyes, ears, and heart can tell, has Mr. Banker deviated from what he began in the first line of the first book, (Prince Of Ayodhya) a contemporary version that offers no compromises to expedience or fashion.
His Rama is the devotee of dharma whose story has been told by grandparents to their grandchildren, grandparents who in turn heard it from their grandparents. In spite of being written in the language of the 21st century, I doubt that emotionally or spiritually there is much to separate the Rama who walks the pages of these six books as he who was first immortalized in formal words by the sage thief Valmiki three thousand years earlier.
I can offer no proof of this, not being steeped in the culture or the history of these books or the people they speak to the most directly; I am obviously no expert on these matters. All I can do is report on how they have moved me and increased my understanding of the culture I knew so little of before reading these offerings.
If you have read me often enough you may have seen me write something along the lines that if you want to learn anything about a people, read their stories. History books won't tell you anything about a people and neither will anthropological studies on their methods of worship and their social practices. You need to read what they have read and listen to far more than you read about them.
I can't remember what inspired me to pick up Prince Of Ayodhya in the bookstore. I do remember wondering about it for a few weeks before deciding to try it out. Because of the way the first book was packaged in North America, I had assumed it was a fantasy story based on what we in the west would refer to as Indian mythology. Even reading that it was a modern retelling of a traditional epic didn't do much to change that initial impression.
It was only when I began reading that I realized I had stumbled upon something far more special then the simple sword and sorcery tale set in classical India as I was anticipating. Instead I was transported back to a time when the three planes of existence were a lot closer to each other, when the Deva and Devi would still walk the earth alongside mortals, and the Asura demons were still an everyday threat to mortal kind.
When I began reading the series, the first three books were already released so I was able to quickly follow the first with Siege Of Mithila and Demons Of Chitrakut and watch in helpless frustration as the plans of Ravana (He Who Made The Universe Scream), the king of the Asura, unfold so that even though he had succumbed to a defeat in battle so complete it looked like he could never rise again, he was successful is sowing disunity among his vanquishers and having Rama exiled from his own throne in the days after his greatest triumphs.
Books four and five, Armies Of Hanuman and Bridge Of Rama, were released in approximately annual intervals — depending on which country you lived in. As Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshman prepared to end their years of warfare in the wilderness and their exile to return and assume their rightful places as King, Consort and Prince at the onset of Armies Of Hanuman Ravana re-entered the picture. Having lured both Rama and Lakshman away, he kidnapped Sita and absconded with her back to his island kingdom of Lanka where he prepares to play out the final acts in this drama.
Throughout Armies Of Hanuman and Bridge of Rama, while Rama is assembling his forces for and planning his assault on the island vastness of Lanka, Ravana is playing some disingenuous game. In some ways the more he reveals to us what his intentions are, the less we understand what he is doing. Every trap he lays and every lure he dangles are layered with hidden meanings. Even in his treatment of Sita he is surprisingly solicitous and careful, even to the point of protecting her from the clutches of other rakshasas that would see her harmed.
By the time King Of Ayodhya opens, all we are sure of is there will be war, and the war will be of a magnitude beyond our imaginations. Rama's forces made up of the vanar and bears who were marshaled in Bridge Of Rama number close to a half million. Ravana's forces are not as substantial, but are heavily armed and armoured while their opponents come at them with teeth, claws, and fur.
While Rama's forces are augmented by Hanuman (the illegitimate son of the God of wind and his preternatural abilities to grow to an enormous size and utilize supernatural strength), the Lankans are led by one of the most accomplished sorcerers the world has ever known. Before the battle has even been joined and before they ever reach his island, Ravana is able to wreck havoc with their efforts and slaughter them by the thousands.
What terrors will he have in store for them once they actually make it onto the island? How about causing the island itself to rise up and take its toll of vanar and bear life as Ravana reshapes it into a form that will allow him advantage in the battles to come? Or creating new breeds of rakshanas that can take away the advantage the vanar's speed and agility give them. But perhaps most horrific, and the thing that comes closest to turning the tide in Ravana's favour, is the corpses of their dead comrades coming back to life to attack Rama's soldiers.
It is only with the timely utilization of a gift that Rama had received on his way into exile, a gift he promised never to use for only his own protection, that Rama was able to stop the slaughter. The Bow of Shiva can only be drawn and fired with aid of the power of Brahma to assist the archer and only if the conditions of its use are strictly adhered to. With the arrow from that bow, Rama is able to negate the sorcery of Ravana that caused the dead to re-animate and the first battles of the war are finally brought to a close.
Rama versus Ravana. It seems on the surface like the classic battle between good and evil. Rama is the rightful king of his people, deposed through deceit, his wife kidnapped, and he’s coerced into a war he wants nothing to do with against Ravana, the scourge of all planes of existence. He even invaded the home of the Gods and gave them such a fright they sued him for peace and promised to never directly interfere in his wars against mortals in exchange for leaving them alone.
Ravana is the monster with ten heads and six arms, whose prodigious appetites have sired countless children throughout the realms and whose fierce tempers have taken countless lives. Ravana versus Rama, the devoted husband and loving son who is worshipped by his people and all who meet him. Rama, Ravana, Ravana, Rama: two sides of a spinning coin and which ever side lands heads up will dictate the shape of the universe.
But are they? Is that truly the nature of their relationship? Yes, their actions are diametrically opposed; anything that is good or decent Ravana will do his best to destroy, while Rama will do his best to protect the same. But without Ravana, what is there to compare Rama against? Can there be the ultimate example of dharma if there is nothing that opposes that path?
Mr. Banker also inserts some slivers of doubt into the ending, muddying the waters even further. Why would Ravana say to Rama the following before the final battle, "Every hero must have a villain to destroy, in order to prove himself a hero. But not every villain needs a hero in order to prove himself a villain… I existed long before you, Rama Chandra, came into this world in this form and I will exist again and again and again, long after you take your samadhi and depart this mortal coil."
In the end was Ravana only fulfilling his dharma? Playing out his part in an eternal dance that is beyond the concepts of good and evil as we know them? Is Ravana doomed to play out these steps for a different Rama each time the world needs him so that a Rama can be generated?
As has been the case in the previous five books of Ashok Banker's modern Ramayan, his use of imagery and description are so powerful that it takes almost no effort to visualise the scene on the page as pictures in your head. Whether you are crouched with a vanar in the crook of a tree or soaring high above Lanka with Ravana in the Pushpak, you see each individual leaf as if it were in front of you or the vast panorama as if it were laid out at your feet.
Even more incredible are the battle scenes. Somehow he manages to convey the insanity and horror that occurs during close creature-to-creature combat and brings you into the thick of the battle without making it particularly gruesome. Even more amazing is that within the hubbub and chaos he creates pockets of time where we learn more about individual vanars and bears than in the previous books combined (with the obvious exception to Hanuman of course).
Almost 15 years ago a young prince set out from his home with his brother in the footsteps of a guru who had requested their aid to help rid the woods in the outer reaches of the kingdom of a horrible giant and her mutated creatures. Now fifteen years later, after taking the long road home dictated by dharma, he is ready to return to pick up the crown he has been denied all these years.
Over the course of six books, Ashok K. Banker has led us on a remarkable journey that has not only been highly enjoyable to read, but represents an extraordinary accomplishment. He has brought a character out of the mists of time and put the name of Rama on the lips of people all over the world.
"Jai Sri Rama!" Praised be Rama indeed, but also praise to Ashok Banker for embodying the spirit of Rama with his achievement.