A few years back, I was facilitating a workshop on understanding and appreciating cultural differences with participants from the US, Canada, and India. One of the modules within the workshop required each participant to decorate a table with some personal items that would give the audience a peek into his / her life beyond what they see at work. So we had participants putting up their family pictures, books that had inspired them, baseball bats,. ice hockey helmets, football jerseys, their father’s footwear, images of deities that they worship and so on. It was great to see the enthusiasm of people who had carried this stuff all the way from North America to Bangalore and the eagerness of people in India to showcase their background and heritage.
As the facilitator, even I had set up a table with some of my belongings. Some items that described who I am, what has inspired me, what I’m interested in and what I care about. One of the items on the table was a copy of the Mahabharata. I’ve been deeply interested in the Mahabharata and in my opinion it is the greatest story that has ever been told. I’m not going to go into the intricacies of the epic here, however,. if you are interested, you could read some of my thoughts here.
So, the idea was to divide the participants into two batches. One batch presented what they had on their desks while the other would go around from table to table listening to people’s stories. One of the participants who walked up to my table asked me about the Mahabharata and I earnestly described to him why the epic has had a huge influence on me. This person now tilted his head to one side and with a curious smile on his lips, asked me the difference between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, two of India’s most enduring epics / texts. I paused. This was a massive question which needed deliberation and fermentation in my own head and then possibly a long conversation later. When I said so, the gentleman asked me to call out the difference between the two in one sentence. I said that I wasn’t sure if I had churned the question in my mind long enough to come up with an answer in a sentence. So he said, with a know-all smile on his lips, that the Ramayana tells us what we should do and the Mahabharata tells us what we should not do. This was not a tentative opinion, but more like a final pronouncement. Words of wisdom being passed on to a child.
I have heard some people make this kind of an interpretation of the two epics. Looks like it is very much part of the popular narrative amongst middle class Hindus in India on this subject. However, I think this is taking a very narrow view of the epics. I believe it does huge disservice to both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. I can imagine why people would say that the whole point of the Ramayana is to present an ideal figure in Ram and getting people to follow his example. I think this view stems largely from the popularity of Tulsidas’ Ramayana, which is part of the later ‘Bhakti’ literature. I don’t think Valmiki (the author credited with composing the poem) really wanted to make that point.
Indic philosophies do not have the concept of commandments unlike Abrahamic faiths. There is no ‘word of God’ that is transmitted through a prophet or messiah. There are no commandments to follow and no guarantees that compliance with the commandments will lead one to heaven / redemption. Indic philosophies are centered on the concept of choice / action and consequences thereof, popularly known as the ‘Law of Karma’. Karma itself is a misunderstood word both here in India and more so in the west, however, that is a topic for another post. Essentially, what Indic philosophies say is that life presents you with choices, and depending on what you choose, you have to deal with the consequences that it begets. The bouquet of choices are dependent on your station in society and your stage of life, but at its very essence, life is about choices and consequences. If you read using this lens, then the Ramayana is very much a cautionary tale. It tells us that we have the liberty to make choices but we do not control the outcomes of those choices. Ram has the choice to either ignore what a washerman in his kingdom says (he may have verbalized what many others were thinking, to be fair) or abandon his wife Sita. Both those choices have consequences which affect Ram. The consequences of the choice will have an impact either on his credibility as a king or the vows that he has taken as a husband. Society’s view on what the right choice is, may change through the ages, but the consequences of the choice will have to be borne by the individual alone.
Mahabharata also explores this theme multiple times throughout the text, but perhaps the strongest illustration of the same is the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna before the war, as the two armies face each other on the battlefield. Here, God is asking Arjuna to fight and kill, but he is not guaranteed heaven and redemption because he complies with the word of God. Arjuna has to make a choice dependent on his station in society (Kshatriya dharma), but then he has to live with the consequences. He makes the choice that God wants him to, and yet ends up losing all his sons in battle. He lives with the guilt of killing many of his kinsmen. He lives a long unhappy life, his spirit broken, yet trying to help his brother run a kingdom ravaged by war. Following God’s word doesn’t even lead him to heaven as he ends up in hell with his brothers.
So, while both the epics are very different in terms of their style, content, and the themes that they explore, what they both tell us is that life is all about making choices in a given context and every choice that we make will have consequences. We may have control over our choices, but we cannot control the outcome. We have to accept the outcome as it is a result of our own choices.
Now, to come back to the question posed to me in that conference hall, what is the difference between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata? Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, there are many, and they offer various perspectives based on your ‘gaze’. I couldn’t answer the gentleman’s question then and I cannot answer it today; but you know what, that does not concern me so much. I’m happy that I’m able to read them, enjoy them and learn from them. I’m happy that they are there.