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Comparison of Ram and Odysseus

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Bust of an ancient hero

Bust of an ancient hero

Heroes of the Past

An "epic" is a lengthy poem telling of heroic deeds and significant events. Homer’s Odyssey and Valmiki’s Ramayana, both ancient epics, are the products of oral tradition employing an array of literary devices; The Odyssey dated around 8th to 6th B.C.E. and The Ramayana proximately 5th century B.C.E. Comparing other epics from these civilizations, there seems to be a similarity with their order. The Ramayana and the Odyssey were both preceded by tales of war (The Mahabharata and The Iliad respectively), whereas they themselves focus on the journey of their main character; Odysseus of The Odyssey and Rāma in The Ramayana.

The Odyssey conveys Odysseus’s wanderings after the Trojan War. Making his way back to Ithaca after the fierce battle, he is marooned on Calypso’s Island while his house is plagued by suitors after Penelope’s hand, thinking that Odysseus has perished on his homeward journey. By the grace of the Gods, Odysseus escapes from Calypso’s clutches, however, faces the wrath of Poseidon and other obstacles before he finally returns to Ithaca. The Ramayana tells the story of Rāma, prince of Ayodhya who has been exiled to the Dandaka forest for 14 years, and the subsequent challenges which he faces, the most notable being the abduction of his wife, Sita, by Ravana and his quest to regain her freedom. Thus, both epics depict one man’s journey, ultimately, to their respective wives; Rāma to Sita and Odysseus to Penelope.

In an initial comparison of both epics, it’s interesting to see that their titles hold some sort of similarity. The Ramayana literally means, The Journey of Rāma, while The Odyssey, according to Merriam Webster, has come to refer to a long adventurous voyage. Thus, even by their titles, we get the impression that the reader will be accompanying the protagonist on some sort of expedition, be it physical, mental or spiritual.

Since the situations of Rāma and Odysseus are similar, we can roughly compare their reactions to like circumstances. Rāma and Odysseus were of noble lineage. Rāma hailed from the Kingdom of Kosala and was Prince of Ayodhya while Odysseus was the ruler of the island kingdom, Ithaca, thus the reader has specific expectations of both characters given their social upbringing. Rāma was of the Kshatriya[1] class, usually comprised of kings and warriors, where duty and honor would supersede all other values. Similarly, Odysseus conforms to his kingly duties, showing courage by fighting in the Trojan War.

Additionally, The Ramayana is considered to be a main contributor to Hindu mythology. Rāma himself is God, who was incarnated as the son of Dasharath to destroy the evil Ravana; hence, Rāma exudes righteousness and displays good moral values. Throughout the entire epic, Rama exhibits exemplary behavior, with the exception of a few lapses in judgment, which some think to be intentional to ensure the destruction of Ravana. These lapses include his unquestionable attitude towards Sita, especially concerning the golden deer; he blindly acted to fulfill her request to capture such a rare animal, as stated in R.K. Narayan’s translation of The Ramayana. It also exaggerates his love for her and the lengths to which he would willingly go. Another moment, at which Rāma’s judgment can be questioned, is his treatment of Sita after her rescue. Rāma describes her virtue to be in doubt, and her presence “as unbearable…as a bright lamp to a man afflicted with a disease of the eye” (Damrosch 644). It should be remembered though, that on his return to Ayodhya, Sita was under the scrutiny of the citizens after the kidnapping ordeal of Ravana. Rāma, even though he was sure about Sita’s innocence, was forced to make it a public spectacle so that no one would doubt her, thus the ‘trial by fire’ that Sita was made to endure.

In the case of Odysseus, who was not of a divine origin, was, however, aided by the Gods of Ancient Greece. We see at the beginning of Book 5 of The Odyssey, Athena presents Odysseus’s case to the pantheon, “Athena began, recalling Odysseus to their thoughts, the goddess deeply moved by the man’s long ordeal, held captive still in the nymph Calypso’s house…” (Damrosch 248). When compared to Rāma, Odysseus was witty and cunning. Even when Calypso, after Zeus’s orders via Hermes, offered Odysseus freedom, Odysseus immediately thought that there was some sort of trickery involved. Odysseus replied to Calypso’s proposition, “ Passage home? Never, surely you’re plotting something else goddess, urging me- in a raft- to cross the ocean’s mighty gulfs…” (Damrosch 253). Odysseus’s reaction to his impending freedom gives the reader a glance into his thoughts. His mind is filled with suspicion, why wouldn’t it be, as his mind is also filled with intentions of trickery.

Another aspect of comparison is their interaction with other people. The heroes’ interactions with their individual families are important to their specific characters. Rāma’s purpose for the majority of the epic is the rescue of his wife, Sita, from the clutches of Ravana. Odysseus is also on a journey of returning to his home and to his wife, Penelope. In essence, Penelope and Sita are portraits of an ideal wife. Penelope refused to marry or lie with any of the suitors in Odysseus’s absence and waited patiently for the return of her husband. Sita, as well, kidnapped by Ravana, refused his advances and all the luxuries which he promised and confined herself to the Asoka grove. Penelope and Sita showed what ideal wives they were with their actions and gestures. One important point to note is that even though Rāma can be described as the ideal husband, it would be difficult to place Odysseus in the same category. Even though Odysseus pined for Penelope, he still had relations with Calypso, even after being promised freedom, as stated in Damrosch: “And now, withdrawing into the cavern’s deep recesses, long in each other’s arms they lost themselves in love” (254). Odysseus’s infidelity seems to convey a double standard- his wife is faithful, eagerly awaiting his return home while he knowingly commits adultery.

In conclusion, when comparing Rāma and Odysseus, even though their situations can be easily superimposed, their characters a different in many respects. Rāma is the embodiment of dharma, perfectly illustrating what the ideal husband, son, and brother should be. Odysseus on the other hand, has many flaws, his cunning being most prominent. Excluding the fact that the cultural identities associated with both heroes are extremely different, nonetheless, Rāma is considered to be the ideal man, one who has mastered emotions, and a model that others should try to emulate. Odysseus, on the other hand, is a character who seems much more realistic. He displays uncontrolled emotions which the layman can associate with. He may not have been an exemplary figure like Rāma, yet his cunning and wit are celebrated, if not immortalized, while his infidelities are downplayed. Thus, from it all, it seems that you don’t have to be the perfect man to get the lady in the end!

Works Cited

  • Damrosch, David and David L. Pike. “The Odyssey.” The Longman Anthology of World
  • Literature. Pearson Education. 2008.
  • Damrosch, David and David L. Pike. “The Ramayana.” The Longman Anthology of
  • World Literature. Pearson Education. 2008.
  • Narayan, R.K. “The Ramayana. A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic.
  • Penguin Classics. 2006

[1] One of the four varnas or classes in Hindu society.