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Vaishnavi Patel

Living Religions, Living Myths: On Retelling the Ramayana

Here’s a version of the Indian epic the Ramayana: Rama is born to King Dasharath of Kosala, who has three wives including Kaikeyi, mother of Bharata. Just as Rama is about to take the throne, Kaikeyi convinces Dasharath to send Rama into exile so that Bharata can be king. Rama’s wife, Sita, and brother accompany him into exile in a faraway forest. Several years into the exile, a demon king, Ravana, who has long coveted Sita, kidnaps Sita and takes her to his kingdom of Lanka. With the help of allies, Rama journeys to Lanka and battles Ravana and his armies. After days of fighting, Rama kills Ravana and reunites with Sita. Rama and Sita return home and become king and queen of Kosala.

I’d like to think that’s one of the least controversial paragraphs on the Ramayana one could write. But this “simple” version, widely accepted by many Hindus, omits beloved characters, overlooks several plot elements, and fails to grapple with the epic’s true complexity. The Ramayana has taken on a life of its own both in Hindu culture and religion, and in Indian political movements. The Ramayana that feeds into these movements is also, in many ways, a fiction, constructed piecemeal out of the original epics to support an uncomplicated narrative where Rama is the hero and Rama’s world is something to aspire to. But there is a long tradition of telling and retelling the Ramayana, one that does not always conform to the mainstream.

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Series: R.F. Kuang Guest Editor for Tor.com

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