1. The Problem of the Araṇyakāṇḍa
Contemporary readers of the Rāmāyaṇa, when leaving behind “Ayodhyā” (Book Two) and entering the “Forest” (Book Three), are likely to have the impression that they have suddenly fallen down
the rabbit hole into the world of Wonderland. Although this is not something traditional audiences seem to have felt (the
commentators certainly give no hint of feeling discontinuity), from their first acquaintance with the Rāmāyaṇa westerners have always found something highly problematic about the transition between the two books and between the two
major portions of the epic they represent.
We are certainly justified in believing that the perspective has changed dramatically and the emphasis shifted. The intensely
didactic, even homiletic, discourse of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa — its almost obsessive concern with the foundations of correct sociopolitical behavior, with dharma (“righteousness”) as the necessary condition of communal life, and its recognition of the human predicament before dharma’s often conflicting and always imperious demands — has given way in the Araṇyakāṇḍa to what seems the entertainment of a romance. In the “Forest” we no longer encounter the problems most humans must confront
and solve, those so thoroughly explored in the prior book; we seem no longer to be in a human realm at all.
This may be overstating the case, for the Araṇyakāṇḍa maintains an interest in many of the central concerns of the previous volume. Yet the problem of what unifies these two very
different sections of the poem remains a challenging one. The epic genre, at least as far as we are able to characterize it
on the basis of those examples preserved for us (the Mahābhārata, Vessantarajātaka, Nalopākhyāna, Harivaṃśa), seems to have required such a transitional episode within the social, political, and ethical problematic they all share.
But most scholars have paid little attention to this convention of the epic and so have not moved very far beyond highly subjective
first impressions. In the case of the Rāmāyaṇa, consequently, the view persists that the poem is a fusion or amalgamation of two very different and in fact unrelated stories.
This idea was first expressed with conviction and force by the great nineteenth-century Indologist Hermann Jacobi. “One can recognize at first glance,” he tells us, “that [the saga of the Rāmāyaṇa] is composed of two utterly different and distinct parts. [In the Ayodhyākāṇḍa] everything is human, natural, totally free from fantasy. … The case is quite otherwise in the second half of the saga, where
everything is marvellous and ‘fantastic.’”[Note 1] Since Jacobi had determined, with an a priori certitude that is arresting, that the epic is essentially the reworking of an ancient “nature” myth, it is not surprising
that in his interpretation of the poem he was compelled to leave the first half of it entirely out of consideration.
Most discussions of the problem of Rāmāyaṇa unity since Jacobi’s time have taken as their point of departure what he had recognized “at first glance” and have only sought to provide additional
evidence in support. A particularly tenacious argument of a literary-historical sort is that derived from the Dasaratha Jātaka. This text, found in the Pali collection of stories about the Buddha’s former births, recounts a tale very similar to that of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa — and nothing further. By a mechanical logic it has come to be viewed as representing an archaic version of the poem, which
accordingly “must have” ended, like the Buddhist text, with the prince’s return directly from the forest and “must have” known
nothing of the demon-king Rāvaṇa and his abduction of Sītā. According to this analysis, the Araṇyakāṇḍa stands revealed as exogenous to the “original” tale of Rāma.
How little cogency there is to this argument, which draws chronological inferences from what is merely thematic variation,
should be apparent, although it has taken years for anyone to provide an adequate demonstration.[Note 2] Yet the dichotomous view of the structure of the Rāmāyaṇa that is derived front arguments based on the Dasaratha Jātaka, along with highly subjective impressions of what counts as narrative coherence and a conviction that an archaic nature myth
formed the original foundation, remains dominant in almost all critical discussion of Vālmīki’s epic. The need to develop a unitary understanding of the poem was eliminated by eliminating the perception of the poem
as a unitary work.[Note 3]
What is striking about this literary criticism, beyond the frailty of its arguments, is the cultural arrogance that underlies
it. The presumption of the truth of a Western vision is coupled with an implicit dismissal of the entire tradition that produced
and preserved the epic. What in this tradition has been considered the first and greatest poem, and venerated as such for
two thousand years, is now declared to be, not a meaningful whole — as Indian audiences have invariably taken it to be — but
a congeries of utterly distinct and unrelated materials.
Suppose we were to take seriously what generations of performers and audiences have felt, not to speak of the composer, that
the monumental poem is not made up of two heterogeneous and uncombinable narratives, but forms a meaningful whole? One of
our principal critical tasks would then be to ponder how the work functions as a unit, how its parts fit together to establish
a large and coherent pattern of signification. A provisional readiness to posit meaningful unity of the work is at the very
least a hermeneutical necessity. If we begin with the hypothesis of meaningless, irrational disunity, we cannot ask meaningful
and rational questions. But we face more than a necessity. We face also a postulate authorized by the tradition itself, which
has always regarded the poem as of a piece.
Another way to think of this shift in critical perspective is to distinguish between two kinds of history of the poem. If
earlier criticism concentrated on the epic’s “genetic history” and dismembered the work in the search for its primal components,
we might now want to take its “receptive history” more centrally into consideration: Approaching the epic as a whole, in conformity
with the traditional mode of reception, and seeing how it works as a whole can reveal a dimension of the poem’s meaning easily
as significant as any derived from considering the elements of its genesis. For understanding the work includes, and maybe
principally so, understanding what it may have meant in Indian social, intellectual, and cultural history.[Note 4]
2. Summary of the Araṇyakāṇḍa
Soon after entering Daṇḍaka wilderness, Rāma is welcomed by the sages living in the forest. They entertain him and ask that, as king, he fulfill his obligation of ensuring
their safety. Rāma pushes on deeper into the forest, on the way encountering and killing the monster Virādha, who had tried to abduct Sītā. He then makes his way to the sage Śarabhaṅga. The holy man directs Rāma to the sage Sutīkṣṇa, and before the prince sets out, he watches as Śarabhaṅga immolates himself in a ritual fire and thereupon attains the world of Brahmā. Rāma is then visited by a throng of ascetics, who again beg his protection against injury at the hands of the rākṣasas. After seeking out Sutīkṣṇa, Rāma visits the ashrams of the different sages who had been accompanying him and thus passes the first ten years of his fourteen-year
forest exile (sargas 1-10).
Rāma then returns to Sutīkṣṇa and is directed by that sage to the ashram of the great seer Agastya. The prince is heartily welcomed by Agastya, who provides him with magical weapons and directs him to the lovely region of Pañcavaṭī, where he is advised to establish his ashram and live out the remaining years of banishment. En route to their new home,
they encounter an old acquaintance of Rāma’s father, Daśaratha, the vulture-king Jaṭāyus, and he is invited to come live in Pañcavaṭī as well (sargas 10-14).
One day, while Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa, and Sītā are living peacefully in Pañcavaṭī, they are approached by a rākṣasa woman named Śūrpaṇakhā, the sister of Rāvaṇa, king of rākṣasas. Śūrpaṇakhā is attracted to Rāma, who jokingly directs her to his brother, and he back to Rāma. Eventually, the rākṣasa woman becomes enraged and attacks Sītā. Rāma orders Lakṣmaṇa to cut off Śūrpaṇakhā’s ears and nose as punishment. Seeking vengeance, Śūrpaṇakhā hastens to her brother Khara, who dispatches fourteen rākṣasa warriors against Rāma. After these are slain in combat, Khara himself leads an army of fourteen thousand to do battle. Rāma annihilates the entire demon force, Khara and his generals included (sargas 15-29).
Śūrpaṇakhā in despair makes her way to Lankā, the island-fortress of her brother Rāvaṇa. She first reproaches him for his dissolute ways and utter ignorance of the assaults made upon the rākṣasas. She then explains in detail what Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa did to her and Khara, tantalizingly describing Sītā to the demon-king. Devising a plan, Rāvaṇa sets off on a sky-going chariot to the mainland and the residence of the rākṣasa Mārīca, who is living the life of an ascetic. Mārīca has had two previous encounters with Rāma and both times barely escaped alive. He listens in terror, therefore, as Rāvaṇa reveals his plan: He asks that Mārīca turn himself into a bejeweled deer, explaining that when Sītā sees the deer, she will send Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa to capture it. In their absence the demon-king will abduct Sītā and ultimately be able to slay the two brokenhearted princes. Mārīca’s attempt to dissuade Rāvaṇa proves fruitless, and he is compelled to cooperate (sargas 30-40).
Arriving at Rāma’s ashram, Mārīca takes on the form of a jewel-studded deer and wanders around the grounds. At the sight of the magical deer Sītā begs Rāma to capture it, and the prince sets out after it. Mārīca leads Rāma far from the ashram until finally, exhausted, he is within range of the prince’s arrow and is shot. As he lies dying, he
cries out in Rāma’s voice for Lakṣmaṇa to come to his aid. Sītā hears the cry and in panic insists that Lakṣmaṇa go to Rāma. When Lakṣmaṇa hesitates to leave her alone and unguarded, Sītā questions his motives. He then leaves in a rage. Waiting nearby, Rāvaṇa seizes this opportunity and approaches in the guise of a wandering mendicant. She welcomes him hospitably and tells him the
story of Rāma’s exile. The demon-king then reveals himself and begs Sītā to come away with him and be his queen; when she refuses, he carries her off (sargas 40-47).
The vulture-king Jaṭāyus, awakened by the commotion, rushes to Sītā’s aid. He valiantly struggles with Rāvaṇa, only to be slain in the end. Rāvaṇa flies off with Sītā, who from midair lets fall her wreath of flowers, her golden silk shawl, and her lovely ornaments — the last retrieved by
five monkeys on a mountain peak. Reaching Lankā, Rāvaṇa again asks Sītā to be his wife. At her stubborn refusal, he has her confined in a grove of aśoka trees, guarded by ferocious rākṣasa women (sargas 48-54).
Rāma, meanwhile, finally recognizing the trap into which he has fallen, is filled with worry. On the way back he sees Lakṣmaṇa coming toward him despondently, and so becomes even more fearful. When he reaches the ashram he finds it empty and spots
the evidence of Sītā’s struggle. He begins wildly to search the woodland for his wife, like a madman, asking the trees and animals if they know
what happened to Sītā and threatening to destroy the world unless he is told. In due course he comes upon the flowers dropped by Sītā, sees the signs of the battle between Jaṭāyus and Rāvaṇa, and finally discovers the vulture-king himself. With his dying breath the bird tells him it was Rāvaṇa who abducted Sītā, but he can say nothing more. Out of filial piety Rāma cremates Jaṭāyus and then continues his search for Sītā (sargas 55-64).
In the course of their search the brothers encounter the colossal, headless Kabandha, a monster whose massive arms they sever in battle. When at his request they cremate him, Kabandha arises from the pyre in the wondrous form of a celestial being. He instructs them to go to Lake Pampā and Mount Ṛśyamūka, where the monkey-king Sugrīva is living in exile: He will help them find Sītā. The brothers accordingly set out. On the way, they encounter Śabarī, an old female ascetic who has long been awaiting Rāma’s arrival and who shows them warm hospitality. After giving them a tour of the wondrous sights in the ashram of her long-dead
spiritual masters, she performs a ritual self-immolation and enters the world of Brahmā. Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa, eager to find Sugrīva, push on and come at last to the shores of Lake Pampā (sargas 65-71).
3. The Rāmāyaṇa: Myth and Romance?
When I associate the Rāmāyaṇa with the genre of romance, I use the term advisedly. Perhaps the dominant critical opinion concerning the section of the
epic that begins with the Araṇyakāṇḍa holds it to be primarily a fabulous adventure tale, displaying many of the features we associate with the romance genre from
its beginnings in the early Greek novel. Although not actually using the word romance, the German scholar Pax was the first to look at the work morphologically and identify motifs in this book and those that follow that suggest a generic
similarity with European Märchen and ultimately with romance. These include, according to Pax, the abduction of a beautiful woman by a monstrous creature (often the woman’s father), her imprisonment in a labyrinthine
castle, and her rescue by a hero with the help of animals and by means of a sky-going conveyance.[Note 5]
In fact, the inventory of techniques and motifs representative of European romance and present in the Araṇyakāṇḍa and later books could be substantially extended beyond what Pax noticed.[Note 6] For example, in terms of narrative, the Araṇyakāṇḍa has the episodic quality of romance, making it quite unlike the narrative in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa with its unwavering attention to the storyline. The genre characteristics of the tīrthayātra or “tour of pilgrimage sites,” which was to find such massive expression in the forest book of the Mahābhārata, may be present here only in embryonic form (the stories of the Pañcāpsaras Pond and of Vātāpi and Ilvala, sarga 10, for instance, or that of Mataṅga’s forest, sarga 70). Yet the overall structure of the narrative, particularly in the first half of the book, reveals the fascination of all
romance with the individual sensational episode, and thus employs a discontinuous, catenic way of storytelling markedly different
from the previous volume.[Note 7]
More strictly thematic features of the romance genre found in the Araṇyakāṇḍa include marvels and wonders encountered only in an alien environment (sarga 4, for example, or 70); the piety of the protagonist and the idealized love relationship between himself and the heroine
(and the sexual aggressiveness and deviance of the “others”, sargas 16ff., 44ff.); the loss of the beloved, the hero’s wanderings and the dimension of quest, and the gods’ role in the unfolding
adventure (sargas 55ff.); tokens of recognition (Sītā’s ornaments, 52.1ff. and 4.6.1ff.; Rāma’s ring, 4.43.1ff. and 5.34.1ff.; Sītā’s hair ornament, 5.36.1ff. and 5.64.1ff.); the hero’s triumph and, what is most intriguing, his final experience of self-discovery
(sargas 102-7), which in some respects forms the preeminent message of this category of literature.
So there are an appreciable number and provocative set of convergences between Books Three through Six of the Rāmāyaṇa and the European romance genre. And though they have not as yet been cataloged or analyzed, these shared characteristics
have made themselves felt and have led many scholars to conclude that the Rāmāyaṇa as a whole is best understood as a form of romance.[Note 8] Nevertheless thinking of Vālmīki’s poem in this way, however justified it may appear to be by certain surface resemblances, has clear drawbacks. For one thing
it stimulates inappropriate, if not false, expectations; for another, it makes some readers less receptive to the product
of a very different literary culture, closing off instead of providing access to a whole range of topics in which Vālmīki seems to be deeply interested. Adventure, love, and service, staples of romance that have little broad social significance,
are certainly part of his poem, but so are those patterns of “public behavior” that are the central concern of a very different
species of literature.[Note 9]
How may we conceptualize this different species of literature that stands in opposition to romance? Here the reflections of
Northrop Frye on the distinction between romance (“folktale”) and what is not romance — what he terms myth — are valuable:
The difference between the mythical and the fabulous is a difference in authority and social function, not in structure. If
we were concerned only with structural features we should hardly be able to distinguish them at all. … There are only so many
effective ways of telling a story, and myths and folktales share them without dividing them. But as a distinctive tendency
in the social development of literature, myths have two characteristics that folktales, at least in their earlier stages,
do not show, or show much less clearly. First, myths stick together to form a mythology, a large interconnected body of narrative
that covers all the religious and historical revelation that its society is concerned with, or concerned about. Second, as
part of this sticking-together process, myths take root in a specific culture, and it is one of their functions to tell that
culture what it is and how it came to be, in their own mythical terms.[Note 10]
It is this characteristic quality of “authority and social function,” of didactic interest in paradigmatic collective values
(rather than idiosyncratic personal ones), that informs the Rāmāyaṇa. For all its fabulous diversions, the Araṇyakāṇḍa fully shares this interest, and we should review this briefly before turning to consider just what sort of myth Vālmīki’s great poem embodies.
What most strongly suggests to us the element of romance in the Araṇyakāṇḍa is the situating of the action in the forest. This locale is almost emblematic of romance, supplying an “ancient symbol of
uncertain fate,” as one of the foremost contemporary scholars of romance puts it.[Note 11] For the traditional India of Sanskrit literature, the forest has additional, more complex connotations. As we saw in the introduction to the Ayodhyākāṇḍa, the forest is viewed in stark opposition to the town or city; it is a place prior to, or at least exterior to, many of the
claims and obligations of the social world. Life in the forest is not bounded by the confines of family existence; on the
contrary, it is precisely where those escaping such confines come to find peace and transcendence — the renouncer, the ascetic,
the seer — and, indeed, those who are forced out of collective existence, exiles like Rāma himself. There is in India an ancient link between the spiritual quest and the forest (perhaps crystallized in the name given texts of the later vedic
corpus, the Āraṇyakas, “Forest Books,” which pondered doctrines too holy or dangerously mysterious for village life).[Note 12] In this place outside the socialized and the humanized, all that a human is not can be found — monstrous subhuman creatures
as well as beings of an almost superhuman spirituality; it is a place where demons, men, ṛṣis, demigods, and gods all mingle. More than anything, it is these “interrelated layers of integral powers” that serve to create
the “restless and imaginative world” of romance.[Note 13]
Yet certain features of the forest that are almost archetypal in the West are noticeably absent from the Rāmāyaṇa. Meditating on the literary image of the wilderness, W. H. Auden speaks of it as “the place where there is no community, just or unjust, and no historical change for better or for worse.
… Therefore the individual [in the wilderness] is free from both the evils and the responsibilities of communal life.”[Note 14] For the ancient Indian king, whether he is on the throne or in exile, there is no freedom from the “responsibilities of communal
life.” There remains incumbent upon Rāma the obligation of protecting the sages of the wilderness. The ascetics themselves declare this in the very first sarga and thereby set the tone for the rest of the book:
We are residents of your realm and need your protection. Wherever you may find yourself, in city or forest, you are our king,
the lord of the people. … You must always protect us ascetics, for we are as your children.[Note 15]
From the very beginning of the “Forest” there is a continuous “intrusion” of the central problems of the “Ayodhyā,” so resolutely antiromantic in their fundamental significance, so heavily laden with “authority and social function.” This
in part is what makes it difficult to agree that the Araṇyakāṇḍa and what follows is romance in any but a superficial sense.
Just as there is nothing intrusive about the appeal of the ascetics, so there is nothing intrusive about the Araṇyakāṇḍa in the epic as a whole. Far from signaling a departure from the previous narrative, let alone generic discontinuity, this
book provides an essential complementarity that helps identify its function in the larger whole of the Rāmāyaṇa. One of the more productive ways to think of this unitary product — that is, one producing more interesting and denser layers
of meaning — is as a sustained and elaborate “myth” exploring the nature of king, the character and quality of his powers,
and every domain in which these powers are manifested. The forest was one such domain, where a fundamental dimension of the
kingly function could be illuminated. To appreciate the vision of the king in the forest. however, we need to know how kingship
was thought of in traditional Sanskrit culture. And this leads us to confront the basic question of the interpretation of
the Rāmāyaṇa, the divinity of the hero. For the divinity of Rāma and the nature of the king are inseparably related problems, and together they reveal not only principal concerns of the
Araṇyakāṇḍa but also a major structural feature of the Rāmāyaṇa.
4. The Divine King of the Rāmāyaṇa
The Problem of Rāma’s Divinity
The traditional readings of the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki — including both the countless literary adaptations and the interpretations of the medieval commentators — never questioned
the epic’s fundamental “organic” unity. Consequently, there was never any doubt that the divinity of the hero formed an integral
and authentic feature of the poem and, as such, a fundamental condition of its meaning. Although a wide range of other kinds
of interpolations were identified, and a good deal of the narrative itself was felt to pose serious problems of exegesis,
nowhere in the history of the indigenous artistic or scholarly appreciation of the poem are arguments ever raised against
the divine status of the hero; never, for example, was the suspicion ever voiced that those portions of the epic explicitly
positing Rāma’s status as an incarnation of Viṣṇu were deliberate, and unassimilable, sectarian interpolations.
Such, however, were the arguments and suspicions of Western scholars from their earliest acquaintance with the poem. Wilson in 1840 noted quizzically, and with evident impatience at the inconsistency, that “Rāma, although an incarnation of Viṣṇu, commonly appears in his human character alone.” The first editor of the epic in Europe, A. W. von Schlegel, questioned the authenticity of those passages that recount the avatāra, and his student Lassen argued the matter on far wider narrative grounds, commenting,
In the epic poems Rāma and Kṛṣṇa appear, it is true, as incarnations of Viṣṇu, but at the same time as human heroes. These two conceptions are so poorly combined that both generally behave merely like
exceptionally gifted men: They act in accordance with human motives, and do not assert their divine superiority at all. It
is only in a few sections, interpolated precisely to inculcate their divinity, that they appear as Viṣṇu. One cannot read either poem carefully without having one’s attention called to these later interpolated sections of deification,
often awkwardly inserted, loosely connected with the development of the story, and quite superfluous.[Note 16]
Predictably, attention was soon directed to these interpolations, which Lassen had felt to be self-incriminating. Homeric analysts had already shown how much easier it is to drop a given passage without
harm to the “story” than to demonstrate its legitimacy, not to say necessity (for little in the end is necessary).[Note 17] In the same spirit, John Muir marshaled a host of examples that by their contrariety, narrative inconsequentiality, illogicality, or redundancy were thought
to prove that the divinity of Rāma could not have formed part of the “original” poem.[Note 18]
If Gorresio and Weber could still call the question an open one, with the publication of Jacobi’s book on the Rāmāyaṇa in 1893 the issue was to be decided once and, apparently, for all.[Note 19] The theme of Rāma’s being a divine incarnation, we are told, was not an original part of the poem but a later addition restricted to the “attached”
passages and in no way informing the entire work. Jacobi attributes the deification of Rāma to a process of euhemerization whereby the hero of a (quasi-historical) saga is merging with a popular local divinity, the
resulting demigod finally coming to be reckoned an avatāra of Viṣṇu. But the divinity of the hero remains a conception that cannot be demonstrated for the five “real” books of the poem; “quite
the contrary, there Rāma is thoroughly human.”[Note 20]
This in brief is the opinion that has been generally embraced in Western scholarship with respect to the central problem of
interpretation bearing on Vālmīki’s poem.[Note 21] It is a notion of peculiar tenacity and prevalence, which now, through the operations of what is referred to rather darkly
as wirkungsgeschichtliche Bewusstsein (that interpretive consciousness shaped by past interpretations), conditions the response many readers will have to the text.
There is no denying that portions of the Rāmāyaṇa as we find it in the medieval manuscripts upon which the critical edition is based are later interpolations. Perhaps as much
as one-quarter of this vulgate did not form part of the monumental oral poem of “Vālmīki,” from which all our recensions and versions derive.[Note 22] For all that, it is striking that a substantial number of the passages long under suspicion have received text-historical
vindication from the critical edition. Far from corroborating prevailing scholarly opinion, this edition raises questions
about the development and interpretation of the poem that are more complex than earlier scholars realized and that cast serious
doubt on the interpretations they offer.
Even though the critical edition reveals interpolations in Books Two through Six touching on the divinity of the hero, they
are still strikingly rare.[Note 23] The complete textual history of the epic, therefore, tends only to strengthen an argument made by Walter Ruben more than fifty years ago (though wholly ignored thereafter): Since so many interpolations in Books Two through Six that
are clearly later than the presumed late deification of Rāma say virtually nothing of his divine status, its absence from the five “authentic” books need not indicate its late date.
A more cogent explanation might be that mention of it was suppressed in those books “for one reason or other.”[Note 24] Below I will discuss what some of these possible reasons might be. A number of them are already identified in the traditional
interpretation of the epic. What this interpretation richly demonstrates is that the commentarial tradition — the closest
thing we have to an original audience — was entirely aware of the necessity of eliminating explicit reference to the divine
identity of Rāma.[Note 25] This suggests that Ruben’s hypothesis cannot be dismissed by assuming that “some unspoken but uniformly observed agreement among generations of Rāmāyaṇa scribes and reciters” is unwarranted or inherently implausible.[Note 26]
If text criticism leaves open the question whether Rāma’s divinity is original to the monumental poem, “higher criticism” as usually practiced has not brought us much closer to
a solution. In the first place, the reasons for identifying as insertions materials authenticated by manuscript testimony
have never been clearly spelled out. What seems detachable need not, of course, have been attached, for little of this or
any other poem is not finally detachable. Anyway, who decides on the criteria for judging what is narratively essential and
appropriate in a Sanskrit epic? Moreover, the nature of interpolation itself is complicated (though this has yet to be adequately
theorized), and different kinds of motivations underlie it. Interpolation often serves, not to introduce altogether new narrative
material, but instead to expand or make manifest the elliptical or latent; what at first sight might appear to be innovation
may in reality be amplification or elucidation. The interpolations referring to Rāma’s divinity might thus be elaborations of themes embedded in the text — perhaps deeply or structurally embedded, but there
nonetheless — which we have been ignoring or doubting because of suspicion provoked by materials that are, admittedly, later
insertions. This would provide one reasonable answer to a basic question, though one rarely raised, about the history of the
poem: Why should it have proved so perfectly easy to “transform” fundamentally a “heroic epic” according to a later theological
program, and to do this without a trace of resistance?”[Note 27] Perhaps it has not been transformed at all.
The meaning of a text, as we know, is not just a function of its most literal signification, of what is directly expressed
in any given set of verses (unstable as they are). The meaning is also inscribed in higher-order (and more stable) narrative
features, in the logic of the story, for example, or in larger motifs and themes. These can generate meaning by their implications,
for instance (in the case of narrative logic), or (in the case of motifs) by their literary-historical associations. If there
is any truth to this observation, then the divinity of the hero of the Rāmāyaṇa cannot be eliminated by the facile excision of any portions of the text. It pervades the tale and is constitutive of it.
Much of the argument against the divinity of Rāma, furthermore, is based on a sense of the “divine” that is unthinkingly ethnocentric. What is “contradictory” in the behavior
of “human incarnations,” as Lassen would have it, may be so only according to a narrow theological rationalism. What, again, are the standards for deciding
whether behavior is reasonable and logical in the case of a being so resolutely unreasonable and illogical as a human embodiment
of divinity? Even in passages that are widely held to be interpolations, such as Rāma’s interview with his long-dead father, Daśaratha, a curiously ambivalent, “contradictory” attitude is entertained toward the hero: The old king, at the same time as he acknowledges
that Rāma is in fact “the heart of the gods, their deepest secret” (6.107.31; cf. verse 30), can still speak to him as if he were nothing
more than his human son, wishing him “long life” (107.23; similarly Śiva, 107.4-6).[Note 28] Unless we are obstinate enough to postulate interpolations in our “interpolation” here, we must rethink our own sense of
what constitutes contradiction and propriety in a text at times very foreign to a modern western reader. It is worth remembering,
too, that it was precisely these “contradictory” aspects in the nature of Rāma that have so often been the source of religious mystery and the object of theological reflection.[Note 29] In the Indian tradition, at least, the unity of the “divine savior” and the “ideal human” was easily accommodated.[Note 30]
If the theme of the divine king is authentic to the monumental poem of Vālmīki, obviously it will fundamentally change the way we understand the work as a whole and the Araṇyakāṇḍa in particular. We may come closer to deciding the issue in question if we direct our attention to the poem’s “structured”
message residing in certain higher-order narrative features. One of these is the boon of Rāvaṇa, which is inextricably meshed with the divine status of the hero.[Note 31] The logic of the terms of the boon necessitates the agency of a transcendent entity, one both god and man, for only such
a being can confront the power of cosmic evil Rāvaṇa embodies. This is confirmed by the poem itself in various explicit references to the divine plan underpinning the whole action.
It is also the conclusion we are compelled to draw by the morphology of the boon motif throughout the history of Indian mythology.
The nature of the divine king in ancient India and its historical connection with early Vaiṣṇavism provide further evidence and suggest some new interpretations of the
poem on a more global level.
The meaning of a literary text is admittedly not a set of brute facts waiting to be assembled, but neither can it be said
to be totally, let alone arbitrarily, constituted by the receiver. Texts make promptings and suggestions, have claims of logic
and literary-historical associations, and all of this takes place within a finite and to a degree accessible cultural context.
The text seems sometimes to be speaking to us on its own and to raise its own questions. Perhaps it is possible to discover
these questions and listen to this speech rather than drowning it out with our own querulous presuppositions.
Rāvaṇa’s Boon in The Rāmāyaṇa
The first mention of Rāvaṇa’s boon in Books Two through Six of the Rāmāyaṇa occurs here in the Araṇyakāṇḍa, when the rākṣasa is introduced to us for the first time:
It was he who long ago in the great forest had practiced austerities for ten thousand years and unflinchingly cut off his
own heads as offering to the Self-existent Brahmā. It was he who had no longer to fear death in combat with any beings — gods, dānavas, gandharvas, piśācas, great birds, or serpents — any beings but men.[Note 32]
The causal connection between these two verses will be obscure to the reader unfamiliar with the whole story. It remains so
throughout the poem, illuminated elsewhere only dimly, as in the sixth book:
Then the overlord of the rākṣasas, in a towering rage, spoke in the midst of the rākṣasas, to encourage them to battle: “For a thousand years I practiced the most intense asceticism, in one holy place and another,
until the Self-existent Brahmā was propitiated. In reward for this asceticism Brahmā graciously granted that I need never fear gods or asuras.”[Note 33]
There may well have been aesthetic reasons for the partial, almost grudging revelation of Rāvaṇa’s boon; nowhere in Books Two through Six is the whole story told consecutively and straightforwardly.[Note 34] This is what has misled many scholars into doubting the authenticity of the theme. But in addition to manuscript testimony,
which is unanimous in those places I have already cited, the boon is mentioned in passing at strategic junctures in the story.
Indeed, we are never permitted to forget the conditions under which the hero is operating. Sītā, for example, says to Rāvaṇa in the dramatic moment after he has abducted her, “Even if asuras or gods cannot kill you, Rāvaṇa, you have now aroused the bitter enmity of someone you cannot escape alive.”[Note 35] In fact, Rāma himself knows of the boon, for prior to his battle with Rāvaṇa he sends him the following message: “Surely today, at last, your pride has been crushed that came from the gift of Brahmā’s boon. For here I stand at the threshold of Lankā, bearing a staff to punish you who gave me such sorrow by carrying off my wife.”[Note 36]
The theme of the boon functions in part to elevate the narrative to the realm of mythic event. It does this by the structural
affinity it bears to the many other epic boons that require a divine solution, and I shall come back to this. What I want
to consider now are the terms of the boon itself, in isolation from its literary-historical associations. What do these terms
By means of his ascetic mortifications Rāvaṇa has forced the hand of Brahmā and been awarded a boon that makes him invulnerable to all divine and semi-divine beings. The inference to be drawn from
the terms of the boon, therefore, is that given by Rāvaṇa’s general Prahasta in the Yuddhakāṇḍa: “Gods, dānavas, gandharvas, piśācas, divine birds, and serpents are utterly incapable of harming you in battle — what of monkeys!” (6.8.2): And what indeed
of men? In Book Seven and elsewhere in the Rāmāyaṇa tradition it is stressed that Rāvaṇa did not bother to request invulnerability from men and other lower forms of life; it was superfluous. They were harmless
in his eyes, nothing more than food.[Note 37] But what is excluded from the boon is, of course, the only thing that could become the means of his destruction. Therefore
Hanumān’s inference is the very opposite of Prahasta’s. He warns Rāvaṇa, “Because you are invulnerable to gods, dānavas, gandharvas, yakṣas, and rākṣasas, you could defeat them. Still, monkeys pose a danger to you.”[Note 38] Yet the true conclusion of the inference, already hinted at in the passage cited above (3.30.18), is drawn in the fifth book,
when Hanumān again addresses Rāvaṇa:
All the dharma [here “power”] you came to possess by your intense practice of austerities it would be most imprudent to destroy — and the
life, too, that you possess. You rely on the invulnerability you secured by your ascetic practices, invulnerability with respect
to gods and asuras. But there is one all-important consideration with respect to that:[Note 39] Sugrīva is not a god or asura or rākṣasa, not a dānava, gandharva, yakṣa, or great serpent. Rāghava is a man, your majesty, and Sugrīva the king of monkeys. How, therefore, do you hope to save your life?[Note 40]
In the end, with clear if futile insight, Rāvaṇa himself grasps this bitter fact:
Seated upon his heavenly golden throne Rāvaṇa glanced at the rākṣasas, and then spoke: “In vain, all in vain were the intense austerities I practiced. The equal of Indra I may be, and yet a man has defeated me. Here, at last, those terrible words of Brahmā have come home to me: ‘Know that men still pose a danger to you.’ I had become invulnerable to gods, dānavas, gandharvas, yakṣas, rākṣasas, great serpents; but I had never asked to be invulnerable to men.”[Note 41]
If for the moment we consider just the terms of Rāvaṇa’s boon and the gradual revelation of its single yet critical flaw, only two interpretations seem possible: (a) Rāvaṇa with fatal hubris underestimated the power of man, and he learned this in the hardest way possible, by being killed by one;
(b) Rāvaṇa’s view of man’s power was correct; such creatures, along with all other lower forms of animal life, had no possibility of
slaying him: Men are weak and powerless by nature, but especially in the face of the magnitude of evil Rāvaṇa represents, and consequently, he who killed the overlord of rākṣasas could not have been a man at all.
It is worth stressing the importance of this central paradox, whichever interpretive option we choose, that runs like a red
thread through the poem. Man was not included in the wish because he was judged too insignificant to count. His association
with other animals only enhances this estimation. But by that very exclusion, man becomes the sole being who might destroy
Rāvaṇa and, in that respect at least, becomes more powerful than the gods themselves.
Both explanations of the boon motif entail larger interpretations of the poem. The first one implies that the Rāmāyaṇa is offering us a celebration of human potentiality, a paean to man’s endurance and triumph over superhuman adversity in an
almost Sophoclean mode (“So many awful wonders, yet none more wonderful than man,” etc.). This presupposes a man-centered
cosmos, since it is exclusively to man that, in the poem’s central, insistent question, all efficacy in the struggle against
evil is ascribed. But there is no evidence elsewhere in the epic to support this supposition and nothing in traditional Indian
culture that would make such an interpretation credible.
If Rāvaṇa’s boon does not implicitly exalt the powers of man, then what is it telling us? To my mind it implies that we cannot be dealing
with the simple story of a mortal hero, however powerful he may be, struggling with and overcoming a demonic creature (as
a genetic literary history of “Indo-European epic,” comparing the stories of Theseus, Beowulf, or Siegfried, might urge). If that had been the conception of the composer of the Rāmāyaṇa, there would have been no reason whatever to build into the story the motif of the boon. This theme serves no other purpose
than to “problematize” the human dimension of the hero. In addition to linking the narrative and its hero with the ancient
mythic paradigm I describe below, the motif raises questions about the hero’s nature that never would be raised were this
nature not intended as matter for speculation, interrogation, and wonder in itself. Everywhere the poem indicates that Rāvaṇa’s assessment was correct; we are continually reminded that a man can never slay Rāvaṇa and the other rākṣasas. What the events of the story are forcing us to conclude is that Rāma cannot, in fact, be a man.
In the Rāmāyaṇa allusion is constantly made to the presumed mortality of the hero. This is partly a function of the boon itself, but the
effect of the repeated reference to Rāma’s human limitations is to engender incredulity in the audience, as in the characters themselves, about his status as a human:
(Śūrpaṇakhā to Khara:) You are no hero, but a braggart making false claims of valor if you cannot kill Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa, mere human beings the two of them. (3.20.16)
(Khara:) Should the king of the gods himself come on his rutting elephant Airāvata and attack with thunderbolt in hand, in my rage I could kill him in battle. What then of two human beings! (3.22.24)
Gradually, from passages such as these, the mystery of Rāma’s nature begins to emerge. “It makes no sense” that Rāma, “a mere mortal,” should destroy Rāvaṇa in combat. Of course it makes no sense. This is the conclusion the characters gradually draw:
(Aviddha to Rāvaṇa, as reported by Saramā to Sītā:) Restore Sītā to the lord of men, and show him high honor. The miraculous events at Janasthāna are surely sufficient evidence for you. … What man on earth could have slaughtered those rākṣasas in battle? (6.25.21-22)
(Malyavān to Rāvaṇa:) We believe that Rāma is Viṣṇu in a human body?[Note 42] Powerful Rāma cannot be a mere man, not he who bridged the ocean, a most miraculous accomplishment. Rāvaṇa, make peace with Rāma, the king of men. (6.26.31-32)[Note 43]
If such references as these served only to show that Rāma is in fact a god, then the terms of the boon come into play, and Rāvaṇa need have had nothing to fear: A god cannot slay him. A mere man, pure and simple, could not possibly kill Rāvaṇa, but neither could a god, pure and simple — and yet Rāvaṇa lies dead. By the logic of the narrative we are encouraged if not compelled to conceive of some intermediate being that partakes
of both existential realms, combining the nature derived from each into a new, superordinated power — to conceive, in fact,
of a god-man.
There are explicit statements in the poem, in addition to its narrative logic, that foster this conception. When Śūrpaṇakhā describes Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa to her brother Khara, saying, “Two handsome young men have arrived, delicate yet powerful. … They are the image of the king of gandharvas and bear all the signs of royalty. Whether they are gods or men I cannot tell for certain” (3.18.11-12); when Sītā refers to Rāma as having “divine powers” (3.54.14) or Lakṣmaṇa speaks of him as “my brother, who has the powers of a god” (3.66.11), we might be inclined to dismiss it as so much epic
hyperbole, like the many tags (devopama-, “godlike,” and so on) that have been generally viewed as mere ornamental epithets. But it becomes increasingly difficult
not to take these statements at face value when we encounter more pointed expressions of this idea, as for example Lakṣmaṇa’s words to Rāma later in the Araṇyakāṇḍa when he is ready to destroy the worlds in a rage over the loss of Sītā: “Your thoughts are too profound for even the gods to fathom, wise brother … Be aware of your powers, which are as much divine
as human.”[Note 44]
To be sure, we encounter in other epic traditions frequent reference to what might be judged no more than a semi-divine status
of the hero — theoeikelos axilleus (“godlike Achilles,”), for example, to go no further afield than the “Iliad”. Yet in such cases the descriptions are purely rhetorical, and this is made quite clear when Homer is compelled to explain, “The first of men [Achilles], but not a match for Gods” (“Iliad” 21.264, in Pope’s epigrammatic version). It is precisely the asymmetry between the hero’s aspiration to divinity and his irreducible humanity
that lies at the core of Homeric and much other epic poetry. As one of the wisest of contemporary Hellenists put it in describing
just this contrariety (what he has termed “the heroic paradox”), allusions such as these epithets frame “imply a kind of absolute
status which the hero strives to gain,” although at the same time he possesses “a desperate self-knowledge” that he is ineluctably
mortal.[Note 45] The comparable passages in the Rāmāyaṇa, taken in the all-important context of Rāvaṇa’s boon, which categorically debars gods and implicitly debars men, acquire a peculiarly mythic resonance absent from the
Greek epic with its pervasive tragic humanism. And although there are moments when Rāma’s human frailties are stressed, much of the narrative of the Rāmāyaṇa serves principally to amplify this mythic resonance till such point as Rāma’s unique status as a being of a second order — part god, part man — forces itself unmistakably upon our awareness.
The Morphology of the Boon Motif
The theme of Rāvaṇa’s boon, considered morphologically, opens a similar window, through which we see more than a simple human aspect in Rāma, more too than a “superhuman” aspect. He eludes both because, as the unfolding narrative itself urges us to recognize, he
must be a new order of being.
Just as the thematic structure of the Rāmāyaṇa moves the narrative to the level of mythic struggle, so too does the very character of the antagonist. In no other respect
does Vālmīki’s poem so depart from the conventions of the epic as represented by the Mahābhārata as in the dimensions of the struggle in which the hero is engaged. The demonic power of the foe is formidable and vast, on
an altogether unearthly scale:
[Śūrpaṇakhā] found Rāvaṇa in his splendid palace, radiant in his power. … A hero invincible in combat with gods, gandharvas, spirits, or great seers, he looked like Death himself with jaws agape. He carried lightning-bolt wounds received in clashes
with gods and asuras. His chest was seamed with scars where Airāvata’s pointed tusks had gored him. He had twenty arms and ten necks. … In combat with gods his body had been wounded in hundreds
of places, by blows from Viṣṇu’s discus and all the other weapons of the gods. He could effortlessly perturb the imperturbable seas, level mountaintops,
and vanquish the gods. … It was he who had gone to the city of Bhogavatī, defeated Vāsuki and Takṣaka. … It was he who had gone to Mount Kailāsa and conquered the man-borne Kubera. … It was he who in a mighty rage would destroy the gardens of the gods. … It was he who, tall as a mountain peak, would
extend his arms and prevent the glorious powers, the sun and moon, from rising. … He was Rāvaṇa, “he who makes all creatures wail,” the terror of all the worlds.[Note 46]
The scale of evil envisioned by the poet, spanning the universe from the nether regions to the heavens, is well beyond the
familiar world of most epic literature, where the powers of the antagonist generally retain recognizably human dimensions.
The lord of rākṣasas exceeds the human capacity for evil to an even greater degree than he exceeds, with his ten heads and twenty arms, the physical
power of human beings:
I am he who terrifies the worlds, with all their gods, asuras, and great serpents. I am Rāvaṇa, Sītā, supreme lord of the hosts of rākṣasas. … In fear of me the gods, gandharvas, piśācas, great birds, and serpents flee in terror, as all things born are put to flight by fear of Death. … At the mere sight of
my face, Maithilī, once my anger has been provoked, the gods with Indra at their head flee in terror. In my presence the wind blows cautiously, and the sun’s hot rays turn cold in fear. The leaves
on the trees stop rustling, and the rivers slacken their current wherever I am, wherever I go. … I can lift the earth in my
arms while standing in the sky; I can drink up the ocean, I can slay Death in battle. I can shatter the earth with my sharp
arrows. … or bring the sun to a halt.[Note 47]
In Indian intellectual and cultural history, the question of evil seems generally to be conceived and represented as a mythic
problem on a cosmic plane. The demonic is hardly formulated in human terms at all; it defines itself only against the divine,
as the latter defines itself only against the demonic.[Note 48] The struggle against such evil, in Indian mythology, lies as a rule outside the sphere of human participation. This is plainly
the case with Rāvaṇa, whose existence imperils the universal no less than the terrestrial order of things, and whose extermination is therefore
a matter of divine concern and intervention. This is something of which the poet takes pains to remind us at critical moments
throughout the narrative.
The first intimation that Rāma’s personal tragedy — his exclusion from succession to the kingship and his banishment — is part of a greater plan occurs
in the second half of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa. En route to visit Rāma, Bharata meets the seer Bharadvāja, who admonishes the young prince, saying, “Bharata, you must not impute any fault to Kaikeyī. The banishment of Rāma will turn out to be a great blessing.”[Note 49] The notion that any “great blessing” could come about as a result of the tragic events in Ayodhyā — the death of the king, the bitter divisions in the palace, the disaffection of the entire populace — had to strike an “original”
audience as paradoxical. Not until the end of the second book is some clarification offered, when for the first time in Books
Two through Six Rāvaṇa’s name is mentioned. Bharata has stubbornly refused to accede to Rāma’s wishes to accept the kingship, in contrast to Rāma, who is prepared to accept his own lot. It is the intervention of semi-divine beings that seems to turn the balance: “Then
all at once the hosts of seers, eager for the destruction of ten-necked Rāvaṇa, spoke to Bharata, tiger among kings.”[Note 50]
What had appeared to be a localized. circumscribed, self-contained set of social and political problems in “Ayodhyā” is now seen to be part of a divine initiative made necessary by the periodic recrudescence of demonic evil. The Ayodhyākāṇḍa, given the peculiar focus of its social vision, was an inappropriate arena for anything more than fragmentary revelations.
The present book, where Rāma finds himself in a realm that transcends the human world to the same degree that it descends to the demonic, is quite different.
The gods themselves acknowledge the heavenly plan that the hero’s sufferings advance; and the demons present themselves to
permit the plan’s advancement.
While proceeding to the ashram of the sage Śarabhaṅga,
Rāma beheld a great marvel. He beheld Indra himself, lord of the wise gods. His body was luminous as fire or the sun. … Seeing Rāma drawing near, Indra, lord of Śacī, took leave of Śarabhaṅga, then turned to the wise gods and said: “That man approaching is Rāma. Before he can address me, conduct me to my residence; hereafter he may see me. When he has accomplished his task and gained
victory, I will see him without delay. For he has a great deed to do, impossible for anyone else to accomplish.” So Indra spoke, wielder of the thunderbolt.[Note 51]
Besides suggesting a crucial point that the traditional interpretation has always understood — the incarnate god is, or in
this particular case must be, ignorant of his divinity — this passage increases our suspicion of a vaster, even cosmic, background
of the action of the Rāmāyaṇa. This suspicion is finally confirmed by what happens when Sītā is abducted:
When Vaidehī was assaulted, a blinding darkness enveloped the world, the whole world from end to end, all things that move and do not
move. With his divine eye, the majestic Grandfather Brahmā saw the outrage upon poor Sītā, and murmured, “What had to be done has been done. … ”[Note 52] As [Rāvaṇa] carried Vaidehī over Varuṇa’s abode, the waves heaved in agitation, and the fish and serpents were trapped deep below. Then, celestial musicians hovering
in midair raised a clamor, and perfected beings cried out, “This is the end of Rāvaṇa!”[Note 53]
Sītā herself will later tell Rāvaṇa, “I know for certain I could never have been stolen away from the wise Rāma, were it not that Fate had destined it — to bring about your death.”[Note 54]
In light of these passages it is worth reconsidering two others that, although unimpeachable on textual grounds, have often
been called into question on the grounds of “higher” criticism, as being somehow out of keeping with the overall character
and concerns of Books Two through Six.[Note 55] The first occurs late in the sixth book: After the defeat of Rāvaṇa, Rāma’s long-dead father appears before him on a celestial chariot and says, “Now at last I understand, dear son, how it was by
the gods’ doing that [you], supreme among men [puruṣottama],[Note 56] were destined for this, for bringing about the death of Rāvaṇa. … You have completed your stay in the forest, and kept your promise; you have fulfilled the wishes of the gods by killing
Rāvaṇa in battle.”[Note 57] The second forms part of the lament of the rākṣasa women, just before Rāvaṇa is slain:
The Grandfather had once been won over by Rāvaṇa and granted that he should never suffer harm at the hands of gods, dānavas, and rākṣasas. But he had never asked for that with respect to men, and now it is from a man that harm is coming, we are certain, terrible
harm that shall take the life of Rāvaṇa and of every rākṣasa. … When the rākṣasa had got his boon, he began to oppress the gods with his power. They went and paid homage to the Grandfather where he sat
blazing with ascetic splendor. The Grandfather was gratified, and for their welfare the great one spoke these great words
to the deities: “Forevermore from this day forth all dānavas and rākṣasas shall eternally roam the universe overmastered with fear.” … The gods then convened and under the lead of Indra they all propitiated the great god, the bull-bannered destroyer of the Triple City.[Note 58] The great god was propitiated and said to the deities, “For your welfare there shall come into being a woman, to bring destruction
upon the rākṣasas” [cf. 3.52.6, 11]. … And Sītā must be she, employed now by the gods to slay the rākṣasas — as once, long ago, Hunger slew the dānavas — and she shall devour us and Rāvaṇa as well.[Note 59]
In the total context of Books Two through Six, there is clearly little that argues against the authenticity of these last
two passages, and much that speaks in their favor. Viewed comprehensively, they show themselves to be, not afterthoughts or
isolated allusions, but part of a design. The cumulative impact of such periodic revelations is to transform the perspective
from which we view the story. Once more the assumption is encouraged that the human narrative is intricately meshed with,
and finally subsidiary to, a divine plan in which Rāma (along with Sītā) has for some reason been appointed the principal actor.[Note 60] The character of Rāvaṇa, as we have seen, reinforces this assumption, as does the boon motif. For the formula by which this motif is constituted
posits this signification, and at the same time clarifies why this “mere man” should have become the instrument of a cosmic
The boon was granted to Rāvaṇa by Brahmā in consequence of the intense asceticism the rākṣasa had performed over thousands of years, and it provided that he could never be slain “by gods, dānavas, gandharvas, piśācas, great birds, or serpents.” In Sanskrit epic and purāṇic literature the performance of austerities almost mechanically compels
the gods to fulfill any demand of the claimant. They are invariably asked to grant the gift of immortality, but they themselves
won this only with great effort when they churned the empyreal ocean, and it is the one gift they cannot bestow.[Note 61] Yet like so many others, Rāvaṇa seeks to achieve the same result by a gambit widely familiar in folklore: attempting to frame the perfect wish. The sheer
impossibility of an exhaustive catalog, however (in this case overdetermined by Rāvaṇa’s scornful dismissal of man), immediately implies that a solution is assured; the very provisions of the boon make it inevitable
that a proxy will be found. Not a god, since the gods have become, so to speak, contractually impotent nor yet a man, men
being constitutionally impotent, the “food” of rākṣasas. Instead it must be an unprecedented combination of the two.
These thematic implications are in part manifested in the divine plan sketched above. In addition, the way the boon is formulated
— which turns out to be an ancient building block of Indian myth — necessarily entails this: The formulation ensures that
the boon will be counteracted, and what will counteract it is a previously nonexistent being, either a purely deceptive being
or, more usually, one entirely outside the catalog of natural possibility. Before tracing the roots of this “morpheme” into
the vedic tradition and the special association it later comes to have with the corpus of Vaiṣṇava mythology, let us examine
its function as a structural feature in epic myth-making.[Note 62]
In MBh 1.201 is found the “old tale” (itihāsa purātana) of Sunda and Upasunda, brothers born in the line of the “great asura” Hiraṇyakaśipu. Inseparable companions and deeply devoted to one another, they resolve to conquer the universe, and set off for the Vindhya Mountains to practice austerities. The gods come to fear their growing ascetic power and try to disrupt their mortifications
by tempting them with precious objects, women, and the like. But the gods are unsuccessful, and in the end the Grandfather
must appear before the two and grant them a boon. In addition to magic powers, they seek immortality, the one thing Brahmā must withhold. “But,” says Brahmā, “you may choose some way of dying that will make you as good as deathless.”[Note 63] They reply, “Let us have nothing to fear from anything existing [bhūtam] in the three worlds, anything that moves or does not move — anything, Grandfather, but ourselves.”[Note 64] There must of course be an omission in their request for invulnerability, otherwise they would indeed be immortal, and so
they choose what alone seems to them unthinkable as a source of danger. Brahmā agrees, and in the possession of their boon the demons attack the gods, conquer heaven and the netherworld, and, coming to
earth, slaughter kings and brahmans, on whose sacrifices the power of the gods depends. The seers appeal to Brahmā, who reveals the way to slay the demons. Viśvakarman is asked to create a woman, and gathering “every existing thing in the three worlds, everything that moves and does not move
that was beautiful,” the divine craftsman fashions a new creature whose beauty was unlike that of any female in the three
worlds.[Note 65] Sunda and Upasunda see her, fall to fighting over her, and so kill each other.
The cosmic dimension of the story is worth singling out first. The boon activates a power that throws the universe — the triple
world of heaven, earth, and the underworld — into turmoil, making divine intervention unavoidable. The catalog of conditions
in the boon requested by the asuras is familiar, as is the use of a ruse to obviate them. The demons had aimed at and nearly achieved the exhaustive list; what
they neglected to include was a combination of already existing substances into some hitherto nonexistent being, emanating
from the gods and yet not one of them. And it is this, and this alone, that is able to trigger the necessary yet seemingly
unattainable event, the fratricidal conflict.
A second epic example of the motif is contained in the well-known story of the demon Tāraka and the birth of Skanda.[Note 66] When after their marriage the divine couple Śiva and Ūmā begin their lovemaking, the gods grow fearful lest the offspring of such a union bring about universal destruction and therefore
implore Śiva to withhold his seed. He agrees, but Ūmā, furious that the chance of her bearing children is ruined, curses the gods to be childless themselves. Agni, the god of fire, was absent at the time of the curse. A drop of Śiva’s seed, moreover, had fallen from him and into Agni, where it grew great. Now, at this time, oppressed by the demon Tāraka, the gods and all other divine creatures seek the aid of Brahmā, explaining, “The Blessed One gave the daitya a boon, and he has become overweening in his power. The gods cannot kill him. How then is he to be quelled? For the boon
he acquired from you, Grandfather, was this: ‘Let me be invulnerable to gods, asuras, rākṣasas.’ And the gods have now been cursed by Rudrāṇī when we ruined her chance of bearing children. She said, ‘You shall never have offspring,’ lord of the universe.”[Note 67] And Brahmā replies, “Agni was not there at the time of the curse, best of gods. He shall produce a child to slay this enemy of the gods. And that shall
be a creature transcending the gods, dānavas, and rākṣasas, gandharvas, men, serpents, and birds” (84.8-9). Skanda is later born and slays Tāraka.
As before, in addition to the boon, the catalog of exclusions, and the cosmic peril, a being of an entirely new order is required,
different from and greater than any existent divinity, since its origin is unique and in fact is antinomic: It is the seed
of Śiva, borne by Fire (Agni), fertilizing Water (the Ganges), and brought forth simultaneously by six different mothers, whereupon its several parts miraculously merge.
Especially suggestive is the myth of the asura Hiraṇyakaśipu and his death at the hands of Viṣṇu in the form of a man-lion.[Note 68]
Long ago, in the Kṛta Age, the haughty enemy of the gods, the Primal Being of daityas, practiced austerities for ten thousand years, and ten hundred years, and five. … Brahmā was pleased with his asceticism and acts of self-denial, and appeared before him in person. … “Please choose a boon,” he
said, “and fulfill whatever desire you wish.” Hiraṇyakaśipu replied, “O best of gods, let me never be slain by any gods, gandharvas, yakṣas, rākṣasas, piśācas, or men.” The great-armed Viṣṇu then took on a form that had never before existed: The Lord made one-half of his body a man’s, the other half a lion’s, and
rubbing his hands together he went to the assembly hall of the lord of daityas. The Primal Being [ādipuruṣa] of the daityas, the enemy of the gods, the delight of Diti, saw that form, one never seen before, and his eyes blazed red in anger. Hiraṇyakaśipu … closed with the man-lion, the far mightier lord of beasts … and with its razor-sharp claws the man-lion’s body tore the
demon to pieces.[Note 69]
Demonic evil on a cosmic scale can be neutralized by none of the available divine powers.[Note 70] The supreme god Viṣṇu must contrive “an embodiment that had never before existed,” again a miraculous life form necessitated by the comprehensive
exclusions of the boon.
We can now see that these narratives are offering us an established constellation of mythological components: a boon awarded
as a result of ascetic practices; an ensuing threat of cosmic evil; the intervention of the divine and its transmutation into
a preternatural form that circumvents the boon’s apparent all-inclusiveness — implying above all how impossible it is to contain
the divine within any ordinary category of life.
That this has to be seen as a very ancient and invariant pattern of expectation is made probable by the evidence of vedic
mythology. One example attesting to the existence of the formula from earliest Indo-Aryan times, as well as an ancient association
with Viṣṇu, will suffice.[Note 71] The narrative of the dwarf incarnation of Viṣṇu is alluded to frequently in the earliest strata of vedic literature, although the first connected narrative is that of the
Maitrāyanī Saṃhitā:[Note 72]
[The gods wanted to recover their realm from the demons.] They turned Viṣṇu into a dwarf and brought him [to the demons]. “Whatever he might cover in three strides shall belong to us [the rest to you].”
He strode first over this, then this, then that [that is, earth, sky, heaven].[Note 73]
The vedic texts are very spare in their narratives and do not tell how the demons had acquired the power to seize control
of the universe. Early epic and purāṇic literature supplies the necessary background. Here the demon Bali replaces the anonymous horde of asuras, and the standard motif resurfaces:
Bali, the great asura, had become invulnerable to all creatures, and you [Viṣṇu] took on the form of a dwarf and ousted him from the triple world.[Note 74]
Brahmā, the granter of boons, granted that you [Bali] attain the power of Indra, that you be deathless and unconquerable in battle.[Note 75]
The motif is thereupon subject to a slight inversion; it is now the demon Bali who dispenses a boon to Viṣṇu. The dwarf is given as much land as he can cover in three steps, and as the Mahābhārata tradition puts it, “Hari took on a divine, utterly miraculous form as he strode out, and with three strides he took all the earth.”[Note 76]
From the beginning, this act of Viṣṇu’s has been associated with his divine mission. Concomitantly, Bali — exactly like Hiraṇyakaśipu and Rāvaṇa — is regularly represented as a power of cosmic dimensions.”[Note 77] And the miraculous transformation, far from being a trickster’s “stratagem to avert the suspicion of the asuras,” fits squarely into the pattern I have been tracing.[Note 78] In that environment the pattern recovers something of its centrality to ancient myth and to the understanding of the divine
in early Indian thought: As in the case of the man-lion and all the others, an attempt is made to give expression to the incomprehensible
character of the divine, whereby we can begin to understand that it does not exist within the world of nature, “the realm
of necessity,” that it is not constrained by the limits of the possible. No inventory of the physical world, however exhaustive,
can subsume the capabilities of what transcends all natural categories. On the one hand, then, the divine may be what it certainly
seems not to be (the dwarf, for example), and on the other, it can indeed be what has never been seen to be (the man-lion).[Note 79]
I suggest that the figure of Rāma, from the time the full narrative took shape in the monumental Rāmāyaṇa, has been conceived after the model furnished by these ancient morphemes of Indian myth.[Note 80] Neither a man nor even a “simple” god, he incorporates the two and so, in a sense, transcends them both.
When I use the term “myth” here, I have in mind a patterned representation of the world, with continuing and vital relevance
to the culture, which furnishes a sort of invariable conceptual grid upon which variable and multifarious experience can be
plotted and comprehended. It is this essential power to interpret and explain reality — and I mean social reality in the first
instance — that has gone largely unappreciated in previous mythic interpretations of the Rāmāyaṇa.[Note 81] Having assembled the essential building blocks, we are in a position to explore the mythological map of experience charted
by the Rāmāyaṇa, to discover what Frye might call the myth’s “authoritative social function,” how, that is, it “tells a culture what it is.” A point of entry is
provided in the last example of the theme I want to look at.
In the tale of Dhundhumāra the protagonist is an earthly king (in fact, like Rāma, a member of the
Ikṣvāku dynasty) but stands in a special and intriguing relationship to divinity:[Note 82] The aged Ikṣvāku king Bṛhadaśva, having set his son Kuvalāśva on the throne, retires to the forest. The sage Uttaṅka tries to stop him, seeking the king’s protection from the rākṣasa Dhundhu, who lies beneath the sands of the ocean Ujjanaka practicing austerities in order to destroy the worlds, the thirty gods, and Viṣṇu himself. “For the gods cannot slay him,” Uttaṅka explains, “nor can daityas or rākṣasas, great serpents, yakṣas, or gandharvas — no one, for he once received a boon from the Grandfather of the world.” The king is asked to slay the demon “for the good
of the worlds,” and Uttaṅka tells him further that Viṣṇu shall augment his power by means of his own divine might, thanks to a boon the god once granted the sage. But the aged king,
having renounced all violence, declines to do the deed himself and directs the sage to his son. Kuvalāśva and Uttaṅka proceed to the ocean and then, “The Blessed One, Lord Viṣṇu, entered into Kuvalāśva with his fiery power at the direction of Uttaṅka, and for the good of the world.” By drinking up the tidal wave caused by the demon’s earthquake, and with the water putting
out the fire within it, the king, “a great yogin by means of Viṣṇu’s yoga,” kills the volcanic Dhundhu (and so receives the name Dhundhumāra).
Once again a situation is contrived that points up the incapacity of the gods, or of any other divine or semi-divine being,
to confront and master evil on their own (whether moral or natural evil makes no difference). Another creature — man — is
required; but being naturally powerless man needs the infusion of Viṣṇu’s power. Filled with the divine potency, this extraordinary new creature, the earthly king — and only he, no god or man —
can protect the brahmanical world order (here represented by Uttaṅka) by destroying evil.[Note 83]
Here as in other versions of the motif, the catalog of the boon does not imply that the slayer can be merely a creature inadvertently
omitted from the list. If explicitly excluded, he must then be charged with divine potency; if not, he must belong to a new
order of being, in substance not comparable to any hitherto conceivable life forms. Dhundhumāra, like Rāma, is clearly not the sort of hero familiar to us from Western epic, for such heroes are men who do more than ordinary men,
not more than gods. These two, by contrast, are men who do what, for some reason, gods cannot. Not merely more than human,
they are in some way more than divine. Finally, what makes the adaptation of the ancient motif particularly suggestive, complex,
and powerful in the Rāmāyaṇa is that this second-order being, this divine human or mortal god, is here coupled with a sociopolitical representation of
everyday life in traditional India: Such intermediate beings, gods who walk the earth in the form of men, are kings.
The Ancient Indian King
The divine nature of the earthly king has been a matter of dispute among students of early Indian thought. Most contemporary
scholars, however, agree that the conception was present from the time of the vedas and continuously gained in importance thereafter.[Note 84]
There is no need to invoke the strong concomitance between authority and the supernatural in pensée sauvage in order to establish this, nor the sacred status of the king elsewhere in the Indo-European cultural domain.[Note 85] In the vedic hymns kings, or better chiefs, share certain major activities with the gods, Indra in particular, and they play as well a role of cosmic significance; they are called not only “half gods” (ṚV 4.42.8-9) but also “gods among men” (AV 6.86.3).[Note 86] Additional evidence is provided by the ritual prose texts discussed below. By the time of the epics, lawbooks, and, later,
the first purāṇas, the documentary evidence becomes overwhelming. We can look at one representative epic text from our most important source
of traditional Indian political theology, the Rājadharma section of the Mahābhārata. This offers a strikingly forthright expression of attitudes and beliefs about kingship, and in several respects seems almost
a gloss on the story of the Rāmāyaṇa:
If kings did not exist, no creatures anywhere could exist, and because kings exist, other creatures do. Who dares refuse them
homage? Whoever hears the burdens imposed by the king, which bring happiness to all the world; whoever strives to please and
benefit him, wins both this world and the next. But whoever even thinks of doing evil to the king assuredly finds affliction
in this world, and at death goes to hell. Never should the king be scorned as being a mere mortal: He is great divinity existing
in the form of a man. He can take on any of five different forms, as occasion demands: He may become Fire, the Sun, Death,
Vaiśravaṇa, or Yama. One must be zealous and careful not to contradict the lord, nor grumble against him, if one hopes to acquire righteous merit.
A man who acts in opposition to the king never gains happiness, neither he himself nor anyone close to him — son, brother,
friend. Even when driven onward by the wind, its charioteer, fire might leave something in its wake: but to the one who thwarts
the king nothing whatever will be left. All that the king owns is to be preserved as his; keep your distance from it. Taking
something of his should be seen to be as fraught with terror as death itself; touch it and you perish. … The king is the very
heart of hearts of his subjects, their foundation, refuge, and ultimate happiness. Putting their reliance in their king, people
never fail to win this world and the world to come.[Note 87]
Passages like this make it evident that kings — or more precisely, righteous kings — were invested with the status, the powers,
all the ontological meaning and significance of divinity. But can we be certain the author of the Rāmāyaṇa shared this conception? For though the Rājadharma discourse seems representative for much of the epic period, it has often been noted that stony silence if not outright contradiction
with respect to the king’s divinity can be found elsewhere; some early lawbooks, for example, seem indifferent or even hostile
to the notion.[Note 88]
The silence encountered in the early dharmaśāstras need not, of course, be interpreted negatively, and the denials of a king’s divinity need not belong to the historical period
of the monumental poet. And even if contemporary with him, denial of kingly divinity indirectly implies that for some it was
an article of belief (a verse from the Ayodhyākāṇḍa discussed below makes this clear). In any case, the orientation of the Rāmāyaṇa is hardly in doubt. Whether or not this reflects widespread consciousness may be a matter of secondary importance. At times,
Vālmīki’s poem leaves the impression that the political theology is a doctrine in the making and that its consolidation is a principal
objective of the poet.
Although we cannot expect to find in a poetic text like the Rāmāyaṇa the discursive plenitude of the śāstra portions of the Mahābhārata, we can still assemble sufficient evidence to determine its understanding of the divinity of kings. A passage strategically
placed at the beginning of the Araṇyakāṇḍa, for example, setting the tone for all that follows, nicely expresses the bivalent nature of the earthly king. Here the seers
are addressing Rāma: “As guardian of righteousness and glorious refuge of his people, a king is worthy of reverence and esteem. He is a guru
who wields the staff of punishment. A king is a fourth part Indra himself and the protector of his subjects, Rāghava. Therefore he enjoys the choicest luxuries and is held in honor by the world” (3.1.17-18).
These verses imply a divinity of a “functional” sort, referring in particular to the king’s protectorship through his exercise
of legitimate force. Something similar occurs in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa. Here Bharata is urging Rāma to return to the city and take up the duties of kingship, which he sees himself incapable of shouldering. For, he argues,
“some say a king is but a mortal; I esteem him a god. His conduct in matters of righteousness and statecraft, it is rightly
said, is beyond that of mere mortals” (2.95.4). If the divine status of the king may have been subject to public questioning,
its existence would by the same token be confirmed, and its truth, too, in the eyes of the authorial arbiter whose voice is
plain to hear in these lines. But there is more than just inferential evidence. In the Kiṣkindhākāṇḍa the poet flatly states his own view, through the character of Rāma himself: “It is kings — make no mistake about it — who confer righteous merit, something so hard to acquire, and precious
life itself. One must never harm them, never criticize, insult, or oppose them. Kings are gods who walk the earth in the form
of men”[Note 89] (4.18.37-38).
What does it signify to make this claim of divinity? What does it mean that the king is a god? The few scholars who do not
ignore it have been prone to minimize the importance of divine kingship in ancient India. For one thing, it is claimed that the element of divinity inheres in the office, not the person, of the king.[Note 90] For another, kings were not the only such beings in existence. Brahmans, too, were “gods on earth.” Thus in a way comparable
to no other culture India was “prolific of human gods.” In fact, as though we were in the grip of a market economy of the sacred, divinity in India is said to be “cheap.”[Note 91]
Neither of these claims has much force. First, the dichotomy between king and kingship finds little support in Indian epic
texts. That distinction itself is a juristic concept belonging primarily to the European medieval period and derived ultimately
from Christian symbolism.[Note 92] Moreover, even though there is no suggestion whatever in Books Two through Six of the Rāmāyaṇa that the divine king has any competition from a divine brahman, who is simply ignored, I do not believe such a law of supply
and demand is applicable in the domain of political theology; the question of quantity need have no impact whatever on the
value of the representation. This value is constituted by, and directly proportional to, the quality of being of the divine
king, irrespective of its quantity. And the quality of his being is unique in two respects: the king’s function and his origin.[Note 93] The king is functionally a god because like a god he saves and protects; he is existentially or ontologically a god because
he incorporates the divine essence.
The king, we are told in the Rājadharma section of the Mahābhārata, is the root of the three ends or needs of human life (the trivarga): dharma itself is “rooted” in the king. The exercise of kingship is thus the highest manifestation of dharma and the refuge of every living soul on earth. All beings depend on dharma, and dharma depends on the king. But what is the core of Rājadharma? “The age-old dharma of kings consists of protection, and it is this that maintains the world itself.” The king provides security, in particular
to brahmans and ascetics, who are usually, as in the Araṇyakāṇḍa, represented as those most threatened with violence. This is a “gift of life” (cf. Rām 4.18.37, cited above, p. 46), equal to no other, and by means of it alone the entire brahmanical order and the sacrificial
cult by which it sustains the universe are preserved.[Note 94]
Although the king has other functions besides protecting his subjects (which his possession of other divine substances enables
him to execute),[Note 95] it is his providing welfare, in the widest sense of the term, that remains his special trait. The god who increasingly in
Indian religious history comes to discharge this soteriological function and whose substance is later said to be fused with
that of the earthly king is Viṣṇu. For although Viṣṇu does not himself occupy the position of king in the Indian pantheon — that is held by Indra — he has a unique role in the preservation of the cosmos that proved to be a far more compelling political-theological determinant.
From the time of the earliest hymns of the Ṛgveda and with growing frequency thereafter, Viṣṇu’s preeminent task is to aid suffering mankind by reestablishing the righteous brahmanical organization of society.[Note 96]
This “parity of functions” at an early date entailed an equivalence of being. Suggestive testimony is to be found in a ritual
textbook of the Taittirīyas (a branch of the vedic tradition with which Vālmīki may have had particular affinities).[Note 97] During the royal consecration ceremony the king “takes the [three] strides of Viṣṇu, he becomes Viṣṇu himself and thereby triumphs over all these worlds.”[Note 98] In the epic period the texts become even more numerous and explicit. We have already seen how Dhundhumāra was able to execute his protective activities only by absorbing the power of Viṣṇu. Perhaps the best representation of the doctrine of substantive identity between king and divinity, and one of the most important
expository texts in the epics on the origin of kingship, is the tale of the birth of Pṛthu, the first righteous king. Once created, the king vows righteousness and promises to protect “the earthly brahmans” and preserve
the brahmanical social order. The gods perform his consecration, and thereupon,
The eternal Viṣṇu himself established the law that no one was ever to transgress against the king. And by means of his ascetic power the Blessed
Viṣṇu entered into the king, so that the world would bow in homage to these gods of men, like very gods. … For why otherwise would
people stand at the bidding of a king — who is no different from them in his body or sense powers — were it not for this quality
of divinity?[Note 99] … When his merit has been exhausted, a king comes from heaven to earth to be born. … Endowed then with the greatness of Viṣṇu on this earth, he becomes endowed with intelligence and attains greatness. No one transgresses against the law established
by the gods. All stand at the bidding of one, and conform to his behavior.[Note 100] Therefore, best of kings, wise men in this world have forever declared that gods and gods of men are equal.[Note 101]
The identification of the earthly king and Viṣṇu becomes so thoroughgoing that by the time of the earliest purāṇas “every emperor, in every cosmic age both past and future, is born on earth with a portion of Viṣṇu within him.”[Note 102] The reality of the representation is brought home to the contemporary reader by, for example, the inscriptions of the imperial
Guptas, particularly the description of King Samudragupta as the “Inscrutable Being” [that is, Viṣṇu], “a man only insofar as he conforms to social convention, but in reality a god who has taken up residence in the world”[Note 103] Or by Viśākhadatta’s great play, the Mudrārākṣasa, at the end of which the poet eulogizes his patron (possibly Candragupta) by asserting that Viṣṇu, who once took on the form of a boar to save the earth, has now assumed the form of this king.[Note 104] In the epic and post-epic period texts proliferate that affirm and elaborate on the essential unity of the earthly king and
Viṣṇu. Representative of the medieval view of the king as savior is the important Vaiṣṇava sectarian work, the Ahirbudhnyasaṃhitā:
The king is the ultimate being, a lord consisting of [parts of] all the gods. He is the locus of the effective energy of Viṣṇu, he consists of the Blessed One Himself. The Lord God created the king long ago, emitting him from His own head; consecrated
on the head, therefore, the king is placed far above all other creatures. The king is twice so great as a brahman, and his
praises are sung in the vedas and śāstras. The fool who in delusion hates the king, hates Hari; the man who in delusion hates Hari, hates Lakṣmī; and the foolish hater of Lakṣmī is lost to all dharma, is driven from all worlds, is excluded by all the gods, and exists forevermore in blinding, bottomless darkness. But the
wise man who seeks earthly and heavenly prosperity will esteem the king, the supreme deity of all worlds.[Note 105]
The divine king is a spiritual redeemer (not necessarily, as represented here, a function of his identification with Viṣṇu), who not as an intercessor with the gods but directly secures the spiritual welfare of his people. He is “guru of the world
to come”; show him contempt and all one’s religious works prove fruitless (MBh 12.65.28). He is, according to a passage already cited, “the very heart of hearts of his subjects. … Putting their reliance
in their king people win this world and the world to come” (MBh 12.68.59, above, p. 44). This reflects not a cult of king worship in the strict sense — kings in India did not often usurp the position of the gods in the all-important sacrificial rites — but a spiritual function symmetrical
with and finally indistinguishable from his social function, which the king exercises by reason of the divine substance he
incorporates. It seems to be precisely this power to effect spiritual emancipation that underpins much of the action of the
Araṇyakāṇḍa. What I have in mind is illustrated by the structurally comparable narratives of Śarabhaṅga and Śabarī, Virādha and Kabandha.
These episodes, which celebrate the liberating power of the king, frame Book Three of the epic. At the beginning and end of
the volume Rāma encounters two evil monsters imprisoned in horrific forms as a result of curses, and immediately thereafter two people of
extraordinary holiness. The king slays the monsters, thereby releasing them from their confinement and allowing them to recover
their proper place in heaven. Both Śarabhaṅga the ascetic and the mendicant woman Śabarī commit ritual suicide after their encounter with Rāma. Śarabhaṅga had put off departing for the world of Brahmā, which he had won by his asceticism, until he had experienced Rāma; but “now that we have met,” he tells the king, “I will go to the highest heaven, where the gods reside” (3.4.26), whereupon
he immolates himself. Śabarī has also been waiting for Rāma, having been told by her gurus, “One day Rāma shall come to this holy ashram of yours. You are to receive him. Once you have beheld him you shall go to the highest imperishable
worlds” (3.70.11-12). After providing him hospitality she, too, destroys herself in the sacrificial fire.
By direct intervention, then, or by his mere presence, Rāma, “the one to whom all creatures pay homage,”[Note 106] offers freedom from the miseries of this world. For the holy ascetic and mendicant, there is nothing further to live for
having once experienced him; the darśana of the divine king functions as both the ratification of their holiness and the mechanism of their release. The evil monsters
for their part are cleansed by the royal punishment exacted by Rāma, and so made fit again for heaven. Punishment as a divine institution and instrument of emancipation is standard doctrine
not just for traditional Indian political theology but for Vālmīki himself: “When men who have done evil deeds are punished by the king, they are purified and go to heaven, just like men of
virtue” (4.18.30).[Note 107]
Thus, from the time of the Rājadharma discourse of the Mahābhārata and probably much earlier, the king was widely characterized as a “deity in the form of a man,” a being in which “mankind
and divinity actually meet and combine.”[Note 108] On these grounds alone we might be justified in concluding that the divinity of the hero of the Rāmāyaṇa must have been a central feature of the poem from the beginning. The morphology of the boon motif also compels this conclusion
(and at the same time accounts for the absence of any clear reference to Rāma’s divine nature), since it invariably requires a transcendent fusion of existential categories.[Note 109] Indeed, the extraordinary synthesis here of the numinous and the human — the divine man who is king of men, the human god
— is a particularly brilliant contribution of the Rāmāyaṇa to an old and venerable mythopoetic tradition, which renews the force of this myth by tapping into a vital reservoir of everyday
representations and beliefs concerning kingship.[Note 110]
Gradually, however, the conception of the divine king basic to the story of Rāma was influenced by two factors already mentioned. First, the god Viṣṇu came to be associated — perhaps initially as a result of their functional identity — with the earthly king. Second, in Vaiṣṇava
theological circles there developed the theory of the avatāra, a doctrine of vast absorptive, syncretistic force, which views every manifestation of divine power as testimony to the omnipotence
and immanence of Viṣṇu.[Note 111] These factors have so fundamentally conditioned the transmission of the poem that it cannot be proved on textual grounds
that the composer of the monumental Rāmāyaṇa, from which all versions and recensions of the work derive, was ignorant of or indifferent to the equation of Rāma and Viṣṇu. And there are additional features, narratological and aesthetic, which, far from challenging this equation, make it seem
as “authentic” as any dimension of the poem.
Nevertheless, the hypothetical effects of the appropriation of the text by early Vaiṣṇavism has finally no bearing on the
question of the divine status of Rāma as it was originally conceived, or on our interpretation of the monumental Rāmāyaṇa, which accordingly is obliged to view this status as a constitutive and determinative feature of the poem. How does such
a perception affect our interpretation of the poem in a more global sense?
Let us review the passage in which, in order to convince Rāma to return to Ayodhyā, Bharata argues that even if some people think a king but a mortal, “I esteem him a god. His conduct in matters of righteousness and
statecraft, it is rightly said, is beyond that of mere mortals.” This verse distills what Book Two, the first “movement” of
the poem, goes to such great lengths to exemplify. The Ayodhyākāṇḍa is a profound study in the righteousness of the king and his authority. Rāma possesses these attributes in a measure that only a divine being can.[Note 112] This is also the case with his protective and punitive activities, the exercise of legitimate force, which forms the subject
of Book Three and the rest of the poem.
Here we return to the problem that confronted us at the very beginning of our analysis of the Araṇyakāṇḍa: Are the two halves of the poem really genetically incompatible, one part epic myth, the other romance? Is there any unity
to this work? I suggest that the nature of kingship itself provides the unifying theme and the impulse to explain the “divine”
power of the king as comprehensively as possible. Whether we accept the speculative notion that the forest is the very source
of royal authority, or regard it more as an “extrasocial sphere” where the violence of the kingly warrior could be exhibited,
a realm of artha (or daṇḍa) complementing that of dharma (especially necessary in the idealized world of “Ayodhyā”), the world outside the settled town seems essential in the kingly narrative of power and legitimacy in premodern India.[Note 113] Looking at the Rāmāyaṇa from this perspective, we can regain a sense of the work as a meaningful whole, which Indian audiences have always felt.
What we may have been inclined to view as “romance” elements threatening to shatter this unity serve instead to enlarge the
site of the narrative, so that the full range of the divine king’s activities may be contemplated.
This perspective may also enable us to view in another and more revealing light one of the most startling episodes in the
poem, one that seems to contradict everything we have so far learned about the hero’s character.
5. Rāma’s Madness
The most powerful scene of the Araṇyakāṇḍa — next to Rāvaṇa’s abduction of Sītā — and one of the more problematic of the entire Rāmāyaṇa is Rāma’s madness over the loss of his wife (sargas 58-62, with sargas 50-57 as prelude). The problem in this episode is that the hero contradicts virtually everything the poet, up to this point,
has encouraged us to believe about him.
The whole force of the preceding narrative is directed to creating a character inhabiting an emotional and ethical realm far
removed from that of normal mortals. If there is any single virtue that characterizes the hero’s conduct through the first
two and a half books of the poem, it is his equanimity, a trait deriving from his ability to eliminate all personal concerns
from every social or ethical calculation. In the Ayodhyākāṇḍa Rāma is one who “never grows angry, whatever the insult” (2.36.3); one who would “ignore a hundred injuries, so great was his
self-control” (2.1.16); it is said that “benevolence, compassion, learning, good character, restraint, and equanimity — these
are the six virtues that adorn” Rāma (2.30.12).[Note 114] Yet what we are presented with in this deeply moving passage of the third book negates this hitherto consistently drawn portrait.
This seems less the exploration of another side of his character than a complete reversal.
The Ayodhyākāṇḍa seeks to establish an innovative definition of the dharma, the code of conduct, of kshatriyas: Violence as far as possible is to be eschewed in the realm of sociopolitical action.[Note 115] The Araṇyakāṇḍa shows us a different domain of action where this new valuation of kṣatradharma is not always applicable (the shift in focus from the one book to the next is well illustrated by the exchange between Sītā and Rāma on the bearing of arms in a forest where ascetics make their home, sargas 8-9). In this realm, the ideal king is prepared to subordinate every consideration of personal welfare and safety to the
duty of protecting the brahmanical order of society. In the mad scene, however, both the hero’s earlier convictions in “Ayodhyā” and his single-minded devotion to royal duty in the “Forest” seem to be not only displaced but inverted or rejected.
The descent into madness is described slowly and carefully. Rāma has been drawn away on a distant chase by the rākṣasa Mārīca in the form of a bejeweled deer. When finally slain, Mārīca cries out for help, imitating Rāma’s voice. Lakṣmaṇa, who had been left behind to guard Sītā, is forced by her to go to Rāma’s aid, and with the ashram now unprotected Rāvaṇa abducts the princess. Returning to find the hermitage empty, Rāma scours the surrounding forest for his wife, frantically searching, “wandering like a madman” (58.33), his grief giving him
“the look of a madman” (58.10), questioning the trees of Janasthāna, the elephants, tigers, mountains, rivers. He then discovers the evidence of Jaṭāyus’s fatal struggle against Rāvaṇa (sarga 60), and concludes that Sītā has been slain or stolen away. Our growing suspicion of profound transformation in the hero’s character at this point becomes
a certainty: Rāma now explicitly renounces the political ethics to which he has hitherto so tenaciously held, and implicitly rejects the principal
duty incumbent upon him as king, at the same time crying out in maniacal fury and threatening cosmic destruction:
Since Vaidehī has been devoured or carried off, who in this mortal world — or which god — has thought it possible to injure me? But then,
any creature, Lakṣmaṇa, knowing no better, will despise the man of compassion, however heroic he may be, the very master of the worlds. The thirty
gods themselves must surely think me powerless, because I have been mild, compassionate, and self-restrained, striving for
the welfare of the world. Look how in my case, Lakṣmaṇa, a good has become an evil. But now I will efface it — as the great rising sun effaces the light of the hare-marked moon
— in order to exterminate the rākṣasas and all living things. No yakṣa, gandharva, or piśāca, no rākṣasa, kinnara, or man shall be left in peace, Lakṣmaṇa. Watch now, Lakṣmaṇa, as I fill the sky with missiles and darts, leaving no space whatever for creatures that move about the three worlds. I will
bring the host of planets to a standstill, darken the moon that brings the night, paralyze both fire and wind, blot out the
light of the sun; I will grind the mountain peaks to dust, dry up every body of water, uproot every tree, vine, and shrub,
annihilate the ocean. If the gods do not restore Sītā to me safe and sound this very instant, they shall witness the full extent of my power, Saumitri. Not a single creature, Lakṣmaṇa, shall escape into the sky: The darts shot from my bowstring will form a net without a gap. Behold now, Lakṣmaṇa, the devastation caused by my iron shafts, the birds and beasts driven wild and ravaged, the world plunged into chaos, from
one end to the other. Be-cause of what happened to Maithilī I will shoot my arrows from a full-drawn bow, arrows no one can withstand, and rid this mortal world of all piśācas and rākṣasas. Now the gods shall witness the power of my shafts when I ply them in anger; they shall see how far they carry when, my
patience exhausted, I release them. No god or daitya, no piśāca or rākṣasa shall survive when in my rage I lay waste the universe. The worlds of the gods and dānavas and yakṣas, besides that of the rākṣasas, shall come crashing down one upon the other as my darts fly wave after wave, smashing them to pieces. I will obliterate
the boundaries of all the worlds with my shafts. Like old age or death or time or fate, which no creature has ever defied,
Lakṣmaṇa, so in my rage I cannot be withstood; let no one doubt it. Unless they show me Sītā, the bright-smiling, flawless princess of Mithilā, I will overturn this world, mountains and all, its great serpents and men, its gandharvas and gods.” (60.36-52)
The profound sense of injury expressed here is attributed to precisely the ethical code that had marked the hero’s character
in the previous book. Not only does he seek to exact vengeance on the rākṣasas, but he is prepared to slay “all living things;” from serpents to gods, including men; the whole cosmos is threatened with
annihilation. Besides this startling negation of Rāma’s emblematic self-possession, there is at the same time a terrible violence here — in fact, a terrible “unrighteousness”
(adharma) in him who is the “champion of righteousness” (dharmabhṛtāṃ varaḥ). For the king’s paramount duty is to offer protection, and this is an obligation articulated in Book Three no less than
in the poem as a whole. At the very beginning of the Araṇyakāṇḍa we are told that the king is supposed to be “guardian of righteousness and glorious refuge of his people,” “the protector
of his subjects” (3.1.17, 18). Rāma himself is deeply conscious of this duty:
I may repeat the words you yourself uttered, my lady: “Kshatriyas only bear bows lest any voice be raised in distress.” (3.9.3)
I come as king … to end the life of evildoers and all who wish the world ill. (3.28.10)
Lakṣmaṇa, in an interesting reversal of roles (contrast for instance 2.18-20), recognizes and tries to apprise his brother of the
deviation in his behavior and its unrighteousness:
Anguished and tormented by the abduction of Sītā, Rāma was prepared to annihilate the worlds, like the fire that comes on doomsday. He kept glancing at his taut-strung bow, racked
incessantly with sighs, raging like Rudra himself. … At the sight of such rage in Rāma as he had never seen before, Lakṣmaṇa cupped his hands in reverence and addressed him through a mouth gone dry with fear: You have always been mild in the past,
self-restrained, and dedicated to the welfare of all creatures. Do not abandon your true nature, yielding to rage. The splendor
of the moon, the radiance of the sun, the movement of the wind, the patience of the earth — all this is constant, so too your
incomparable glory. … You must not destroy the worlds because of one single being. Lords of earth must be gentle and cool-headed,
and must mete out just punishment. (3.61.1-9)[Note 116]
If in your sorrow you consume the worlds with your might, tiger among men, where are your subjects to find relief from their
torment? … What good would it do you, bull among men, to cause universal destruction? (3.62.6, 20)
Rāma is calmed, for the time being at least, but the terrific vision of the apocalyptic destruction of which he is capable — as
elemental as time, death, fate — is a stark revelation that remains fixed in the contemporary reader’s consciousness.
This has also been true for traditional Indian audiences. One index of the power this scene (in particular Rāma’s search for Sītā through the woods of Janasthāna, especially sarga 58) has exercised in Indian literary culture is its influence on later Sanskrit literature. The greatest poet of classical
India, Kālidāsa, adapted it for his Vikramorvaśīya (where in act 4 the mad king Purūravas searches frantically through Kumāravana for his beloved, the apsaras Urvaśī), thus inaugurating a series of adaptations in court literature.[Note 117] The most impressive of the popular adaptations is found in the cycle of Kṛṣṇa legends (the gopīs’ wild quest for the lover who has abandoned them). The motif is introduced first in the Viṣṇupurāṇa (5.13.25-41) and then reworked, with brilliant amplification, in the Bhāgavatapurāṇa (10.30).[Note 118]
In addition to helping us gauge the dramatic effect of the Araṇyakāṇḍa episode in court and popular culture, these later adaptations might appear to suggest an interpretation. For what they all
emphasize is that irrational behavior such as Rāma’s in the mad scene is a natural consequence of a deeply felt love that has been brutally denied. In premodern India, the scientific (gastric) discourse on madness — that of medicine, for example, or law — generally views the phenomenon as
physiological in origin (resulting from an imbalance of the humors) or as sheer demonic possession, without, however, denying
that emotional disturbance can play a causal role.[Note 119] It is this last, however, that comes to be regarded as the unique source in medieval literary contexts. For the rhetoricians,
madness is “a mental confusion brought about by passion, grief, fear, and the like.”[Note 120] In fictional representations it is exclusively correlated with the first of these emotions and, in fact, comes to be listed
as an integral stage in the normal progression of thwarted love, which begins in infatuation and, if allowed to run its course,
terminates in death.[Note 121]
Yet there is considerable difficulty in understanding the scene in the Araṇyakāṇḍa primarily on the basis of the medieval etiology of madness in its literary environment. That is to say, it is hard to see
the episode the way its later adapters appear to have done, as an automatic consequence or necessary component of a conventional
aesthetic category, what in Indian aesthetic theory is termed the “dominant affective-aesthetic experience” (rasa) of “love-in-separation” (vipralambhaśṛṅgāra). (Nor is it simply that Rāma has been separated from the woman he loves, whom he has been willing on other occasions to abandon in favor of a higher good;
compare for example 2.31.36.) The contrast here with his earlier behavior, indeed, the fundamental conflict with his paradigmatic
social and moral authority, seems far too sharp to be accommodated by so facile an explanation.
The Indian tradition appears to have acknowledged that the episode was in serious need of interpretation. That offered by
the Bhāgavatapurāṇa (c. tenth century) is viewed as authoritative by the majority of medieval commentators. Accepting as an authentic feature
of the poem Rāma’s status as an avatāra of Viṣṇu, the purāṇa explains, “God’s incarnation as a mortal in this world is not simply for slaying rākṣasas, but is meant to instruct mortals. How else could it be that the Lord, the Self delighting in Himself, should have suffered
so because of Sītā? The Blessed One, Vāsudeva, is the Self … without attachment to anything in the three worlds. He would not [except for the purpose of such instruction]
have experienced that faintheartedness caused by [his attachment to] a woman.”[Note 122] Thus, according to one widespread understanding of the poem, Rāma’s behavior throughout is to be taken as altogether “mimetic”; it is not real, but a representation with explicit didactic
function.[Note 123] The episode of his madness, consequently, is to be viewed as a cautionary tale, as the Bhāgavata itself elsewhere takes pains to spell out: “The basest of rākṣasas came into the woods stealthily, like a wolf, and abducted the princess of Videha. With his brother in the forest [Rāma] acted the part of a wretched man when separated from his beloved, thereby to illustrate what happens to all who are too
much attached to women.[Note 124]
The Bhāgavata’s analysis of this and comparable episodes in the Rāmāyaṇa (as for instance when Rāma is preparing to cross over to Lankā and in a rage threatens to dry up the ocean, 6.14) secured widespread approval in medieval India and is thus an index of at least one domain of indigenous understanding.[Note 125] Far from exhausting the meaning of the scene, however, this interpretation, too, shows signs of expediency, deriving from
an almost palpable puzzlement in the face of a symbolic structure for which nothing in the earlier part of the poem has prepared
If, then, Rāma’s frenzied search, madness, and threats of holocaust present us with more questions than some traditional aesthetic or theological
interpretations can answer, we might ask whether viewing the episode from a less localized cultural-literary perspective could
disclose other, more interesting meanings. Such a wider vantage point is readily available, since the madness of the hero
is a common motif in world literature.[Note 126] In Shakespeare, for example, it is introduced with such remarkable regularity into the career of the protagonist as to appear
almost an essential dramaturgical component.
Like Rāma, Shakespearean heroes pass through a “cycle of change,” including a descent into madness whereby they turn into their own
antithesis. Besides providing intense theatrical experience, madness in Shakespeare can symbolize the terrible dilemma of the tragic hero, as a mark of both the exceptional punishment to which he becomes liable
and the exceptional insight he commands. It also makes available a voice — the speech of the madman — through which the more
acute perception of life possessed by the poet himself, and the possibly dangerous truths to which he has privileged access,
can be expressed with relative impunity.[Note 127]
What we find happening in Shakespearean tragedy and in much of Western literature may also supply the expectations and “prejudgments”
that westerners bring to Vālmīki’s epic. But it should be evident that few of the symbolic features of Western literary madness are applicable to what takes
place in the Araṇyakāṇḍa. The dramatic intensity of the scene is unquestioned, but Vālmīki has secured such intensity elsewhere and in less problematic ways. Rāma does seem to become his own antithesis here; the transformation does occur during the course of the “tragic journey” of the
hero (at once a psychological journey of self-discovery and a geographical one).[Note 128] But this is only to restate the problem, not answer it. Rāma’s madness is certainly no punishment, and it affords him no opportunity to exercise deeper insight. The poet does not take
advantage of the madman’s clearer vision to enunciate any critique.
If comparison between literary cultures offers little help in understanding what Rāma’s madness means in Vālmīki’s epic, we do best to remain as close as possible to Indian presuppositions. Yet the narrow presuppositions of the medieval
interpretations do not take us very far, either. It is here, perhaps, that the central concerns of the epic should guide our
interpretation of its parts. If, in the first instance, the Rāmāyaṇa is an imaginative inquiry into the nature of kingship and the peculiar, transcendent nature of the king, it may be useful
to think of the apparent reversal of Rāma’s character in response to the abduction of his wife as an extension of this concern.
The solution to Rāvaṇa’s boon can be provided only by an intermediate, almost composite being, the “god who walks the earth in the form of a man.”
But if the powers of this being are divine, he nevertheless remains, “in some measure, a man.”[Note 129] The problem of the god-king’s humanity is certainly at issue in one important theme of the poem, the limitation of Rāma’s self-knowledge. The poet follows its ramifications throughout the text and employs it to great advantage in problematizing
the motivation of the hero. At various points in the epic, as we have seen, evidence is given of a divine plan governing the
action of the Rāmāyaṇa, and one very intriguing aspect of this plan is Rāma’s ignorance of it. His conduct in protecting the sages of Daṇḍaka wilderness, which provokes the hostility of the rākṣasas and sets in motion the rest of the action of the tale, is presented as his own free choice, a righteous and heroic king’s
response to violence and evil, and one that he did not know could not fail in its purpose. Consequently, when Rāma asserts near the end of the sixth book, “I, a man, have overcome the adversity brought on by fate. … What a man could do,
Sītā, all that he could do, I have done” (6.103.5, 13), the irony affecting much of the poem strains to the breaking point.
In the same way, this irreducible humanity of the king could impinge on Rāma’s emotional response to life in general and be at work in the poet’s creation of the episode of madness. Kings, we are perhaps
being told, may participate in a divine realm by reason of their preternatural mode of being, and by what this directly entails,
their transcendent knowledge of and power to maintain dharma. But they are not altogether alien to us; they feel desire and need love, and when this is denied them they are hurt, grow
wrathful and finally mad, like the most wretched of mortals. By this narrative argument kingship and the king recover a human
There may be some validity to this interpretation, and indeed to some of the others, indigenous and comparative, that we have
examined. We should be reluctant to dismiss any of them entirely, resisting all impulse to secure the single “correct” reading,
since, as so much recent scholarship reminds us, no such thing really exists.[Note 131] I am offering this interpretation only as a counterpoint to another one, also based on the central problem of the nature
of the king, that I find to be more compelling.
We have observed that the unique nature of the earthly king is frequently explained by a doctrine well known to the Rāmāyaṇa tradition, too: The king is a synthesis of various divine powers. He not only is “a fourth part Indra himself” (3.1.18), but also incorporates the essential characteristics of each of the principal gods. “The power of kings
is infinite,” according to one formulation in the Rāmāyaṇa itself, “they are able to take on any of five different forms: They can he hot like Agni, god of fire, bold like Indra, or mild like the Moon; they can exact punishment like Yama, or be gracious like Varuṇa” (3.38.12). These are not to be thought of simply as shared characteristics, much less mere figures of speech, but as equivalences
or, better, substantival identities. In the appropriate circumstances the terrestrial king literally becomes the one or the
other god. This very prevalent tenet of Indian political theology offers another way of thinking about this problematic episode.[Note 132] A passage again from that central text on kingship of the epic period, the Rājadharma section of the Mahābhārata, brings out the pertinence to our scene of the transformations of the god-king. One verse especially merits close attention:
When evil beings commit egregious evil, then this god [that is, the king] becomes Rudra himself: By their evil acts, evil beings turn him into Rudra, and then he harms all, good and bad alike.[Note 133]
Some portion of the meaning of our scene in the Araṇyakāṇḍa may be to suggest that, under the compulsion of Rāvaṇa’s “egregious evil,” Rāma has become Rudra-Śiva. Like his prototype, the dread god of the forest and death, Rāma has gone mad, and like him he is bent on, and capable of, cosmic destruction.[Note 134] The specific catalyst of the god-man’s madness may be that which affects normal mortals; it may be that the undifferentiated
aggression arising from the frustration of his desire is like that of any mortal, as is the tendency of the victim of violence
to commit violence himself.[Note 135] But what I think brings us to the heart of the scene lies rather in the quality and dimension of the king’s destructive power
when his will is thwarted. We have seen the Rājadharma warn about this power and the larger causes that trigger it:
A man who acts in opposition to the king never gains happiness, neither he himself nor anyone close to him — son, brother,
friend. Even when driven onward by the wind, its charioteer, fire might leave something in its wake; but to the one who thwarts
the king nothing whatever will be left. All that the king owns is to be preserved as his; keep your distance from it. Taking
something of his should be seen to be as fraught with terror as death itself; touch it and you perish.
Like a very god the king when gratified fulfills your every need, and when angered, like a very fire he destroys you, root
and branch.[Note 136]
From this perspective, Rāma’s madness seems less an anomaly or deviation whereby the hero approaches his opposite than a “natural” manifestation of those
violent and destructive capacities inherent in him as king, which have hitherto lain dormant and, in a sense, like fiery pralaya itself — final cosmic destruction — are above (or a part of a superordinated) dharma. “In the exercise of kingship,” according to one recent study, “there is a dimension of violence, of destructiveness, and
impurity, which in the Mahābhārata makes Śiva’s intervention necessary. … Rudra-Śiva … expresses what one might call the dimension of terror (raudra) of the king or kingly avatāra.[Note 137] In the Rāmāyaṇa, Śiva seems to be made manifest in the person of the divine king, who incorporates this particular god’s essence no less than those
of other, more benign, divine powers.
Much of the Araṇyakāṇḍa seems to be enacted under the very banner of Rudra. We have already noticed once how Rāma is compared to the terrifying divinity; this rhetorical signal, absent from the preceding volumes, now becomes frequent.[Note 138] Moreover, throughout the book the rasa shifts repeatedly back to raudra, the “terrible,” the presiding deity of which, as our earliest systematic work on aesthetics tells us, is Rudra.[Note 139] And it is the terrible, destructive aspect of the god that will predominate in Rāma for the rest of the poem, until his purpose is achieved with the death of Rāvaṇa.
The interpretation of Rāma’s madness as a manifestation of the transcendent cosmic violence of the earthly king reveals coherence in an otherwise incoherent
image. On this analysis, too, the ideological interests of the “Forest” are again seen to construe broadly with those so insistently
presented in the more familiar sociopolitical universe of “Ayodhyā.[Note 140] They now appear to be indissolubly linked with a political theology sustained by the notion of a triune godhead to be fully
developed in classical Hinduism: The power of a king is infinite indeed, and as easily as he can preserve the world, he can,
if provoked, destroy it.
6. Rākṣasas and Others
The Araṇyakāṇḍa presents interpretive problems that, so far, have been best addressed by a “mythic” reading of the narrative. This derives
largely from the Indian tradition itself — from the political theology of premodern India — and from more general ideological functions of literary production. But Vālmīki is not only concerned with kingship and the king’s mysterious nature and activity as a “consubstantial” god-man. The fantastic
creatures, for example, the rākṣasas and others that we encounter for the first time in the Araṇyakāṇḍa and that occupy the center of attention for much of the rest of the poem, have little to do in themselves with the larger
theme of kingship and seem less easily accommodated by the interpretive strategies used so far. Whereas conceptions of kingship
are culture-specific and so require considerable effort on the part of outsiders to understand, the monstrous presences may
seem more familiar to westerners. To some extent they do fit into a pattern of signification known to Western imaginative
literature. But they also offer a specific vision of the Other in traditional India, and that is what makes them uniquely interesting to us.
The “city” hooks of both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata develop in strikingly similar ways.[Note 141] And it is precisely these many similarities that make the particular divergences so intriguing. One of the salient differences
between the two narratives concerns the outrage perpetrated against the heroine. In the Mahābhārata, Draupadī is dragged half naked into the assembly hall by her husbands’ ”brothers”; the outrage is virtually a public one, its location
eloquently symbolic of the intense political struggle between the two sets of claimants to the throne; and the perpetrators
are the kinsmen of the Pāṇḍavas and all too human as antagonists. Everything from context to antagonist serves to sharpen the political reference of the
The parallel event in the Rāmāyaṇa is Rāvaṇa’s abduction of Sītā. Here, however, the outrage is for all purposes a private one; it occurs in the forest with only the trees, streams, mountains,
and animals of Janasthāna to witness it. As if by design it is empty of the localized political content that pervades the scene in the other epic.
This narrative alteration seems in keeping with the focus of the poem — kingship as cosmically envisioned, as it were, sub specie aeternitatis and with none of the Mahābhārata’s insistent specificity. Finally, and most important, the antagonist is not only not a political rival of Rāma’s (the idealized world of Ayodhyā neither permits nor acknowledges the existence of any rival that could provoke the desperate, self-destructive political
response of the Mahābhārata) but hardly belongs to the same biological order as the hero.
We have seen that, by the morphology of much of the story, it is easy and necessary to assimilate Rāvaṇa into a venerable line of demonic antagonists (Hiraṇyakaśipu and the rest), and that consequently he often seems to represent the power of cosmic evil incarnate. But this transcendence
is far from constant, and certainly what Rāvaṇa signifies seems much richer and more complex than any such cosmic status would allow. This is true in general of the rākṣasas that so thickly inhabit the world of the “Forest” and the Rāmāyaṇa as a whole. They are such striking and enigmatic creatures that we cannot help asking who they can be and what meanings they
These questions have been posed often in the past, and Grierson’s remark typifies the answer still usually given: “Most people admit that behind the mythical Rakṣasas and Asuras, there were memories of, or allusions to, very real personalities [that is, “human beings obnoxious to the authors of the
passages in which their names occur”]. … Rakṣasas have often been identified with this or that aboriginal tribe, and no one has ever objected to this on principle.”[Note 142] The predilection for historicizing the monstrous beings of epic (and vedic) texts in this manner is widely shared, and if
scholars have mostly been too circumspect to frame specific equations, a number of possible identifications have nonetheless
been offered.[Note 143] Thus rākṣasas have been viewed as cannibals, primitive cave-dwellers, theriomorphic shamans, masked dancers in totemic rites of a sort
still found among the Gond and other tribes, or historical ethnic groups whose descendants still bear cognate names (for instance, several subtribes
and subcastes in modern Bihar).[Note 144] They have even been identified — here we find a specific equivalence, which has secured a measure of Indological notoriety
for the very disdain with which it was greeted — with the Sinhalese Buddhists, the opponents and finally victims of a hegemonic
Brahmanism, represented in this rigid allegory by Rāma.[Note 145]
Perhaps, as Grierson asserts, this mode of historicization is not in principle objectionable. After all, people do make their fictions out of
their facts and treasure their stories because they help make comprehensible their own histories. There is also evidence that
Indians like anyone else are prone to interpret their stories in historicizing ways. For the more xenophobic of the late medieval
commentators on the Rāmāyaṇa, for instance, the rākṣasas of the Kali Age are Muslims; the representations of the epic miniaturists are largely demonizations of various tribal peoples.[Note 146] The problem with this perspective, however, is that it obstructs any view of what the rākṣasas might signify in the imaginative world of the epic poem itself. To explore this, narrow historical constraints seem out
of line; whether or not the rākṣasas ever had concrete, local identity, this is not what interested the composer of the monumental Rāmāyaṇa. Attempting to recover that sort of historical specificity, consequently, is one of the least interesting and productive
of the critical operations we can undertake.
Though by abandoning the search for concrete referentiality beyond the text, we are not abandoning the task — the essential
task, in my view — of historicization. What these creatures represent or refer to within the confines of the poem still has
an irreducible portion of historicity — but it is the historicity of a mentality. It is as generalized imaginative representations,
large symbolic responses to important human problems, that the rākṣasas may yield their richest signification. And what are these, after all, but the responses and representations of specific
historical people, the traditional Indians who created and experienced the Rāmāyaṇa, as a way of interpreting their problematic historical world.
Rākṣasas are not the only fabulous creatures we confront in the “Forest”; the entire epic from the end of Ayodhyākāṇḍa through the Yuddhakāṇḍa takes place in regions inhabited by creatures fundamentally alien to the city of Ayodhyā. As if mapping out the boundaries of the expanded, extra-human domain of the narrative that begins with the Araṇyakāṇḍa, the poet frames the book with symmetrical episodes in which the hero confronts the monstrous, first in the person of Virādha (sargas 2-3) and later of Kabandha (65-69). These two incidents point up variations in the poet’s representation of the fantastic that help us distinguish some
instructive traits marking the rākṣasas.
Both Virādha and Kabandha are, with epic imprecision, called rākṣasas, but what among other things differentiates them from rākṣasas is that they live permanently in the forest, alone and without community.[Note 147] Moreover, they are each locked into a physical form that provides a graphic objective correlative of their geographical and
sociological marginalization. First Virādha:
And there, in the heart of the forest that teemed with ferocious animals, Kākutstha beheld, towering before him like a mountain peak, a roaring, man-eating monster. Sunken-eyed, huge-mouthed, his belly deformed,
he was massive, loathsome. deformed, gigantic, monstrous, a terror to behold: clad in a tiger skin dripping with grease and
spattered with blood, as terrifying to all creatures as Death with jaws agape. On an iron pike he held impaled three lions,
four tigers, two wolves, ten dappled antelopes, and the massive head of an elephant, complete with tusks, and smeared with
gore. And he was roaring deafeningly. (3.2.4-8)
And then Kabandha:
As they carried on their relentless search through the entire forest, a tremendous noise broke out that seemed to shatter
the forest. The deep wood seemed altogether enveloped in wind; the noise coming from the forest seemed to fill the heavens.
Seeking the source of the noise, Rāma and his younger brother came upon a mammoth, huge-chested rākṣasa in a thicket. The two of them drew near and there, facing them, stood the giant Kabandha, a creature without head or neck, his face set in his belly. The hair on his body was bushy and wiry, he towered before them
like a mountain, a savage creature like a black storm cloud and with a voice like thunder. And in his chest, darting glances,
thick-lashed, tawny, prodigious, wide, and terrible, was a single eye. Ravenously licking his massive lips and massive fangs,
he was devouring tremendous apes and lions, elephants and deer. Contorting his two dreadful arms, each one of them a league
in length, he would seize all sorts of animals in his hands — apes, deer, flocks of birds. He pulled in countless animals
and pulled them apart limb from limb as he stood there blocking the path the two brothers were taking. (3.65.12-20)
The unchangeable physical deformity of these two creatures is an index of their moral deformity. The symbolic concomitance
between physical and moral qualities has already made itself felt on several occasions in the Ayodhyākāṇḍa: in the malevolent servant Mantharā, who is wicked and ugly; in Sītā, who is good and beautiful; in Kaikeyī, who is beautiful and corruptible, and thus powerfully ambivalent. We shall encounter it again in the polymorphic ambiguity
of the rākṣasas of Lankā.[Note 148] The life histories of the two monsters make this relationship clear. Both are in reality celestial (and relatively benign)
beings who were cursed to enter monstrous bodies as a consequence of moral transgression.[Note 149]
Virādha and Kabandha can easily be compared with other fantastic creatures familiar from Weltmärchen. Kabandha in particular recalls the first monster in European literature, the one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus, a devourer of men, who
did not range with others, but stayed away by himself; his mind was lawless,
Or consider the later monsters of Pliny, the Blemmyae, notably, that for millennia have fascinated westerners — Shakespeare, for example, whose Othello describes them as “men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (1.iii.144-45). To a large extent creatures like Virādha and Kabandha seemed to have functioned for traditional Indians as the Plinian monsters for Romans and later Europeans. The Sanskrit epic
poet tells of the monstrous races in the unexplored, exotic lands to the south precisely as Pliny writes of those in North Africa and “Ethiopia” (indeed, of the “Bragmanni” themselves). The fascination such creatures hold for both is evident. Their appeal is based on such things as “fantasy,
escapism, delight in the exercise of the imagination, and — very important — fear of the unknown:”[Note 150] The religious-ethical dimension of the monsters of the European Middle Ages is also coded in the Indian epic species: Their
appearance and behavior result from transgressions committed in a previous embodiment: their existence is literally a curse.
They are fallen creatures who, as I suggested earlier, can be liberated only by the spiritual sword wielded by the god-king
Several of these traits and a somewhat comparable “appeal” are possessed by Rāvaṇa and the other rākṣasas.[Note 152] But they diverge in a number of crucial respects. The rākṣasas of Lankā may also inhabit a region at great remove from the human; their island-fortress is situated at the edge of the geographical
— and moral — world of traditional Indians. But this is not exactly the antiworld usually associated with monsters.
The land of the rākṣasas is in many respects a carbon copy of Ayodhyā itself. The description of their city — its layout, architecture, palaces, and mansions — which is given in vivid and often
luxuriant detail, could as easily be applied to Rāma’s: Like Ayodhyā it is “as grand as Amarāvatī,” the city of Indra, “equal to the city of the gods in heaven,” a “happy and delighted city.”[Note 153] Admittedly cities in Sanskrit texts are regularly described in such ways.[Note 154] What is noteworthy is that the poet felt no compulsion to deviate from the formula in the case of the rākṣasas. Similarly, their social organization seems indistinguishable from that of Ayodhyā. The same holds true in the political sphere, which has all the distinctive features of the traditional Indian polity, with
monarchical sovereign, ministerial apparatus, and all the rest. Even the most pronounced aberration from the world of Ayodhyā, the tyranny of the king, seems a peculiarly human excess. In the domain of religious life, we find a close — if sometimes
inverted — approximation to brahmanical society: There exist, for example, brahma-rākṣasas, who know the vedas and vedāṅgas, and who perform sacrifices.[Note 155]
Unlike the monsters of the forest, then, the rākṣasas of Lankā inhabit a sociopolitical domain fully comparable to that of the human community of Ayodhyā and familiar to the poem’s audiences at large.[Note 156] The significance of this sociopolitical normality can be gauged when we try to be precise about what constitutes the “otherness”
of the creatures. Among the key factors of this status — diet, speech, clothing, weapons, customs, and social organization
— only the first shows deviation in the case of the rākṣasas (they eat human beings).[Note 157] The large pool of signs of recognizability, in addition to the existence of several good rākṣasas capable of responsible moral choice (Vibhīṣaṇa, Trijaṭā, and others), serves almost to humanize these creatures. The consequence of this, however, is only to make them more threatening,
and their deviations from the human all the more frightening and expressive, because all the more imaginable.
Among the more significant if obvious deviations is the violence of the rākṣasas. The ferocity of Virādha and Kabandha may first come to mind, but rākṣasa violence does not have the brute, blind, and feral quality of the two monsters. On the contrary, the violence of rākṣasas is in large part informed with elements of mind with hatred. We find it directed specifically against those who in the traditional
elite view represent the fundamental values of the ethical-religious domain and preserve this domain and the cosmic order
that depends upon it by means of their sacred rites — namely, the brahmans.[Note 158] The specter of this violence haunts the poem from the end of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa:[Note 159]
The rākṣasas have been molesting the ascetics. They show themselves in every form of deformation, loathsome, savage, and terrifying forms,
a horror to behold. Enemies of all that is noble, they defile some ascetics with unspeakable impurities and strike terror
into others by suddenly appearing before them. Stealthily they prowl the ashram sites, one after the other, and take a mad
delight in harassing the ascetics. They scatter the ladles and the other sacrificial implements; they douse the fires with
water and break the vessels when the oblations are under way. (2.108.13-17)
In the “Forest” their depredations are described considerably more horrifically: We find brahman ascetics being brutally tormented
by the rākṣasas, the many corpses of those whom they have killed in every way imaginable lying about, and so on (3.5.14ff.).[Note 160] In the Araṇyakāṇḍa this violence is directed at the brahmans’ protector, Rāma. The first third of the book is dominated by the attack of the “eaters of raw flesh” on the prince and his wife, and the
image of the vengeful Śūrpaṇakhā lusting to drink their “foaming blood” as they lie dead on the field of battle.[Note 161]
A second notable deviation from the humans they so closely resemble (and from Virādha and Kabandha, too) is the deeply ambiguous physical nature of the rākṣasas. They are the most labile creatures, formulaically described (curiously enough, like the monkeys that appear later in the
poem) by the epithet kāmarūpin, “able to take on any form at will.” Monsters like Virādha and Kabandha are trapped within their horrific bodies; only marginally less so are human beings, for it requires superhuman perseverance
to tap the transformative power of asceticism and so transcend the embodied state (as only a rare sage like Śarabhaṅga can do, sarga 4). Rākṣasas, by contrast, have the natural ability to change their form whenever they wish: Vātāpi could become a sacrificial ram (3.10.53ff.; 41.39-42), Mārīca a golden deer dappled with brilliant gems (sargas 40-42), or Rāvaṇa a brahman (sargas 44-47). “Māyā is a power inherent in rākṣasas,” says the Mahābhārata, “their age and form are whatever they want them to be” (6.86.60).
The metamorphic power of the rākṣasas no doubt introduces an important element of suspense and drama into the tale. The possibility that one’s interlocutor may
not be what one believes him to be is profoundly disturbing. But the mystery of metamorphosis is a substantial theme in the
Rāmāyaṇa as a whole, reaching beyond the rākṣasas perhaps to the heart of the poem, if there is any truth to the suggestion that the peculiar nature of the god-king underlies
the narrative. For one thing, gods like demons have the natural ability to metamorphose.[Note 162] For another, an avatāra (even in the relatively unelaborated form of the god-king) is by definition delusive; on top of this, the god-king consists
of portions of many gods, any one of them — for instance, Rudra — able to become dominant at any time. It is probably appropriate and necessary, then, to include the hero himself as an
essential component in this theme.
Vālmīki has substantially enriched the common epic motif of demonic transfiguration and intensified the features that make the rākṣasas the fascinating and terrifying beings they are. In the case of Rāvaṇa, the motif of the sham ascetic, which becomes common in later Hindu fiction, can sustain a variety of interpretations.[Note 163] It can function, as it often does elsewhere, as little more than a banal ethical admonition (“evil can masquerade as good,”
for example, as Lakṣmaṇa says to Rāma in Book Two, “There are cunning people who wear the guise of righteousness,” 2.20.8). Or, again, it may result from sheer
dramaturgical necessity. The only way Sītā can readily converse with Rāvaṇa is if he appears as a character that, in the Indian context, will not compromise her: the guest who visits her is a brahman
(not a handsome young kshatriya) who might curse her should she refuse him.[Note 164] She therefore admits Rāvaṇa into the leaf hut and speaks with him — for it is in such dramatic artifice that fiction lives. And the transformation of
the rākṣasa back into his “true” form is unquestionably spectacular drama:
Then suddenly Rāvaṇa, younger brother to Vaiśravaṇa, abandoned the kindly form of beggar and assumed his true shape, one such as Doom itself must have. With eyes flaming bright
red, with earrings of burnished gold, with bow and arrows, he became once more the majestic ten-faced stalker of the night.
He had thrown off the guise of mendicant and assumed his own form again, the colossal shape of Rāvaṇa. … With his long arms and sharp fangs he resembled a mountain peak; seeing him advancing like Death himself, the spirits
of the forest fled overpowered by fear. (3.47.6-8, 17)
But beyond the dramatic and ethical dimensions, there is a pronounced and significant strain of irony here. Not only are brahman
ascetics the primary target of rākṣasa violence (3.5.20), which makes Rāvaṇa’s adopting such a disguise especially despicable, but in addition, the renouncer with his rigorous sexual self-control embodies
an ethos fundamentally antithetical to Rāvaṇa. For we shall find that in his “real” nature Rāvaṇa is not only the colossal many-limbed monster but also the exquisite lover.
The other rākṣasas of the Rāmāyaṇa exercise their transformative powers less frequently; they are generally pictured as embodiments of absolute terror, bearing
only faint traces of physical likeness to humans (thus Triśiras the “Three-Headed” and other warriors in Khara’s army, or the demons that guard Sītā in the aśoka grove, sarga 54). This is unremarkable except in the case of Śūrpaṇakhā. It is a nearly invariable motif in Sanskrit literature that female rākṣasas assume forms of stunning beauty to seduce men (as Hiḍimbā, to cite an instructive parallel, does in the Mahābhārata story recounted below). Śūrpaṇakhā tells us herself that as a rākṣasa woman she can take on any form at will (16.18), yet she appears before Rāma in her horrific shape:
Rāma was handsome, the rākṣasa woman was ugly, he was shapely and slim of waist, she misshapen and potbellied; his eyes were large, hers were beady, his
hair was jet black, and hers the color of copper; he always said just the right thing and in a sweet voice, her words were
sinister and her voice struck terror; he was young, attractive, and well mannered, she ill mannered, repellent, an old hag.
And yet, the god of love, who comes to life in our bodies, had taken possession of her. (3.16.8-10)
In view of the literary convention, it is puzzling that the rākṣasa woman should retain her real form here.[Note 165] Although this provides undeniable, albeit cruel, humor, it borders on the absurd. The poet has taken something of a risk,
which the overall sexual-political orientation of the poem may help us understand.
The feature of rākṣasa otherness that, next to violence, most decidedly excludes them from the human universe of Vālmīki’s poem is their intemperate and aggressive sexuality, something associated with them from the time of their earliest appearance
in Indian literature.[Note 166] This is a dominant characteristic of the rākṣasas from their first appearance in the Araṇyakāṇḍa and supplies the principal motivation for the book’s two principal — and very symmetrical — events, Śūrpaṇakhā’s attempted seduction of Rāma and Rāvaṇa’s abduction of Sītā.
The unrestrained sexuality of the rākṣasas (to which their metamorphic powers are a useful adjunct) is repeatedly emphasized throughout the poem. The whole care of
the rākṣasas, we are told, is “to master the sports of lovemaking” (3.36.20). Though Śūrpaṇakhā clearly needs considerable practice in these sports, her attempt to seduce first Rāma and then Lakṣmaṇa (sargas 16 and 17) discloses an assertive sexuality that recognizes no restraints of family ties (“I am prepared to defy them all
[her brothers], Rāma, for I have never seen anyone like you,” 16.21), or of shame in general, as is pointedly asserted later in the epic (6.82.6ff.).
And she is punished by Rāma not so much in accordance with a primal urge toward “the unsexing of the bad mother,” much less as “an act of apparently
senseless violence,” but because it is Rāma’s duty as king to exact punishment in general, and specifically punishment for infringement of the sexual code.[Note 167]
This is a harsh sexual-political message in itself, even more so when juxtaposed to other similar epic narratives. A parallel
incident in the Mahābhārata, the Hiḍimbavadhaparva (1.139-43), for instance, affords a provocative contrast. The rākṣasa Hiḍimba catches the scent of the Pāṇḍavas while they are asleep in the wilderness during their forest exile. His sister Hiḍimbā is sent to bring back their flesh for him to eat, but she is smitten with love the moment she sees Bhīma, who is standing guard. She refuses to do her brother’s bidding, takes on the seductive form of a beautiful woman, and forthrightly
and unashamedly confesses to Bhīma her infatuation (“ ‘We shall dwell forevermore in the mountain fastnesses — be my husband,’ she exclaimed, compelled by the
bodiless god that moves within our bodies”).[Note 168] Hiḍimba comes to investigate and finds his sister, and in response to his reproaches, Bhīma argues in support of the rākṣasa woman’s romantic love for him. After killing Hiḍimba, Bhīma is ready — or at least pretends he is ready — to slay the sister as well. She appeals to Kuntī and Yudhiṣṭhira, claiming that she has abandoned her loved ones, her people, and her svadharma for Bhīma. Yudhiṣṭhira allows the two to marry, although they are permitted to make love only during the day: Bhīma must return every night. The two share an idyllic love, until the narrative gently removes Hiḍimbā from the scene.
The basic plan of the episode is comparable with the Śūrpaṇakhā scene of the Araṇyakāṇḍa; the two narratives agree even in several verbal details. But the attitude toward the rākṣasa women is radically different: Hiḍimbā is not only regarded as a possible mate for Bhīma but, after what appears to be a blissful romance, actually bears him a son, whom he grows to love dearly (and who will die
fighting on his father’s side in the Bharata war).
The differences in the treatment of the theme reflect a deeper disagreement in the two epics about the social constraints
on sexual relations. The male fantasy of the fairy bride, as the Mahābhārata presents it, is stripped of all its gratification in the Rāmāyaṇa: here Śūrpaṇakhā is as if transmuted into the churel, the succubus of the Indian male’s nightmare world, who threatens him with death through sexual depletion and must therefore
be suppressed.[Note 169] The details of an interpretation along these lines are certainly debatable, but it seems unlikely we can avoid the general
conclusion that such narratives are aesthetically processing a fundamental male fantasy, and in very different ways.
Rāvaṇa’s abduction of Sītā, too, fits into this category. It is allegedly undertaken in revenge for Khara’s death.[Note 170] But it is quickly shown to be devoid of any but sexual significance. The fires of lust are lit in the rākṣasa when Śūrpaṇakhā first describes Sītā to him:
Rāma has a lawful wife named Sītā, princess of Videha. And what a glorious woman she is, with her large eyes, slender waist, and full hips. No goddess, no gandharva woman, no yakṣa or kinnara woman, no mortal woman so beautiful have I ever seen before on the face of this earth. He who claims Sītā as wife and receives her delighted embraces has more reason to live than anyone else in all the worlds, the breaker of fortresses,
Indra himself, included. She is a woman of good character, with a form beyond all praise, a beauty unequaled on earth. She would
make a perfect wife for you, and you a perfect husband for her. How broad her hips, how full and high her breasts, how lovely
her face. Why, I all but brought her back to be your wife. The moment you saw Vaidehī’s full-moon face, you would find yourself at the mercy of the arrows of Manmatha, god of love. (3.32.14-20)
Rāvaṇa resolves at once to abduct her, as he has abducted any number of women, human and divine (33.3; cf. 45.24, 7.24.1ff.).
Later in the poem, however, we are told that the women in Rāvaṇa’s harem — the daughters of royal seers, of the pitṛs, daityas, gandharvas, rākṣasas — are present not just because they were physically abducted but also because they were enchanted by Rāvaṇa’s charms and now love no one but him (5.7.66). Elsewhere in the same book the king of rākṣasas is discovered resting after making love with the women of his harem: he is lounging on a sheepskin-covered couch, strewn
with flowers, perfumed with incense, fanned with rare yak-tail fans; he is dark, with flashing earrings, clothed in silvery
clothing, anointed with precious sandalwood cream. “He is extraordinarily handsome, he who could take on any form at will”
(surūpaṃ kāmarūpinam), so much so that Hanumān watching him says to himself, “What beauty, what fortitude, what strength and splendor. … Had the mighty lord of rākṣasas not been unrighteous, he would instead have justly been made protector [rakṣitṛ] of the world of the gods, Śakra included” (5.47.17).
Like Milton’s Satan, Rāvaṇa has to be endowed with substantial “merit,” since great evil presupposes the perversion of great virtues. But also like the
representations of the devil in Western literature, with whom desire is ever present, Rāvaṇa’s sexuality and seductiveness are a fundamentally dominant trait.[Note 171] What the rākṣasas in general seem largely to signify is the very antithesis of the sexual canons — so strict, and at times so bloodless, with
an almost strident insistence on monogamy — of the Rāmāyaṇa.[Note 172] If this is not already perceptible in the Araṇyakāṇḍa, it becomes transparent later in the epic, especially in Book Five. There we are shown the private life of the rākṣasas, a continuous orgy of drink, food, and lovemaking. The poet dwells on the evidence of their luxurious dissipation with the
evident satisfaction of a skillful artist manipulating the most illicit fantasies of his audience.[Note 173]
When we ask who, then, the rākṣasas are and what they mean in the Rāmāyaṇa, we are presented with a number of possibilities. Certainly they have a dimension that is more or less universal. Beyond
the sheer satanic, they seem to channel fear of the foreign — of what is different though shockingly recognizable — and specifically
that “ancient fear that ‘they’ will take away ‘our’ women.”[Note 174] Sexual theft of the rākṣasa sort could be viewed, thus, as a metaphor for interracial strife (mixed with a deep anxiety about the limits of exogamy,
for which a creature like Rāvaṇa represents an extreme). In Indian literary imagination, too, the foreign may easily have been transmuted into the monstrous.[Note 175]
The objects of this transmutation resist localization and chronological fixity. Of any original racial, ethnic, or geographical
specificity, none remains in the Rāmāyaṇa. Their one reality seems to be that of fantasized aliens, who are both feared and desired, threatening mortal danger at the
same time that they attract with an extraordinary, unsocializable sexuality, and whose very otherness is the source of both
the fascination and the repulsion.
Fascination and repulsion, however, are always responses to categories of our own construction, brought to bear on objects
of our own construction. If the fantastic in literature concerns the relation of man with his desire, these remain historical
men and women, with, so to speak, historical desires.[Note 176] And it is herein that we encounter the cultural specificity and, in a general sense, historicality of the rākṣasas. They are the imaginative product of the confrontation of traditional Indians with their particular forms of desire — in
its two primary forms, libidinal and aggressive — representing all that traditional Indians most desired and most feared.
Rākṣasas are creatures polluted by violence, blood, and carnivorous filth, who kill and eat those they kill and, what is maybe worse,
threaten the very foundation of human life, the brahmans who maintain the cosmologically essential sacrifice (and perhaps
by reason of their very privilege and power provide a focal point for aggression). At the same time, in their libidinized
forms, they enact the deepest sexual urges — total abandonment to pleasure, as well as absolute autonomy and power in gratifying
lust. Since they are broadly humanized in so many features, their deviance in others becomes not only a scandal but also a
risk: Enacting the repressed desire, and perhaps rage, of the traditional Indian, they are what he might become were the barrier
of conscience — or that of fear inspired by the dark shadow of royal punishment — eliminated.[Note 177] From this perspective, we may see the rākṣasa as an index of traditional Indian primal terror and desire, objectified together in a single symbolic form.