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How do the varying interpretations of dharma become a technique of persuading the readers and other characters that Vali's death was justified/not justified?

I felt that in a large number of scenes throughout the Ramayana, there arose a conflict due to the varying interpretations of dharma. Each individual character seemed to believe in a different definition of dharma, that I found intriguing. Through this question, I hope to explore how these differing interpretation affect the actions of the characters. Also, what struck me as rather odd was that in all situations, Rama seemed to be the one whose dharma was accepted by all the other characters. However, was his action of killing Vali justified by his dharma? Perhaps, the scenes of Vali’s death was the only scene wherein I felt that another character had managed to convince me more due to his dharma, than Rama’s dharma.

In the scene of Vali’s death, there are many arguments that show the conflict between dharma. The words are strong and the emotions that are noted in this scene are very powerful. I felt that while reading this scene, I was able to appreciate the power that dharma has over a character. There were instances where I felt myself being convinced my Vali rather than Rama in terms of their dharma. This is why I felt that this question would help me understand and analyse the role that dharma plays in the poem.

Revised Question

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1. Sita and Rama are both initially enraptured by the sight of the deer, despite it being an illusion. However, Laksmana is unconvinced. Why isn't everyone persuaded of the reality of the deer? What roles do sensory perception vs. logical reasoning play here, and why is this contrast significant? (p270-p271, Sattar translation)

I think this passage can shed a lot of light on the theme of appearances vs. reality in the Ramayana - something which is both pervasive and problematic in the text. The appearances of characters in this story are often elaborated to the extreme, and are usually strongly linked to how morally sound a character is perceived to be. I think this passage is interesting because it is one of the only cases where a character's exterior is actually deceptive and inconsistent with their true morality. This question will allow me to delve deeper into the meaning of deception: since truth is valued so highly in this story, when this is violated we can observe an interesting chain of events. There are also instances of characters giving and receiving advice/persuasion in this passage, which I will touch on to highlight the power of argument in the Ramayana - another pervasive theme.

Thus this question allows me to analyse the meaning of disguise, and whether characters are susceptible to deception or not. I will be able to analyse the differing reactions of Rama, Sita and Laksmana to the deer, reflect on why they are/are not convinced, and examine why this might be. I will also be able to analyse how Laksmana reasons out his suspicion to the others, and why they do not heed his advice. I will break down Sita's methods of convincing Rama to kill the deer for her, and how she is used as a justification for its capture. Ultimately, I will be able to investigate the potency of sensory perception, contrast this with the logic-driven argument that Laksmana presents, and examine the outcome of this conflict.

 

revised question

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1. Sita says to Hanuman: “You are capable of doing all this by yourself, but then, you would gain the fruits of this success. But it would be appropriate if Rama were to defeat Ravana and all his armies in war and take me back to his own city, if he were to conquer Lanka and take me away himself. That would be worthy of a hero such as Rama! You should ensure that Rama can do all this himself!” (Sattar, 467). Sita seems to suggest only Rama should complete the rescue, even though Hanuman could have done it. Why, and what is the significance?

In attempting to answer this question, we may be able to glean further insights into some of the central issues of the text. One such issue is the role of monkeys in the text, especially the relationship between men and monkeys. In particular, it explores the disjoint and imbalance between the two types of beings in terms of power, skills and abilities, and authority or place in the natural order and hierarchy of things within the world of The Ramayana. The question may also deepen our understanding of the nature of dharma, and how it necessitates decisions that may seem counterintuitive to us, but could well be accepted as what is both natural and moral in the text.

A close reading of the episode highlights for us subtle nuances in the attitudes of the characters, which in turn shed light on or help us define the issues identified in the question. For example, the choice of the word “appropriate” used by Sita may suggest the influence of dharma in how she arrives at the conclusion that Rama needs to be the one to rescue her. Similarly, her tone of voice is somewhat commanding when she speaks to Hanuman - “You should…” - which may suggest something about the nature of the monkey-man relationship. The way the characters’ words are presented are also significant to answering the question. Sita’s words are called “wise and sensible” for example, which may help us to gauge whether her words are indicative of the morality expressed throughout the text.

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How is righteousness molded in different ways in Rama’s and Vali’s conversation? Is Rama right in trying to kill Vali in the first place (comparing this episode to the one involving Viradha)?

Something I really wanted to explore was the episode where Rama kills Viradha, revealing that he was cursed by Kubera and by killing him, Rama liberated Tumburu from physical bondage of the raksasa body. Rama reiterated with violence when Viradha captured Sita. After this episode, Sita worries about Rama’s new sense of cruelty even though Rama was provoked first and he actually did Viradha a good deed by allowing him to be released from his body. In contrast, there is less obvious justification to Rama’s killing of Vali. It is interesting how Rama molds dharma so as to justify his actions. Vali also brings up several interesting points about righteousness. This further illuminates the idea that every individual (even monkey) has his own sense of dharma and it is difficult to conclude who is really in the right when characters mold their dharma to fit their own intentions.

I think close-reading of the episode when Rama kills Vali will help me answer this question as there are inferences of how dharma can be molded. It would be interesting to find out what aspects of dharma is universal and how it can be molded to fit certain situations.

Do men have illusion of free-will or do the gods have illusion of control?

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In his speech, Zeus is definitive about the role gods play in the mortal world. The gods serve as overseers, steering the course of man. However, men are the ones that still make the final choice. In that respect, the gods sit in judgement upon man and their chosen course of action.

In some cases we are able to see how the gods have control over happenings in the mortal world.  It was during the counsel in book 1 that Athena convinced the gods to intervene in Odysseus' captivity. After coming to the decision to help him, Athena was sent in disguise to set Prince Telemachus on his path. Odysseus was also held captive by the mythical nymph Calypso and the fact that his liberation is started by the gods show how they have the ability to set things into motion.

At the same time we see humans do have the capacity to make choices and change events in their world. Zeus points out the case of Aegisthus ignoring Hermes' advice, plotting with his enamoured wife to kill him. It was his actions that set up the family tragedy that looms over Odysseus' household. The gods' role in this case is then to judge and take appropriate action against the offender. One of the things that man is often found guilty for is "recklessness". It suggests that in their making of decisions, the gods have superior wisdom.

Yet the Odyssey is never underestimates the strength of an individual man. It places man in a position where he has to take responsibility for his actions. The gods serve to sustain the order of the world. It is interesting to note how gods may have their own ulterior motives and use persuasion to get what they deem is more important. Though they have power, they are arguably not always fair and unbiased and their mistakes have bigger repercussions on the mortal world.

I find it fascinating to compare the Odyssey to the Ramayana in this aspect. It presents two different views on the supernatural and how man explained events in their world during those eras. While dharma is more of an all-encompassing cosmic force, the gods in the Odyssey are given personalities and whims in addition to their powers. As risk of bringing my own postmodernist view into the books, I would like to suggest that the Ramayana uses Dharma to explain how both good and bad things end up fulfilling the final order of the world while the Odyssey presents events as possible manipulation by the gods.

Naivety of the Phaeacian Island

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The Phaeacians are the people who live on Scheria, which is an island ruled by King Alcinous. Their society is one very closed off from the rest of the world and they are xenophobic. Athena has to “drift a heavy mist around [Odysseus], shielding them from any swaggering islander who’d cross his path”(7.17-8). “The men here never suffer strangers gladly, have no love for hosting a man from foreign lands.” (7.36-7) The Phaeacians are sailors and port men who “care nothing for bow or quiver, only for masts and oars and good trim ships themselves” (6.296-7). This would suggest that they respect and honor the sea god Poseidon in particular.

The Phaeacians seem to live in a flourishing time. Odysseus “found the Phaeacian lords and captains tipping out libations” (7.160-1) and there is much description about the luxurious lives the Phaeacians live – “Here the Phaeacian lords would sit enthroned, dining, drinking – the feast flowed on forever” (7.114-115). Also, the island is very beautiful, especially the palace and its gardens. Homer dedicates numerous long lines describing the wondrous “resplendent halls” (7.53) and “magnificent orchard” (7.130).

They are nice to Odysseus as they follow their King’s and Queen’s lead. King Alcinous is very nice to his guest when revered Echeneus chided him into letting Odysseus sit and partake in the feast. King Alcinous responded in kind, “[sitting] him down in a burnished chair, displacing his own son, the courtly Lord Laodamas who had sat beside him, the son he loved most” (7.201-3). After hearing Odysseus’ story, King Alcinous pitied Odysseus and showered him with acts of kindness, even offering his daughter for Odysseus to wed. In addition, “Athena lavished a marvelous splendor over Odysseus’ head and shoulders” (8.20-1) so “Phaeacians might regard the man with kindness, awe and respect” (8.24-5).

The Phaeachians live very easy lives, having much time to partake in games, feasts and music. Their easy lives contrast very strongly with Odysseus’ own life filled with misery and hardship. This can be seen when the bard Demodocus sang. The Phaeacian lords “reveled” in the tales while Odysseus wept. The Phaeacians could not even fathom the depths of pain and suffering that Odysseus has gone though.

The contrast is once again highlighted later in the chapter when Laodamas and Broadsea taunt Odysseus to join them in the games. The Phaeacian’s glory-seeking actions seem most naïve beside Odysseus’s somber attitude despite his many heroic acts. For the Phaeacians there is no “greater glory than what he wins with his racing feet and striving hands” (8. 170-1). They do not understand hardship and suffering the same way Odysseus does. “Pain weigh on my spirit now, not your sports” (8.178). Odysseus has much more important priorities compared to the Phaeacians. He is not concerned with the simplistic way of earning glory.

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1. In the search for Sita, we follow Hanuman's thoughts as he searched through Ravana's kingdom for her (p. 425-432). What can we infer from his thoughts about what the monkeys truly value? What kind of implication does this have on our view of humans in the story? Explore the complexities of the monkeys who aid Rama in the Ramayana through this scene.

The forest is filled with many different types of animals who assisted Rama and drove the plot. The death of the Kraunca birds inspired the sage Valmiki to write, while Jatayu and his brother Sampati both acted as informants to point the characters towards Ravana. Then there is Hanuman, who was integral in the finding of Sita and fighting in the subsequent war. The animals in the story are sentient and highly complex. They understand dharma in a certain sense, form families, friendships, and kingdoms, have struggles over kingship, and have many similarities qualities to humans in the story. To comprehend Ramayana fully, it is hence important to examine the internal thoughts of these animals. The monkeys in particular, play an important role in the retrieval of Sita, especially Hanuman.

While there are many different scenes where animals choose to help Rama, it is rare that we get to see their thought process, if at all. Through a close reading of Hanuman's thoughts, we can attempt understand some aspects of the animals who are in the story. We can also understand how the animal's attributes and qualities contribute in making Ramayana a complex epic.

Love and War is love at war

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The bard Demodocus sings of the adulterous tale between Aphrodite and Ares (goddess of love and god of war). Although Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus (god of blacksmiths and crafting), she was having an affair with the Ares, in Hephaestus's mansion.

It is interesting to note that the sun god, Helios, informed Hephaestus of this affair and also aided him in crafting the snare to bind the adulterous couple on bed. This shows that gods like Helios does not tolerate adultery.

During the tryst between Ares and Aphrodite, they were shackled onto Hephaestus's bed. As planned, Hephaestus, yet again with the help of Helios, travelled to Olympus to seek Zeus.

 

The significance of this story accentuates the element of adultery. This mirrors Odysseus's plight as Hephaestus, on how Penelope is back at Itacha with ravenous suitors waiting to bed her. Also, this tale goes to show how gods don't tolerate adultery, as seen through Helios's actions, as well as the god's constant condemnation of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

One possible reason why the text often features the god's disapproval of adulterous relationships is to justify their acts of intervention. As seen, the gods Athena, Hermes, Helios and Zeus have intervened with matters against adultery. This is shown by Athena's unwavering loyalty towards Telemachus and Odysseus, as she sees the need to constantly intervene in their affairs and manipulate the outcomes of events.

 

It is also ironic to note that the Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, is the one committing adultery. What does this tell us about gods and their powers, roles, and lusts? Even the goddess of love does not respect the sanctity of marriage, so why should mortals? Would Penelope and Odysseus be truly faithful to each other without intervention from the gods?

Chronology of Doubt

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The issue of individual autonomy is a potent one in the Odyssey. There exists a dual relationship between the gods and the mortals: on one hand, the gods often shape events that occur. On the other hand, it is argued that the mortals often bring the actions of the gods upon themselves due to a lack of sense. These two are often hard to reconcile in their chronology—and sometimes it is unclear why the gods act in the ways that they do.

Responsibility is often transferred to gods as a way of justifying the actions of people, and in turn lends an element of credibility to the actions of the person. When Telemachus first announces that he will be journeying to find his father, he quells his mother’s doubts by telling her that “there’s a god that made [his] plan”(2.412). Telemachus claims that his journey is somehow fated or ordained—that he must carry it out because it has already been decided by a greater power. In this case, we see an example where the gods are held responsible for a person’s actions, even before they have occurred.

Gods also seem to be inclined to protect mortals that they are fond of. When Odysseus is travelling to meet the king and queen of Phaeacia, “Athena, harbouring kindness for the hero, drifted a heavy mist around him.” (7.16-17) Without Athena’s protection, Odysseus would likely have been harmed by the “swaggering islander[s]” (7.18)—but instead, he is ensured to reach the palace safely due to the intervention of a god. It seems that even in situations where mortals are helpless, the gods can still exercise their power to shape their fate.

Yet the gods are also adamant that they are not truly in control or responsible for the fates of mortals. Zeus believes it is “shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods.” (1.36) He argues that they bring their fates onto themselves due to “their own reckless ways” (1.38), and thus transfers the responsibility back to the mortals. In this sense, he justifies the gods’ actions as simply a reaction to the mortal’s behaviour: if a person does something wrong, then he is deserving of punishment. If a person does something right, then he is worthy of reward. It seems that the gods regard themselves as the ultimate moral judges in the world, and this justifies their actions unto mortals.

It seems that there is no clear sense of where the responsibility lies in Homer’s Odyssey. Both mortals and the gods seem unsure of the chronology of action and consequence, as well as who is to blame. The question we are left with is: do any of them really have free will? If their actions are always dependent on the other groups’, then who really shapes their own fate? “Not even the gods can defend a man, not even one they love, that day when fate takes hold and lays him out at last” (3.269-71) is an ultimatum that is laid down by Athena. Perhaps it is true that fate is somehow separate from both mortals and gods, and they are only able to shape minor occurrences in their lives.

The one eye that doesn't blink (at the gods at least)

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Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops is interesting to analyse as it is the first indication that not all living beings are inclined to abide by the rules of the gods. It is also a scene during which Odysseus is forced to rely solely on his cunning rather than his physical prowess.

When Odysseus and his crew first alight on shore, they quickly proceed to “plunder” (9.297) the home of the Cyclops. This is not the first instance where Odysseus has been described as being one to take advantage of other people’s demise—he also “plundered the hallowed heights of Troy”(1.2-3), as described in the famous beginning lines of the poem. It is interesting to note that Odysseus is regarded as a classic epic hero in the Odyssey, but he also possesses characteristics that we would not normally associate with a morally sound and admirable figure. He goes on to use “a great cunning stroke…[that] duped” the Cyclops into letting him and his men free from the cave. Odysseus seems capable of using deception in situations of his own interest—a selfish characteristic we would not expect, and something that seems inconsistent with previous descriptions of him as “great” (7.210) and “worldly-wise” (7.200). Instead, he seems just as we would expect any other human being to be.

The Cyclops himself is described as “dead set in his own lawless ways” (9.210). He is a solitary figure living outside of human society, and seems to lead a simple life tending to his animals. He lives a “lawless” life only in comparison to Odysseus’ world—but it is interesting to see how Odysseus is quick to impose his own moral stance on the other being. Because Odysseus is narrating this section of the poem, all of his observations are biased towards his perspective—thus we get the Cyclops portrayed in a very negative light, and Odysseus’ own actions thoroughly justified. Yet Odysseus’ arrival on the island could be argued as one of unnecessary disruption, and we see the repercussions of this in the curse that is brought down upon him by the Cyclops.

The Cyclops’ world is shown to be the first true instance of “otherness” in Odysseus’ journey in his narration of the Odyssey: while he had previously visited other islands, they were generally inhabited by people who had some relation or respect towards the gods. The Cyclops, however, “never blink[s] at Zeus…or any other blessed god” (9.309-10): his actions and existence in the world are entirely independent of the gods’ wills and influence. This is the first indication that the reader gets that the gods may not actually be universally powerful after all.

Thus, the chapter in the Odyssey describing the encounter with the Cyclops is critical in giving the reader an alternative perspective on both Odysseus and some of the greater themes of the poem. Gods, which until this point have often been described as all-powerful and controlling of all aspects of life on earth, are now shown not to be. Odysseus is shown to be clever and deceptive in ways that we were not previously aware of.