Idols- the key to Zulaikha's transformation

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Zulaikha's redemption comes when she is has degenerated from her former glory into desolate circumstances. The monologue she has in front of the graven image is significant and reveals what she has not recognised herself. The stone is blamed as a "stumbling block" that has "closed the path of happiness to [her] heart". Allegorically Jami shows that in her worship of the beauty of Yusuf, she has failed to turn her devotion toward the true object of Allah. Reference is made to the story of Abram destroying Terah's idols (not in Genesis but in Genesis Rabbah). There is a clear didactic purpose revealed here as Jami alludes back to the theological roots of Sufi Islam. Zulaikha's action of destroying the idol brings unexpected "new consolation" for the lover that has been in a "sea of affliction" with "waves of sorrow". The short respite lead to the final revelation- an enlightened Zulaikha confesses to the idolatry she has been practising. However, unlike Bazigha, she does not renounce the attachment. Is it then problematic that the ideal set up by Bazigha is not reached and instead Zulaikha gets the final consummation she has been yearning for? Although her fixation on Yusuf has not been severed, it is renewed with a different slant. Allah that is reflected in Yusuf is now the centre as seen when she speaks of Yusuf's kingship as granted by Allah. This call catches the attention of Yusuf who till now has been immune to her loud wails in previous instances. The transformed Zulaikha now becomes worthy of the absolution she receives and the love she seeks.

Joseph's own Nostos

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It is interesting to compare Joseph to Odysseus. Since Abraham's generation his people have been living nomadic lifestyles and Joseph finds himself sold into a foreign land after targeted by his brothers' jealousy. It is the theme of wandering and subsequent oppression under the Egyptians that culminates into the Promise Land later in the Bible.

Throughout the chapters, even as Joseph gains prominence in courts his somewhat awkward and displaced position is never forgotten.  This is evident from the names he gives his sons- Manasseh and Ephraim. Both allude back to the his initial affliction and God's deliverance. Readers are first introduced to the young Joseph who naively speaks openly his dream that his brothers and father will prostrate before him. When this does come true, it is as if the person and identity of Joseph is  finally fulfilled years later in Egypt. Subsequently there is a process to "homecoming" where testing and recognition factor into Joseph coming into his destiny.

Joseph does not trust his brothers. His experience with them is one subject to their envy and mercilessness. Benjamin becomes the test for them as he is in the same position Joseph was in years ago- the favoured half-brother. Joseph waits to see if his brothers will ensure Benjamin's safety or take the opportunity to also kill him. The items used in the testing of his brothers are significant. It seems like a dramatic irony that the brothers are trapped by the very item they had exchanged Joseph for years ago- silver coins. The silver goblet also represents an Egyptian instrument of divination and further emphasises the upper hand Joseph has in the whole situation- he has knowledge of his brother's past and is actively shaping their future. When Joseph sees Judah offer  himself into slavery so Benjamin can return to Jacob, it is clear that the brothers are finally acting in the interests of others instead of only for themselves. Judah's line is teling- "God has found out your servants' crime" has a double meaning referencing the first and original conspiracy to sell Joseph. The brothers not only learn from their mistakes, they confess and speak out of a troubled conscience. A weeping Joseph is finally able to reunite with his family. What does this show about the criteria of reconciliation in Genesis (and how does this differ from in the Odyssey)?

Whose tragedy is it anyway?

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Medea could be understood as an anti-hero- her tragic fall the burning passion with which she loved Jason and then exacted her revenge. Initially portrayed as a wronged and helpless wife, her pride upon being scorned soon comes to the forefront. Hints into her psyche via moving monologues reveal her inner turmoil and the creates a foreboding sense of madness. This dreaded inevitability evokes a sense of both pity and horror in readers as they watch her commit the final deed. It is her tragedy, because it was her agency.

The conflicting identities she holds highlights her status as an anti-hero. As a woman she enters the heroic domain by being central to the Jason's progress. Asserting this during the angry exchange with him, she repeats "I saved", "I killed" showing she is the drive behind his success and that "[He] has certainly got from [her] more than [he] gave". Consequently as she moves closer and closer toward the tragic end, hesitation and inner turmoil is overridden by the fact that only "a weak woman even to admit to [her] mind these soft arguments". The overwhelming and recurring need to be strong is an aspect of her character that jumps out at readers and no doubt also the Greeks public viewing the play. In addition she is a foreigner and barbarian. The frightful betrayal with which she trades her home in for the new polity is never forgotten in the play and referenced often, including in her the exchange with Creon. As a supermotral, Medea is respected but always feared and kept at arm's length. She is a wanderer in the land of Greek mortals whose fate has been bound to Jason and when he breaks that promise, she laments she has lost everything. This duality of character makes Medea both cruel and pitiable, despised and venerated.

The general introduction also shows the setting in which Euripides crafted this play. He creates heroes who "[decay] and [disintegrate]", evoking a constant "sense of defeat and disappointment". A character like Medea would have been the underrepresented woman, the displaced barbarian, and the betrayed wife. In this sense, the tragedy is not only hers, but that of the Greek polity and its citizens. It reveals a deep disenchantment with the time, for Euripides "believed in a world he disliked".

The Supernatural Emperor

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Throughout the Annals of Emperor Kao-tsu, the supernatural plays the biggest role in the beginning and serves primarily to legitimise the rise and eventual rule of Kao-tsu. Interestingly the way this is presented is similar to the beginning of the Ramayana where the physicality of the protagonist is focused on. Instead of beauty the physical form of Kao-tsu takes on auspicious symbolism such as the "dragonlike face, with beautiful whiskers on his chin and cheeks" where the dragon is an animal that represents imperial authority and is commonly used in association with rulers. The 72 moles on his left thigh sound incredulous but the number is a mystic one in ancient culture and it is meant to inspire acknowledgement of the emperor's natural right to accession. This emphasis on looks is also continued in encounters with Master Lu and the mysterious old man who has the ability to read a person's face and praises Kao-tsu's facial features. Here we can see parallels between the importance of physicality in legitimising a ruler/hero. However this may not necessarily always be beauty but instead can be favourable looks are associated with mystical signs.

Another interesting point to note is that some of these supernatural signs given to Kao-tsu cannot be traced and verified. Similar to how the hunchback Manthara came from "unknown origins", the old lady who professed that Kao-tsu is the Red emperor that killed her son the White Emperor also disappears mysteriously. Kao-tsu also is unable to find the old man who examines his face and cannot find words to express its worth.

In addition both the births of Rama and Kao-tsu are supernatural. Rama is Vishnu incarnate while Kao-tsu's mother Dame Liu dreamt she encountered a god and saw a scaly dragon. It is interesting to see how parentage plays an important role in legitimising the reign of both emperors but also the contrast in how Kao-tsu comes from an ordinary family while Rama is of royal lineage.

Revised Question

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When Sita is first lost, Rama is inconsolable and single-minded in his purpose to rescue her. However in the end, Rama ultimately chooses to reject Sita and she builds a funeral pyre to prove her chastity. Study closely the passage of chapter 13 in final book of War (pg 629-645). How does Rama's rejection of Sita complicate our understanding of his mission?

The rejection of Sita is probably the most significant of plot twists in the Ramayana. This section of the book has many thematic layers to explore- of which a great deal are pivotal in our understanding of the entire book. We get to understand Rama as a character- are his motives purely recovering Sita or also defeating Ravana? The idea of Dharma as a fulfilment of one's destiny is also hinted at- what role does Rama's divinity play in all this?

Like myself, many readers were stunned by this passage and it probably elicited an emotional response. In examining the exchange between Rama and Sita closely, one can understand more about their relationship. Rama is clearly superior as he means a great deal to Sita, even being bound to her identity. His rejection of his wife is then compounded as it is also a cruel blow to her honour. Sita's extreme reaction casts doubt on Rama's integrity. Yet in tracing his chosen course of action and scrutinising the passage, questions can be raised in regards to Rama's response- is his lack of faith in Sita genuine or was it a calculated move to appease the people? After understanding what the text intends to say about Rama and Sita relationship, we are able to expand the discussion to the larger picture of Sita's rescue mission. No doubt there are other passages more directly related to Rama's mission, however, it is his actions after the mission is fulfilled that shed light on his true motives.

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.

Week 3 Questions

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1. Discuss Rama as a character that is both human and divine.

2. How does Valmiki present Rama's justification for killing of Valin? Is Rama truely exonerated by Dharma?

3. In light of Rama's ultimate rejection of Sita, discuss his motives in defeating Rhavana and recovering Sita.

Ayodhya- the Utopian Ideal

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Chapter 3 (page 16-19)

Ayodhya as described in The Ramayana is the pinnacle of civilization. In the same way he ascribes Rama’s physical appearance to his dharma, Valmiki uses the description of the city to allude to its greatness. “Symmetrically, beautifully proportioned” wooden gates paint an image of prosperity while rice and water tasting like “sugarcane juice” exudes the sweetness of wealth and abundance. Valmiki uses an interesting metaphor of a “young bride adorned by a girdle of green” to refer to Ayodhya, comparing the city to an image of beauty and purity held up in the Indian culture. However, for all its exquisiteness, the city is also fortified and “impenetrable”- giving it a masculine quality of strength.

Other than encompassing the ideal outer appearance, Ayodhya’s society is also held up as exemplary.  In addition to being accomplished and exceptional warriors, the Brahmins are also knowledgeable and principled citizens who are pious and loyal to their gods. The people are content and without want, honouring their caste and station to create a harmonious community. In fact, Ayodhya is so perfect that Valmiki confers a kind of divine status to the city, likening it to the “celestial city” Amaravati.

In the same way, Ayodhya’s governance is also mystical, with the city being “ruled by a king equal to Indra”. Dasaratha is a respected and competent leader that is almost ethereal in that he has “complete control over his senses”. Disciplined and wise, he completes the utopia that Valmiki aspires toward.

With the story set in Ayodhya, readers are given a sense of stability when the plot begins. This is a city set in the human world that epitomizes goodness. Interestingly, in clinging to his honour and fulfilling his promises to his second wife, King Dasaratha sets the plot into motion. It is also in reflecting this ideal that Rama chooses to leave, reflecting the Dharma in him that almost parallels the position of the city. As Rama leaves Ayodhya, he enters a more mystical world and The Ramayana begins to take on darker tones.

 

-Se Ern