Iliad and Ramayana: A Comparative Analysis

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Comparative literature is generally defined as the study of world literature in comparison. It broadens the horizon for its readers and assists in understanding how borders shrank and became irrelevant when one delves deep into literary practices. The field of comparative literature helps us establish similarities and opens our mind to the universalism that exists in world literature. It dwells on various aspects of literature and helps us overcome the  barriers of languages. It, therefore, helps us in creating a global society that is open and accepting of different cultures. It also helps us to merge these cultures and bring forth the  very essence of literature. Goethe, in his letters to Johann Eckermann in 1827 exclaims, “National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand,  and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.” World Literature is a term that can be  attributed to literary works that are far-reaching and are translated into multiple languages so  that it has a greater outreach. (Nagle)

The field of comparative literature can be approached and explored through various methods  and one of them is narrative. Narrative is an art of telling a tale through histiorizing,  chronological and describing a story. Narrative of a story allows description and perspective  in a story. It creates space for the narrator to have a point of view, which is sometimes expressed in the narration. The narrative devices of Bhava and Rasa are prominent in this  mode of studying comparative literature. Bhava, which are emotions, give rise to Rasa, which is the particular articulation of emotions through language. The narrative gives an account of  a story in respect to events that occur inside a text.

We can understand this method better when we study it through a comparative analysis of  narrative texts. To establish the use of this method, I have taken up the case study of the epic stories of the Ramayana and Iliad.

Ramayana by Valmiki: 

Ramayana is a Sanskrit lyric composed in 24000 verses, six kandas and uttarakand. It was composed by the sage Valmiki around the 5th century BCE. According to Hindu tradition, the Ramayana is placed in the Treta Yuga period. Ramayana is the story of Lord Rama, who is the eldest son of King Dasaratha. Rama is intellectual, eloquent; broad-shouldered, and has a well-proportioned body. He is wise and pure at heart. He is attributed with the highest of morals and virtues and is  credited to be the destroyer of the enemies, sustenance of the world, protector of all living  beings and of the moral code that make the human beings a humane and social being.  According to the story narrated in the Valmiki’s Ramayan, Rama is in line to be the king of  Ayodhaya and he possessed all the qualities of a virtues king. However, his father, King  Dasaratha makes a promise to his wife Kaikeyi, to abstain Rama from acquiring his position as the king of Ayodhya and install Bharata, son of Kaikeyi as the crown prince. Rama, being an obedient and loyal son, accepts his father’s command and, along with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, leaves the palace for the forest confines to lead a normal life. They made Chitrakoot, a mountain top deep in the forest, their heavenly abode. Rama, upon being called for and being true to his magnanimous nature, agrees to kill all the rakshasas in the forest. In  this conquest of getting rid of all the demons, Lakshmana (Rama’s brother) deforms the  Rakshasi Surpanakha, who lived in Janasthana, resting place of Ravana’s army. This angered Ravana, the king of Lanka, and in order to seek revenge, he abducts Sita. Rama, upon knowing the whole scenario, sets out on his journey to find his wife, Sita. Along the way to avenge Ravana, he finds Hanuman, who is a loyal follower of Rama, and he helps him immensely in his expedition and making the conquest of Lanka possible. Hanuman, in a chain of events, burns Lanka and helps Rama reach Lanka, where a war is raged among Rama and Ravana. Within a short span of time, Rama emerges victorious and Sita is brought home safely. But  later she had to cross fire in order to prove her purity. After this, she moves to the forest to live her remaining life.

Iliad by Homer: 

Iliad is an epic poem written in Homeric Greek around the 8th century BC. It is composed of 15,693 lines and is divided into 24 books. It narrates the events underlying the Trojan War, fought between the Trojans and the Achaeans. On one side was the Trojan king Priam, who had two sons, Hector and Paris, and on the other side was the Achaean king Agamemnon and his  brother Menelaus. Both the kingdoms were at odds with each other for a long time, and Paris comes to reconcile with the Achaeanian king, where he falls in love with Helen, who was the wife of Menelaus of Sparta. Upon leaving, Helen elopes with Paris, who was known for his magnificence and was extremely popular among women. Helen, herself a beauty, was taken to Troy by Paris. When Menelaus learns of these events, he convinces Agamemnon to lay siege to Troy. The Greek Army attacks Troy. There were great fighters on both sides. Achilles was one of the greatest fighters in the Greek Army, but he had an ongoing conflict with Agamemnon and refused to participate in the war. Hector, on the other hand, killed a lot of Greeks. It was until Patroclus, who was very dear to Achilles, had been killed that he became angry and pledged to kill Hector as revenge. He kills Hector and drags his body to his camp.  Troy burns and Paris shoots the arrow that kills Achilles; however, Paris dies too as the war reaches its conclusion. Helen is brought home, and she reconciles with Menelaus. They lived happily ever after.

The comparative analysis of the narratives Iliad and Ramayana

The closer analysis of both texts, in a nutshell, suggests that the narrative mode implied in both texts has some similarity. In the very beginning, as the reader gets hold of the texts, they can identify that the narrator is omniscient in both stories while the narration is going on (at the time they are happening), since both the texts are written in 3rd person narration. While  we can say that the perspective of the narrator to look at a certain text or to develop the liking  of the reader towards a certain instance in the story is a prevalent feature in both Ramayana  and the Iliad. As in the case of Ramayan, the reader from the very beginning falls for the narrative that Rama was on the path of righteousness as is made to be evident by the author  sage Valmiki; however, in due course, the reader completely ignores the instances where  Rama’s actions could be questioned. For instance, one can present a contradictory reference  that instead of Rama it was Ravana who set out to avenge the insult flunged by Lakshaman  and Rama on Suparnakha, who was a beloved sister of Ravana. But, in any case, the war raged among the two for the pride of a woman. However, the question that arises is, of which women? The answer to this question that comes first to our minds is highly influenced by the point of view of the narrator, and in our case, that is Valmiki. The readers find a similitude in both texts based on the style of text, since it uses the narrative tense, which demonstrates when the story was/is written. It is evident throughout the texts that the whole narration is in past tense, as ancient narrations like Iliad and Ramayana are usually written in past tense to create a sense of historiography among the readers.

The narrative mode, in a way, is an art of story-telling. For instance, in Homer’s Iliad, it is  apprised that the war that Homer described in Iliad was waged because of a woman. Helen  as she elopes with Paris, creates havoc, which leads to a war between the Greeks and the Trojans. But the readers cannot ignore the fact that the Trojans and Greeks were not on the best of terms even before Helen’s elopement. As narrated, Paris came to Greece to resolve the on-going issues of enmity between the two nations. It is here, that he meets Helen and falls in love with her. It is evident in the text that when Paris brought Helen to Troy, his father Priam and elder brother Hector were not happy with his actions. Therefore, can we be outright sure of the narrative that the war was the resultant of the actions of Helen? Or can we say that the  elopement of Helen further aggravated the conflict between the Greeks and Trojans. Priam on  one hand could not handle the situation and was compelled to go to war, while the insults of the Greeks made them angry enough to lay siege.

The following discussion further lays down the comparative analysis of both narrative texts in more detail:

  1. The stories of Ramayana and Iliad have a major similarity in ways that they have come into being. Since, both the texts were major parts of the oral tradition of keeping and narrating literature. It was in the later part of its time that both were given an  orthographic narration and representation by Valmiki and Homer respectively.  Another point of similarity between both texts is their religious connotation. Both the stories have an essence of religion and of being on the right path. Ramayana is the work of the sage Valmiki, who narrated the story of Rama to Luva and Kusha, his sons. The story existed only in the form of narrations and was told orally for years. It was not until the 5th century BC that it was finally written down. Much like the Ramayana, Iliad also existed in oral form, and it was organised by the scholars of Alexandria in the 8th century BC. The texts that exist today are believed to have had additions made to them not by the author but in the process of being canonised.
  2. Another similarity that both the texts exhibit is the similar way in which they are written. The story has been narrated in a lyric form and thus written as a poem, orthographically. All the events and sequences occur with its lyrical narration which  is imbibed in the text in the form of dialogues, long epilogues and speeches.
  3. The readers throughout the text can clearly analyse that the Heroes of both the epics  are glorified and are reckoned to be great warriors who are hailed as ones who cannot be defeated. As according to the text, Rama in Ramayana is born to bring the  downfall and defeat Ravana. The evil in the epic is bound to be ended at the hands of Rama. He is said to be the keeper of the moral code. Rama, however, does not show his true nature until he is brought to it by destiny and shows his power against evil. While Achilles, who is also described as someone who cannot be defeated and is  a great warrior, does not participate until he is also brought to it by destiny. In a way,  the abduction of Sita by Ravana and the murder of Patroclus by Hector prove to be a  point of stimulus for both the heroes to come into action and deal with the wrong. Therefore, one can infer that both the heroes are glorified based on their capability to  defeat the other. They are both on the side of the right and described with great valour  and benevolence.
  1. War is one common aspect in both the epics, also the outcome of the war, which is in  the favour of right. In both the texts, the righteous are the ones who have been dispossessed of something precious, and in both the cases, it is a woman. Rama and Menelaus are described as doing the right thing by bringing their wives back from evil. While it is evident the reason to wage the war is of a similar nature in both texts. In Ramayana, it is because of Sita’s abduction by Ravana that Rama is  compelled to fight Ravana with the help of his brother Lakshmana and a similar reason resides in Iliad with the Greeks. Menelaus starts the war with the help of his  brother Agamemnon to bring back Helen, who has either eloped or has been abducted  by Paris (not clear in the story), who is the son of King Priam. Both the women are  deeply beautiful. Helen is described as being the most beautiful woman on Earth, while Sita is also known for her beauty. War because of a woman becomes a common theme  is both the epics.
  2. As the narrative develops, the readers can clearly identify the efforts made by the  characters at different points in time to evade the war and its aftermath, full of bloodshed. As a point of similarity, one can clearly see that before the war commences  both Ravana and Paris are offered the chance to return Sita and Helen, respectively, without any bloodshed; however, this conjecture is rejected in both the texts.
  3. Ramayana and Iliad, both stories have valiant and strong brothers, and they have  been in war for each other as a support. Lakshmana goes to war with Rama and leaves for the forest with Rama. He stands with Rama at every step of the way. In Iliad, Agamemnon goes to war for Menelaus to save Helen. Both the brothers are shown to  have a great relationship. Another pair in Iliad is that of Achilles and Patroclus. Patroclus is killed by Hector and Achilles goes into war to avenge him which can be compared  to how Hanuman goes into war for Rama.
  1. The war as narrated, in both the epics shows a direct clash between the good and the bad. Rama has a one-on-one fight with Ravana, and Menelaus fights one-on-one with  Paris. The clash can be defined as the interface between the right and the wrong in  which the right emerges victorious.
  2. Ramayana has many great warriors who fought for Rama’s cause, and likewise Iliad has many great warriors who fought besides Menelaus, but the most prominent are Hanuman and Achilles, respectively. Hanuman single-handedly burns all of Lanka and  deliberately gets caught to meet Ravana and leaves Lanka without being harmed.  Achilles, who is a great warrior, and is, believed to be the only one who can win the great war is angered to the core by the murder of Patroclus and when the Trojan ships  reach the shore. He fights and kills Hector who is proving to be very destructive for  the Greeks, which in a way puts an end to the war.
  3. Another inference to which both texts point is the use of fire as a symbol of destruction in both the epics. The prominent use of fire as a weapon of destruction  proves to bring a great change in both the stories. Hanuman with a single boon burns  down whole Lanka except the place where Sita was kept. Before leaving Lanka  Hanuman kills Ravana’s sons, which is the changing point in the story. In Iliad, when  Hector lays siege on Greeks, and reaches the shore, he attacks them and burns the  Greek ships. In doing so he kills Patroclus, who was very dear to Achilles. This  moment marks the entrance of Achilles in the Great War and also brings great change  in the story.
  4. The nature of the outcome of the war is similar in both the epics. In the end Ravana is  overthrown and Rama emerges victorious, similarly, in Iliad, Priam is overthrown,  and Menelaus emerges victorious. In Ramayana, Ram had to cross a river in order to  lay siege on Lanka; similarly, the Greeks had to cross a river in order to lay siege on  the Trojans.

Lastly, among the many points of similarity discussed above, the reader can clearly identify that, Ramayana is a text that sees its origin in India, and Iliad sees its origin in Greece. Both  texts proved to be canonical and are preserved in their respective cultures. Both the texts are part of the culture of the place they are associated with and are widely taught, performed, and  narrated. They have not only proved to be restricted to their cultures, but they have breathed beyond borders and are a part of the great world literature.

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Simrah Khan
Simrah Khan, a post graduate student in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University. She has completed her graduation in German Language and Literature from Aligarh Muslim University. Her areas of interests are Canadian Literature, German Literature, and Migrant Literature. She has a keen interest in dialogue studies, rhetoric and writing and is perpetually working in the field of language and literatures of the world. Miss. Khan is an ardent reader and researcher; she has worked as a Content Writer and a Translator of the German language. She can be reached at writetosimrah@gmail.com

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