Monday, June 29, 2015

When Rama is Sita's brother, and Hanuman, a ladies' man!

Don't outrage at the headline yet, for this is no attempt at sensationalism. This is merely letting you know that in a society just a little different from yours, the Ramayana exists differently. India's famous epic is not necessarily the one Valmiki composed, or the Amar Chitra Katha versions we read, or the one we watched on television in the 80s. Ramanand Sagar's televised version, which was adapted from Tulsidas' Ramacharitamanas is the one we are most familiar with. It is the story of virtuous Sita being abducted by the evil Ravana, and her valiant husband Rama rescuing her with the help of his devoted brother Lakshmana and the monkey army after an epic battle. It is the story of familiar moral stereotypes, that is deeply entrenched in mainstream society.

However, different social needs call for different kinds of heroes and the Ramayana has been adapted in varied ways through centuries. These versions were not created to be sacrilegious. While some versions challenged Brahmanical authority, most were the result of adapting a universal heroic figure to fit their social-cultural context. In his famous and sometimes contested essay, 'Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation', A K Ramanujan talks about hundreds of versions of the epic that exist in folk, poetic and dramatic traditions. But here I list five versions which deviate most from the plot and characters we are familiar with.

1. Sita as Kali in the 'Adbhut Ramayana': Let's start with Sage Valmiki himself. Not satisfied with composing just one Ramayana, the great poet sage is said to have composed other versions and extensions like the Yoga Vashistha and the Adbhut Ramayana. The former is more of a philosophical treatise using the context of the epic, while the latter is an adbhut or a wondrous composition. Much shorter than the original maha kavya, the Adbhut Ramayana is especially notable for its characterisation of Sita. She is not the demure, helpless victim here waiting for her husband to rescue her. In fact, when Rama falls wounded and unconscious on the battle field, she assumes the fierce form of Kali and wreaks havoc upon earth. She is eventually pacified by the gods, Rama's consciousness is restored and the story moves on. If you find feminists who decry Sita's submissive role in the traditional Ramayana, point them in this direction.

(Available in an English translation by Shantilal Nagar, BR Publications)

2. Rama and Sita as siblings in 'Dasaratha Jataka': The Dasaratha Jataka is one of the earliest Buddhist versions of the epic. In what might seem like a shocking twist to most, Rama and Sita are depicted as brother and sister in this version. The duo is not banished but sent away to the Himalayas by the king Dasaratha in order to protect them from their jealous stepmother. The stepmother is the only antagonist, for there is no Ravana in this story. When things have cooled down, Rama and Sita return to Benaras and not Ayodhya and get married. As much as your morals are jarred by this incestuous turn of things, bear in mind that some communities make this provision to maintain purity of caste when there are no eligible matches.

(Available in an English translation by V Fausboll, Kessinger Publishing)

3. Lakshmana as the Ravana slayer in 'Paumachariya': One Jain version of the Ramayana is called Paumachariya, which was authored by Vimalsuri. The Jain Ramayana strips all elements of fantasy from Valmiki's version and presents a very rational view of the epic. Ramanujan avers: “When we enter the world of Jain retellings, the Rama story no longer carries Hindu values. … Paumachariya knows its Valmiki and proceeds to correct its errors and Hindu extravagances. Like other Jaina puranas, this too is a prati purana, an anti or counter-purana.”

For example, it rejects the idea of a monkey army and suggests that they were actually a tribe of warrior people with the monkey as their totem/symbol. However, the most important deviation in this version is where Lakshman becomes the slayer of Ravana. That's because Rama, being a perfect Jain, is avowed to nonviolence and cannot be a killer. Here, too, Rama is a hero for he embodies the highest ethic of the Jain religion. His valiance is reflected in his non killing. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

While an English translation of the Paumachariya does not seem to be available, it might be worth checking out some rare Hindi translations.

4. Lakshmana's agni pareeksha in the 'Gond Ramayani': The Gond Ramayani is a series of seven tales told in the folk tradition of the Gond tribe. Folklorist Molly Kaushal, in an interview with a leading journal, says: “The Gond Ramayani is embedded in the socio-cultural context of the Gondi community, its lifestyle and its kinship. Here women, whether they are brides or otherwise are related to the central character, play a definitive role in the movement of the plot and its culmination, which is different from the classical versions.”

This tale really begins where the traditional Ramayana ends, i.e. after Sita is rescued, and Lakshmana and not Rama is the protagonist. In the first tale, Indra's daughter Indrakamani is so besotted by Lakshmana, she flies to earth as an eagle to see him. However, she is unable to wake up or woo a sleeping Lakshmana and in frustration tears off her clothes and jewellery. When Sita sees these remnants, she tells Rama about her suspicion on Lakshmana's licentious behaviour. It is then that Lakshmana has to go through the fire ordeal to prove his chastity. Who says there is no gender equality?

(Not available in English translation, but can be experienced through folk dance performances and paintings such as the ones made under the Ramkatha project of the Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts.)

5. Hanumana as the ladies' man in 'Ramakirti and Ramakien': In the Thai versions of the Ramayana, Hanumana's character takes on quite a central role. He is not the monkey-faced celibate but quite the ladies' man with amorous interests. When he visits Lanka, he has no qualms peeping into people's bedrooms. Even Ravana is conceived very differently in the Thai version of the Ramayana; he is seen as an erudite scholar and a powerful king worthy of respect. His quest for Sita is seen as true romantic love, albeit fatalistic. The 'Ramakirti' and 'Ramakien' are considered great entertainers by the Thai people and not so much as guides to social and moral conduct as Ramayana in India.

(Ramakien is available in an English translation by J M Cadet, Kodansha America Inc.)

This article originally appeared on on May 06, 2015

Book review: Scion of Ikshvaku

Author: Amish Tripathi
Publisher: Westland Limited
ISBN-10: 9385152149
Number of Pages:376 Pages
Publication Year: 2015 June
Language: English
ISBN-13: 9789385152146
Binding: Paperback

Picture this. A large royal court with an assembly of the best kings and princes. The mission: to complete an archery challenge, and the prize, the hand of a beautiful princess in marriage. The challenge would be to shoot the eye of the fish on a turntable mounted on the ceiling, while looking at its reflection in a vessel of rippling water on the ground. This would be the svayamvara scene from the Mahabharata when Arjuna competes to win Draupadi's hand, right? Wrong! This would be the Prince Ram Chandra of Ayodhya trying to win the hand of the princess of Mithila, Sita. At least that's how it is in Amish Tripathi's first book of the Ram Chandra series, 'The Scion of Ikshvaku'.

After months of advertising, in what seems to be the biggest and most expensive promotional drive for a book, Amish Tripathi's 'Scion of Ikshvaku' released on the 22nd of June, 2015. A record signing amount, full page newspaper ads, exclusive Kindle offers and even Youtube trailers (never mind the nail polish-wearing Sita) had readers waiting with bated breaths for the next offering from the extremely popular author of the Shiva trilogy. And why not? After all, he promised to re-tell India's favourite story of all, the Ramayana. Or did he?

For anyone who knows the Ramayana and expects Amish's story to be similar, 'The Scion of Ikshvaku' can come as something of a shock. But for anyone who is familiar with the author's previous works, the book meets all expectations, for Amish bends it better than Beckham. While not a great fan of his literary style, I cannot help but admire Amish for the way he manages to create completely new stories from old ones. He has an almost magical ability of retaining the essence of familiar mythological tales while spinning wildly deviating plots.

As a student of mythology, I was shocked and awed in turn by the liberties the author has taken in writing the story of Ram. But there's no pointing a finger at him for these deflections because not once does he use the word 'Ramayana'. Our literary pop star friend ingeniously calls it the Ramchandra series. And one can only smile indulgently because this is not really a deviation but tradition. Ram and Ramayana both belong to the people of India. The sage Valmiki may have been the first one to record it, but over centuries, poets and playwrights have taken creative liberties in creating their own Ramayanas. From Kamba's Tamil Ramavataram of the 12th century to Ashok Banker's Ramayana series in 2003; from Tulsidas' 16th century Ramcharitamanas to Devdutt Pattanaik's Sita in 2013, and hundreds in between, the Ramayana has served as the fountainhead of inspiration for storytellers.

Amish builds upon the Rama epic too, albeit in a very Un-Ramayana like manner. The differences are apparent right in the first page where he lists the major characters. Some deflections are surprising, some shocking and some, even amusing. Amish's Ram is very much a human hero just like his Shiva and the story is stripped of all magical elements. Neither is Ram born through divine means nor is he portrayed as the apple of everyone's eye. In fact, the first and greatest point of difference between the traditional Ramayana and The Scion of Ikshvaku is Ram's projection as an unloved prince. His father, king Dasaratha considers Ram's birth inauspicious and blames him for all his misfortunes. So the fabulously powerful and wealthy king of Ayodhya, Dasaratha is shown to be a defeated old man  ruling over a crumbling kingdom. The very foundations of the epic are laid differently in this story.

Further, Manthara has been depicted as the wealthiest businesswoman of Ayodhya instead of the poor handmaiden we know her to be. She even has a noble daughter who is a, err, rakhi sister to the four Ayodhan princes. We all know Sita is a strong character, but Amish pushes the envelope by appointing her the prime minister of Mithila. My favourite is his development of the usually ignored character of Shatrughan. The poor youngest prince of Ayodhya has little or no role to play in most versions of the Ramayana. Bharat too gets a makeover as something of a ladies man, who serves as a foil to the stoic Ram. Ravana loses nine of his heads in Amish's version and gets a horned helmet instead. The intrigue deepens as the author hints at some kind of revolution being planned by Ram's guru, Vashishta. Apart from the plot, Amish also fiddles with mythological templates. Instead of the standard Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh trinity, he designates the lords Brahma, Parshu Ram and Rudra as the holy triumvirate. But the icing on the cake is in Ram reforming and joining hands with the rakshasi Tadaka instead of killing her!

Full marks for ingenuity, but when the inevitable comparisons arise, these inventions get a little hard to stomach. But Amish is unapologetic about his inventiveness, and that is his USP. The book is full of such fruits of Amish's imagination, but it is for the reader to find them, taste them and judge them. The author has played his best stroke – one he knows works with the junta. It's like a Salman Khan movie, with all the necessary drama-action-comedy masala, a devoted audience and consequently assured box office success.  Let's be honest. The book does not have any great literary merit, although it is a vast improvement from the shockingly pedestrian language of the Shiva trilogy. Amish's easy-to-read language and page-turning style is designed to be accessible and enjoyable. Will it ever be in the league of Amitav Ghosh or Salman Rushdie? No. But will it sell? Yes. From the looks of it, Amish is poised to set another best-selling record.

The reviewer is a psychologist by training, a journalist by profession and an Indologist in the making. She can be reached on Twitter @URM1

This review originally appeared on on June 28, 2015.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

5 Fitness Fixes: Getting the most out of your workout

So you've enrolled at the local gym for the third time in five years, having wasted the last two memberships and forgotten those infamous New Year's resolutions. This time you will surely follow through, you say. But by the fourth day, those aching muscles have caused you to oversleep and by the weekend, the hangover has made it impossible for you to go to the gym. The guilt of a new membership and new gym gear gnaws at your conscience for a while, but you shut up that stupid alarm and go back to bed because there's always tomorrow, right? We know how tomorrows are and tend to not come, and before you know it, membership number three has also gone down the drain.

Finding motivation

Getting charged up and starting out is one thing – an important thing for sure; but keeping at it THE thing. Getting up and going to the gym day after day after day is hard work and requires some serious motivation. I've been gymming regularly for nearly three years and fitness is now a part of my lifestyle. But even for the most disciplined among us, there are hard days...

Some days I turn to Dana Linn Bailey, some days to Frank Medrano, and some days to King Julien! Fitness motivation can come from anywhere. If those super-athletic people with impossibly perfect bodies seem too distant as role models, there's no harm in turning to Dreamworks' 'Lord of the Lemurs' for inspiration. The dance-loving, fruit-eating, self-absorbed primate is just the guy who can make you want to move fast, eat right and love yourself. The important thing is to keep moving. Because a fit body isn't going to make itself.

Here are five things that make me look forward to my workout and get the most out of it.


Not enough is said about the importance of a pre-workout routine, especially nutrition. If you're not going to tank up before you roll, how can you expect to go any distance? But I don't mean stuffing your face when I say tank up. One fruit, a cup of coffee, or a scoop of pre-workout supplement, take whatever works for you. I've tried several things like MRI's Black Powder and while it is effective, it is also expensive. I now depend on a spoonful of peanut butter which is my personal supercharger. Just one spoon gives me enough energy to go through an hour of workout and it doesn't make you feel too full. Peanut butter is not just my pre-workout fuel but also my favourite between-meals snack. Delicious, nutritious and economical, my nutty affair is here to stay.


The receptionist at my gym will tell you how much I bugger him if the music goes off for even one minute. To be honest, I hate cardio routines. I cannot bear to run on the treadmill for even five minutes during a warm up if there's no music. As long as there's beat, I'm happy. From EDM to pop to Bollywood music, I can use just about anything to groove my dumbbell. There are hundreds of workout playlists on the Internet. Pick what works for you. But if you're like me and like to pump serious iron, you have to check out workout music by Rob Bailey and The Hustle Standard. Their track 'Hungry' from the album 'Battle Tested' is my absolute anthem.


While many prefer to fly solo, many work better with a partner. The gym is one place where I prefer the latter. It goes without saying that your gym partner should share your level of enthusiasm and commitment, otherwise they'll just be dragging you down. Of my last 2.5 years of regular gymming, I've had a fitness partner and it has worked fabulously well for both of us. Not only does your partner aid while lifting the heavier sets, but also helps you get up and get going on days you feel lazy. Someone who knows your strengths and weaknesses, someone who shouts “Come on, last five reps!”, someone who you can fool around with when the music gets boring, is useful indeed. The best part is sharing an occasional burger on a cheat day!


Boredom is another reason why so many people cannot sustain a regular workout regime. Honestly, how interesting can it be if you choose to pound away at that treadmill for an hour everyday or cycle away on a stationary bike till the end of time? Run outdoors if you must run or at least do some circuit training, yaar! Lift light to start with. Promise I won't laugh at you when I see you huffing and puffing with that 10 lbs dumbbell. I started with those too. Weight training is definitely more absorbing than basic cardio routines at the gym but they can get monotonous too. I, for one, get bored very easily. But I persist because I keep changing my workout plan. A body part a day sometimes, sometimes circuit, and on some other days, a mix of weight training and cardio. Get a personal trainer or use the vast Internet resources to mix and match a workout plan. Keep it varied, keep it interesting.


I don't care much for either – diets or supplements because I have this passionate relationship with food. Not that it's a good thing. A healthy diet is an absolutely indispensable corollary to living a fit life. And if you can maintain one, nothing like it. But I realised early on that diets make me unhappy. If I completely give up on my rice, rotis or chocolates, I can't think straight. And salads downright make me sad. So the next best thing to do is eat in moderation and exercise like a beast. I used to take wheys and protein blends for a while, but my current student status doesn't allow me that budget. So I eat lots of eggs and dal and tofu to maintain my muscle tone.

But for those who can afford it, there is a world of choices in supplements. From pre-workout shakes to proteins, from performance enhancers to fat burners, the range of products is vast. Apart from the usual big names, a number of new brands like ETB Fit are making their way into the market. While I haven't tried their products, they seem affordable and effective. 

Whether you stick to your old brand or new, whether you workout alone or with a partner, whether you love your treadmill or your dumbbells, never lose sight of that final goal: FITNESS!