A comparative study of literature is likely to give us a
new angle of vision, a new aid to evaluation or revaluation if no...
venture into the difficult terrain of dating the different yugas,
„Krita‟, „Treta‟, „Dwapara‟ and „Kali‟, with any degree ...
But then, what are the main characteristics of an epic?
According to Stephens (in „Elements of English Verse‟), quoted
by ...
In the Iliad of Homer the blind poet of Chios, which embodies,
transmutes and enlarges the poetical material of the Achaea...
of Sanskrit poetry. To the result, that some of the translations (or
transcreations) of the Ramayana, in the various India...
abduction of Sita for its development, climax and donoument.
But it seems to be the character of Sita, which lends structu...
Trojans. It is not easy to say whether Achilles or Hector is
treated with the greater sympathy. The redeeming feature abou...
Valmiki seem to be quite circumspect in comparison, with the
possible except of Indra, known for his endless indiscretions...
is the aggrieved party, but Achilles, one of the younger Greek
heroes. He is noted as much for his great anger and high
du...
Krishna‟s prompting though. Certainly, very different from what
Schilles had actually done to Hector in the violent encoun...
bright-eyed Pallasathene, Deciphobus of the While Shield, the
old man God-like Priam, as also „swift‟ and „sea-faring‟ shi...
and spiritual demands of „parayana‟.
Small wonder therefore that linguistic scholars and
literary critics, not from the sa...
about the, beginning of the Christian era.
Anyway, how many of us can claim to know both the
classical languages equally w...
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Comparative study between Homer and Valmiki

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Comparative study of literature between Homer and Valmiki

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Comparative study between Homer and Valmiki

  1. 1. A comparative study of literature is likely to give us a new angle of vision, a new aid to evaluation or revaluation if not a new insight or a new perception. Maybe a new outlook, sometimes.A new way of looking at something old and familiar. But, why do we have to compare Valmiki and Homer? They do not belong to the same geographical region, linguistice group, or cultural tradition. Were Homer and Valmiki contemporaries, by any chance, without knowing it? Not likely, it seems. We do not know their ages for certain. There has however, been a lot of study, historical and archaeological, as well as literary and linguistic, on the age of Homer and the time of the Trojan War. Recent research has confirmed that the great Homeric poems are the outcome of a long poetic tradition covering roughly five hundred years, which developed in the hands of gifted professional or semi--professional singers, who originally accompanied their recitations with music. It is probable that in the course of the ninth or the eighth century B. C., the long monumental epic, such as we know it from the Iliad and the Odyssey, was composed by the Ionian Greeks, and that the two Homeric poems were later committed to writing, sometime between the seventh and the sixth centuries B.C., when their texts became more or less static. It is not until the history of Herodotus (after 450 B.C.) according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “that there are references to poems called by the new familiar names, Iliad and Odyssey, and the verbatim quotations from „Homer‟ in the text of authors from Herdotus to Aristotle do not warrant the assertion that any of them had access to a version of either of these poems.. Historical or other evidence, on the date of the Ramayana may be even less reliable, clouded in the mists of cosmology and astrology. Only the most erudite and daring can
  2. 2. venture into the difficult terrain of dating the different yugas, „Krita‟, „Treta‟, „Dwapara‟ and „Kali‟, with any degree of certainty, at least at a safe distance from endless and infructuous controversy. There is found in evidence, a too frequent overlapping of the poetic and the realistic, the legendary and the historical. Though the Ramayana, story obviously refers to earlier happenings, it is not clear, beyond any doubt, that its text was written earlier than that of Mahabharata. “The date of the Ramayana cannot be regarded as a closed book even now,” wrote Krishna Chaitanya, in his book, “A New History of Sanskrit Literature” (published in 1962). He says: “The ancient Buddhist texts of the Tripitaka show no knowledge of the Ramayana, but do contain certain traces of ballads in which the Rama legend was sung. It is possible that the original Ramayana was composed by Valmiki in the third century B.C., on the basis of ancient ballads. It is conjectural, however, that the work reached its present extent and contents only towards the close of the second century A.D.” The eminent archaeologist and indologist, the late Prof. H. D. Sanka-lia, would seem to be broadly in agreement with this view, on archaelogi-cal and sociological grounds. He had particularly in mind the references to metals like iron, which cannot be traced book much farther than the first few centuries before Christ. Irrespective of their precedence in terms of antiquity, both Homer and Valmiki are admittedly epic poets. Valmiki is revered all over India as the „Adikavi’ and the „Ramayana’ cherished, in the translations as well as in the original, as the „AdiKavya‟. It is India‟s national epic, with the Mahabharata coming alongside. Likewise, Homer has been accepted as the first epic poet in the European tradition whose two major works continue to be the sources of inspiration all over Europe and the English -speaking world.
  3. 3. But then, what are the main characteristics of an epic? According to Stephens (in „Elements of English Verse‟), quoted by Prof. K. R. SrinivasaIyengar in (“The Adventure of Criticism), an epic” is a monumental relation of events grouped round a central theme of racial interest in particular, of human interest in general.” The story of an epic seems somehow to be implicated in our very lives; so far off in point of time, it seems to be perturbingly near SriRamachandra and Sita and Yudhistra and the rest are, as it were, the crystallisations of the racial achievements of the Hindus. At the same time, they are recognizably men and women, and hence appeal to all humanity. That is why the great epics have become, in fact, the common heritage of the world.” “The great epics aim at such a full synthesis of the cherished values of the race, that once the miracle has been performed, it is difficult, almost impossible, to repeat it. No country has more than two epics of the first class – it is as if the race, having gone through the travail of a great artistic birth, is incapaciated for further creation.” The events are the interactions of the simple tendencies and passions of our nature, obscured but little, if at all by the splendours of the palace or the price, pomp and circumstance of glorious war Likewise, Brahma‟s eulogy of the Ramayana may be apply applied to all the other great national epics as well : As long as the hills abide and the streams flow on earth‟s surface, so long shall the story of the Ramayana, be on men‟s lips in the world.
  4. 4. In the Iliad of Homer the blind poet of Chios, which embodies, transmutes and enlarges the poetical material of the Achaean ministrels, the facts of history are obscured in a haze of legend. The actors take an heroic form, the gods participate, in the struggle and the issue is portrayed as contest between the gathered strength of Hellas and an asiatic power. To the modem antiquary, the Iliad, which depicts in vivid colours the Aegean civilization of the bronze age, is full of instruction. In the ruins of Tiryns, the port of Mycenae, he discovers the regal halls of Homer; but to ancient Greece, this splendid body of epical verse, was much more than a repertory of curious details; it was the Bible of a vanished and more heroic world, the book of books, containing the traditions and beliefs of a race, the testament of that great age of conflict, migration and discovery, out of which a triumphant civilization was destined to emerge There are quite certain obvious similarities between the epics of Homer and Valmiki. Both were sung, not written, in the flood-tide of inspiration, and with wealth of emotion, presumably recollected in tran-quility. Neither was a scholar, in the sense in which we understand that expression nowadays, i.e., one who is academically equipped, laden with a lot of book knowledge. Such knowledge as they had and evinced in their work was acquired in other ways - observation and experience, along with inspiration. There is no evidence of Homer‟s literary scholarship; nor that of any literacy among his characters, their knowledge of life and acquain-tance with the world and natural heroism not withstanding. The art of literacy must have come later, after the arts of adventure and warfare. It is well how Valmiki broke into song (or sloka touched to the quick by the sudden sorrow of the Krowncha bird that lost its mate which fell to the arrow of the hunter. So, there was something spontaneous, simple, direct and melligluous about Valmiki‟s verse, all in the anushtupmetre, so familiar to students
  5. 5. of Sanskrit poetry. To the result, that some of the translations (or transcreations) of the Ramayana, in the various Indian languages are justly described as variations of “Valmiki made difficult”. This, of course, is apart from the ecstasies into which regional scholars tend to go over the versions in their own languages, with no way of comparing them to the original, in their smug self-satisfaction, based on a naive sense of self- sufficiency. As for Homer, he was familiar to the world as a blind ministrel singing from one city to another. He was believed to be „an untutored genius‟, the glory of whose achievement was not equalled, let alone surpassed, by his successors in Greece or Rome. Small wonder that Sri Aurobindo in his rating of the masters of world literature, put him in class one, along with Valmiki and one or two others. The berad structure of the Homeric epic, is also not difficult to understand or master. It possesses a certain simplicity which facilitates oral composition as well as oral recitation. The metre too, the Greek Hexametre, which became a model for epic poets, who followed in the different languages, Latin, English etc., is uncomplicated enough to be compa-rable to Valmiki‟sAnushtup. Though the starting point of the whole story of the Trojan War can be identified with the elopment of Paris with Heln, that may not be the clux of the epic, when we think of the spirit that subsumes it. According to some scholars, the whole poem hangs on the wrath of Archilles, and though many other episodes are introduced, this gives unity to the whole. The Odyssey, which is praised for the economy of its structure - the despair of all its imitators - tells of Odysseus, who after many years of wandering comes home to find his wife encircled by contemtible suitors and kills them. The story of Ramayana would seem to hang on the
  6. 6. abduction of Sita for its development, climax and donoument. But it seems to be the character of Sita, which lends structural unity and moral grandeur to the whole epic. Not for nothing it is said: „SitayahCharitammahat‟ - („Great is the story of Sita‟) - let us also remember Prof. Iyengar‟stour de force entitled „Sitayana’, told from Sita‟s point of view). There are a few modern critics of the Ramayana, agnostics included, who think better of the character of Sita than of Rama. (SeetaJosyam, by the late V. R. Narla, who declined the SahityaAkademi‟s prize awarded for it). It is said of Shakespeare that he has “only heroines, no heroines” - in the sense of strength of character. Almost the same could be said of Valmiki, in a modified way, but not of Homer. There is one serious difference between the two poets, which can by no means be ignored or slurred over. Valmiki speaks as a witness, partly a participant, certainly as a devotee committed to clear-cut moral values. No doubt is left in the reader‟s mind, about the problem of good and evil, though enough room for controversy remains on the „rights and wrongs‟ of certain actions in certain situations. Valmiki is no intellectual poet on moral disengagement. We know his sympathies from beginning to end. The ancient Greeks are known to be rather different from ancient Indians, even modern Indians, in this respect. They have this feeling for proportion - going deeper than a sense of regularity - which involves the ability of seeing not merely, as itwere, both sides of a work of art, but both sides of a question. The Greek mind is described as being antithetical. It is a common place of Greek philosophy that to every proposition it is possible to state a counter-proposition. This might often lead to an avoidable ambivalence where moral values are involved. But one has to reckon with it even in the epics. Though himself a Greek, the poet of the Iliad cannot be seen to be on the side of the Greeks any more than that of the
  7. 7. Trojans. It is not easy to say whether Achilles or Hector is treated with the greater sympathy. The redeeming feature about Achilles is the depth of his love, for his friend and comrade Petroclus, whose death at the hands of Hector he avenges by killing Hector. Briam, the aged father of Hector, goes alone and unarmed to the hut of the aggressive, youthful here, Achilles, and asks for the body of his son. And as Achilles listens, he softens. It is not chivalry that moves him or sentimentality. It is an intellectual recognition of the strength of the old man‟s case - mixed no doubt with a philosophical attitude that both their cases were equally insignificant, in face of the harversal tragedy. „The proper study of manking is man‟ - is a very Greek concept, which underlies the all-pervasive concern with man in classical Greek literature, no excluding the epic poetry of Homer. Though it is true that there are frequent appearances of and intervention by Gods and Goddesses, (like Apollo, Arcs, Aphrodite, Eris, Doris, Hades, Hera, Hermes, Nercus, Occanus, Proteus, Thetis, Zeus etc.), as also some monsters and miracles, in the Iliad and the Odyssey, it is felt that they are adequately humanized. They not only inter-marry with the humans butsympathise with them and participate in their joys and sorrows. To the result that we are made to feel that the Gods are men and men are Gods. In deciding the day-to-day fortunes of the combatants in the Trojan War, the Father of the Gods weighs their chances in his golden scales, leading to a sea-saw movement in the fight between Hector and Achilles, Paris and Ajax, Agamomnon and others. One day, the Trojans are up, the other day, the Greeks are up. Every now and then, the Gods and Goddesses come down from Mount Olumpus to throw their weight on the side of one hero or another. Pallasathene decides to support Achilles (son of the sea-goddess Thetis and Poleus, King of Phythia) in the single combat, scaling the fate of Hector. More of caprice than of compassion, where it is not an odd mixture of both seems to be the motivation of their preference. The Gods of
  8. 8. Valmiki seem to be quite circumspect in comparison, with the possible except of Indra, known for his endless indiscretions, where attractive women are concerned. They generally keep their distance; limiting their interventions to situations of crisis, when S.O.S. is sent. (It is well-known that both the works, the Ramayana and the Iliad culminate in a great war, caused by the abduction of a beautiful woman, already married. While Sita, who is carried away against her will by Ravana, treats her powerful abductor with contempt and contumely, Helen, the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, the most beautiful woman of the world, yields to the temptation, held out to her by Paris and goes voluntarily with him to Troy.) However, Homer makes it clear that she is not to blame for this, because Aprodite (the Goddess of Love and Beauty) had decreed that this would happen, as a reward to Paris for having given her the apple meant for the most beautiful Goddess, and not either to Hera (Juno) or Pallas Athene (Minerva), in the contest, held at Mount Ida. It is not clear that Helen is noted for any extraordinary traits of human character, (apart from her physical beauty), like patience, forgiveness, wisdom and nobility, associated with Sita. Ideas of virtue obviously differ from one civilization to another. Helen lives happily not only with Paris, but later with one of his brothers. She is treated not only with courtesy, but with the warmth of affection by Priam and other members of his family. The stress on feminine chastity which receives a special emphasis in the Indian (particularly Hindu) tradition, is not so much in evidence in the Greek. Not all the characters are seen to correspond in their archetypal roles in the Ramayana and the Iliad. While the hero of the former is Rama (hailed as a model of all the masculine virtues), whose wife (Sita) is abducted by the villain (Ravana), the hero of the latter is not Manelaus, the husband of Helen, who
  9. 9. is the aggrieved party, but Achilles, one of the younger Greek heroes. He is noted as much for his great anger and high dudgeon as for his loyalty and valour. None of the Homeric heroes is presumably a paragon of virtue, pure and unsullied, unlike those of Valmiki, who seems to be the idealised personifications of certain human qualities – like nobility and magnimity brotherly love, loyalty, service chastity etc. When we remember that human personality is usually a mixture of many traits, good, bad and indifferent, it would be fair to recognize the essentially realistic element in Homer‟s art of characterization. To take only one character, Rama for example, he has obviously no parallel, in Home (the Iliad or the Odyssey) for magnanimity. His readiness to forgive (and forget) strikes one as more divine than human. When Vibhishana seeks refuge, and his own advisors, like Lakshmana, Sugriva and even Hanuman are a little suspicious, he tells them in his famous words: “No man shall seek my protection in vain. He may be wicked, he may be undeserving, he may even by my bitterest enemy, Ravana himself. But if he comes to me in a friendly and submissive spirit, I will not turn him back.” Again, when he is looked in a mortal battle with Ravana himself, and gains some advantage, with the latter driven to come down from his chariot, Rama refrains from pressing that advantage and tells the enemy: “Now, Ravan, you are at a great disadvantage. Today, I have seen you at your best.... Yet you are tired. I give time, Go home now. Come tomorrow, refreshed and strong in your chariot and with a new bow and new armour.” At this distance of time, this kind of behaviour might strike us as an example of chivalry in excelsis and the cynic as a nobility of gesture too good to be true. Very different from what Arjuna would have done, had in fact done to Karna, with
  10. 10. Krishna‟s prompting though. Certainly, very different from what Schilles had actually done to Hector in the violent encounter. Grievously wounded, his end approaching, the once- proud Hector appeals to Achilles: “I beg you by your life, your knees and your parent, do not leave to be torn by the dogs near the ships of the Achacans, accept the bronze and much gold, which my father and my honoured mother will give you, and send my body back home, so that the Trojans and their wives may put me on a funeral pyre.” To which the angry and unsatisfied victor replies: “Dog, do not entreat me by my knees or by my parents, foil (I wish my angry heart could urge me to cut up your flesh and devour it raw myself, such things have you done to me; so there is nobody who can drive away the dogs from your head, not even if they bring gifts, ten and twenty times as great and set them here before me and even promise more; not even if Priam, the son of Dardanus, would wish to pay your weight in gold, not even then shall your honoured mother lay you on a bed and weep for you; but the dogs and the birds shall tear you up completely.” Any comment on this would be needless. Except to remind ourselves that such happenings are not incredible; having heard of them and read about them in our neighbouring countries and continents, not long ago. As for literary conventions and stylistic devices, all the great epics are seen to follow a recognisable and comparable pattern. Homer‟s poetic diction is characterised by a constant dependence upon stere-otyped phrases or formulae, including the regular qualification of a particular substantive by a standard epither, e.g. swift-footed Achilles, house-breaking Hector,
  11. 11. bright-eyed Pallasathene, Deciphobus of the While Shield, the old man God-like Priam, as also „swift‟ and „sea-faring‟ ships (even when they are beached) „blameless‟ Aegisthus (a murderous adulterer) and „haze-born‟ and „rose-fingered‟ dawn etc. Valmiki has stereotyped phraseology – Purusharshabha, PurushaVyaghra, Munisreshta, Vanarapungaya, Danavottama (may be Dana-vaadhama too) and so on and so forth. As for the epic similies, too familiar (and conventional), unlike those of Kalidasa, those of Homer are called „long-tailed‟, while Valmiki‟s are at times shorter and more effec­tive. e.g. - „Rama RavanayarYuddham Rama Ravanayoriva‟) („The battle between Rama and Ravana is comparable only to Rama and Ravana‟). Both the Iliad (as also the Odyssey) and the Ramayana, unlike the Mahabharata (partly because of its unwieldysize and uneven develop-ment), have a certain unity of theme, action and treatment, as also style and technique. The interpolations, if any are minimal and do not militate against the spirit or structure of the work as a whole. The first and second cantoes (the Bala Kanda and the Uttara Kanda) of the Ramayana, or parts of them atleast are thought by some to be interpolations. Similarly, some portions of the Iliad, may be at the beginning and in the end. There are scholars, who consider the famous sloka of Lakshmana on the jewels of Sita („NaahamJaanaamiKeyure, NaahamJaanaamlMouktike ... etc.) an interpolation, in view of its excessively puritanical piety, not going well with the spirit of an age, comparatively free from latter-day inhibitions. As for the totality of artistic appeal, there can be no finality in matters of literary judgement. Critical assessments could change from time to time as also from clime to clime. Indians, Hindus in particular, are taught to look upon their national epics with unqualified veneration, totally worshipful and absolutely uncritical. The Ramayana, for instance, can be discussed as a work of literary art, away from the personal needs
  12. 12. and spiritual demands of „parayana‟. Small wonder therefore that linguistic scholars and literary critics, not from the same socio-cultural milieu or spiritual tradition are not always found to echo our own lyrical ecstasies. Even an Indian scholar--statesman, like the Rt. Hon. V.S. SrinivasaSastri, in his „lectures on the Ramayana‟ (comparable in breadth of vision, critical insight and literary scholarship to A.C. Bradley‟s “Lectures on Shakespear can Tragedy”) had to face a lot of hostility from the orthodox, the sentimental and the superstitious. A German scholar of the last century, Prof. A. Weber, had made a study of the Ramayana, in its different aspects translated into English by the Rev. D. Boyd, for the Indian Antiquary, 1872. The main conclusions of that paper or essay were challenged and sought to be rebutted by KashinathTrimbakTelan (scholar, publicist and jurist) in his paper, read before the Student‟s Literary and Scientific Society, Bombay, on 2 September, 1872. Prof. Weber‟s conclusions, summarised by Telang, were as follows: - (1)The entire narrative of the exile (of Rama) itself to a large extent, been developed out of germs furnished by Buddhist legends; (2) In the existing condition of the text, however, we find unmistakable indications that the influence Greece upon India was already firmly established. (3)It is possible that in the addition of these two elements (namely the abduction of Sita and the siege of Lanka) by Valmiki, we should recognize the influence of an acquaintance with the Homeric saga cycle; (4) The work of Valmiki can hardly date earlier than
  13. 13. about the, beginning of the Christian era. Anyway, how many of us can claim to know both the classical languages equally well, and have a critical objectivity to judge of them with no fear of prejudices and predilections, based on ethnic-linguistic loyalties and religious sentiments? Prof. GaspareGorressio of Turin, Italy (1908-1891) was one of few such. In his introduction of „Adikanda’ and „Ayodhya Kanda‟ he has this to say: “Except for the differences that the dissimilar nature and tenden-cies of the people necessarily imprint more forcefully on these works than on the others, the Ramayana is to India What Homer‟s poems are to Greece. They depict not only the age in which they were born, but they also interpret the traditions of former times. Valmiki‟s and Homer‟s poems are both historical monuments which faithfully reflect the glory ancient times. They constitute the first great compendium portraying ancient Greece and ancient India. They are both memorable national undertakings that have much in common.” With this difference, however, that Homer‟s Greece is no longer alive in today‟s Greece or elsewhere in modern Europe. The Iliad and the Odyssey were the arche types for much for epic literature in Europe. In India, it was not only that. The world of Valmiki might have gone beyond recall. But the value system of the Ramayana is a living presence, a cherished ideal, though not the actual guideline in our day-to-day life. As we have an admirable knack for keeping the ideal and the actual apart, we can admire something that we do not hope to practise. Idols remain always in tact, but critical assessments become hazy and clouded.

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