Recently, I coerced one of my Ramayana buddies into watching the original Ramayana tv series produced by Ramanand Sagar in the late 80’s; a series that revived a whole consciousness and national pride, and had far-reaching effects on what is offered on Indian television today. Having seen at least seven different tv versions of the Ramayana, some of them numerous times, this most recent viewing confirms for me that while there are others I have enjoyed and even “loved”, this original is in a league of its own.
I did not discover the plethora of Indian tv serials available on YouTube and DVD until just about three years ago. I’ve been a lost cause ever since, taking a few other with me down the rabbit hole. We have a secret club (well, not really secret, but somewhat embarrassed at publicly admitting our enthusiasm) exchanging links to yet another subtitled series, and we have been known to shuttle entire sets of DVDs containing hundreds of episodes back and forth from one end of the US to another.
When I have confessed this obsession to various Indian friends young and old, it usually evokes a “you’re kidding — you?” laughing response. That’s generally followed by full disclosure of their own obsessions with similar series.
Those of my own generation, (50’s and above) may then share stories such as the one I heard recently from a woman friend: how excited she was when, as a young woman, she happened to be in a hotel restaurant at the time that the entire cast of B.K. Chopra’s Mahabharat came in. Even telling the tale 25 years later her face lit up with youthful excitement. Or I heard a young father’s enthusiastic recounting of how he recently watched Mahadev online with his children and they used the opportunity after every episode to have a lively family discussion about values, morality and choices.
I hesitate to use the word mythological when describing these series, but it’s the way the genre is referred to by the tv industry.
For us, while it is entertaining for sure, it is not just entertainment. It’s a form of devotional practice—even if it does come with cardboard crowns, hunky actors and subtitles. The very last thing we do at night is to be absorbed in the “leelas of the Lord” (the divine stories of the lives of the avatars and dieties).
Listening to the stories of God’s play on the earth is one of the nine paths of devotion recommended by the great sage Narada in the Narada Sutras; that practice is the core of the Srimad Bhagavatam itself.
Of course, Narada muni probably wasn’t thinking about Mohit Raina as Shiva when he was first disclosing the devotional path, but it’s the 21st century, and there it is.
Convincing my friend to sit through many episodes of this first Ramayana was not an easy task, because it was produced when technology —and perhaps production budgets—were both relatively low. Compared to the avalanche of green-screen / Star Wars-like / Industrial-Light-&-Magic quality mythologicals that now flood Indian TV, this original Ramayana can seem primitive indeed. And some people, my friend among them, just don’t like classic movies with their slower pace and dated production values.
For those who were a part of the 80’s – 90’s Indian television-viewing population, (a group that does not include me), this Ramanand Sagar Ramayana remains the standard against which all other Ramayanas—and there are many—are measured.
For those nurtured on the current generation of shows like Devon ke Dev Mahadev or the current Siya ke Ram with their superhero physiques, stunning sets, drop-dead-gorgeous costumes and video-game-influenced special effects, it takes entirely rebooting a mindset to return to the early days of foil crowns and fully-draped females, not to mention some aging and (gasp!) flabby-by-today’s-standards actors (translation: normal people) in a couple of the famous co-starring roles.
To make an American analogy, I believe Arun Govil, whose placid demeanor and beatific half-smile immortalized his portrayal of Ram, would have about as much chance of being cast to play Ram today as Rex Harrison would have of talk-singing his way through the lead in My Fair Lady—if that musical was being premiered in 2016 instead of in 1956. No one gets cast in a major Broadway production anymore who is not a triple-threat: actor, dancer and singer capable of belting out the big notes.
Comparably, acceptable physical standards for tv and movies have radically changed in the past 15 years, in some cases sacrificing nobility of character and depth of talent for six-pack abs.
I muse that Arun, a handsome actor and very well-proportioned by 1986 standards, would no doubt need to spend three hours a day in the gym to meet current expectations for a hero, as did Mohit Raina during the 2011-2014 filming of Mahadev.
The brilliantly nuanced performance of older actor Dara Singh as Hanuman would never make it to the screen today, nor would Arvind Trivedi’s portrayal of Ravan; so much more complex than some of the blustery characterizations of later versions.
So, despite our periodically giving way to laughter at the plastic demon costumes that look like leftovers from the sale section in the back of an Oriental Trading Company catalog, it didn’t take long for us to get sucked right back into the Ramayana vortex, and to be reminded that almost none of the writing in the mythological genre today compares with the powerful level of prose in the screenplays that Ramanand Sagar himself penned—and I say that going only by the English subtitles.
I assume we all know how unreliable subtitles are in conveying the beauty and subtleties of thought of the original language. Subtitles usually represent several degrees of devolution from their source material. By now, I’ve watched enough hundreds of hours of Hindi to know when they are skimping on or changing the English flashing at the bottom of the screen. To be profoundly moved by second-rate translations says something about the power of the original.
Our current viewing has reminded me that portions of Sagar’s scripts—particularly the monologues and question/answer segments—contain philosophical wisdom of the highest order. They come across with a vibrational frequency that remains unmatched. That frequency is the difference between a line that resonates as truth, and one that simply serves up well-known platitudes. I believe it was with the attunement of someone who has imbibed and lived the truths of his dialogues that Sagar succeeded in dispersing Vedic wisdom all over the globe.
Current mythologicals, with each generation of technology, put the emphasis more and more on buff bodies, lush sets and special effects. I admit to thoroughly enjoying all those improvements. Unfortunately, much of the time, improvements in production values have come at the expense of another, higher value—the level of vibration that infused Sri Sagar’s writings in this and other subsequent productions. I am confident that sentimentality is not coloring my observation through a lens of longing for things from my youth, because my youth was spent in the Bronx, NY in a Jewish home and all things Indian were far in my future.
The philosophies Sagar spoke through the mouth of Ram or any number of his other characters are a combination of the many versions of the Ramayana he lists in the opening credits plus his own interpretation. But oh, what an interpretation!
I have come to believe that like Tulsidas, Ramanand Sagar was another incarnation of Sage Valmiki.
Tulsidas, widely believed to be a reincarnation of Valmiki, put the Ramayana into the vernacular to make it available to those who could not access the story in scholarly Sanskrit. It was much like Johannes Gutenberg taking the Bible away from the exclusive provenance of monks and putting it into the hands of the people.
Sagar likewise re-cast the story in the new vernacular—television—and made the Ramayana available again to new generations on an unprecedented scale. His Ramayana has been viewed by at least 100 million people worldwide. Some YouTube uploads, from the many people who have uploaded it, carry viewer numbers in the hundreds of thousands still. Talk about making something available to a new generation! Perhaps only George Lucas has had that level of impact on mass consciousness.
Every year or two, there is a new Ramayana plying the airwaves. Of course there is, it is an inexhaustible source of remakes and retellings, no matter how difficult some aspects of the story are for a modern woman. (I will save wrestling with that topic for another post at a later date). Ostensibly, this newest one (Siya ke Ram) tells the story from the point of view of Sita. I caught a (probably bootleg) upload on YouTube of several episodes. I had to do without subtitles; since that kind of official release may be a few years away. But the story is embedded in me such that I can watch it and figure out most of what’s happening.
Tellingly, I happened to start with an episode where Ram (presumably taking a ritual bath) rises from the river water like Venus on the Half Shell, or Esther Williams in a 1930’s musical—a gorgeous man, dripping wet and stunningly lit. I wasn’t sure if this was the Ramayana or a centerfold shoot. I know that my first association with what I was watching wasn’t exactly devotional. I laughed out loud, both enjoying it and marveling at how the edges of commercialism are pushed.
A quick visit to the series’ Facebook page has the gushings of this generation of fans, that this is the best Ramayana ever, the one they’ll remember forever and ever.
I’m sure that’s true for the audience of now. I also know that, sucker that I am for anything beautiful and artistic as this production is, that I will be on alert for when, eventually, the dvd’s will be released.
But I’m glad I saw it right in the middle of my revisiting that first, landmark Sagar series. Between that one, and the later 2008 version also produced by the Sagar clan, a standard was set in a way that I, and legions of others, will cherish…”forever and ever.”
About 20 years ago, I was standing in Borders Books in Stamford CT, leafing through this beautiful and expensive hardcover volume that I decided to buy for a friend of mine who was an artist as well as an India-phile. An artist myself, I knew a beautiful set of illustrations when I saw them, and knew she would adore the book. I was vaguely familiar with the fact that the Ramayana was an ancient Indian tale, albeit one I’d never read. As I paged through the story, I read the brief recounting of the tale that accompanied the lush illustrations. When I got toward the end of the narrative— which involved a hapless woman being forced to give a test of her purity by fire—I lost all interest, but I still loved the pictures. I meant to eventually buy myself a copy of the book, but I never got around to it.
I did not know then that the illustrator, B.G. Sharma, was one of the most famous modern sacred artists in India. I did not know then that the monkey on the cover would, over the course of many more years, subtly inveigle his way into my consciousness. And I certainly did not know then that this tale would slowly take over my very existence.
I’m hardly alone in that, though. Versions of the Ramayana are known all over Asia, and the tale has been told for time out of mind. There are hundreds if not thousands of entire websites devoted to it; there have been an abundance of film and tv versions made in India (every decade inspires a new remake that can keep up with advances in special effects); there are books of philosophy written about it and teachings in universities and business schools based on the lessons therein. It is told and retold and re-enacted and re-illustrated.
And anything that has that kind of sway over that many people for that long a time seemed to be at least worth familiarizing myself with.
One thing I came to appreciate: it’s impossible to have an understanding of India or Indian culture without familiarity with its two great epics: The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. The two express the very soul of India in a way that, in my opinion, has no comparison in Western culture. It forms a vocabulary and a frame of reference for everything from the most ordinary facets of life to the highest halls of learning and spirituality.
But that does not explain why it stole into my own life to the point where, really, I could only admit to others of the same ilk the degree to which it has taken over and pretty much crowded out 80% of everything else.
I should pause here to say that my involvement with The Mahabharata preceded my romance with Ramayana. It all started in 2005 during a visit to India, when I shipped home two huge volumes that constituted an abridged (only 2000 pages) Mahabharata, and was soon followed by a translation of the Ramayana. My obsession with both epics has continued pretty much unabated since then. It seems that The Mahabharata alternates with the Ramayana in my life, much like Beethoven contrasts with Mozart—different temperaments; both awesome, both transformative, both able to bring you into the realm of the transcendent if you allow them.
Each character in these epics embodies an aspect of human life and aspiration. We can see ourselves in all our greatness and all our folly, much like the phenomenon that makes Shakespeare timeless despite the changing idioms and languages of five centuries.
But that understanding was still not enough to explain my obsession.
Until finally, the mystery got solved a year ago, when, driven by this compulsion, I attended a three-day Ramanyana retreat with Swami Jyotirmayananda of Yoga Research Foundation in Miami, FL, whom I’d heard about from my friend Patty.
That retreat afforded me the rare opportunity to be in the presence of one who is both an eminent scholar & author and an enlightened sage. It’s a killer combo; and I’m sure he was drawn into my life at that juncture by the intensity of my interest. When I say he is an enlightened sage, I don’t mean enlightened as in “he sheds light on the subject”, (although he does that too), but enlightened as in “has attained total Divine Union and bliss consciousness with God while still in a human body.” Only an enlightened sage can speak of the symbols and deep meanings in these stories not from a philosophical speculation or intellectual explanation, but from direct soul experience.
What I realized in the first few hours of listening to him was that the reason these tales had moved into my mental neighborhood and evicted most of the earlier residents is that they are encoded maps to enlightenment. Far beyond being references for life in the everyday world, they are maps of the journey of the Soul to Re-Union (yoga) with itSelf. At the deepest, most archetypal level, the part of me that had been on this path for a long time recognized that fact even though I could not name it. And understanding that which Swamiji calls the mystic meanings, resolves most of my conflicts about various events in the story.
I now believe that certain archetypes speak to our understanding of the Journey of Life, but on different levels. Some archetypes serve to inform us about the wisdom of leading our life on this earth plane. Many fairy tales come under this heading, as do Shakespeare and other beloved stories from many cultures.
The Ramayana (and the Mahabharata) do this as well, but they go a giant leap further—beyond the earth plane to the true purpose of the journey of the soul: Divine RE-Union.
I was taught by Caroline Myss that the ancient Mystery Schools divided the Mysteries into Lesser Mysteries and Greater Mysteries. The Lesser Mysteries were for those in the outer courts; those who needed the veil of symbols and rituals to enact for them great spiritual truths that the masses were not capable of digesting whole. Only Initiates were allowed into the Greater Mysteries; and the net result of the Greater Mysteries was attaining the actual integrated experience that All is One, aka Divine Union—enlightenment.
The Ramayana is the Lesser and the Greater Mysteries all rolled into one. At the level of the Lesser Mysteries, it’s a great mythic story with the usual gangs of Gods and Demons, Heroes and Villains, Damsels in Distress, Triumphs and Tragedies. But at the Greater Mysteries level, it’s the Treasure Hunt Map to the Long Journey Home. The same holds true for the Mahabharata, which holds at its great heart the Bhagavad Gita, which serves as the ultimate scripture for more than a billion people.
The Ramayana contains something that the Mahabharata does not*: Hanuman.
(*Note: Hanuman actually has an important cameo role in the Mahabharata, but in the Ramayana he is one of the hearts of the story.)
Hanuman is the monkey on the cover of the book that first drew me in. Devotion to Hanuman was, at another point in my own journey, frankly, quite alien to me no matter how expansive my background.
Long before I had any familiarity with any epic outside of my own culture’s, I remember reading a quote from Sathya Sai Baba in one of my study groups, how Hanuman was the Lord’s greatest devotee of all time.
“Great,” I thought, knowing absolutely nothing about Hanuman at the time, “a monkey is the greatest devotee. Then what chance do humans have? Very discouraging.”
When I actually read the story, I came to understand that the vanaras, which we translate as “monkey”, but which I’ve seen translated as forest dwellers, were far beyond our present-day conception of monkeys. In the Ramayana, they are the incarnations of demigods, born expressly to help Vishnu, the aspect of God that is devoted to preserving and sustaining creation, to overcome the evil which had gotten out of bounds. The demigods needed to take this form because the chief antagonist of the age, the demon Ravana, had secured a boon which made him invulnerable to all—all except for man and apes, both of whom he considered too puny to be concerned about. Vishnu descends to earth to aid mankind by incarnating as a man—four men in fact: Rama and his three brothers. Vishnu’s eternal consort, Lakshmi, incarnates as Sita, born of the earth itself, intimately expressing the connection between God and Nature, between Creator and Creation. In order to help Vishnu in this divine mission to destroy evil, the aspect of God that represents destruction (or transformational energy)—Shiva himself—is born as the invincible Hanuman, whose only raison d’etre is to serve Rama.
It was through Swami Jyotirmayananda’s teachings that I came to understand why the most recognized pictures of the Ramayana always depict this quartet: Rama, his wife Sita, his brother Lakshman, and kneeling at their feet, always, Hanuman. Ram is the embodied symbol of the all-pervasive pure God consciousness; the Eternal Witness. Sita represents the intuitional intellect, or the higher intuitional wisdom of the mind. Lakshman, the devoted warrior-brother-with-a-quick-temper embodies the Will to action, and Hanuman, the immortal and invincible one who could literally “move mountains” is the aspect of Devotion. Where there is Hanuman, there is Ram; where there is Devotion, there is God. It is the power of devotion that moves mountains, that melts the heart of the Lord, that creates miracles, that manifests our own Superpowers. Ram is victorious only because of Hanuman; Hanuman accomplishes all his victories through the power of Ram.
Among the various routes back to divine knowledge of the eternal Self, (yoga), Devotion, or Bhakti in Sanskrit, is the path of yoga to which I gravitate. I’ve never been a disciplined meditator (Raja yoga), I often fail to live up to my own noble notions of spending more time in selfless service (the path of Karma, or Action-oriented yoga), I’m not proficient or consistent in my occasional flirtations with Hatha (physical) yoga, and while I love to read, I’m far more drawn to the stories and legends (Puranas) than I am to pure Jnana (philophical inquiries). But Bhakti is like my home country: singing, chanting, mantras, silent repetition of one of the names or aspects of the Divine have become so integrated into my life that they are all like breathing.
Since Hanuman is the ultimate symbol of devotion, it followed that, whether I liked it or not, I have, little by little found that indeed, there is a legendary Monkey on My Back, and I have no intentions of shaking him off any time soon, or any time at all, for that matter. I do intend, from time to time, to share some reflections on the Ramayana and its well-traversed episodes, of which there is a seemingly inexhaustible font of interpretations and observations to mine.
Although I’d already read several book versions of the Ramayana, and had seen the great 1988 television series by Ramanand Sagar—which, when first aired, literally brought India to a standstill and which has been seen by an estimated 100 million people in its time—it was when I stumbled across the later 2008 Sagar tv version that I became a totally lost cause.
The music throughout the series by legendary composer and singer Ravindra Jain slays me, and to this day I react viscerally to the theme song.
Fortunately for me, I have infected my housemate, friend and colleague, Jan, with Ramayana disease. One night, when we were watching yet another go-round of some version of Rama’s story, she turned to me and asked: “Is this what we’ll be doing for the rest of our lives? Watching the Ramayana?”
“Pretty much, yes,” I replied. “is there anything else?”
It’s my intention to share some of the rich journey with that story on these pages here from time to time, hopefully making the wisdom accessible to people who are not so enamoured of immersing themselves in the story.
Jai Hanuman! Jai Sri Ram!