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  • Realism and Idealism in Ancient India and Today's World
  • Walter C. Clemens Jr. (bio)
Nell Shapiro Hawley and Sohini Sarah Pillai, eds., Many Mahābhāratas (Albany: State University Press of New York, 2021).
Ravi Agrawal, India Connected: How the Smartphone Is Transforming the World's Largest Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

The two major classic epics of India, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata, underscore the same bipolar worldviews—idealism versus realism—found also in Western and other civilizations. The book India Connected raises the question: can advances in technology transform life so that ancient worldviews are no longer relevant? Or are we still saddled with the principle plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose?

The case for realism is implicit in the Melian debate in 415 BCE as transmitted by Thucydides. Athenian officers warned the stubborn Melians against refusing to align with Athens against Sparta: "The strong do what they can, and the weak what they must." The Melians defended their stance with references to justice and honor, but they were slaughtered or enslaved. Their appeal to ideals did not save them.

The foreword to Many Mahābhāratas by Oberlin professor Paula Richman tells us that the Rāmāyana is seen as the first Sanskrit kāvya (ornate work of narrative poetry), while the Sanskrit Mahābhārata is often viewed as itihāsa (history). The first is the "poetics of perfection," while the other offers the "poetics of dilemma." The first versions of the Rāmāyana, attributed to Maharishi Valmiki, probably took shape circa 500 BCE, while the Mahābhārata, attributed to Vyāsa, emerged between 100 BCE and 200 CE. The Mahābhārata is many times longer than the Rāmāyana and contains an abbreviated version of the earlier work.1 [End Page 877]

Professor Richman points to a fundamental difference between the two epics: In the Rāmāyana, Prince Rama's foe Rāvana is "othered" as an inhuman monster, while the opposing antagonists in the Mahābhārata are cousins—"brothered" with shared familial bonds. The Rāmāyana is a story of ideals, while the Mahābhārata presents a realistic depiction of how elites wield power and resort to violence. Each story is like a helpful friend instructing us on "what fruit befell the actions of others in the past," but each allows us to ask new questions. This resonance across time helps explain why both the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata have been adopted, interpolated, and staged widely in South and Southeast Asia and beyond. Indeed, professor Richman edited an antecedent to this book: Many Rāmāyanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia (1991).

Editor Hawley is a Preceptor in Sanskrit at Harvard; editor Pillai is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. All the other seventeen contributors are based in the United States, except two in Belgium and one in India; India-based Sudha Gopalakrishnan is executive director of Sahapedia, an online encyclopedic resource on the arts and cultures of India.

Richman's introduction recalls (pp. xx–xxi) how the twists and turns of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana traditions multiply as each story is retold in different genres, regional languages, and performic traditions—for example, Muthal Naidoo's play Flight from the Mahabharath was written in the early 1990s in English in South Africa.2

The Rāmāyana is a tale about the struggle between good and evil. Prince Rama, his wife Sita, and their helpers operate on the basis of high ideals as they fight otherworldly monsters, rākṣasa devils, pursuing evil. For Hindus, Rama is an incarnation of Lord Vşņu and is also the ideal son, husband, brother, warrior, and universal sovereign of a utopian age. Rama and an army of monkeys storm the island of Lanka to save Sita from the ten-headed demon Rāvana, who has kidnapped her. The story illustrates the expectation that a divine figure will descend periodically to cleanse the earth of evil. A similar belief...


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