Comparative Literature 358
Second Essay Assignment
Word Count: 1392
LOVE & WAR
The Odyssey vs. The Ramayana
Love is a powerful human emotion as it is able to transcend both time and culture. It is apparent, then, why love is often a theme in literary works including The Odyssey and The Ramayana. Despite having thousands of miles separating the two stories geographically, The Odyssey and The Ramayana have a lot in common. The female characters, Penelope and Sita, play an important role in both Odysseus’ and Rama’s voyage. Both voyages last for many years. Further similarities include that both of these early pieces of literature date back to when stories were passed down orally. Most importantly, both recount a hero’s journey to reclaim their lost kingdom, and ultimately, their wives are the driving force that brings them home.
In The Odyssey, Homer tells the story of Odysseus and his twenty-year journey home after the Trojan War. Seven of those years, he spent trapped on an island by the sea nymph Calypso. During his prolonged absence, many presume he is dead. Thus, Penelope is plagued with suitors trying to take her hand in marriage in hopes of taking Odysseus’ throne. To avoid the invaders, Penelope claims that she must first finish weaving before she will choose someone new to marry. When Odysseus finally returns home out of love for his family, he avenges his honor by killing the suitors and all of those who failed to remain loyal to him. While Odysseus has not remained faithful to Penelope for the duration of his absence, he is concerned with the purity of his wife as he claims that he was always true to Penelope in his heart. However, it is Penelope who tests the purity of Odysseus upon his return. She asks him to tell her the secret of their marriage. After he answers correctly, Homer describes their joyous reunion:
Now from his breast into the eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms,
longed for as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon's blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
Few men can keep alive through a big serf
to crawl, clotted with brine, on kindly beaches
in joy, in joy, knowing the abyss behind:
and so she too rejoiced, her gaze upon her husband,
her white arms round him pressed as though forever.
Odysseus’ homecoming exemplifies the love that remains in his heart for his family, even if he was physically disloyal while away. This is similar to The Ramayana because Rama’s ultimate goal, like Odysseus, is to return to his wife.
The Ramayana is a story about Rama, a prince who is exiled to the Dandaka forest for fourteen years after his father, King Dasartha, gives the throne to Rama’s brother, Bharata. In spite of this, Rama’s wife, Sita and brother, Laksmana decide to follow him into the forest and stay with him. During the exile, Sita is captured by the 10-headed demon named Ravana. Rama is distraught over the loss of his wife and asks an army of monkeys to help him return her. The leader of this army, Hanuman – King of the Wind, flies to save her. But, when Hanuman arrives Sita explains that she would rather have Rama save her in order for him to maintain her Dharma. Once Rama successfully defeated Ravana, he, like Odysseus, says that he did it to preserve his family’s name. Rama says, “I have defeated my enemy and avenged the insult to me. This campaign was not undertaken wholly for your sake; it was to uphold the honor of my illustrious family”. At this point, however, Rama questions the purity of Sita. To prove that she has been faithful, she steps into a burning flame and is saved by the God of Fire. Then, Rama and Sita are able to celebrate their reunion with one another too. The love expressed between Rama and Sita is so powerful that R.K. Narayan describes the feeling Rama has towards Sita, “Rama glanced at her whenever a beautiful object caught his eye. Every tint of the sky, every shape of a flower or bud, every elegant form of a creeper reminded him of some aspect or other of Sita’s person”. Love has truly been a powerful emotion since the beginning of time.
Both Odysseus and Rama’s journeys speak to more than just their heroism in combat, but also how they interact with other people; specifically, the people they love. The interactions that both heroes have with their families are key aspects to their specific characters. In both epics, Penelope and Sita are images of the ideal partner for a hero in their actions and gestures. While it would be appropriate to label Rama as an “ideal husband”, many would disagree if that same labeled were given to Odysessus. However, though Odysseus spent several years with Calypso and one with Circe, Odysseus claims that “they never won the heart inside [him]” (Homer 357). Additionally, it is important to note that both men were respected and honored in their cultures. Both Odysseus and Rama were faithful to their wives, relative to the standards of their culture. Furthermore, Penelope and Sita also are associated with legendary bows in each epic and they are reflective of status. Odysseus’ bow is only able to be strung by him and in The Ramayana, Rama’s successful drawing (and dismantling) of Shiva’s bow allows him the status to marry Sita in the first place. These bows, like Penelope and Sita, are untouched by other men and remain loyal to their rightful owners.
At the same time, Penelope and Sita reveal the corruption within their own husbands. Penelope follows xenia, the Greek notion of hospitality and politeness, when the suitors arrive and remains civil with them while they are under her roof. Yet, these invaders prove their disrespect while in the house of Odysseus by how they treat others. Likewise, Sita is careful to adhere to the Hindu principal of dharma. She forgoes the comfort of her own home to follow her husband into the forest when he is exiled and perseveres against Ravana’s advances. In both epics, the way that women are treated by the antagonists is what renders these characters as the villains of the story. The overarching patriarchal concerns about adultery in the husband’s absence is diminished by Penelope and Sita portraying the ideal wife in less than ideal scenarios.
Penelope and Sita play crucial roles in both The Odyssey and The Ramayana. It is interesting to see the female characters have such a significant impact on the journey of each hero. While women are not often respected in ancient cultures, there is still something to be said of the importance they have within society and family norms. The love of family is ultimately what drives both men to continue their journey and persevere through any obstacle they are faced with. In their pursuit of returning home, Odysseus and Rama both must endure many hardships that often end in combat. Both of these voyages feature many fights with various antagonists. Furthermore, it is proven that women may be the heroes only weakness. The primary example of this is in The Ramayana when Ravana kidnaps Sita because he knows that she is the one person that Rama cares the most about. Thus, it is often the women are the root cause of conflict in ancient epics. This deep-felt connection empowered by love that is felt between a man and a woman is heightened when they are apart. As is the case for both Rama and Odysseus while they are away from their wives, this exact reason also happens to be the driving force behind the reason for their return. It is an understatement to say that love is powerful. Perhaps, the most powerful emotion of humanity because it often to leads to other strong emotions such as anger and jealousy. Both of which are very evident in the way each hero conducts himself and fights their opponents. Love is the ultimate superpower both at home and on the battle field. It can protect you and even heal your wounds. Though, it is not always simple, but as the saying goes… all is fair in love and war.