The Ramayana and Mahabharata battles aren’t purely about good versus evil

The moral blur.
The moral blur.
Image: EPA/Harish Tyagi
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Romila Thapar is one of India’s foremost historians. In the following book excerpt, the professor emerita at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University is in conversation with Neeladri Bhattacharya and Ramin Jahanbegloo, enunciating the ideas of exile, retaliation, forgiveness, and remorse in Indian epics. 

Neeladri Bhattacharya: Stories of exile are there not only in the epics. Ramanujan shows how stories of exile play an important functional role within folk tales. In many folk tales the story begins with a prince within a kingdom…he does something that is not kingly, not wise, violates the norms of good, kingly behaviour. So he is punished. He moves out of this normative world, the royal world to which he belongs, and moves into the world outside, in exile, and travels through different places, and especially to spaces that are unfamiliar. This travel creates the possibility of confrontations with the world, with the strange and unknown. Through travel the king acquires knowledge, becomes wise. Exile and travel thus constitutes the prince as a normative individual, one worthy of returning to his kingdom, and assuming power.

Romila Thapar: I think the idea that when in exile one has to come to terms with the unfamiliar is evident and more so in the epics. The Homeric epic demonstrates this unfailingly through the constant looming up of the unfamiliar if not the distinctly weird on the journey home. In the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, there is also the presence of creatures of fantasy. The exaggerated descriptions of demons are partly to demonstrate that the heroes have to contend with the scary and unfamiliar. This further extends the difference between the places where the heroes came from and where they are now in exile. Exile is the unfamiliar, the unknown, the wilderness.

Ramin Jahanbegloo: It’s also the distanciation that is needed for this social change.

NB: But then, in this, the closure is through a return. There is not just exile, but a return too. In most cases, this return is very important for it closes the story…Exile is not permanent exclusion from the normative, it is inclusion too. Exile makes the reincorporation possible. It reconstitutes the individual, making him worthy of reincorporation.

RT: It implies a closure of time, yes, but not before the cataclysmic event towards which the narrative has been moving: the battle between those who have been chiselled through the narrative into, to put it crudely, good and evil. The battle has to be won by the good, although this is done through a variety of devious and complex ways if need be. These ways are perhaps morally more problematic in the Mahabharata than in the Ramayana. This was a question raised by Bimal Matilal, among others. In the former, advice is helpful to the heroes, but it can be ethically somewhat dubious. In the latter, the choices are more straightforward, but the decisions perhaps not so attractive. In neither case is it a simple fight, and there is a constant play on the rights and wrongs of the protagonists, and even on the battle. Eventually it is over. What is significant in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata is that the closure is not “And they lived happily ever after.” In both cases, the closure is clouded in the uncertainty of “Was this a moral action or not, was it avoidable?” In the case of the Ramayana, it is the second banishment of Sita even if, as some scholars argue, this was an episode added later to the original epic. It dogs the events towards the last phase. In the Mahabharata, the question was whether it was a morally justified war, involving the killing of one’s kinsfolk, a question constantly asked by the survivors. Yudhisthira does not get to heaven to begin with. The story of the dog is introduced when he says that he cannot leave his dog behind and the dog cannot go to heaven. At the end of it, the moral dilemma seems to remain, although it is faced, but is not perhaps entirely solved.

RJ: How do you compare this with the Bible? Because in the Bible, you also have the return, like in the story of Joseph. It has a moral dimension, but it’s very different from the Indian epics. But you also have the concepts of “forgiveness” and “retaliation.” Do they exist in the same manner in the Indian epics?

RT: I don’t think forgiveness or retaliation are part of the final act. There is little of retaliation, but perhaps something of remorse in the events that circulate around the end of the narratives. Gandhari is angry that there seem to be no solutions. She’s deeply unhappy as are others. But I don’t recollect much of forgiveness or…let me put it in another way and say that emotions of forgiveness or retaliation are not the most visible at the end of the narrative. The most visible emotion, it seems to me, was the moral dilemma. But the lack of closure is typical of the epic genre. The Bible is somewhat different from the epic in that many stories are concerned more with belief, faith, and the ultimate ethic. These are not the same concerns as those of the societies of epic heroes. 

NB: Are these ideas of exile and moral dilemma framed differently in the different versions of the Ramayana? Or do they follow the same structure?

RT: No, in the Buddhist version Rama and Sita come back and start ruling. There’s no dilemma. We’ve created the dilemma today by objecting to their being siblings in this version.

NB: What about the northern and southern versions?

RT: Even in the earliest Jaina version of the Ramayana, the Paumachariyam, there’s a bit of a dilemma. It is muted by the fact that the events and relationships are predestined and, therefore, inevitable. It is the conflict between the Vasudevas and the Prativasudevas. It is written into the inevitability of events that Lakshmana, and not Rama, will kill Ravana. Rama is a superior being and, therefore, does not kill. And Sita goes to a nunnery. So the moral dilemma may not be so evident, or at least from what we can make of it.

Excerpted from the book Talking History with permission from Oxford University Press. We welcome your comments at