Review: 'The Book of Ram' by Devdutt Pattanaik

The Book of Ram is the outcome of Pattanaik’s endeavour to weave magic into the timeless Indian epic tale of the Ramayana. As the title suggests, the book brings to light, the story of Maryada Purushottam Ram, the seventh ‘avatar’ of Lord Vishnu (the one who nurtures and maintains balance in the worldly life), the scion of the Raghu clan, the worthy heir, the jewel of the Solar dynasty, the Prince and the Supreme Upholder of social norms and values, the warrior and the ideal king. The author admits that he felt compelled to write the book when he realised that the epic in question was being used as a tool to fuel anger, animosity, hatred, and violence. Pattanaik’s Ramayana is as informative as it is gripping and riveting. Pattanaik’s simple yet exceedingly well-written book explores the relevance of Shri Ram, the only Hindu deity to be worshipped as The King in the contemporary world.

The book very rightly portrays Lord Ram as ‘Eka-Vachani’: A king who is always true to his words; ‘Ek-bani’: a supreme archer who strikes his target with the first arrow, and ‘Ek-Patni’: A man who is eternally devoted to one woman. Censured by feminists and appropriated by innumerable politicians, Ram still remains pious and serene in his majesty. Hindus firmly believe that in times of turmoil, by chanting Lord Ram’s name and his tales, one can achieve peace, stability, hope, and prosperity.

Pattanaik’s story is through the eyes of Sita, Ram’s wife and the avatar of Vishnu’s consort Lakshmi. The book glimpses through all the different versions of the revered epic starting from before the 1st century CE to the 19th century, including the versions popular in South East Asian cultures. The author meticulously shows the contrast between different mini Ramayanas, ranging from Kamban’s Ramayana to Valmiki’s, from Maya Sita to Devi Sita. All these versions speak a different tale but eventually converge into a singular point that reflects the grandeur of the creator(s) and an ancient faith. It also becomes crucial to note that Sanatan Dharma (Eternal Order, as so many Hindus refer to Hinduism) does not subscribe to the idea of differentiating between the male and the female along a strict line. Pattanaik makes the use of symbols, metaphors, patterns, and motifs to convey his message. The fact that Ram painstakingly fulfils his duty as a king and ultimately walks into the Sarayu river chanting Sita’s name to bring him solace, stands crucial. In the Indian context, a God is always accompanied by a Goddess, thus reflecting the need to maintain a balance between the two. The existence of Adi Shakti (Primal Female Energy) points to the same and brings in a much-needed fluidity in modern society. Ram as a God is dependable and Sita as a Goddess is independent. Pattanaik asks, isn’t this what we all aspire to be, dependable but independent? The author scholastically delves into the spirit of the religious text. Rather than drawing superficial inferences from the literal aspects of the text, which has led to myriad misinterpretations from time immemorial, Pattanaik understands an important truth about the Ramayana, it is not about the words but the essence behind them. He also brings to light how the binary, didactic Abrahamic Western thought process has discredited the Ramayana or, for that matter, all our religious texts by only taking into account the literal aspects of our vast literature and culture.

It is crucial to note that parts of this epic and many other Hindu religious scriptures have been changed by authors, in accordance with the time they lived in and the perils that faced their society. Even in this book, Pattanaik admits to using his vivid imagination and thereby perpetuates the long-standing tradition of adding personal stories to the great epic. As a consequence, it becomes difficult for a lay reader to distinguish between the facts mentioned in the epic and those that have been woven into it by the author’s imagination. Even though this makes Pattanaik’s book slightly unscholarly it’s still not completely discreditable, for it only makes it a tad bit more Hindu in spirit.

This book also, very rightly, criticises the manipulation and distortion of religion by Hindu extremist groups. It gives out a message of peace and unity for achieving true Ram Rajya, which is not restricted to a time or place but is to be found within. To quote Pattanaik, “He [Ram] is our soul.” He criticises the modern education system for teaching one to respect only that which can be proved empirically. He provokes one to think of the debate between religion and science. He also makes a much-needed distinction between linear and cyclical history. However, the book adopts a very idealistic stand which is difficult to grasp in a modern materialistic world.

Hindu religious scriptures tell us something crucial through its characters. Humans are made of conflicting truths; there isn’t either a positive side or a negative side to one, Pattanaik shows how one person can be a martyr, a villain, a hero, and a victim. Our books are about diverse human characters; humans of wisdom and of folly who are unpredictable and dynamic.

Pattanaik also draws a parallel between Prince Ram and Lord Krishna. The epic, he rightly states, teaches us that a world governed only by law and not by emotions is not ideal. He talks about the supreme sacrifice made by Lord Ram and Goddess Sita to impart this lesson to a not-so-humane world. The strong, wise and independent hero, the warrior princess, Sita also fulfils her duties and departs leaving Ram on Earth to fulfill his kingly duty and return to the Vaikuntha Loka, the abode of Vishnu where he sleeps on the Snake of Time, dreaming of creation. The epic, via its protagonist Shri Ram, thus imparts essential lessons of democracy and the beauty of living for people. It imparts valuable lessons of humanity also through King Ram’s character: His supreme uprightness in the face of the darkest of adversities offers peace, stability and hope to all.

Pattanaik stands by the statement that liberals today will find their perfect ally in Hindu thought and philosophy. The nonexistence of a Sanskrit word for blasphemy also points to the same. The book speaks of fluidity and inclusivity of the Hindu religion by talking about the acceptance of LGBTQ people in the social order, linking this fact back to Hinduism’s comfort with fluidity in its seemingly gendered motifs and totems. The book also states that in the Hindu religion, one’s Karma (Action) is supreme and overshadows all else. The Ramayana is primarily a tale of emotions, be it filial affection, a sense of duty and loyalty, love, lust or malice. It also shows the ill outcome of ego, ambition, and arrogance. Thus, the retelling of the epic provokes profound thought, it expands one’s consciousness inspiring them to cultivate and realise one’s potential by overcoming the fallacies of human nature.

Pattanaik’s Book of Ram is a well-researched one. Simplifying the philosophical connotations, it can be said that the author believes that in each person there is a part of Ram-Sita, a Ravan, an Ahilya, a Mandodri or a Surupnakha. Human nature and destiny are determined by the part a human decides to give precedence to. Thus, in essence, it can be said, the Ramayana has never been a tale of Ram’s life. It has always been a tale of how Ram lived for others. Here, I am compelled to reiterate, that the interpretation of Ram’s character will invariably be an interpretation of one’s own character. Isn’t how we see others a reflection of how we see ourselves? Perhaps, the answer is best left untold!


Swarnima Swastika Tewary

Independent researcher associated with IPSA. I am a passionate reader of ancient Indian scriptures & everything that falls in between & beyond. I live by & for Nature so when I'm not reading I'm out there in the garden living that magical life!

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