Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Humanity's Three Great Epics

OK, this is partly tongue-in-cheek, but only partly.

Those of you who saw the romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding will surely remember the father of the female lead who is always very big on Greek culture ("What were the three greatest contributions of Greek civilisation to the world? Astronomy, philosophy, democracy").

Well, like the Greeks have the Iliad and the Odyssey, we of Indian descent have the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. (Yes, it's hard to tell where the accent goes, so try Raa-maayuh-na and Muh-haa-bhaa-ruh-ta). Mighty proud of these epics are Indians, and rightly so. Modern Indian literature, movies, songs and colloquial speech are littered with allusions to these classics. Babies are named after characters in the great epics. You'll even find these epics in comic book form. Indian kids grow up on the stuff. I read these comics in English, side by side with Tarzan and Superman, when I was growing up.

But I've also enjoyed shocking traditional Indians with my entirely serious thesis that there are three great epics in the world, - the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and Star Wars. I never fail to get a rise out of people with that statement.

Just look at the similarities. All three are about the struggle of good against evil (and the ultimate triumph of good). They're all long, all boring in places, with confusing sub-plots and myriad characters, many of whom are only tangentially relevant. And ultimately, they're entertaining while being morally educational (To those like me who are perpetually suspicious of organised religion, that last bit should prompt a mental uh-oh).

I would like to report a successful experiment that I just concluded last week. I got my 77 year old mother to watch the entire 6 part movie series of Star Wars! And wonder of wonders, she grudgingly acknowledged that Star Wars was "quite nice". She agreed that there were parallels between the Jedi religion and Hindu philosophy (there are murmurs in the musty corners of Indian philosophy to the effect that dark, tantric practices are a bit more powerful than the wholesome yoga and meditation that India would like to showcase - the "power of the dark side"). She thought the transformation of Anakin Skywalker from innocent child through idealistic (and disillusioned) young man to evildoer paralleled the stories of many demons in Hindu mythology who also started off being nicer folk.

She quoted Yoda's statement: "Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering." To her, this was lifted straight out of Eastern philosophy, so rather than Star Wars being a legitimate epic of the stature of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, it was just a copy, albeit a well-made one.

An example of how Hindu philosophy has influenced Star Wars

But I'm happy at the outcome. My mother, a representative member of an older Indian generation, has seen something of value and relevance in Star Wars, so much so that she's expressed a desire to watch the series again after a few months!

I must say I don't necessarily see religion in any of these epics (though there's a fair bit of spirituality). I think they're great stories with awesome atmosphere, powerful symbolism and beautiful imagery. To me, the image of Tatooine's twin suns or the unfinished Death Star is as powerful as the paintings (by Raja Ravi Varma and by someone else) of the noble vulture Jatayu's (Juh-taa-yoo) vain attempt to rescue Sita as she is carried off by the demon king Ravana (Raa-vuh-na), or of Abhimanyu (Uh-bhi-muhn-yoo) attacking the Kauravas (Cow-ruh-vaas) "like a proud young lion falling upon a herd of elephants" (to quote Amar Chitra Katha). Or, for that matter, the image of Achilles dragging Hector's body around the walled city of Troy, or that of the Cyclops throwing rocks at Ulysses' ship as the Greeks flee his island. Lots of stuff that gives me goose-pimples even today.

Star Wars - Tatooine's twin suns

Star Wars - The unfinished Death Star

The Ramayana - Jatayu fights Ravana in vain to save Sita

The Mahabharata - Abhimanyu attacking the Kauravas "like a proud young lion falling upon a herd of elephants"

The Iliad - Achilles drags Hector's body around Troy

The Odyssey - The blinded Cyclops throws rocks at Ulysses's ship

That's the stuff of which epics are made. Epics are about heroes and other larger-than-life characters (many of them tragically flawed), their struggles and adventures, they're about destiny and nemesis and an overarching moral theme that dwarfs all characters. Star Wars has all of this in full measure. So an epic isn't necessarily one that was written hundreds or thousands of years ago. It could just as easily have been released in 1977.

So there you have it - humanity's three great epics (or five, since we wouldn't want to belittle Homer :-).

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