Ramayana's Archetypes

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The similarities between different culture’s origin stories and mythologies are quite remarkable. It is debatable whether or not the commonality to these stories can be explained by the proximity of early civilizations and the divergence of the stories over time for different groups, or whether the universalities to these stories are intrinsic to the human psyche and that they represent something deep within. These ideas are discussed by Otto Rank in his The Myth of The Birth of The Hero (Devinney and Thury 605). This paper will explore Rank’s contention of the affirmation of the former statement above: that the commonalities to these stories must be understood through underlying archetypal roles that are natural to the human psyche and will manifest in stories or dreams. To explore the archetypes of mythologies and the similar plot events, it is imperative to review a given ancient mythological text as well as a general analysis of the Hero’s journey and the archetypes that arise. This is why the focus of this paper will be on the analysis of the characterizations of the archetypes within the Ramayana (Narayan and Mishra), an ancient Hindu text, and draw on ideas expressed by Joseph Cambell, and Carl Jung, about these archetypes in their own texts and analyzed by the textbook, Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths (Devinney and Thury). The Ramayana is an epic story about the prince of Ayodhya, who must rescue a princess and kill the king who kidnapped her. This classic trope can best be explored through the analysis of three major characters and their respective journeys. These characters are, Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu and arguably the main character of the Ramayana, Sita, the kidnapped woman, and female protagonist, and finally Ravana, the discontent and material obsessed King who kidnaps Sita. Through the examination of these three characters, we can explore the generality of the archetypal roles that the characters represent and the lessons ingrained in the text through these characters.

Our analysis begins with the origin story of Rama. The Ramayana initiates by relaying the story of a king, Dasaratha, who is unable to birth to a child. The king discusses this problem with a sage and advisor to the king, Vasishtha, who is immediately reminded of a vision he had about the gods. In this vision, it is revealed that Vishnu, the supreme God, must be incarnated as a human in order to defeat a demon god who is growing in power and is therefore threatening to the other gods. The text explains this through Vishnu’s words, “Ravana can be destroyed only by a human being since he never asked protection from a human being” (Narayan 4). The sage Vashishtha then instructs the king to perform a specific sacrifice for the gods to ask for a son with a specific sage. The king does as he is told and gives a portion of rice to his three wives who then bear children. One of his wives, Kausalya, births Rama, who is the incarnation of the Supreme God Vishnu. In this prologue section of the Ramayana, we are already being set up for a true archetypal hero story. Along with the classic trope of many mythological stories, our hero’s quest begins with the origins of divinity. As the incarnation of God, the Ramayana sets up Rama as the true protagonist and since he is human, the message here is that humans carry out the will of the gods through our physical form. Certain key events occur that push Rama’s story along until he finally defeats the demon god, Ravana. These are the events that will be examined in order to outline what truly makes Rama the hero of the Ramayana. In Rama’s Initiation, a sage named Viswamithra comes to King Dasaratha and asks that Rama accompany him on his mission to complete a yagna, which is a sacrificial ceremony, but explains that he must defeat demons along the way. King Dasaratha is unwilling at first to let his son go, as he is not aware of the divine origins of his son and refers to Rama as “too young and tender to contend with demons” (Narayan 8). Nevertheless, the sage requests Rama to join him by simply replying, “I know Rama” (Narayan 8). There is something to this line here that implies that the sage is aware of Rama’s divinity and understands that it is Rama’s destiny to fulfill. This further illuminates Rama as the hero of the tale. Rama then falls in love with a woman named Sita, who is actually the incarnation of Lakshmi, who was Vishnu’s wife. Though they are infatuated with one another, in their human form, they have no access to the memories of their relationship as gods. As King Dasaratha approaches old age, he desires to make Rama king. However, through a series of events caused by jealousy and paranoia, one of King Dasaratha’s wives convinces King Dasaratha to banish Rama from the forest for 14 years. Rama accepted this fate by saying “I will carry out his wishes without question…I have no interest in kingship…and no aversion to a forest existence” (Narayan 45). Here Rama is displayed as so at peace with his own fate, he is willing to follow and respect the path he is supposed to take. He is not, therefore, annoyed or angry with this turn of events, but rather accepts the outcome of the circumstances. This idea of following the ebb and flow of life and not trying to control reality speaks to the value of staying humble to the will of the gods and not demanding the autonomy to pursue what the physical body desires. Now Rama begins his journey being sent away from his place of familiarity to a place unknown. This can be recognized from Joseph Cambell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which Cambell expresses that all archetypal heroes embark on a similar journey which starts with a phase of departure from their familiar reality (Devinney, Thury (Whomsley) 219). Along Rama’s journey, he encounters many trials and temptations. Rama must deny the temptation of a beautiful woman, Soorpanaka who is revealed to be Ravana’s sister. Soorpanaka falls for Rama and assumes that if she kills Sita, she can have Rama for herself. When she tries to do this, Rama’s brother who goes with Rama to the forest along with Sita for his 14-year exile, who is named Lakshmana, sees this and saves Sita but doesn’t kill Soorpanaka because she is a woman. Instead, the text states “Instead of taking out his arrow, he takes out his sword and chopped off her nose, ears, and breasts” (Narayan 69). Taking pity on her because she is a woman seems to be a value that is being instilled by the Ramayana as well since Lakshmana, although to a lesser extent compared to Rama, is a hero as well. Rama is of course victorious throughout the Ramayana, due to his divinity and his fate. He kills several demons throughout and finally defeats king Ravana and saves his wife Sita from captivity which will be discussed through the lens of Ravana and Sita’s story below.

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Sita is the incarnation of Vishnu’s wife, Lakshmi, and she falls in love instantly with Rama as soon as she sees him. This is conveyed by Sita’s discontent after she sees Rama, claiming that her maids have failed to make her bed properly as she cannot sleep. She cannot stop thinking about Rama and says “Shoulders of emeralds, eyes like Lotus petals. Who is he?” (Narayan 23). This is a very telling scene. Both Rama and Sita have fallen in love with each other the moment they see each other however neither of them knows about their origins or the fate of their union. This means that their connection is destined which emphasizes the romantic nature of the union of man and woman. Sita can be best analyzed as the influence of the Anima of Rama. For example, as Jung writes “the anima is responsible for helping a man find the right marriage partner” (Devinney and Thury (Carl Jung) 622). Jung also writes that “even more vital is the role that the anima plays in putting a man’s mind in tune with the right inner values” (Devinney and Thury (Carl Jung) 623). This can best be seen through Rama’s interaction with Soorpanaka, as she tries to convince him that Sita is not who he thinks she is. Rama plays along with her initially saying “Ah, how true! No one can deceive you, being yourself so transparent”. Here, the Ramayana is indirectly commenting on how Soorpanaka is actually the deceiver since she is taking the form of a maiden just to seduce Rama. When Sita ran to Rama as she was frightened, Soorpanaka becomes angry and her true rage begins to show. It is only now that Rama ends his conversation with her, now holding Sita by his side. Here Sita is playing the exact role that she is supposed to play. She is the anima of Rama, helping him to avoid the temptation of the seductress Soorpanaka, which in turn leads to the development of the rest of the story and the introduction of the next archetypal role in the Ramayana, the antagonist, Ravana.

Ravana is introduced in the fifth chapter of the Ramayana, called “The Grand Tormentor”. In this introduction, the text depicts Ravana as this supremely powerful entity. He even has gods working for him. Indeed the text states “He had also enslaved the reigning gods and put them to perform menial tasks” (Narayan 74). This is a particularly powerful scene. Even the gods are working for this king and are even just menial laborers for him. This is truly a display of power for Ravana, as he clearly desires power and material wealth. He is surrounded by riches, entertainment, beautiful women, yet he is dissatisfied with it all. It is with this characterization of Ravana that the text then initiates the next plot developments. The now mutilated Soorpanaka comes to Ravana and explains what has happened to her. The book states that when Ravana sees her like this, he screams “What is the meaning of this? Who has done it?” (Narayan 75). Immediately Ravana’s thoughts go to anger and vengeance. Ravana is immediately painted as the antithesis of Rama, and as the antagonist of the story. As the opposite role of the hero, Ravana represents what life is not to live. Obsessed with power, material wealth, and control, Ravana is set up as the true villain of the Ramayana. Very quickly, as Soorpanaka tells her tale, the Ramayana then fleshes out Ravana’s character even more as a lustful king full of desire. He falls in love with the description of Sita and begins hallucinating about her. When he asks Soorpanaka if Sita is the woman he sees, she replies “Oh, no. The person who stands before us is…Rama. You are only imagining” (Narayan 78). Here it is important to understand that both Ravana and Sita are seeing what they lust and desire for, instead of what is there. These two archetypes of anti-heroes in the Ramayana convey the message that lust and physical desires are blinding to the individual who seeks truth. Ravana then goes on with his plans to kidnap Sita. When Lankshama leaves Sita by herself, Ravana comes out disguised as a hermit and introduces himself to Sita. He says “Anyone inside to welcome a Sanyasi?” (Narayan 85). What is interesting about this is that Ravana is using the virtue of politeness and kindness within Sita in order to manipulate and deceive her. Such an act is surely condemned within our archetype of the hero and therefore such actions are seen in the antithesis of this archetype, represented by Ravana. Then as the scene progresses into Ravana kidnapping Sita, he again relies on his trickery and bending of rules to get his way. He remembers as the text puts it “an ancient curse that if he touched any woman without her consent, he would die that instant” (Narayan 87). This is clearly a rule that Ravana has no choice but to follow, however, he thinks of a way around this by only touching the ground beneath Sita, and kidnapping her that way. By doing this, Ravana is very clearly exploiting a loophole to a rule in order to control his reality to award his lust and physical desires. The Ramayana is therefore condemning this behavior, as his desire for control comes from a place of lust and vengeance. The Ramayana is further illustrating that logical faculties can manipulate the rules that guide human conduct to get around the moral qualms of an act, however, such manipulations are only semantically effective, as this act initiates Ravana’s defeat by Rama in the later chapters. Finally, Ravana’s downfall is foreshadowed in the eighth chapter, when Ravana speaks with his brother. “You remind me that I have not asked protection from human beings…You think I have conquered the gods because of the boon conferred on me by them” (Narayan 127). Ravana is boasting of conquering the gods while ironically talking to exactly how he will be defeated. He is too arrogant to consider that he should ask for protection from the humans, as he considers himself so great, that he does not have to worry about humans like Rama, despite the admiration he admits he feels towards Rama. This leads to the final battles between the armies of Ravana and Rama and then finally the final fight between Rama and Ravana. The gods help Rama by giving him a chariot to help him fight which shows the support of Rama by the gods until the very end. Meanwhile, Ravana continues to demand he can defeat Rama and doesn’t quit until he dooms himself, again through foolishness and arrogance. As it is written, “While he had prayed for indestructibility of his several heads and arms, he had forgotten to strengthen his heart, where the Brahmasthra entered and ended his career” (Narayan 146). Rama pierces his heart with this holy weapon and ends the final battle, emblematic of the hero’s prevailing victory over the antagonist archetype.

The Ramayana displays the lessons to be noble, modest, to go with the way of destiny and not to try and demand control over fate, and to avoid the temptations of lust and material desire. These lessons are ultimately conveyed through the use of several archetypal roles. Discussed above are three of these roles, the hero, the anima, and the antithesis of the hero. By following the guidelines that the hero sets forth, incorporating the anima to align one’s values towards virtue, and by avoiding the characterizations of the archetypal villain, Ravana, the Ramayana tells of how to conduct oneself in life to be the fully developed hero, who betters society and is at peace with their fate and circumstances in life. In this way, The Ramayana is an excellent example of a mythological text that follows Cambell’s and Jung’s analysis of the inherent archetypal roles that act as the universal framework for lesson conveying stories within any culture. 


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