...Protagonists of the Iliad and the Ramayana
Homer’s Iliad is a poem on Achilles—who “has allowed thymos to dominate his soul” (Edmundson 2012)—and his wrath. Rama of Valmiki’s Ramayana is a man of righteousness, with an admirable admixture of wisdom and strength, courage and compassion, conviction and consideration, dedication and detachment—the basic virtues that make a man complete. Reading about Achilles’ blind submission to pride and anger and his craving for glory and enduring fame even after death that brought endless sufferings to his own side and ultimately to himself makes a reader wearisome. On the other hand, Rama’s submission to dharma even in the midst of the malice of circumstances, that too, more by the glory of his own choice, bestows a grace, a dignity, and a significance to his character. If poetry is “a vehicle of inspiration” for building the ideal human society, obviously, Rama becomes the choice to idealize, and that is what this paper attempts to delineate.
1. Achilles: Incongruities and Irritants
In Homer’s “paradise”—Iliad —we come across a cute but “wild” flower named Achilles, an infinitely great warrior, who burns with fury all through, that too, irresistibly. Homer depicts Achilles not only as furious but also as—to borrow Aristotle’s words—“a paradigm of obstinacy”. It is this singular trait of Achilles that proves to be bad for the Greeks and catastrophic for himself. For, driven by single-minded devotion for revenge, he slides off the scale of human normality. Although Achilles has all the appreciation for the social order, it is his petulance, overflowing pride, and argumentative nature that often undermine his heroic disposition—to borrow Patroclus’ words, it indeed “warp[ed] a noble nature to ignoble ends”. We shall now examine some important events from the epic that will enable us to better understand Achilles’ character and the flaws, if any, thereof that go against the philosophy of “Arete.”
1.1 Achilles Convenes to Council All the Grecian Train
Disturbed by the unabated funeral pyres all around, and perhaps in his anxiety to set the camp in order, on the tenth day of plague, Achilles summons the army to assembly and suggests to consult a prophet who can let them know the cause of Apollo’s anger. Then an Achaian soothsayer volunteers to reveal the cause of the pestilence, provided his safety is guaranteed. Achilles, standing up, guaranteeing his safety so “long as Achilles breathes vital air” asks him to “Speak what thou know’st”.
The soothsayer says that the plague is the result of Agamemnon’s insulting the priest by not freeing his daughter, Chryseis. Though he turns furious at being publicly made responsible for the plague, Agamemnon says that in the interest of his people he is willing to give Chryseis up, provided he is given another prize at once. Getting up, Achilles replies: “Most glorious Agamemnon, unequalled in your greed, where will the Greeks find you a fresh prize? . . . No: give the girl back now, we will compensate you . . . if ever we could sack this Trojan town”. But Agamemnon, insisting that he must immediately be compensated to his satisfaction, says, “If not, I shall come and help myself to your prize, or Ajax’s, or walk off with Odysseus”.
Stunned by this public disgrace, Achilles, calling him “shameless and self-centered” and refusing to accept the indignity, furiously says, “We joined your expedition, you shameless swine, to please you . . . heat and burden of the fighting fall on me, but when it comes to dealing out the spoils, it’s you that takes the lion’s share, leaving me . . . with some pathetic portion . . . so, I shall now go back home”. Yet, Agamemnon, threatens him saying that he will take away his prize, Briseis, to let everyone know that they cannot claim parity with him.
Infuriated by these words, as Achilles is about to draw his sword from the sheath to disembowel Agamemnon, goddess Athena, intervening, calms the overwrought Achilles. Yet, his anger could not be subdued. With boiling anger in his breast, Achilles declares: “O monster! Mix’d of insolence and fear, / . . . Now by this sacred sceptre hear me swear, / . . . when bleeding Greece again / Shall call Achilles, she shall call in vain / . . . Then shall thou mourn the affront thy madness gave, / . . . This act has made the bravest Greek thy foe”. And they both thus retire in sullen majesty.
Later, having delivered Chryseis to appease Apollo, Agamemnon, much against the advice of the elders, sends his heralds to Achilles’ hut to fetch Briseis. Surrendering Briseis without making a scene, Achilles proclaims: “If Greeks ever require me again to save them from some terrible disaster, tell your prince that ‘unmoved as death Achilles shall remain’”. Thus ends an event that was initiated by Achilles to restore order in the camp, ironically, in disorder again, for individual senses of pride and honor have simply blinded the two leaders to the greater good.
1.2 “Loud Lamented . . . ‘O Parent Goddess!’”
After Agamemnon’s guards take Briseis away, Achilles walks down to the shore and weeps in despair. In his suffering, he calls out to his mother for help. His prayer to her soon degenerates into a “statement of complaint” (Kirk 1984). As though sadness and self-pity have replaced his earlier rage, “as a powerless old man and the unprotected woman” (Rabel 1997), he, passively complaining against Agamemnon, implores at his mother to go to Zeus, sit by him, take him by the knees, and persuade him to help the Trojans to fling the Greeks back on their ships and massacre them, so that Agamemnon will realize the delusion he is under in giving no respect to the best of all the Greeks. This appeal of Achilles sounds more as a voice of a powerless victim and not that of a great warrior, for it amounts to his relying on others to act on his behalf. Over it, his praying for the massacre of his fellow Achaians by Trojans simply runs against the very philosophy of “arete.” Like every Greek hero, he craves for fame, but ironically resorts to such an ignoble prayer, which is sure to question his heroic honor. Cumulatively, this episode is likely to challenge the sympathy of the modern reader that he had won earlier on account of his personal honor being attacked by Agamemnon by seizing his maid, Briseis, which is akin to Paris’ kidnapping of Helen.
1.3 Embassy to Achilles
With Achilles withdrawing from the war, the Achaian army is routed by the Trojans. As the demoralized Achaian troops assembled that night, even the proud King, Agamemnon standing oppressed “in solemn sadness and majestic grief,” says thus: “Ye sons of Greece! The war is lost. Quit these fatal fields, / Haste to the joys our native country yields; / Spread all your canvas, all your oars employ. As the dejected soldiers receive the message in silence, Diomedes declares that everyone may go but he will stay back alone to fight, for it is fated that “Troy will eventually fall”.
This brave declaration restores the confidence of the army. In that newfound courage, they send emissaries to the tent of the sulking hero, Achilles, with the message of King Agamemnon admitting his unwisely insulting the great warrior earlier and his willingness to offer many valuable gifts to him, including the return of his maid, Briseis, if Achilles will re-join the Greek army.
Achilles receives the emissaries with great honor. It is Odysseus, who, complimenting Achilles first in an attempt to make him receptive to his pleading, narrates the plight of the Greek army. Sharing his fear about Hector setting their ships on fire and slaughtering them all, Odysseus pleads, “Return, Achilles: oh return, though late, / To save thy Greeks, and stop the course of Fate / . . . Rise to redeem; ah, yet to conquer, rise! / . . . Regard in time, O prince divinely brave!”. Following it, as though to influence him morally, Odysseus, drawing Achilles’ attention to his father’s advice at the time of his joining Agamemnon—“My child! with strength, with glory, and success, / Thy arms may Juno and Minerva bless! / To calm thy passions, and subdue thy rage: / And shun contention, the sure source of woe; / The virtues of humanity be thine”—pleads with him to give up his anger, for Agamemnon is willing to amply compensate him. Ultimately, he resorts to win his heart with patriotic argument saying, “If not for the gifts, at least taking pity on the Greeks, you must join the war and cover yourself in glory in the eyes of the Greeks”.
All this, however, could not convince Achilles to reconcile. He says, “I hate his gifts and value him at one splinter. Until he has paid back the whole heartrending insult, Agamemnon can never win me over”. At it, pushing himself forward, Phoenix makes his appeal thus: “Master your tremendous pride, Achilles. However great the need of the Greek army, had Agamemnon not offered you the generous gifts and instead persisted with his vindictiveness, I would have not asked you to shed your anger. Till now no one could blame you for your anger, but do not scorn this mission of your best friends among the Greeks. Come, turn the defeat into victory, Greeks will treat you like god”. And yet, Achilles turns him down saying, “Olympian-bred Phoenix, I have no need of the Greek’s honor. Don’t underestimate my resolution by weeping and wailing designed to curry favor with Agamemnon . . . injure the man who injures me, if you are with me”.
Still, as though not given up the hope, Ajax too reveals his mind to Achilles thus: “Achilles has hardened his once noble heart and become quite unreasonable. So obstinate that he had no affection for his comrades. Achilles, gods have worked you up into this implacable fury over a girl. . . . Be gracious . . . we are under your roof, respect your obligations.” Still Achilles cannot be moved. He winds up the meeting saying, “Go now and make my decision public”.
This response of Achilles to the embassy that brought Agamemnon’s extraordinary munificence in such intemperate language—“He cheated me, betrayed me / His words will cheat no more. To hell with him / Let him march to his death by his own road, / . . . not until he satisfies me / in full for all my heartfelt bitter pain”—indicates that his injured pride is what matters most to him, even above the lives of the fellow Greeks. But ironically, this blind pursuit of his wounded pride and the resulting anger drives him to declare “not to fight until the ships are burning,” which sounds “deliberately brutal” (Rosner 1976), making it difficult for the reader to empathize with him, for it “was a fault in honor” (Bassett 1933).
1.4 Patroclus Shows the Way Forward to Achilles’ Glory but with Death
Having thus stayed away from the war, Achilles causes great strife to the Greek army. Though declared to the embassy that he will sail out the next morning to his native land, Achilles stays back watching, perhaps gleefully, the unhappy retreat of the Greek army, enthusing himself with the expectation that Greeks will now be at his knees in supplication. This indeed makes him look like the very antithesis of a Homeric warrior hero. Watching Nestor pulling out an injured from the battlefield, he directs Patroclus to go and find out who the injured is.
In compliance with the order, Patroclus runs to the Greeks’ huts and their ships. There Nestor, drawing his attention to what his father advised him while joining Agamemnon, suggests to Patroclus “to speak to warlike Achilles, for a friend’s suggestion might stir his heart to change. Or at least, ask Achilles to allow him to take the field with the Myrmidon contingent behind him. To ask for his fine armor to fight in, so that Trojans, taking Patroclus for Achilles, might run away. That may give some respite to the weary Greek army”.
As the battle is going on, Patroclus comes to Achilles with a stream of tears rolling down. On being enquired about the cause of his sorrow, Patroclus, straightaway shoots a question at Achilles: “You and your disastrous greatness—what will future generations have to thank you for, if you do nothing to prevent the Greeks’ humiliating destruction?” Achilles’ answer to this question reveals his conflict with himself: “I have been through in this war. . . . I had won Briseis with my spear. But Agamemnon snatched her from me as though I am some nonentity. . . . But that’s over. . . . I am wrong in supposing a man could nurse his anger forever. . . . Arm yourself then with mine armor and lead my Myrmidons into battle”.
This confession of Achilles clearly makes naked the war that was going on in his heart—the war between his nobility that keeps on goading him to go and help the fellow Greeks and his obsessive sense of pride that splashes water on his saner thoughts. Fortunately, Patroclus’ suggestion offers him a way forward. And snatching it immediately, he allows Patroclus into battlefield but with clear instructions to attack with all the force to drive away the Trojans from the ships, but not to lead the Myrmidons on to Ilium in the flush of victory. Accordingly, Patroclus enters the field and drives away the Trojans flying in panic but goes in to take Ilium and in the process gets killed at the hands of Hector.
1.5 Patroclus’ Death: The Cureless Grief
Learning about the death of Patroclus, Achilles, bursting into tears, picks up sooty dust and pours over his head. He throws himself on the ground. He begrimes his beautiful body with dust. Seeing Achilles sobbing out his heart, Antilochus fears that Achilles may take a knife and cut his throat. He lets out an intimidating cry, hearing which, his mother comes to comfort him. Hearing Achilles’ longing to avenge Patroclus, mother Thetis shedding tears says: “Ah then, I see thee dying, see thee dead! / When Hector falls, thou diest”. And Achilles is quick in replying, “Let Hector die, / And let me fall!” (ibid.), “For, I let my comrade be killed in the hands of Hector, while I sat here as ‘an idle burden on the earth’ by my ships, though am the greatest warrior among the Greeks”.
Interestingly, with the death of Patroclus, his understanding of the world appears to have changed in an extraordinary way. For Achilles, accepting the futility of pride, rivalry, and anger whispers: “Ah how I wish rivalry could be banished from the world of gods and men, and with it anger” (ibid.). And the terrible calmness with which he dismisses all those passions that have driven him thus far and acknowledges his responsibility in the quarrel with Agamemnon and even his imminent death in a way we have not witnessed so far, clearly places him in an altogether different mold of transcendent detachment. Having thus reconciled with Agamemnon, Achilles now decides to kill Hector, for that alone, he believes, can assuage his sense of guilt and grief.
1.6 Revenge Is “All My Soul!”
Achilles thus ends his wrath against Agamemnon. But a new one starts: Achilles is in a great hurry to avenge his friend’s death. Immediately after receiving a new armor, Achilles calls for an assembly of the Achaean army and announces that his quarrel with Agamemnon has ended and he is ready to join the war. He says, “We must master our pride. I now renounce my anger. Come, summon to battle immediately”. Hearing him, Agamemnon rises and welcomes Achilles back into the army, promising to return his maid, Briesis, along with many other gifts. But Achilles is in a greater hurry to attack Trojans than to collect gifts.
As Odysseus points out that the troops are tired and hungry and they need some time to renew themselves with food and wine, Achilles reluctantly agrees to wait for the troops to eat but he himself refuses to take anything until Patroclus is avenged. Such is the intensity of his anger that he declares: “Revenge is all my soul! No meaner care, / Interest, or thought, has room to harbour there; / Destruction be my feast, and mortal wounds”. Thus, Achilles, being a man of extremes, enters the battlefield as a wrathful warrior.
1.7 Scenes of Aristeia Beyond the “Norm”
Thus opens the battle with fury as Achilles clothed in martial valor joins the war with an intimidating yell. Many Trojans die at Achilles’ hands. Sweeping through the field unchecked, Achilles comes face-to-face with Tros, son of Alastar. The poor man not knowing the fierce passions of Achilles, coming up to him, clasps his knees hoping that he would take pity for his tender age and would not kill him. As he attempts to supplicate him, Achilles strikes him with his sword. Such is his pitiless slaughtering.
As one section of the Trojans herded into the deep-flowing river, following them with nothing but his sword, Achilles, leaping over them like a superhuman, hacks them to death. As the slaughtering continued, the river, choked with bodies and its waters getting reddened with their blood, getting antagonized with Achilles’ mindless bloodshed, attacks him with great waves and currents. As the river thus thwarts him, Achilles for a while becomes fearful if he is going to face an ignominious death by drowning rather than the glorious death in battle.
The same Achilles, when Lycaon, laying one hand on Achilles’ knees supplicates thus, “Achilles, I am at your knees, have pity on me, I already have the claims of supplicant on you, I must tell you, I was not borne by the same mother as Hector, who killed your friend, so, please don’t kill me”, with no mercy in his voice answering him thus, “You fool, don’t offer me a ransom. . . . So now, my friend, you die too. Patroclus died a better man than you. And look at me. You see how fine I am . . . death is waiting for me too”, strikes him with his two-edged blade. This eloquence in his speech indicates how far he has traveled into the fatal ironies of human existence. Killing has thus become so mechanical for Achilles, and he himself becomes so indifferent to death.
Finally, as Achilles arrives at the city walls, Hector, seeing him, flees in fear. Achilles charges him around the city walls thrice. Ultimately, as they stand against each other to fight man to man, Hector makes an attempt to obtain a promise from Achilles to treat his body with respect if he is killed. But Achilles, in all fury, turns it down. After several feints, Achilles lungs at and stabs Hector in the throat. Fading fast, the once proud Hector entreats Achilles thus: “I pray you, by your knees, do not throw my body to the dogs . . . take ransom from my parents and give up my body to the Trojans for proper cremation. But the angry and unsatisfied victor, Achilles replies, “Dog, do not entreat me by my knees. . . . I wish my angry heart could urge me to cut up your flesh and devour it raw myself, such things have you done to me . . . the dogs and the birds shall tear you up completely”. All this indicates how far the victor has moved away from the normal conduct, how impervious he has become now to the common expectations of the group.
Finally, Achilles, as Hector accused, with a “heart as hard as iron”, stripping Hector of his armor and fastening his body to his chariot by the heels leaving the head to drag, and hopping himself into his chariot, whips the horses. The irony is, it is the same Achilles who while joining the Greeks after the death of Patroclus wished for rivalry to be banished from the world of gods and men and with it anger, is now with the same uncontrollable anger ill-treating Hector’s corpse.
1.8 Funeral Games in Honor of Patroclus
Returning to the camp with hector’s corpse, Achilles and Myrmidons drive their chariots in a ritual around the bier of Patroclus. Next morning, they consign Patroclus’ body to the funeral pyre. Later Achilles conducts the funeral games in honor of Patroclus. As Achilles’ anger shifts from Agamemnon to Hector, his behavior crosses all permissible bonds of civility. Even nine days after the funeral of Patroclus, Achilles ties the body of Hector to his chariot and draws it around the barrow of Patroclus. This beastly behavior is even desisted by gods when Apollo says, “Let that man beware . . . look, he outrages the senseless clay in all his fury”. Such being Achilles’ rage of mindless vengeance toward Hector’s corpse, no reader now feels sympathetic toward him. Indeed, his behavior toward Hector’s corpse points out his total alienation from the quiet humanity.
1.9 A Great “Quiet” Descends upon Achilles . . .
Inspired by the gods, King Priam, father of Hector, visits Achilles in his camp by night and thus pleads for his son’s body, “Most worship-full Achilles . . . / show deference to the gods / and pity for myself, remembering / your own father” and release the body of Hector for proper funeral. In all earnestness, to accomplish the mission, King Priam further appeals, “Of the two old men, / I’m more pitiful, because I have endured / what no living mortal on this earth has borne— / I’ve lifted to my lips and kissed / the hands of the man who killed my son”. Can such a poetic and poignant questioning that penetrates any listener’s consciousness go unheeded? No wonder, it makes Achilles think of his father, which brings him to the verge of tears. As Achilles, taking the old man’s hand, gently keeps it away from him, Priam, crouching at Achilles’ feet, bitterly prays for Hector, while Achilles weeps for his father and later again for Patroclus.
As Achilles recovers his composure, he leaps from his chair and in compassion for the old man’s “grey head and beard,” takes him by the arm and raises him saying, “You unhappy man, / How could you dare come to the Achaea’s ships, / when I’ve killed so many noble sons of yours? / You must have a heart of iron”, and requests him to be seated on the chair.
He goes on to say, “Though we’re both feeling pain, / we’ll let our grief lie quiet on our hearts. / For there’s no benefit in frigid tears. / That’s the way the gods have spun the threads / for wretched mortal men, so they live in pain”. Such is the impact of the words spoken by King Priam on Achilles who, earlier in his wrath— to borrow Powys’ (1994) words, in unphilosophical sophistication pined for a thousand assuagements demanding novelties, excitements, distractions, agreeable shocks, tributes to his vanity, and a thousand sweet morsels for the palate of his insatiable egoism—tied the body of Hector to his chariot and savagely hauled it three times round Patroclus’ barrow.
The venerable Priam then pleads, “Don’t make me sit down on a chair, my lord, / while Hector lies uncared for in your huts. / But quickly give him back, so my own eyes / can see him. And take the enormous ransom / we’ve brought here for you. May it give you joy. / And may you get back to your native land, / since you’ve now let me live to see the sunlight”.
At it—old habits die hard, perhaps—frowning at him, Achilles says swiftly, “Old man, don’t provoke me. I myself intend to give you Hector. Zeus sent me here a messenger. So don’t agitate my grieving heart still more. Or, I might not spare even you, old man, though you’re a suppliant in my hut. I could transgress what Zeus has ordered).
This reprimand frightens the old man. Then Achilles dashes out of doors with his two favorite aides. He calls some women servants and tells them to wash and anoint Hector’s body in another part of the house. For he fears that Priam, seeing his son’s corpse in that bad shape, being unable to contain his anguish, might say something harsh, hearing which his own spirit might then get so aroused that he could kill Priam, disobeying Zeus’ orders. Hence, he executes the needful in such a way that it affords a noble relief—an exemplary display of civility by the same Achilles who, while handling Hector’s body previously, was at the height of savagery.
As the women servants anoint the body with olive oil and wrap it in fine mantel and tunic, Achilles lifts it with his own hands on to a bier, and his comrades help keep it in the wagon. In a groan, he then addresses his beloved friend, “O Patroclus, / don’t be angry with me, if you learn, / even in Hades’ house, that I gave back / godlike Hector to his dear father. / He’s brought to me a fitting ransom. / I’ll be giving you your full share of it, / as is appropriate”. This terrific scene portrays moments of radiant exaltation—in it, we witness a solemn quiet, of fate accepted, of life not exuberantly commanded but taken for what it is, grim and pitiful, with its own strange, sad beauty, and at least able to be justified.
Then Achilles walks into the hut saying, “Old man, your son has been given back, / . . . so, my royal Lord, let us two also think of food”. Then as Achilles’ attendants fetch bread and meat, they help themselves to the good things spread before them. Once their thirst and hunger are satisfied, they look at each other with admiration. Then King Priam begs to retire for the night. Thereupon Achilles tells Priam, “You must sleep outdoors, my friend, in case some Achaean general pays me a visit . . . your recovery of the body will be delayed”.
He also enquires, “tell me . . . / how many days do you require to bury / godlike Hector, so I can stop that long / and keep the troops in check?” The king replies, “If you really wish me to give Prince Hector a proper funeral, grant us eleven days”. Saying, “All right . . . things will be arranged / as you request”, Achilles takes the old man’s wrist in his right hand to banish all apprehensions from his heart.
This whole episode reveals the magic of words in bringing the much-desired healing for Achilles that totally evades definition. It is under the touch of this magic, a great quiet descends upon Achilles and he grows ashamed of his turbulence, his fury, his ignoble self-pity, his insatiable discontent, and perhaps hearing the voice of his personal wrongs, he emerges as a savior full of tender expressions of almost religious solemnity. Thus, Achilles finally gets fully integrated with humanity, but of course, after causing great turmoil to himself and to the people around him!
2. Rama: Dharma Personified
Valmiki’s Ramayana runs true to the definition of an epic given by Stephens: “a monumental relation of events grouped round a central theme of racial interest in particular, of human interest in general”. Therefore Valmiki, as Anjaneyulu (1991) observed, carves the character of Rama as “the idealized personification of certain human qualities” such as nobility, love for living beings, loyalty, submission to the established social norms, service, and chastity.
Unlike in the Iliad, where we know very little about the formal education and training in warfare of Achilles, Valmiki makes abundantly clear to the reader about the kind of education that Rama has by making fellow kings and learned people, assembled in Dasharatha’s court say, “Devasuramanuyaa sarvastreu visarada / samyagvidyavratasnat yathavatsagavedavit”—he is an expert in wielding all kinds of weapons available to gods, ogres, and men”. He has achieved mastery over all sciences and has appropriately acquired knowledge of the Vedas and its ancillary sciences. We indeed witness this education of Rama reflecting brightly in his conduct throughout the epic. We shall now examine the cherished ideals that Rama exhibits in his long journey.
2.1 Rama Respects Societal Norms
Having been sent by King Dasharatha to protect the yajna being performed by Vishvamitra, as Rama and Lakshmana are proceeding to the forest along with Vishvamitra, he advises Rama thus: “. . . the first duty of princes like you is to protect the subjects from harm…. You will now encounter one such ogress, Tataka. I warn you beforehand. Do not show any compassion to her. Do not suppose I am asking you to be the first king in the world to kill a woman”. Rama replies, “Since my father enjoined me to follow you and obey you to do whatever you bade me to do, who am I to say no”.
But as Tataka appears a little later, Rama, with his inborn instincts on the alert, says to Lakshmana, “I cannot forget the fact that this grisly and ghastly demon is a woman . . . let us cut off her hand, the lobes of her ears, deform her, and send her away . . . so that she can do no harm to the yajna”. He indeed cuts off her arms. Lakshmana cuts off her ears by sending an arrow. But the woman, assuming protean forms, showers stones on them unabated. Seeing the trouble caused by her, Vishvamitra reminds Rama, “I told you . . . she is not a woman to whom you ought to show any mercy. Kill her”. So, Rama kills her.
This incident shows the innate concern of Rama for honoring the well-established norms. It is only his courage of conviction that emboldens him to say, “If I can in spirit obey Vishvamitra, it is enough. . . . I will make her absolutely powerless”. But once things go beyond control, he violates the norm for ensuring the safety of the yajna, which again, as Vishvamitra said, is the prime duty of a king. That is Rama’s concern for dharma, even at that young formative phase of his life.
2.2 Firmly Entrenched in Dharma
Rama upholds dharma—a “righteous action” that enables a man “to achieve what is beneficial and desirable”; “to live without malice, or at least with minimum malice towards beings” (Murty 1993)—as the axis of the universe which revolves round the twin poles of compassion and renunciation. When King Dasharatha at the behest of queen Kaikeyi, to whom he had earlier granted two boons, exiles Rama to forest for fourteen years and orders Bharata, his younger brother, to be installed as prince-regent, not a muscle moved on his noble countenance. It shone in full luster as it always did. But as he nears his mother to tell the news of his banishment to the forest, he feels unhappiness but controls it within his heart. And it becomes still worse when he has to convey the news to S?ta, his wife, indicating that, however sublime Rama is in his ethical stance, he could not overcome the depressing character of the circumstances.
Hearing the sad news, as Rama’s mother, laments at her fate, expresses her desire to follow him to the forest. Lakshmana, his brother, infuriated by his father’s unfairness, advises Rama to practice his Kshatriya dharma of asserting his right to kingdom, if required by slaying the king, for “even a preceptor who follows the unrighteous path and is filled with haughtiness and does not know how to discriminate between good and bad, deserves to be punished”.
But Rama, being consistent in his belief about righteousness, responds thus: “O Lakshmana! … Whatever a preceptor, a king and a father commands must be carried out as dharma. Therefore, I cannot but duly implement this pledge of my father. Even for mother Kausalya, he is her husband, her refuge and her dharma. While the righteous king is living, how can the empress, like an ordinary widow, accompany me leaving this city? … I am not going to accept the trivial rulership through unrighteousness”. Rama, thus connecting with his mother and brother with love and by allowing them to freely air their views, logically dispels their objections. Further, discharging his filial responsibilities thus, he proves himself to be a man of family, of kinship.
Like any other mortal son, in the course of these deliberations, Rama also expresses his anxiety about his mother’s safety in his absence. When Lakshmana seeks his permission to accompany him to the forest, he opens up his heart thus: “O Lakshmana, if you also accompany me to the forest, who will take care of mother Kausalya and the illustrious Sumitra? . . . Once Kaikeyi gains control over the kingdom, she will do nothing to help her afflicted co-wives [Kausalya and Sumitra] . . . O son of Sumitra, lend support to venerable Kausalya. . . . Do this for my sake”. Thus Rama too, doubting for a while about the conduct of future king, worries about his mother.
After all these deliberations, as he went to his father, King Dasharatha, to take leave of him, Dasharatha, gazing at Rama, who is unruffled and simply awaiting the king’s permission for leaving to the forest, speaks thus: “Oh, Rama! I was stupefied by Kaikeyi through a boon. Now, by confining me, be you the king of Ayodhya”. But Rama, the ardent follower of dharma, replies, “Oh, king! For my sake, do not generate untruth about you”. That is Rama’s steadfast commitment to dharma.
2.3 Welfare of Others Is His Prime Concern
As Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita are going to the forest, Dasharatha, Kausalya, and others come out to have a last look at them. Not being able to put up with the separation, Dasharatha cries out to Sumantra, the charioteer: “Stop, stop”. But Rama says, “Go on, drive on”. Sumantra, feeling as though caught between the front and back wheel of the chariot, looks up to Rama in dilemma. Rama then says to him: “You are perhaps afraid that when you go back to him after leaving us in the forest, he will be angry with you for not having obeyed him. Should the king question your disobedience, tell him that in the hustle and bustle of noise you did not hear him”. Here Rama is advocating a departure from truth. But he defends his act saying, “chiram dhukhasya papistam—it is foolish and disastrous to prolong the wail of grief. So, go on”. Departing from the truth momentarily, Rama relieves his father from the grief.
2.4 Highly Receptive to Others’ Viewpoint
According to the people of Ayodhya, Rama is soft-spoken, serene, truthful, and free from envy. He is pleasing to all beings. He knows the ways of righteousness. This is what we witness in its full bloom when Sita passing on the bows and arrows to Rama and Lakshmana in the forest, questions the sanctity of the promise that he made to the rishis to kill the ogres on the battlefield for the protection of sages living in the Dandaka forest. For, in her opinion, it is not right to kill the ogres without personal enmity. Two, there is no connection between a weapon and forest-life. Three, what affinity is there between the duty of a Kshatriya and asceticism? The two are contradictory. So, she pleads with him to respect the laws of the place. She goes on to say: “dharmadarthah prabhavati dharmatprabhavate sukham / dharmena a labhate sarva dharmasaramida jagat—Righteousness brings wealth. Wealth brings happiness. Righteousness brings everything. In fact, the essence of the world is righteousness”.
What is interesting to note here is the way Rama responds to the advice of his wife. Mightily pleased with what she said, he says: “You have said this to me because you have a right to do so. It was done in good faith, out of an honest desire to put me on the right path. I am not offended. . . . Nobody will chide one whom he does not care for. You chide me, because you are interested in me, because you love me, because you think I should do no wrong, commit no sin”. Having said that, he then, explaining to her as to why it is right for him to kill the ogres, goes out to eliminate the demons from the Dandaka forest. This gentle behavior of Rama is a clear pointer to his willingness to listen others’ point of view with respect and his readiness to reason out his own course without hurting others’ sentiments.
2.5 “Ah Priye . . .” – Cries Like an Ordinary Mortal but Bounces Back
On returning to the hermitage along with Lakshmana after killing the golden deer and seeing the hut bereft of Sita, Rama wails again and again: “The timid lady must have been carried away, or devoured, or dead. Or is she making fun by hiding behind a tree?” Looking at the grief of Rama, Lakshmana pleads with him, “Don’t give way to despondency, O Prince! Join in endeavour with me… Let us both search for her at once. I pray, do not give over your mind to grief”.
Thus exhorted by Lakshmana, Rama regains his composure and proceeds along with him in search of Sita. Running fast from tree to tree in search of Sita, Rama cries in grief, “Was my Sita seen by you? …Ah priye, where have you gone?” They, however, fail to locate her. Agonized by Sita’s absence and angered by a feeling that his “disciplined and compassionate outlook is being taken as his powerlessness” by gods, Rama says, “With my arrows, I will reduce these worlds to a state of utter confusion today if those in authority do not restore Sita to me, no matter if she has been killed or is dead”.
Looking at the agony of Rama, Lakshmana submits to him thus, “Having been mild, disciplined, and devoted to the good of all created beings before, you should not abandon your nature. . . . We shall steadfastly search everywhere for the abductor of your consort. . . If you do not recover Sita, then annihilate the worlds, O ruler of men!” Rama, listening to Lakshmana, controls his anger and returning to his righteous sense, nudges himself toward the right action—search for Sita with an awakened alertness. That is his forbearance and fortitude.
2.6 Virtuous to Everyone
As Rama and Lakshmana are searching for Sita in the forest, they see Jatayu—the great bird that tried to stop Ravana from doing the adharma, of taking away Sita—lying on the ground with both of his wings severed. Rama strokes Jatayu’s head. Jatayu feels relieved from his injuries and narrates the whole story. Informing Rama that Ravana has taken Sita toward south, he dies.
Realizing that the bird has suffered death because of him, Rama laments thus: “To me, oh, Lakshmana, anguish caused by Sita’s abduction is not that much, when compared with the anguish caused by the death of Jatayu, that too, because of me”. Confessing that Jatayu is as venerable and honorable as Dasharatha is him, he performs the funeral rites for the bird. Such is his virtue that knows no difference between men and animals of good deeds.
2.7 Takes Decisions After Due Deliberation
Vibhishana, on deserting his brother Ravana, approaches Sugriva and his army saying, “Mighty monkeys, I am brother of Ravana, known as Vibhishana. Reviled by him, I have now come here to seek Rama’s refuge. Please convey the news of my arrival to that great man”. But the characteristically suspicious Sugriva, viewing Vibhishana’s coming with misgivings, says to Rama, “Lord, Ravana’s brother Vibhishana has come seeking your refuge. These rakshasas (ogres) are by nature untrustworthy. . . . I opine that they be punished”. Hearing him, Rama seeks the opinion of all the other monkey lords.
Having heard and pondered over the submission of all his colleagues, Rama then announces his decision to give asylum to Vibhishana, citing his own reasons for the decision: one, “In the name of humanity one should not strike even an enemy arrived at one’s door and piteously soliciting protection with joined palms”, and two, his etad vratam—the solemn pledge is: “I vouchsafe security against all living beings to him who comes to me only once and seeks protection from me, saying ‘I am yours’”. His is a typical “integrative process” of decision making that obviously makes his fellow-leaders feel that they matter to their leader.
2.8 Admits Mistakes
Rama, thinking that Sugriva had forgotten his promise to undertake the search for S?ta and becoming impatient, sends his brother Lakshmana to remind him of his promise and warn him of the consequences of his not fulfilling it. But after knowing that Sugriva is on the job, he hugs him saying, “Is it a wonder if the lord of Heaven sends down rain on the parched earth? It is his nature . . . so it is in the nature of things for you to do”. On a subsequent occasion, perhaps reminded of his ill-founded anger at a pleasing ally like Sugriva, he tells him, “In the world there are few allies and friends so trustworthy as you are. In my impatience, imagining that you have forgotten the promise, I sent Lakshmana to you with a harsh message. Yet, forgetting the injustice done to you on that occasion, you have given me valiant assistance”.
2.9 Maryada—Sense of Honor Must Always Rule Rama’s Behavior
Rama is trusted and relied upon by all his subjects for his deep sense of commitment to stand by the trust that they have reposed in him. There is a beautiful incident in the Ramayana which depicts the finest delicacy of speech and unimpeachable courtesy of Rama. In the course of his last great fight with Ravana, Rama, in his anxiety to stay focused on the battle and destroy Ravana, says to the charioteer, Matali, sent by Indra, “From the way in which he [Ravana] is darting forward from left to right with great impetuosity once more . . . Therefore, take care and advance toward the enemy’s chariot. . . . Without confusion or getting flurried and with a steady heart and vision and the movement of the reins fully controlled, drive the chariot swiftly”. Then suddenly Rama says to Matali, “sm?raye tv? na ?ikaye—I am just reminding you, not teaching you”. That is the excellence of Rama’s culture: even amidst the battle and all the anxieties associated with it, he could still be conscious of Matali, the divine charioteer sent by Lord Indra (Lord of gods), and his unique status and thus might have wondered, “How could a mortal like him instruct Matali, an immortal?” So he says hurriedly, “I am reminding you.” Indeed, there is nothing wrong in Rama’s instructing his charioteer, for he is the occupant of the chariot. But Rama will not be Rama if he did not say, “na sikaye—not teaching you.” That is his “maryada” for others.
2.10 Courage of Conviction
There is a scene where heroism at its peak is exhibited in the middle of a fierce battle with Ravana. Rama gaining an advantage over Ravana, who has lost his chariot and bow, instead of seizing the opportunity to press his advantage and kill Ravana, stands in dignity and says, “Now, Ravana, you are at a great disadvantage. … you have lost your great bow. I give you time. Go home now. Come tomorrow, refreshed and strong in your chariot and with a new bow and arrows. You shall then see how I can give you battle”. Obviously, acts of this nature go a long way in building the reputation of a leader as highly dependable among the followers, but it calls for a lot of courage and that is what Rama constantly exhibits.
2.11 Humility That Is Consistent
Humility is the virtue of being humble. It is a sense of modesty about one’s own significance. It is freeing oneself from vanity, egotism, great pretensions, or remaining free from extravagance. Rama cultivated humility by observing gentleness in his disposition. After the death of Ravana, Vibhishana was in two minds about performing obsequies to him. At this, Rama, consoling him says, “No, Vibhishana, you are wrong. I did not kill an ignoble man in battle. Ravana was a great warrior; he was a great king and greatly he died”. Then he says these immortal words: “mara?antani vaira?i nirv?tta? na? prayojanam / kriyatamasya sanskaro mamapye?a yatha tava —Hostilities end with death. Our purpose has been accomplished. Let his funeral rites be performed. He is as much mine as yours. According to practices, Ravana is eligible to get the last rites performed by you”. That is the humility of Rama at the moment of his great victory and the concern for dharma—humility and dharma emanating from his early acquisition of the knowledge of the Vedas and its ancillary sciences.
Incidentally, it is this incident that appears to have prompted Williams (1863) to observe: “How far more natural is Achilles. . . . Even the cruel vengeance that Achilles perpetrates on the dead Hector strikes us as more likely to be true than Rama’s magnanimous treatment of the fallen Ravana.” But this magnanimous treatment of the fallen Ravana by Rama appears equally natural from another perspective. To appreciate this, let us revisit the conversation between Priam and Achilles in the Iliad. On arriving at Achilles’ tent, Priam, while pleading for his son’s body, says “Of the two old men, / I’m more pitiful, because I have endured / what no living mortal on this earth has borne— / I’ve lifted to my lips and kissed / the hands of the man who killed my son”. Now the real question is: How could Priam kiss the hand of his son’s murderer at all? Indeed, Achilles too appears to have been haunted by this question when he says, “You unhappy man . . . / How could you dare . . . come alone, to rest your eyes on me, / when I’ve killed so many noble sons of yours?” One immediate and obvious answer to this question is: god’s intervention (as given in Homer’s text). But in terms of modern psychology (Jaynes 1976), the real answer could be: Priam’s consciousness—it gave him the courage to go and straightaway invoke Achilles’ consciousness to see the reason behind his prayer. It is this “pure consciousness” that the Vedic philosophy calls Brahman. And this Brahman that rests in every soul, ultimately joins all of us with the Parabrahman. And it is this understanding and realization about the all-pervading Brahman, the pure consciousness that facilitated Rama to either perform funeral rites to Jatayu, the bird or treat Ravana’s body with courtesy, and it is the same pure consciousness that prompted even Achilles to finally give up his fury and return Hector’s body gracefully to Priam. And this grace we see in Rama’s behavior all through the epic, for he is conscious of his consciousness, while Achilles could only realize it at the end of the epic. And, what we should importantly notice here is: Rama consciously cultivated it right from a very young age as is evidenced by his behavior right from the beginning to the end of the epic. It indeed became innate to him and thus appears quite natural to him.
There is yet another scene where Rama exhibits the greatest sense of humility. At the end of his coronation in Ayodhya and while giving farewell to all the guests, Rama says, “Hanuman, you have done numerous services for me, all of the order of the first eminence. For any one of them, all my life is an adequate return. If my life is pledged in return for one of your numerous services, I shall be in debt in respect of the others”. A mighty king of a prosperous kingdom admitting his inability to reward a person so publicly only means how humble he is in admitting his gratefulness to Hanuman. That is his humility! And that is the consistency in his nobility!
3. A Comparative evaluation of the Two Protagonists
Having observed the protagonists individually, let us now juxtapose their basic traits to evaluate and draw logical conclusions sans the “generosity” of syncretistic or the “acuity” of a partisan about the value systems of the heroes and their likely influence on the readers.
Valmiki portrays Rama as a pleasant conversationalist with a delightful countenance. People perceived him as soft-spoken, as the first to speak to others, and as a speaker of words pleasing to hear. Achilles, in the words of Patroclus, “commands respect. He is easy to annoy . . . what a difficult man he is, quite capable of finding fault without reason”. Even his closest friend, Patroclus is thus afraid of Achilles’ countenance.
Achilles is all for himself, always operating from within the boundaries that he defined for his pride and honor. In that frenzy, he even transgresses the established norms. He often acts on the basis of his own passions, that too, with least concern as to how its consequences affect the community. Rama, is a Sthitaprajna—of stable intellect: he is not elated amidst pleasures, nor disturbed by misery. He has tremendous control over his own emotions and is thus capable of modulating his behavior according to the requirements. He could therefore always act within the parameters of dharma, righteousness, even under depressing circumstances.
Rama is a man with tremendous forbearance—has the courage to face challenges of life on his own. Achilles, like a mama’s child, at every slightest inconvenience, implores at his mother, Thetis, and even seeks her intervention in his negotiating through his crisis-prone circumstances.
Rama stands for filial concerns. When King Dasharatha exiles him to forest for fourteen years while offering the crown to his brother, Bharata, Rama willingly undertakes the ordeal. As his mother and brother Lakshmana urge him to defy the king by using power and assert his right for the throne, Rama counters them with his pleasing argument as to why he cannot raise his sword against his own father and why he must obey the command of his king and father. He thus proves himself to be a faithful and dutiful son, a man of family, a man of society, and a man of his clan in upholding its noble inheritance. Achilles gets terribly disturbed when Briseis, a slave girl, is snatched away by Agamemnon. Indeed, he feels that his honor is offended, for he feels cheated of the booty and becomes highly furious and withdraws from the fellow Greeks. In his displeasure, he even requests his mother to go to Zeus and persuade him to help the Trojans to fling the Greeks back onto their ships and massacre them, so that Agamemnon will realize the importance of Achilles’ presence in the war. That is his concern for his so-called honor and no concern for his fellow Achaeans.
Upon the death of Patroclus, Achilles, renouncing his anger against Agamemnon, hurries the Greeks to fight though they were fasting and hungry, to first avenge the insult inflicted by Trojans. This clearly exhibits his lack of empathy for his comrades. When Odysseus urges him to have food first, his reply is: “I have no taste for food—what I really crave for is: slaughter and bloodshed and the groans of the dying”. As against this disdain of Achilles, we witness an altogether different treatment meted out to the citizens of Ayodhya who accompanied Rama as he was proceeding to forest. Empathizing with the plight of the innocent citizens, Rama urges Sumantra, the charioteer, to drive him, Sita, and Lakshmana away while the citizens are sleeping in such a way that puts the citizens off the scent and leads them to think that the chariot has turned back to Ayodhya instead of forest, so that they will return to their homes. It is to relieve them from the burden of following him, Rama resorts to this trick. That is his concern for the welfare of his citizens.
When Vibhishana seeks Rama’s refuge, he grants asylum to Vibhishana declaring: “I vouchsafe security against all living beings to him who comes to me only once and seeks protection from me, saying ‘I am yours’: such is my vow”. Admitting his mistake when Agamemnon sends ambassadors with extraordinary gifts including Briseis to Achilles, requesting him to join the war and protect the interests of Achaeans, he turns it down. Even when his fellow leaders like Odysseus appeal to him to “return . . . to save thy Greeks”, Achilles refuses to make any compromise. He is so self-centered that nothing other than his pride and his personal honor and fury matter to him. Even when he rejoins the war later, it is again for his own reason: to avenge the killing of Patroclus by Hector.
Rama is more understandable for his motives. For, he is always motivated to be responsible and willingly submits himself to dharma. He took decisions by deliberations and reason. He always has the common good as the underlying reason for all of his decisions. All these elements reflect in his striking friendship with Sugriva, in granting asylum to Vibhishana, or in chiding Sugriva when he, risking his safety, sprang at Ravana and entertained one-to-one fight with him before the war actually started. Achilles jumps to decisions more by passion and they are mostly driven by personal urges—personal anger, pride, honor—rather than driven by their consequences for the fellow Greeks. His walking out of the war with the Trojans, his summarily dismissing the pleas of the embassy that was sent by Agamemnon soliciting his return to the war, and his re-entering it are essentially driven by his personal passions.
Achilles’ anger, be it when he is sulking or when he is violent, always remains paramount. He exhibits his insane wrath at its height in his battle with the Trojans in the river. As the terror-stricken Trojan troops try to cross the stream, Achilles, throwing himself at them with his sword, slaughters them left and right indiscriminately. In the Ramayana, in his battle with Indrajit, when Lakshmana, angered at the destruction wreaked by Indrajit on the monkeys, submits to Rama, “I shall now use Brahmastra (mystic missile presided over by Brahma) to destroy all the ogres”, Rama admonishes Lakshmana thus: “To get square with one individual you ought not to exterminate all the ogres on the earth”. Such is Rama’s sense of proportion and power of discretion and his concern for the innocents.
As Achilles and Hector stand against each other to fight man-to-man, Hector makes an attempt to obtain a promise from Achilles to treat his body with respect if he is killed, while promising not to maltreat Achilles’ body if he kills him. But Achilles, in all fury, turns it down. After Achilles stabs Hector in the throat, he fading fast once again entreats Achilles not to throw his body to the dogs but to give it to the Trojans for proper cremation. Yet the angry and unsatisfied victor, Achilles, much against the group norm, heartlessly turns it down. In the middle of a fierce battle with Ravana, Rama, gaining an advantage over Ravana who has lost his chariot and bow, instead of seizing the opportunity to press his advantage and kill Ravana, stands in dignity and says, “Now, Ravana, you are at a great disadvantage … Come tomorrow, refreshed and strong in your chariot and with a new bow and arrows.” Two protagonists of two great epics: one is in no mood to grant even the death-wish of his opponent though legitimate as per the norms of the era, while the other, as a true hero, is forthcoming in letting the opponent go and come after a break with newfound vigor to carry on the battle.
Achilles desecrates Hector’s corpse dragging it by tying it to his chariot—an act not only of primitive brutality, but also disregarding the group’s social norms. After killing Ravana, and noticing that Vibhishana is in two minds on performing obsequies to his brother, Rama says to Vibhishana thus: “No, Vibhishana, you are wrong. . . . Hostilities end with death. … Let his funeral rites be performed. …” He thus honors not only Ravana but also the rightful entitlements of the deceased for the traditional funeral rites. That is the humility, civility, and nobility of Rama.
In conclusion, it must be said that Achilles appears to be an estranged loner: always spontaneous and perhaps prospective. The sulking Achilles appears to be brooding over the question: “What is a man’s life worth?” But he does not appear to have the answer till his friend Patroclus meets with death. It is upon Patroclus’ death that Achilles realizes that his life is worth the revenge against Hector who killed Patroclus. It is to take revenge that he even chooses death. Yet, it does not grant him peace as is evidenced by his dragging Hector’s body around the barrow of Patroclus even after the ninth day of burial. It is only on meeting Priam at his tent that Achilles appears to have found his solace—“life is at best a mixture of good and ill”. In that solace, in that solitude, it dawns on him that there is more to life than revenge and slaughtering of men. Through this realization, the enigmatic hero, Achilles, feeling ashamed of his ignoble self-pity, his insatiable discontent, and his personal wrongs, shows the futility of fury and war, and also tells us about the necessity for men to rise above meanness and inhumanity. It is of course a different matter here that this realization in him is brought about partly by divine intervention, and that too quite late. But till Achilles’ final integration with humanity that a reader encounters in Book Twenty-Two of the Iliad, the reading of whatever great turmoil that Achille undergoes as also inflicts on his fellow human beings around him is certain to disturb a reader, indeed make one sick. No wonder he has, in the process, as Bassett (1933) observes, “[lost] the love and possibly admiration of many Homer’s non-Greek readers.”
As against this torrid experience, when we move on to the Ramayana, we encounter a certain spiritual atmosphere in which Rama evolves gradually—exhibiting a reflective and meditative attitude (Antoine 1959)—as Purushottama (the best among the men). Like any other human being, he gives vent to anger, grief, and despair and yields to passion, and under their influence even utters words that are not befitting his stature, but quickly overcomes them by disciplining his senses, emotions, passions—all on his own volition. Thus emerges Rama as a man of pure consciousness. And yet he is no different from us except that he is Dharma personified. He therefore affords not only the experience of cultured living but also a basis for moral conduct and the highest spiritual experience for the reader. Having consciously lived the life as per the canons of dharma, Rama is more prone to stiffen us ethically—that too, more appealingly. And it is this uniqueness of the character of Rama, which unfolds over the long journey so naturally, that makes him more inspiring for the reader to idealize. The fact that Rama still has a living presence in India—exists as a cherished ideal, though not the actual guideline for day-to-day living—vindicates his poetic influence.
Acknowledgement: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Panel on ‘Greek Poetry and Literature: From Homer to Kazantzakis and Beyond’, in Athens, Greece, as part of the 10th Annual International Conference on Literature, on June 5-8, 2017, Paper Series No. LIT2017-2258