by Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University
“…Myth might be defined simply as ‘other people’s religion,’…”
While folktales and fables are traditional literature of a secular nature, myths are sacred narratives. To people within a particular religious group, myths are true accounts of past events. Myths explain how the world came to be and how people’s behavior, societal customs, and institutional norms were formed. The main characters in myths are usually gods or heroes with supernatural powers and the humans with whom they interact. “…Myth might be defined simply as ‘other people’s religion,’ to which an equivalent definition of religion would be ‘misunderstood mythology,’ the misunderstanding consisting in the interpretation of mythic metaphors as references to hard fact” (Campbell 27).
The Ramayana, an essential part of the Hindu religious canon, was most likely written in the 4th century BCE. Ascribed to Hindu sage Valmiki, this epic poem tells the story of Rama, the incarnation of the God Vishnu, and his journey to become an exemplary king. The most oft-told sections of the Ramayana are the abduction of Rama’s wife Sita by his adversary evil king Ravana, Rama’s rescue of Sita with the help of the monkey Hanuman, and Sita’s ultimate banishment to the forest. The Ramayana is not just a story; it is an allegory. It represents the teaching of ancient Hindu sages and is intended to show readers and listeners the path of dharma or path of “righteousness,” which shows the way to living in harmony with the universe.
According to a note at the end of Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni, illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar, this graphic novel version is closely related to the Patua folk-art form. In this tradition, Patua artists paint a series of images on a scroll, which is unrolled and referred to as the story is told or sung or danced. Patua, a caste of people living in the West Bengal region of India, have been painters by trade for many generations. Hindu deities are the main topic of their work. Patua artist Moyna Chitraka, whose last name literally means “scroll painter,” painted the illustrations for this book before the author wrote the print. The graphic novel format of presenting visual information in panels parallels the Patua tradition of visually recounting texts as a series of scenes.
In this book, Chitraka paints Sita with wide eyes that hold the reader’s attention in their gaze and reinforce the centrality of Sita’s voice in this retelling. According to the note by V. Geetha of Tara Books, Sita’s Ramayana is not the only version of this myth told from the female point of view. One such was told by Bengali female reteller Chandrabati who lived in the 16th century. “These songs and ballads were perhaps the creations of women, who sang as they worked at home and outside, and who identified no doubt with this tale of womanly suffering and fortitude” (150). Chitraka’s illustrations encourage readers to empathize with this woman who thwarts the advances of her husband’s adversary only to be banished to the forest because Rama cannot shake off his unfounded suspicions and cannot deal with the rumors spread among his people.
Author Samhita Arni’s print includes passages that reflect the values that are central to Valmiki’s poem: trust, honor, loyalty, and the terrible consequences of war. “Violence breeds violence, and an unjust act begets greater injustice” (16). “War, in some ways, is merciful to men. It makes them heroes if they are the victors. If they are the vanquished—they do not live to see their homes taken, their wives widowed. But if you are a woman—you must live through defeat… you become the mother of dead sons, a widow, or an orphan; or worse, a prisoner” (120). With its decidedly feminist perspective, Sita’s Ramayana highlights the tragedy that can result from disharmony between husband and wife and the painful consequences to women, children, and ordinary people when their lives are determined by competition between powerful men.
In this graphic novel, young adults have a visually-appealing, fast-paced, action-packed story that makes this ancient Hindu text accessible to 21st-century readers. Readers who are unfamiliar with this religion will learn about key figures, including gods, kings and queens and their relatives, and animal helpers. (Arni and Chitraka provide a helpful genealogy chart at the front of the book.) Readers will also gain insight into foundational Hindu values. The characters in this allegory are fraught with moral dilemmas; there are significant themes for readers to consider.
For me, Sita’s Ramayana has many parallels with Tiger Moon (Michaelis), which LS5633: The Art of Storytelling students discussed on the WOW Currents in March 2012. Sita like Safia in Tiger Moon struggles to maintain her virtue while imprisoned and must be rescued. Sita is rescued by her husband Rama, the incarnation of the God Vishnu, and Safia by Farhad, who is chosen to do so by Lord Krishna. Both Rama and Farhad are aided in the rescue by animal helpers. Hanuman, a brave and wise monkey, helps Rama rescue Sita. A white tiger named Nitish, which means “Lord of the Right Way” in Hindi, aides Farhad in freeing Safia. I believe some readers may better comprehend the Hindu religious and cultural aspects of Tiger Moon if they read a myth like Sita’s Ramayana first.
How did you respond to this myth? What do you think about the feminist perspective of this particular version and how might it be different from Valmiki’s poem? Does sufficient background knowledge about a culture help the reader or storyteller access the deeper meanings in myths? Is this more important in understanding and communicating myths than it is in folktales and fables? What are some of the challenges you see for storytellers in retelling myths from the perspective of cultural outsiders?
Postscript: This month in our inquiry into cultural authenticity and accuracy in literature and storytelling, we have discussed five traditional literature books written and illustrated for children and young adults. We started with our responses to the literature and then looked more closely to explore the cultural aspects of each story with a focus on authenticity. As in all inquiry learning, we have raised as many questions as we have answered. We may not have achieved consensus regarding these challenges for storytellers, teachers, and librarians, but we have demonstrated a willingness and openness to explore how we can accurately and more authentically share these folktales, fables, and a myth with young people. Thank you all for sharing your journey on the WOW Currents where we can revisit and continue to reflect on our conversation.
Arni, Samhita. Sita’s Ramayana. Berkeley, CA: Groundwood, 2011. Print.
Campbell, Joseph. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002. Print.
Michaelis, Antonia. Tiger Moon. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Amulet Books, 2006/2008. Print.
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