Indian lit: Leaping over tall tales in a single bound

THERE ARE people who would like you to believe India created two major epic stories. They are completely wrong.

Yes, technically "The Mahabharata" and "The Ramayana" are really long mythologies, and Indians learn them in school and tell them to each other. But if you read only one Indian epic this year, or this lifetime, please don't waste your time on "The Ramayana."

Preachers and teachers try to use the examples of perfect heroism or submission in "The Ramayana" to indoctrinate us, but I don't buy it.

If you have never heard of either of these stories, you are not alone! For your enjoyment and edification, and also because I want you to be able to get through the rest of this column without having to go to Google or Wikipedia every five seconds, I have thought long and hard and have prepared these bite-size summaries. You will be able to see how hard I strived to keep my opinion out of them. They're purely objective.

In "The Mahabharata," the ultimate family feud roils a great dynasty. Good people end up on the wrong side, a woman has five husbands, a god comes to earth, curses and prophecies and magical weapons intersect in giant explosions on the battlefield, and a bird threatens to kill a guy unless he answers some pretty heavy philosophical riddles. It's awesome.

In "The Ramayana," perfect people foil evil people's plans. The hero's allies show perfect loyalty, a model wife has to go through a magical test to see whether the villain has sullied her purity, the hero blithely destroys the city the villain rules and a monkey army makes a bridge between India and Sri Lanka. The monkey-men constitute the only lively part of the whole tale.

OK, so my bias shows. Tell you what: I'll present little sample plot points from each epic. That way you can see for yourself that there's no contest.

The hero's friend Hanuman, a flying monkey-man, goes to rescue the hero's wife from her imprisonment on Sri Lanka. But she insists that only her husband should be the one to save her, and thus prolongs her suffering and her husband's worries. For some reason, this is not presented as evidence that she has gone mad.

Hanuman can't just carry the hero to Sri Lanka, for reasons unexplained. No, the hero must invade on foot. And the Ramayana, always moralizing and didactic, can't have the monkeys engineer a real bridge to get the hero to Sri Lanka. Oh, no. They just get together some rocks, inscribe them with the name of the hero so they won't sink, and toss them in the water. Voila! A bridge, and yet more proof of the hero's divinity!

For contrast, let's look at "The Mahabharata." A well-born young maiden, by the power of her prayers, gets a wish from the gods. They give her the ability to have a son fathered by a god whenever she chants a special spell. She tries it out, and it works! But then she realizes that she's become an unwed mother, and abandons the newborn in fright. A working-class family adopts the kid and calls him Karna.

Karna goes through life a little messed up; he has gifts and powers, but most of the story's protagonists laugh at him and won't let him train or compete with them because they think he's low-caste. They end up driving Karna into the arms of the bad guys, and he fights and dies heroically on their side.

Where "The Ramayana" gives us perfect archetypal people who don't have to struggle or experience uncertainty (the main hero, Rama, is pretty insufferable), "The Mahabharata" shows us the torment of bad choices. Sometimes good people are on the wrong side or make mistakes.

One tells us how to live; the other shows us how we live.

If you'd like to check out my interpretations, please compare for yourself. C. Rajagopalachari wrote great English translations of both stories. Or, if you're short on time and big on aesthetics, you could read the comic book versions Amar Chitra Katha publishes. I think you'll agree that one of them jumps off the page and the other just lies there.

The most interesting and popularly cherished characters in "The Ramayana," such as Hanuman, are the flawed, friendly ones who would be at home in "The Mahabharata." The model characters in "The Ramayana," like Superman, didn't get their virtues on their own. Give me Batman instead.

Sumana Harihareswara writes her epics for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her about Sita and Superman at