Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Epics of the East and the West

Before I start this article, I would like to state a disclaimer- That I am no expert on World or Indian Mythology. I have read books on the same and the knowledge I have gained is not even a molecule in this vast ocean of myths and mythology. Hence what I state below are just my observations, not a doctorate thesis by a student of theology.

The below are some of my points of observation after reading the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Greek epic- Iliad. I found certain stories, premises and characters that have similarities in these epics. These are just a few i have noticed, a historian or scholar can contradict, or someone else can point out further points that would have missed my attention.  Everyone is free to think on their own and derive your conclusions. So here goes-

One Man-

The first interesting point which we have to note here is that, both the Ramayana and the Iliad are considered the works of an individual. The Ramayana in its true poetic form is considered a work of Valmiki, who many regard as India's first Poet. This tale, Valmiki claims is a true story that actually happened in India. The story's original version in Sanskrit is known as Valmiki Ramayana, dating to approximately the 4th century B.C (as per Wikipedia). Similarly The Iliad and Odyssey are attributed to Homer, a nomadic poet. Many historians even today claim that Homer is just a fictional character and the tales in these two epics are actually folk tales that have been orally transmitted through generations However as per Herodotus(early Greek Historian) and certain modern historians, Homer is believed to have lived somewhere between the 9th to 7th century BC.

The kidnapping of Sita and Helen.-

Both the central female characters in these two epics were kidnapped. This forms the crux of the these tales. Ultimately both Ram and the Greeks (Menelaus)waged the terrible wars to get back their respective princesses. Paris was promised 'the most beautiful women on earth' by Aphrodite ( The Greek Goddess of Love) if he declared that Aphrodite was the most beautiful goddess in a contest.  Paris does so and Aphrodite makes Helen fall in love with him. However Helen was already married to Menelaus(the king of Sparta) and Paris had to kidnap her and take her to his kingdom, Troy. In the Ramayana, Ravan takes the form of a hermit and kidnaps Sita in the absence of Ram and Lakshman. He primarily does so, to avenge for his sister's humiliation at the hands of Ram and Lakshman. Though, Sita was kidnapped against her will, Helen willingly goes with Paris. But then again one must remember that she was made to fall in love by Aphrodite. Another point to note is that, both Sita and Helen, are not born out of human mothers. Sita was ploughed out of the earth by King Janak. She was a gift by the earth goddess to the childless king Janak. In Greek mythology, Helen is born out a goose's egg. Her parents Zeus and Nemisis (Greek Gods) mate in the form of geese and the offspring born was Helen.

Troy and Lanka- 

Troy and Lanka are the cities destined to be destroyed by the rampaging forces of the Greek and the Vanar Army. Lanka is ruled by Ravan, the king of the three worlds whom even the Devas feared. Ravan had received a boon from Brahma that he should die only at the hands of a human. For he did not fear any human, and this boon helped him conquer the three worlds. Lanka was his capital city and no Deva dared to enter there. Similarly, Troy was the impenetrable city of the Trojans. Its army chief was Hector`, regarded by many as the greatest warrior of his time. The Greek fought the war for ten long years but could not penetrate the great walls of the city. It was finally through deceit in the form of a giant wooden horse that they enter into the city. 

These are a couple of points I noted while reading about these two epics. However there is one particularly interesting story in the Mahabharata that closely resembles the story of Achilles-

The stories of the weakest spot-

 According to Greek Legend, when Achilles was born Thetis(his mother) tried to make him immortal by dipping him in the river Styx. However, he was left vulnerable at the part of the body by which she held him, his heel. He was ultimately killed by an arrow from Paris,that struck his heel. However, Achilles was undefeated in the battlefield and no one really attributes any heroics to Paris (for the death) as he could not defeat Achilles in true combat.

 During the Kurukshethra war, Gandhari asks Duryodhana to take a bath and appear before her naked. Duryodhana decides to obey his mother without really knowing the reason behind this peculiar request. He goes to the river and takes and dip and was on his way back to his mother's chambers when he meets Krishna. Krishna makes fun of Duryodhana for walking around naked and asks him to atleast cover his private parts with a leaf. Duryodhana feels embarrassed and decides to follow Krishna's adivce. He appears before his mother with a banana leaf covering his genitals and thighs. Gandhari removes her blindfold to look at her son, only to see that he was not completely naked. She laments him for not obeying her orders because every part of his body that she gazes upon when she removes her blindfold, would have been impervious to weapons. This was a boon she received for being willfully blindfolded all these years to share her husband's blindness.So now the only part where Duryodhana could be targeted in combat was his thighs. And that is exactly where Bhima hits him in a mace combat though it is against the law to hit anyone below the belt in such a combat.

In both these stories we see that the characters can only be killed/injured if they are hit upon a particular part of their body. This legend led to the development of the term Achilles heel which means 'a deadly weakness in spite of overall strength, that can actually or potentially lead to downfall'
Another vague point that come to my mind, thanks to the reference made by Devdutt Patnaik( author) is that the city of Mathura was actually ruled by a ruling council and not a king. Many considered Krishna to be the King, but actually that is not the case, and he too was part of a council that ruled the kingdom. This was similar to the Greek political system that ultimately led to the concept of modern democracy.

As mentioned earlier these are just few of the similarities i have noticed between our epics and the Greek legends. It just shows the great history and tradition these two ancient civilisations shared and how not just spices and silk but also stories were traded. Let us explore them further to better understand our history and the values they teach for us to become better individuals and progress as a society.

Please do feel to share any such interesting observations that you might also have, for as I said, its a vast ocean out there.....


  1. Wonderful observations Sulesh, very enjoyable read!lloking forward to more!

  2. nice the.. even the dabangg one.. start writing a book i say..

  3. Great observations sulesh. Humans have always looked to inculcate fear amongst themselves by believing in the existence of a superior force that ought to be worshipped. Hence I am not surprised that there are resemblances between the two. Afterall, the belief in a super natural force helps us feel secure. And this belief has to be common amongst all of the different races

  4. Hats off to the efforts & pains taken in researching the similarities.After all both the stories were fictional & what emerges out of Sulesh's observation is that Valmiki can sue Homer for plagiarism.

  5. And hence it transpires that you make an excellant author. My fascination for the Trojan war is now all the more enhanced because of its relation to an epic I grew up listening to. Congratulations on a job very well done Sulesh. Dole out more.