The hero’s journey is a common theme in myths – ancient and modern. In ancient myths, the hero is usually a man — with the woman playing a minor role. Unlike Joseph Campbell’s stress on shared hero themes, in this post I will contrast a Jewish myth with a Hindu myth to highlight differences. The Jewish myth is the founding story of the Jewish nation: Abraham’s conquering journey. The Hindu myth is Rama’s journey of exile. But more specifically, I will focus on how these heroes consulted their wives on the journey.
Abram (later, “Abraham”) is the founder of Judaism. The Jewish Torah, in Genesis 12, tells us that Abram’s god (“Yahweh”: YHWY) commanded him to journey from his father’s land (Babylonia) to a new promised land called Canaan where he was to slaughter the local inhabitants and make the land his own — not an uncommon event in those days. This journey and the planned genocides were to to fulfill YHWY’s purpose to establish a new pure nation. Remember that shortly prior to this story YHWY had lost his temper and destroyed the whole world except one family in a flood. YHWY was again picking favorites.
For the long, dangerous warring journey, Abram takes all his property including his wife Sarai (later, “Sarah”).
“Abram took his wife Sarai and his bother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran [servants/slaves]; and they set out for the land of Canaan.”
Genesis 12: 5
Note that the Torah makes no mention of Abram asking Sarai to join him on the trip. It is implied that Sarai is treated like just another piece of Abram’s property and just does as she is told.
The Hindu Ramayana is an entire epic based on the exile journey of prince Rama (synopsis here). Below I contrast Abram’s and Rama’s journey – especially the relationship these heroes to their wives:
- Rama’s journey was into exile; Abram’s journey was for conquest.
- Rama was obeying his dharma; Abram was obeying his god.
- Rama’s journey was into poverty; Abram had YHWY’s promise of wealth and power
- Rama & his wife gave away their belongings for their journey; Abram took everything he owned.
- Rama requested that his wife Sita stay behind for the sake of her safety; Abram is not mentioned considering Sarai’s well-being.
- Sita refuses to stay behind and lectures Rama on the role of the wife. Sarai has no voice in Abram’s story.
Below I have copied Sita’s beautiful speech to her husband. Her short speech will give you a wonderful taste of the beauty of the Ramayana. My goal is to perhaps put a small dent in any vestige of Judeo-Christian parochialism. That parochialism is usually unconscious and often simply due to lack of familiarity with other traditions. So here is a taste of familiarity – enjoy this sampling of Hinduism:
The Ramayana by William Buck (pgs 73-74: Book 2, The Ayodhya Book):
Rama said [to Sita], “Wait for my return. Wait for me, everything will be all right. … The time [of my 14-year exile] will quickly pass, you will soon see me return.”
She answered softly, “It is very strange, My Lord, that you alone among all the men in the world have not heard that a wife and her husband are one.”
“There is no happiness in the forest,” said Rama. “there is danger. Lions roar and keep pitiless watch from the mouths of their hill-caves, waterfalls crash and pain the ears, and so the wood is full of misery.”
“Surely your fortune is also mine,” said Sita.
“Enraged elephants in their fury trample men to death.”
“Kings in cities execute their faithful friends at any hour, day or night.”
“There is little to eat but windfallen fruit and white roots.”
“I will eat after you have taken your share of them.”
“There is no water, vines shut out the Sun, at night there are but hard beds of leaves.”
“I will gather flowers.”
“Creeping serpents slither across the trails and swim crookedly in the rivers awaiting prey.”
“The wayfarer will see flocks of colored birds fly and disappear into shady trees.”
“There is always hunger and darkness and great fear,” said Rama. “Scorpions sting and poison the blood; there is fever in the air, fires rage uncontrolled; there are no dear friends nearby, and so the wood is full of misery.”
“It is Ayodhya [their home city] that would be the wilderness for me without you,” said Sita. “Your bow is no decoration, your knife is not for wood-chopping, your arrows are not toys, but keep me from your arguments. We will be together. The water will be nectar, the thistles silk, the raw hides many-colored blankets. I’ll be no burden. Rama, I depend on you. I cannot be cast away like water left in a cup. Dear Rama, I am the humble dust at your feet, perfectly happy. How will you avoid me?”
“Then come,” smiled Rama. “You love me and I love you, what more is there? Without delay give away all our possesions that we won’t take with us, and get ready to go.”
Religious folks often feel that without their religion, their world would have no moral grounding. They are wrong, of course, but their stories are used to reinforce their valued virtues — the stories serve as clothing for their moral compasses. In this post I have contrasted the clothing used in Hindu and Judeo-Christian morality. In these hero myths, the contrast between Abram’s and Rama’s relation to their wives offers different models of love, mutual respect and sacrifice. Hopefully this short example illustrated the bizarreness of the exclusivist Christian assumption that only their religious stories offer true moral compasses.
However, please be aware that I do not have a naive, idealized view of either the Ramayana nor of Hinduism. Both the Torah and the Ramayana (being ancient myths) are a mix of stories and in later posts I will show how the Ramayana also has incriminating views of women amongst her stories. Nothing is sacred on this site.