Decoded: Ra Ma Ya NaPosted: February 2, 2015
Yesterday I completed yet another drawing. The output of work from my pen tends to be constant, but without reflection as to what I have done, or why I do it. The most recent piece, simply titled RaMaYaNa was posted yesterday, and I feel that for once, it needs a companion piece to explain some of the story reflected in the 6 panels. so first here is the piece in total.
The Ramayana has a long story with me. I have been enamored with this epic for almost 30 years. It started rather innocently. About that time, I was in a group of men, which used to gather once a week for dinner. This gathering was connected to other activities I was engaged in, namely the ideas of GI Gurdjieff. Our coming together socially was a form of camaraderie, but also, our group leader, Jerry Brewster, used it as a form of teaching.
After dinner (usually at Tripoli diner on 3rd Avenue) Jerry would invite us to tell jokes. But after a while he scolded us “your jokes need to come out of High School. Maybe now it is time to learn to tell stories.” So this became our task. To find good stories that had the ring of inner truth to them.
Everyone began to search the usual sources of Mullah Nasar Adin stories, or the Wise Men of Chelm, but my very good friend and brother, Andy de Santis topped everyone—he would memorize sections of the Mahabarata, names and all, and relate them to us each week. I do not remember if he ever finished the story as it is the other great epic of India, but he really had me going.
Andy and I always had a kind of friendly competitiveness, and not wanting to be outdone, I became obsessed with finding one better. This is when I discovered the most popular English translation of the Ramayana by William Buck. The story so engrossed me, that I soon forgot about my feelings of competitiveness. This started a long love affair with stories, folktales and so on in general, but especially this enigmatic epic. There are dozens of drawings scattered among my old sketchbooks that attempted to pay homage to the Ramayana.
The Ramayana is probably the most studied epic among Hindu peoples. There are many Bollywood films based on it, puppet shows, art etc. paying homage to it. There is a computer animated version released in 2010 by Warner Bros India (http://youtu.be/ERMy9CPjSQg). It is reputed to be from sources dating back 5000 years. Many of the modern epic tales we know of such as Lord of the Rings are highly influenced by it. I cannot say that I even come close to doing it justice within a 6-paneled drawing.
Just briefly, the story is full of royal ascension, betrayal, armies of enlightened animals, gods, demons and romance. To quote wikepedia “The Ramayana consists of 24,000 verses in seven books (kāṇḍas) and 500 cantos (sargas), and tells the story of Rama (an avatar of the Hindu supreme-god Vishnu), whose wife Sita is abducted by Ravana, the king of Lanka (current day Sri Lanka). Incidentally the first letter of every 1000 verses (total 24) make the Gayatri mantra Thematically, the Ramayana explores human values and the concept of dharma.”
When I start all drawings, I have no idea as to what I am about to do. I just work. I had a vague idea of a flying figure, dream like, dancing on the air. The figure at first seemed to be unbalanced, so I began to add heads, and arms. In so doing, the character began to resemble a main player in the story of the Ramayana. The demon lord Ravana. At least my version of him.
It was then that I decided to turn the piece into a 6-panel starting with the words Ra_Ma_Ya_Na placed around the page. From this point on I am relating how I remember the story. There is much contention over translations as there is with any ancient work. And tales change over time. William Bucks version was only one variant and the only one I have read.
What I remember of Ravana was that he was born out of the belly button of Brahma. He had ten heads and ten arms and each head was black as night with red eyes, lashing tongue and fangs. Your traditional demon. He is not always depicted like this.
Ravana decides that he wants the power of a god. So he begins a 10,000 year meditation. Every 1000 years, he takes a sword and shears off one of his heads and tosses it into the fire. At the end of the 10,000th year he is about to shear off his last head, when Shiva appears before him and confesses that his will is so great, that he can have a boon (favor) granted. Ravana’s request is that he can be killed by no god.
This sets the demon king off on a path of destruction across the heavans. He lays waste to many of the deities palaces. In so doing the gods convene and try to decide what can be done about the demon king. How can he be stopped?
This takes us to the first upper left panel. Above the clouds sits Narayana, an incarnation of Vishnu. Supreme lord. It was decided that Narayana should incarnate himself as a man, who then would be able to defeat Ravana (as a man). King Dasaratha is chosen for this task. He is given a rice cake by his priest and in turn is supposed to choose one of his wives to receive it. But when the moment comes, he breaks the cake in half and gives it to his first and favorite wife. He breaks the remaining half in half again and gives it to his second wife and the remaining quarter he breaks again and gives the two pieces to his third wife.
Rama is to be king, and this is an accepted fact, but wife number 2 calls King Dasaratha on a promise he made—that her son, Bharata would be promised the throne, and that Rama must go into exile.
Now keep in mind that I have no intention of trying to depict every detail of this vast story. For me it is merely a meditation. The drawing gets me to start thinking about the story. Panel 2 quickly represents Rama’s exile. He will leave with his brother and guardian Lakshamana, and his wife Sita. Bharata feels the injustice of this decision and tells Rama that he will never take the throne, but instead places Rama’s sandals in his place for when he returns. The exile is to last 14 years.
As we go to the 3rd panel, we see some of the symbols of Rama’s exile. What happens here is that Ravana spies Rama’s wife from above and falls in love with her. He decides he must have her. So he and his attendant, Marucha, hatch a plan. Marucha will transform himself into a deer to distract Lakshamana away from Sita, Lakshamana succeeds in killing Marucha, but then realizes that he has wandered far from camp. Ravana seizes Sita and flies off with her.
The bird in the panel is Jadyu, the vulture king who tries to stop the demon and sacrifices himself in the process.
At this point I have to confess that in telling this story, even in brief is daunting. There is so much that is important that is not even hinted at in the 6 panels. The major omission is the introduction here of the most important supporting character, namely the monkey god Hanuman. This is one of my favorite characters from all of folktale, and I feel he deserves his own meditation. It is during the battle with the vulture that Sita drops her necklace intentionally. It is discovered by two monkeys which sets off the alliances between Rama and the animal kingdom.
Panel 4 is a bit enigmatic (an enigma wrapped in an enigma.) The image alludes to Rama’s meeting with Agastya, the forest mendicant who gives Rama an indestructible bow. This after breaking Rama’s own bow. This is very symbolic. It is suggested that Rama will now use “Dharma” arrows. Dharma in simple terms translates as “the principle of cosmic order’ for Hinduism and in Buddhism is considered the whole of the teaching. The way I interpret this is that Rama is using his inner understanding to be able to defeat the demon army.
At the lower portion of the panel are bears representing Jhambavan’s army. Rama is marching to Lanka to rescue his wife and defeat the demon armies. He will do so with the assistance of bears, monkeys and other forces of nature. The lower left part of the panel alludes to the bridge built by the monkey architect Nala. This is the bridge that will connect the mainland to Lanka.
Panel 5 attempts to portray the battle between Rama and the demon army. Rama is surrounded by a force which represents his astral presence out of which his arrows are launched. This would be a grand painting in itself as it involves massive images of slaughter.
Which brings us to the last panel which shows a Botticelli like Sita being consumed by flames which are being sucked up by an earth goddess. Though Sita remained faithful to her husband during her abduction, Rama could never let go of the idea that she had been violated by Ravana. His rejection not only lost him his wife, but his future sons, who return to his kingdom many years later to sing to him his very own exploits.
It was never my intention to try to tell this story in pictures. Maybe I am too lazy or unfocused for such an undertaking. But I do love this story and it came out in this particular work. I have never tried to explain anything that I do. As I have stated in interviews, my work just happens. But this particular piece represented a bit more. Once I was involved, I had to see it through. The symbols of the Ramayana have been alive for me for many years. And I am not from the culture where this was an every day story. Hindu’s are intimately familiar with these characters. There are statues of Hanuman all over Asia and are revered by the local inhabitants. This is merely one of my homages to a story which for me, conveys a sense of the sacred and the mysterious. Plus it is really a cool tale.