Monkeys, kings, gods, and demons: The Ramayana is quite a tale. However, an examination of the context of the story, such as the culture it came from and the works of art it influenced, shows that for many people, the Ramayana is quite a bit more than just a story. Culture, tradition, and the artistic medium all play important roles in understanding Valmiki’s Ramayana and the illustration that goes with it.
The Ramayana is an important literary work, and its cultural context is key to understanding the story.
One especially important piece of cultural context, specifically Hindu, is the hero of the story: Rama. Rama is seen as a reincarnation of Vishnu, one of the Hindu gods. Vishnu is the supreme preserver god and is associated with light and the sun. According to the BBC Religions web page, Vishnu’s Rama reincarnation represents the greatest warrior and an ideal man. Because of the importance of Rama as a reincarnation of Vishnu, the Ramayana is viewed as a sacred text.
To many readers, this is not just another story but detailed instruction on the ways that an ideal man should behave. When the reader understands this about the Ramayana, the importance of Rama helping Sugriva to defeat Bali becomes clear. Through his bravery as a warrior, Rama helps preserve peace and goodness on the Earth by putting ‘gracious’ and ‘handsome’ Sugriva back on the throne. These righteous acts are ones for ordinary people to aspire to. According to Hindu belief, the path to virtue and bravery is found by following the gods’ actions.
In looking at the context, it is also important to observe how the artist of the painting has built on the traditional story told in the chapter to create a new interpretation. In the text, Sugriva is not portrayed as savage, even though he lives in the forest. Instead, he’s shown as noble, gracious, and full of courage. The painting, on the other hand, shows Sugriva and his band of monkeys wearing only their fur, while Bali and his women are clothed. Clothing can be seen as a sign of being civilized, so in contrast with the text, the painting makes us question how civilized Sugriva is. Another interesting difference in interpretation is that in the text, Rama helps Sugriva kill Bali, but the painting shows Rama as more of a peacemaker. His bow is out, but no arrow is drawn. Rama’s hand is outstretched as though he wants to make peace. He is, after all, the preserver god. Artists interpret the literary tradition as they create new works, as seen in this painting.
Another consideration when thinking about the context of the Ramayana is the medium. The physical differences between writing and painting affect the way authors and artists portray certain events and scenes. The first obvious difference is that the text must describe events one at a time. In a painting, however, the artist can paint many events at once, as in the illustration of Sugriva challenging Bali. The roaring challenge, the birds falling from the sky, Rama with his bow ready, and Tara trying to calm Bali all happen at once in the painting. Also, painters have to decide on how big to make the characters and where to put them on the canvas, which can affect how a viewer interprets the story. The painting shows Sugriva above Bali on the canvas. Also, Sugriva is quite a bit larger than Bali. This makes Sugriva appear strong and Bali appear weak, which suggests that Sugriva will be victorious. The text is not able to give these kinds of visual clues about the outcome. As an important form of context, the artistic medium can have a major effect on how the story comes across.
Without understanding context, artistic works lack meaning. In Valmiki’s Ramayana, exploring the context, specifically culture, tradition, and the artistic medium, can make understanding the story and the illustration that goes with it much easier. Context makes a simple tale something much deeper.