Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Is Slumdog Millionaire a Retelling of the Ramayana?

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

Is Slumdog Millionaire a Retelling of the Ramayana?

Article excerpt

One of the most famous and popular stories in Indian culture is the story of Rama and Sita as told in the Ramayana. In North India, the festival of divali celebrates the return of Rama from exile and the taking of his rightful place as the king of Kosala. When the Indian state-owned television channel produced the story in serial form, millions of Indians were glued to their television sets to follow the adventures of Rama and Sita each week.

The Ramayana is one of two great epics in Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma).1 The poet and sage Valmiki is credited with its composition in Sanskrit, with dates for this oral composition ranging widely from the fifteenth to the fourth century BCE. Tradition regards the Ramayana as itihasa, or history, as well as epic story, a repository of sacred stories, instructions on ideal behavior and rule, and, perhaps most importantly, as a source of teaching about dharma (righteousness, truth, duty). It is also one of the world's great love stories.

Perhaps because of the Ramayana's length, and as an indication of its great popularity, different versions of the Ramayana exist, although the main points of the story generally correspond. A story-teller or teacher will decide what portions of the story he/she will tell depending on personal preferences, adherence to tradition, and the needs or interests of listeners. In such a manner, the Ramayana spread throughout India, Southeast Asia and eventually the world. It is told in many languages and in many forms, including dance, drama, and music. Many paintings and sculptures also represent central figures or portions of the Ramayana. In more recent years, the Ramayana has been depicted in film and television,2 as well as on the Internet.3

The Ramayana tells the story of Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Rama's wife Sita. Rama is the son of Dasharatha, the ruler of Kosala. Rama himself is certainly a heroic figure but, beyond this, he is most importantly an avatar, an incarnation of the great Hindu deva (god) Vishnu. Vishnu is known as the preserver of dharma (proper conduct, law, righteousness). Tradition tells us that whenever dharma runs low, Vishnu takes some form of incarnation to restore it.4 In the time of Rama, dharma has indeed run low. Demons disrupt the sacrifices of sages and priests. Whole areas of land lie in devastation, although the kingdom of Kosala and especially the capital of Ayodhya are themselves in good order. The crucial problem is a ten-headed demon named Ravana who, with his brothers, has acquired tremendous power through the practice of tapas (austerities) and who is now threatening even the devas themselves. In order to restore dharma, Ravana must be defeated, so Vishnu takes the form of a human being, Rama. As Ravana never sought protective powers against something so seemingly lowly as a human being, Vishnu's incarnation as a human represents the only chance to defeat him.

Rama and his brother Lakshmana receive the tutelage of Sage Vishvamitra and, even as young boys, they begin the process of righting the world and restoring dharma. When he is a young man, Rama sees, falls in love with, and wins the hand of, Sita, the beautiful daughter of King Janaka, the ruler of Mithila. Sita is more than a beautiful and strong princess though. She is the daughter of Mother Earth and an incarnation of the devi (goddess) Lakshmi, who is the goddess of fortune, prosperity and beauty. Lakshmi is also the consort of Vishnu. It is therefore destiny that Rama and Sita fall in love and become united on earth.

When the elderly King Dasharatha decides to give up his throne, he chooses Rama to be the next king. Rama, as the eldest son, is the rightful heir to the throne. He is also popular among the people of Kosala and his selection as successor to Dasharatha is welcomed by the people of the land. However, Dasharatha had four sons by three wives, and Dasharatha's wife Kaikeyi wants her own son to become the next king. In the past, when Kaikeyi helped him in a difficult time, Dasharatha granted her two boons of her choosing. …

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