Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

A Comparative Evaluation of Achilles and Rama, the Protagonists of the Iliad and the Ramayana †

Academic journal article IUP Journal of English Studies

A Comparative Evaluation of Achilles and Rama, the Protagonists of the Iliad and the Ramayana †

Article excerpt


As the very beginning of the Iliad-"Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring / Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing! / That wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy reign" (Homer 2006)-indicates, it is a war poem that essentially centers around the wrath of Achilles, which is a larger, more complicated, and more dramatic theme. Driven by his craving for "fame," Achilles simply behaves as though he has lost the very sense of "reason." The art of modulating his character as the situation demands is something not known to him. On the other hand, the ability to go mad-to become berserk-at the slightest provocation has almost become an inseparable trait of him. Obviously, this has made him not to know what fear is, which would have indeed made him unstoppable in war. But the resulting everlasting killing-unmindful of even being killed-by Achilles often makes a reader wearisome.

As against this, the Indian epic, the Rāmāyana begins with the poet Vālmīki asking sage Narada, as though to suggest the theme of his proposed poem to the readers: "O Maharshi, Who in this world lives today endowed with excellent qualities, prowess, righteousness, gratitude, truthfulness, and firmness in his vows? Who is self-restrained? Who has conquered anger? Who is endowed with brilliance and free from envy? Who is that when excited to wrath even the gods are afraid of? Please tell me" (Vālmīki 2001, 1.1.3-4). Narada, confessing that rare indeed are men endowed with all the qualities that he has described, narrates the story of one such whom people call Rāma. It is based on this narration that Vālmīki composed his epic, the Rāmāyana, which is a rare combination of literary excellence and a vivid portrayal of high moral values: "the sacredness of a pledge, its high ideals of duty, truthfulness and self-control, its living examples of domestic and social virtues, its deep faith in the ultimate meaning of life as a struggle between good and evil" (Bulcke 2010, 33) that had conquered the heart of religious-minded Indians forever.

It is perhaps this portrayal of ideal humanism by the poet in the Rāmāyana that made Williams (1863) wonder in one of his lectures thus: "How far more natural is Achilles, with all his faults, than Rāma, with his almost painful correctness of conduct! Even the cruel vengeance that Achilles perpetrates on the dead Hector strikes us as more likely to be true than Rāma's magnanimous treatment of the fallen Ravana." But a Socratic-like dissection of this statement reveals a different picture: this "magnanimous treatment of the fallen Ravana" by Rāma is not a onetime exhibition. There is consistency in Rāma's righteous behavior. And interestingly, it is more out of his own volition: a conscious "willing" that enabled him to be always right in his disposition, a kind of disposition that we witness when Achilles receives Priam who came to his hut seeking his son's mortal remains. It is this righteous behavior of him even in the midst of unfair circumstances that makes his character more inspiring to the readers and that is what this paper now attempts to examine by comparing the journey of these two protagonists.

Achilles: Incongruities and Irritants

In Homer's "paradise"-Iliad -we come across a cute but "wild" flower named Achilles, an infinitely great warrior, who burns with fury all through, that too, irresistibly. Homer depicts Achilles not only as furious but also as-to borrow Aristotle's words-"a paradigm of obstinacy" (Homer 2003). It is this singular trait of Achilles that proves to be bad for the Greeks and catastrophic for himself. For, driven by single-minded devotion for revenge, he slides off the scale of human normality. Although Achilles has all the appreciation for the social order, it is his petulance, overflowing pride, and argumentative nature that often undermine his heroic disposition-to borrow Patroclus' words, it indeed "warp[ed] a noble nature to ignoble ends" (ibid. …

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