ASURA: Tale of the Vanquished
By Anand Neelakantan,
Leadstart Publishing, 504 pages, $12
“Hegel’s ideas are standing on their head,” Karl Marx once famously wrote in a critique of the German philosopher. “My idea is to set them on their feet.”
Indeed, this is the first reaction that comes to mind when reading “ASURA: Tale of the Vanquished”, Anand Neelakantan’s debut novel, in which he tells us the story of the war between Ram and Ravan, immortalised in India’s oldest epic, “The Ramayana”. The twist in the tale, however, is that the story is told from Ravan’s point of view — the story of the fallen, the vanquished.
History, it is said, has always been the story of the victors. Could “The Ramayana”, where the asuras are “demonised”, be reinterpreted if viewed from the losers’ point of view? This is what Neelakantan attempts in “ASURA”.
For Indians, the story of “The Ramayana” is well known. For those who don’t, roughly, the story runs like this: Dasaratha, king of the northern Indian kingdom of Ayodhya, prays to the gods for a son. He is blessed with four, and the eldest among them is Ram, considered to be an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, one of the three main deities of the Hindu pantheon, who has taken an earthly form to rid the world of the asuras, demons whose misdeeds have been growing. Ram marries Sita, daughter of King Janaka of neighbouring Mithila, and all seems to be going well until Kaikeyi, Dasaratha’s second queen, wants her son Bharat on the throne, and Ram, Sita and Lakshman, Ram’s younger brother, are banished to the forest. During their wanderings in the forest, Sita is abducted by Ravan, the ten-headed king of the demons. Ram defeats Ravan with the help of an army of monkeys and returns to rule Ayodhya, as Bharat renounces the throne.
So goes the popular tale. However, several versions of it persist: It is estimated that more than 300 versions of the story exist in Indian and South East Asian literature. Historians have roughly placed the writing of the original story around the 4th or the 5th century BC, and the part where Ram and Lakshman wander the forest in search of Sita is viewed as the spread of the Aryan civilisation through the central-southern parts of the subcontinent as these areas progressively came under Hinduism.
Thus, it is hardly surprising that in several tribal versions of the story Ravan is treated as a fallen hero rather than as the villain, a refrain Neelakantan draws upon in his work.
The author strips “ASURA” of all divinity, and while Ravan is depicted as the king of the asuras, the term here refers not to demons but to a tribe. Ram is also depicted here as prince of the Deva tribe, with no allusions to his divine links as in the more popular versions of the epic. Sita in the tale is Ravan’s daughter, who as an infant is cast into a marsh to die as it is foretold that she would be the cause of the downfall of the Asura race. She is picked up and raised by Janaka. Neelakantan draws on several tribal versions of the epic for this reference to Sita’s antecedents. The first mention of such a background is to be found in Sanghadasa’s Jain version of “The Ramayana” of the 5th century BC, which is echoed in several folk tales in southern India. In fact, there is a Kannada version of the story in which Ravan is depicted as Sita’s mother.
Outside India, “The Ramakien”, which is considered the national epic of Thailand, also refers to Ravan as Sita’s father, probably drawn from versions which reached South East Asian shores during the maritime activities of the Chola kings of southern India.
The most interesting part of Neelakantan’s “ASURA”, however, is the interpretation of Ravan’s ten heads. While the original story uses this to highlight the demon-king’s fierceness, Neelakantan views it as a depiction of the ten principal emotions of man — anger, pride, jealousy, happiness, sadness, fear, selfishness, passion, ambition and, supreme among them all, intellect. Traditional Indian wisdom places importance on the control of one’s emotions and projects the intellect alone as supreme. “Indian spiritual gurus have always stressed the need to overcome the self and considered these emotions detrimental to the elevation of the soul,” Neelakantan writes. However, Ravan shunned this traditional thought, stating that a combination of all the ten emotions makes one a complete human being.
“ASURA” has created quite a stir in India, appearing on several bestseller lists, and it is easy to understand why as one reads the book. Neelakantan tells his story in a very matter-of-fact way, keeping the language simple and straightforward. He introduces a new character in the drama, called Bhadra, and the story is told in first person by Ravan and Bhadra.
Ravan talks of himself and his exploits, highlighting his struggles as a half-breed (his father is a Brahmin of the highest caste and his mother an Asura woman), rising from poverty to becoming ruler of a kingdom which spanned the entire country.
However, Bhadra’s account is more heart-rending — it tells us of a people who led simple lives and how ordinary people’s lives were ravaged by war in which they had no stake (a fact that remains true to this day). Neelakantan highlights how the advent of the Aryan civilisation led to the introduction of the caste system in the interiors of the country — a scourge which continues to plague society today.
Perhaps, if answers are to be found to the myriad problems facing India today, especially the rising gap between rich and poor in the face of the onslaught of the liberal economy, the country’s leaders need to return to their roots to find answers. India cannot hope to find respect in the international seat of nations unless 5,000 years of exploitation of society’s lower rungs are addressed. That is the central message Neelakantan tries to convey through “ASURA”.