Posted in Books

Top Ten Tuesday—Awesome Classics

Today makes 11 years since I first properly heard All Things Must Pass all the way through! It’s still one of the greatest albums of all time, bar none.

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is Top Ten Favorite Classic Books (however you define classic) or Top Ten Classics I Want To Read <or spin it some other way…”classics” in a specific genre?>.

1. The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio. I just can’t give enough love to this book, which was finished somewhere between 1351 and 1353. (You can check out all my Decameron posts here.) It’s held up remarkably well over the centuries, with the vast majority of stories feeling as fresh, modern, and relevant as they did in the 14th century. I even know my two favouritest stories almost by heart.

2. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. This is another classic which has stood the test of the centuries. It’s such a timeless story of a man going on an amazing otherworldly journey to get back on track with his faith and life, all inspired by the great unrequited love of his life. (You can peruse my Dante posts here.) The opening stanza is one of the poems I know by heart.

3. La Vita Nuova, by Dante Alighieri. It’s a shame more people don’t know about this lovely, much-shorter autobiography and poetry collection. Dante’s love for Beatrice raises the question about the line between love and obsession, but he never really crosses the line and behaves inappropriately. He’s man enough to conceal his true feelings as best he can. At the end of the book, we see the genesis of his idea for The Divine Comedy, his way of immortalizing this great love for all time.

4. The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu. I haven’t yet read the entirety of this book, but I’m really eager to find a good, full-length translation. It’s widely considered the world’s first novel, by a female author, and set during the Heian era of Japanese history. What’s not to love?

5. The Ramayana. This is one of India’s two great national epics; it’s a shame more Westerners aren’t as familiar with it as they are with Greco-Roman mythology. If I said something like, “I feel like Kaikeyi when her mind is confused by the gods,” I’m sure no one would understand what I were talking about. I’d also love to see a retelling from Sita’s POV.

6. The Mahabharata. This is India’s other great national epic, about ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined, almost two million words. I got a condensed version of sorts when I read Devi Vanamali’s wonderful book The Play of God, and would love to find a good, complete translation. The sixth volume includes…

7. The Bhagavad GitaOn the eve of the major war between the five righteous Pandava brothers and their hundred wicked cousins the Kauravas (including their unknown older halfbrother), middle brother Arjuna gets cold feet. He wonders about how moral and ethical it is to have to kill good people, his own blood, all because of a petty feud that spun out of control. His charioteer Krishna, his best friend, delivers a sermon meant to lift his spirits and urge him to fight. At the height of this beautiful sermon, Krishna reveals his true identity as Vishnu, and delivers the famous line about how there are many paths to the same God.

Do NOT get the A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada translation, The Bhagavad Gita As It Is. A better subtitle would be As It Is NOT!  This arrogant fool had the balls to say his was the only correct translation, and that everyone else hadn’t done it properly.

8. The Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu. This book has meant so much to me since I first discovered it in January ’96, at age sixteen. Every time I read it, I come away with something new. I have the awesome Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation.

9. The Hemptameron, by Marguerite of Navarre. I haven’t read this yet, but I’m hoping it’s as awesome as The Decameron. This book was posthumously published in 1558, and consists of 72 stories. It was meant to contain 100 stories in 10 days, just as its inspiration The Decameron has, but only got as far as the second story of the eighth day.

10. The Persian Letters, by Montesquieu. This book is so freaking awesome. So many great books came out of the Enlightenment, and the best ones seamlessly combined a good story with promotion of Enlightenment values. I think my favourite part is when it talks about what a great magician Louis XIV is, but that there’s an even greater magician. “This magician is called the Pope.” Montesquieu used the supposed naïveté of the pretended real letter-writers to criticise French society and the Church.

Posted in Antagonists, Books, Religion

Heroes and Villains Blogfest

Heroes and Villains

Jackie Felger and Dani Betrand are hosting another of their blogfests. This one focuses on our favorite heroes and villains.

As I’ve said previously, I spent many years of my life, from about age 11 on, watching soaps. CBS was my network, and my two favorite soaps were Guiding Light and As the World Turns. After GL jumped the shark in a number of ways, ATWT took over as my favoritest soap. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that some of my favorite villains are from soaps.

My favorite GL character was always Roger Thorpe, played by the late Michael Zaslow. (The callous way he got the boot when he was sick is one of many reasons GL gradually stopped being my favorite soap.) From the time I began watching the soap in secret in the mornings during summer vacation in around 1991, he was just my absolute favorite.

Sure he was a villain, but he was an interesting type of evil, not some psychopath without sound motivations and backstory leading him to this life. He faked two deaths, stalked people, blackmailed enemies, used dirty money, stole affidavits, bugged people’s houses, kidnapped and shot people, engaged in bribery, stole money, you name it. And yet he had a heart underneath all that villainry. His love for his daughter Blake and some of the other important people in his life was so obvious and genuine.

James Stenbeck of ATWT, mostly played by the late Anthony Herrera, was another awesome daytime villain. He also faked several deaths, used women for their money and connections, kidnapped people, attempted a number of murders in very creative ways (and was suspected of several other murders), actually did murder people, smuggled drugs and jewelry, embezzled, committed arson, pretended to be a ghost haunting a castle, ordered hits, orchestrated explosions and gassings, you name it, he did it.

James was just so awesomely, deliciously evil. Sometimes it’s more interesting to see what makes the dark side tick than follow a character who’s too moral and saintly to be real.

Draupadi and Pandavas

Some of my favorite heroes are the five Pandava brothers of ancient Indian mythohistory—Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva. The three oldest brothers are the sons of Kunti, and the twins are the sons of Madri, the two wives of Pandu. Because of a curse, it’s mortally dangerous for Pandu to have sex, so Kunti conceived through a special blessing/invocation and later taught this trick to Madri so she too could have children. Before she was married, Kunti used this blessing for the wrong reason and had her secret first child Karna, who was raised by the Pandavas’ enemy cousins the Kauravas.

The Pandavas are just the epitome of righteousness, holiness, brotherly love, honor in battle, goodness, so many positive virtues. At the end of their epic days, near the beginning of the current age of Kali Yuga, the brothers and their wife Draupadi are taken on an arduous trek to Paradise, and a dog began following them. The younger brothers and Draupadi all die, and only Yudhisthira is left.

Yudhisthira refuses to part from the stray dog, and when asked why he cares so much for some strange animal yet didn’t react when his own brothers and wife died, he retorts that it’s important to show kindness to all living creatures, and that it was their time to pass on anyway. It turns out that the dog is his father Yama, the sun god, and he’s rewarded for his great kindness to even non-human life.

Yudhishthira is shown into Paradise and given a look at his brothers and Draupadi. They’re in agony and being tortured in Hell, while the wicked Kauravas are in Paradise. Yudhisthira insists on joining his brothers and wife, feeling it’s all part of a plan. The next thing he knows, all six of them are in the real Paradise, and Hell was just an illusion, one final test to demonstrate their magnanimous character. The good guys win in this story.

Posted in Contests, Left-Handedness

What If Sita Dumped Rama? (and International Left-Handed Awareness Day)

Happy International Left-Handed Awareness Day! If you have the time, feel free to read last year’s post on the holiday. The TLDR version: Handedness is not as cut and dried as the hand one writes with, and is a lot more complex and multi-definitional. Lefties have been unjustly persecuted and forcibly switched throughout history, and this tragically continues in many cultures today. If you’re predominantly left-handed, left-handed mixed, truly ambidextrous, or even non-right-handed, do what feels natural instead of letting other people try to make you do things with your right hand because they think it’s easier, or because “everyone does it.” You also shouldn’t use anti-left-handed language that’s survived into the modern era, like “left-handed compliment.” Thank God, today there are so many more resources, supplies, and equipment made for us, like scissors, knives, pens, and watches.

Today begins the What If? Fairytale Madness Blogfest, hosted by Cassie Mae, Mark Koopmans, Leigh Covington, and Morgan Shamy. To participate, pick one of the following categories:

Best Love Story

Best Tragedy

Best Plot Twist

Best Comic Relief

and write a scene that alters the whole story, based on just changing one detail, such as:

A plot twist? (Cinderella gets knocked up by the Carriage Driver…)

An unknown romance that comes to light? (Snow White dumps the Prince for Grumpy…)

A tragic loss occurs? (The Three Little Pigs are too late to save their house…)

A little comic relief? (Hansel and Gretel win a trip on Euro Rail, sponsored in part by M&M’s…)

Scenes must be PG-13 or under, and no more than 300 words.


Leigh is offering: Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder

Morgan is offering: A FULL manuscript critique!

Cassie Mae is offering: $25 Amazon Gift Card

Mark is offering: A $25 Hawaiian care package (incl. $5 USPS Priority Shipping) Winner can choose from any number of small items such as candy, trinkets, Kona Coffee, etc.

I wanted to do one of the Grimms’ fairytales (since that was the first book I ever read, at age three), “The Scarlet Flower,” by Sergey Aksakov (the Russian version of “Beauty and the Beast”), or The Ramayana. I chose The Ramayana, because I love ancient Indian mythohistory and Hinduism. I hope I don’t offend any Hindus by calling it a fairytale, but a number of people have called it as much, even some Hindus themselves. Just compare it to The Mahabharata, which was written 5,000 years later, and you’ll see The Ramayana has far more elements of a fairytale world and characters.

I chose the Best Love Story category because so much of what I write has romantic elements, and because if Sita were a real woman, she’d probably want to have some romantic attention during her ordeal. Though there are different versions of the ending, when Sita famously immolates herself, Rama is still way out of line accusing her of cheating. It would kind of serve him right if she had dumped him while he was taking his merry old time rescuing her!

Vibhishana is the righteous younger brother of the evil demon king Ravana, and becomes king of Lanka after his evil brother is overthrown and killed.


Sita’s heart skipped a beat when she saw Vibhishana entering her room.  She’d always lowered her gaze to avoid looking at any other man but her husband, but after almost a year in captivity, she couldn’t help herself.

“Would you care to take a walk in the garden, Princess, while there’s a lull in the fighting?  Ravana and his henchmen are too preoccupied with other things to take notice of you missing for a little while.”

“Yes, my lord, that would please me.” Sita stood up and extended her hand.  She suppressed a gasp when she felt sparks of electricity surging through her skin.

Sita felt a spring in her step as they walked outside into the garden in the moonlight.  Right now, Vibhishana looked so handsome her heart ached, and she wondered what it would be like to be his.

“Rama is taking his good old time in rescuing me,” she moped. “Am I that unimportant to him that he had to help some monkeys and then wait four months during monsoon season before even starting to look for me?  He’s never even given me children.”

“No, he doesn’t appreciate you.” Vibhishana sat down on a bench and pulled Sita down next to him. “And you’re too beautiful and righteous to be denied the love and touch of a man for so long.”

Sita’s whole body tingled with delight and desire as Vibhishana slipped his arms around her and kissed her.  She forgot reserve and ran her hands along his back, face, and hair.

“I love you, Sita.  I want you to be my second wife.  Sarama has no problem having you as her co-wife.  As soon as this war is over, we’ll celebrate both my coronation and our wedding.”

“Yes, Vibhishana, I’ll marry you and divorce Rama!”


My thorough summary and review of The Ramayana.

Posted in Books, Religion

The Play of God review

Another book review from my old site, about one of the most amazing, most unforgettable books I’ve ever read. Please note that while I refer to Krishna as “Lord Krishna” in the review, that doesn’t mean I’m secretly a Hindu. I remain monotheistic, and sometimes incorporate non-conflicting aspects of other religions with my own beliefs and spiritual practices. But to me, Krishna is just another name for Hashem. I read this book in the Summer of 2002, soon after I graduated from university. Devi Vanamali also has a similar book about Lord Rama, but unfortunately it’s out of print.


This is a very moving and exciting book by Devi Vanamali, all about the life of Vishnu’s eighth avatar, Krishna. Unlike other books, this one is special in that it covers His Lordship’s whole life, not just his youth or his role in the Mahabharata, for example. And Ms. Vanamali, a fervent devotee of Krishna, has said that if it came to be shown that Krishna had never existed and was just a myth, Hindus would hardly care. The basis of their faith would not be blown to pieces; the spirit and message of the Krishna story are the important parts, not whether or not this person actually once drew breath and did all the things he’s credited with doing in his most greatest avatar.

Vishnu takes on an earthly avatar whenever the need for divine help is most great, and in each succeeding avatar he’s only gotten more and more important, going from small animals like turtles to eventually human beings, the two greatest of which have been Lord Rama and His Holiness Krishna. He doesn’t do this to try to save the world or to redeem humankind from sinning, but rather because there are evil and danger afoot, and people need help from above. He also bestowed enlightenment on many people as Krishna, and taught them the beauty and simplicity of his teachings. Reading this book reawakened my interest in Hinduism and almost made me wish I were one myself!

Kamsa is a very evil king, but on his sixteen-year-old sister Devaki’s wedding day to the handsome prince Vasudeva, he’s the picture of lovingkindness. During the wedding parade, however, catastrophe strikes and a divine voice tells him that Devaki’s eighth-born son will one day kill him. He’s horrified by this, but soon placated when he realises he’s got a good long way to go, and can prevent this from happening since he’s been tipped off.

Devaki obediently brings all of her newborn sons to her brother, but he’s lenient and lets the parents keep them. The people he rules over are overjoyed at the prophecy, hoping Devaki has her eight sons very quickly so King Kamsa will meet his end all the sooner. (And again, just how suspicious is it that all the women in myths and legends have all these sons in a row yet never once a daughter?)

The party ends when a nasty advisor to the king suggests that Vishnu is the master trickster and that maybe Kamsa’s assassin is already here, since if you put the six sons Devaki now has in a circle, combined with the next two, any one of them could be the eighth, depending on where you start counting from. Kamsa promptly murders his six nephews and throws Devaki and Vasudeva into prison.

During this time, Devaki gets pregnant yet again, but Vishnu realises how important it is to hurry it on up, so the fetus within her womb is magickally transferred into another woman’s womb, and thus Krishna is able to be conceived. This seventh pregnancy became Balarama. Devaki and Vasudeva are chained to opposite walls so they won’t be able to have sex, and radiant light pours into their cell as Krishna is conceived from the power of their strong thoughts.

Kamsa is enfuriated and terrified both when he learns his little sister somehow got pregnant again, the eighth time. He rushes down after she gives birth, and beholds that the baby is a girl, the goddess Mahamaya who took the place of baby Krishna after he was spirited off to an older childless couple named Yashoda and Nanda. Yashoda had given birth to a girl, and by the time her husband came back, he was happily surprised to find that it had become a boy in the time he had been out of the house.

When Kamsa tries to fling the baby to her doom, she reveals herself as the powerful goddess she is, and flies off to assume many other forms around the world. Devaki, who’s still in prison, doesn’t have anymore children after this, and Kamsa rests a little easier, though always fearful that at any moment Vishnu, that master trickster, could murder him.

In fact, during Devaki’s eighth pregnancy, Kamsa was more concentrated on Vishnu than anyone else, constantly seeing him in everything, even grains of rice. His total concentration on Vishnu alone was borne out of fear instead of religious piety, though, but he was still more focused on him than even the religious ascetics.

Krishna has a lovely childhood as the adored only child of his foster parents’ old age. He’s very popular with the other children, and only continues to be so the older he gets, since he performs many miracles, most of them related to saving his village from demons who’ve been sent to try to murder him. Krishna also grows up with his slightly older halfbrother Balarama, the child of Vasudeva’s other wife, Rohini.

The gopis, or milkmaids, are the most devoted followers Krishna ever has, and he teaches them to transcend the concept of modesty so they can serve him with a purer heart. If they’re ashamed to appear naked before him (and he later has sex with all of them at the same time, since as Vishnu he’s able to be in more than one place at the same time), how dare they claim they’re devoted to serving him and laying their hearts and souls bare before the Divine? The seduction and enlightenment of the devoted gopis is his last mission in the village of his youth, before he knows it’s time to go home to do what he took on this avatar to do: slay Kamsa.

Krishna and Balarama are conquering heroes whom the people adore, and Kamsa gets his just desserts when his divine nephew takes him out. Devaki and Vasudeva are also finally sprung from prison. Of course everyone wants Krishna to be their new leader, and he’s an exemplary king, taking many wives and concubines and having ten sons by each of these ten thousand plus women. (Would it be too unrealistic to throw a few daughters in once in awhile?!)

His first wife, and the one he loves the best, is Rukmini, the avatar of his consort Parvati. Women love Krishna, and he’s able to be the model husband and lover to all of these many women at the same time, in all the mansions he’s got them up in. No task is too great for the almighty Krishna to handle!

Krishna’s story intertwines with that of the Pandavas and Kauravas, antagonistic relatives who share the same grandfather, Bhishma. Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva make up the Pandavas, who are just the models of goodness, Virtue, and everything wonderful and positive in the world. They don’t know it at the time, but the mother of the older boys, Kunti, had an immaculately and illegitimately conceived child, Karna, with the sun god before any of them were born, and this boy was taken in by their enemies the Kauravas. They unknowingly are fighting their own halfbrother in the battle that comes later on.

Because of a curse, it’s mortally dangerous for their father Pandu to have sex, so they’re actually sired by various gods. Kunti has a special trick to conceive by a god, which she did for the wrong reasons when she had Karna, and teaches it to Madri, Pandu’s other wife, since she wants children too. Madri is the mother of the young twins.

The Kauravas are one hundred brothers (with a token sister) who are the absolute epitome of evil, selfishness, greed, sacrilegiousness, you name it. Their equally evil and repugnant father Dhritarashtra is blind, and their mother, Gandhari, like a typical Indian wife, is so blindly devoted to him (no pun intended) that she has voluntarily tied a blindfold around her eyes, vowing that she shouldn’t have the pleasure of seeing the wondrous sights her husband will never be able to see.

Many events go on between these cousins, including the attempted murder of the Pandava brothers, their presumed deaths, thirteen years of exile, and finally all-out war. The Mahabharata goes on for only 18 days, yet is India’s national epic and nine times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Krishna plays the role of Arjuna’s charioteer during the epic battle, and to show his great kindness, puts a protective covering over a mother bird and her nest before the battle begins so the fighting won’t disturb her home or inadvertently slaughter her and her young.

Arjuna, Krishna’s favourite of the Pandava brothers, gets cold feet before the battle is set to begin. He sees the ranks drawn and ready, yet is having second thoughts about slaughtering his own kinsmen, and sees these people as fathers, sons, uncles, good people on another side, not as people who deserve to be cut down just because of a family feud that’s blossomed out of control.

Krishna urges him to take heart, and delivers one of the most beautiful sermons ever, the Bhagavad Gita, which means simply “The Song of God.” Arjuna has always viewed his best friend Krishna as an extraordinary man, but never before has he realised that he is God incarnate. Seeing him reveal himself as Vishnu in all of his glory and divine attributes is too much for him to handle and is overwhelming for his mere mortal’s eyes, and he begs him to go back to his safe, familiar form as Krishna. The sermon much cheers Arjuna and makes him ready to fight, as well as teaching him many other things unrelated to warfare and bloodshed.

No surprise, the virtuous Pandavas win the war, but not without a good deal of bloodshed, slaying of close kinsmen, and heartbreak of everyone involved. The mothers and wives on the Kaurava side are particularly driven insane, as all hundred of the brothers are lying dead and murdered.

Particularly painful are the deaths of Bhishma, the grandfather, their beloved maternal uncle Shalya, their teacher Drona, and Karna, whom they found out too late was their halfbrother. These four men were virtuous yet had the rotten luck of being trapped into fighting for the evil branch of the family because they happened to be born into it. And they were only killed because of sneaky strategies which Krishna himeself ordered done, despite protests.

The sons the Pandavas had with Draupadi are also struck dead during the battle, which is heart-shattering to Draupadi, even though she accepts it as part of a divine plan. Bhima and Arjuna also lost one other son each, whom they had with other women. The parents of the evil Kauravas spend the rest of their lives wandering like ascetics, along with Kunti, and later die calmly in a forest fire.

The war was a foreboding of more and more evil things to come, and indeed soon after the horrible age of Kali Yuga begins, with people growing less religious, more evil, disrespectful, hateful, and not following the teachings Krishna’s been spreading during this current avatar of his.

Krishna knows this means the end of his latest sojourn on the earth is coming to a close, and several decades after the war has ended, he’s accidentally wounded by an arrow. The archer is mortified on seeing what he’s done, but the 125-year-old Krishna reassures him that it was a good thing and supposed to have happened. He passes on and achieves his own enlightenment and end of days.

It is also time for the Pandava brothers to go; the world has become too evil for good heroic people like them to still be around. They’re taken on an arduous trek, along with their wife Draupadi and a stray dog, up to where they’re supposed to ascend to Paradise from the top of a mountain.

Yudhishthira, the oldest brother, sees his wife and younger brothers all dropping dead from exhaustion, but keeps on going. He’s the only one left, and at the end of the journey refuses to part from the dog tagging along with him. Upon being reminded that he didn’t seem to care about his own brothers and wife yet cares so much about some animal he’s never even seen before, he retorts back that one should show kindness to all, and that it was time for his brothers to pass on anyway. It turns out that the dog is his father the sun god in animal incarnation, and he is rewarded for his exemplary kindness and refusal to judge someone on the basis of a lowly avatar.

Yudhishthira is shown into Paradise and given a look at his brothers and Draupadi. He sees they’re in agony and being tortured in Hell, while the wicked Kauravas are in Paradise, and he insists on joining his brothers, feeling it’s all part of a plan. The next thing he knows, all six of them are in the real Paradise, and Hell was just an illusion, one final test to demonstrate their magnanimous character. The good guys win in this story.

Krishna’s eighth avatar teaches us how to relate to the Divine in a myriad of ways beyond the tired old Western crap of old man and king. Krishna is a warrior, king, father, son, lover, sneaky little boy, adorable baby, old man, best friend, counselor, so much more than a stern old deity with a white beard and scepter.

He also realises that not everyone will come to him as Vishnu, just like when Arjuna is unable to bear the sight of his best friend in all his divine glory. He taught that however you see him, want him, need him, visualise him to be is how he shall come to you. If a grain of rice, a rock, a female Divine, the traditional view of God, a leaf, the clouds, are how you experience the Divine, then there Krishna is, in the form you feel represents God to you.

He has many names and forms, as many as there are different religions and denominations, yet they all ultimately lead back up to him. This is not some sectarian or local village god; however you see God is how Krishna manifests himself in your life.

Posted in Books, Religion

Ramayana review

Another review I originally wrote for the book reviews section of my old site. All translations and versions are different, so the one I based this review on won’t be the same as other people have read. For example, Sita’s famous ordeal near the end wasn’t depicted as permanent immolation in my version. I still found it hugely sexist and insulting, but at least it was revealed to be “only” some final test Rama put her through to prove she really had been faithful the entire time she’d been held hostage. Thank God I don’t live in ancient India!


Ravana is the demon king of the evil Rakshasas, and he’s going around on a terror spree, killing people, raping other men’s wives (including those of the gods), disrupting the sacrifices the rishis in the woods are trying to carry out, and even pissing off powerful gods such as Shiva. In short, nobody likes this terrible demon with ten heads and twenty arms.

His behaviour reaches a new low when he goes spoiling for a new fight, which he feels will be his greatest victory. He engages in warfare with the god of death himself, Yamaraja, feeling that if he can defeat the lord of death, he’ll be the most powerful being who’s ever lived. Yamaraja is about to kill this evil little upstart when the lord of all the deities, Brahma, tells him he cannot kill him, evil as he may be, since he once granted him a boon due to his extreme religious devotion to Brahma. No god can kill Ravana, not even the very lord of death himself.

But they both know that not just any human being will be able to kill someone so powerful, tricky, and evil. This is where Lord Vishnu decides to take on his seventh avatar, for he always takes on a human form when human suffering is at a very high point and people need an extraordinary human being (or, in his earliest incarnations, an animal) to deliver them.

Dasarath has been ruling the city of Ayodhya for thousands of years, but he has no children by any of his three wives, Kaushalya, Kaikeyi, and Sumitra. Finally, as he’s getting older, it’s decided that the only way to get an heir is to have a special sacrificial ceremony, offering up a horse which has been specially trotted around the kingdom for a year in preparation for this occasion.

Right after the horse has been sacrified, the three wives are made to drink a special ambrosia. Half goes to Kaushalya and the other half to Kaikeyi, the youngest of the three wives in addition to the king’s favourite. They in turn give part of their portions to Sumitra.

And what a surprise, all of the four children they give birth to are boys! Kaushalya has the virtuous Rama, Kaikeyi has Bharata, and Sumitra has twins, Lakshmana and Shatrughna. Lakshmana is very devoted to Rama and never leaves his side; Shatrughna is similarly devoted to Bharata. The other three brothers are incarnations of the weapons of Vishnu, while Rama of course is the Lord himself.

The boys grow up in sumptuous and lavish conditions, with Rama being the king’s special favourite, until one day the sage Vishvamitra comes to tell the king that Rama is needed in the forest to help the rishis, since their sacrifice is constantly being thwarted by the evil Rakshasas, who always pour blood over their fires and throw huge rocks down at them. He also must get an education in the ways of the holy man.

Dasarath is very loath to do it, but once Vishvamitra reveals Rama’s true identity, he agrees to send him off. Lakshmana of course follows his favourite brother, and they do many virtuous deeds while off in the woods with the sage. During this time, they learn of a wondrous bow bequeathed to King Janaka by Lord Shiva; whomever can string that bow will win the hand of his beautiful daughter Sita. Many people have tried and failed, but Rama, being Vishnu incarnate, is able to do it, as easily as if it were a piece of plywood. Lakshmana is married to Sita’s sister Urmila, and Bharata and Shatrughna are married to Sita’s cousins Mandavi and Srutakirti, respectively, in a quadruple wedding ceremony, and they start back to Ayodhya.

Not long after arriving back, Dasarath begins thinking about making Rama, his pet child, the Prince Regent. Everybody loves Rama dearly, and so his request is met with wild public approval. But this is not yet destined to be a happy ever after story, for Manthara, the evil hunchbacked maid of the favourite wife Kaikeyi, puts evil ideas into her head, turning her against Rama, whom she’d loved as much as her own blood son, and begging her to ask the king to finally grant her two boons he once long ago gave her for having saved his life.

The king is furious and heartbroken when he goes to Kaikeyi’s chambers that night, but must obey his own promise, esp. since he thrice swore by Rama that he’d do whatever she might ask him. Kaikeyi asks him to instead put Bharata on the throne and to send Rama into exile in the forest for fourteen years.

Nobody is happy about this, but Rama feels it must be done, so great and superhuman is his devotion to whatever his father says. Nobody can convince him to stay and fight, nor to disregard this edict as something hatched by a spiteful jealous wife and a senile easily-influenced old man. Lakshmana and Sita follow him into the forest, and only Kaikeyi, her heart turned to evil and her mind deliberately confused by the gods, is happy when the three of them depart. Very soon after poor King Dasarath dies of a broken heart.

Meanwhile the other two brothers, Bharata and Shatrughna, have been off living in their new father-in-law’s kingdom and dealing with affairs of state, as Sita’s uncle has no sons. They sense something’s wrong when word is sent that they must come back to Ayodhya unexpectedly. When they do arrive, Bharata in particular is furious when he finds out what’s going on and what his mother did for his sake.

He refuses to rule in place of his righteous brother Rama, whom he also feels must rule because of the law of primogeniture, and decides he’ll set out to find Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita, who are already in the forest beginning the fourteen years of exile. Many of Ayodhya’s citizens had followed after them initially, but Rama finally was able to lose them and convince those who managed to follow him anyway to go home. Now everyone in Ayodhya sets out to find Rama and to try to convince him to come home and be King.

Rama is glad to see his other two brothers, his mother, and her two co-wives, but once again remains firm in staying in the dangerous woods for fourteen years, because their father ordered it and he had to keep his promise to Kaikeyi to grant her the boons. So Bharata gives his brother a beautiful pair of sandals, has him put them on briefly, and then takes them back to Ayodhya. The sandals are coronated on the throne in place of Rama, and for the entire fourteen years Bharata worships the sandals and brings affairs of state before them, while living some distance away in a hut, refusing to even partake in being the king when he feels his oldest brother has to do that.

The most famous part of this ancient Indian tale begins when the evil Ravana kidnaps the beautiful and virtuous Sita. He coerces Maricha, whose life Rama earlier spared and who’s since become an ascetic living in the woods because he’s so afraid of doing battle with Rama again, into taking part in this evil plot. Maricha, very reluctantly, since he knows he’ll soon die, turns himself into a magickal deer which attracts the eye of Sita. She demands that her husband and his brother capture it and take it back to Ayodhya with them as her pet when the fourteen years expire soon, since it’s so tame and otherwordly beautiful.

The brothers know it must be a trick of some sort, since it doesn’t look like any ordinary deer, and Rama begins chasing after it to see if it really is a deer. His suspicions are proven right when he chases it for over an hour and is unable to catch it. When he shoots it, it turns back into Maricha, who imitates Rama’s voice in his dying breath. Lakshmana feels this too is a trick, since Rama is miles away by now and his voice couldn’t possibly carry so far. He and Sita have a fight, and finally she forces him to go after his brother. Following this Ravana makes his move and kidnaps her.

He assumes the form of a holy brahmin, but quickly reveals his true identity, eventually changing back into his real form as a hideous demon. His words cannot coax Sita into leaving her husband and becoming his most favoured wife, so he has to take her by force.

On their flight out of the forest, Jatayu, an old friend of Dasarath’s who’s been turned into a vulture and has been following her, her husband, and her brother-in-law, springs into action and tries to kill Ravana, but only succeeds in killing the charioteer and the horses pulling it. Jatayu lies mortally wounded, but hangs on till Rama and Lakshmana come his way.

After getting information from him, they get more information from Kabandha, who’s been turned into a demon with eight-mile-long arms and his mouth in his stomach. Kabandha is glad to find out the identity of the two princes he was going to eat, for he was told that as soon as he found them, he could depart this world. After they cremate him, he’s able to give them all the information, and he directs them to a cave with five monkeys in it, foremost among them the exiled Prince Sugriva, who had a nasty falling-out with his brother Vali, who also stole his wife Ruma, and Sugriva’s chief advisor, the noble Hanuman.

After Rama helps Sugriva get his kingdom back and to kill that turncoat Vali, they have to wait four months in a cave nearby before the search for Sita can begin, since the monsoon season is about to begin. At the beginning of the search, the monkeys grow despondent and afraid, for they have been looking low and high and still no sign of Sita. They are afraid Rama and Lakshmana will kill them for not having found her, until they come across Sampati, the vulture brother of the late Jatayu.

He tells them where Ravana lives, and Hanuman is found to be the strongest of the monkeys and the only one able to leap 800 miles to Lanka and back. Once upon a time he was very strong and always doing incredibly physical feats, but he got proud and had his abilities taken away from him, on the condition that he would only get them back when someone reminded him of how strong and powerful he was. So Hanuman leaps off to Lanka and enters the city in a very small monkey form. In this way he finds Sita in Ravana’s beautiful residence, after looking a very long time all over Lanka and the mansion for her.

Sita accepts the ring with Rama’s seal and tells Hanuman to relate to Rama a story only the two of them would know, but refuses to leap back to her husband on the monkey’s back; she feels it would be improper for a married woman, let alone any woman, to touch another man (or monkey in this case). Hanuman realises she’s right (at least as far as the moral codes of that ancient age went), but decides to stay on a little while longer to fight some Rakshasas, just to see how strong they are so he can tell the other monkeys what to expect when he gets back.

He begins tearing up the beautiful garden they’re in and kills a great many Rakshasas in battle, including one of Ravana’s own sons, Aksha. Ravana’s oldest son Indrajit goes out to battle with him next and temporarily stuns him with a powerful weapon, though thanks to a boon from Brahma, this weapon is unable to kill the noble little monkey. He is brought before Ravana himself as he’s coming out of his stunned state, and he threatens Ravana, telling him he’s Rama’s servant and that it’s in his best interests to release Sita, or else there will be a lot of trouble.

Ravana wants to murder him, but his brother advises him against it. Instead they decide to lead Hanuman through Lanka with his tail set on fire, but through Hanuman’s prayers, his tail isn’t harmed by the fire and he’s able to swing it around and set fire to a lot of roofs and houses. As he’s about to leap back to Rama with a full report, however, he sees the fiery carnage he’s wrought and is afraid that Sita too has died in it. A voice from the gods assures him that though Lanka is burning to a crisp, Sita is unharmed.

Ravana hasn’t slept with Sita yet, though he’s given her a year from the time of her abduction to submit to him, or else his cooks will chop her up and feed her to him for his morning meal. He’s unable to just rape her because once upon a time he raped his nephew Nalakuvera’s wife Rambha, uncaring that this was a relation of his and indeed the wife of a god. Many people ran to try to rescue her upon hearing the screams, but upon seeing Ravana were afraid to intervene. Angry and violated, Rambha ran off to her godly husband right after and complained about what had happened. Because of Brahma’s boon, Nalakuvera was unable to kill his evil uncle, but he did pronounce a curse upon the demon: he will fall dead instantly if he ever again rapes a mortal woman.

At first no one knows how they’re possibly going to get to Lanka, but then under the direction of the monkey Nala, a bridge is built across the 800 miles of ocean in just five days. Meanwhile back at Ravana’s place, more and more of his advisors and relatives, including his own grandfather, are warning him against warfare, saying there are bad omens about, and it would be best to just give back Sita while he can.

Ravana’s little brother Vibhishana and four of his friends feel so strongly about this, in fact, that they defect and go over to Rama’s side before the bridge has even been built. Vibhishana’s wife, the Rakshasi Sarama, is also virtuous and against the evil Ravana, and is telling Sita to take heart, most especially when Ravana, after the first day of battle, has one of his magicians make a bow and head looking like Rama’s to display to her, in the hopes that she might sleep with him if she thinks Rama’s dead. But nothing can hold back the wrath of either side, and the war that ensues is very bloody, with many monkeys and bears on Rama’s side struck down as well as plenty of Rakshasas on the other side.

This is an epic story as grand as that of The Iliad or The Aeneid, with heroes, villains, grand battles, carnage, miracles, help from the gods, romance, and magickal animals. Of course good wins over evil; Vishnu did after all take on human form as Rama in order to rid the world of the evil Rakshasa king Ravana.

As a modern person, I’m far from alone in being disturbed at how he receives Sita when they’re finally reunited; Rama tells her that after having spent nearly a year in another man’s residence, how can he be sure she was faithful to him? Who could believe that any woman spent so long in another man’s house without having once slept with him? If he continues to keep her as his wife, even after the huge war he fought to get her back, he’ll look bad and it’ll set an example of unchastity and suspiciousness.

Lakshmana, Vibhishana (who’s been installed as the King of Lanka after Ravana’s slaying), and the monkeys are all aghast and horrified, not believing what the highly virtuous and kind Rama is saying to his own wife, after they all went to so much trouble on her behalf.

Sita then immolates herself out of shame and disbelief, praying beforehand that if she is sinless, as indeed she was, she will emerge unharmed. There are several versions of what happens next; in my version she comes out of the fire carried by Agni, the god of fire, and Rama believes and accepts that she was always 100% faithful to him, thinking of only him during the entire time they were apart. Then he claims he only did it to test her virtuousness.

How far we’ve come, when most women nowadays would have left such a man, daring to suggest that she was unfaithful when she was kidnapped and held against her will by a very evil man and then saying they only accused her of infidelity in order to test her chastity!

Following this ordeal they all joyously go back to Ayodhya; Bharata, who’s still living as an ascetic in a hut outside the city and going before the sandals on the throne every day, gratefully gives the kingdom over to Rama. Everyone is happy to see them back, and Rama and Sita, Vishnu and Lakshmi incarnate, are installed upon the throne as the rightful rulers of Ayodhya.

I found Rama depicted as an extraordinary human being here, a hero and highly virtuous religious person (though with perhaps a bit too much obedience to his elders, even though ultimately his exile was for a good cause), though it was easy to lose sight of the fact that this is Vishnu incarnate and not just some exemplary man.

It’s an incredible story, but my favourite of Vishnu’s avatars is that of Krishna, whom I found it easier to see and relate to on a host of different levels. In that incarnation one can see the Divine as baby, sneaky little boy, lover, husband, brother, father, dear friend, warrior, etc., as his heroic feats there are not the entire backbone of what he came to Earth in human form that time around to accomplish. He just had a different purpose when he came to Earth in his seventh incarnation. Hare Rama!