The Ramayana vs. Gilgamesh

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The king of Uruk embarks on a life-or-death journey with his companion, Enkidu, in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Enkidu is a God-created being who was brought down to distract Uruk. This comes after the inhabitants of Uruk called out to the gods for help in escaping Gilgamesh’s tyranny. Enkidu ends up becoming acquainted with the king of Uruk, even assisting him in overcoming some of the obstacles thrown his way by the gods. Enkidu pays with his life for his treachery. His death, on the other hand, lets Uruk understand the one weakness of being human: mortality. In the epic’s second chapter, he embarks on a journey to find the secret to immortality. The conflict between free will and fate features prominently in both the epic of Gilgamesh and the Ramayana (Agoramoorthy 17). In the epic, there constant conflict between man-representing free will and god-representing divinity.

In the Ramayana, an epic poem about a prince’s quest to save his wife from a demon lord, fate also comes into play. Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshmana were exiled by the King because of a relative’s scheming. While in exile, the demon lord, Ravana kidnaps his wife and the price’s quest begins. Rama believed in divine decree and saw the events in his life as the will of the gods. His brother Lakshmana, on the other hand is a firm believer that only the weak and cowardly invoke divine intervention. According to Lakshmana, only those unwilling to take action chose to shelter in destiny. On the contrary, Rama believes free will is an illusion and that the soul is never free of divine intervention.

Man’s struggle with free will, destiny, and divinity is well documented. The epic of Gilgamesh and the Ramayana are two epic stories that bear a lot of similarities as well as differences. Both tell tales of adventure and human life in the backdrop of fate and free will. Both stories seem to concur on the inescapability of human fate. This can be deduced from when Gilgamesh learns that immortality is a pipe dream and that the gods created man in their own image except they withheld eternal life. They both seem to agree that life is rigged to favor the gods and that’s why man always falls short of glory. Death separates men from the gods and no matter how great a human becomes, immortality is always beyond his reach. (Betts 23) Gilgamesh’s search for eternal life leaves no doubt that divinity is the answer to mortality.

Watching Enkidu die was a turning point in Gilgamesh’s. Despite slaying the bull of heaven sent to him by the spiteful goddess, Ishtar he is helpless when his friend succumbs to illness. Gilgamesh is filled with grief and fear, grief from watching someone close die and the fear upon realizing how powerless he was against death. He realizes that the only thing that makes the gods greater that men is their power over life. In his quest for immortality he meets the biblical equivalent of Noah, Utnapishtim who admonishes him for being a terrible ruler. He also tells him the story of the great flood and his role in saving humanity and life on the planet for which he rewarded with immortality. He tells Gilgamesh of a miraculous plant that is said to prolong life but a serpent steals it while the King takes a bath.

The whole story serves to highlight the limitation of being human. A great King who built a great city and his search for eternal life is the basic plot. The people of Uruk appeal to the gods when in distress. They beg the gods to deal with their oppressive King; after all, what’s a king to a god? The god’s intervene and send Enkidu who becomes Gilgamesh’s special friend. Turns out it was just another cruel trick by the gods because they soon take away Enkidu as punishment for their action. Gilgamesh realized that the gods would always hold his mortality over his head like the mythical sword of Damocles. The imminent and ever present threat posed by death informs the king’s second journey which also ends in failure.

The king reconciles with his mortality and goes back to his duties as a ruler. Even though Gilgamesh was a King, he realized that the one thing he had no power over his life or death. He chose to fight fate and sought to cheat death, his efforts were futile however. In the end, the king is humbled by the gods and he resigns to fate. The fact that when the people needed a solution concerning the King they sought divine intervention also speaks volume on the role of religion in ancient society. (Hamori 12)

In the Ramayana, there are two brothers each representing different schools of thought. Rama, the prince in exile is a staunch believer that there is an order to things and that life is not just an interaction of circumstances. He believes that the plot by a relative to have him, his wife and his brother punished is all part of the bigger picture. In the end, it seems he was right. After all, things did turn out for the best. The view that predestination trumps human effort is founded in a higher being that controls the words, deeds and thoughts of men. From Rama’s point of view, man is not responsible for his actions since everything is pre-ordained. According to the protagonist, our lives follow a predictable path and we should let fate guide our everyday thoughts, words and actions.

His brother Lakshmana, on the other hand, believes that man is the architect of his own fate. Lakshmana disagrees with his brother because he finds his inaction cowardly and weak in the face of adversity. He doesn’t believe in submitting to destiny. For most men this sense of powerlessness is unbearable as can be shown by Lakshmana’s impassioned counter-argument. In his argument he points to human action or inaction as the genesis of all good or evil. (Molen 31) To his credit he points out that it is the plot by Kaikenyi that has doomed them to their current predicament. Kaikeyi got Rama, his wife and brother banished so she could win the Bharata kingdom. This clearly points to human action, this was the source of conflict between the two brothers. Lakshmana could not understand why his brother chose to blame the gods and resign himself to fate. Rama believed that in the grand scheme of things man is just a pawn on a grander stage and his action or inaction was irrelevant. Rama experienced a lot of internal conflicts with regards to his duty as a prince and his personal anguish. His father had banished him unfairly and logic dictates that he at least tries to prove his innocence. Instead, he chooses to follow his father’s decree as he believes his destiny is unchangeable.

Both of the heroes in the Ramayana and the epic of Gilgamesh go on a quest, one to find the answer to eternal life and the other to rescue his kidnapped wife. These journeys involve a companion or several companion as in the case of Ramayana. Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu is the other most prominent character in the epic of Gilgamesh. He was sent as the answer to the prayers of the people of Uruk. However, he and the king become friends and they set out on their first quest whose success can largely be attributed to Enkidu. As punishment for killing the bull of heaven among other reasons Enkidu is sentenced to death. This can be described as Gilgamesh’s moment of truth. He realizes he’s powerless over death and his time is coming too. This is the realization that informs the king’s search for immortality and the gist of the epic. In the Ramayana, Rama’s companion is his brother and his wife. His brother acts as the polar opposite of Rama. Lakshmana was a firm believer that human action was the genesis of all their troubles and that the gods were uninterested spectators. He represents the conflict within Rama, the conflict between the human and the divine. He portrays humanity’s struggle with free will in the face of divinity.

In their journeys to self-discovery, the heroes are either accompanied or meet women who different roles in the hero’s story. In the epic of Gilgamesh Enkidu the wild man is civilized through sexual intercourse with the priestess Shamhat. She represents women as vessels of knowledge and learning. As shown, after his sexual encounter with the priestess Enkidu becomes civic, hygienic and partakes in human food. The fact that his initiation from a wild man to a ‘civil’ man was through sexual intercourse is symbolic of sex and love as being basic human knowledge. (Verghese 35) His role in the epic of Gilgamesh is that of a benevolent force that makes the hero more knowledgeable and civilized in anticipation of the trials that lay ahead.

Gilgamesh also runs into another woman in the wilderness, Shiduri the tavern keeper. She offers the king of Uruk advice on his quest for immortality. Upon the death of Enkidu, the king wanders the wilderness looking for the answer to immortality. She informs him that human are born to die, and that is the will of the gods. The tavern keeper advices the king that the only certainty in life is death. Life should therefore be spent in joy and not despair. The king ignores her bad advice and ends up experiencing a lot of suffering without finding what he was searching for. The third woman in the story is the spiteful goddess Ishtar whose marriage proposal Gilgamesh rejects. She helps in the hero’s character development. Gilgamesh was a terrible ruler, that’s why the gods send Enkidu. But when he encounters the fickle goddess who offers him the easy way out he rejected her and so she send the bull of heaven after her. She is representative of the temptress in women.

In the Ramayana women also feature and play important roles. Sita is the stand out among women in the Ramayana. From the onset of the story Sita plays a very subdued role in the story. When Rama is exiled she goes along without complaining unlike her brother in law who is very vocal with his convictions. In addition, she doesn’t seem to put up much of a fight when kidnapped. Most of the stars of this poem are male and the poem was also told from a male point of view. Sita and Surpanakha are represents of two types of women. Sita symbolizes purity, love and subordination while the latter is portrayed as impure, hateful and insubordinate.

Both stories are also grounded in religion. Both character are said to have some kind of divine power. This speaks to the religiousness of the cultures in which these stories were written. The king of Uruk and Gilgamesh were said to both have divine power. This can be an allusion to heaven as the seat of true power. The fact that Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk and Rama, the rightful heir to a kingdom had divine power is no coincidence. Both were able to beat the odds because the blood of the gods flowed within them. Men of great achievements in ancient history are seen to have god like characteristics. Such characters are usually representation of man’s desire to be like the gods. The gods are always portrayed as being of unimaginable power so it is understandable that men of great power are represented in god-like characteristics.

In conclusion there are several similarities that stand out in the two epics. Conflict between freewill and destiny is the most prominent. In addition, both epics show do dominance of masculinity over the feminine with women having mostly subdued roles. The king’s helper was a man while the prince’s brother challenged his view of the world constantly. Last but not least, both the Ramayana and the epic of Gilgamesh show similar characteristics for their heroes. These characteristics are seen in contemporary super heroes such as batman and superman.

Works Cited

Agoramoorthy, Govindasamy; Hsu, Minna. (2015) Living on the Societal Edge: India’s Transgender Realities. Journal of Religion & Health.  Vol. 54 Issue 4, p1451-1459

Betts, Gregory. (2014,) I Object: Writing against the Contemporary. English Studies in Canada.  Vol. 40 Issue 2/3, p41-63.

Hamori, Esther J. (2011) Echoes of Gilgamesh in the Jacob Story. Journal of Biblical Literature.  Vol. 130 Issue 4, p625-642. 

Molen, Willem van der. (2003) A token of my longing: a rhetorical analysis of Sita’s letter to rama, old Javanese Ramayana 11.22-32. Indonesia & the Malay World.  Vol. 31 Issue 91, p339-355. 

Verghese, Anila. (2004) Deities, cults and kings at Vijayanagara. World Archaeology.  Vol. 36 Issue 3, p416-431.

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