This afternoon, after a morning spent coaching, I went to a local Indian restaurant for their Diwali buffet. Needless to say, having not eaten breakfast and having spent a couple of hours teaching children how to fight (and having a good friendly brawl with my friend Gentle Jimmy G. and a nice fight with technical tips for one of the teenage counselors who chaperone the smaller kids), I was ravenous, so I descended on the sumptuous spread of dishes like a newly awakened Kumbakharna. The buffet presented a great selection of dishes from throughout the Indian subcontinent, from Southern iddli with sambar and coconut chutney and goat jalfrezi to Northern saag paneer and Chinese-Indian delicacies like gobi Manchurian and diaspora dishes such as chicken tikka masala. To finish the meal, there were Diwali sweets, and those addictive fried-milk balls, gulab jamun... a former co-worker of mine, a Trinidadian woman of Indian descent, would make a beeline for the gulab jamun whenever she went to an Indian restaurant. At any rate, I staggered out of the restaurant, contemplating how gauche it would be to unbutton my pants... Diwali mission accomplished!
Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights- one of its origins lies in the celebration of the return of Rama, his wife, Sita, and his brother Lakshmana to the city of Ayodhya after years of exile and war, as recounted in the Ramayana. While exiled, Sita was abducted by the ten-headed rakshasa king Ravana, who ruled the island nation of Lanka. In their invasion of Lanka, Rama and Lakshmana are aided by an army of monkeys, led by the divine Hanuman and the king Sugriva.
A good single-volume introduction to the Ramayana is a gloriously written 'retelling' of the epic by William S. Buck. Here is how Buck describes the sacrifices that Ravana performed in order to force the god Brahma to grant him a boon:
And at the end of every thousand years, Ravana cut off one of his heads and threw it into the fire as a sacrifice, until nine heads were gone and but one day remained before he would cut the last one. That day was passing. Ten thousand years and Ravana's life were about to end together.
Ravana held the knife to his throat, when Brahma appeared and said,"Stop! Ask me a boon at once!"
"I am glad that I please you," said Ravana.
"Please me!" said Brahma. "Your will is dreadful, too strong to be neglected; like a bad disease I must treat it. Your pains make me hurt. Ask!"
"May I be unslayable and never defeated by the gods or any one from any heaven, by Hell's devils or Asuras or demon spirits, by underworld serpents or Yakshas or Rakshasas."
After defeating several gods in battle and forcing them into servitude, the thunder god Indra approaches Vishnu/Narayana, the Preserver of the Universe, for advice:
"How shall we bring down Ravana?" asked Indra. "Because of Brahma's boon is the Demon King strong, and for no other cause of his own. Help me, you are my only refuge, there is no other for me. I will gather my storms again and attack Lanka, give me your permission to fight Ravana once more!"
"Never!" said Narayana. "Don't you understand that Brahma's words are always true? Do not falsify the three spheres of life. I would not have let you fight in the first place, though you were right to resist and Ravana was wrong. Ravana asked Brahma- Let me be unslayable by every creature of Heaven and of the underworlds. And Brahma promised-So be it. That boon is unbreakable, yet will I cause Ravana's death. That is the truth. Only ask me...."
"Ah," said Indra, "from disdain Ravana did not mention men or animals and took no safeguard against them. He eats men; they are his food and why should he fear them? Lord, on Earth, life resembles Hell again. We need you again. Look at us, see us, and bless us. For the good of all the worlds, Lord Narayana, accept birth as a man."
"I already have."
Spoiler alert, the man in whom Vishnu manifests as an avatar has his wife abducted, and just happens to assemble an army of monkeys and bears...
Buck's Ramayana is beautifully told, it's the sort of book that I have inserted numerous tiny bookmarks in to mark particularly felicitous passages... I can't recommend it highly enough. Buck also wrote an equally gorgeous retelling of the epic Mahabharata, which also occupies a position of prominence on one of my bookshelves.
I promised melancholy, and not just in order to rhyme with jolly and Diwali. William Buck died at the age of thirty-five, and the world was deprived of further interpretations of Indian myth from the man. This webpage and its comment thread shed some light on the life and career of William Buck, including the possibility that he used his family's considerable wealth to hire Sanskrit translators, but I fully believe that he was the one who interpreted the translations in a particularly pleasing prose.
As a simple postscript, I think Smut and zrm would disown me if I didn't insert a reference to Buck Dharma somewhere.