A Study of the Ramayana and Shantaram
How does someone write about a country of one billion people speaking hundreds of languages, practicing all of the world’s major religions? How does someone write about a people that in the words of Thomas Friedman, “Hold regular free and fair elections and despite massive poverty, still produce generations of doctors and engineers who help make the world a more productive peaceful place.”
It is very easy to mythologize about India. I’ve been there four times and it’s the only place that I know of where around every corner, something magical is happening. At 636 pages and 933 pages respectively, the Ramayana and “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts are two heroic tales wrought in the language of love. Judging from these two texts, I’d say that perhaps the only way to really write about India is to open your heart and take your time.
Thousands of years old, the Ramayana is an ageless cultural map of India/ nothing in that country today could exist without it. Even though today’s Westerners can look to Shantaram as a key to unlock some of India’s secrets (and if they choose, take a peak at some of their own!) billions of spiritual aspirants through history have sought out the Ramayana as a sacred blueprint of God.
Shantaram is a loosely autobiographical story of a man that escapes jail in Australia and opens a free clinic in a Bombay slum. Along the way he manages to fall in love, serve in the Indian mafia, run guns to Afghanistan, and at the novel’s finish, own the name given to him, “Shantaram, Man of Peace.” While the subject matter may differ, for example, in the Ramayana, we encounter the majesty of King Rama, and in Shantaram, we almost taste the city of Bombay, reading each, I was taken on a trip, transported out of my everyday experience and shot into the fantastic. Whether I was reading an invocation to Ayodhya in the Ramayana, or a love letter to a Bombay slum in Shantaram, I felt as if I was being taken on a pilgrimage.
To be clear, the Ramayana isn’t really about India. It is about King Rama and the world of Dharma. And Shantaram isn’t really about Bombay. It is about the self-realization of the man known as Shantaram. Yet, ultimately, both works describe and are about a state of mind. Both works open doors to a place that a reader can enter. Because the Ramayana and Shantaram portray soul-felt ideals that are deeply desired, their pull is magnetic. While Shantaram is a person on a path (with the novel’s Karla, he even as his Sita!), make no bones about it, RAMA IS THE PATH!
Although both texts present the world supposedly, “As it is.” The Ramayana leaves no doubt that God exists. It is a Divine transmission. God breathes light into its every word. How different then is, Shantaram, a book written centuries later, by an Australian! Instead of the word of God, we’re given a reasonable facsimile. What makes Shantaram so real, I believe is its “truthiness.” As Stephen Colbert says, “If I feel something is true, then that feeling is more important than what the facts may support.”
In the Ramayana, King Rama graces each page as the personification of Goodness. In Shantaram, the character Shantaram moves through the story as an imperfect outsider. He does not nobly go into the forest like King Rama. He escapes to the slum. He runs for his life and not because he is afraid to die. This is an important distinction. On an unconscious level, he escapes his old way of being to learn how to live. He lets himself evolve. The beauty of Shantaram is that after being thrown into the river, he learns how to swim. At his core, he is a yogi.
The character Shantaram is an anti-hero and frankly, it is his awkwardness, his inability to relax, that make him so affecting. In these post-James Frey times, I personally have a hard time trusting the veracity of author Gregory David Robert’s life story. At times, his thinly disguised autobiographical novel feels too much. Thus, I appreciate the fact that the character Shantaram must undergo such a thorough transformation. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the story takes place in India, a place where I myself have felt awkward, India, a country where everyone knows people go to wake up. That aside, taken on its own terms, Shantaram presents several very persuasive arguments.
“Sometimes we love with nothing more than hope. Sometimes we cry with everything except tears. In the end that’s all there is: love and its duty, sorrow, and its truth. In the end, that’s all we have.” P. 346
“That’s how we keep this crazy place together – with the HEART. Two hundred fuckin languages, and a billion people. India is the heart. It’s the HEART that keeps us together.” P. 455
“Sooner or later, fate puts us together with all the people, one by one, who show us what we could, shouldn’t let ourselves become.” P. 471
“The universe has a NATURE … and it’s nature is to combine, and to build, and to become more complex.” P. 479.
On Good and Evil
“Anything that enhances, promotes, or accelerates this movement toward the Ultimate Complexity is GOOD…anything that inhibits, impedes, or prevents this Ultimate Complexity is EVIL.” P. 482
Even here in the West, Whether we know it or not, I believe that we share many of our core beliefs with the ancient wisdom of the Ramayana. Reality is not fixed. Everything that we think is real has to do with past associations. As human beings, what we attend to, perceive and retain, has to do with what has gone before. This is both a blessing and a curse. At times it feels that we as a civilization will never be able to move forward. In spite of, or rather because of that, I find these words of Shantaram very hopeful,
“For this is what we do. Put one foot in front of the other. Lift our eyes to the snarl and smile of the world once more. Think. Act. Feel. Add our little consequence to the tides of good and evil that flood and drain the world. Drag our shadowed crosses into the hope of another night. Push our brave hearts into the promise of a new day. With love: the passionate search for a truth other than our own. With longing: the pure ineffable yearning to be saved. For so long as fate keeps waiting, we live on God help us. God forgive us. We live on.” P. 933
Not in a long time have I enjoyed a book as much as Shantaram. In its way, it has inspired me to choose my own unique destiny.