Saturday, September 30, 2017


The other day I gave a presentation in our George "Honey Boy" Evans Symposium here at Champlain.  Mainly I wanted to talk about the important and complex nature of Sita in the Ramayana, which meant talking about her relationship with Rama and Ravana.  Not surprisingly, I had to give some background on an immensely complicated epic, without letting that foundational information dominate the entire talk.  While providing that background I talked a little bit about our guides for the trip, which in turn inspired me post some long-overdue pictures.  The trip was way too short for such our madly ambitious goal of following that path of Rama, and thus of the Ramayana itself.  That said, it held together better than any trip I've ever planned.  One of the many, many interesting aspects of the trip was the role that our guides played in the nature of that exploration.  While the trip was organized by the estimable Inder Singh, he made use of Vivek Pathak, a Hindu, in India, and Sudarshana Parera, a Buddhist, in Sri Lanka.  What I knew, and what, of course, I didn't tell the students, was that the two men had two very different versions of the Ramayana, which appropriately represented the contested narrative between India and Sri Lanka.  On two separate occasions, once on the bus and once in the midst of a throng of Indians in the ancient city of Nashek, he told the story of the Ramayana.  What was lovely - and what could not have been planned better - was that there were subtle differences in the story, which reflected the continued oral evolution of the epic, even one that was allegedly fossilized in a written form millennia ago.  At one point we asked him to identify his favorite written version of the Ramayana.  He admitted that he had never read it, but instead told us, "I learned the story from my grandmother, and my mother is teaching my son the story."  Talk about your teachable moment.  Once we crossed over to Sri Lanka the story became very different because view Rama as the initiator of the war and Ravana the hero, and that, in fact, Rama never defeated Ravana because no one could have done that (instead,he was figuratively, and literally, stabbed in the back by his own brother, and fellow rakshasa, Vibhishana).  We were in a Sita temple one day and finally Surdarshana said to the students, although in a very friendly way, "I've heard your professor telling you the story of the Ramayana, but let me tell you the real story."  At that point you spun a very different tale.  One of the students, incredulous, turned to me and said, "Wait, did you know this?"  And I had to respond, "Well, duh."  The power was in them hearing it at that point, not me telling them in a classroom in Burlington, Vermont.  Both guides have since been included, if sadly certainly not immortalized, in my epics book. 

The path of the Ramayana.  We picked up the trail at Nashek, which is a couple hours east of Mumbai, or, on this particular map, at that jag right next to Pancarvati.

Vivek Pathak, our guide and friend in India.

Sudarshana Parera, our guide and friend in Sri Lanka.

And unfazed by the battle for control of the Ramayana was the most excellent Inder Singh, the head of Tiger Paws Adventures (an organization of which I cannot say enough good things).  The students adored him and he reached a sort of mythic level with them.  As he waving goodbye to us in the Mumbai Airport they all started chanting "Inder! Inder! Inder!!!" much, much too loudly.
It was an amazingly culturally and religious diverse trip, which meant that it perfectly mirrored India and Sri Lanka.  It's wonderful, and funny, to think that the trip was essentially led by a Sikh, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, and a Jewish Atheist.  I don't know what the Pentecostals were doing that week because they clearly missed out.

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