Profile photo of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst

About Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst

Assistant Professor of Religion

Notes from our Classrooms

Pedagogy is a major facet of any faculty job, and it is a source of conversation–and pride–at 481 Main Street. Religion faculty have been nominated for and won teaching awards, regularly attend pedagogical workshops, run innovative programming linking research and teaching as well as classrooms and internships. We often exchange notes on best practices, ideas that worked (and flopped!), and our students’ best work. We thought we’d kick off a series in which we shared these Notes from our Classrooms.

Last semester, Prof. Vicki Brennan taught student-favorite REL103: Sacred Sounds. While many enroll thinking it is a class about sacred music, Prof. Brennan dissuades them of that on day one–this is a course committed to thinking through theories of sound, how sound becomes labeled “religious,” and how those religious sounds enter and shape public and private spaces.

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 9.07.21 AMProf. Brennan asked her Sacred Sound students to craft the Burlington Soundscape Project. This digital humanities project is an impressive collection of student work that physically and aurally mapped the sounds of Burlington. Students collected sounds (listen here) and then analyzed those sounds in the theoretical and practical terms of sound (e.g., “noise” and legal noise ordinances), the study of religion, and concepts of mapping.

Tagged topics of Islam & Modernity student blog posts

Tagged topics of Islam & Modernity student blog posts

In REL195: Islam & Modernity, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst had students research specific geographic areas (Iran, South Asia, and Turkey) alongside concepts of modernity. Instead of producing research papers, students were asked to distill their theoretically-driven and detail-heavy work into short blog posts, meant for public readership. Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst has used blogging before in other courses, and in light of overwhelmingly positive student responses to it, repeated the assignment in this brand-new course. Students wrote about trends in modernity and Islam with respect to gender, imperialism, power, secularism, and what it’s like to learn and unlearn, among other topics. See the full blog here.

 

 

 

As the Spring 2016 hits its stride, we’ll have more Notes from our Classrooms to share! 

Reblog: Prof. Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) in the September issue of Anthropology News

New newspaper column written by Professor Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) on a black church burning in Knoxville, TN for the online September issue of Anthropology News. 

Read it here: When a Black Church Burns (But not to the Ground) by Prof. Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 4.48.57 PM

Seen on campus: “Islam vs. Democracy”

Last Thursday, I received an anti-Islam, anti-Muslim flyer titled “Islam vs. Democracy” at my campus office address. I’d been mailed the same flyer during the Spring semester, as well. At that time, I responded by holding a class session in my REL096: Islam course in which we analyzed and critiqued the two-sided flyer, line by line, in the theoretical terms we’d explored all semester (Orientalism, imperialism, authenticity, categorical definitions) and compared to the definitions for Islam we’d read by scholars (like Ernst, Shepard, and Curtis, to name a select few).

It was a challenging class. Most students were horrified–one actually gasped out loud, another approached me after and apologized, having done nothing wrong, for the existence of such material. Many students expressed genuine feelings of disgust and exceptionalism: UVM is a friendly, liberal place, they said; this shouldn’t have happened here. Some asked questions about the role of open spaces and free speech on a public campus; others asked if free speech rules applied on a campus and to whom; and others still asked about the overlapping issues of free speech and campus safe spaces, accommodations, and UVM’s On Common Ground ideals. We solved none of these problems of a contemporary campus broadly or of our own.

But, in April, near the end of the term, so many of my students–even some who rarely spoke in class–offered real critique of the content of the flyer, citing theorists of religion, scholars of Islam, and critics of both. We read the flyer as a primary source to be interrogated, analyzed, and placed in its multiple contexts (what kind of literature was this? who or what was its audience? what do we do with unsigned writings? where was its information factually wrong? to what avail? & etc.).

That was my response this past spring. I scrapped a class about American Muslims in the earliest part of the 20th century so that we could instead talk about a two-sided flyer found on campus for an hour. We applied what we’d learned about Islam, the study of religion, and reading primary sources critically to a new primary source document–the flyer itself. We had an academic conversation first, but also addressed the affective responses it elicited, which ranged from thinking the flyer a joke unworthy of our time to tears, frustration, and anger.

This time the flyer surfaced, however, students hadn’t yet arrived. I sent out a call on Twitter and my personal Facebook account asking if anyone else had seen these flyers. Two colleagues responded that they had seen them in Williams Hall both recently and back in April. I’d found another set of flyers postered in Bailey-Howe Library, and a student sent a direct message on Twitter to say he’d seen them in the Davis Center, a center of student activity (and food) on campus.

Islam vs Democracy close upI won’t republish here the anti-Islam, anti-Muslim diatribes beyond this (purposefully incomplete) photo. There are lots of responses to Islamophobic content, in the broadest senses; and there are responses to those responses. There are books, journals, blogs. I am not a scholar of Islamophobia, and I am deeply aware of the various risks publishing about it can be. The broadest sense of all this isn’t the point, anyway. It is the peculiarity.

In this context, a broad post I might write about how anti-Islam, anti-Muslim rhetoric actually limits engagement on a campus by using fear is too general. It feels like a general response to a general phenomena on campuses writ large. But this wasn’t a general flyer, out there somewhere. This was a flyer on our campus, right here.

These flyers certainly speak about a vast, faceless, dangerous, and imagined Islam, but because they appear on campus, they are directed at us, the members of the UVM community–Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Moreover, because it has been mailed to me personally (but not to my departmental colleagues), I can assume I am a targeted audience for the message of the flyer, and I might further imagine this is specifically in my capacity as the professor of courses about Islam and Muslims in the Religion Department.

So, my response is this: a lament that students arrive in our classrooms today, August 31, and that my classes won’t begin until tomorrow.

Had these flyers gone up in a week, I’d have a clear sense of what my job is, what my obligations are, in terms of my campus. I’d ask students to talk about it. We’d read it, in the constructed space of a classroom which is purposefully set up for interrogation, investigation, and critique. We’d take its claims seriously, talk about where they came from, and what work they do now; we’d maybe theorize why UVM’s campus–why the library, the student-centered Davis Center, Williams Hall, and my mailbox–were imagined to be good spaces for an anonymous poster and author declare “the truth” about Islam in the form of double-sided, photocopied flyers. We’d talk about the possibilities, responsibilities, and challenges of free speech on campuses. We’d talk about reading about religion beyond classrooms, and the value of the skill sets needed to do so. We’d talk about microaggressions and safety for our classmates, colleagues, and staff who were the subject of the flyer’s message. We might even place this flyer in a conversation about Muslims and racialized religious identity–a conversation we normally get to toward the end of the semester.

My classes begin tomorrow. And my syllabus has already changed.

Religion@UVM: The Class of 2015

Our Class of 2015 graduated on May 17, 2015. As we’ve come to know and love, they weren’t shy in proclaiming their success!

They are an accomplished bunch! As we featured before, Maeve Herrick won the Robert D. Benedict Award for the Best Essay in the Field of International Affairs. Kathryn Meader received the Outstanding Senior in Religion Award. At commencement, the Class of 2015–and their families and friends–learned that Joseph Oteng was a recipient of the prestigious Class of ’67 award. We are always honored to our students so visibly recognized for their hard work and achievements.

This class has impressed us throughout their careers. They’ve presented at the UVM Student Research Conference, served in our undergraduate Religion Club, served organizations across the University, and–most importantly–learned, worked, read, wrote, read more, and rewrote about religion.

This class, too, had the special distinction of helping us launch our new REL202 and REL203 sequence, which comprises a practicum for extended research and a colloquium, where one’s research is revised and expanded in the context of the graduating cohort and a faculty mentor. This year’s colloquium was led by Prof. Borchert, who took the seniors bowling, perhaps indelibly making a pin the Class of ’15 totem.

We’ve spent the better part of four years listening to these students argue, engage, and wrestle with ideas ranging from religion and pop culture in America to racialized religious formations to Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka to the very term “religion” itself. As their faculty, we’ve listened to their presentations and papers, read their blog posts and research, and written recommendation letters. Prof. Borchert even saw them bowl. These are animated, thoughtful students alumni, and we cannot wait to see what lies in store for them as their post-UVM lives unfold.

We don’t know what comes next, but we hope the Class of ’15 keeps in touch; we hope some of them will be featured as alumni bloggers soon; but we ask very little–only that they continue to think religion, with breadth and depth, in whatever comes next.


As is our ritual, the department hosted a post-commencement reception for our graduates and their loved ones. These are a selection of the photos; for more, visit our Facebook page here.

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Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst, graduate Zach Warner, and Prof. Thomas Chipumuro

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graduate Shakir Stephen

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graduate Maeve Herrick, Prof. Brennan, and Prof. Andrus

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Profs. Trainor and Andrus, graduate Kathryn Meader, Profs. Borchert and Brennan

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The Class of 2015! Joey Oteng, Kathryn Meader, Maeve Herrick, Shakir Stephen, and Zach Warner

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Prof. Thomas Chipumuro and graduate Joey Oteng

 

Senior op-ed highlights Religion

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Joey Oteng ’15 (image via UVM Orientation website)

In a recent article in the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s student newspaper, senior religion major Joey Oteng discussed religion and religion classes, and asked his readers to join the conversations so prevalent here at 481 Main Street.

Joey’s piece, “Why Religion Should be Discussed,” highlights some of the key questions religion majors are asked to tackle: religion in the public sphere; appropriation, adaptation, and adoption within and across religious traditions; how to talk about a subject fraught with politics and that might transgress mores of “polite dinner conversation.”

He wrote:

“We should want to study religion because it is all around us. Daily rituals as simple of rolling over every morning to check your phone, to mindful practices of yoga or even the culturally appropriated Hindu spring festival of Holi repurposed as secular color runs.”

Do read his whole piece, and then be sure to follow his advice: join us in the conversation.

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Faculty featured in UVM Humanities Publication

Recently, the UVM Humanities Center produced an aptly titled publication, Humanities, which focused on humanities and the creative arts at UVM, and captured the depth, range, and relScreen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.00.09 AMevance of work by UVM faculty, students, and alumni. It featured a number of Religion Department faculty!

Prof. Thomas Borchert‘s recent research on Buddhist monks in Thailand–a regular element of this blog!–was highlighted in a piece titled “Crisis in the Temple” by Basil Waugh (pp. 50-51). Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst’s use of social media and digital technologies in the classroom was featured in a piece titled “Follow that Professor,” authored by Amanda Waits (pp. 74-75). And Thomas Weaver wrote an article titled “Humanities at Home,” (pp.  78-79) which foregrounds Prof. Richard Sugarman talking about the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP), one of the College’s Teacher-Advisor Programs for first-year students, of which he serves as Director.

Download the whole Humanities magazine here (in PDF format).

 

Babies, Babar, and Yoga

BKHALDBabarsYogaLarge300I have an almost-two year old daughter, and she has a legion of Nanas, Pop-Pops, Grandmas, Grandpas, Aunties, Uncles, and general well-wishers who love buying things for her. (This is lovely and appreciated, even if often roundly met with frustration: Please bring less stuff into my house. Please.) In the midst of a now-typical “But, seriously, what does she need?!” conversation, Babar’s Yoga for Elephants, a book in the (revamped, English) Babar series, was suggested as a perfect gift. After all, it’s Babar! And he’s doing yoga! 

Cue a surprise academic moment. This is Babar, an elephant king who shares his name with Babur, the first Mughal ruler. This is Babar, whom I read about avidly as a child–only to get to college and realize my love of Babar meant I had participated in the orientalist assumptions with which it was written. This is Babar, keeping up with the times and staying fit with yoga. This is Babar, practicing bendy, stretchy, mindful-but-not-religious yoga, at the feet of a stereotypically dressed yogi, fashioned as a dark-skinned, eyes-closed, bearded, bare-chested man in a white turban and wrapped, white bottoms (a dhoti?). B7zLqS6CEAADINa.jpg-large

At once, the obvious problems with depicting a generalized South Asian–the man in the image above–are as banal as they are startling. This image is readily critiqued, easily identified, and almost boring in its cliche; yet seeing these problems replicated not in an early-20th century text (when French and English colonialism were in full swing) but rather in a recent book, intended for children, is disconcerting, if not altogether shocking.

Before one even gets to the book, we encounter its dust jacket–which itself serves as fodder for analysis. It reads:

“Well before yoga became fashionable via Sting and Madonna, our friend Babar and all the residents of Celesteville were finding peace and tranquillity through yoga. And now elephants everywhere can join them! … Written by Babar himself, the book explains how yoga was introduced to Celesteville and how he and Celeste keep fit doing yoga on their many travels.” (Replicated here.)

There are multiple truth-claims within this short passage which, in turn, represents the universe in which Babar exists. The first is that Babar is an original practitioner of yoga; his instructional book is thus both authentic and accurate. It ought not to be confused with new iterations of yoga, or newcomers to the practice (like Sting and Madonna), which represent a passing fad and even a disingenuous interest. But while Babar and the residents of Celesteville originally found “peace and tranquility through yoga,” now, in his own words, Babar tells his audience how to “keep fit doing yoga.” What began as a way to find calm, well before it was popular among those living beyond Celesteville, is now a way to keep fit.

A yogi in a cross-legged position doing Machendra asana, British Library: Add.24099, f.14.

This, in some ways, reflects the adoption, adaption, and appropriation of yoga in contemporary, often Euro-American, contexts. What started as a set of disciplines–what yoga literally translates to–in some South Asian religions, for specific participants (usually male, high-caste, and ascetic, as argued by many, for example Sarah Strauss) is now a multi-billion dollar exercise (and perhaps self-help) business. While it’s easy and appropriate to point to the contemporary uses and alterations to yoga, it’s not the whole picture: there is ample evidence that many non-casted, non-Hindu or Buddhist actors have adopted, adapted and appropriated yoga in other historical periods. For example, Muslim Sufis utilized yogic techniques like breathing and meditation, with some even advocating for its adoption into appropriate Islamic praxis (see Ernst here and Kugle there). Yoga, as most other religious ideologies and forms of practice, has been adapted for and by different communities for centuries.

But that doesn’t mean we ought to label Babar practicing yoga as evidence of how normal and normative yoga has become, and move on. There are some for whom this appropriation of yoga is normal, but inappropriate. As schools debate incorporating yoga, mindfulness, and/or meditation into curricula, some Hindus have argued that this misuses their religion, of which yoga is a part; some Christians and atheists, likewise, have argued that allowing these practices in school promotes (a specific) religion, and is inappropriate. All the while, the American Yoga Association claims yoga is not a religion. Debates about what religion is, how it ought to count, and how what counts (or doesn’t) is used are all central to these ongoing conversations, in and outside the public sphere. They also all apply to how we read and see Babar’s Yoga for Elephants. Is Babar practicing religion? Is it spirituality that Babar practices? Is he just participating in a fun, hip exercise program? Or is it a mindful, meditative way to calm down?

If what yoga was, is, and might become is both historically delineated and constantly shifting, how do we read Babar and his instructive yogic text?

Part of my answer to this question lies in thinking about the historical implications and legacies alongside contemporary assumptions and conceptualizations. Babar isn’t just a fun children’s character. He’s an elephant king, developed at the height of colonialism, and, as others have argued, “a tool of colonialist oppression.” In this Babar book, he practices an ancient-but-living Indic form of religiosity (which is, as above, depicted as led by a stereotypically drawn man) for the purpose of “keeping fit.” Beyond contemporary popularity, scientific evidence of its efficacy as a medical treatment for certain issues and people, and the widespread availability of “yoga pants”–in other words, beyond the normative expression of yoga–is a familiar problematic in which someone else’s history, praxis, culture(s), languages, and religions are adopted, adapted, and appropriated, all for our contemporary uses.

My daughter (and I) do participate in yoga. There’s a lovely, local place that offers classes for kids, and my wild, busy toddler loves the space for wiggling, running, and when she slows down long enough, doing an occasional down-dog. Yoga, and our contemporary uses thereof, isn’t inherently a problem. But, with all the complex and overlapping colonialist and orientalist images in Babar’s Yoga for Elephants, she will not get a copy as a gift. Since it seems better suited for my research, I picked up a copy for myself.

Student Research: Complications Within a Feminist Sita

This post originally appeared on the REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions blog. An explanation, introduction, and justification for my class’ final research project can be found here (and also here).
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Complications Within a Feminist Sita
by Kathryn Meader

Sita is often heralded as the ideal woman, the ideal wife, and the ideal mother. A monumental and intimidating character, she is almost more central to the Ramayana than Rama himself. She is the mother of Rama’s children, and cares for them as the poet Valmiki recounts her story. When Sita arrives on the banks of the Ganga, Narada says to the poet, “Get up, save her life, and let her live here with you and your companions; and make in measured words the song of Rama”(Buck, 6). She frames the story, and she sculpts the story, all while still maintaining an outward appearance of a demure, submissive wife. The image of an ideal wife as dependent upon her husband is an attractive one to a mainly misogynistic society, but what happens when women take ownership of Sita as a role model? Do they see a demure, restrained woman, or is she transformed? In feminist readings of the Ramayana, Sita is still seen as an ideal for every woman to strive for, but she is far from quiet. She is fierce as she endures a trial by fire to prove her faithfulness, and is strong as she defies her husband when he asks her a second time to walk through the flames. In many ways, this moment within the text can be used as a focal point from which to see the various ways in which her image is manipulated popularly in both feminist and traditional reads of the text.

In Madhu Kishwar’s article, “Yes to Sita, No to Ram” she explores the popular understanding of Sita as a woman “whose sense of Dharma is superior to and more awe inspiring than that of Ram – someone who puts even maryada purushottam Ram – the most perfect of men – to shame”(Kishwar,1).  This deeper read of Sita’s character is much more compelling than the simple, surface level understanding. She is not a meek woman who allows herself to be enslaved and mistreated by her husband. She is a fierce creature with a sense of pride and duty, whose rejection of Rama is the ultimate representation of dignity.

Looking at her actions within the Ramayana, one can open up the possibility for a feminist read of Sita that is at once empowering and quite complicated. It is complicated simply because if she is the ideal woman, and he the ideal man, how can the reader comprehend and rationalize the horrid mistreatment that Rama puts her through? In Linda Hess’s article “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife” she goes into an analysis of the various versions of the Ramayana and how these versions betray the cultural attitude towards Sita’s treatment, and what we can learn from these variations. She attempts to understand the issues involved with using such a complicated character as an image of empowerment, while she is simultaneously being used as an image of oppression.

Today more than ever before, Sita is a site of contestation. The Sita who clung to the dharma of worshiping her husband and bowing to his will, even when he repeatedly and cruelly rejected her, is still embraced as the ideal woman by many Hindus of both sexes. But others, increasingly, are describing that ideal as concocted by and serving the interests of dominant males from ancient times to the present. (Hess, 27-28)

The culminating moment of Sita’s story in the Ramayana comes during her trial by fire when she and Rama return victorious to Ayodhya. Her devotion to Ram is so complete that she is willing to walk to fire to prove that she had not touched or been touched by another man during her absence. His lack of faith in her, and unwillingness to prove to his people her innocence is what causes her eventual exile. This moment of Sita within the flames has been depicted countless times. Images have many layers of meaning, and every character in these depictions is giving us insight into the commentary of the artist. Sita is often shown serenely within the flames, with Agni by her side as Ram and Lakshman look on coldly. Hanuman is sometimes turned away from the sight. Each character is giving an opinion of the trial, as well as their opinion of Rama’s actions, through their body language.

“Sita’s Ordeal by Fire” (c.1895) from the British museum

In this popular depiction of the scene from c. 1895, Sita is as serene as ever, and the god Agni is faithfully by her side, but what is going on in the audience is very interesting. Rama is being restrained forcefully from entering the flames to save his love, while Hanuman shields his eyes (whether in aversion for the sight or disapproval of Ram, one cannot be sure). This version of the image is interesting because it illustrates the mixed feelings that Ram must have had about the ordeal for Sita. This image emphasizes the popular belief that Rama was wrong to exile her from the palace after she had proved herself to him, not to mention the fact that she was pregnant with twins. These opinions are not found within the text, and are a clear example of popular understanding of the story working its way into more widespread imagery.

Another important arena where a more feminist read of Sita flourishes is within the folk tradition of songs. In Rashmi Luthra’s article she goes into the connections between main female characters in the epics and the way they are represented in popular folk songs. The re-articulations within this setting create greater space for the elaboration and positioning of post-colonial Indian feminisms. The epics continue to be an important part of the cultural field and these appropriations are placed within the debate over the use of traditional narratives, in order to garner insight into the potential of the narratives as a resource for feminist projects. (Luthra, 35). Usha Zacharias is engaged in the same project of examining post-colonial feminisms in her article “Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation.” Zacharias moves between the development of Indian feminism and various instances of Sita’s character within the Ramayana, and serves to illustrate how Sita’s image is used to create the modern ideal of female citizenship. The ideal being pushed is that of a strong woman who stands up for herself, but also understands her place within the larger scheme.

Sita is a character that does not receive the development that she deserves within the text of the Ramayana. When she is understood in the hearts and minds of the readers, her personality and actions are elaborated in ways that are not always the way that the text intended. She can be used by the most traditional of men to set forth an example of their perfect, subordinate wife, while simultaneously being used as a rallying point for women who have had enough of their husbands. All who read her story carefully witness the strength within her character, but the way her image is employed in the popular arena illustrates the variations to be found within this ancient text.

Works Cited:

Buck, William, and B. A. van Nooten. Ramayana. Third Edition. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press, 2012.

Hess, Linda. “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 67. No. 1 (March, 1999).

Kishwar, Madhu. “Yes to Sita, No to Ram: The Continuing Hold of Sita on Popular Imagination in India,” in Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Luthra, Rashmi. “Clearing Sacred Ground: Women-Centered Interpretations of the Indian Epics,” Feminist Formations 26, no. 2 (2014): 135–61.

Zacharias, Usha. “Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation.” Social Text 19, no. 4 (2001): 29–51.

“Sita’s Ordeal by Fire.” British Museum. (Click on image above for link)

Student Research: Rama and Ravana’s Divine Antagonism

This post originally appeared on the REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions blog. An explanation, introduction, and justification for my class’ final research project can be found here (and also here).
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Rama and Ravana’s Divine Antagonism
by Celia DeLago

Standard depiction of Rama and Ravana's divinely antagonistic relationship.

Standard depiction of Rama and Ravana’s divinely antagonistic relationship.

Through this post, I will be exploring both the mystical relationship of Ravana and Rama; as well as how their characters were viewed moralistically at the time through the use of Tulsi’s views on society; to explore how Ravana and Rama’s relationship affects how we view the deeper messages that Valmiki gave us within the Ramayana.

The symbolism of Rama and Ravana’s relationship within Buck’s Ramayana, as well as through the lens of Tulsidas’ Ramacaritmanas, conveys complex philosophical concepts, such as the nirguna (supreme formless reality) and saguna (manifestation of god in form) aspects of reality through their, at times, antagonistic guru-disciple relationship. The multifaceted relationship of Rama and Ravana is not covered in every version of the Ramayana. However, William Buck’s retelling of this epic allows us to explore their deeper relationship through poetic language.

The potential guru-disciple relationship between Rama and Ravana shapes our perception of the philosophical concepts presented within the Ramayana. The narrative of the nuanced relationship between “good” and “evil,” encapsulated in Rama and Ravana’s feud, attempts to shape our views of reality. The acknowledgment of the ambiguity of “good” and “evil,” accentuated and played with by an eternal, infinite timeline, encourages and, at times, forces the reader to open their minds to a deeper understanding of reality. The infinite change that occurs as a result of the infinite timelines of the various deities leaves much room for the changing and developing of characters. The use of themes like telepathic communication, divine powers and mystical experience among the deities gives the readers a glimpse into the deeper, “true” reality beyond the epic of these characters. Ultimately, Ravana is defeated by Rama. Suka delivers a stone from Ravana to Rama, and we learn that Ravana is actually Rama’s devotee. Ravana lauds Rama as Lord Narayana, as the Supreme, and reveals that even while Rama is unaware that he is secretly a deity, Ravana has been aware all along, because his bhakti towards Rama and his desire to attain moksha through devotion to Rama has allowed him to always see Rama’s true form. Rama dismisses this revelation out-of-hand; and through this seemingly simple gesture, the dharma of Ravana is perfected and completed, as Rama lives on as king of Ayodhya (Buck).

As an interesting cultural observation: I decided to Google search phrases like "Rama's negative qualities" while doing research for this paper. Many people have posted questions such as, "Why is Ravana considered evil?," "What are some of Rama's negative traits?," etc. Here were some interesting responses (perhaps of Rama devotees and traditionalists) that I found.

As a cultural observation: I decided to Google phrases such as “Rama’s negative qualities” while doing research for this paper. Many people posted questions previously such as, “Why is Ravana considered evil?,” “What are some of Rama’s negative traits?,” etc. Here were some interesting responses that I found.

We can acknowledge the goodness within Ravana, and the lack of moral integrity and humanity within Rama; And ultimately, we must acknowledge their deeper relationship. Ravana’s goodness is highlighted and emphasized at important times (often before he is beaten down by humility once again). Ravana earned his boon through engaging in austerities for almost 10,000 years to Lord Shiva; was released from Lord Vishnu’s mountain-cage for his beautiful songs; and, ultimately, confessed his sincere guru-devotion to Rama (12, 35, 350-351 Buck). On the other hand, Rama engages in mutual deformation of Surpanakha and disrespect to Ravana; and continually treated Sita in reprehensible ways, requiring her to undergo Agni Pariksha (trial by fire), and ultimately banishing her while she is pregnant with two children (Buck).

The morality (and amorality) of both Rama and Ravana shapes the applicability of these concepts to our own lives: we may be intrigued by Ravana’s asceticism or beautiful singing, but his actions, such as killing the virtuous, saintly Vulture King Jatayu, may make us question the efficacy of, say, certain rituals, or moralistic beliefs and alliances. These multifaceted characters exist as animate representations of important archetypes and symbols found, for example, within various religious traditions: the duality of the yin-yang, as well as the tomoe; the boisterous behavior of the Greek and Roman gods, etc. Humans can relate to characters that have many facets, who fail and act in evil ways but also strive for goodness.

It is also important to investigate the ethics and morality of Ravana and Rama, informed by Tulsidas’ approach to society and his views on ethical, spiritual and social qualities found within Savitra Chandra’s article on Hindu social life (49, Chandra). Evaluating the characters of the Ramayana through the lens of the cultural attitudes of the time, we can gain a better understanding of how norms shaped the epic and thus informed cultural attitudes. It is easy to display some of the strange cognitive dissonance that seemingly comprises most of the characters in the Ramayana: Rama is held as the ultimate, the Supreme, but still performs actions that are deplorable. Ravana is a rapist, a misogynist and a murderer, as well as being a previously-devout ascetic for almost 10,000 years. The complexity of these characters affects how we interpret the philosophical concepts of Buck’s Ramayana by giving us these messages through questionable characters.

In Chandra’s “Two Aspects of Hindu Social Life and Thought,” we learned that, although Tulsidas was a bhakti devotee of Rama, a man considered a saint, he also held worrisome views about his basis of qualifying members of society (49, Chandra). Through Chandra’s description of uttam, we can conclude Rama falls within the high first category, and had obviously lorded over Ram-Rajya (the kingdom of Ram; the greatest kingdom in history before the fall into Kali Yuga): “The ethical and spiritual qualities…include humility, absence of arrogance, straightforwardness, equanimity, lack of attachment to worldly things, and above all, a sense of discrimination or understanding of good and bad” (49, Chandra). Chandra goes on to say that “Tulsi includes good rulers and their agents in the category of uttam” (Chandra, 50). Rama also committed negative deeds, towards Ravana and his sister Surpanakha, in a way that was lacking in humility. To summarize: “He seems utterly unaware of having done Ravana any harm” (97, Goldman).

It is also hard to decipher where Ravana belongs within Tulsi’s view of society. Chandra "Depiction of Satan," Gustave Doré c. 1868discusses nich, a person of low quality or status who needs to be kept firmly under control (Chandra, 52). We may very easily draw this parallel to Ravana, who is portrayed as the lowest of the low throughout the epic. We, as the readers, are encouraged to hate Ravana from the beginning solely based on the title of the epic. But Ravana is not evil through and through; Ravana is more akin to Satan, a fallen angel capable of goodness but prescribed by the fates to committing negative deeds until his death. At the same time, however, Ravana, like Rama, ruled over a kingdom (Lanka), and had devoted servants. He was born a Brahmin, and was an ascetic devotee of Lord Shiva.

Interestingly enough, those who would be considered nich by Tulsi have come to express sympathy for Ravana, often as a political gesture against oppression:

“Glorification of Ravana is not unknown. According to a minor tradition, the demons of Vishnu are successive reincarnations of his attendants, who take this form in order to be near him…In modern times, Tamil groups who oppose what they believe to be the political domination of southern India by the north view the story of Rama as an example of the Sanskritization and cultural repression of the south and express their sympathies for Ravana and against Rama.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Ravana has been utilized as a cultural, political symbol that extends beyond his original intended purpose within the myth, and for good reason. If we cannot clearly decipher the moral integrity of the designated antagonist, it is fair to say that we cannot trust that the appointed protagonist is worthy of our admiration.


Bibliography:

1.Eck, Diana. Darśan. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

2. Buck, William, and Vālmīki. Ramayana. Berkeley: University of California, 1976.

3. Velchuru Narayana Rao,“Rāmāyaṇa,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Edition, ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 7616-7618.

4. Rama and Lakshmana Fighting Ravana (India, Pahari, Bilaspur School). 1750. Painting. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Edward L. Whittemore Fund, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

5. Savitri Chandra, “Two Aspects of Hindu Social Life and Thought, as Reflected in the Works of Tulsidas,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Feb., 1976), pp. 48-60.

6. Goldman, R., and J. Masson. “Who Knows Ravana?–A Narrative Difficulty in the Valmiki Ramayana.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 50.1/4 (1969): 95-100. JSTOR. Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/416942

7. McCrea, Lawrence. 2010. “Poetry beyond good and evil: Bilhaṇa and the tradition of patron-centered court epic.” Journal Of Indian Philosophy 38, no. 5: 503-518. ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost (accessed October 24, 2014).

Hyperlink Bibliography:

8. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Ravana.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

9. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Rama (Hindu Deity).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

10. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Tulsidas.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

11. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Ramayana (Indian Epic).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

12. “Ramcharitmanas.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guru-shishya_tradition

14. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/653297/yinyang

15. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/585989/telepathy

  1. http://symboldictionary.net/?p=1660

17. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/244670/Greek-mythology

18. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/507866/Roman-religion

19. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/63933/bhakti

20. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/387852/moksha

21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surpanakha

22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanka

23.http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/90/GustaveDoreParadiseLostSatanProfile.jpg