There are two great epics of Sanskrit scripture that have achieved wide popular awareness in Hindu cultures, and have earned a place on the movie menus of Netflix and YouTube. They are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. I have concentrated my search on YouTube, because the limited choices on Netflix are, as usual, not available for streaming. By far, the best known of the two epics is the Ramayana. It is traditionally ascribed to the Hindu sage Valmiki, and said to describe Hindu culture of roughly 1000 years BCE. The composition of the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa is dated variously from 500 to 100 BCE, which is roughly the same dating as early written versions of the Mahabharata. For those of us who are uninitiated to the deeper mysteries of Hinduism, these animated films are an entry level immersion in the ways that Hindu families teach their young.
A Quick Summary of the Ramayana
There are several film versions of the Ramayana available on YouTube, all of them animated. Some are clearly intended for the education of children. One, called Ramayanam, from MagicBox English Stories Kids Channel, is only an hour long and presents the bare bones of Rama’s journey in cartoon style. In the kingdom of Ayodhya, the venerable ruler, King Dasharatha, is without an heir until he performs a ritual that results in his three wives bearing four children. The most comely of them is Rama, who is blue in color (he is the seventh incarnation of Vishnu). When he comes of age as a royal warrior, he is called upon to free a group of devout ascetics from a cannibalistic “monstress.” Now a man of fine reputation, he goes to a neighboring kingdom where there is a contest to win the hand of the beautiful princess, Sita. He wins the day and becomes a husband. Not long after he returns to Ayodhya with his bride, the old king proposes to step aside and put them on the throne. His plan is thwarted by one of his jealous wives who connives to win the crown for her own son, and causes Rama to be banished to the forest for fourteen years. Rama is joined in his exile by his wife and loyal brother, Lakshmana. They make the most of their rustic idyll until an evil temptress appears and tries to lure Rama away from his wife.
After receiving a terrible insult, the temptress seeks the help of her demonic brothers who send a look-alike army of monsters intent on vengeance. Rama defeats them single-handedly, using a magic bow that discharges multitudes of arrows. Seeing this, the sister flies off to the island of Lanka to report her humiliation to her older brother, Ravana. The powerful and despicable king, however, is more interested in his sister’s description of the beautiful Sita and he sets out in his flying chariot to abduct her. Transforming himself into a humble beggar, he successfully carries her off to his island domain and imprisons her in his palace garden. Rama and Lakshmana embark on a long and difficult search for Sita. They encounter an army of monkey-men, led by Sugriva. These soldiers are mostly human except for facial features and long tails. Rama helps Sugriva kill his ambitious brother and is rewarded with the services of the remarkable monkey captain, Hanuman. The search party led by Hanuman arrives at the seashore that faces the distant island of Lanka. Learning of Sita’s imprisonment, he transforms himself into a giant and leaps across the channel to offer her encouragement. He is captured by Ravana, who sets the monkey-man’s tail on fire. Hanuman uses his flaming tail to torch the opulent city of Lanka. When Rama receives the word of Sita’s location, he calls upon the Sea God for help in building a magical bridge across the water. He leads an attack on Ravana’s forces and ultimately kills his enemy. Lakshmana is apparently mortally wounded in the battle but is restored when Hanuman makes a magical flight to the Himalayas, returning with a whole mountain of healing herbs. Their exile now at an end, the reunited couple return to Ayodhya to become benevolent monarchs.
There are many more narrative details and amplifying episodes to be found in longer animated versions of the Ramayana. Needless to say, these animated treatments dwell on action adventure and leave the philosophical and theological content to more serious readers of the text. All of the selections in this segment of MovieJourneys have happy endings. It should be said that the original epic from Valmiki involves considerably more difficulties at the end. There have been many iterations of this material since it was first set down in written form, and many more adaptations added to the cultural traditions of other countries with Hindu populations.
Also on YouTube, there is a children’s version entitled Ramayan, from Fountain Kids, running for 87 minutes. It is dubbed with an English narration and differs significantly in its details from other versions featured on this page. Only this one opens with the episode in which King Dasharatha is hunting alone in the forest near his palace at Ayodhya. He accidentally kills a young boy with an arrow and is cursed by the youth’s elderly parents. This leads to instructions from an adviser for the king to perform a ritual that will beget him a favored son. The action then jumps abruptly to the scene in the forest where Rama is called upon to face the cannibalistic “monstress.”
Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama (1992)
Also screened in the U.S. as The Prince of Light: The Legend of Ramayana in 2000. Wikipedia offers a very long summary of the action in this film. It is produced by a combination of Indian and Japanese filmmakers.
Ramayana: The Epic (2010)
This is the most refined and beautiful of the animated versions of the Ramayana. It was heavily advertised in cities we visited on our 2011 trip to southern India. Within the first five minutes, there is a brief account of the begetting of four sons to King Dasharatha, Rama’s confrontation with the cannibalistic demon in the forest (who in this version is male), and his entry into the contest to win the hand of Sita. There is a greater emphasis on the battle between Sugreev and his brother Bali – notice variations in spelling. Hanuman is superhuman and less simian in this version. As with the others, the ending is happy and hopeful. The animation is done with modern digital technologies making for pleasingly lifelike movement of bodies and facial features.
The Mahabharata (1989) – Peter Brook
The sacred books of the Mahabharata are popular fare for families in Hindu countries. Contemporary sources include abridged editions, comic books, and cartoons on TV, some of which can be found on YouTube. This appeal is not evident, however, in the film version of Peter Brook’s stage work. Brook and his experimental theater company labored over the extensive poem for a decade and premiered the results in France in the mid 1980s. The movie is adapted from the nine-hour English language version that played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Another version ran on public television.
The film begins with a young boy finding an old man in a cave. The old one, Vyasa, wants to tell the young one the story of the origins of his race, his ancestors, and of his own destiny among the gods. It is “the poetical history of mankind.” Ganesha appears (a man in an elephant mask) and acts as scribe to write the story down. From the start, it seems to the Western mind the this is perhaps the prototype for the Judaic Old Testament or the Homeric epics. There are very human stories of love and marriage, jealousy and infidelity; and a lively congress between gods and mortals. Krishna (eighth incarnation of Vishnu) is a central figure in this work and he is not blue. He looks exactly like a British actor. Eventually, these individual emotional storms gather into an outbreak of warfare. The long drama ends with an affecting scene in which a survivor of the cosmic battle scales a snowy mountain and climbs a rope ladder to Paradise. His ascent is delayed by negotiations on his demand to bring with him his loyal black dog.
A persistent complaint related to the legacy of the British colonial occupation of India is leveled at the appropriation of Indian culture by well-intentioned Brits. Rudyard Kipling did it, turning Indian folklore into charming English literature. And Peter Brook has done it, turning a sacred Indian epic poem into a Shakespearean performance. It’s hard for me to imagine how Brook and his international theatrical company could have studied the richly colored pageantry and spiritually profound imagery of the Mahabharata and turned it into an austere Shakespearean recital.
In the long forgotten years of my theater apprenticeship, I greatly admired Peter Brook. My operating manual in that time was his book, The Empty Space (1968). In later decades however, I came to feel that Brook had gone the way of all theater in the West, mired in its own conventions.