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The ILIAD and the RAMAYANA: Narrative Techniques

Saudamini Deo


Saudamini Deo

Jadavpur University


The Iliad and the Ramayana: Narrative Techniques


Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord studied the South Slavic Bards of Yugoslavia for years before formulating the Parry-Lord thesis which, arguably, established the oral tradition. The Iliad, which until then was believed to be an invention in isolation by a single poet named Homer, was studied as an oral composition developed over a period of time by a group of poets. In a detailed analysis of the Iliad, Lord and Parry observed repetitions, ring compositions, stock epithets, and ornamentation that proved that the oral poet(s)/bard(s) who composed it had to rely on readymade phrases. The Parry-Lord thesis is usually applied to Western epics, but the thesis is also helpful in understanding the non-Western epics. This paper compares the structural and compositional similarities between the Iliad and the Sanskrit epic Ramayana in an attempt to place both the epics, culturally and geographically so removed from each other, in the larger context of the oral tradition.



In his essay, “Jazz Musicians and South Slavic Oral Epic Bards,” H. Wakefield Foster likens the Slavic bards to modern day Jazz musicians because of the way each artist produces his art “live” during the performance, depending on the audience and the context. Wakefield’s argument relies heavily on the works of two scholars of epic poetry, Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord, who are arguably the founders of the oral tradition. Lord defined oral epics as narrative poetry composed in a manner evolved over many generations by illiterate singers of tales. For Parry, oral poetry is controlled by the necessities of performance: there is virtually no time to reflect on the composition and structure of the next line and the bard must rely on readymade phrases while composing. Since there is no gap between composition and performance of an oral poem, it is not composed for, but rather in performance.

            The Parry-Lord thesis is usually applied to Western oral epics such as the Iliad and The Odyssey in an effort understand the structure and techniques of its composition. While this thesis is based on songs of the South Slavic bards and is mostly used to study the Homeric epics, the premise of their argument could be applied universally. Using the methods employed by Parry and Lord, it can be argued that various epics and narratives of different cultures and time periods are, in fact, oral compositions and not written narratives as was previously believed. This paper will discuss and examine the structural and compositional similarities between Homer’s Iliad and Valmiki’s Ramayana (and the various tellings of the ramakatha) and place both the epics in the larger oral tradition.

            Milman Parry concentrated on the Homeric “stock-epithets” and formulaic structure to establish it as an oral composition. He argued that epithets changed not according to the immediate needs of the narrative, but rather for exclusively metrical reasons. That is, the poet would use the “formula” that fit his metrical needs and expand on it. For example, each Homeric character has a recurrent descriptive but “ornamental” epithet: grey-eyed Athena, noble Odysseus, swift-footed Achilles, rosy-fingered dawn, etc. Parry made the principle of “economy and extension” central to oral poetry. This research in Yugoslavia helped shift the emphasis from “traditional” (i.e. written, which is considered a higher literary form) to the oral. At the center of Parry’s theory is his conception of the formula, which “can be defined as an expression regularly used, under the same metrical conditions, to express an essential idea” (Pary 13). He then goes on to show the use of stock-epithets, similes, and formulaic and ring compositions in the songs of the South Slavic Bards, comparing their narrative technique with that of Homer’s Iliad. The Iliad makes use of stock-epithets, formulaic compositions, repetitions, type scenes and catalogues to maintain continuity and to aid the bard that sings this epic poem, who composes it in performance. Contrary to what was believed, Parry and Lord concluded that the Iliad was not an ”invention” in isolation but was, in reality, an oral tradition in continuation, parts of which had already existed before its formal composition. The aoidos, or the Greek poets, inherited a larger tradition, a common pool of stories which they expanded upon individually. This view of the oral tradition is comparable to the Saussurian distinction between langue and parole in linguistics. Langue denotes the social, impersonal phenomenon of language as a system of signs, while parole denotes the individual, personal phenomenon as a series of speech acts. Within the oral epic tradition, langue is a metalanguage, the epic stock—the language system which is comparable to the German roh-stoff—and parole is the individual utterance/performance of the poet.

            The Saussurian view can be used to view Valmiki’s Ramayana as an oral composition,not a written one. It is often believed that Valmiki’s Ramayana is the purest and the original ramakatha, and that the story of Rama originates from Valmiki’s Ramayana. However, according to Romesh Chunder Dutt, “the Ramayana, like the Mahabharata, is a growth of centuries, but the main story is more distinctly the creation of one mind" (191). It is worth noting that the Ramayana, like the Mahabharata, uses the technique of frame narrative. The opening frame of the Ramayana involves the composer of the poem, Valmiki, who is told Rama’s story by the celestial sage Narada. After some time, Valmiki is moved to see the grief of a bird whose mate has just been killed by a hunter. He expresses his compassion and pain in a new metrical structure (the anushtubh metre) and Brahma then encourages him to sing Rama’s tale in this new metrical form. Valmiki decides to teach the tale of Rama and the new meter to the twins, Kusa and Lava. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty points out that the names Kusa and Lava constitute the two parts of the noun Kusilava, meaning wandering bard (150). Lava and Kusa narrate the tale of Rama, whose first audience are the kings, Brahmins, townspeople, monkeys and raksasas who are present at Rama’s sacrifice. Thus, there exist two audiences for the Ramayana: the internal audience and the external audience. Scholars of oral epics will argue that the reason Ramayana uses a frame narrative is to maintain the integrity of the text, i.e., to ensure that the future tellers and poets are reminded of the grid of major episodes upon which they can work or reconstruct the ramakatha.

           Arshia Sattar, in her introduction to the Ramayana, observes that “even a cursory reading of the Ramayana shows that its style is ornate, laden with similes and metaphors, metonymy and other features of classical Sanskrit poetry. Nature functions almost as another character” (xlvii). The Ramayana also uses alamkar widely throughout the tale. One such example from the Kiskindakanda is when Rama is waiting for Sugriva to fulfil his promise and begin the search for Sita. It is the rainy season, the traditional season of viraha, and Sita is absent. Everything around him reminds Rama of Sita: “Ah! My beloved! Her voice was as sweet as a bird’s! How can she rejoice in birdsong now as she used to in our forest hut? How can she enjoy these golden flowering bushes like she used to when I was by her side?" (Kiskindha 349). J.L Brockington notes that the style of the Ramayana is considerably underdeveloped compared to classical Sanskrit. Simile is the commonest figure and, most of the time, offers only one point of likeness. “Although iva is the favourite means of introducing a comparison, yatha is also used even for those similes without a verb which form the greater part of the material; a certain proportion of similes also are contained in compounds” (441). There are certain developed similes and metaphors, such as the self-sacrificing speeches of Bharata and Rama in Ayodhyakanda and the description of the mourning city of Ayodhya.

            This wide use of metaphors and ornate descriptions, especially that of nature similes, is strikingly similar to the Iliad, which also makes extensive use of similes and metaphors of nature. Similes in the Iliad are often distinguished by the source used for making a comparison. There are similes which draw their comparisons from the world of living nature, and occasionally, one part of the natural world is used to illustrate another. For example, in Book Two Eumelus’s mares are describes as swift moving like birds, and in Book Six Hector’s son is compared to “a lovely star.” A second common source of comparison is the landscape, usually portrayed in vigorous or violent motions such as when Ajax is compared to a swollen river coming down the mountains. These similarities in the narrative technique of the two epics, so far removed from each other both in time and space, are intriguing. The commonalities found in the narratives of these two epics can be attributed to the compositional techniques of the oral tradition, to which both these epics belong.

            A.K. Ramanujan likens the Ramayana tradition to a pool of signifiers that includes plot, characters, names, geography, incidents, and relations, arguing that each Ramayana can be seen as a crystallization. He writes, “These various texts not only relate to prior texts directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author, if one may hazard a metaphor, dips into it and brings out a unique crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context” (46). Ramanujan also compares these “transplantations” of the ramakatha to the borrowing or derivations of the word tea. In some languages, the word for tea is derived from a Northern Chinese dialect and in others from a Southern dialect; thus, some languages, like English and French, have some form of the word tea while others, like Hindi and Russian, have some form of the word cha(y). Similarly, according to Santosh Desai, the Rama story seems to have travelled along three routes, and this accounts for the various retellings and renditions of the traditional Rama story around and outside the geographical and linguistic boundaries of its original composition (5).

            The tradition of the Ramayana must have existed in India for a long time before it was composed as an epic, and Valmiki must have received this tale of Rama from the various scribes and tellers who would sing this tale, not in the form we know the Rama story now, but in some other form. An epic like Ramayana could not have been an invention of a single mind, just like it is unlikely that the Iliad was composed by a single author. M. Winternitz writes, “There has been in India since the oldest time also historic songs which in course of centuries have been condensed into great national epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.” It is interesting to note that Milman Parry expressed a similar idea about the Homeric epics, “My first studies were on the style of the Homeric poems and led me to understand that so highly formulaic a style could only be traditional. I failed, however, at the time to understand as fully as I should have that a style such as that of Homer must not only be traditional but also oral. It was that…I came to see that a true understanding of the Homeric poems could only come with a full understanding of the nature of oral poetry” (Parry & Lord, I, 3).

            According to Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, “Cyavana attempted the Rama story, but it was Valmiki who came after him gave it out in a poetical work.” This great story that appears in the Ramayana epic in its present shape is not, Chatterjee believes, monolithic, but was made up of more than one ancient folk-tales brought together into a composite form of high artistic excellence. The task of fusing of various elements into a composite form went on for centuries, and it took a long time for the bards’ labours to consummate. Then, Professor Chatterjee notes, the earliest literary evidence of the Rama story, of its first component, is recorded in the thirteen Pali verses (gathas) of the Dasaratha Jataka, which, according to him, formed the central idea of the Ramayana. The Ramayana, then, has existed long before Valmiki, not in the form of the Ramayana, but in the form of oral songs and folk tales, just as the Iliad was in existence long before it was composed as poem of monumental proportions by Homer.

            It is evident from the examples and studies cited above that both the Iliad and the Ramayana belong to an oral tradition and that these two works, which were so removed from each other historically as well as culturally, used similar narrative techniques. Interestingly, there are a great many similarities in the stories of the Iliad and Ramayana: both broadly follow the same pattern, as stories of an absence and return. Both of the epics glorify the moral conduct deemed proper by their own cultural contexts (which admittedly, are quite different from each other). And of course, both of the epics originate from polytheistic traditions. Owing to these similarities, some scholars have tried to trace the Greek influence on the ancient Sanskrit poetry, but the politics of influence, which brings with itself an undertone of superiority of the influencer, seems almost immaterial in the larger context of the oral epic tradition. Both the Iliad and the Ramayana are works not of single minds or isolated genius, but a continuation of stories which have existed for centuries and perfected by many poets over a period of time. What is important is that these two epics have traveled, both in time and space, with the singer of these tales, and each rendition has something important to tell us about our own evolution as a society, much like a jazz performance which reveals the context and psyche of both the musician and the audience.



Works Cited


Brockington, J.L. "Figures of Speech in the Ramayana." Journal of the American Oriental Society (1977): 441-459. Print.


Chatterjee, Suniti Kumar. The Ramayana: Its characters, Genesis, History, Expansion an Exodus. Kolkata: Prejna Publications, 1978. Print.


Desai, Santosh N. "Ramayana: An Instrument of Historical Contact and Cultural Transmission between India and Asia." Journal of Asian Studies 30 (1970). Print.


Dutt, Romesh. C. Ramayana. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2004. Print.


O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Other People's Myths. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1998. Print.


Foster, H. Wakefield. "Jazz Musicians and South Slavic Oral Epic Bards." Oral Tradition 19/2 (2004). 155-176. Print.


Homer. Trans. E.V. Rieu. The Iliad. London: Penguin Classics, 1950. Print.


Parry, Milman. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Adam Parry, ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971. Print.


Ramanujan, A.K. "Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation." The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. 131-160. Print.


Richman, ed. Paula. Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 22-49. Print.


Valmiki. Trans. Arshia Sattar. The Ramayana. New Delhi: Penguin Classics., 1996. Print.


Winternitz, Maurice. History of Indian Literature: Volume I. Delhi: Motilal Banarasi Das, 1981. Print.



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