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connecting the reader with the time period in which it was written. This is why the writings of the distant past, even in translation, are among the most fascinating to modern scholars. Anthropologists such as Saussure, Joseph Campbell and others were seminal in uncovering mythological themes in ancient texts. As archeology supplemented legend, the literary world found evidence that the mythical worlds evidenced by the works of antiquity was in some cases based in fact. Three of the most intriguing works of antiquity are Ramayana, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and The Art of War. Each provides the reviewer with insight as to the origins of a particular culture or geographic region.
The Ramayana represents one of the oldest epic myths of world literature. As such it has been more influential in Indian culture than any other work. The Epic, which was recounted in oral tradition long before being put to paper, tells of how Rama, the Indian prince of a mythical kingdom called Ayodhya who is considered to be one of the incarnations of Vishnu, comes to battle a demon-king by the name of Ravana. Rama is banished from his city at the behest of his evil mother, who wishes his younger brother to become king despite Rama having been previously appointed. Rama's other younger brother, Laksmana, joins him, and Rama's wife, Sita, follows him into exile as a matter of faith. Incidentally, such notion of faithful wives following political leaders into exile is popular in several cultures. Among the most popular modern (19th century) tales are those of Russian noblewomen who abandoned title and status to follow their exiled husbands to Siberia.
In the commonly accepted version of the Ramayana, Sita is taken captive by Ravana. Ravana is the brother of Surpunakha, a demon woman who is wounded by Laksmana for attempting to seduce Rama. Hamuman, the monkey king, is befriended by the brothers, who attempt to find Rama's wife. Hamuman is able to grow and shrink at will, and is seen as a paragon of loyalty. Along with an army of Monkeys, Hamuman, Rama and his brother are able to invade Lanka in order to retrieve Sita. Rama later abandons his wife in order to maintain the sanctity of public opinion and she goes to live in the ashram (spiritual community) of sage Valmiki and bears Rama twin sons; Lava and Kusa. As young men, they are reunited with their father, the god-king Rama.
The Ramayana survived for centuries in the oral tradition of India along with the Mahabharata. It exists in many permutations that are often specific to the oral tradition of particular groups of people; these range from Bengali versions of the work where Rama, the protagonist, is seen as the enemy, to the original composition in Sanskrit by Valmiki. According to biographer, Michel Pousse, Narayan's version of The Ramayana reflected that recommended to him by his uncle, the Kamban Ramayana. Narayan was from southern India, which is steeped in the Vedic traditions of the India that preceded the Aryan invasions. Ultimately, it will always remain a matter of conjecture whether or not Ramayana is a work of fiction or a fictionalized account of a set of historical facts. Many of the Hindu faithful believe it to have historical significance in the sense that some Christians retain faith in the mythical creation story of Genesis.
One of the formative myths of Babylonian and Sumerian civilization was The Epic of Gilgamesh. The only nearly complete version of the epic was retrieved from the collection of the 7th century BCE Assyrian king named Ashurbanipal. This was copied original from which the Assyrian version was copied was composed in Old Babylonian times but was based in legends and stories from older Sumerian sources about a King of the city of Uruk on the Euphrates River. Uruk or 'Ur of the Chaldees' is familiar to us as the oldest city in antiquity; it is the birthplace of Abram and its ruins can still be found in modern day southern Iraq. This work is considered the principal epic of ancient Mesopotamia and was recorded on eleven tablets.
The Epic of Gilgamesh begins with an account of Gilgamesh incurring the disdain of the city's elders by going on dangerous expeditions along with the young, adventurous men of Uruk. The elders decide to create a companion for Gilgamesh: they create a man called Enkidu, who is born in the wild. Enkidu angers the herdsmen by releasing the animals from the herdsmen's traps. Enkidu is sent a prostitute by the council of elders of Uruk at the behest of the herdsmen, who makes love to Enkidu and diverts his interest from the wild animals, who lose faith in him. Enkidu returns to Uruk and fights with Gilgamesh to determine who is the strongest; neither prevails and they become fast friends. They proceed to venture north along the Euphrates and procure valuable timber to the delight of Uruk's citizens.
Gilgamesh is tempted by the goddess Ishtar, who he refuses. She proceeds to marry Dumuzi in a section of the epic that provides keen insights into the sexual rites of ancient Mesopotamia. She proceeds to go to Heaven and threaten to open the gates of hell. Heaven sends a Bull to destroy Gilgamesh and Enkidu, but they kill the bull and further enrage Ishtar.
Ishtar continues to demand Gilgamesh, but since he is protected, the Gods decide to kill Enkidu in his place. Enkidu, condemned by the Gods, gradually wastes away to death. This makes Gilgamesh feel guilty and has a dream of his brother suffering in hell. This makes him aware of his own mortality and he fears his own death; his father had been a God and lived for a thousand years but Gilgamesh was mortal and knew that he too would some day die. Gilgamesh decided to seek out the only two people that had lived forever, a man and a woman who lived in a garden on the island of Dilmun which was at the other end of a tunnel that ran under the world from where the sun set in the west to where it rose in the east. This is enigmatic to us because we recognise the immortality theme from Arthurian legend.
On the island, he meets the immortal King, Utnapishtim. The king tells him of how Enlil, the king of the Gods, had destroyed the world with a flood. However, Utnapishtim built a boat and he and a few others managed to survive. For many, this is the most enigmatic part of the epic, as it reflects the flood story of Genesis. However, in the deluge described by Utnapishtim, mankind was destroyed because it annoyed the head of the gods in his sleep. The other gods then convinced Enlil to never destroy mankind with a flood again, and that Utnapishtim would be granted immortality. Gilgamesh knew of a plant that would bring him immortality that lay at the bottom of the sea. He had the boatman that had taken him to Utnapishtim's island help him find this, but a serpent ate it. Gilgamesh consigned himself to the knowledge that he eventually would die but reasoned that he would live on through his legends and deeds.
The Art of War is more strategic than mythological; it is the book's ancient origin that lead us to question the nature of its author and the circumstances under which it was written. It is well loved by psychologists and tacticians and was favored by stockbrokers and Japanese businessmen during the 80's as a strategy guide for conflict. In that it is a 'how too' manual rather than a fictionalized account of history or a creation myth, it is a completely secular work, and we are not lead to the same questions over authenticity that are presented by the Epics. However, it is like the other two works in that it provides us with an image of life over two thousand years ago. In many respects, it reminds us of the work of Plato; Plato's fictionalized accounts of conversations with Socrates in 'The Republic' may not have been real, but he uses them to introduce ideas and concepts that are novel and useful in providing a perspective.
Many compare The Art of War to Machiavelli's work; although the former uses aphoristic advise and the latter relies primarily on example yet draws conclusions from these examples. This suits a modern audience: although Machiavelli's examples are arcane, we can historically research them. Doing so with The Art of War would be almost impossible.
When Sun refers to a historical figure, it is to the wisdom he has offered as it applies to the subject matter. In Chapter one, he notes "Tu Yu quotes Wang Tzu as saying: "Without constant practice, the officers will be nervous and undecided when mustering for battle; without constant practice, the general will be wavering and irresolute when the crisis is at hand." Yat-Su's aphorisms beg for quotation. Some include…[continue]
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