Monkey and The Ramayana

In ancient Eastern society, written novels eventually rose to a prominent place in culture, following upon a long tradition of oral accounts and short works such as poetry. In addition, with strict government policy on content, many authors and poets feared punishment and so avoided political or religious critique in their work. However, satire provided a way to possibly mask critical intentions while still entertaining the audience of the time period. Monkey, a translation of Journey to the West by Arthur Waley, is a prime example of the emergence of satire in the form of a fictional narrative, and offers great insight into the lifestyle and traditions during the Ming Dynasty. Another Eastern piece of great regard is the Ramayana. Regarded as scripture, the Ramayana is considered one of the greatest works for its religious teachings and insight to the Hinduistic culture and lifestyle of the time period, of which is somewhat ambiguous, as oral accounts preceded the written. Alberson describes the Ramayana’s influence thus: “To one who would know India, written history offers very little…But its literature, molded and shaped over centuries, gives us a far more intimate understanding of the guiding spirit of its peoples” (Alberson 323). Often, literature can be far more revealing of a culture than historical non-fiction accounts because of its carefully constructed themes and characters. Monkey and the Ramayana both offer entertainment, teachings, and insight to the cultural period through different uses of satire, conflict, and character development.

Monkey, written by Wu Cheng-en and translated for western culture by Arthur Waley, is a fictional telling of the wild and humorous journey of a motley crew of individuals towards enlightenment, and works as a satire to critique both political and religious structures. As a satire, Wu Cheng-en’s work is able to both critique and entertain. The need for satire is in this case possible prosecution, and more generally, as Fairclough aptly summarizes, “Men do not like to have their weaknesses exposed” (Fairclough 183). By use of animals as main characters, such as Monkey, Sandy, Pigsy, and Dragon, a barrier is created between the deeper themes, real criticism, and harmless entertainment. In a way, it lengthens the distance between any harshness, acting as a sort of buffer. Shep describes the character satire as “in making the rebel an animal, the Chinese can laugh at his antics without guilt, while subconsciously admiring his defiance of the powers that be” (Shep 1). Monkey himself is a very likable protagonist, he is brave, loyal, and particularly humorous, acting as a source of comic relief. In short, comedy in satire, in Monkey, helps to diffuse tension in addition to entertaining the audience. Fairclough describes comedy in a special manner: “Comedy is an imitation of life” (Fairclough 183). Real life is not all drama, or all action; it is comedic a large portion of the time, whether recognized or not. This is why fictional narratives, such as Monkey, become so expressive of their time period. Pigsy, also, acts as a great source of comic relief in addition to a sort of criticism barrier as an animal. De Bary describes him thus: “Wu Cheng-en’s supreme comic creation is Pigsy, who symbolizes the gross sensual life in the absence of religious striving and mythical ambition. He is double comic, because as a reluctant pilgrim he has no calling whatever for the monastic life and because for all his monstrous size and strength he entertains no ambition beyond a huge meal and good sleep with a woman in his arms” (De Bary 171). Pigsy symbolizes gluttony and laziness, as Monkey does bravery and loyalty, and because of his comic nature readers have the opportunity both to be entertained and learn a lesson from Pigsy: don’t be a glutton!

In addition to comical satire, Monkey also addresses some very real issues of politics. Through the characterization of the Jade Emperor, the ruler in Heaven, readers get some insight into the nature of class structure and government of the time period, the Ming Dynasty. When Monkey enters Heaven, he is given menial and somewhat demeaning jobs, such as a position as a stable worker, thus reflecting the unfairness of status advancement. Landsberger succinctly describes Heaven’s structure as “a bloated bureaucracy, crammed with innumerable officials with pompous titles, with a finger in every possible earthly activity” (Landsberger 1). Criticism of religion also occurs, as when Monkey is chastising the Buddhist prisoners, telling them they should’ve tried to save themselves; they should take action. Bantly expresses views on the often comic nature of this criticism with the statement, “The bewildering array of cultural lore—especially from the three major religious traditions of China…is so diverse and boldly interwoven …Thus any interpretation faces the danger of exaggerating the importance of these cultural and religious elements, only to discover that the author offered them in jest” (Bantly 1). Monkey is a satire, and so it’s assumed the reader will be entertained as well as taught. In addition, the satire of religion also offers accurate portrayal of the religion of the time period. Bradeen and Johnson explain that “This depiction accurately represents the lived religious experience of everyday Chinese, and provides a healthy antidote to the common perception of Chinese religious traditions as distinct, sometimes competing, often contradictory teachings” (Bradeen and Johnson 40). This insight is especially accurate as it reviews the way satire works to reveal the cultural standards and traditions of the period.

Monkey, beyond entertaining its audience, teaches important values through its character interactions. Some examples include the Great King monster’s words to his perch sister: “A team of horses cannot overtake a word that has left the mouth” (Wu 266). In line with these words, you should be careful that what you say as it is permanent, a lesson which is apt for Monkey as his words get him into trouble as often as they get him out of trouble. This teaching is generally simple and straightforward, and so is able to reach a wide audience of readers. Another example, especially revealing of Confucian values, reads thus: “If a man has been your teacher for a day, you should treat him as your father for the rest of his life” (Wu 173). This example illustrates the Confucian teachings of the importance of education and respect, illustrated by Tripitaka in his obeying and listening of his protectors. Again, the message is simple, reaching most all readers. The values expressed in Monkey are a good reflection of the values found in the three religions of the Ming Dynasty culture, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

The Ramayana also acts a reflection of the culture and values of its peoples through important teachings and portrayal of traditions. Because the Ramayana is regarded as scripture, it differs from Monkey in its cultural regard, yet is still very culturally reflective. In some cases, it’s even used as justification for events; for example, Pollock explains, “Rama’s cult blossomed only when Hindu kings found in the Ramayana’s story of contest…a parallel for their own struggle against Turkic political power…the Rama cult grew during the twelfth century in direct response to the equation of Rama and Hindu kings as the protectors of the purity of the Hindu polity against foreigners” (Pollock 261). Because of it’s scriptorial context, the narrative’s popularity is often attributed to its parallels of Hinduistic lifestyle. In addition, Sakalani analyzes its cultural reflection in the following manner: “It is not enough merely to say that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are two great epics. They are also a history, though not of a particular time or period. They are the eternal history of India. Other historians have changed on the march of time but this history has not. These two epics embody what India cherishes as its ideals” (Sakalani 51). Some of the ideals that the Ramayana addresses are duty, honor, loyalty, and kindness.

Duty is an important Hinduistic value, as it reflects an individual’s commitment and faith. Rama is a prime example of many cherished traits, duty in particular. His impressive duty to country is illustrated in several instances, such as when he is willingly exiled. Bose describes his decision, and its meaning: “He values a promise…above his own life, his brother, and even Sita herself. As always in the poem, solidarity with the representatives of the patriarchy and adherence to its contractual code are valorized above loyalties to generational and gender subordinates” (Bose 35). Duty to country and law is always valued over lesser obligations, and honor is dependent on this adherence to duty. Bose additionally emphasizes the importance of Rama’s decision: “Surely the most complex and revealing debate around the issue of the potential conflict between personal loyalties and adherence to the abstract principles of truth and dharma is embodied in the series of emotionally wrought conversations involving Rama, his brother Laksfimanfia, his mother Kausalya, and his wife Sıta concerning whether Rama should obey his father’s order that he be banished and if so, who should accompany him into exile” (Bose 43). This experience of Rama choosing duty to the law over his own rights shows his awareness of the value of duty, or his impressive exhibition of “dharma.” Another example involves Indrajit, Ravana’s son, who leaves his family to work with Rama. Considered treason and treachery to family, normally his actions would not be considered an example of good. However, Indrajit is placed by Valmiki as in the right because he chose duty to his country; he knew his homeland would suffer greatly at the bad choices of his father and uncles.

For the value and “dharma” of loyalty, Sita is a prime symbol. As reflective of the time period, women are subservient to the patriarchy and their role relies almost solely on this loyalty. Bose describes the situation in detail: “First, a woman’s husband is her god, equal to no other. A woman does not need to worship anyone but him. A woman’s first duty is to give up her own self-interest and to be concerned only with what fosters her husband’s welfare That is the only self-denial required of a woman. A woman who is fully, in thoughts, words, and deeds, devoted to her husband does not need anyone else’s blessing, for even God himself is compelled to carry out her wishes” (Bose 44). Bose succinctly relates the immense pressure on women to give themselves completely to their patriarchs, and the blessings they will receive from this loyalty. An example of Sita’s loyalty is her chastity during imprisonment by Ravana, despite threats of death, along with her willingness to prove her virtue by stepping into a raging fire. For Rama to believe her is not enough; she must fulfill her duty to her country. Her enduring loyalty and pain from being apart from Rama are described by her: “Blow O wind to where my loved one is. Touch him and come touch me soon. I’ll feel his gentle touch through you and meet his beauty in the moon. These things are much for the one who loves…” (Valmiki). As demonstrated by these lines, Sita gives herself completely to Rama, as was ideal for women. Bose describes her as “The crucial boundary that makes her Sita is her loyalty to Rama and the moral power that comes from it” (Bose 235). This description clarifies the vision of the power that women receive through their loyalty, and indicates how Sita embodies this value. Another representative character is Hamana, who embodies loyalty as well. Bose describes Humana’s goodness: “He is loyal and brave and always full of good ideas about solving problems… He also lightens the story’s mood. Even when he is engaged in battles and business on Phra Ram’s behalf, his playful monkey nature shows through, and he is always ready to woo a beautiful lady of almost any ancestry, and he rarely fails” (Bose 347). Hamana acts as a symbol of loyalty, but in addition his comical nature adds entertainment and engagement to the story, much as the Monkey King and Pigsy operate in Monkey. Besides teaching important character traits and lessons, the Ramayana also engages as an entertaining piece through characters such as Hamana, and its dramatic plot. With tales of war and love and magic it engages all audiences.

Like Monkey, the Ramayana is written in generally simple language and structure, in order to reach a wide audience. Although Monkey may be designed to voice social critiques, and the Ramayana to instruct as scripture, they find commonality in their entertaining qualities, which perhaps strengthens both their messages. Sakalani says of the influence of the Ramayana that “…the appeal of the Ramayana has been deeper than that of the Mahabharata, the main reason being that the Ramayana is a homogeneous text, with a simple and straightforward story” (Sakalani 51). It is the simplicity of plot and themes that helps makes the Ramayana so engaging, and so enduring in history. With Monkey and the Ramayana, cultural values and characteristics are revealed through varying uses. In Monkey, satire is the focus, as the text relays and pleasantly mocks issues in politics and religion through comedy and character development. In the Ramayana, scriptural messages teach important themes and strong characters act as examples for modes of conduct. Both, however, engage audiences with insightful uses of plot and even comedy in order to maintain their status as historical classics.

Works Cited

Alberson, Hazel Stewart. “The Significance of World Literature Today”. College English 7.6 (1946): 323–326. Web.Bantly, Francisca Cho. “Buddhist Allegory in the Journey to the West”. The Journal of Asian Studies 48:3 (1989): 512-524. Web.Bradeen, Ryan, and Jean Johnson. “Using Monkey to Teach Religions of China.” Education About Asia 10.2 (2005): Web. Bose, Mandakranta. The Ramayana Revisited. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Web.de Bary, Wm. Theodore, ed.. Finding Wisdom in East Asian Classics. Ed. Wm. Theodore de Bary. Columbia University Press, 2011. Web.Fairclough, H. Rushton. “Horace’s View of the Relations Between Satire and Comedy”.The American Journal of Philology 34.2 (1913): 183–193. Web.Pollock, Sheldon. “Ramayana and Political Imagination in India”. The Journal of Asian Studies 52.2 (1993): 261–297. Web.Sakalani, Dinesh. “Questioning the Questioning of Ramayanas.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 85 (2004): 51-65. WebShepard, Aaron. The Monkey King: A Superhero Tale of China. N.p.: Skyhook, 2008. Web. Valmiki. Ramayana. M.A.: Manmatha Nath Dutt. Holy Books. 31 July 2011. Web.