Leadership in Epic Literature: Rama and Sundiata

Leadership is a prominent theme in both The Ramayana and Sundiata An Epic of Old Mali. A leader holds numerous qualities, whether they are skills that were developed or traits, that distinguish him or her from others. As and even before they undergo extreme situations, it is clear that both Rama and Sundiata possess the important qualities necessary in a leader – honor, altruism and the ability to form lasting alliances.

Rama behaves honorably by fulfilling his familial duties and fighting a fight fairly. King Dasaratha is renowned for staying true to his word and Rama is “blessed…to carry out his father’s command, and to live in the forests” (Narayan, 46). Although Rama’s exile is unreasonable, he still expresses gratitude to King Dasaratha and Kaiyeki because he believes that it his duty as a son to execute his family’s wishes. By carrying out this command, Rama fulfills this duty and ensures that his father does not break his promise to Kaiyeki. This is an act of honor because Rama puts his family’s needs before his own and he secures his father’s reputation. Furthermore, Rama behaves honorably on the battlefield in his fight against Ravana. Ravana has fainted in the middle of the battle and Rama says to Matali, “‘It is not fair warfare to attack a man who is in a faint”” and he waits for Ravana to recuperate (Narayan, 146). Rama had the opportunity to kill Ravana, in this moment of weakness, and end the war once and for all. However, he chooses to let Ravana recover because killing an unconscious man is neither a honorable nor moral route to victory, despite risking his own life by continuing the war.

Similarly, Sundiata demonstrates an act of honor by also fulfilling his familial duties. Due to Sundiata’s powerless legs, he is ridiculed by the people of Mali for being weak and incapable of carrying his father’s throne. But when his mother voices her shamefulness of having borne such a child, Sundiata promises her he will walk and he successfully does so while effortlessly lifting an iron bar. As a result, Sogolon “was now surrounded with much respect” and her son became “as popular as he had been despised” (Niane, 22). By proving he could walk normally and demonstrating an immense amount of strength, Sundiata not only shows that he is capable of being the heir to Maghan’s throne, but he also ameliorates his family’s reputation. This is an honorable act because as the son of a king, Sundiata is expected to carry on his father’s legacy and ensure that his family holds a respectable reputation in the kingdom and he succeeds in fulfilling this duty. As king, Sundiata effectively maintains his father’s legacy. He restores his father’s city “in the ancient style his father’s old enclosure where he had grown up” and destroys the walls to expand the empire (Niane, 81). Sundiata honors his family again by rebuilding his city according to his father’s preferences and this assures that Maghan Fatta’s legacy will continue to live on in Mali.

Rama’s altruism towards potential enemies distinguishes him from others. Rama believes that “one who seeks asylum must be given protection” even if he or she betrays them (Narayan, 132). In one instance, after Vibishana has been banished from Ravana’s kingdom, he travels to Rama’s camp seeking “asylum” and “protection” and Rama accepts him despite the potential of Vibishana being a spy (Narayan, 130). Rama, once again, prioritizes the needs of others before his own. He thinks that it is his duty to protect people and in turn, he takes a risk by assimilating Vibishana into his camp. By doing so, Rama also accepts the possibility of defeat, regardless of what the outcome may be. Additionally, rather than conquering and ruling Lanka himself, Rama bestows the crown of Ravana’s empire to Vibishana, who had no intention of being the ruler (Narayan, 155). Although appropriating other empires would have presented Rama as an even greater leader, his decision of granting Vibishana to rule Lanka instead proves that he is altruistic.

Sundiata’s altruism towards potential enemies also distinguishes him from others. Like Rama, Sundiata puts the needs of others before his own. In an effort to prove that Sundiata is deserving of death, Sassouma orders nine witches to go to his garden and pick from it. Sassouma believes that this will provoke Sundiata and cause him to beat them. Sassouma’s plan backfires when Sundiata discovers the witches picking from his garden and as they run away, he yells to them, “‘what is the matter with you to run away like this. This garden belongs to all’” (Niane, 25). Sundiata has defied the expectations of the witches by approaching and speaking to them cordially. He offers them to pick from the garden whenever they are short of condiments and his “heart full of kindness” compels the witches to ask for forgiveness (Niane, 26). Despite their unpleasant encounter, Sundiata forgives them and even offers each of the witches an elephant. These acts reveal Sundiata’s consideration for his people because his garden is not sustenance for only his family, but also for everyone else. Rama is naturally adept at forming lasting alliances. Both his true identity and morals play a role in strengthening them. Following the kidnapping of Sita, Rama and Lakshmana form an alliance with a monkey king named Sugreeva. Rama makes a pact with him to help kill his brother, Vali, if he helps him find Sita. After Vali is shot by Rama, he tells him that “Sugreeva and he will be [his] invaluable allies” and the former will always have the honor to serve Rama because he is the reincarnation of Vishnu (104). Like Vishnu, Rama believes that it his duty to protect people and restore order in the world. As a result of this, Rama’s true identity is easily identifiable and instantly garners the respect and the loyalty of those whom he encounters. Furthermore, Rama’s intentions serve a part in the creation of alliances since he believes that it is his “primary duty to help the weak and destroy evil wherever [he sees] it…[He helps] those that seek [his] help” (Narayan, 103). Regardless of the circumstances, Rama still would have helped Sugreeva in defeating his brother out of the goodness of his heart. This shows that a leader does not always have to build relationships that must be mutually beneficial. Out of respect and support for Rama, Sugreeva and his other advisors are seen by his side during his return to Ayodhya.

Sundiata possesses a similar adeptness in forming lasting alliances. After being exiled, Sundiata and his family travel to different kingdoms and build connections with the kings and their subjects. All of these kings recognize Sundiata’s destiny and aid him in fulfilling it. During his sojourn in Mema, Sundiata builds an alliance with the King, Moussa Tounkara, and leaves such a profound impact on him and the kingdom. He is considered as a son to Moussa Tounkara and thus, an “heir to the throne of Mema” (46). Sundiata’s presence also contributes to the brief period of peace in Mema. These lead to the bitter feelings Moussa Tounkara has towards Sundiata’s departure. Despite of this, Moussa Tounkara grants him half of his army, which will be crucial in Sundiata’s predestined victory. It is Sundiata’s development into a man that draws the support and loyalty of Moussa Tounkara. Following the events of Sundiata’s victory against Soumaoro, all of the allies he had made during his exile congregate in celebration. “…one by one, the twelve kings…got up and proclaimed Sundiata ‘Mansa’ in their turn” (75). The twelve kings have pledged their allegiance and sworn loyalty to Sundiata. The Mansa’s allies unanimously assimilate into his empire and this action prolongs the alliance they have all formed.

Rama and Sundiata dealt with their extreme situations with both grace and dignity. Although they undergo the ignominy of being exiled, they willingly accept the circumstances and do not attempt to orchestrate events in their favor. Nevertheless, their journeys help them achieve their destiny and become even stronger leaders.

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