Asura – Tale of the Vanquished, is a very interesting counter narrative of the epic Ramayana, a realistic narrative of the perspective of the vanquished race, Asuras. Facts become history, history turn to legends and occasionally legends turn to Myth. “Asura” is a bold attempt at creating a realistic narrative of a series of events that may have been recorded and morphed as the Ramayana we know today. The book is written by Anand Neelakantan and published by Leadstart Publishing.
While Ramayana has a hero and a villain, “Asura” has no set heroes nor does it have any set villains. Like how reality is often defined not by black and white but various shades of gray, such have the characters been portrayed in this work of fiction. Ravana, the Asura lad who becomes the Emperor of Asuras and lords of a suzerainty stretching from the Himalayas to the island of Lanka is not the archetypal heroes that most of our legends portray, he is portrayed as a human who rises to greatness owing a lot to circumstances, luck and at times sheer grit, in many ways a realistic ascent of a hero. Rama is not portrayed as a villain but as a tool of circumstances and often as feeble a human as Ravana himself is portrayed. The book in fact is not about Gods or demons at all, but about how human beings and cultures are portrayed by various forces of history.
The book basically describes the conflict between Devas and Asuras as the conflict between unnatural order and natural chaos. Devas as self proclaimed “good people” insist on establishing their own brand of social order, with the seeds of Chaturvarnya thrown in. In their zest to establish order they end up corrupting the natural society, but as the winners who write and define history they marginalize the opposers of their systems. Asuras as the more down to earth society, is described as “primitive” but with less artificial divisions, it is in effect a more egalitarian society. Rather than airbrushing the issues of society with artificial constructs like the Devas, the Asuras learn to work with the issues, they in fact embrace the fact of being a human, with all the vices and virtues.
As the embodiment of these two varying ideologies we have the two protagonists Rama and Ravana. Ravana is a true man. A man with all the foibles and virtues. A man who is fully attuned with his own vices and virtues, and does not seek to live under any artificial pretences to aspire to any “higher glory”. He pillages, rapes, loves, hates, builds, destroys, lives and finally dies like a man. Ravana here is portrayed as a man in all his naked glory, without any pretences. Rama on the other hand is the product of an eliticized society, a society that plays too much onus on the Chaturvarnya, on the ascendancy of notional “Dharma” as defined by the Brahmanas over the rights of “Man”. He is a man who has lived his whole life as per definitions of this artificial construct, hiding his true feelings, and following a Dharma that has always been predefined for him. It gives him benefits like during the war against Asuras, but at the end of the book we see Rama finally realizing the shallowness and fallacy of the “Dharma” that he had sworn to upheld and protect as he is forced to first sacrifice his wife, Sita, in order to satisfy certain Dharmic norms as defined by an arbitrary society and then his own loving brother Lakshmana.
Like all human stories, there are no winners or losers in this portrayal of the epic Ramayana. There is no good and bad, everyone has various shades of good and bad in them. And providing proper allegorical context here too we have the conflict between Rama and Ravana, the Asuras and Devas as the ongoing struggle between man’s instincts and his social constructs. It certainly provides a very interesting and at times dark perspective, but definitely a must read.