The Discovery of the Romance Archetype
My quest for the Ultimate Romance began in the holy city of Varanasi, the most ancient city in the world, whose traditional name, Kashi, means the Light. On the opposite shore of the Ganges, somewhat downstream, rise the crumbling walls, ramparts, and towers of a medieval castle, Ramnagar. There the Maharajah of Kashi resides in archaic and dilapidated splendor. Every year since the eighteenth century, at the end of the rainy season, the Maharajah enacts an ageless tradition by presenting the Ramlila, a ritual dramatization of the Ramayana.
The epic tells the story of two divine lovers, Rama and Sita, separated by the nine-headed demon Ravana. A monkey God, Hanuman, brings the lovers together by helping to defeat the demon. This tale, infinitely cherished, has been passed down in an oral tradition from generation to generation for perhaps thousands of years. About 2500 years ago, a mystic poet, Valmiki, committed the story to Sanskrit verse.
I was in the final year of an academic appointment at Banaras Hindu University when I was invited by the Maharajah to join in the Ramlila ritual. To attend, I had to cross the Ganges. It was early September in the late sixties, and the sacred river was roiling with monsoon currents, swift and muddy. I was ferried across in a small creaky wooden boat that seemed as ancient as the holy city itself. As I crossed this wide and swollen peril, I wondered why I was putting myself through this!
The Ramlila, quintessentially Hindu, was both funky and dazzling. Each scene was dramatized in a different location in the vicinity of the castle. including its temples, tanks, ponds and pools as well as the surrounding wilderness. To the pilgrims assembled from every corner of India, the whole area was transformed into a familiar epic landscape. Between scenes, a grand procession wound in languorous ceremony through the luscious green wilderness from one setting to the next. This colorful cavalcade included performers in their costumes, priests in white, assorted sadhus, holy men in body paint and saffron loincloths, servants, and scores of pilgrims. The Maharajah and his guests, including myself, led the procession, conveyed on swaying elephants riotously painted and decorated. In one day, the itinerant production averaged three scenes, each the form for an elaborate ritual, infused with incense and chanting by the priests before the assemblage. At this pace, the performance of the entire epic lasted a month!
The spectacle was stunning, a very grand and exorbitant affair indeed. The Maharajas, unseemly rich before independence from Britain, were now desperately poor and any non-essential remnant of their glorious past had long since crumbled away. The props and costumes were tatty and threadbare, yet the grandeur of dedication radiated the miraculous to everyone involved. It shocked me with a sense of hidden richness, a sudden apocalyptic recognition that this spectacle might hold answers to the soul-searching questions that brought me to India in the first place.
I had not crossed the Ganges in ignorance. At Banaras Hindu University I was researching the Sanskrit of the Upanishads, the essence of Hinduism. I knew for instance that ram is one of many names for God, and that lila means “play.” But Sanskrit has resonances that are untranslatable. This was no simple “god at play:” here the rectitude of the divine was being staged, the Light and the Dark playing out as the world, its ecstatic expression.
Legend has it that when Valmiki set the epic into verse, he promised that whoever engages with it will be blessed.
What is so vitally important and meaningful about the Ramayana? What is it about this story that is universal and eternally relevant? Why is it that each scene is so holy and significant as to merit its own ritual? How does the divine play itself out as the world? And what is this blessing?
This was the beginning of a lifelong quest to understand the Ultimate Romance.
For a more in-depth understanding of my journey to discovering the second archetypal story form of transformation, here is a chapter in my upcoming book - The Ultimate Romance.
The Quest for the Ultimate Romance: From Hero to Lover
My quest for the Great Romance was powered by good fortune so abundant as to be a blessing in its own right. Privileged by birth, education, and the freewheeling ways of my generation, I was able to pursue this quest over the entire world with little constraint. Yet the very breadth of this scope makes what I have seen most difficult to convey. As I have studied in different great universities, each yielding its own sense of entitlement, and inhabited different cultures in the West, each with its own certainty of worldview, perspectives increased and relativity widened. But when I immersed myself in India everything shifted. Ancient Asian thought is so radical that it does not lend itself to Western understanding. It does not have to do with intellectual constructs, hypotheses or theories, but with transitions in states of being. Only in my generation, which produced eager Westerners who sat diligently in ashrams and dojos on the other side of the planet, has Eastern thought begun to reveal its real secrets. Some of these secrets have proven critical to understanding the Great Romance. Therefore, by way of introduction I relate the spiritual and intellectual outlines of this adventure in order to provide a bridge into it.
The Idea of Transformation and the Hero’s Journey
Brought up in a sincere protestant family, I heard Christians speak a great deal about "conversion" and “salvation" by which they meant profound change into some optimal condition of life. As a Methodist, I registered that this critical alteration could take place by means of a method. When I was a teenager, my father became very active in a movement called Moral Rearmament. Their promise was “change": if people followed certain practices, they could transform themselves dramatically. While I balked at the group’s cultish coercions, the whole idea of a life transformation fascinated me and set me on course to understand it further.