Monday, January 31, 2011

The Likeness of Gilgamesh & Rama

In my last post, I considered the possibility, without any further knowledge on the matter, that Uruk, as the first great city of the world could have also encountered the first forms of “government” corruption. Now after reading the first 50 pages of The Epic of Gilgamesh (as translated by Andrew George), it is come to my delightful surprise that this tale revolves around the life of the “tyrant” ruler of Uruk! Alas, my theory that the power of the concentrated temple leaders would become debauched seems to be very much possible. According to the ancient tablets of lapis lazuli, Gilgamesh had the reputation of being a “terrible” oppressor, one who engaged in droit de seigneur and “lets no girl go free to her bride[groom]” (4). In a way, he reminds me of another ruler in another equally beloved epic of ancient history, the Valmiki Ramayana. Last semester, I took an awesome course on the introduction to Hindu Mythology and one of things that really stuck with me was the story of Rama. Assuming that you, the reader, are familiar with the Valmiki Ramayana, I would like to point out a few intriguing similarities between these two epics. Perhaps the likeness of these two tales (especially between the two protagonists), suggest the possibility that different cultures and religions are interconnected in a way that enable them to share ideas or simply have similar beliefs.

First off, the heroes of both of these epics are thought to possess some fraction of the divine character: Rama is thought to be an incarnation of the great god, Vishnu, while Gilgamesh is composed of “two-thirds god and one third human” (2). They are both rulers (or will be lords) of their kingdoms: Ayodhya for Rama and Uruk for Gilgamesh. So far into the reading of The Epic of Gilgamesh, it seems to me that one of the first perils that Gilgamesh will confront is the “ferocious” guardian of the Cedar Forest, Humbaba (20). Likewise, Rama takes a quest to destroy the 10-headed demigod Ravana to rescue his kidnapped wife, Sita (but as we later find out, he undertakes such a task in an effort to save face). In addition, each hero is accompanied by a companion (or two) as they embark on their voyage to achieve greatness: Rama has Sita and his brother, Lakshman; Gilgamesh has Enkidu.

The similarities that I acknowledged are undeniable, but apparently, I am not the only one who took notice. Upon traversing through the pages of the Internet, I stumbled upon a few articles that also pay attention to the striking comparisons of The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Valmiki Ramayana. One such article, written by a Yahoo! contributor, points out other similarities that I have yet to come across in my reading. According to Andrew Brusnhan (the author of the article), the “monster” and mortal enemy of Gilgamesh is not Humbaba, but instead, it is Enkidu, his counterpart of the gods’ creation. Later on in the epic, Gilgamesh takes a trek to find a magical plant that will make him immortal, only to lose it to a dubious serpent. Likewise, Rama embarks on a quest to rescue his wife, only to shun her for sleeping in the house of another man. According to Brusnhan, “both Gilgamesh and Rama departed on adventures, ultimately seeking something that they wanted badly. However in the end, they both end up losing what they have sought for so long.” (It may surprise you as it did me to learn that these profound comparisons were written about by an 18-year old contributor!)

The fact that The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Valmiki Ramayana share so many common story features does not suggest that either of them “stole” from the other. Instead, it only asserts the idea that people from the respective regions of India and Mesopotamia have in some way come in contact and have shared their different beliefs. According to Alf Hiltebeitel, a professor of religion and whose works I have used before in research: “The comparison of Indian and ancient near Eastern and Mediterranean traditions concerning the goddess is by no means a new one. It is widely held that such similarities as have been found result, in some combination of factors, from the common Neolithic background, the agricultural revolution, the rise of the great river-based urban civilizations (including the “Harappan”), and the mutual contacts and diffusions that were a result of rated and the movement of peoples (187).


Brusnahan, Andrew. “Comparing, Contrasting The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Ramayana.” Yahoo Contributor Network. Yahoo!, 7 Dec. 2010. Web. 31 Jan. 2011.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. “Rama and Gilgamesh: The Sacrifices of the Water Buffalo and the Bull of Heaven.” History of Religions. The University of Chicago Press, 1980. 187-188. Print.

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