oar

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday. April 28, 2013


While Ramayan and Mahabharat are the great epics of India, the Iliad and Odyssey are the great epics of Greece, both composed roughly around the same time. But while Ramayan and Mahabharat are family dramas about property, Iliad and Odyssey are adventures of single men, warriors, who are away from home, fighting a battle that is not theirs.

Odysseus is forced to leave his wife, Penelope, and his newborn son, Telemachus, and travel East with Greek armies to bring down the city of Troy whose prince, Paris, has abducted Helen, wife of Melenaus, king of Sparta. The war stretches for ten years. Then it is time to sail home. But Odysseus upsets Poseidon, god of the sea, and his homecoming is delayed by another ten years, as he is waylaid by shipwrecks, storms and numerous adventures.

Odysseus is told that his adventures will end and he will finally be at peace when he travels inland carrying the oar of his ship to a point where people have never seen the sea, or a boat, and mistake the oar for a winnowing fan use to separate grain from chaff. In other words, he reaches a place where people are totally oblivious of the world he inhabits and all ideas that are familiar to him seem unfamiliar to them.

Like all mythic tales, this too is rich in allegory and meaning. What is the story trying to tell us? It informs us that what seems so familiar and important to us – the sea and the ship in case of Odysseus – mean nothing to people in other parts of the world. So vast is the universe. The oar is most critical to Odysseus to survive the seas. But it makes no sense to those inland who have never even heard of the sea. What is critical to one is not critical to another.

Every thing in this world has a different meaning in a different context. A piece of flat wood to sea-farers may appear as an oar, but to those who do not know ship or sea, it is but a winnowing fan, to separate grain from chaff. Perhaps this story tells the lone adventurer struggling to make his way home that all the meanings we attribute to the struggles of our life are our own. Not everyone will see things our way. Not everyone has to see the oar as an oar. He should not get upset when someone considers his oar as a winnowing fan. When he returns home, twenty years later, he should accept not everyone will be able to empathize with his struggle and suffering. They may just see him as a man who abandoned his wife and infant child to find glory in the world outside.