Meet the characters who appear in both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (and find out why)

Published on 27th May, 2017 on Scroll.in

The stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are set in different yugas. How come some characters appear in both?
These are Puranic stories where the rules of space and time do not apply. It is a world where people fly, cities fly, people get siddhaprapti (acquire extraordinary powers), they live forever (become chiranjeevi), and so on. You cannot understand this rationally. It’s poetry, a way of seeing stories.

While we think these happened in two different yugas, in the Vishnu Purana, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are two chapters of the same story. Vishnu takes the avatar of Rama in the Ramayana – chapter one – and of Krishna in the Mahanharata – chapter two. It is not yugas but a story of one kalpa, or aeon. The two are branches of the same tree. They are connected and will always be.

Parashurama appears in both.
He is also a Vishnu avatar who appears before Rama and Krishna in each of the epics. Among Vishnu’s avatars – Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Rama and Krishna – the last three are human avatars.

Parashurama has an independent story. He kills Kartavirya Arjuna, a cruel king, with his axe (parashu). His name is Rama, and he is of the Bhargava kul (clan) so he is called Bhargava Rama. Later, because he carries an axe – parashu – he comes to be known as Parashurama.

He appears in the Ramayana. He kills all corrupt, greedy and selfish kings, wreaks havoc all around. All the Kshatriya kings are frightened of him. He learns of Rama of Raghukul who is a very good king and that he has broken the Shiva bow. He goes to meet Rama to see whether he’s the one destined to bring back dharma to Kshatriyas. So it is Vishnu as Parashurama talking to Vishnu as Rama. You can’t apply logic here; see it as a story. That both of them have Vishnu tatva (quality). As Parashurama, Vishnu kills all corrupt Kshatriyas and as Rama he appears as one to show that Kshatriyas can follow dharma too.

Parashurama is born a Brahmin but turns violent seeing the wrongdoings of the Kshatriya kings. Parashurama has an angry personality and when he meets Rama he tries to provoke an argument with him but fails. He is pleased that he has finally met a good Kshatriya, and realises that now he has no more work to do. That’s his role in the Ramayana.

In the Mahabharata, he returns as a teacher. In Kurukshetra, from the Kauravas’ side the maharathis (great warriors) are Bhishma, Dronacharya and Karna. All three have the same guru – Parashurama. It is interesting that three of his students end up on the side he disapproves of. So, Vishnu takes the avatar of Krishna to defeat them all. Through Parashurama the stories of all three human avatars are thus combined in the Vishnu Purana.

We know the importance of Hanuman in the Ramayana, but he appears in the Mahabharata too.
When the Pandavas go to the forest after losing the game of dice, Bhima encounters Hanuman, who is disguised as an old monkey, one day. He asks Hanuman to remove his tail from his path. Hanuman asks him to simply go over it; Bhima refuses and boasts about being a Pandava prince, the son of Vayu, the wind god, and brother of the great Hanuman. Seeing his conceit, Hanuman tells him to move the tail himself. When Bhima is unable to do so, he realises the monkey is none other than Hanuman himself.

This meeting takes place to break Bhima’s conceit. Bhima is a strong prince and says he’ll not go around anybody; people will have to move out of his way. This, despite having lost everything in a game of dice. So Hanuman shows him his place.

Were Hanuman and Parashurama both chiranjeevi?
Chiranjeevi are those who live on across ages. This is an interesting concept because in philosophy, everything is impermanent. In the Ramayana, Parashurama kills all corrupt kings, but in the Mahabharata too corrupt kings appear. This suggests that these problems will keep cropping up, you cannot control everything. Hanuman is Sankatmochan, one who removes obstructions and problems from life. No matter how frequently he does this, problems keep arising, age after age. So chiranjeevi is meant conceptually.

Jambuvan also appears in both.
Jambuvan is an elderly bear who always supports Hanuman in the Ramayana, and accompanies the vanara sena (army of monkeys) to Lanka. For some reason he wants to wrestle with Rama. Maybe he wanted to hug Rama; what we know as the bear hug! Rama is a prince and always maintains his distance. He guesses that the bear wants to wrestle with him. He tells him that they’ll wrestle when he appears as Krishna in his next birth. For this Jambuvan appears in the Mahabharata as well.

There’s a mani, a jewel, called Syamantak that is stolen from Mathura and everyone says Krishna must have stolen it. Krishna goes looking for it and reaches a cave where there’s a bear – Jambuvan. He tells Krishna that he’ll have to wrestle with him if he wants the jewel. Krishna defeats him in the bout. Jambuvan is so impressed that he offers his daughter’s (Jambavati’s) hand in marriage to Krishna. She takes on a human female form to come to his house.

Are there rishis too who appear in both epics?
There is Rishi Durvasa who appears everywhere and is famous for his curses. But in the Mahabharata, he gives Kunti a boon by which she can call any god and beget a child by him. In the Ramayana he appears twice. He is Rishi Atri and his wife Anusuya’s son. When Rama and Sita are going to the jungle, he predicts that they will separate.

In the Uttara Ramayana, there’s a very interesting story. Rama tells Lakshmana that he wants solitude. Lakshmana stands guard at the door and promises to behead any intruder. Rishi Durvasa comes to meet Rama. When Lakshmana bars the way, Durvasa insists. He says if he isn’t allowed to meet Rama right then, he’ll curse Ayodhya. This puts Lakshmana in a moral dilemma (dharma sankat) and he decides Ayodhya is more important.

So he opens the door and tells Rama that Rishi Durvasa has come to visit him. Rama asks to meet him but when Lakshmana turns around, Durvasa isn’t there. When Lakshmana tells Rama he decided to open the door for the sake of Ayodhya, Rama approves and says, you should always be in the service of Ayodhya, not me.

Then Rama says, but now you’ll have to behead yourself according to your promise. Lakshmana is shocked. Rama tells him that as descendants of Raghukul, they must keep their word. It is said that Lakshmana then takes samadhi; this is the story of his death. Rama imparts two pieces of wisdom here. That you should always serve Ayodhya (your land) and not give your word so casually.

Any others gods and goddesses that appear in both?
There are many and they are spread everywhere. They are not connected with any one yuga. The Vedic gods – Indra, Surya, Vayu – are seen in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In the Ramayana, Hanuman is Vayuputra, Sugriva is Suryaputra, Vali is Indraputra. In the Mahabharata, it is Bhima, Karna and Arjuna, respectively, who are the sons of Vayu, Surya and Indra.

Were there any rakshasas common to both?
There is Vibhishana, who is also called chiranjeevi. In the Ramayana, Vibhishana becomes the king of Lanka, and marries Mandodari. In the Mahabharata, he comes for the coronation ceremony (rajasuya yagna) of Yudhishtira where he says that he’ll touch Krishna’s feet but not Yudhishtira’s because he is a mere human. He used to touch Rama’s feet earlier, who was Vishnu’s avatar. To expose Vibhishana’s conceit Krishna touches Yudhishtira’s feet, referring to him as his elder brother. It is as though Krishna is challenging Vibhishana for making this an ego issue. Then, Vibhishana also bows to Yudhishtira.

How does Shiva appear in both?
The Ramayana is said to have come first from Shiva’s mouth. The Adi Ramayana (the first Ramayana) was narrated by Shiva to Shakti, which was heard by the crow Kakbhusandi, and then it spread from there. Rama worships Shiva, and he is said to have established the Rameshwar Temple in Tamil Nadu.

Ravana too is a Shiva bhakta. Ravana is said to have composed the Rudra stotra (a song in praise of Shiva) and built a veena called the Rudra veena. Playing the Rudra veena and singing the Rudra stotra, he asks Shiva for a boon – he wants Shiva to go with him to Lanka. Shiva agrees, on the condition that Ravana carry the Kailasa Parvat there. Ravana lifts the parvat, but becomes conceited about his power, so Shiva presses the mountain down with his toe and traps Ravana. Here too he crushes arrogance.

In the Mahabharata, he appears as Kirat to meet Arjuna. A wild boar attacks Arjuna in the forest and he shoots it down. There are two arrows stuck in the boar, one of which could well be a tribal’s (Kirat’s). Arjuna insists he has caught it. Kirat says it could be his, but Arjuna doesn’t care. He insists that he is a prince. At that Kirat says, “You may be a prince in the palace, not here in the jungle where you’re merely a hunter.”

He challenges Arjuna to a duel. In Kirat’s roop, Shiva defeats Arjuna who feels humiliated. This is similar to Hanuman meeting Bhima to teach him humility.

Shiva is also a part of Amba’s story. Amba wants to marry the king of Shalva but is abducted by Bhishma as a bride for his brother Vichitravirya. When Amba tells Bhishma about Shalva, he lets her go. But Shalva refuses to accept her because now she is impure (jhootha). She goes back to Vichitravirya who says he cannot take back something he’s given away. She is caught in this macho, patriarchal culture, and her life is ruined. So she goes to Shiva. He gives her a boon saying that in her next life, she will become the cause of Bhishma’s death.

Are Sita and Draupadi two forms of the same goddess?
Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are associated with the Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shakta paramparas. So, Sita and Draupadi are considered Shakti’s roop. The Valmiki Ramayana was composed 2000 years ago. The Adhyatma and Adbhut Ramayanas were written 500 years ago. Here Sita is seen as a roop of Shakti.

A story goes that a thousand-headed asura attacks Ayodhya and Sita defeats him, almost like the Goddess Kali. In this version, it is as though she allows Rama to defeat Ravana – she is Shakti and so strong, she could have defeated him herself.

Draupadi is also considered a roop of Shakti, particularly in south India. In the Tamil Mahabharata, she takes Devi’s roop and roams around in the forest at night. The Pandavas see her at night as Devi and get scared. She says she can defeat the Kauravas on her own, drink their blood, but she’ll allow her husbands to do it, to prove their Kshatriya-ness. As they didn’t save her during the vastraharan, now is their chance to take revenge. Here Draupadi is revered as Shakti amma.

In both epics, Rama and the Pandavas pray to Durga before the war. Usually she is worshipped at the onset of spring, what is known as Vasant Navratra. But the war in the Ramayana happened after monsoons, so Rama has the puja again in Sharad (autumn). So there are two navratris – Vasant and Sharad – both to worship Goddess Durga.