My mum used to say that squirrels are just rats with fancy tails. Which is all very well for her, as she grew up in England where squirrels are common. But I grew up in New Zealand and I never saw a squirrel until I was sixteen. So for me every squirrel is special. I just want to be clear about this from the outset as it is possible that this story might give you cause to wonder if I respect squirrels as much as they deserve.
So here’s a story from the Ramayana scripture, now available as a popular comic series in India (I’m not making this up).
It goes like this: The Divine Rama needed to cross from India to Sri Lanka to rescue his wife Sita from top bad guy Ravana, so Rama’s devotees were helping him to build a bridge.
Hanuman, Rama’s chief devotee, who strangely enough was a giant monkey, (there’s some really weird stuff in this story. Like Rama being blue! Better get used to it.) was using his great strength to throw huge boulders into the ocean. This was pretty effective and the bridge project was moving along nicely.
Then one small squirrel devotee turned up to help but all he could manage was to enthusiastically throw some tiny pebbles into the water. The big monkey started making fun of the squirrel.
“Look mate,” he said. “You may be cuter than a button, but it’s going to take a million years to get to Sri Lanka at that rate. You’re lucky I’m around. Otherwise the bosses wife, Sita, would be toast.”
“Wow!” said the squirrel. “A talking monkey. Cool!”
Actually I made that last bit up. It’s not in the original scripture. But I think it makes more sense this way. I mean don’t you find it strange how in some stories animals suddenly start talking and no-one even remarks on it?
Anyhow, the squirrel was not too happy about being made fun of by the monkey so it complained to the squirrel union.
So when Rama himself rocks up to check on progress the squirrel hands him a letter from his union president, complaining about discrimination against squirrels.
Then Rama gives this big politically correct speech about how the squirrel’s effort was just as valuable as the big monkey’s because he was doing his best and he was just as sincere, and what did people expect, he’s just a squirrel?
Squirrels have been quoting this speech ever since, and everyone is heartily sick of it. Which is why, in India today, no-one ever listens to squirrels.
Interpreting the Ramayana Correctly
A friend of mine wrote a cute ‘pro-squirrel’ song based on this story (the original, not my more profound version). Which is very nice, except for one small problem.
What if everyone has been misinterpreting the inner meaning of this story for the last 5000 years?
Want to know the true significance of the Ramayana squirrel story?
Think about it rationally. The gap between Sri Lanka and India is pretty big; at least two inches on my Google map. If the bridge building contract had been awarded to the squirrels, Rama would still be waiting anxiously on the beach today. The big monkey was right, and Rama knew it.
But Rama also knew that he couldn’t afford a dispute with the unions right in the middle of a major construction project. And anyway, he had to keep up his reputation as the ultimate nice guy because he was a God, and what sort of God is not extra kind to squirrels?
Clearly Rama was being diplomatic just to keep the squirrels happy, but of course he understood the truth: he really needed that big monkey!
So now you can impress all your Hindu friends with this brilliant new interpretation of their holy scripture. Or alternatively, maybe you should follow the diplomatic Rama’s example and just keep quiet. Like me 🙄.