The Ramayana: Anthropomorphism of the Divine
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Perhaps no single work of prose captures the breadth and depth of the meaning of the word dharma, than does the Ramayana. Not a religious book or divinely inspired text such as the Bible or Quran, the Ramayana was originally an epic poem that circulated for centuries by word of mouth before being written down, and thus expanded and contracted over the millennia in written form, dance, songs, movies and television series across a large portion of Asia. As such there is no absolutely correct or true version, but the general story is one of good vs. evil, portraying in dramatic fashion the virtuous and just behavior of the transcendent Rama, inevitably rising triumphantly after a series of initiations, tests, betrayal and deceit. It has given Indians a fantastic example of extraordinary behavior under extreme circumstances, but also provides ideals and wisdom for common daily life. Take this example from the beginning, when the sage Viswamithra convinces Rama’s father, King Dasaratha to allow his son to travel with him on a potentially dangerous journey; “You cannot count on the physical proximity of someone you love, all the time. A seed that sprouts at the foot of its parent tree remains stunted until it is transplanted…Every human being, when the time comes, has to depart and seek his fulfillment in his own way.” (Narayan 1972, 9)
The above provides but one example from the Ramayana’s simple yet pure message that all classes, all castes can appreciate. It is a story that provides context for the concept of dharma; it shows how a god(s) in human form furnishes examples replete with compassion, justice, courage, loyalty, valor, selflessness and self-sacrifice. The concept of a god allowing himself to be born mortal in order to rid the world of evil is not exclusive to the western world. This paper will take a cursory look at this mythological tale as an anthropomorphism of the divine providing a model to replicate, specifically the relationships between children and parents, husbands and wives, and rulers and subjects.
As a son, Rama demonstrates the ideal execution of his dharma at the request of Kaikeyi, his stepmother when she has him banished to the forest for 14 years, abdicating the throne as King of Ayodhya following his father’s immanent retirement. He does not show disappointment when his stepmother speaks on his father’s behalf, stating how it is Rama’s duty to fulfill his father’s promise to her, “otherwise he (Dasaratha) will be damning himself in this and other worlds. You owe him a duty as his son.” (Narayan 1972, 45) At this Rama internalizes the initial shock of being removed as heir, expelled from his kingdom, with only bark for clothing. Knowing his father is broken hearted by his wife’s seemingly unjustified and irrational request, Rama nonetheless regards it as if he were commanded by his father, and states “I want you to know I am not in the least pained by this order. I will take your word as his.” (Narayan 1972, 45) Without complaint or outward display of disappointment Rama instead demonstrates grace and dignity, even as those around him are emotionally crushed and outraged at the turn of events. His birth mother sobs uncontrollably and wonders aloud at what offense he must have committed to justify what appears to be a punishment. Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana is so enraged he dons his weapons and equipment for battle, and swears to destroy anyone attempting to stop his brother from being king; “I’ll not relent or yield to the desire of a mere female…” (Narayan 1972, 51). Rama takes the proverbial high road with his mother and brother, and instead places the blame on himself for accepting the offer of the throne so readily and reminds his brother that he should not be so irresponsible with his anger, “you must not utter such bitter remarks about people who after all are none other than your father and mother.” (Narayan 1972, 51) Through grace and serenity does Rama distinguish himself from those whom demonstrate natural behavior in light of the circumstances; he reminds his brother of his recital of the Vedas and the examples of a godly life to counteract his irrationality. This entire chapter in the Ramayana highlights the complete subordination of a child to his parents, and abidance to their wishes. Rama himself states that these are higher than demands of a king (Bharatha), or a guru (Vasishtha) and there could be no word higher than that of a father; no conduct other than obedience to it (Narayan 1972, 60).
In the case of husbands and wives in the Ramayana, perhaps it is the relationship of Rama and Sita that form the true basis for this story. Being the incarnate of Vishnu and Lakshmi, these two were seemingly made for one another and even though it was customary for kings to have many wives, Rama told Sita that he would forego this custom. In return, when Rama is subsequently dispatched for 14 years from Ayodhya, he tells Sita that it is not her responsibility to give up her life in the palace and he will return to her. Without hesitation she states that her place is by his side wherever he may be…”it will be a living death for me without you; a forest or a marble palace is all the same to me.” (Narayan 1972, 52) 1This faithfulness towards her husband demonstrates the truest virtue of an Indian woman; although she is afraid to leave the palace she follows unquestionably. When Soorpanaka appears to Rama he was stunned by her beauty; “her eyes flashed, teeth sparkled, her figure, waist and bosom were that of a chiseled figure” (Narayan 1972, 64) but he would not accept her as a wife even though she all but throws herself at him and tries desperately to seduce him. Of course he has none of it, and his brother Lakshmana disposes of her, nearly killing her if it were not her being a woman. Following Sita’s capture by Ravana, Rama makes allies with Sugreeva, and during a battle with Vila his brother (who rules the giant monkey race), mortally wounds him with an arrow. Dying, Vila questions why he sided with Sugreeva, and why he attacked him. In response Rama again gives insight to the husband and wife relationship; “you violated his wife’s honor and made her your own. Guarding a woman’s honor is the first duty laid on any intelligent being.” (Narayan 1972, 102). This vignette is important as it shows that the monkey race of beings from Kiskinda are subject to the same ethical codes as human society; of course this is analogous to the sudras or peasants of the caste system. The lessons of the Ramayana are applicable across the depth of the Varna caste system.
Finally, the Ramayana offers a model of virtues and the concept of servitude for rulers regarding their subjects that exemplify what should be, as opposed to what is. After ruling for an untold number of years Dasaratha decides it is time to relinquish his throne to Rama, his oldest son. He notifies his assembly of this decision, and describes the qualities his son possesses; He is perfect and will be a perfect ruler. He has compassion, a sense of justice and courage, and he makes no distinctions between human beings- old or young, prince or peasant; he has the same consideration for everyone. In courage, valor, and all the qualities—none equal to him. He will be your best protector from any hostile force, be it human, subhuman or superhman…I hope I shall have your support in anointing him immediately as Emperor of Kosala.” (Narayan 1972, 34)
Fittingly, following this speech the assembly let out a ‘joyous shout’ and a spokesman tells Dasaratha they have been long waiting for this moment. The quote above could be applied to a father and his children as readily as a king to his people; interestingly enough the great general Sun Tzu promoted treating his own soldiers as his beloved sons to instill loyalty. Undoubtedly the true measure of a great leader is inspiring loyalty over fealty, and the Ramayana highlights this again when Dasaratha speaks directly to Rama prior to taking over; “You will have to pursue a policy of absolute justice under all circumstances. Humility and soft speech—there could really be no limit to these virtues. There can be no place in a king’s heart for lust, anger, or meanness.” (Narayan 1972, 35) It is telling that in Thailand over the past two centuries nine kings have called themselves Rama; in honor of a fictional character no less!
The Ramayana offers an idyllic view of a near perfect time and place, where all peoples knew their positions in society and acted in accordance with dharma. The fantastic characters offer the very best and very worst in human nature, magnified by godlike powers and abilities to prove their extraordinary character as ethical (or unethical) beings. It does not constitute a leap of logic to see how Rama evolved into a divine being over the centuries, from mythological character to a worshipped avatar of Vishnu. Regardless, this story has withstood the test of time and remains an important part of literature for great masses of people in Asia. The Ramayana constitutes the most readily consumable and most appealing example of dharma for its enduring audience.
Narayan, R.K., 1972. The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic. New York: A Penguin book