Ramayana: A Tale of Ancient Indian Epic

      The basic plot of the great epic Ramayana offers models in Dharma. As a main character, Rama is shown as 'Maryada Purushotam', an ideal role model perfectly founding his entire life as a symbol of dharma. He comes out as a perfect child, perfect boy, perfect son, perfect brother, ideal husband, a great warrior and finally a responsible ruler. The female lead of Sita is also depicted as an ideal wife worthy of being emulated by all Hindu women. An epic of about 24000 couplets grouped under a total of seven Khanda (Chapters), is expected to have been completed and consigned to written text by about 200 CE after having remaining in circulation for about 400 years in total.

Ramayana continues to be told, retold, translated many times ever since. Ramayana has been performed in dance, drama, puppet show, songs, TV serials, movies over last two thousand years and no other story can ever come close to it as a performing media. It is not even required to mention the base story as every child in India can put all major events of Ramayana together in right sequence without a flicker of the eyelids. There are various versions of when it might have started and how it shaped to the final book. But looking to some disagreements in the text, it is logical to conclude that a single author did not compose it. In order to remain under focus, we will restrict ourselves only on Sanskrit based version credited to Valmiki. Many other versions have brought in a lot of localisations and are not worth commenting on. This argument, unfortunately, applies equally to Ram-Charit-Manas by Tulsidas.

      Ramayana continues to be told, retold, translated many times ever since. Ramayana has been performed in dance, drama, puppet show, songs, TV serials, movies over last two thousand years and no other story can ever come close to it as a performing media. It is not even required to mention the base story as every child in India can put all major events of Ramayana together in right sequence without a flicker of the eyelids.

      There are various versions of when it might have started and how it shaped to the final book. But looking to some disagreements in the text, it is logical to conclude that a single author did not compose it. In order to remain under focus, we will restrict ourselves only on Sanskrit based version credited to Valmiki. Many other versions have brought in a lot of localisations and are not worth commenting on. This argument, unfortunately, applies equally to Ram-Charit-Manas by Tulsidas.

      According to some estimates, Ramayana got evolved in four distinct phases. In the first phase, before 8th Century BC, it was just a heroic sonnet detailing war between Rama and Ravana. In the second phase, it turned to a smaller size epic under the title Paulastya Vadh and continued to be war dominated. The third phase of second to sixth chapters evolved much later which provided a web of story around the war beginning with Rama's exile and culminating right upto killing of Ravana. This entire phase takes Rama more as a normal human with all its good and not so good parts of nature. The last and final phases are said to be addition of the first and last chapters at around 200 CE when the entire divinity gets added to Rama as reincarnation of Vishnu.

      This evolution has genuine appeal to be true even when one tries to analyze it from the quality of language used, interface between humanity and divinity, description of surroundings covered, comments on social set ups deciphered, etc. In addition, the historical background of those times and impacts and counter impacts of competing faiths of the times, also leave their footprint on the expansion of the epic as we see it today.

      The poem claims that Rama's administration is as best as it can ever be and the concept of 'Rama Rajya' continues to be the scale for comparing performance of each and every ruling system. As an ideal state for all its citizens, it is a situation where rains come on proper time, farmers are able to produce abundant grains and other products for all the populace, skies are clear, people are healthy and happy, cities and villages enjoy sufficient population, no living creature get ever sick, no one commits any violation of dharma in private or public sphere, no one dies unnatural death, there are no enemies on the border ... everything is just as ideal as it can be assumed.

      This is what we have heard and believed all our life. But if one starts actualizing the real issues on merits and keeping the divinity aside, the description of some key social issues and treatment provided to some key characters in the Ramayana by Valmiki does not sound as great. One may come across many not so bright shades as well. Let us try to look upon some of these, with complete open mind, to bring the sensibility and reality to surface even if it may be contrary to what we have felt until now.

      To begin with, there are inconsistencies in the story in interplay between mortal and immortal. The character of Rama generally behaves as an immortal and is aware of the purpose of his coming to the earth as an incarnation but there are instances that the character forgets that and start acting just like an ordinary being. As a patch up, Brahma ji is shown reminding him about that to ensure that story doesn't deviate from the path. Of course, it is not difficult to visualize the reason once we understand how the story got evolved through verbal versions over a long period of time. In any text, when you have miscellaneous contributors, some inconsistencies are but natural. These get explained by the fact that entire divinity issue has been added in the text later and by authors who were certainly not the people who had composed the main body.

      Actually; the whole concept of incarnation is a bridge between beliefs of Upanishads that each human being is a direct manifestation of supreme Brahman on one side. On the other side, we have ideal, complete in all respects but still human like Gods of sectarian period. And going by stories, it is not that Vishnu is the only God who came to earth in human disguise. There are stories where other Gods like Shiva and Indra have all been coming to earth to live like a normal human but those stories could never get as popular as Ramayana and Mahabharata.

      Second inconsistency is the beginning where Valmiki inquires from Narada about any person who is most virtuous, valiant, religious, truthful and able to cause terror even among Devas. To which Narada tells Valmiki about Rama of Ikshvaku clan who is an ideal person. It is at that time that Valmiki requests Narada to narrate his deeds and being obliged by Narada, later Valmiki composed Ramayana in lyrical form. Now if Valmiki does not even know about Rama and his deeds, how come he is shown as his contemporary and even receives Sita post her expulsion?

      Avatar is also a Hindu answer to Gautama Buddha and Mahavira. Again, around this time in history, Hinduism has come under pressure of redefining itself. Because of sizeable presence of competing faiths, this was first time that one has to come up with arguments as to how your religion is stronger, realistic, holistic, popular and expansive than the others around the block. So Rama and Krishna got evolved as Hindu Gods with human forms to stand against Buddha and Jaina by becoming human with direct line of divinity, drawing their power from Vishnu (who by this time has become greater than Gods of Vedas) and grounded in humanity.

      The fact that both the epics have evolved in Northern India where Lord Vishnu and its sectarian presence was dominant, the Vishnu emerged as main characters leaving behind Shiva who could not get equal representation in these epics. Let us also remember that the entire concept of Avatars of Vishnu were yet to be emerged. Avatars got popular only around the Puranas got composed which was couple of hundred years after final shapes of the epics was complete.

      One marked feature of Ramayana is bad light in which women have been depicted. Be it Kaikeyi, Shurpanakha, Manthara (the maid with the hump) and including Sita. Kaikkeyi is like most selfish queen one can ever have who exploits her sexual hold over king to make him fall in her crooked line. Humpy maid Manthara is shown in poor light as a continuation of the curse that she would have been carrying from earlier lives. One comes across many instances in Indian scriptures where physical disability is shown as an effect of wrong karmas carried forward from previous births. Shurpanakha has a license to be insulted and demeaned as she is but a lady ogress. But worst of all is the situation of Sita. She gets into tight situation more than once and has to suffer repeated tests for proving her chastity. One does not come across situations where any male character is also asked to go through similar stereotype ordeals.

      First, Ravana forcibly kidnaps Sita against her will (It is unfortunate but the crimes like forcibly conducted abductions of females that we talk as ills of our present day society have existed even in the past). Secondly; Rama doubts her morality for having lived in other person's house for a long time. This is like treating her as an object. Sita is forced to explain that even a thought of any other person has never entered her mind. But after not being believed, she gets frustrated and runs to commits suicide by throwing herself in the fire. Efforts have been made to convert her attempted suicide as a 'Fire Test' but why there is a need of any test to begin with? When was that Hindu scriptures were doubting male promiscuousness? As the story goes, Agni herself lifts her from the fire and brings her to Rama's lap saying that she is absolutely pure. Based on assurance of Agni, Rama accepts the situation and allows her to remain in his life. This was soon after arriving from Lanka with all the war having been fought over Sita.

      Later, Rama makes love to her for many days but as he has engaged in sensual indulgence, there must be atonement. He doubts her himself publically and is totally unconcerned about her sufferings. Sita is thrown out of the palace and she has nowhere to go. Finally she reaches the Ashrama of Valmiki and seeks shelter and refuge for living incognito. The situation is controlled only by divine direct interaction as none other than Shiva appears in her dream in the form of Dasharatha and consoles her not to worry for being thrown out by Rama and that it will be best in her own interest to prove her purity and the test will make her famous over all other women ever.

      Finally, when identity of Luv and Kush gets revealed and Sita is recalled to the palace where she hands over the children to Rama and vanishes into the earth forever. This is like an after thought of the composers to cement a more acceptable departure of Sita. It may sound strange to believers but all through both the epics, no one seems to worry about infidel males but all females are shown as potential infidel. One is bound to feel so sorry for our women to have been treated so badly all through our history. May be there are a couple of shlokas asking people to worship women as Goddesses but surely no one seems going down that lane in the main epics or in most other literature that we say that we are so blessed with.

      But to the credit Sita's character, she protests every time she is shortchanged and doesn't take things lying down. Looks like there has been social yearning for such poor treatment to women around the time Ramayana is under completion. She is shown protesting when Rama doesn't want to take her while proceeding on forest service. While in the forest, she questions Rama as to why he is carrying arms while wearing dress of a renounces Rama is shown to come up with not so convincing answer that 'well, it for your own safety and that many animals in forest may also need protection'; a lame excuse to a valid objection. This kind of double speak is surely an effort of face saving on part of learned composers. It is yet another example of raising a query in anticipation and providing best possible answer to salvage the situation.

      Actually; Sita is a Goddess even from previous birth. Don't forget, she was also not born from any human womb similar to Draupadi of Mahabharata. She is incarnation of mother earth, a Vedic Goddess. Her past galore has not been highlighted lest she comes out a more established character in comparison to Rama who, as an incarnate of Vishnu, is only as stronger as Vishnu himself. And during the composing of Ramayana, Vishnu is still in the making. It is a situation where two people meet on staircase; one who is climbing up (Rama) and. the other one pulled down (Sita).

      Incidentally the end scene enacted for Sita's final departure where she merged back into mother earth, is completely duplicated from a popular story existing in Vedas involving apsara Urvashi. In that story also Urvashi is cursed to spend time on earth as mortal with King Pururava but only until she meets both her lover and offspring at the same time. To that extent, the Sita’s character is another recycled example like many others.

      The episode involving golden deer Maricha is again a reminder that any one engaged in known human weaknesses, like hunting, will lose control on his sense of judgement and will have to face costly consequences. The scene starting with the deer sighting going upto kidnapping is full of nonstop high end dramatics. It starts with ladylove for exotic objects and instant desire to possess what she likes, then the vulnerability for hunting and chasing the kill without considering consequences. This is followed with distrust by the sister-in-law doubting younger brother not going after his elder brother for his lust for her. Soon comes the dramatics of Laxmana rekha, earliest image of a laser rays loaded with explosives. Incidentally; we do not seem to have something to match of that device until today. Then we have illusion expert Ravana appearing as a sanyasi asking for alms followed by tricky kidnapping and use of Puspak Vimana, the most modern sci-fi gadget of its time which, in terms of flight of imagination will beat any other gadget ever invented in best of James Bond movies (corrected with time, of course).

      Treatment meted out to Bali where Rama kills him behind his back is yet another disturbing sub story of Ramayana bringing in more disrepute to entire culture. It is difficult to find an answer to a simple question of why Bali was so killed. He was elder and he was completely fit to be the king being elder of the two. It is Sugriva who took the kingdom in his absence and, as their tradition went, also his wife. Bali just took it back with force. Rama should not have sided Sugriva going by normal Dharma. Actually, in one of the weak moment for Rama's character, Bali asks him straight about why he killed him in that fashion. The only answer Rama could come up with is "after all you are only a monkey and kings are God in human form. And that every sage also sometimes kills animals in hunting and hidden traps are permitted to be used for wild animals." The explanation is unable to gather enough strength behind a poor argument. Undoubtedly; human dharma was violated forever.

      But it is not to say that there are no instances or high moral examples. No, there are numerous such examples guiding the path of humanity for many centuries in future. My limited objective in mentioning some negative looking instances is just to prove that these are but just fictions, bigger and better fiction, but, at the end of the day; a fiction. So, let us treat it just like that. No, there are no strong historical evidences to suggest that Ramayana is a depiction of some real historical events.

      But Ramayana’s evaluation as a poetry will deserve full appreciation. It's a great piece of literature. It remains focused on the main theme where main actors are not far from narrations, an absolute opposite of Mahabharata. The enemy is shown as a foreigner. I suspect that Lanka was chosen as the destination because the entire island had already converted to Buddhism by that time. The friends are of different species. Unfortunately; it is injustice to Tamil speaking people as their territory is shown inhabited only with monkeys and bears. Ramayana composers would have done better if they had shown South Indian habitants also as normal human beings. So what if more people from South India were inclined for Shaivism rather than Vaishnavism but ignoring their presence shows indifferent and insensitive attitude for people who are little away from your core constituency, the northern India.

      Another glaring attempt in Ramayana is to promote Vedic rituals (may be an attempt to bring back the lost glory of Vedic yajnas) as Rama is shown extending protection to many Brahmin priests engaged in Vedic Yajnas both during his young time as well during stay in forest. There are people having opinion that Ramayana dwells on the idea of showing conflict between Vedic on one side and Non-Vedic Shaivaites on the other hand. Ravana, the villain, is shown as a great devotee of Lord Shiva. Now Shaivism certainly must have been in infancy stage in South India by the time Ramayana was taking final shape and an effort of nipping the bud looks all-probable.

      However, core of the story remains firm about good winning over evil. Unlike Mahabharata, Ramayana produces a clear winner. One also must admit that in comparison to Mahabharata, Ramayana deals with lesser Dharma Sankata. It constantly showcase Rama as a 'Maryada Purushotam'. It also throws great examples on several social issues like how to have respects in sibling relations, how to differentiate between right and wrong, how to respect parents and sacrifices own comforts for the sake of keeping their words, how to keep promise made even when it is miserably difficult, how to avoid company of bad counsel, how to fight for protection of weak even at the cost of your life, how should we avoid getting swayed by glittering of attractive objects of desire, how to trust friends even from other species etc.

      It is primarily because of such social issues getting highlighted that Ramayana in not seen just as a monument of literature but as an integral core of Hindu values and ideals. All through the modern history, Ramayana has been kept in great reverence that just reading or hearing part of it is said to be enough for washing one's sins and a mere rendering of Rama’s name is taken as a sufficient cause of liberation. No other scripture, any where in the world, is known to have such great impact on so many people at the same point of time and for so many long years.

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