While the story of Ramayana has influenced and shaped many cultures and societies; the societies and cultures have also shaped, changed and reinvented this story. The text, tales, sub texts, their contexts and interpretations have varied tremendously from place to place. Different parts of India, Iran, Tibet, Thailand, Japan, Java, China, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Siberia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Indonesia have added different hues to this colorful epic. Great literary traditions, paintings, ways of performance, sculptors and narratives have emanated from the ocean called the story of Rama.
‘Ramayana’ literarily means the journey of Rama. It’s a great title because it gives a sense of motion, movement as well as participation. Anyone and everyone can join the journey because the journey is very much on.
There’s never been any gap in the narration and re-narration of this timeless tale. Valmiki wrote it 400 to 200 B.C. Since then, Bhusundi Ramayana, Adbhut Ramayana, Adhyatma Ramayana, Ananda Ramayana, Paumachariyan, Sri Rama Charita Manas, Sunderananda Ramayana, Adarsha Raghava, Katha Ramayana, Krittivas Ramayana, Jagamohan Ramayana, Ramavatar, Ramabalalila, Ramacharitam, Kamban Iramavataram, Rangganatha Ramayanam, Torave Ramayana, Janakiharan, Dastane Ram O Sita, Razmnama, Pothi Ramayana, Ramavatara Charita, Reamker and Ramakien are some of the standard versions of this unique tale.
Consciously or otherwise, this tale has influenced the psyche of the people timelessly and immensely. It’s not possible to measure its impact on the lives of people easily. But my concern here is more on the reasons that make this story what it is. The success of the books of Ashok Banker, Ramayana serials, Ram Lilas and Ramayana based films asks the question as to why this tale is eternally appealing.
The answer to this question entails a multi layered answer. There are several answers; there are several reasons. For the masses it provides an ideal code of behavior. It presents the ideal. It demands surrender, devotion, submission and worship. At another level, it describes the harmony of social fabric and an ideal rule of law and at yet another level, it depicts eternal human conflicts.
This last reason interests me. Life is all about friction, struggle, confrontation and conflict. Every moment presents a new dilemma. The story of Ramayana with its ever evolving characters and situations depicts basic questions that confront an individual from time to time. At the level of thought, deep within the self these questions haunt the individual soul. Let’s see what are the conflicts of Ramayana?
The biggest appeal of this epic is its interplay between what is ideal and what is ‘practical’. Righteous behavior can be defined as just and good conduct in our lives. It can further be developed into correct conduct keeping in view the time and situation. Herein lies the conflict. Is there a universal code of conduct? Is one code applicable for all places and times? Or is it that the ideal changes as per the circumstance and time? If we accept that the ideal is flexible keeping in view the situation and time, we become practical. Our code becomes a little relaxed. One more question puzzles me and that is if the ideal behavior of Sita and Rama was conducted for the sake of idealism or was it their natural and obvious response.
This play between ‘ideal’ and ‘practical’ is the biggest question that Ramayana poses. Sita and Rama face a number of difficult situations. In fact, their positions can out-rightly be called situations of extreme adversity. Ouster from home, dangers of travel, then kidnapping of Sita and finally a full-fledged war!
Leaving home and related claims obediently in order to fulfill an unjustified desire of the step mother can hardly be called ‘the ideal’ these days. Rama upheld Kakeyi’s desire in order to maintain domestic love and brotherly affection. Here, the concept of ‘Leela’ comes in. Rama actually demonstrates the validity of ‘sacrifice’.
Ramayana is a collective and social tale. It encompasses family and society. It is easy to break the family but it is difficult to keep it together. Every human situation demands sacrifice. There cannot be any life without complete and unconditional sacrifice. This is what Rama does. He leaves home happily, easily and gracefully. The tussle between the ideal and the practical is resolved. A new ideal is set. The family’s integrity and peace of the family are more important than individual ambition and quest for power. Renunciation is an important lesson here.
Sita’s decision to follow Rama and Laxmana’s decision to follow both Sita and Rama can be viewed in this light only. ‘Sacrifice’ is important. The eternal appeal of Ramayana lies in its development of human consciousness. Human mind starts with the self but it does not end there. Over crores of years, the sensibility and the consciousness of the human mind have evolved. Ramayana presents a highly advanced and extremely sophisticated status of human mind. Rama as a son does not need direct or rough talk. Even the smallest, unconscious wish of a family member is enough for him. Over the years, He extends his family to the whole society. Some may say that Rama lives for show. He acts for public but this is completely true. Rama is God himself. He has come to this world for ‘Leela’, for setting the standards. As a human being, He undergoes all conflicts, all pain but in the end, He does what is exemplary. This is what is expected of him. He cries when Sita is abducted. He is inconsolable. He is driven by question from time to time. But in the end, He is the embodiment of the divine force. He has to act for the people at large.
This is what Ramayana does. It places order over chaos, harmony and peace over question and unrest and society above the individual. In a world driven by distrust and fighting, Ramayana brings the message of surrender and sacrifice. Ramayana gives the logic of surrender. This is one epic which underlines the importance of human effort and the importance of faith equally. Human life depends on selfless care and unconditional surrender. Right from the conception of the human embryo to the old age, a human being needs assistance. There can be no life without cooperation. Ramayana establishes the concept of surrender. It discusses virtues. In this sense, it develops human thought to its maximum. It compels the human spirit to grow beyond the self. This is the greatest contribution of Ramayana.
There are certain values which do not change - ‘shashvat mulya ’. Behavioral patterns, dressing, food, life-style etc. can change from time to time and place to place. But basic values do not change. Violence is wrong. Approaching a woman without her willingness is wrong. Pride is unpardonable.
In today world, we see strife and protest everywhere. Recent past has seen intense disillusionment of the public even with democracy. Occupy Wall Street movement in America, Anna Hazare movement in India, the on-going protests in Egypt and Brazil show how people are dissatisfied with the rulers.
There is a very fine line that differentiates a regime from being autocratic to being truly democratic. Being democratic implies being compassionate towards the people, being in tune with their psyche and working for their welfare. On the part of the public, they have to accept authority at some point or the other. When people know that the administration is compassionate they find it easy to accept it. This is the ideal relationship between those who govern and those who are governed.
Rama knows how to strike this balance. Many of his actions appear to have been taken for the public view and rightly so. The one who governs has very little private life. Rama was in full public gaze when He was dealing with Kakeyi’s demands. He was in full public view when dealing with his younger brother. Even his relationship with his wife Sita was very much in the public domain. He acted for the larger welfare of the public and set new standards of ideals. The public on their part surrendered themselves completely before Rama. They had complete faith in him and his policies. This young prince of Ayodhya, a reincarnation of the force called Vishnu is unconditionally loved by all those who even remotely know him. He defeated the evil publicly. He had to send the right message. Even his one servant would have finished Lanka but He went and killed the devil himself. This is clearly ‘Leela’, the play of the divine force on earth.
I want to elaborate a little more on the concept of surrender. Hanuman is the personification of the concept of surrender. He is closer to nature. His blind service to Rams and to Sita extends him to the level of divinity. Today, the Hanuman temples all over the world heavily outnumber the temples of Rama. This is the greatness of the concept of surrender. This is the lesson that the modern world needs. Within family, with parents, with siblings, with society, within organizations and system, there has to be a two-fold strategy. The higher ups have to be capable as well as compassionate. Those who are being governed have to respect authority at some point or the other. This is the only way forward. There will always be difference. Everyone cannot be on the same pedestal. There must be scope for upward mobility in the structural ladder; nevertheless there will always be those who govern and those who are governed. Individual differences in brain and effort ensure that all human beings cannot be at the same level. Therefore, acceptance of authority is essential for maintaining order.
Ramayana presents a model of society which is definitely not individualistic. General good is paramount. Individualistic tendencies versus public good - this is a permanent conflict. In Ramayana, needless to add, public goods always wins.
Rama continuously faces challenges in his life. To leave home at a tender age, to take his wife and younger brother along with him, to continuously protect the intellectual class of those time, to face abduction of his wife, to choose Sugreeva over Vali and finally to publically destroy the symbol of evil Ravana. These are some of the many bold steps that Rama takes out of conviction and out of his concern for the people in general.
Sita on her part faces the eternal conflict of ideal conduct. The fact that she chooses to leave her palatial home and accompany her husband is a very practical and correct decision. Keeping in mind the fact that she loved Rama unconditionally, there was no point in her staying back at the palace. I find Sita to be a very strong woman. Her refusal to spend any time with Ravana shows that she was a woman of her own choice and her own decision. Even a demon as mighty as Ravana failed to force his will on her. Problems are part and parcel of everyone's life. Sita’s life is of no exception. But the way she comes out of those troubles and later on, the way she grooms her sons proves that she is a woman of steel. She has metallic will power.
Similarly, all other characters of Ramayana face conflicts in their own way. Dashrath has to ask his most beloved son to leave home for his sensuous younger wife. When Laxman hears the call from the jungle, he has to decide whether to stay back and protect Sita or to go out and save his brother’s life. Laxman also has to choose between the comfort of his wife and the comfort of his elder brother. Hanuman too had to decide whether to punish the whole city of Lanka or just to fly back. All these characters take the best decision keeping in view the time, place and the mindset.
We come to our basic question - what is the eternal appeal of Ramayana? So far we have seen that basic human concerns remain the same in every age and time period. Ramayana is so popular and relevant because it addresses these basic human concerns. As the name Ramayana suggests it an ongoing journey. Ramayana is not treated just as a text. Rama, Sita, Laxman and Hanuman are not just characters of an epic. They are living, breathing people who inspire everyone to act virtuously. If we do not complicate things and say in the context of Ramayana, virtue is a mode of behavior, a style of conduct, adapted by the time, circumstances as well as by the eternal values. There is lots of space within the domain of the virtue. As long as our actions are in sync with our conscience, as long as our actions match our thinking and our mindset, we are virtuous.
It is the dissatisfied craving, wandering, human mind which craves for the story of Rama. This is the eternal appeal of Ramayana. The story has the power to calm down the turbulence. This is the reason why the books of Ashok Banker are so popular today. Every film director wants to recreate the magic of Ramayana, through movie or television serial or stage play. Ashok Bankar has added an element of magic realism to this story. Neena Paley’s ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ is a very successful animation of the post-modernist Ramayana. Ramanand Sagar’s blockbuster serial brought the story of Ramayana once again close to the people.
There are of course, many debatable themes and points in Ramayana. But keeping the spirit of surrender alive, I feel an inner compulsion to see all the positive and bright notes in this immortal journey of Rama. Rama sets an example even in enmity. If you have enmity with somebody or better to say, if someone has enmity with you, you must treat him, the way Rama treated Ravana. Many people believe that Rama came to this earth just to finish Ravana. But Rama does not go about it in haste. He allows the evil to play himself out. Devilish designs come in full public view and consideration. No one can question Rama when he goes and kills Ravana. He has support of the local public. Even animals and Nature are on his side. Here is a great lesson for us to understand the fabric of life. Rama seamlessly intertwines the animal force, the bio-diversity, the tribals, the women and every one into one fold. Rama’s life exemplifies how we can live in harmony with Nature, animals and also the aborigine. He again and again sends his emissaries to Ravana in order to avoid bloodshed. The purpose of Rama is not only to finish evil but also to establish the fact that evil is undesirable. Rama has to establish the necessity of the death of the evil. This is the reason why everything has been done in full public knowledge.
In my view, the eternal appeal of Ramayana lies in its genuine depiction of psychological conflicts and also their satisfactory resolutions. The journey of Rama raises questions and then answers them perfectly. It evokes the spirit of compassion among the powerful and the rich, it evokes the spirit of acceptance and cooperation, among the public at large. Ramayana believes in evolution; not revolution. Ramayana develops the human spirit to its finest level. It takes the human mind to extreme refinement. It requires a particular mindset to enjoy this journey of Rama.
In the end, I can only say, “May God give us appropriate thinking to fully realize this exemplary journey of Rama.”
This lecture was delivered on 12, July, 2013 by the author at a refresher course for asst. Professors at Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla University, Raipur, Chhatisgarh, India.
Further Reading: Advaita Thought in Ramayana