Rama of Valmiki Ramayana has been in the middle of all kinds of controversies for long. Perhaps if we understand Rama as he really was, some of these controversies would come to an end, if not all. Let us take a brief look at one of those many controversies. When Kaikeyi demanded that the crown of Ayodhya should go to Bharata and Rama should go on an exile for fourteen years, was he upset about it?
The first Ramayana serial telecast on Sunday mornings on Doordarshan to such popularity that our streets and markets became empty when it was aired would like us to believe that he was unaffected by the demand to go on exile and the loss of the kingdom, as would practically all other Ramayana serials and post-Valmiki tellings of Rama’s story . But Sage Valmiki in the Ramayana tells us something very different.
Here is a verse from the sage poet’s epic:
na vanam gantukaamasya tyajatah cha vasundharaam
sarvalokaatigasyeva laksyate chittavikriyaa. VR 2.19.33
The verse says that as Rama set with his mind on going to the forest giving up the kingdom, no emotions were seen in him, like in those who have gone beyond all worldly matters.
Chittavikriya is the goings on in the heart – particularly the negative ones. Nothing like the chaos in the mind of a man from whom his very purpose of life has been snatched away at the very last moment could be seen on Rama’s face, in his body language, in his words or his actions.
But the word the master poet – the greatest poet India has known and without a doubt one of the greatest the world has known – uses here is interesting: lakshyate, meaning, was indicated, was seen.
Does that mean he felt nothing? No anger, no frustration, no disappointment? Well, that is what subsequent retellings of his story and the TV serials would like us to believe. But that is not what Valmiki tells us. What the sage poet tells us is that no emotions were visible, not that he felt no emotions. The sage has just clarified it in this earlier verse:
dhaarayan manasa duhkham indriyaani nigrhya cha,
pravivesha aatmavaan veshma maturapriya-shamsivaan. VR 2.19.35
Holding his grief in his mind and keeping his senses under control, fully a master of himself, he entered his mother’s palace to give her the unpleasant news.
Subsequent events and the behavior of Rama tell us of how deeply Rama was disturbed by the denial of the crown and on being asked to go on exile. Immediately after being asked by Kaikeyi to go on the exile, Rama goes to his mother to give her the news. With Kausalya, Rama appears in full control of himself – he does not want his mother to know he is disturbed by what has just happened because, in Valmiki’s telling of his story, Kausalya is a weak and unhappy woman who openly says she has not known one day of happiness in her life, her position in the palace is worse than that of Kaikeyi’s servants, her only hope is Rama being crowned so that she becomes the rajamata, the queen mother. From Kausalya’s palace he goes to Sita’s chamber to give her the news. At the sight of Sita, the Ramayana tells us, Rama could no longer retain his control over his sorrow and his grief comes out in spite of himself. His face loses all colour, he is perspiring all over, his senses are clouded, he is trembling, his limbs shaking.
atha seetaa samutpatya vepamaanaa cha tam patim
apashyat shokasantaptam chintavyaakulitendriyam
vivarnavadanam drshtvaa tam prasvinnam amarshanam
aaha duhkhaabhisantapta kim idaneem idam prabho VR. 2.23.6-7
Sita, seeing her husband in extreme anguish and distressed in mind, rose up trembling from her seat. Finding him with his face drained of colour, perspiring, and incapable of containing the grief within, Sita deeply distressed with sorrow addressed him, saying, “Oh my lord, now what is this? What has happened?”
Rama here is a man who has failed to keep his sorrow in check, who is no more in control of himself. Sita takes one look at him, the Ramayana tells us, and starts shivering herself, so bad is his condition.
Rama is in a mood of amarsha [amarshanam]. Amarsha is fury about which you can do nothing, as in this case where he is angry at his father and at his stepmother and there is nothing he can do about it. Lakshmana is in the same mood as Rama, but Lakshmana openly gives vent to his anger, frets and fumes, and speaks of killing all the people who stand in the way of Rama inheriting the crown. He even suggests, in very rough words, that old Dasharatha should be thrown into prison and Rama should seize power by force.
In spite of the amarsha, however, Rama once again regains command over himself. This time he would retain his mastery over himself until he has left Ayodhya, crossed several rivers, and has finally crossed the Ganga and is in the forests beyond it. There, for the first time alone since he received the order of exile from Kaikeyi, with only Sita and Lakshmana with him, in the loneliness of the jungle, with night cutting him off from the rest of the world, he once again lets go of himself and breaking down, wails aloud, filling the forest with his grief and sorrow, finally to become calm, in the words of the Ramayana, like a massive fire that dies out after reducing the entire fire to ashes, like the sea in the morning after a violent night.
So Rama does feel the loss of the crown and is deeply troubled by the order to go on exile. In fact, he is devastated by it, shattered by it. But eventually he manages to remain a master of his emotions and keep them in check. He does not allow them to take him over, to enslave him. Finally, master of his emotions again, he proceeds to do what he must do.
There is an important lesson for us here, as in practically everything that Rama does. Valmiki did not write the Ramayana to entertain us, though it does give us literary entertainment of the highest quality, but to educate us. Rama’s life is a series of lessons, particularly for a man in a position of leadership, as Rama was. Through the portrayal of a man endowed with the highest qualities, he wanted to present to us a model all of us can emulate. Hence his question to Narada at the beginning of the Ramayana if there is anyone in the world endowed with all ideal qualities and his request that if there is any one, to describe him to him, to tell him his story.
It is a completely different matter that we find many of his decisions and actions questionable today.
One thing Valmiki is telling us through Rama’s story and Rama is telling us through his life is that when it comes to doing what we must do, however unpleasant it is, and however sad and painful the events that life brings to us, we must not let our emotions overpower us but should remain our own masters, and keeping our emotions under control, go ahead and do what needs to be done under the circumstances.
It is this very same teaching that Krishna gives Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. As the war is about to begin, Arjuna has an emotional breakdown because it is with his own people that he has to fight the war this time, his own people he has to kill in battle. There is his beloved grandfather Bhishma, there is his revered guru Drona and there are thousands of other near and dear ones. True, the entire army of Duryodhana is fighting for adharma and as a kshatriya it is his duty to destroy adharma and those who fight for adharma, but then these are his own people. And of course there is the possibility of the two armies completely slaughtering each other, causing brutal death to thousands of his near and dear ones on both sides, causing losses to thousands of families, making an endless number of women widows. So, as he takes a good look at the two armies, he is overpowered by emotions and tells Krishna in the well known Bhagavad Gita verses:
katham bheeshmam aham sankhye dronam cha madhusoodana
ishubhih pratiyotsyaami poojaarhaav-arisoodana //BG 2.4 //
But Krishna, how can I attack Bhishma and Drona with arrows in battle, for they are worthy of my worship.
seedanti mama gaatraani mukham cha parishushyati
vepathushcha shareere me romaharshashcha jaayate // BG 1.29//
My limbs are failing me and my mouth is getting dry, my body is trembling and I have goose bumps all over.
gaandeevam sramsate hastaat twak chaiva paridahyate
na cha shaknomy-avasthaatum bhramateeva cha me manah // BG 1.30 //
My Gandiva (bow) is slipping from my hand and my skin is burning all over; I am unable to stand steady and my mind is going crazy.
Krishna teaches him that he has to remain a master of himself in spite of the fact that the situation is really terrible and do what he has to do, what is expected of him under the situation, exactly as Valmiki shows us Rama doing in the Ramayana.
Commitment to one’s duty rising above emotions – that is what both the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita teach us. Don’t let your emotions overpower you and enslave you, but master them. And with your emotions mastered, go ahead and do what you must do, calm, serene, devoid of restlessness, vigata-jvarah.
The Mahabharata gives us literally hundreds of lessons in leadership, a large chunk of which are in the Shati Parva where Bhishma answers Yudhishthira’s questions about leadership. One of the first lessons Bhishma emphasizes is that a leader should always retain his mastery over himself and should never his emotions to overpower him.
aatmaa jeyah sadaa raajnaa tato jeyashcha shatravah
ajitaatmaa narapatir vijayeta katham ripoon. MB Shanti 69.4
A king should always be a master of himself, and only then should he try to conquer his enemies. How will a king who hasn’t achieved victory over himself conquer his enemies?
While much about leadership has changed from the times of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the need for a leader to remain a master of his emotions hasn’t changed in the least. Whether it is in politics or in industry, business or any other field, this need remains exactly the same; or maybe because of the changes that have taken place in the society and relationships since those days, the need has become even more important. While in those days a leader without emotional self-mastery might have had some success because he carried much authority invested upon him by birth and the position he occupied, in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times he has no such chance.
That is one reason why corporate houses today are giving a lot of importance to training their officers in emotional intelligence, which involves emotional self mastery. I am a corporate officer trainer and just last month I had the pleasure of being with a group of young officers from a leading corporate house of India where I discussed with them the need for all persons in leadership positions to have emotional self-mastery. While we did explore in the training sessions what emotional intelligence is and why we need to develop them, the stress was on how to develop emotional self mastery.
This how-to of developing emotional self mastery is one of ancient India’s greatest contributions to the world and this used to be part of every child’s education in our culture in the earlier education system. Unfortunately, this is one aspect of personal growth and modern education neglects.