Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A meditation on the subtexts of Ramayana

Sri gurubhyo namaha.

During a recent discussion about the Indian/Hindu epics with some friends, I mentioned the Ramayana. After a few general words on the story line with respect to Rama being an avatar/incarnation of Vishnu and a bit about his exile and the subsequent abduction of Sita by Ravana, I stopped for a coffee. It was then that someone asked me a question. R asked, how would you describe the Ramayana in a few words? What is it really 'about'?

I thought about it for the length of time it takes an extra strong and really hot latte to travel down my oesophagus and into my engine to fire my brain cells with the caffeine. The caffeine in the dark roast Ethiopian beans worked wonderfully well and soon my brain cells began their work - of reading between the lines! Should I say, like most, that the Ramayana is a tale of love of epic proportions? Is it a story that highlights the virtues of a 'chaste' woman? Or is it one that shows that a mans mind is so twisted that he would require the 'fire test' as proof of his woman's chastity and even still abandon her in the forest when pregnant with his children, based on the nasty words of a washer man? Is the main point of the Ramayana its highlighting the fact that even the supreme Vishnu will still have to suffer the pain arising out of attachment and delusion (see the chapters where Rama runs hither and thither in grief asking the Ashoka trees and the Kadamba trees the whereabouts of his beloved) while on a sojourn on this dream scape called earth? Is its moral the end where we see that evil is always won over and controlled by what is good and truthful? Is the intense bhakti and devotion experienced (and expressed) by Hanuman towards Rama a core aspect the epic wishes its readers and listeners to become aware of? I could go on and on in this vein and still be unable to put it in a few words.

If on the other hand I try to express the metaphysical and symbolic meaning of the story and its protagonists, where Rama is the inner self and Ravana with his ten heads is the inner villain representing the ideas of ego,anger, hate etc who is forever tormenting the chaste and noble inner Sita, it will need plenty more than lattes (however caffeinated) for the brain cells to expand (or dilate) enough to make a decent start. So I decided that the best way was to explore a very tangible thread that all of us (well almost all) can latch on to. So I did.

The Ramayana, if I were to describe it in a few words, is a tale about siblings. Yes, a story about brothers!!

First, there is the sub story in Ayodhya. There are four brothers there - Rama, Bharatha, Lakshmana and Shatrugna - who are born to different mothers, the three queens of the king Dasaratha. These brothers here are very well heeled and well aware of the dharma shastras. They realise the elder brother to be verily the guru, the embodied God and their whole relationship is based on that. There are enough instances in the story where each of the brothers prove their devotion and unquestioned and unconditional love towards their eldest sibling Rama. They are ready to give up mighty kingdoms, wife, family, ego and everything else for the sake of their brother. Whatever Rama said, the others took it to be the final word.

Next in line is the sub story in Lanka, the kingdom of the demon king Ravana. Here too there are four brothers - Ravana, Vibishana, Kumbhakarna and Maricha. In this line, we see an altogether different highlight when it comes to the connection between the brothers. Here the main point taught is through the actions of Vibishana. He epitomises the feeling that brother or no brother, father or sister or whatever, a loved one or not, one on the path of adharma has to be avoided. Vibishana loved his elder brother Ravana as much as Lakshmana loved and respected Rama. But when he realised that Ravana was in the wrong (in carrying away Sita), he sacrificed all his own feelings of love and closeness and cast his vote in favour of Dharma and Truth. He switched sides and went over to the army of Rama and offered them his services in bringing Ravana to justice! This he did not because of the knowledge that Rama was the stronger opponent (that is the ilk of the new age politician, the rulers of the olden days were infact much more noble), but because of his orientation to dharma and righteousness was stronger than even the ties of blood and heart.

The third angle is the sub story in the monkey kingdom called Kishkinda. Here there are two brothers - Vali and Sugreeva. And here the focus is on enmity! Here we find that the younger brother, Sugreeva, realises that he can survive peacefully only when his elder sibling is killed. Sugreeva spent years in exile, living in the rocky jungle called Kishkinda in constant fear of his elder brothers spies and army and all the time plotting and waiting for the time when he could deal the death blow to his brother.

Three sub stories. All about the different feelings evoked, expressed and not expressed among siblings. These totally different attitudes and the subsequent actions generated as a result of these attitudes, forms the back ground music for the epic that is Ramayana. There you go. Done it now in a very tangible and 'down to earth' fashion. Only not in a 'few' words, I agree. But reducing the many many khandas (chapters) of this super long epic into a few hundred words, I could do no better.

Not being an only child myself, I wonder what type of brothers would I prefer mine are? Certainly not a Sugreeva type waiting for the moment to throw a boulder on my head when my backs turned for a minute. I dont think I might even appreciate the dharma hugging Vibishana type brother who will put dharma on top of his devotion to me! A blessing it would be to have brothers like Lakshmana and Bharatha who would gladly forsake everything for the sake of their elder brother and manifest God - me!


Confused Martian said...

Let me start off by saying that it is an extremely interesting angle that you have used to explore Ramayana. Now, a question:

Isn't Maricha Ravana's uncle? If I remember correctly, Maricha and Subahu were brothers that tormented the rishis during their yagas. These two were the sons of Thaarakai. Rama and Lakshmana - in the company of Vishwamitra - slew Tharakai and Subahu but Maricha escaped only to later die at the hands of Rama when he decided to help his nephew get Sita. But then again, there are so many variations of the epics that he could also be Ravana's brother.

That done, let me come back to your thesis. Brothers - of course. Perhaps one of the most complicated relationships. Equal enough to nurture love and friendship, but with enough strengths and weaknesses to nurture ego and hatred. The fact that there was such a person as Lakshmana, sacrificing his entire life at the feet of his elder, is something unbelievable. All said and done, Rama is the true hero of the story. And his fallacies only serve to further his tragic nature.

mooligai sidhan said...

Sri gurubhyo namaha.
@(not so)confused martian

'Let me start off by saying that it is an extremely interesting angle that you have used to explore Ramayana.'

Thank you!

'Isn't Maricha Ravana's uncle? '

Yes indeed, Maricha is Ravana's uncle and not his brother. My mistake - what with the primary intent to come over with some 'oh so contrived'and 'clever'words in the blog, truth gets a bit distorted!
Actually, maricha was a reformed soul after his close brush with death at the hands of Rama and Lakshmana in the episode with Vishwamitras yaga. Ravana found him in the mountains living the life of an ascetic when he needed his help to distract Rama away from Sita. Infact, Maricha tries to make Ravana see that his motives were not good and that this would turn out to be his undoing.Eventually though, he succumbs to the familial tie and knowingly goes to face his death as the golden deer at the hands of Rama.

'But then again, there are so many variations of the epics that he could also be Ravana's brother.'

Immaterial as there is still no conflict as to whether Maricha was Ravanas brother or uncle. It was my mistake completely.

'That done, let me come back to your thesis. '

Hah, a very big word!! I have no pretenses of being capable of unbiased research on anything like the Ramayana! I am just your average Joe Bloggs;)

'The fact that there was such a person as Lakshmana, sacrificing his entire life at the feet of his elder, is something unbelievable. All said and done, Rama is the true hero of the story. And his fallacies only serve to further his tragic nature.'

This is material I have in mind for a seperate post. So I have no intention of throwing my trump card at first show in the comments column which no body reads! Kindly wait for the next post.

mooligai sidhan said...

On Maricha

I have heard of and read versions where Maricha is described as being the brother of Ravana. Doing a small google search on maricha came up with quite a bit of variety. Here's one place, though I dont think its the source of authority.