To Err Is Human – A Skeptical Reading Of The Ramayana
It can be stated without doubt that the Ramayana, sage Valmiki’s magnum opus, is the single most influential epic to have ever risen from our nation. The epic was an important influence on later Sanskrit poetry and Indian life and culture. The characters of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman and Ravana (the villain of the piece) are all fundamental to the cultural consciousness of India.
Analysis of Ramayana as a purely literary work without the religious connotations attached shows a complex story that weaves a web of heroism, adventure, romance, familial ties and Dharma (righteousness). The elevation of this epic to the status of a holy text, however, has been a cause for contention amongst the skeptics.
Many people attribute to Rama, the title of “Purushottama” or the best among mankind. He has been called the ideal son, the ideal brother, the ideal husband, the ideal king and the ideal person. He is the one with the absolutely perfect moral compass… or is he? This essay tries to study this particular question, through a few examples which I feel illustrate the errors in judgment of the most ideal human being.
The Way of the Righteous
In an academic paper titled “Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation”, A.K. Ramanujan wrote:
“The number of Ramayanas and the range of their influence in South and Southeast Asia over the past twenty‐five hundred years or more are astonishing. Just a list of languages in which the Rama story is found makes one gasp: Annamese, Balinese, Bengali, Cambodian, Chinese, Gujarati, Javanese, Kannada, Kashmiri, Khotanese, Laotian, Malaysian, Marathi, Oriya, Prakrit, Sanskrit, Santali, Sinhalese, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan…. Sanskrit alone contains some twenty‐five or more tellings belonging to various narrative genres.”
Even this erudite scholar of Indian literature was unsure as to how many tellings (a word he prefers to versions or variants as that would imply that there is an original text) of the Ramayana actually exist. Is it 300, is it 3,000, he asks in the article.
Nevertheless, though the “tellings” and narrative may vary, the crux of the story and the moral dilemmas that Rama faces remain the same. The text used as a reference here is the English translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana. It is by far the oldest account of the story and the one that most people are familiar with. A critical reading of the Ramayana throws light on the moral grey areas of both Rama and Ravana as opposed to the Black and White representation of pure good and evil that most Indians are led to believe. The following examples should establish this viewpoint more clearly.
The Golden Deer
The crucial scene of the “Golden Deer” is the crisis point of the story. It is during this event that several, very influential decisions are made by main characters which effectively shape the rest of the story. The scene begins with the demon Mareecha who takes on the shape of a beautiful golden deer. Sita is absolutely fascinated with it and starts craving for it. Rama in his desire to please his wife, goes off to hunt the deer and ultimately kills it. The deer(Mareecha) dies, not before impersonating Rama and shouting out a cry for help. This draws a reluctant Lakshmana out into the wild thus leaving Sita unprotected from the wily Ravana who takes her away to his kingdom of Lanka.
All through the scene, Lakshmana remains the voice of reason. His reasoned arguments suggesting to Rama not to pursue an apparent illusion, or to Sita to not get worked up over what he felt was a mischievous ploy, all fell on deaf ears. Up to this point in the story, Rama gives the impression of having a strong grasp over what is right and wrong, and comes off as being anything but rash. Yet, during this crucial situation, the crisis of the story, he makes the mistakes of a rookie hero. It is during this decisive occurrence that the reader becomes aware of how human Rama, re‐incarnation of Vishnu, really is. He does not consider the repercussion of his actions. From the moment that he hears Sita’s demand to the moment right before he kills Mareecha, Rama is completely blinded by his love for his wife, which is of course a very human emotion. It is this love, and his guilt about his wife “who ungrudgingly threw in her lot with his” when he was exiled, that leads him astray.
The Battle of the Brothers
We move along in the story, to the point where Rama and Lakshmana start their pursuit of Sita and come across the realm of the monkeys. This next moral dilemma concerns two brothers named Vali and Sugreeva. Vali was the king of the monkeys at Kishkindha. He was a renowned warrior of great valor who had bested even the mighty Ravana at one point. His feud with Sugreeva started after his brother had sealed the entrance to a cave in which Vali was fighting a rakshasa named Mayavi. Sugriva had mistaken the blood flowing out of the cave to be his brother’s, blocked the entrance to the cave with a boulder and left for Kishkindha, assuming that his brother was dead. When Vali had emerged victorious over the rakshasa, he had found that the entrance to the cave was blocked (not a problem for his strength), and had then discovered Sugriva ruling in his place. Vali then takes back his kingdom and exiles Sugreeva who takes refuge in the forest, where he met and formed an alliance with Rama. Rama had been travelling the length of India in search of his kidnapped wife, Sita. Sugreeva asked Rama’s help in return for his help in defeating Ravana and rescuing Sita. The two hatched a plan to topple Vali from the throne. Sugreeva challenged Vali to a fight. When Vali sallied forth to meet the challenge, Rama emerged from the forest to shoot and kill him with an arrow.
That Rama got involved in a fair fight and blindsided Vali and killed him was an act uncalled for and showcases his moral and ethical grey areas. Here was a man, who was clearly thinking only of his ends and needs, those being the help he needed to regain his wife. He meddled in affairs beyond his concern only for the benefits of quid pro quo. Apologists have claimed here that Vali was a tyrant who needed to be dealt with. Even if it were the case, the “dharmic” way of going about it would be to challenge him in a fair fight himself and not go against the rules of war and shoot him unawares.
The Second Exile of Sita
At the end of the war, Rama is victorious over Ravana’s numerous hordes and reunites with his wife. But even as Sita comes before him in great excitement and happiness, Rama does not look at her, staring fixedly at the ground. He tells her that he had fought the war only to avenge the dishonour that Ravana had inflicted on Raghuvamsa, and now Sita was free to go where she pleased. Sita begs Lakshmana to build her a pyre upon which she could end her life, as she could not live without Rama. At the great shock and sorrow of the watchers, Sita walks into the flames. But to their greater shock and wonder, she is completely unharmed. Instead, she glows radiantly from the centre of the pyre. Immediately Rama runs to Sita and embraces her. He had never doubted her purity for a second, but, as he explains to a dazzled Sita, the people of the world would not have accepted or honoured her as a queen or a woman if she had not passed this Agni pariksha (test of the fire) before the eyes of millions, where Agni would destroy the impure and sinful, but not touch the pure and innocent.
Now, one would expect that if Rama was convinced about the chastity of his wife, that would suffice. I fail to understand why Rama would be so unsecure and seek constant approval of the “world” and not stick to his convictions. This section of the Ramayana has been used often by feminists to highlight the traditional mistreatment of women in the classic literature. One would argue that in putting her to the test, wasn’t Rama undermining his wife and hurting her pride?
Nevertheless, Rama and Sita reunite and return to Ayodhya to lead the rest of their lives in happiness and contentment. Or so one would think, until we reach the Uttara Kanda in the Ramayana where Rama banishes his wife Sita, even as she is pregnant, asking Lakshmana to deliver her safely to Rishi Valmiki’s ashram. He does so when it is reported to him that some subjects of his in Ayodhya believed that Sita was unchaste due to her long captivity in Ravana’s city. As a king is expected to uphold moral principles, and the keeping of an unchaste woman is considered a violation of said principles, Rama reluctantly banished Sita in order to uphold his duty as a king.
One would expect that her passing the test of fire with flying colors would have been sufficient validation of her chastity. One would also expect the noble king to not be swayed by mere public opinion when he knew the truth of the matter. Yet here we see a man still seeking the approval of the world which clouds his judgment and makes him err in his ruling.
The Case of Shambuka
Rama, after his return to Ayodhya, begins to establish his reign over his kingdom. His rule is claimed to be an era of prosperity and peace, dubbed in the Indian vernacular as “Ram Rajya”. Yet, sometime into his reign, the death of a child occurs in the kingdom. He is told that calamities such as this occur when Dharma is not followed in a kingdom. Rama tries to find out the reason and comes to know that a person of the Shudra jati (lower caste), called Shambuka is performing penance which he is strictly not supposed to do according to the Varna system (the infamous caste system). He is executed, by beheading, personally by Rama.
bhāṣatas tasya śūdrasya khaḍgaṃ suruciraprabham
niṣkṛṣya kośād vimalaṃ śiraś ciccheda rāghavaḥ
Valmiki Ramayana, Uttara Kanda, Sarga 67, Verse 4
In the modern context, this incident is quoted often to condemn Rama, the varna system, or both. E.V. Ramasami used this episode to argue that Rama as depicted in the Ramayana was clearly not the benevolent king devotees claimed him to be, and often used depictions of the scene of Shambuka’s beheading at rallies. Ambedkar, in contrast, said that to condemn Rama based on this incident was to miss the point. The true point of the story of Shambuka was that it demonstrated the unsustainability of the varna system, and the extent to which its existence depended on the harsh punishment of those who sought to transgress it.
I personally don’t agree completely with Ambedkar. Whilst it is true that it does demonstrate the unsustainability of the varna system, it also surfaces the dangers of moral absolutism. Surely, for a person hailed to be the best judge of morality, he could have easily reversed this doctrine. He had the authority to dictate whats right and wrong and presumably the understanding as well, yet he was once again a victim of societal pressure. A wise ruler would be expected to change the law to keep in tune with the moral relativism and value the life of a human being greater than that of a harsh doctrine.
While the examples and the annotation provided might appear to paint a clearly dark image of Rama, that is definitely not the intention. He was definitely a good person, obedient son, caring brother and a benevolent (to an extent) king. Rama’s virtues are plenty, and much has been written and said about them. The purpose here is to show the grey areas of his personality and his errors in judgment as well, because it is often overlooked.
The problem with faith is that when you question your belief, it makes a huge dent in one’s psychological makeup. The basis of faith is in the infallibility in one’s deity and any attempts to question the actions of the deity amounts to blasphemy. Thus, the voice of the skeptic gets drowned in the sea of the faithful. However, peoples trust in an infallible God and people’s belief in an absolute morality needs to be questioned.
I would like to end with a simple thought exercise in moral relativism, one which I would love to put in front of Rama himself. The virtue of “Truth” is highly valued in all religious scriptures. And we have seen that Rama himself is a stickler to established morals and doctrines as dictated by it. So, imagine that you are a German in Nazi Germany providing refuge to the Jews. You answer a knock on your door by the Nazis asking you for details of any escaped prisoners. Would you rather lie to protect them, or are you bound by truth to give away the details and thus aid in their recapture? The correct answer, in my humble opinion, would be to lie. And I would love to know what Rama’s answer would be.
Sri Harsha Dandibhotla’s blog posts can be found here.