Beyond the Shadow of ‘Role Models’ and Rogue Mannequins – Lessons from the Ramayana revisited

Written by August 21, 2011 7:21 pm 5 comments

What the storytellers of old engagingly brought to life in vivid verse, trust the sermonizers of today to condescendingly stiffen into commandments to be set in stone…and in slideshows! A slideshow like ‘14 Life Lessons From the Ramayana‘ currently being circulated online, is like all sermons, voiced with fervour but vulnerable to parody, and therefore this response to it is not as much a furious takedown as a good-natured double-take.

Presented along with the content from the original slide-show, what this is not is a ‘smackdown’ and what it is is a critique of how oversimplified a mythology-based ethical worldview is. Many of the comments below allude to the mismatch between the conduct of contemporary society and the much-vaunted value-system of the Ramayana it claims to follow. Far from being a parody, this exercise is actually quite the opposite; an attempt to inject more seriousness into the discourse on ethics.

Introduction

“Ramayana is just not a mythological story; it is one of the two “itihas” most widely read and revered by Hindus. Itihas means “thus happened”; Ramayana is considered the true story of Rama, the king of Ayodhya, who is considered the very incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Thus the story of Ramayana, whenever read, gives us a great insight to the very high moral and ethical standards of the yore; at times of mental turmoil, we get enlightenment by reading Ramayana. Here are some of the lessons one can learn from reading Ramayana.”

Critique: Some perennial ethical challenges are indeed presented in such epics but only in archaic caricature, and as for the unprecedented ethical challenges peculiar to us, those were understandably inconceivable to the writers of the epics. Of course whatever is said below is subject to the disclaimer that Indians can be as proud of the Ramayana as the Greeks are of the Iliad and Odyssey, so long as they do not glorify the ‘ethics’ of these epics as anything more than primitive at best and oppressive at worst.

Lesson 1.

“Relationship between Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha

Human life is consumed in chasing materialism (Artha) and sense pleasures (Kama). Ramayana makes it clear that these two pursuits should never be at the cost of Dharma (righteousness). In withholding dharma, both artha and Kama can be and must be sacrificed. The ultimate goal of life is Moksha (liberation) and it can be attained only by relinquishing Artha and Kama and by strictly following a life of Dharma.”

Critique: Neither ascetic deprivation nor withdrawal from productive activity is necessary for leading an Ethical Life. Oppressive injunctions such as these which religions are replete with, all too obviously hinder rather than help the realization of human potential.

Lesson 2.

“The importance of one man being wedded to only one wife

Rama’s own father Dasaratha was wedded to 3 wives (queens) and he had innumerable concubines at his palace. In a stark contrast to his father, Rama remained wedded and staunchly loyal to his only wife Sita. With this qualification, he held his head high as the greatest king ever ruled in Bharat. He set example for future generations of men as to what constitutes a sterling quality for the respectability of a man in society.”

Critique: Marriage as a human institution of civil union must be one which any pair of mutually consenting adults has the freedom to solemnize without needing approval from or facing persecution from any religious authority enforcing its own writ upon this fundamentally private communion.

Lesson 3.

“Adherence to truth and the need to honor one’s word

Later in time, when his third wife Kaikeyi wanted the throne of Ayodhya for her own son Bharata and wanted Rama to be sent in exile to the forest, it was nothing short of a deathly blow to Dasarata. But still, he could never use his kingly authority to veto her request, because of the promise he had made long ago to Kaikeyi, to grant her two boons whenever she chose to ask.”

Critique: Great caution and prudence ought to be exercised while entering contractual obligations and unilateral commitments without taking all stakeholders into confidence must be eschewed. For any kind of leader, a corporate or a Head of State, assuming the consent of the team before briefing them of risks amounts to a breach of trust and abuse of power.

Lesson 4.

“Respecting father’s word of Honor

Rama had every right to question such an injustice meted out to him and he was in not really duty-bound to honor his father’s unjust promises. But true to his greatness, Rama, with utter detachment and without even a trace of disappointment reflecting on his face, conceded to both the demands. For him, “honoring his father’s words” was one of the highest dharmas.”

Critique: Obligations towards one’s parents are matters best left to the conscience of the persons concerned and not topics of jurisprudence. To consider such obligations as divinely mandated to be unconditional and exclusively applicable in a patriarchal setting, is indefensible from a contemporary standpoint.

Lesson 5.

“The futility of listening to vicious counseling

Lakshmana, the most beloved brother of Rama, could not just tolerate the injustice meted out to Rama. But the ever sober Rama pacified Lakshmana with soothing words, pointing out the need for adhering to dharma. The effect of Rama’s counseling not only pacified Lakshmana, but also gave him a steely resolution to relinquish his own comforts of the palace to accompany Rama to the forest, despite the latter’s objections to it.”

Critique: Persons in a leadership role are not always entitled to the luxury of doctrinaire posturing at the cost of pragmatic decision-making, especially when the imperative of welfare of the very people whose trust vests the powers in the leader dictates otherwise.

Lesson 6.

“Not accepting any booty coming in unjust way

Bharata, the son of Kaikeyi, is another sterling character in Ramayana, who just could not tolerate the very idea of bequeathing the throne that rightfully belong to his elder brother Rama but wrongly acquired for his sake by his mother. As Rama refused to concede, he took Rama’s pair of footwear and carried it on his head; he placed them on the throne of Ayodhya and took care of administration of the country as a representative.”

Critique: Declining political office that comes one’s way in the fitness of things, is an act that is often glorified with de facto sainthood, when all that this decision maybe is a heeding of the dictates of prudence based on a reading of the public mood. Conferring sainthood upon political renouncers in a modern democracy is fraught with the risk of creating an unaccountable, extra-constitutional power center.

Lesson 7.

“The futility of getting swayed by dubious attractions

Sita, in the forest, got madly attracted by a beautiful golden deer. She refused to heed to her husband’s counsel that such a deer could not be a natural one and it could be a demon in disguise. It is her incessant pestering to acquire the deer to be her play-mate that forced Rama to go behind it. It paved the way for her getting separated from him and she got forcibly abducted by Ravana, the demon.”

Critique: The traditional marital setting where one spouse lives in a state of financial dependence on the other for their every need, is anachronistic in contemporary societies, where every individual should be entitled to pursue their aspirations as professionals, consumers and citizens in a personal capacity irrespective of their marital status.

Lesson 8.

“The importance of being watchful about one’s utterances

The demon called out “Lakshmana! Sita!” in Rama’s mimicked voice and died. Sita, upon hearing it, urged Lakshmana, who was standing guard to her, to go and help Rama, who seemed to be in trouble.  Ravana utilized this opportunity to abduct her.Finally Sitawas forced to prove her chastity by the test of fire by Rama only because of her intemperate and terrible accusation against the saintly and devout Lakshmana.”

Critique: In much human communication there is difficult tradeoff between frankness and mindfulness to the sensibilities of others, and it seems unconvincing that readings of epics are sufficient to cultivate such prudence.

Lesson 9.

“The importance of fighting atrocity against woman

Jatayu, the aged and once powerful bird, who noticed Ravana abducting Sita forcefully and flying with her in his vehicle towards his country Lanka, fought valiantly to obstruct Ravana and release Sita, but could not succeed in its effort. The bird sacrificed its very life on such a noble effort. Before breathing its last, Jatayu managed to convey the news to Rama, who, moved to tears by the gallantry of the old bird, did its last rites and funeral, as though he was the son of the bird.”

Critique: Crimes against women occur most in a society that tacitly through a conspiracy of silence and winks allows the conditions for such crimes to thrive, by encouraging opportunity denial, commoditization and perpetuation of exploitative institutions.

Lesson 10.

“Divinely love transcends all barriers of caste and creed

Likewise, Sabari, an old hunter woman of low caste, became a staunch devotee of Rama, just by hearing about Rama’s greatness. When Rama was wandering the forests in search of Sita, Rama happened to visit Sabari’s hut and the old lady, overwhelmed with love for Rama reportedly offered to him fruits after nibbling each a bit to make sure that she did not offer sour fruits to her beloved Rama.”

Critique: Centuries of banishment and exclusion are not magically undone overnight by carefully orchestrated visits by high-profile politicians to dwellings of the underprivileged in a media blitz of the ‘politics of inclusion’.

Lesson 11.

“The importance of humility as a great virtue

Hanuman was physically very powerful, was a great diplomat, was very erudite in spoken words and was full of wisdom. Yet his humility was unsurpassed. The moment he met Rama, he was bowled over by Rama’s divinity and charm and he committed himself to be the life-long servant of Rama. The great feats he did in the service of Rama subsequently were unparalleled and the humility he displayed despite his greatness was unfathomable.”

Critique: Servility and obsequiousness to uphold and flaunt a fetishized modesty hinder professional accomplishment in the workplace in all sectors and have the risk of creating personality cults sustained by sycophancy.

Lesson 12.

“The greatness of true friendship

Rama befriended the estranged Vanar King Sugriva (who’s brother Vali forcefully took Sugriva’s wife and also denied his share of Vanar kingdom) with a mutual promise of help – Rama to eliminate the immensely powerful Vali and Sugriva in turn to help Rama to seek and locate Sita and wage war against Ravana to retriveSita. Both did a commendable job in honoring their words.”

Critique: Dignifying opportunistic alliances in the shadow of which connivance is facilitated thanks to diluted responsibility and plausible deniability, remains the refuge of a political class which remains indifferent to much wrongdoing in the name of ‘coalition dharma’.

Lesson 13.

“Showing mercy even to the enemy

On the first fiery combat between Rama and Ravana, Rama destroyed all the weapons and armor of Ravana; Ravana stood on the war field, unprotected. Rama, who could have easily killed Ravana at that moment, in one of the greatest acts of graciousness, asked Ravana to retire for the day and return to the war field the next day, fully re-armed, as it was against dharma to kill an un-armed person.”

Critique: Subjecting military personnel under his or her command to additional avoidable combat risks by withholding, in deference to ‘international opinion’, options that could have concluded the mission, remains a tough call and a major occupational hazard for any Commander in Chief.

Lesson 14.

“The need for the highest standards in a King

After annihilating Ravana and freeing Sita from confinement, Rama did one of the most controversial and oft criticized demand by asking Sita to jump into the fire to prove her chastity. Sita did it and came out unscathed. Rama took her into his loving fold once again.”

Critique: Obligations of marital fidelity rest equally on both the spouses and they are entitled to a withdrawal of such obligation with mutual consent, without either spouse being entitled to unilaterally ‘issue punishment’ as it were, on grounds of unmet obligation.

All images are from the animated movie Sita Sings The Blues by Nina Paley distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.

Content from 14 Life Lessons From Ramayana by C.V.Rajan is used as fair use material for the purpose of this critique.

This post was written by:

- who has written 12 posts on Nirmukta.

Arvind Iyer is a student researcher at the University of Southern California working in the broad areas of Computational Neuroscience and biological visual processing. His interests include science popularization, continuing education, secular philanthropy and freethought blogging.

5 Comments

  • I have one comment about the following statement (Lesson 2):

    Marriage as a human institution of civil union must be one which any “PAIR” of mutually consenting adults….

    Pairing among humans is neither a universal practice nor a biological necessity. What is wrong with polygamy if it is between mutually consenting adults? Jokes aside, I think the skeptic community should refrain from rejecting it altogether without enough evidence to show it actually harms someone.

    • Yes, that significantly broadens the scope of the discourse on social organization, while the scope of my statement in the article was narrower, in particular to remove religious influences on civil unions. The accent in that statement was on ‘civil union’ rather than ‘pair’, and as for a larger assumption-free discourse on what form civil union can take, it will take way more ground-laying to opportunely initiate it.

    • Captain Mandrake

      What is wrong with polygamy if it is between mutually consenting adults?

      Nothing wrong. But the term polygamy carries a lot of baggage. Polyamory is a better term.

      http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyamory

  • Ch. Mallikharjuna gupta.,

    wonderful lessons learned from Ramayana epic., Excellent way of expreesions with diagrams., Thank you for the same.,

  • Had it been translated in hindi more readers would have been read it and argued

Leave a Reply


Comments are moderated. Please see our commenting guidelines

Trackbacks