Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Pursuit of Dharma in the Ramayana

K. Savitri Ammal


John Ruskin speaks of the book of the moment, the book of the hour and the book of all time. We know of course what is meant by the book of the moment and the book of the hour. They are the achievements of the modern printing press, the benefit of which to mankind, however, is very much to be doubted. We know the cheap periodicals and the still cheaper fiction printed and sold by hundreds of thousands every day. The books of all time, on the other hand, contain the imperishable thoughts and utterances of highly evolved souls and so they stand for all time defying the passage of time.

The book of Islam is held in so great a veneration by those belonging to that religion, that it has been said “What need for other books if there is the Koran? What avails indeed all the books in the world if there is not the Koran?” Should not we, the Hindus, say the same thing of our own Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the other Puranas with perhaps a greater measure of truth? These have come down to us, indeed, surviving all these thousands of years, their glory undiminished for all the vicissitudes of time. Has not Brahma, the Loka Pitamaha, himself blessed the immortal Epic of Valmiki with these prophetic words that as long as the mountains stand and the rivers flow in the world, the story of Rama will continue to be told.

He further bestowed on him the essential requisite of a poet that whatever came from his lips will be nothing but the truth.

It was the fervent belief of the people that when God the Parama Purusha Himself came on earth as a human being to establish Dharma and chose King Dasaratha as his father, the Vedas also took birth from Valmiki.

So the essence of the Ramayana with all its beauty, its poetry, and its narrative excellence, it is held, is only what is contained in the Vedas; for it is believed, what the Vedas enjoin with authority as in a tone of command, literature proposes to tell as the beloved in a sweet persuasive way. The true function of literature, it is acknowledged, is not only to entertain us in our happy moments but to be our best comfort when we are down with sorrow. Have we not seen the Ramayana proving an invaluable source of help to thousands of people in their hour of trial and tribulation and has it not saved them from falling a prey to utter despair and desolation? We know how the Divine personality of Sri Rama enthralled the imagination so much from age to age that it produced great saints and poets like Tulsidas, Tyagaraja, Kamban as well as a host of others, who are rendered immortal through their works.

The Ramayana has been described as

Verily, those who dive deep into the poem will find thoughts as rare and precious as the very gems of the sea. Where else can we look for the description of Nature in such beautiful melifluous language than in the Ramayana or the apt Upamas and Alankaras which abound in the poem? Do we need any reference, of Arthasastra, Rajaneeti, Political Science or similar things? The Ramayana provides ample scope for them. It is marvellous how war has been described in such minute detail. Thomas Carlyle says in his Hero as a Poet, “The poet who could merely sit on a chair and compose stanzas would never make a stanza worth much. He could not sing the Heroic Warrior unless he himself were at least a Heroic Warrior too. I fancy there is in him the politician, the thinker, legislator, philosopher in one or the other degree; he could have been, he is, all these–Shakespeare–one knows not what he could not have made in the supreme degree.” Do we not feel the same thing about Valmiki? Unless he be the great Tapasvi that he is said to be, how could he be all those men at the same time in that supreme degree as emphasized by Carlyle?

As I was studying the Ramayana, the oft-quoted word “Dharma” in the poem gave rise to a train of thoughts which led me to analyse the world of Valmiki. The characters, almost all of them, seem to have so high a moral sense that nothing seems to have the power to shake them from it whatever the temptation may be. They hardly entertain any doubts as to what they should do in a given set of circumstances. Indeed, they have too clear a view of the path they have chosen, however dark it may be.
Let us take Sri Rama the embodiment of Dharma as conceived by Valmiki.  No sooner is he told that he is to be installed on the throne as the Yuvaraja than he is asked to renounce it and take himself as an exile to the Dandaka forest for 14 years. Do these words startle him or even make him wince? No! he is hardly agitated. He does not even show any sign of surprise at all, at the too sudden a turn of events. For, he belongs to the order of Sthitapragnyas who are neither affected by grief nor by desire for pleasures and who are free from attachment, fear and anger.

He sees his father bound by his promise to Kaikeyi and as his son it is upto him to help him to be true to his word. His duty lies before him so unequivocally clear that he will allow nothing to make him swerve from it. As a Sthitapragnya he is nothing daunted by the so called terrors of the forest, nor is he in any way attracted by the pleasures of a kingly life. Listen how he replies to Kaikeyi “Mother, I do not want to live attached to riches. Know that I am like the Rishis of old strictly following the path of Dharma.”

He is prepared to start alone for the forest. But the faithful Lakshmana will go with him though he is no way bound to accompany him, for he feels without a doubt that his place is by the side of Rama wherever he goes. Is he not Rama’s  Again there is Sita whom Rama dissuades from going with him as far as he can, advising her to attend to the comforts of his aged father and mother in his absence. But she is not one to be so easily set aside but one with a will of her own. She entertains so clear a conviction as to the conduct of an ideal wife that she is determined to follow him even to the end of the earth. As a “Pativrata” or “Sahachari” she declares she has no life apart from him. Listen to what she says to Kausalya

Thus Rama’s exile is greatly lightened by the loving company of both Sita and Lakshmana. It is amusing how even the hard-hearted Manthara is not callous enough to advise Kaikeyi to insist on Rama going alone  to the forest.

It is also interesting to note that though Dasaratha actually gives up his life unable to bear the pangs of separation from Rama yet he cannot bring himself on that account to be untrue to his word. Indeed he would rather, his beloved Rama be banished to the forest living a hermit’s life for 14 years, than himself prove false to his promise. His sense of honour is too high for him to ignore it even in such a crisis. What shall we say about Sumitra the mother of Lakshmana to whom it has been given along with Tara and Mandothari to realise the divine in Sri Rama? Hence she is mentioned in the poem as  What mother would willingly make her son undergo, as she does, the hardships of the forest to which he is no way bound? But her conception of duty or Dharma is so exalted that she is simply impatient to send him away when he comes to take leave of her. Mark what she says:

And then Bharata! To what a height does he rise when we come to think of him! He is so noble, so high souled that the great Tamil poet Kamban has not scrupled to depict him even superior to Sri Rama. Let us listen to the famous verse of Kamban.

“Your refusal to accept the kingdom legally your own, when bestowed on you by your father, as a thing of the greatest evil on earth, makes me wonder if even a thousand Ramas can be your equal!”

They are the words of Guha spoken in his profound admiration at the magnanimity of Bharata. To be made the king of Ayodhya instead of Sri Rama, though the kingdom is quite legitimately his own, is so much against his conscience that he will not rest until he succeeds in bringing Rama and installing him on the throne. When he hears from his mother the terrible news of the banishment of Rama from the kingdom and the death of his father told in such exultation as though they would make him rejoice, he is lost in such grief and anger that he denounces her, his own mother, so openly and vehemently that she is plunged in utter humiliation ever after. How he heaps upon himself all the terrible sins in the world in answer to the unjust accusation of Kausalya, in such bitter self-reproach that it frightens all who hear him.

are the words of Valmiki. Bharata does not care how he condemns the aged Vasishta who has allowed things that ought not to have happened. While the kingdom has become his in spite of his protests he however cleverly suggests to Rama in the Chitrakoota with these words “If I can do what I choose with what is absolutely mine, then I offer it to you, Oh Rama! Take it from me and be the king of Ayodhya.” But Rama, who is not the one to go on his word,

is adamant. He says nothing will shake him from his pratignya  and declares finally

Surely there can be no breach of Dharma in Rama’s complying with the request of Bharata. He has done his duty by his father and now when Bharata implores him on his knees, to take the kingdom and make him free, is it not cruel of Rama to disappoint him? But Rama’s conception of Dharma is so high that he will keep his vow of 14 years in the forest at all costs. We know how he cared nothing of sacrificing even Sita who underwent cheerfully all the hardships of exile with him, in obedience to an idle scandal about her. He suffered no qualms of conscience or mental conflict in doing what he considered his Dharma. Mark what he says, in the words of the poet Bhavabhuti

that he would feel no remorse in giving up his friendship, his comforts, his compassion, and even Sita, if it would please the people, as if the people meant more to him than the sweetest and best of wives on earth. In this connection I am reminded of the great play Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, in which the character of Brutus is portrayed with all the nobility in the world. But his mind is depicted, as torn too much by conflicts, and he becomes a mere tool in the hands of the conspirators. He kills Caesar; but the tragedy of it is, he hardly entertains any sense of the enormous crime he has committed. How noble, how sincere are his words “not that I love Caesar less but I love Rome more.” Can anyone have the heart to condemn such a man?

We find in Sri Rama the high trait of placing his duty above everything dear to him on earth whenever the occasion arises for it. In the Aranya Kanda when Sita expresses to him gently her doubt as to the propriety of his being aggressive towards the Rakshasas without sufficient provocation, he replies to her, though appreciating her concern, that he has given his word, to the Brahmanas, to protect them from the Rakshasas, which he must keep at all costs. These are his words:

“I would give up my life, even you and Lakshmana but not my promise to the Brahmanas” he says.

The greatness of Rama lies in his being a  one whose mind is so under control that nothing has power to sway it. This makes him rise above all including Bharata. Bharata,  in spite of his being so great that even a thousand Ramas cannot equal him, in the immortal words of the Tamil poet, it may be said, cannot fully rise to that state of mind of Sri Rama which can accept pain or pleasure without the slightest change of his countenance

The poet himself says with exceeding fervour how Rama’s personality scarcely lost its brilliance even with the loss of the kingdom.

Bharata is not so simple, or so impuliive as Lakshmana. He is more intellectual, more severe in his outlook. He cannot excuse even the slightest weakness in others. How hard he is on his own mother of whom he speaks with such derision as  Will Sri Rama ever say like that? This is perhaps felt by Keikeyi herself and it makes her say probably to Manthara:

We may infer from this that Rama is too respectful, too considerate, towards her to note the above faults in her. Do we not find him chiding Lakshmana on hearing him speak disparagingly of Kaikeyi?

“No Lakshmana, I will not have you speak harshly of mother Kaikeyi” he says.

It is not wrong to suppose that Bharata is too confident of his own powers of argument in persuading Rama to return with him to Ayodhya. But when all proves of no avail, he becomes so desperate in mind that he takes the vow of living the most austere life for 14 years exactly in the same way as Rama. Indeed, nobody can be so ruthless with himself as Bharata and nobody can be so free from any mental conflict as to the pursuit of what he considers to be his Dharma. We have seen the old king lamenting how Rama would at once do what he asked him  when he might easily set him aside. I would like to imagine Bharata in Rama’s place and see how he behaves. Of course, he will not care a straw for renouncing the kingdom but it may be supposed he will not accept the banishment to the forest for 14 years without demanding a legitimate reason for it.

We know there are two selves in man–the higher and the lower–which are constantly at grips with each other, each trying to conquer the other. In a Satvic being, however, the lower self is held in strict control, whereas in ordinary mortals the lower nature gains the upper hand. Let us take Vibhishana who, we find, has chosen the path of righteousness though born a Rakshasa. He tries to make Ravana realise the vile sin of taking another’s wife by force; but when he receives, in return, nothing but contempt and insult from Ravana, he loses no time in deserting him and surrendering himself to Sri Rama. He does not feel any mental conflict about it, nor is he assailed by any doubts as to the propriety of his conduct.

It is significant how even characters like Ravana, Vali, Kumbhakarna, and others, who have taken to the path of Adharma have not the slightest compunction for their evil deeds. They have become all too powerful on account of the special favours of the Gods bestowed on them. Their minds are totally free from any misgivings as to the evil path they pursue. Ravana never once gives way to self-introspection and never once realises how base, how reprehensible it is to desire another’s wife. He says to Sita without any feeling of shame:

His personality however is so magnificent that even Sri Rama cannot restrain his admiration on seeing him on the battle-field.

Hanuman too can hardly help being fascinated by his personality.

Vali, intoxicated with his own power and physical prowess, quite wrongly misconstrues poor Sugriva’s action and refuses to pay the slightest heed to his explanations or entreaties. He denounces him irrevocably. And Indrajit! Is he not too vain of his being  the vanquisher of Indra himself, to have any positive sense of right or wrong? He is past any self-analysis which will make him pause before resorting to an evil course. Now if we take the other great epic the Mahabharata we cannot find such a high conception of Dharma or the conscious adherence to it as in the Ramayana. In the Mahabharata the play of the higher and the lower selves in man can be seen to a large extent. Human nature is confronted with problems that require the greatest personal sacrifice. There is a mingling of both, the good and the bad elements, in equal proportions. What can we say of Karna who is endowed with all the qualities of a hero? His sense of gratitude to Duryodhana for having raised him from the mean status of being a charioteer’s son to the kingship of Anga is so profound that it binds him to Duryodhana for ever. He is determined to stand by him in fair and foul weather alike. Nevertheless his jealousy towards Arjuna is equally so profound that even his mother Kunti’s entreaties to him to desist from waging war against Arjuna, his own brother, fail to move him; nor does the intercession of Sri Krishna himself on the same mission prove any more successful. Karna merely says to Krishna with a glowing pride that he knows well who and what he is, and requests him not to disclose his identity to the Pandavas. Duryodhana is quite amiable, kind and generous, but for his implacable hatred of the Pandavas. He is on account of it, so lost to all sense of decency towards them that he feels no scruple, indeed, for having Draupadi dragged into the court and insulted before the eyes of her own husbands, the Pandavas.

Then the old blind king Dhritarashtra, who, though he is fully aware of the cruelty and injustice done by his sons to their cousins, yet, has not the heart to condemn them.

And Arjuna, the dearest friend and kinsman of Sri Krishna himself! What is he but a mixture of extreme strength and weakness at moments of crisis? Mahabharata depicts the eternal conflict that goes on in human nature and finally the triumph of good over evil. It is this struggle between evil and good which seems to be totally absent in the great characters of the Ramayana. They are so strong and so high-minded that they will not accept any compromise in what they consider to be their highest Dharma.

From all that has been said by way of analysis of the characters in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata it may not be out of place here to suggest that there has been a gradual decline in Dharma from age to age. The sense of values has undergone vast changes. From the perfect age we come to the age of the Ramayana in which Dharma, the observance of a high code of conduct, holds supreme sway over Adharma, defeating it in its purpose. In the age of the Mahabharata it is the great struggle between good and evil in man, both strong and positive and each trying to predominate over the other.

Lastly, in our own Kali age, we find Dharma declining faster than ever, and reaching such a sad state as to indicate its total downfall. The ancient ideals have changed giving place to new ones which are, not only far from being spiritual, but narrow as well as selfish and very much after personal gains. Nevertheless, great souls are born from time to time to show the path of Dharma to humanity. They hold aloft the torch which bears this glorious title

* From The Rt. Hon’ble Srinivasa Sastri Endowment Lecture delivered at the Madras Sanskrit College.

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