By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
We have all heard the saying that man cannot live by bread alone, implying that there is another hunger that too needs fulfillment. The satisfaction of material needs alone cannot be the end-all and be-all of life, and all human societies have evolved a set of values that serve as a basis for meeting the aspirations of their people.Sept. 18-19, as indicated by its core theme Educational & Cultural Enhancement. It was sponsored and organized by The Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at Northern Illinois University, in cooperation with the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (CSAMES) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the International Ramayana Institute of North America (IRINA). It included presentations on various sub-themes and a Ramayana-based teacher workshop.
As is well known Ramayana is one of the greatest Sanskrit epic poems ever written. Generally credited to the Indian poet Valmiki, the Ramayana is the story of the noble prince Rama, who forfeits his rights to the royal throne on moral grounds and retires to the forest with his wife, the princess Sita. The latter is lured and abducted by the demoniac King Ravana who sequestrates her in his palace grounds in Sri Lanka, whence she is rescued after a fierce battle waged by Shri Rama with the help of his faithful devotee Hanuman and the latter’s kin.
The story has been a powerful theme in Indian arts, literature and religion since its inception. It also spread throughout much of Southeast Asia in the first millennium A.D. There is no other mythic tale that can boast of such widespread circulation and which has had such a stimulating impact on diverse Asian countries’ artistic and ethical traditions. This was amply reflected in the conference through the speakers who came from several countries of Southeast Asia, namely Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and of course India, along with those from the US and Trinidad..
Mauritius was represented by the chairman of the Ramayana Centre Shri Rajendra Arun, and his presentation was titled Expression of Eternal Values in Ramayana. Four other papers were on the theme of values and ethics, indicating the importance given to them in the Ramayana and also their perennial relevance to the human condition. The necessity of Dharma, which from one perspective can be considered to mean right conduct for right living, is the essence of the Ramayana’s message, and the foundation of Vedic ethics. It aims at creating a society where there is harmony because righteousness prevails, and is thus an integrating force for an inclusive social life where everyone knows his duties and responsibilities, and is dedicated to fulfilling them for both personal and collective good. If there is any disintegration, it is part of a process of creative destruction that is but an expression of the natural order. Here it means that the forces of Dharma annihilate and triumph over the forces of Adharma or unrighteousness, whose origin can be traced to the bloated ego of man who wants to dominate over all others, but cannot rein in his own base impulses to start with.
Some extracts (with slight editorial amendments) from Rajendra Arun’s text will illustrate these points.
‘There is a question which people often ask: what is the need for values in order to keep on living? Is the acquisition of food, clothing and shelter, and the endless enjoyment of material pleasures not enough to satisfy us? I would humbly suggest that the answer is a firm ‘No.’ It is true that for biological survival we have to fulfill our bodily needs and desires, as all animals do. Like them, we also eat and drink, sleep, procreate and experience fear. But we often become so focused in this pursuit that the divinity within us is unable to express itself. Like the oyster shells that open up to reveal pearls, the practice of certain universal values helps us to cut through the layers of ignorance that cloud our minds and hearts to show us our innermost being, our atman.
The great characters of Ramayana are living examples of the way that human values can guide our daily life. As a result we feel attracted towards them and place them in high regard. They inspire us to emulate them.
We all acknowledge that truth is the basis of the eternal living values in all societies across the world. In fact it is because they have truth as their basis that living values become eternal and immortal. Ramayana is made up of characters who are committed to truth. For example, it is on account of this that King Dasaratha sacrifices his life. To him, a solemn promise made was superior to everything else. If an ordinary worldly man has to choose between a vow he has made and an unworthy son, his choice will more likely than not be the son. Dasaratha maintained his vow and sent his beloved son Rama in exile – and Rama, as is well known, was endowed with divine qualities. The firmness of the father was a source of inspiration for the son. Rama gave up all happiness and splendour and went to the forest. Even Bharata’s long journey from Ayodhya to Chitrakoot, which was full of devotion and love, could not deter him from respecting his vow.
Our sages have insisted on right behaviour, almost commanding that we should: speak truth, speak loving truth and not speak unpleasant truths. When one’s conduct is pleasant, everybody is attracted – but nowadays it seems that it is the opposite that holds. The one who speaks truth has become bitter and outspoken. But the teller of untruth has become honey-tongued. People are afraid of the truth teller’s bitterness and betrayed by the sweetness of the liar. Truth no longer appears to be central to life today. This is why in spite of so much dedication to prayers, kirtans and bhajans, life is beset with untold chaos and arrogance.
In addition to truth, though, other living values are needed in the course of one’s life. Affection, trust and love are the basis of our social life. The characters of Ramayana devote themselves to these values. Rama leaves Ayodhya on account of his love for Bharat, and Bharat gives up the temptation for royal splendour because of his love for Rama; he takes pleasure in practising penance as a hermit in Nandigram. Again, it is due to love that Lakshmana spends fourteen years in exile. Similarly, it is the love for her husband that makes Sita accompany Rama in the forest.
The living values, love, faith and sacrifice that lead man towards divine achievements could easily lead him into arrogance. Man is usually proud of his good values. To avoid this there is only one way – he has to acquire the eternal living values through humility, decorum, service and dedication. In these qualities Rama has always excelled. Mother Kaikeyi is very harsh when she tells him to go to the forest, but Rama is not disturbed in the least. Rama – the son of the solar dynasty, the treasure of happiness – smiles instead. Parsuram threatens to kill the one who has broken the bow but Rama, behaving as a servant awaiting an order stands before him with folded hands. He never says with pride to Parsuram that ‘I am the one who have broken the bow.’
With much humility he states that ‘the one who has broken the bow must be a servant of yours.’ When speaking about achievement he uses the third person and when showing readiness to service, he does so in the first person.
Rama who, throughout his life, had showed decorum with faith touched neither the kingdom of Kishkinda nor that of Lanka after their conquest. Despite the supplication of Vibhishan, Rama refused to take anything from the treasury of Lanka.
In Ramayana there are beautiful expressions of living values like service and dedication. The lives of Bharat, Hanuman, Sita and Lakshman are symbols of these. Rama clearly explains to Hanuman that he only can serve who has accepted that ‘I am the servant of all moving and unmoving creatures representing God, the Master’. Without accepting the world to be a reflection of God, untiring and dedicated service cannot be done. Real service is possible only if in life there is the spirit of complete devotion. When Bharat left Ayodhya for Chitrakoot, the inhabitants accompanying him went in the comfort of their carriages, but only he thought of journeying on foot – because among those participating in the caravan he was the only one fully devoted to Rama. This is why he could appreciate the pain of travelling by foot that was felt by Rama.
A society cannot be considered to be fully cultured if there is no equality in its midst. In Ramayana, Rama displays this value many times. Thus, he gave an accolade to Nishadraj Guha, he ensured the heavenly abode of Kavat (the boatman), he himself performed the death ceremony of Jatayu, he accepted the welcome given to him by Shabri, courted the friendship of monkeys and bears, trained them to face terror so that honour was bestowed upon them. It is his character that allows Rama to break down the barriers between the North and the South, and thus emerges a culture grounded in common underlying values.
The characters of Ramayana teach us, further, that while living up to the values we must remain simple. If we do not do that, and instead practice the values to show off or with a view to obtaining something, we can become objects of ridicule and lose our dignity.’
Simple, but most profound messages. We have a duty to share this with everyone, because the way that things are going in today’s world, with all values having been jettisoned overboard, unless we take things by the horn and handle them differently, there is a great fear that we may not be able to reverse the trend. The Ramayana can guide us on how to conduct our lives in such a way as to reduce our stress and make our lives genuinely worth living.
* Published in print edition on 22 October 2010