The Tree of Knowledge
Dr Rabindranath Das
Starting this week on Thursday 11 April, the Ramayana will be chanted daily by Hindus across the island until 19 April, when Ram Navmi will be celebrated. Ramayana is one of the major Hindu epics (the other one is the Mahabharata), and is larger than the Illiad and Odyssey of Homer combined. It is based on the story of Sri Rama, the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu in Tretayuga, and was composed in Sanskrit by sage Valmiki. He is revered as the Ādi Kavi, which translates to First Poet, for he discovered the first śloka i.e. first verse, which set the base and defined the form to Sanskrit poetry.
To make it accessible to the common man, Goswami Tulsidas rendered it into the spoken language of Avadhi and Brajbhasa of that region, and thus endeared himself to Hindus belonging to all social classes, from the common man to the scholar, by his epoch-making Sri Ramcharitmanas or Tulsi Ramayana. It is to be noted that there are versions of Ramayana in several regional languages of India (and some South Asian languages as well), with minor variations in the narrative, but each equally revered, such as the 11th century Tamil Ramayana by Kamban in South India.
Sri Ramcharitmanas, which came out around 1675, gives a clear account of the glorious reign of Sri Rama as king of Ayodhya, known as Ramrajya. It proved to be a great uniting force in preserving the Sanatan (Hindu) Dharma and infused renewed confidence in the hearts of millions of Hindus in their religion, faith, culture and tradition at a time when the Moghul invaders were consolidating their empire and ruling over much of India, especially the North. The Moghul empire crumbled in ignominy in the span of a mere two centuries – but the overwhelming influence of Sri Ramcharitmanas continues to this day, if anything reinforced and present well beyond India wherever the global Indian diaspora has settled.
Sri Ramcharitmanas consists of 24,000 verses in 48,000 lines. In telling the story of Sri Rama, Tulsidas also depicts him and, among others, the other virtuous characters like him such as his wife queen Sita Mata, his brothers Bharat, Lakshman and Shatrughan, and his devotee Sri Hanuman who are all worthy of emulation by us, unlike the demoniac Ravana, king of Lanka and those associated with him who cannot be so honoured. In so doing Tulsidas emphasizes the values of Hindu dharma based on the path of devotion (bhakti) combined with that of knowledge (jnana), by demonstrating their practical application in the lives of all human beings, from the king to the common man.
It is important for them therefore, to learn about their dharma, and thus Tulsidas says, ‘Hoi sukhee jo ehi sara parahee’: a devotee must have a deep dip in the holy lake of Ramcharitmanas by reciting and understanding all the chaupais and dohas it contains with utmost devotion so as to attain divine bliss and eternal happiness.
The story of Ramayana is told in seven parts known as kandas as follows:
1. Bala-kanda: This kanda is about the childhood and early adulthood of Sri Rama. He was the eldest among the four brothers born to Dasaratha, King of Ayodhya and his three queens. His mother was the first queen, Kaushalya, Bharat is the second son from the second queen Kaikeyi and the youngest twin sons are Lakshman and Shatrughan from the third queen Sumitra. All the princes were tutored by and in the ashramas of sages Vasishtha and Vishwamitra, the gurus who taught them the arts and sciences, ethics, archery and the way of life based on the sacred scriptures, the four Vedas. Vishwamitra sought Rama’s and Lakshman’s help to drive away demons from the abodes of the ascetics. He also took Rama and Lakshman to King Janak’s capital, Mithila, where, in the Swayamvar ceremony, he won the contest to lift and break Lord Shiva’s divine bow. He thus obtained the hand of King Janak’s adopted daughter Sita in marriage.
2. Ayodhya-kanda: Upon his return to Ayodhya, he learnt that on the wrong advice of her wicked maid Manthara, his stepmother Kaikeyi had forced King Dashratha to accept that her own son Bharat be crowned king instead of Rama as his father had wished, and which was according to the royal rules. Further, because of a vow made by King Dasaratha to Kaikeyi many years before, Rama had to be banished to the forest for fourteen years. The heart-broken king died shortly after Rama and Sita accompanied by Lakshman set off for the forest. When Bharat learnt of this ploy of his mother, he rushed to Rama pleading with him to return but in vain. He came back to Ayodhya with Rama’s sandals on his head, and placed them on the throne until Rama’s return to rule.
3. Aranya-kanda: The forest life of Rama, Sita and Lakshman was marked by the killing of terrible demons like Khar and Dushan who constantly harassed the sages. Mata Sabari, a low caste tribal woman, and Mata Ahalya, wife of rishi Goutam were redeemed from their curse by Sri Rama. The sister of Ravana, demoness Surpanakha’s futile courtship and insult by Lakshman led to the fury of Ravana who finally abducted Sita with the help of another demon Mareech, who disguised himself as a magical golden-deer to lure Sita, and then and fled to Lanka by defeating aged eagle-king Jatayu on the way.
4. Kishkindhya-kanda: This kanda narrates the intensive search begun by Rama to find Sita. In this process he met his ardent devotee Hanuman, the mighty monkey general, through whom he was able to mobilize the army of monkeys who helped him to look for Sita.
5. Sundar-kanda:This beautiful portion contains the finest lyrics in the Ramayana. It describes the panoramic view of the landscape traversed by Sri Rama and his faithful monkey soldiers. Hanuman made a great leap across the ocean to find Sita in the Ashok Vatika, where she was held captive by Ravana. He proved his identity by giving Sri Rama’s ring to Sita as a token of his sincerity and promise to rescue her. Caught by demons who set his tail on fire, instead of being burnt he set Lanka ablaze. A most important event here is the meeting of Sri Rama with Vibhishana, younger and pious brother of Ravana, who discarded his solicitation and advice to release Sita. Vibhishana deserted his arrogant brother and joined Sri Rama’s camp to help defeat Ravana.
6.Yuddha-kanda: A bridge to Lanka over the ocean was made in just five days, and allowed the crossing over of Sri Rama and his army. It describes the details of the terrible warfare that followed, resulting in the death of the ten-headed dreaded Ravana. Rama returned to Ayodhya with Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman and ascended the throne.
7. Uttara-kanda: This section describes Sri Ram’s life in Ayodhya. He establishes a kingdom of freedom, justice, peace and prosperity known as Ramrajya. He upheld the virtues of an ideal son, brother, husband and above all an ideal king who had to banish his beloved wife Sita to the forest in keeping with the verdict of the people of his kingdom. Lava and Kush, the twin sons of Rama and Sita were born and brought up in Valmiki’s hermitage. In Ashwamedh Yagna of Sri Rama, the holy horse was captured by the twin brothers. Ram’s army and all his brothers failed to win over mighty Lava and Kush. Finally Sri Rama with the help of devotee Hanuman recognized his own sons and reconciled with Sita. Sita returned to mother earth, goddess Bhumidevi. Sri Rama ascended to heaven leaving behind Lava and Kush to rule his kingdom of Kosala, continuing the Sun dynasty.
Relevance of the Ramayana in today’s context
Many virtues are exemplified by Sri Rama the central character. He maintains an ideal relationship with his gurus Vasishtha and Viswamitra, honours the promise made by his father, the king, to his stepmother Kaikeyi, and is a loving husband to Sita. He is an affectionate brother to Lakshman and Bharat, and a sincere friend to Vanara (monkey) king Sugriv, Kevat (the boat man), Nishadh king Guhak (tribal chieftain) and Vibhishana.
The Ramayana also depicts a galaxy of sacrificing spirits like Rama himself; Sita, Lakshman and his wife Urmila, Bharat and his wife Mandavi, Hanuman, Vibhishana: all timeless and luminous jewel-characters who display purity and morality.
The Ramayan further illustrates some shady characters which are also a commonplace in today’s life. Thus there is the selfishness of queen Kaikeyi who exploits her husband for personal petty gain; the arrogant tyrant demon-king Ravana who meets his nemesis; and mighty Bali the monkey-king whose immoral conduct vis-à-vis his sister-in law Ruma and misuse of royal power leads to his fatal end by Sri Rama.
These a few of the lessons we learn from the Ramayana, and that is the reason for the continued interest in it and why it remains alive to this day, and will ever remain so.
Dr Rabindranath Das is Professor, Department of Medicine, at the SSR Medical College, Belle Rive
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