The Tree of Knowledge
An Aesthetic Journey into the Ramayana
The Ramayana (Life of Rama) is generally regarded as the first poetical work of purely human origin in the literature of India and its traditional author, Valmiki, as the first Indian poet. The tradition finds especially complete expression in one of the Smrtis, a subordinate, derivative epic known as the Adhyatma-Ramayana.
This poem, whose authorship and date are alike unknown, tells over again in briefer form Valmiki’s tale, and in doing so, makes perfectly plain, throughout, its second or symbolic meaning. Rama and Sita are revealed as avatars, divine incarnations, the first in a series that will include Krsna and Buddha.
In Rama and Sita, according to the Adhyatma-Ramayana, we behold the embodiment of Brahman in his dual aspect, the unmanifest and the manifest: Rama representing him as impersonal absolute existence, quiescent, contained within himself; Sita (the ‘furrow’, symbol of fertility) presenting him as personal, creative, self-projecting. Both are recognized as God by all the characters in the poem, and as such are devoutly worshipped. Even Ravana, hating Rama as he does, robbing him of Sita and fighting against him – even Ravana worships them. Indeed, his very enmity is a form of worship.
This idea of worshipping God as enemy may seem at first mere paradox. It is explained as follows. Salvation is union with God — a union brought about by constantly dwelling on his name, by keeping him always in one’s consciousness. To think of God is to come closer to him. Now ordinarily concentration upon him arises, of course, from love; but it may also arise from hate, since hate too, as all men know, fastens one’s mind upon the object of hatred. Rama, regarded as a mortal, is of course the embodiment of all virtues, but especially of the virtue of truthfulness — both in its primary sense and in the sense of faithfulness to the given word. It is for sake of truth that he loses his kingdom. His father had promised rashly, but the promise had nevertheless to be kept.
This extreme devotion to truth is to be understood in the light of the characteristic Hindu belief that it is this quality by which God himself is chiefly known. God is, above all, truth. The man who loves truth must therefore in the end love God; the man who does not love truth never loves God until his nature suffers radical change. All other crimes can be forgiven, for they represent faults that can be overcome, but not so untruthfulness. This alone, for the Hindu, is the unpardonable sin.
Not only are the main characters of the Ramayana interpreted by the Adhyatma-Ramayana as religious symbols, but also all the main incidents. The carrying off of Sita, for example, is viewed as a vivid expression of that profound hatred for Rama, which for Ravana as we have seen, is the paradoxical substitute for love.
(From: ‘Interpretation of the Ramayana’, by Swami Prabhavananda)
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The philosophy of the Ramayana
— Swami Vivekananda
Sri Rama was the Parmatman (Supreme Reality) and Sita was the Jivatman (embodied individual soul). Each man’s or woman’s body was the Lanka. The Jivatman which was enclosed in the body, or captured in the island of Lanka, always desired to be in affinity with the Parmatman, or Sri Rama. But the Rakshasas would not allow it, and the Rakshasas represented certain traits of character. For instance, Vibhishana represented Sattwa Guna; Ravana represented Rajas Guna and Kumbhakarana represented Tamas Guna. Sattwa Guna means goodness, Rajas means lust and passion and Tamas means darkness, stupor, avarice, malice, and its concomitants.
These Gunas keep back Sita, or Jivatman, which is in the body (Lanka) from joining Paramatman (Rama). Sita, thus imprisoned and trying to unite with her Lord, receives a visit from Hanuman, the Guru or divine teacher, who shows her the Lord’s ring, which is Brahma-Jnana, the supreme wisdom that destroys all illusions. Thus Sita finds the way to be at one with Sri Rama or, in other words, the Jivatman finds itself one with the Paramatman.
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The esoteric meaning of Ramayana
— Sant Keshavadas
Ramayana is not a mere story. It is the story we live every moment of our lives.
Dasaratha symbolises the intellect that controls the senses. The three queens of Dasaratha are the three Gunas known as Sattwa (tranquillity), Rajas (activity), and Tamas (malice, ignorance, darkness). Vasishtha and Viswamitra are the gurus who guide the intellect. Rama is the transcendental Self and Lakshmana, Bharata and Satrughna (Rama’s three brothers) are the triple manifestations of God as immanent, God as in-dwelling spirit, and God as soul, respectively.
Manthara (the maid servant) symbolises the negative qualities that poisons Kaikeyi (the Rajasic-Tamasic mind). Demons and demonesses in Ramayana are the evil propensities in us. Ravana is the Rajasic ego. Kumbhakarana is the Tamasic ego. Vibhishana represents the Sattwic ego. Rama’s wife Sita is the Cosmic Energy (Kundalini) abducted by Ravana, the ego, for wrong use. So, through (with the help of) Hanuman, symbolising Pranayama, or rhythmic breathing, you will find the location of Sita, the energy and convey the news of Rama, the Self.
Rama’s destruction of Ravana and Kumbhkarana symbolises the destruction of Rajasic and Tamasic egos. The installation of Vibhishana symbolises the establishment of Sattwa Guna and equanimity through Self-realisation. The union of Rama and Sita is the union of Shakti with the eternal consciousness of the true self. Rama’s coronation symbolises the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. This, in short, is the esoteric meaning of Ramayana.
Sri Rama, an Embodiment of Dharma
— Sri B.S. Satyanarayana, Bangalore University Adi Kavi
Valmiki wrote Ramayana not only to sing the melodious glory and story of Sri Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya, but to present to the posterity a practical philosophy of life, a vision of Truth, by telling how to lead a pious life, within the prevailing conditions of one’s existential conditions.
It has a pragmatic message for a busy man how to go about his daily life so that he would not only acquire his needs here, but also get what he deserves hereafter. The Bard of ancient lore sang into Ramayana songs of sacrifice, heroism, service, love, suffering, pathos and songs of sane advice, and made it a long epic and a perennial source of inspiration and civilising influence upon the readers. “Deal with Rama not as a man in whom there was all knowledge, all propriety, all virtues from the very beginning and unfailing till the end. That is not the way to read his life but as a man who struggled, was tempted, who has his weaknesses.”
Valmiki did not want to treat the problem of Dharma in abstraction but wanted to give a demonstration of Dharma in action. Hence he wrote this beautiful song Ramayana. One meets therein personalities from among men, monkeys, birds and other primates who demonstrate from their views, feelings, behaviour and actions the heights of stature a person may rise to. It is in this sense that Sri Rama is an embodiment of Dharma in action. Therefore, Valmiki is very fond of using the concept that Rama is a living Icon of Dharma (Ramo Vigrahavan Dharmah).
The Concept of Dharma
The essence of an individual is manifested through his action. The character exhibits itself in action – mental, verbal and physical. Therefore, the Dharma of an individual operates through every action of an individual. It is that basis from which springs every deed of a person. Hence, the word Dharma is a very comprehensive one. It cannot be delineated in one word or in a few sentences. It is neither religion nor philosophy, though they stem from it. It is the very foundation for both of them and for many more things of life. It encompasses the duties, responsibilities, rights, religious observances, social obligations, secular laws, conventions, nay, the very fabric of one’s own life in such a way that one cannot live without it. Everyone acts one’s own Dharma through and through. Dharma is that force which shapes and sustains human life. Manu identified ten dimensions of Dharma like contentment, forgiveness, self-control, coercion of organs, wisdom, knowledge, truthfulness, abstention from anger, abstention from unrighteously appropriating anything, and purification. It is so much entwined with life that it follows an individual at death when everything else is left behind.
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