The hero of the epic Ramayana, believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
▵ Rama – An Iconic and Inspirational Figure
Whatever our personal persuasions, let us not forget that the Ramayana has been one of the foundational narratives of this civilization. Rama has been the fulcrum of the lives of millions for over 7,000 years. It is important to see that he is not a religious figure. He cannot be claimed exclusively by any faith. Nor is there any point in the story at which Rama ever proclaims himself a Hindu. If Rama is a cultural and spiritual icon for this country, it is because he is an embodiment of stability, balance, peace, truth, righteousness, compassion and justice. We revere him because he embodies the qualities necessary to build a great civilization. If Mahatma Gandhi drew on the Ramarajya metaphor during the Indian freedom struggle, it is because this great founding myth is part of our DNA, deeply embedded in our collective psyches. It is important not to disturb such a story.
Yes, the modern mind might be inclined to wonder why we venerate Rama. After all, he does not represent a success story. In fact, his life is a serial disaster. Few men have lived through so many misfortunes in a single lifetime. Although he is the legitimate heir to the throne, he loses his kingdom and is banished to the forest. There he loses his wife, wages a war to get her back, burns down a whole country in the process, brings her back, faces criticism and recrimination from his people and banishes her once again! More misfortune: his beloved queen tragically has to deliver her children in the forest. To add to the irony, Rama fights with his own children, unaware of who they are. And eventually, Sita, the only woman he ever loved, dies in the forest. Clearly, this is a tale of woe, and the man’s life is a colossal failure. But if we revere him, it is because of how he lived his life: the grace, dignity, courage and fortitude with which he handled his failures.
It is possible to critique this story today by adopting a modern gaze: we can dismiss Rama’s treatment of Sita as unfair to women, or see the depiction of the vaanaras as demeaning and ethnocentric. Indeed, it is easy to pick up any figure from our past and dissect them. Whether it is Krishna, Jesus or Buddha, it is easy to scrutinize them through a contemporary lens and find them imperfect and flawed in some way. But before we dismiss these figures with simple judgments, let us not forget that humanity needs its icons. These figures have, for all their seeming imperfections, served that vital function for centuries.
▵ How Rama Is Relevant To India Today
Rama is a hero not because he leads the perfect life, but because he leads a remarkable one.
Let us look at what makes Rama so exceptional. Several thousand years ago when rulers in most parts of the world were mere conquerors—often nothing short of barbarians—Rama showed an exemplary sense of humanity, sacrifice and justice. He is not venerated because he is a conqueror of the outer world; he is a victor of the inner life because he is unshaken by adversity. Even after he kills Ravan, he does not gloat; he comes to the body of the fallen hero and repents for a deed he had to commit. Through all the challenges of his life, he never loses his equilibrium, never turns bitter or vengeful. He steers largely clear of guile or realpolitik and is vigilant about not misusing his power. A man of equanimity, he leads by example, living a life of integrity and self-sacrifice, willing to renounce his own happiness for the sake of his subjects. Above all, in a culture that values mukti or freedom, he represents freedom from negativity, from self-interest and mean-spiritedness. He refuses to allow his interiority to be hijacked by a life of karmic turbulence.
In short, Rama is a hero not because he leads the perfect life, but because he leads a remarkable one. This is why he is considered to be the maryada purush. And if Ramarajya represents an ideal, it is because it is an emblem of a just and fair state, not a tyrannical or authoritarian one. This is what we want to make of India today, and this is why this epic continues to be of enduring relevance.
▵ Sri Rama Navami: Conducting Yourself Gracefully
A very large part of the Indian population worships Rama, but if you look at the situations in his life, and the way life happened to him, it seems like a continuous series of disasters. He loses the kingdom that is rightfully his and ends up in the forest. Then his wife gets kidnapped and he has to fight a brutal war even though he does not want to. Then when he brings his wife back, he has to suffer very uncharitable comments about her from everybody around. So he takes his wife, who was very dear to him and is pregnant with two children, and leaves her in the forest. Then he unknowingly ends up in a battle against his own children and then finally loses his wife. His life was a continuous disaster. With all that, why do so many people worship Rama?
▵ The significance of Rama
The significance of Rama is not in the situations he faced in his life. The significance is with how much gracefulness he conducted himself through this series of disasters that occurred to him.Though life became a continuous series of disasters, never once did he waver from his truthfulness, from the fundamentals of life that he set up for himself.
People seeking liberation and a graceful life sought Rama because they understood and had the wisdom to see that even with lots of management, external situations can go wrong at any moment. You may have everything organized, but if a cyclone hits you, it can take away everything. These things are happening around us right now. They may not be happening to us, but they are happening to thousands of people around us. “Oh it will not happen to me,” is a foolish way to live. “Even if it happens, I will go through it gracefully,” is a wise way to live. People sought Rama because they saw this phenomenal wisdom. Though life became a continuous series of disasters, never once did he waver from his truthfulness, from the fundamentals of life that he set up for himself. He just hung on to what he had to do, and conducted his life with utmost balance.
▵ Rama – Embodiment of Grace
So people worship Rama not because of the success in his life, but for the gracefulness with which he conducted the most difficult moments. That is what is valued; that is the highest value in one’s life. It is not the question of how much you have, what you did, what happened or what did not happen. Whatever happened, how did you conduct yourself? That is what determines the quality of who you are. You may make a billion dollars because the market is doing well. That does not mean anything. It is a social situation. In your society you may be a millionaire. In another society you may look like a failure. It does not mean anything. It is all right to enjoy the comforts that come with it, but the important thing about the making of the human being is, whatever the situation, how gracefully can you handle it? You will see this happening to lots of people: they look perfectly fine till one big challenge comes in their life. Then you will see who they are. When something does not go the way they think it should go, they spill themselves all over the place.
People are always giving thanks for the things that they get. Things that you get will not add to your life. You can see this if you come to India. There will be a huge house right next to a shanty. But the person living in the little hut is as proud as you are; and that is nice, that a human being carries himself well, not with just pride but with gracefulness, irrespective of how somebody else is. Even if you have to go to the gallows you still walk gracefully. This is the quality of the human being. The rest is only the quality of the situation.
Does this mean to say we should not manage our life properly? No, we manage what is around us well because it is good for everybody. If the situation is well-managed it need not necessarily make me feel wonderful. I will feel wonderful only when I can conduct myself gracefully through every situation. But you manage the situation because you are concerned about everybody’s wellbeing.
Rama tried to manage the situations in his life, but he could not always do that. He lived in difficult times and things went out of control, but the important thing is that he always conducted himself gracefully. This is the fundamental essence of becoming spiritual. If you want the right kind of ambience for your being to flower into a beautiful fragrant flower, you must constantly create an atmosphere of grace.
▵ Rama – A Remarkable Hero (Isha)
▵ Sri Rama Navami: Conducting Yourself Gracefully (Isha)