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Rama is India’s epic hero, divine avatar and the archetype of the most honourable and righteous man. While this mythical hero of the epic Ramayana has no historicity, for Indians by that very token he is greater than any historical figure. For them he is God incarnate and like God he transcends historicity. The story of the epic has so enthralled the Hindu mind that it has assumed a reality far beyond the actual, becoming embedded in the Indian psyche, art, culture and ideals as no other single factor. People adopt names after characters in the epic. Streets, quarters, towns, rivers, natural features, projects and institutions are all named after the Avatar and other protagonists of the Ramayana. In virtually every quarter of every town temples are dedicated to Rama and his idols adorn every home. Major festivals are linked  to this amazing personage. He is more like a phenomenon than a person. Myths and legends are replete with engaging stories of his sojourn on the temporal plane. Temples resound with hymns and songs sung in his praise by worshipers and devotees across the land. The epic poem is recited from canto to canto in temples and at vast congregations reminding devotees of the events portrayed of his life. A morning greeting consists of not good morning but ‘Ram Ram’.  At death, a cortege of mourners recites, ‘the name of Rama is truth’.

Even the gods in legend crave witnessing his earthly incarnation and its journey through the physical plane. This reminds one of the angels who are forever shown hovering about the infant Jesus. The Supreme Universal Essence itself becomes ecstatic in relating his story to his feminine energy aspect, Lord Shiva to his energy form Shakti and together they assume human form to sneak up and catch a glimpse of the adorable infant Avatar, much as in the Christian theme of the Adoration of the Magi.

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Ram and Sita in Indonesian national ballet

The myth of Rama has even crossed Indian shores and over millenia interwoven itself into the art and culture of Indo-China. Even in Indonesia which is essentially an Islamic country the saga of Rama enjoys a revered place in theatre and art and in Java and Bali becomes an article of faith. I have personally met Indonesian acquaintences with the unlikely fusion of Hindu and Muslim names such as Sita Rehman and Angad Ahmed. Sanskrit names are of course common  – three Indonesian presidents carried them: Sukarno,  Suharto and Sukarnoputri. The Indonesian national theatre frequently presents excerpts from the Ramayana story as ballet and through shadow puppetry. The ballet performed in central Java was acclaimed by Guinness World Records as the most continuously staged performance in the world with the largest cast.

On the other hand the Kings of Thailand style themselves as Rama, though the religion of Thailand is Buddhist. The present king Bhumibol Adulyadej is referred to as Rama IX. The queen carries a Sanskrit name, Srikirti meaning the fame of Laxmi, consort of Vishnu and the one who incarnated as Rama’s wife Sita. In the fourteenth century the Siamese capital was called Ayuthyia after Ayodhya, capital of Rama’s kingdom. A town by that name exists to this day in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India with a raging controversy about Rama’s birthplace there, which in a communal frenzy led tragically to the desecration of a Mosque built by the Mogul emperor Baber in the sixteenth century allegedly over the presumed birthplace of Rama. The desecration had far reaching consequences in pitting Hindus and Muslims against one another and stirring a cauldron of rioting and communal disharmony in the state of Gujerat and elsewhere.

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Ram and Sita in Cambodian national ballet

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Ram and Sita – Laos temple sculpture

In Cambodia and Laos the epic is well known and  its themes adorns the bas – reliefs of numerous temples like the famed Ankor Vat temple known as the largest religious monument in the world. It is also enacted in the Cambodian dnace theatres. We see that the Ramayana left its imprint on the countries of South East Asia, also  including Burma  Malaysia and Vietnam and through Buddhist influences right into China and Japan.

Deeply moved by this universal adoration, through a kind of mystical inspiration, I composed a poem in tribute to Rama which emerged quite spontaneously and surprisingly requiring no editing. During  an official visit by the Indian Prime Minisiter Vajpayee to Oman where I was serving as Ambassador, I felt emboldened to share the poem with him. Quite unorthodox for an envoy to commence his interaction with his Prime minister with recitation of a poem rather than a diplomatic presentation! However, he did not mind my incongruent and childlike enthusiasm in reciting the poem to him, being a poet himself. When I had finished he was quite moved and  remarked : ”Wow, what can one say” ( Vah, kya kehene).                                                                                                poem to Vajpayee

Before I share the poem on this post, I wish to recount briefly the story of the epic for the benefit of those friends and readers not familiar with the Ramayana.

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Lord Vishnu reclining on the Cosmic serpent Shesh, with Laxmi at his feet

 

King Dushrath of Ayodhya had no children. A sage finally gave him a potion which cured his wives inability to conceive and they were blessed with four sons. In fact Lord Vishnu, the sustainer of the universe, resting in the cosmic ocean had heard the prayer and feeling the time right to redress the growing disharmony and burgeoning evil in the world decided to despatch an aspect of himself as an exemplary Avatar to the phenomenal world. While Rama, the eldest son was to be the Avatar, his persona bifurcated into all the other three brothers as well,  to become the protagonists in the enfolding drama. Laxman, Rama’s inseparable brother who accompanied him into exile, is also yet another incarnation of  Vishnu’s inalienable hydra headed serpent Sesh who provides protective cover as a kind of umbrella to the cosmic lord as he lies recumbent on his coils. Their close affinity and intimacy are reflected in the relationship between Rama and Laxman on the temporal plane. It is interesting that the divine pair are seen again to incarnate together in a later epic as Krishna and his brother Balrama. Vishnu’s consort Laxmi, representing his feminine dynamic alter-ego, also joined as an important protagonist as Sita the princess of  Mithila who would eventually wed Rama and drive the saga to its climax. The antagonist of the saga was Ravana, the evil demonic king of Srilanka. In fact he was the door keeper of Vishnu’s celestial abode and was cursed by sages to eternal mortality, for disallowing them to meet the resting Vishnu.. The curse was modified by Vishnu according to which Ravana would be born as his enemy and return to his portals after being slain by him as Rama. Thus all protagonists and antagonist descend from the spiritual realms and fall into place in the saga to be played out for the benefit of man.

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Dushrath grieves as Rama, Sita and Luxman prepare to go into exile

Returning to our temporal world, Dushrath’s eldest son Rama was the apple of his eye and the beloved of all the queens. the day finally dawned when the adult Rama was to be crowned heir apparent. the night before, Dushrath’s youngest and favourite wife Kaikeye, who had been joyous about the forthcoming coronation was confronted by her evil maid Manthara. She rebuked her for being foolishly sentimental about her step-son’s anointment as an heir to the throne, urging that she demand from her doting husband that her own son Bharat be anointed as heir instead and that the only way to be rid of the influence of Rama was to demand that he be exiled for fourteen years. Kaikeye’s shocked resistance was finally overcome by Manthara and the Queen had a change of heart, retreating sulking to the Chamber of Sorrow. Kaikeye’s transformation was in fact engineered through divine intervention. The goddess of learning and speech was ordained to confound her intellect and create egotistical passions alien to her true nature,  to create the circumstances for Rama to go into exile and set the saga of the Ramayana into motion. Dushrath then sought to assuage her inexplicable grief. Kaikeye reminded him of two boons he had granted her when she had saved his life in an earlier battle and demanded that Bharat be declared the heir and Rama be sent into exile for fourteen years. The king was distraught and overwhelmed with grief but had no option but to honour his promise.

rama-and-the-people-of-ayodyaRama dutifully embraced his exile and discarding his royal garb, donned the attire of a mendicant. his wife Sita insisted on following suit and his inseparable brother Laxman also joined him. Bharat, the bone of contention was out of town. The royal house and the populace mourned the departure of their favourite and heroic prince. Bharat on return was horrified at his mother’s conduct, telling her that he wished he had never been born. Bharat becomes the archetype of the ideal brother and is a common name in India. His efforts to locate Rama and bring him back failed as Rama insisted on honouring his fathers word and Bharat returns with his sandals which he places on the throne. Dushrath meanwhile had died pining for Rama and holding himself responsible for the terrible exile on which he was forced to send his faultless son. The tragedy had reached its climax. Keikeye repented her folly but it was too late as the queens were widowed and Bharat himself donned the garb of a mendicant as penance.

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Khewat the boatman takes them ashore

Rama’s sojourn took him through the hamlets and villages of India, resting at the hermitages of sages and defending them from the atrocities of demonic forces. The tribal folk he encountered on the way  greeted him with love as their king wherever he went but he did not tarry and kept moving on. A tribal boatman Khewat who was to take them across a river refused to accept Sita’s ring as payment for his services but wished for another favour. Rama explained that he had no other valuables to give to which Khewat replied that as two people engaged in the same trade he coulod not accept any fee. Mystified, Rama enquired what trade did they have in common. Khewat repled, ”I am a boatman and so are you. I take people across the river and you too take people across the river of life to the other shore. when I come to your bank, Sir be kind and guide me to the other shore.”

shabariAnother episode relates to the story of an out-caste woman devoted to Rama who had been waiting all her life for his passage through her forest glade. Daily she would place a bed of flowers on the path leading to her hut in the hope that one day her beloved Rama would grace her cottage. She gathered berries for his repast. When at last the day miraculously arrived and her dream became a reality with the soft footfalls of the Avatar approaching her hut, she was overwhelmed with ecstatic devotion and led Rama joyously to her hut and sat at his feet with the basket of berries. In her mystical love she took each berry and tasted it first for its sweetness, casting away those that were not sweet before handing him the choicest berries. Thus the lord of the universe savoured the half eaten berries of love of a mortal and never had He tasted anything sweeter.

Many other episodes later, arriving at the sylvan forest glade  of Chitrakoot, the royal exiles were entranced by its beauty and decided to stay a while there. Rama and Laxman set about building a thatched hut of straw so that Sita could find a place to rest. Flying overhead, a demoness, Surpankha, became totally besotted of the handsome youth Rama and Laxman and changing into a beauteous damsel arrived in their midst. at first she tried to seduce Rama but he jocularly  turned her away saying that he already had a spouse and asked her to try her luck with Laxman. Back and forth she went, each pointing her to the other. download (1)Finally laxman, short-tempered and belligerent by nature, was less polite and rebuffed her advances. When she persisted he slashed her nose. The demoness then assumed her terrible form, holding her bleeding nose and vowed revenge. She hastened to her brother the great demon overlord Ravana of Srilanka and recounted the indignity she had suffered at the hands of the exiled princes of Ayodhya.

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CREDIT : sanatansociety.com Sita wants the golden deer

Ravana, the overlord of all demons was also a devotee of Lord Shiva and through penances and prayer had acquired great powers and the boon of infallibility  He was the very antithesis of Rama, arrogant, cruel, licentious  immoral and unscrupulous. angered by his sisters humiliation he vowed to avenge her honour and teach the princes of Ayodhya a lesson. He had also heard of the fabled beauty of Sita and coveted her. One of his demon commanders was then asked to assume the form of a golden deer to entice Sita. Seeing the fabulous deer Sita was enchanted by its beauty and wanted it captured for herself. She pleaded that Rama pursue it and he left asking Laxman not to leave her alone under any circumstances. the demon then let out a wail as if Ramawounded was calling out to Laxman for help. Sita forced a reluctant Laxman to go after his brother. Laxman as a last resort drew three magical lines around the hut and cautioned Sita never to cross them.

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Ravana slays the vulture king flying in to protect the abducted Sita

The wily Ravana then assumed the form of a holy mendicant and appeared before her cottage begging for alms. She brought him a basket of fruit and nuts and placed it on the floor without crossing the red lines. but he refused the offering coaxing her to approach him and be truly and respectfully charitable. She then crossed the lines and immediately he assumed his terrible form and abducted her, taking her away in his flying chariot across the sea to his kingdom in Srilanka where he confined her in a garden resort asking her to be his queen. Her purity and divinity made it impossible for him to touch her without her consent.

To cut a long story short, Rama then gathered an army of several tribals and finally overcame and killed the terrible demon Ravana and secured the release of Sita, returning with her to Ayodhya as fourteen years in exile had been completed, to be coronated King. The saga continues with Sita’s estrangement on account of a citizen, a wicked washerman, doubting her chastity after her abduction by Ravana and Rama’s inability to fully come to her defense  Sita thus humiliated leaves for the forest forsaking her husband and the kingdom and finds shelter in the hermitage of a sage. There she gives birth to twins who unknowingly challenge their father’s soldiers. a battle ensues in which the adolescent boys defeat their father. When he realizes that they are none other than Sita’s sons and his own, he seeks her out and tries to bring her back to the Kingdom. But she declines aware that some people  in Ayodhya continue to doubt her chastity and with the knowledge that Rama and his sons are now united she asks mother earth to reclaim her. The goddess earth then appears and reclaims her daughter and both descend into the earth.

Thus the full saga plays itself out. The god of death Yama disguised as a Brahmani meets Rama and tells him that the purpose of his Avtar has been achieved. Rama then proceeds to the river Sarayu and disappears into it. The surviving members of the royal house also follow and merge into the river. Finally the citizens, who are really spirits from the divine realms incarnated to assist in the enfolding of the saga, also join their master and enter the river, thus returning to their spiritual abode, their purpose on earth having been completed. Ayodhya is left with Luv and Kush the sons of Rama and the sons of the other brothers with their retinues to become the progenitors of righteous kingdoms on earth. The saga of the Ramayana thus concludes with the Avatar and his protagonists and antagonists returning to their origins and with the lessons for mankind delivered. While the story of Ramayana is engaging it is only a subtle vehicle for conveying profound Hindu philosophical precepts and moral and ethical norms through aphorisms which are interspersed liberally throughout in conversations between sages and the Avatar and other protagonists and thereby get embedded in the minds of the humblest villager who has no recourse to scriptures being illiterate or to common folk high and low who have no time and patience to engage in philosophical and metaphysical insights. The imagery and symbols thus have a transformative effect on the noblest and meanest alike.

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I now reverentially present my poem:

 

R  A  M  A

 

Everywhere your footprints

In this land,

Everywhere great bow in your hand,

Blue of the darkest thundercloud

You stand,

Gentle warrior.

 

Your name in every feature

Of this land,

Your fame enraptures every man,

As you hold the humble berries

In your hand,

Of deep compassion.

 

Your father’s sorrow

 On every morrow,

Your mother’s heart

Breaks in every part,

As you depart

With a humble bow,

To keep the vow,

Into your exile

 We follow.

 

In every forest

 Your journey rests,

Every village has witnessed,

Your righteous pilgrimage.

Your footfalls echo

In mountains and in meadows,

Every boatman dreams

That you would help him cross

The river to the other shore,

Every tribal has danced with you before.

 

Every deer that springs

A shadow brings

Of her abduction,

Eclipsing the land,

The fiend’s hand

Upon her hand.

Every man shares

Your deep despair.

 

For nine days

The power welled,

From every trickle

To a flooding swell,

The air was thick

 With prayer,

As for battle you prepared.

 

The darkness of despair was dispelled

And lamps were lit

Across the land,

As the fiend

Striken by your hand

Was felled

Upon the tenth.

 

But like a gentle branch you bent,

Upon your knees with compassion knelt,

Gathering his fearsome form

In the cradle of your arm,

As if a wounded swan you held,

Your caring lotus eyes

Upon his eyes,

Nirvana.

 

Then the land broke into dance

And song and merriment,

And earth and sky were rent

With conches to your coming,

As shedding your garb of saffron

You were anointed as our king.

 

Every day in this land

We see you go,

Every day you return victorious

O lord of indigo,

In our hearts and in our minds you reign

Standing with your bow,

Relieving us of our pain,

Shining bright with light and halo;

And temple bells across the land

For you are ringing,

O gentle saffron king of kings.

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