It’s easy, even fashionable, to dismiss Ram as a false hero.
It is also lazy thinking.
One of the privileges of being a writer on mythology is that one gets invited to literary festivals. At one such gathering, I found myself fielding tough questions on religious philosophies and personages. When there was a reason to criticise a narrative, I did so unhesitatingly. And when an opportunity presented itself to clear a misunderstanding, I attempted it with equanimity.
One exchange saddened me. While explaining a philosophical idea, I used the example of Lord Ram. A lady friend spoke with me after the event. I know her, as well as her religious and liberal beliefs. She asked me why I used the honorific ‘Lord’ for Lord Ram. I said I respect Him. I worship Him. It gives me satisfaction to honour Him. She said that she sees me as a liberal who respects women; then how can I respect Lord Ram, who treated His wife unfairly? She went on to make some very harsh pronouncements on Lord Ram.
Sadly, it has now become almost fashionable in liberal circles to criticize Lord Ram. In Hinduism, we are encouraged to question; Lord Krishna very clearly enjoins it upon us in the Bhagavad Gita. We are advised to form our own opinions on everything, even in theology and on God. But before we crystallise our opinion, we are also encouraged to think deeply and examine all aspects of the subject. We may be failing in our efforts to do this regarding Lord Ram.
Lord Ram is known as 'The Ideal man', which is understood by most as the English translation of the Sanskrit phrase, ‘Maryaada Purushottam'. But this is an incomplete translation. 'Ideal Man' is the English equivalent of the Sanskrit word, 'purushottam'. But what about the other word, ‘maryaada'? It means honour or rules or customs. So if we bring 'maryaada' and ‘purushottam' together, then the correct translation in English is, 'the Ideal-Follower-of-Rules'.
Let us dwell upon the role of the Ramayan and Mahabharat in Hindu scriptures. These two epics are not included in the Shrutis which are divinely-revealed philosophical texts like the Vedas and Upanishads. The Ramayan and the Mahabharat are called itihasa, a word that loosely translates as history. They are stories which tell us ‘thus it happened’; they reveal archetypes and ideas that we can learn and derive wisdom from. And Lord Ram is the archetypal 'Ideal-Follower-of-Rules'. So what do we learn from the life of this 'Ideal-Follower-of-Rules'?
We learn that such archetypal leaders are transformative for their society as a whole. They create the conditions for their people to prosper and lead happy, contented lives. It is no surprise that the reign of the 'Ideal-Follower-of-Rules' continues to be regarded as the gold standard for benevolent administration: Ram Rajya. Sadly, while such archetypal leaders are good for society, they tend to struggle with their personal life. More often than not, the family of an 'Ideal-Follower-of-Rules' faces a challenging life; the 'Ideal-Follower-of-Rules' himself leads a rather sad life. Of course, we are all well aware that Lady Sita suffered abandonment by Lord Ram. I am not belittling Her suffering at all. Yes, He was unfair to Her; unequivocally so. He was also unable to be fair to His children who were deprived of a father in the initial phase of their life. But how many of us know that Lord Ram suffered as well? He ended his mortal life with jalsamadhi, essentially forsaking his body by drowning. Legend holds that as Lord Ram walked into the Sarayu River, in His last moments, He chanted the name of His wife: ‘Sita, Sita, Sita.’ Yes, He was not able to keep His family happy; He was not happy Himself either. Rules bring order to society; but within families, primacy of rules over love, is usually a path to unhappiness.
Do we know others from history or myth who walked the archetypal path of the 'Ideal-Follower-of-Rules'? Were there other enlightened leaders who may have greatly inspired the people they led, but whose personal life, as well as that of their family, was full of pain?
How about Mahatma Gandhi? He united our nation in a peaceful struggle for independence. He taught Indians, nay the world, that violence need not be the answer. We revere him today as the Father of the Nation. But not only did he struggle in the role of a father, he also faced challenges as a husband to Kasturbaji.
Let's consider Gautam Buddha, one of the greatest Indians ever. He left behind a body of philosophical tools that continue to guide hundreds of millions of people in negotiating the challenges of life. His kindness, His compassion, and wisdom are worthy of worship. His Middle Path is worthy of instilling discipleship. But He too struggled as a father, son and husband. He walked away from His wife, Yashodharaji and son Rahul, in search of enlightenment. In fact, the very name He gave to His son was indicative of His developing ideas on human bondage; Rahul translates as chains or fetters. He accepted Rahul in His sangh only when he renounced his rights as a son and became just another monk in the order.
Contemplate deeply upon these great figures. We have every reason to love them, for they sacrificed their own lives so that we could lead a better life. Had we been their family, though, we may have had cause for complaint.
And now tell me. What do you think of Lord Ram?
I, for one, am very clear. And I say it without any hint of embarrassment: Jai Shri Ram. Glory to Lord Ram.
Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons