Understanding Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Global Festival of Diwali
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Understanding Maharishi Valmiki, arguably one of the greatest poets of any continent or time and his epiphany leads to insight of his magnum opus, the Ramayana (5th century BC), it’s older Vedic origins, which is celebrated by Hindus and later by Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims worldwide. Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902) pronounced that Hinduism and it’s message of the Ramayana is universal to all peoples; the message relates to conflict and is topical this week, which precedes Remembrance day.
Valmiki’s early life was that of an ignorant brute; however whilst stealing from the sage Narada, he realised that he alone was responsible for his own sin. Valmiki’s question “Who was the ideal man? ” was answered by Narada in the form of the Samkshepa Ramayana, an exhortation to call to god (in the form of Lord Rama ). So prolonged was Valmiki’s subsequent meditation and penance that an anthill grew around and over him, hence his reborn Sanskrit name ‘Valmiki’, meaning “one who sits in an anthill”.
Valmiki went to the Ganges and envisioned a pure and pious mind within those clear waters. Two birds were coupled in rapture beside it; the male bird was killed by a hunter’s arrow and the female died of sorrow. On seeing this, Valmiki uttered the first ever shloka (verse) in Sanskrit literature :
मां निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः। यत्क्रौंचमिथुनादेकम् अवधीः काममोहितम्॥'
mā niṣāda pratiṣṭhāṁ tvamagamaḥ śāśvatīḥ samāḥ
yat krauñcamithunādekam avadhīḥ kāmamohitam
You will find no rest for the long years of Eternity
For you killed a bird in love and unsuspecting
Valmiki then composed the epic Ramayana of 50 000 lines, using the same 32 syllable Anustubh meter as that above. The Rama ayana (रामायणम्) means the journey or advancement of Lord Rama (and his beloved consort Sita) through the length of India from Nepal to Sri Lanka, and the individual journey of man to god ; it is detailed in seven kandas (books) :
Bala ( Book of Youth – Rama breaking Shiva’s bow in Nepal to marry Sita) ,
Ayodhya (Book of Ayodhya – banishment of Rama from his kingdom) ,
Aranya (Book of Forest; the demon disguised as a golden deer, abduction of Sita ) ,
Kishkindha (The Empire of Holy Monkeys – meeting of Rama with the loyal Hanuman, defeat of evil Vali)
Sundara ( Book of Beauty – Hanuman’s location of Sita, his destruction of Lanka, the hedonistic island kingdom of demon Ravana) ,
Yuddha ( Book of War – Rama’s battle with demon Ravana; good overcoming evil, and the triumphant return to ayodhya and coronation of Sri Rama, welcomed by light, the symbol of love and enlightenment)
Uttara (last Book – Bowing to demands from his subjects, Rama subjects Sita to the Agni Pariksha (test of fire). Despite overcoming this, rumours of impurity in the company of Ravana lead to Sita's banishment, during which she gives birth to and raises the twin sons Lob and Kush. Rama and Sita reconcile, the twins later ascend the throne of Ayodhya, Sita returns to the earth and Rama departs from the world, the purpose of his earthly incarnation being complete)
As Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902) wrote, Valmiki answered his own question: Lord Rama, the embodiment of truth, of morality, is the ideal son, the ideal husband, and above all, the ideal leader; Sita represents model womanhood of fidelity, loyalty, sacrifice and the nurturing mother.
The non dualist philosophy of Advaita proposed by Sri Adi Shankaracharya (788 – 820) and developed by Buddhism, proposes innate divinity within us all, with which we must strive to identify and connect. This taken together with the Swami Vivekananda’s premise above inexorably leads to the deduction that should we choose, we will find the perfect man and woman within; let us reflect on this reader, lest we be found wanting.
Valmiki’s Ramayana presents the ancient Hindu Vedas in narrative allegory, interspersing internal philosophical dipoles (good, evil, virtue, materialism, love, lust, loyalty, deceit, sacrifice, hedonism) and devotional elements. Swami Vivekananda was an expert Sanskrit scholar and interpreted the Vedas and Ramayana and their allegorical elements to understand the subtext of the Ramayana and explain the passages which continue to vex current readers who merely adopt a literal meaning of the Ramayana e.g. Why in the Uttara Kanda did Lord Rama subject his beloved Sita to the test of fire?
Allegorical elements of the Ramayana
Sri Rama represents the Paramatman (परमात्मन्, Supreme soul). Sita, coming from the earth, represents the Jeevatman (जीव – the individual essence of an organism which survives physical death). Every human being's body is Lanka, the kingdom of Ravana. The Jivatman always endeavours affinity with Paramatman (as Sita wants to meet Rama), but the demons (Rakshasas) in Lanka would not allow it. The Rakshasas in the Ramayana represents certain characteristics. For example Ravana has ten demonic heads – the das mukha - representing passion (Rajas gunam), pride, anger, greed, infatuation, lust, hatred, jealousy, selfishness and crookedness (the Kumbhakarna which represent the Tamas guna). Ravana is also an enigma, he was the grandson of a sage who was a prajapati (mind-born son) of Lord Brahma, an expert vedic scholar and erstwhile devotee of both Brahma and Shiva; however his devotion and penance was for personal gain. These qualities in so called Lanka (the hedonistic human body) prevents Jeevatman from reaching Paramatman i.e Sita from reaching rama. Sita was united to her Lord with the help of Hanuman. Hanuman represents the loyal Guru, who shows her Rama's ring which is Brahma-Jnana or supreme wisdom, which destroys the cosmic illusion of our surroundings (maya).
How is the war of the Yuddha Kanda reconciled with Ahimsa ?
The just and proportionate war – lessons from the Baghavad Gita
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The Yuddha Kanda, the penultimate book of the Ramayana describes the war between Rama and the demon Ravan. How may this be reconciled with the dharmic cardinal value of ahimsa first described in the Vedas, espoused by Hindus, and later developed and followed by both Buddhists and Jains ?
Ahimsa is derived from the Sanskrit root hiṃs – to strike; hiṃsā is thus injury or harm, a-hiṃsā is the opposite of this, i.e. cause no injury, do no harm – non violence, non-harm in deeds, words and thoughts. It is inspired by Advaita non dualist philosophy that all living beings have the divine spark; therefore, to hurt another being is to hurt oneself and hurt the divine. Latterly, Ahimsa has also been related to the notion that violence has karmic consequences.
For example the Yajur Veda ( circa 1000 BC ) states:
" May all beings look at me with a friendly eye, may I do likewise, and may we look at each other with the eyes of a friend "
Why then should the Ramayana extol war? Firstly, again using the allegorical lens, the war represents our internal daily battle between good and evil. Secondly, Valmiki was well aware of the Bhagavad Gita and it’s third millennium BC origins and would well understand the interpretation of it’s own allegorical messages. In the famous, chapter 4, shloka (verse) 42, of the Gita, Krishna exhorts the battle weary warrior Arjuna to battle in the Kurukshetra war, notwithstanding Arjuna’s sorrow at the previous loss of life:
“ tasmåd ajñåna sambhütam hritstham jñånåsinåtmana˙
chittvainam samçayam yogam åtisshottistha bhårata “
“ Therefore, O Bharata, with the sword of knowledge slash these doubts of yours that have arisen out of ignorance within your heart. Taking shelter of the process of yoga, stand and fight! “
Shri Krishna thus reiterates the location of our accumulated ignorance. He uses the word "hritstham" which literally means heart, but actually refers to the four-fold antaha-karana comprising the mind, intellect, memory and ego.
This single shloka also provides a concise summary of the Gita’s fourth chapter. Ignorance in the form of individuality, selfishness and finitude, is our natural condition. This ignorance causes us to question our relationship with the world, just like Arjuna was confused in regards to his duty as a warrior to fight the just war. Having gained knowledge, in the form of universality, selflessness and infinitude, we learn how to transact with the world. All self doubt is destroyed. We act in a spirit of yajnya, where we see the same eternal essence in the actor, the action and the result. Ultimately, as stated in the shloka, we arise physically and spiritually, into a new level of consciousness from the outward delusion of our current existence, our Maya.
Thus the sanatan dharma of Hindus require that war must be avoided, with sincere and truthful dialogue. Force is the last resort, but should war becomes inevitable, its cause must be just, its purpose virtuous, its objective restraint of the wicked , its aim peace, its method lawful. War may only be commenced and stopped legitimately. Weapons must be proportionate to the opponent, not indiscriminate tools of destruction. All strategies and weapons used in the war must be to defeat the opponent, not designed to cause misery.
That Valmiki understood this, is evidenced by the first duel between Rama and Ravan described in the Yuddha kanda of the Ramayana; despite Rama destroying the weapons and armour of Ravan, rather than easily killing him whilst defenceless, he asked Ravan to retire for the day and return re-armed.
Interpretation of Sita’s Agni Pariksha, the test of fire
This passage, in the Uttara Kanda, the final book of the Ramayana has vexed many readers who have made a literal interpretation. How can Lord Rama, bow to the call of his subjects, question his beloved wife’s fidelity and subject her to the test of fire (Agni Pariksha) ?
Again as in the rest of the Ramayana, deeper understanding of the allegorical messages resolves the paradox. Agni, son of Brahma has two heads, one of immortality and one a symbol of life. Agni features in 218 of the 1028 hyms of the Rigveda (ऋग्वेद ; Praise of Knowledge; 1700 BC ) and is the first word of the first hymn:
अग्नि॒म् ई॑ळे पुरो॒हि॑तं यज्ञ॒स्य॑ देव॒म् ऋत्वि॒ज॑म् । होता॑रं रत्नधा॒त॑मम् ॥
agním īḷe puróhitaṃ / yajñásya devám ṛtvíjam / hótāraṃ ratnadhâtamam
Agni I laud, the high priest, god, minister of sacrifice, The invoker, lavishest of wealth.
He is the supreme director of religious ceremonies and duties, and figures as messenger who intercedes between mortals and gods (Rigveda 1.26.3).
Thus Agni is invoked by Lord Rama, the Paramatman to communicate with jivatman (Sita). Thus the Uttara Kanda, the final chapter of the journey, “ pilgrimage “ or advancement of Rama, is the communication of our innate divinity with our earthly body.
Valmiki also alludes to the silent power of suffering and sacrifice. Describing the moment when Sita enters the pyre and extinguishes the flames with her fidelity and chastity:
“ As if she were going home
to her place on the lotus
that rises up from the flooding waters,
she jumped in;
and as she entered, that fire was scorched
by her burning faithfulness “
Other epithets for Agni is Abhimani (from Sanskrit अभिमन्: ‘abhi’ towards and ‘man’ to reflect upon).
Thus, examination of the Ramayana through an allegorical lens, resolves the vexing conundrum of how the ideal man, devoted husband tests his beloved wife with fire. At the conclusion, Sita returns to the earth and Rama achieves his divinity – a clear allegory of body and soul at death.
Depiction of the Ramayana in different faiths and countries
There are other versions of the Ramayana, notably the Ramavataram in Tamil and Buddhist (Dasaratha Jataka No. 461, where the story of Rama is depicted as the previous life of the Buddha). In the Jain adaptations Rama becomes a Jain monk and ultimately attains moksha (freedom). In the muslim version, the demon Ravana receives boons from Allah rather than Brahma). There are also Nepalese, Cambodian (Reamker – the most significant piece in Khmer literature) , Indonesian, Philippine, Thai (Ramakien), Lao (Phra Lak Phra Lam ), Burmese and Malay versions of the saga. There are two Sikh versions of the Ramayana, written some 2000 years after the original; one version is a story where Rama has no divinity. The other version, also in the Guru Granth sahib attributes spiritual allegory to the characters where Ravan is Ego, Sita is Intellect, Ram is Inner Soul and Lakhshman is Attention.
The Ramayana has inspired art, including the Hindu temple art at Angkor Wat complex and spawned a genre of global storytelling from Indonesian muslim shadow puppetry to the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean as a source of moral and spiritual guidance. The story is interpreted in India via Bharatnatyam, the temple dance. In South East Asia different forms of dance including Javanese, Balinese, Thai and in Cambodia, Khmer Lakhorn Luang has become the foundation of the royal ballet.
Celebration of Diwali – Lights and lotus rangoli
The name Diwali means row of lighted lamps and recalls the lamps (Deepas) lit to welcome back the triumphant Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman back to Ayodhya. It is celebrated as a five day festival. The celebration differs in different states. In northern India, Diwali celebrates the return of Rama and in Bengal goddess Kali, the destroyer of Evil is worshipped.
" Diwali Aarti " © ॐ www.aumphotos.com 2015
Sikhs celebrate Diwali as the festival coincided with the day of release and return of Guru Hargobind Rai and 52 Hindu kings to the Golden temple at Amritsar, following false imprisonment in the Gwalior Fort by the Mogul (muslim) Emperor, Jahangir.
In Gujarat, deepas are lit to guide Lakhshmi, goddess of wealth, into homes which have been decorated with rangoli patterns, often depicting a lotus flower via open doors and windows. The lotus has special significance within the Ramayana for many Hindus and other dharmic faiths such as Buddhism.
"Lotus of the Heart " © ॐ www.aumphotos.com 2015
In the Bala Kanda, ( first book , of youth), Rama’s father says:
“ Highly fortunate am I to see your face, lovely like the lotus in full bloom ”
Similarly in the Yuddha Kanda, the penultimate book, of war, Rama says:
" When shall I behold Sita with charming hips, having long lotus-like eyes flourishing as prosperity, by conquering the enemies? "
The lotus shaped rangoli decorations in houses is also a reference to the obeisance of Rama before his epic battle with the demon Ravan; he required 108 blue lotus flowers (neel padmayan) to perform his religious duty, but had only 107. He therefore offered to pluck his own eye to complete his devotion.
We might reflect on this selfless devotion in these economically straightened and war torn times. Irrespective of our personal faith, Diwali serves as a focus for universal friendship and the shared belief in the triumph of virtue over evil.
Jai Sri Rama
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