Like most Indian kids, I first encountered the Ramayana in the pages of an Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) “comic” book. The figurative drawings depicted Lord Rama as a handsome blue-skinned man, Lord Ravana as magnificent and mustachioed, and Lady Sita as beautiful of course, and of course, blessed with the right epidermal politics.
I liked the drawings but I remember the story left me cold. In later years, this indifference turned into an active dislike. The story made no sense. It was weepy. Mushy. The skies seemed perpetually overcast with duty, betrayal, duty, loneliness, duty and bereavement. I don’t like monkeys, and there were far too many of them in the story. I didn’t consider the bow and arrow—Lord Rama’s weapon of choice– to be a hero’s weapon. Maces, swords, Ninja claws, axes and teeth– now, those were weapons. What was heroic about shooting at people from a distance? And where were ACK’s curvy sari-clad women, the one consolation of my otherwise celibate childhood? By the time I finished the story, I had concluded that the Ramayana was one of those tales written solely to punish kids for having time and bloom on their side.
But its no one’s fault. The Ramayana is simply not a story suitable for kids. It is also not a story suitable for most adults either. Else why would south-Asians make and re-make this tale over the long centuries? Discontent is one of the great gifts of this magnificent epic. To read this tale is to be seized with the urge to re-make it. Perhaps that is because of its deterministic hero, Lord Rama. Deterministic characters, like existential ones, offer no definite purchase, and so we find ourselves, like Sisyphus, shoulder to stone, feet on earth, pushing once more for a resolution we can never attain.
Since the Ramayana is rich in relationships, there are many ways to study Lord Rama from a psychological point of view. One of the best is R. P. Goldman’s analysis1 of the relationship between Lord Rama and his brother Lakshmana. I’m going to take a different track. I’m going to look at the god-king’s relationship with dharma.
Lord Rama, King of Ayodhya, scion of the Solar Dynasty, husband of Sita, and for the devout, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, is idolized for his attempt to live by dharma (~duty, canons of moral law). He is considered the maryada Purushottam, the perfect man, where “perfection” is with respect to restrained and righteous conduct. In Sanskrit, the word marya denotes “limit” and maryada has the connotations of being restrained, bounded, morally bound. It’s an honorific that appreciates not only Lord Rama’s attempt to live by dharma but his tragic success in that attempt as well.
What happens to a man on such a journey?
Valmiki’s Ramayana (“Rama” + ayana/journey) provides one answer to this existential question . It is a set of seven kandas (~books), with each kanda consisting of sargas (~chapters), each in turn made up of a series of slokas (~stanzas). There’s near-unanimous agreement amongst scholars that the first and last books (Bala-kanda and Uttara-kanda) are later additions, so I’ll ignore them. And for less justifiable reasons, I shall take the text as ending just after Sita enters the fire (Baroda Critical Edition, 6-105-27, i.e. Book 6, chapter 105, verse 27).
The plot of Valmiki’s Ramayana is easily summarized. Just before his coronation as King of Ayodhya, palace politics force Lord Rama, the rightful heir, to step aside for a period of fourteen years, in favor of his brother Bharata, son of Kaikeyi, youngest and favorite wife of his father, King Dasaratha. While in exile, Lord Rama’s wife, Sita, fair, beautiful and kind-hearted, is kidnapped by Ravana, King of Lanka.The rest of the story deals with Lord Rama’s efforts to rescue his wife. He is helped in this task by a variety of characters, including his brother Lakshmana who’d accompanied him in exile, the simians Hanuman and Sugreeva, and Vibhishna (one of Ravana’s brothers). After a series of great battles, Lord Rama finally kills Ravana. Fourteen years after his exile, Lord Rama returns to Ayodhya to be crowned its rightful king. Of course, such bald summaries hardly begin to explain why the epic has cast a spell over the subcontinent for more than two thousand years. One might as well expect to understand the Iliad’s power by pondering the headline: “Area man kills another, over wife, property”2.
So what is the Ramayana about? David Shulman, a great scholar of classical south-Asian literature, has this to say:
The Ramayana is the portrait of a consciousness hidden from itself; or, one might say, of an identity obscured and only occasionally, in brilliant and poignant flashes, revealed to its owner. The problem is one of forgetting and recovery, of anamnesis: the divine hero who fails to remember that he is god comes to know himself, at least for brief moments, through hearing (always from others) his story.
Arshia Sattar echoes this idea in her translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana:
The progressive revelation of the true identity of the man-god is one of the drivers of the story.
But all learning is accompanied by some loss. If the Ramayana is the story of a God who realizes his divinity, then it is also the story of a man who loses what little humanity he had. A half-empty glass of water may be half-full, but an empty glass of water is merely empty of water. A pouring-in of divinity– the divine understood in its grandest, most awe-inspiring, Kierkegaardian sense– is a pouring-out of humanity. And as Kierkegaard warned us in his final work:
The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off as quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. is bound to be noticed.
But rather than reduce this to a water dispute, let us consider the most obvious aspect of the Ramayana. It is a love story. Indeed, the Ramayana can be seen as a work that speaks of many different kinds of love: parental love, spousal love, brotherly love, erotic love, transgressive love. Even the work’s origin tale is rooted in a love story, a tragic one. According to legend, Valmiki was moved to compose his first poem—by tradition, Sanskrit’s first poem– after witnessing a hunter kill the male of a pair of krauncha birds lost in love-play.
This ever-present possibility of love’s loss may explain the sense of anxiety that haunts this tale. In the Ramayana, being good, even super-humanly good, buys no protection against misfortune. It’s a world where catastrophe can befall anyone, suddenly and without provocation. Now, we react to the vicissitudes of life in many different ways. Some of us may develop learned helplessness. Some may find comfort in ritual. Others may find satisfaction in small acts of defiance. Some may decide that though the world may or may not be run by traffic rules, there’s nothing to stop one from acting as if it were. Still others may opt to savor caprice itself. For Lord Rama, destined to be a king, only to be banished to a forest for fourteen years, to watch his delicate princess endure its hardships, to know his beloved brother Lakshmana also suffered on his account, and then to suffer the final humiliation of not being able to protect Sita, the solution becomes an all-consuming focus on dharma. His becomes a life shaped by necessary acts.
In Hindu mythology, dharma is personified in the form of Yama, the God of Death. This is intriguing, because as Freud pointed out in his celebrated Three Caskets essay, in myths a “symbolic substitution often travels along the path of semantic opposition.” We want to talk of X. Instead we talk of Y, where Y is in some sense an opposite of X. Love is semantically opposed to death/dharma and choice to necessity, so stories that mean to talk about the necessity of dying/dharma may talk instead of choice in love.
But Indian mythological stories are filled with men and women who reject the necessity of death; their stories tell of how they attain moksha and thus escape the cycle of birth and death. There is choice over death. Thus, stories that mean to speak about choice over death/dharma, about liberation, may speak instead of necessities in love.
Freud demonstrated that stories dealing with choice in love typically offer three choices: the lead, silver and gold caskets in the Merchant of Venice; Goneril, Regan and Cordelia in King Lear; Hera, Athena and Aphrodite in the myth of Paris; the three sisters in Cinderella; Chayavan Rishi and the Ashwini twins in the story of Sukanya, and many others. Of these three choices, two are typically false , duplicates or illusory. More importantly, they’re wrong choices. In such stories, there is a unique right answer.
In the Ramayana, all roads leads to a critical necessity. After Ravana is killed, and his brother Vibhishna installed on the throne, Lord Rama finally gets to meet Sita. But which Sita? Lord Rama also has three Sitas to consider in the familiar stranger standing before him. There is the Sita who had joined him in exile, chaste beyond doubt. There is the Sita retrieved from Ravana’s court, who will be queen and the future mother of his children. Then there is the Sita he can reject. The first two Sitas are not identical because he can keep the first only if he’s able to forget the history of the woman before him. Similarly, the last two Sitas differ because their futures differ; the third Sita will not bear his children. What would dharma do?
Dharma tells him there’s no way he can take Sita back, but when he sees her, Lord Rama has a weak moment. He knows what he has to do because he know his dharma, but he doesn’t want to do it. Of all the loves in his life, the one love he’s not inherited, stands before him. The last three chapters of the sixth book of Valmiki’s Ramayana, the Yuddha-kanda (Book of War), describe in subtle detail that all-important moment when Lord Rama has to choose.
The poet tells us that Lord Rama is simultaneously joyous, angry and miserable (6-102-16). However, his self-control is such that the people around him— Hanuman, Sugreeva, Vibhishna, Lakshmana— detect nothing of this inner struggle, and to them Lord Rama’s face appears pitiless (6-102-32). They may have had their suspicions that something was not quite right. He’d made it clear to Vibhishna, who’d assumed that the couple would meet privately, that he wanted the public around. He’d also instructed Vibhishna that Sita was to bathe and adorn herself. Vibhishna must’ve understood that the meeting was to be a formal one, and not that of long-separated lovers, because when Sita expresses her eagerness to meet her husband right away, he hesitantly recommends that she follow Lord Rama’s instruction. Earlier, Lord Rama had sent Hanuman to (a) tell Sita that the brothers were well and Ravana had been killed, and (b) bring her response. It’s a curious instruction. What did Lord Rama think her response would be? Why not have Hanuman bring Sita herself? When Hanuman returns with the news that Sita was longing to meet him and suggests that he ‘ought to meet’ the ‘divine lady’, ‘the one for whose sake the war had been fought,’ it provokes in Rama a rush of incipient tears and a sudden thoughtfulness (6-102-5). So what does he say when his wife arrives?
The gist of Lord Rama’s speech is that he’d regained his honor with great effort, a moral effort because it’d been directed towards regaining honor, and that honor would again be lost if he accepted her as his wife, given the suspicions aroused by the circumstances of her capture and long captivity. She was free to find refuge elsewhere.
The rejected Sita chooses the fire.
Lord Rama knows of course, as do the others, that his words condemn Sita to death. His speech is constructed to leave no other choice. The brutal statement that he found the very sight of her unbearable3 (6-103-17, the cold assertion that the war hadn’t been conducted for her sake, the statements repeatedly implying that his honor was independent of hers, and the meaningless options he offered her (refuge with one of the other brothers, with Sugreeva, with Vibhishana) leaves Sita— this Sita— with no choice but to kill herself.
It is a remarkable scene, and understandably, it is a scene that provokes much distress in the devout4. Still, just as there are many ways to reconcile evil with God’s existence, there are many ways to reconcile Lord Rama’s public humiliation of Sita with our common notions of morality. For instance, Valmiki— if it was Valmiki— chooses to return Sita from the fire and even attaches a grotesque and thoroughly unbelievable happy ending to an otherwise tragic work. I shall take the story as ending when Sita enters the fire (Baroda Critical Edition, 6-105-27). I am ignoring therefore the last eleven chapters of the epic.
For me, Valmiki’s decision to have Lord Rama humiliate Sita instead of accepting her with open arms reveals artistic genius. A literary work that purports to discuss ideals but avoids agitating the reader may have many virtues, but courage will not be one of them. Valmiki’s Ramayana cannot be accused of a lack of courage. To include the last eleven chapters is to make a mockery of all that the Valmiki achieves.
Valmiki’s decision also respects Lord Rama’s nature. He has lived all his life by dharma, and the unfortunate events of the last fourteen years of his life have only decreased the distance between principle and practice. Of course he loves Sita. But for the maryada Purushottam, love has its necessities. There is a virtuous context to love, and if the context changes, then the context must be set right. That is what Lord Rama proceeds to do. He finds allies, forges an army. He kills the demon king. He retrieves his lost honor. He rescues his wife. But in the times in which he lived, there was no retrieving the lost honor of his wife. She was blameless, but it wasn’t about her. Rama’s heart knew Sita would’ve killed herself than remain alive, raped and dishonored. Her existence was all the proof his heart needed, but it wasn’t about him. It was about a context that could not be corrected. Except perhaps, in death. The famous purification test of Sita is in fact a test of Lord Rama’s purity. It is a test of his commitment to dharma. She jumps in the fire, but the one who burns is Lord Rama. For the person whose ethics is based on principles, the only conflict that matters is the conflict of principles: the conflicts of the head with the head, not those of the head with the heart. The moral effort it took to go against every human impulse– to speak cruelly to his wife, to let Lakshmana gather wood for the pyre, to watch his beloved burn and to carry the memories of all these things for the rest of his days– is beyond mortals. But it is possible for Gods. It is possible for Lord Rama, who is said to have stood silently, with a face like “all-consuming time”5.
This might seem like a perverse twist on morality. What sort of morality would permit anyone to burn? An iron-age morality, of course. The kind of morality we also find in the Bible or the Qu’ran. But what’s of interest here is not the content of the moral code. What is of interest is the way it is applied.
First, inclinations (personal preferences) have nothing to do with action. You act morally because it is your dharma to do so. So rather than ask: “what would I do?” the righteous asks: What would dharma do?” Second, moral considerations outweigh all non-moral considerations, especially personal and emotional considerations. Finally, considerations about particular individuals or particular situations cannot sway considerations about individuals and situations. Dharma involves abstract, impersonal and necessary considerations. As Lord Rama’s speech indicates, he doesn’t ask himself:
Should I accept Sita back into my life, given what has happened between us?
Instead, his choice has the following form:
Should a wife be accepted in such situations?
There are striking similarities between dharma and Kant’s concept of moral law6. For example, duty, as Kant explained, “is the necessity of action from respect for law.” A duty is categorical imperative; if it were optional, it would not be a duty. And it doesn’t suffice not to be immoral; it is necessary to be moral.
Does western literature have its own example of a Kantian ideal? I think so. Isaac Asimov’s robots operated on a Kantian model of ethics. In fact, Asimov’s remarkable robot (short) stories are studies of the limitations of such a model. His robots are faced with impossible choices, not because they don’t have emotions, but because they are driven by unbreakable principles.
Theodor Fontane’s 19th century German novel Effi Briest is another example. As the moral philosopher Dr. Julia Annas showed in her seminal paper on the subject, Baron Geert von Innstetten, the novel’s antagonist, is an almost perfect example of a Kantian ideal.
It is worth summarizing the basic story. In Fontane’s novel, Effi Briest is a pretty, impressionable, fun-loving girl married at age sixteen to Baron Geert von Innstetten, a much older man. A year and a child later, Effi finds herself bored and in need of some attention. This arrives in the form of Major Crampas, undistinguished on the whole, especially in comparison with the rich, successful and very principled Baron, but attractive to Effi on account of his attraction to her. The two have a brief but torrid affair. When Effi and her husband move to Berlin, the affair is terminated, and the adulterous experience has the effect of strengthening Effi’s willingness to settle down in her wifely duties. Six happy years pass, but then one day, the Baron accidentally discovers some of the Major’s love letters and realizes his wife is an adulteress.
The Baron thinks he loves his wife, understands why she’d strayed, is fully aware that she’s been an exemplary wife and mother for the last six years, and knows they now have a good marriage. He is not unduly worried about what society might say7, and harbors no jealousy of Crampas; indeed, so vast is his contempt of Crampas, Innstetten has no great desire for revenge on the man. So what does the Baron do?
He challenges Crampas to a duel, kills him, divorces Effi, turns their only daughter against her, never sees Effi again, all the while doing his best to ensure that she suffered at society’s hands. Kant’s reputation was such that it took almost two hundred years for western philosophers to move away from questioning whether such acts were moral or not and towards questioning the way Kant insisted such codes be applied. But Bernard Williams8 managed to break the spell, and since then, Michael Stocker9, John Hardwig10, Lawrence Blum11, and other philosophers have argued, successfully I think, that to live a life in accordance with such necessities is to risk destroying the self.
As Dr. Annas says:
Innstetten is a textbook example of Kant’s man who acts out of respect for the moral law, without or indeed against all motives that arise from one’s human nature…. If Innstetten has sought Effi’s unhappiness because of jealousy or a sense of wounded honor, we would have at once understood (whether or not we approved). But like a good Kantian he does not act for any such reason. His duel with Crampas was ‘a bit of play-acting’ inspired by no real hatred. ‘And now I must continue to play-act and send Effi away and ruin her life and mine as well.’ (p. 222). Innstetten promotes his own, and Effi’s, unhappiness out of pure duty, rising above every inclination in order to act out of pure reverence for the moral law.
In contrast, Effi, who dies ruined and broken, but not without a measure of peace, is able to forgive her husband:
Because he had a great deal of good in his nature and was as fine a man as anyone can be who doesn’t really love.
This is Lord Rama’s tragedy too, I think. It’s the tragedy that girds the whole magnificent work. When a person lives a life according to impartial and abstract principles, principles that take no special account of individuals as persons, and principles that can’t see the difference between a situation and a personal situation, then it cannot but lead to the destruction of the self. Of course, Kierkegaard had seen that almost a century earlier:
The determinist, the fatalist, is in despair, and as one in despair has lost his self, because for him everything has become necessity. He is like that king who starved to death because all his food was turned to gold.
If Baron Geert von Innstetten is an analogue to Lord Rama, then the character of Duryodhana in the Mahabharata, the other great Indian epic, must surely stand as his polar opposite. The fundamental difference between Lord Rama and the King of the Kauravas is that Duryodhana lived his life in accordance with a personal ethics, not an impersonal one. Indifferent to dharma, headstrong, impulsive, blood-rich, first borne, brother, husband, friend to friends and enemy to enemies, Duryodhana lived by his flexible standards, not those of holy books. His relationships are driven by preference, not duty. At the end of the great battle, when he’s fatally wounded through treachery, and lies dying, thighs smashed, he’s able to contemplate his passionate life and conclude:
Who is there more fortunate than I?
Shakespeare is one of his sonnets wrote that “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” But such a love needs lovers willing to alter. It was not a compromise Lord Rama was willing to make. The Ramayana is the story of a man discovering he’s a God. Self-sufficient and indomitable, Lord Rama becomes a construct perfect unto himself. His lonely journey leads him beyond the possibility of alteration, beyond the human horizon, beyond the reach of his beloved’s plea. For such is the trajectory of Gods.
And who should know more about such impossible trajectories than Valmiki? Legend tell us that he had been a robber once, preying on travelers passing through his forest. He knew what he did was wrong, but it was more important to do right by his wife and child. He was confident that the those who benefited from the rewards of his labor would also be there to willingly share in its karmic consequences. When this faith is put to the test one day and found to be false, the shattered Valmiki renounced the world. He altered. In time, the legends say, the robber became an anthill and the anthill became a sage, and the sage, a poet. A poet who sang of love and liberation. For such is the trajectory of men.
Background image: Satish Tayade’s Lord Rama #6 at Deviant Art.
- R. P. Goldman. “Ramah Sahalaksmanah: Psychological and Literary Aspects of the Composite Hero of Valmiki’s Ramayana.” Indian J. of Philosophy, Vol. 8, 1980, pp. 149-189.
- K. Ayyapa Panikkar in his book on Indian narratology thinks such summaries have folkloric value. For example, in Malayalam folklore, both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are summarized by: Penna chattu, manna chattu (‘died for a woman, died for land’)
- ~”you are as unbearable to me as light is to a weak-sighted man.”
- The seventh book, the Uttara-kanda (Book of the North) presents a harder obstacle. Prompted by a washerman’s sneering comment and reminded of dharma‘s necessities, he banishes Sita to the forest. This time, there’s no explaining away the cruelty of this action– Sita is also pregnant at the time— even though there are ways to explain that the action was just. But the devout are less troubled by the Uttara-kanda, since there’s good evidence the book is a later interpolation and may be excised. However, this option also has its difficulties, especially for the Hindutva.
- kalantaka ~ Yama, God of death, end of time. Inexplicably, the critical Baroda edition does not have the verse that refers to Lord Rama in this manner.
- Not everyone agrees. The philosopher Purusottma Bilimoria parallels the concept of dharma with Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit, the ethical life, rather than Kant’s concept of moral law.
- Dr. Marcia Baron, in her “Did Kantian Ethics kill Effi Briest?”, a critique of Dr. Annas’ essay, argues that Innstetten is concerned a great deal about what society might say. In her interpretation, Innstetten is an example of how not to interpret Kantian moral theory.
- Bernard Williams, “Persons, Character, and Morality,” in Moral Luck, Cambridge University Press, 1981.
- Michael Stocker, “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories,” Journal of Philosophy, 73 (1976). pp. 453-466.
- John Hardwig, “In Search of an Ethics of Personal Relationships” in Person to Person, eds. G. Graham and H. LaFollette, Temple University Press, 1989.
- Lawrence Blum, “Friendship, Altruism, and Morality,” Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.