Friday, January 28, 2011

A King called Ram and a Messiah called Jesus – Part 1

Note: This is the first part of a two part series on the lives of Ram and Jesus

Growing up as an Indian citizen in a Hindu household and going to school in a Catholic Convent, both Ram and Jesus have had a profound impact on my life and personality. Every Hindu child in some way or other gets to know the story of the great King Ram, revered as God and considered to be the ‘Maryada Purushottam’ – the most virtuous and best among men. Every girl is told to grow up like Sita and boy to be a son and brother like Ram. I too belong to the generation that left all other work and sat in front of the TV at 9 am on every Sunday to catch the one hour telecast of Ramanad Sagar’s ‘Ramayan’ and this indeed formed a lot of the moral values I hold close to my heart even today. If Ram was an important figure for me at home, Jesus became an all-encompassing one at school. I remember various moral science classes (yes, it was a subject in school J) when story reading meant reading a chapter from the Bible or being told a short story from the life of Jesus Christ. The nuns at school used to hand out Bibles quite freely to students and I remember carrying one such blue copy home and reading it back to back, though at the age of 12 much of what it said was beyond my comprehension. But, the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus moved me immensely. Luckily, those were times when students were encouraged to learn from different faiths and these simple acts of nuns at school would not be labelled as coercive conversions like today.
Ram and Jesus to me were uni-dimensional Gods who were placed on pedestals and prayed to using elaborate rituals but no attempt was made to understand them or their lives. However, as I grew up and delved more into the history of these great figures, I realized the several layers to their personalities that we miss out due to their divine status. It is in unravelling these layers that I learnt the most profound lessons about faith, religion and God.  Let me begin with Ram, the most loved and virtuous king of all times. There are many mythological stories connected to the life of Ram and most of them delve into great detail on his birth, bravery in killing several demons to protect the sages of the land, his marriage to Sita, his voluntary exile to keep the word his father had given to his step mother and the war he waged against the great demon king Ravan to rescue his wife, Sita. The greatness of Ram can be understood if we look at the times he lived in. It was an ancient time when men took several wives and kidnapping a woman to quench one’s lust was not an uncommon event. It was in times like this that Ram’s decision to be monogamous, to sacrifice his throne which was a birth right and to fight one of the fiercest battles in history to rescue his wife is unique and a sign of great strength. But Ram is revered as the greatest Kings and not only a great warrior. Hence, the time he spent in Ayodhya after his return from exile, in governing the country is a very critical period in his life and one that has been lost somewhere in the annals of history. I use the term ‘governing’ deliberately because it was Ram who established the founding principles of governing a state and his rule is often referred to as ’Ram Rajya’, a golden period in India when the citizens of his state were happy, prosperous and well looked after. Careful study of many historical texts reveals how important fairness and justice were to Ram. Hence, he toiled to create a state hierarchy which promoted merit. He is famed to have created the system whereby individuals got classified as per the potential and merit they showed towards a particular vocation. Unfortunately, this took the ugly shape of the caste system in India and is the root to many malaises in today’s society. But the intention with which Ram created this system was to ensure that every person got a life that he deserved and had the merit to live that life. He created strict codes of conduct for people and made monogamy popular in a society where the size of a man’s harem accorded him great respect and envy in the eyes of his peers.
Ram was a fair and just ruler and it is this quality that earned him the love and respect of people in his Kingdom. If one studies the times and the feats performed by Ram, while they were great and proved his valour, were also repeated by his brothers and several other great warriors in India in the future. But Ram stands out for the feat he accomplished not in the battlefield, but on the throne by calming an unsettled Kingdom and creating a moral code that governs life for many Hindu’s even today. However, in my eyes it is this penchant for fairness which was also the reason for much grief in Ram’s life. While Ram is a much revered God, one thing that my feminine mind could not reconcile with is the way he treated his wife by putting her through a trial by fire at the time he needed to be the most supportive of her. Ram’s suspicion about Sita’s piety and his offer to her to go and marry any other man in the Kingdom after he rescued her from Ravan’s Ashok Vatika is highlighted in several regional versions of Ramayan, though this particular incident is glossed over in the most popular version of Ramayan – ‘Ram Charit Manas’ written by Tulsidas.  Careful study of several folk based versions of historical texts reveals that Ram is portrayed as a great man and a brave warrior in the original Ramayan written by Valmiki, who unlike later authors got a chance to meet and interact with Ram. He was presented as a great man who perhaps also made a few mistakes in his life, specifically pertaining to his wife Sita in order to portray the right image of justice in his Kingdome. Valmiki’s Ramayan delves in to the cultural context of Ayodhya and the personality of Ram in a deep manner and explains why public perception was important to Ram. Having inherited the Kingdom from his father who was much loved by the people, Ram needed to ensure that he earned the same respect in their hearts and he needed to do this quickly owing to his being away from the heart of the throne for 14 years. This also explains his decision to be a just king rather than a trusting husband when an ordinary citizen raises a finger of doubt at his wife.  It was a decision that probably cemented his place in history as a great ruler but also caused a lot of sorrow and loneliness as being the man he was, he would never go back from the word he gave to his wife to always be faithful to her and never marry anyone else.  But, later version ascribed a divine halo to this great man, making him an incarnation of God and ridding him of any human frailties as Gods are not capable of doing anything wrong. Hence, by the time Tulsidas wrote his version, the incidents pertaining to the mistreatment of Sita and her banishment by Ram are explained in an insidious manner or glossed over completely and this is the version that became a part of popular literature and is followed by many Indians across the world.
This is the bane of History because just as the name suggests it is always ‘his- story’, a story told from someone’s perspective where one cannot distinguish between reality and perception. However, I do wish History had highlighted this aspect of Ram’s character too. Instead it focuses on Ram’s greatness and Sita’s submissiveness which may not necessarily be true as Sita was a strong woman who lived a life of her choice and even in those arduous times took on the responsibility of being a single mother to royal heirs. Sadly, this is not how she is viewed and her trial by fire in modern times has taken the guise of bride burning and Sati which continues to afflict several women in India even today. It is at times like this that I wish, we would learn to understand our deities’ lives and learn not just from their virtues but also from their mistakes. Instead, we continue to use them as a way to further divide ourselves into factions, making where they are born and how they died more important than what they taught us and what they stood for. Nothing proves this point better than the story of Jesus and the several myths and historical distortions that surround it. I will delve into greater detail in to Jesus’s life in the second part of this blog which will soon follow.
Important: The views expressed in this blog are personal and not meant to hurt or influence the sentiments of anyone.


  1. Amazing read, Neeraja!! So thoughtful and insightful--really enjoyed reading it. Agree 100% with all your views on Ram. Also agree that Ram is often accused (unfairly) of doubting his wife's chastity. It is unfortunate that this aspect of Ram's character is not fully explored or explained in the Ramayana like you have done. What I liked most, Neeraja, is your observation of the fact that Ram did what he did because as a dharmic King, the perception of the people he governed was important to him, and in those times, dharmic virtue included taking the kingdom's subjects' views into consideration in most decisions. You are also correct in your observation that Sita's suffering, endurance or overall character for that matter, is glossed over in later versions of the Ramayana. In fact, the Southern Indian versions of Ramayana (Tamil and Telugu) go to the extent of saying that Sita was never banished from the palace to begin with, and only an incarnation of hers was sent along, whereas her soul remained at the palace. Whatever!!:):)
    I must admit, that your blog on Ram offered me an alternate view of Sita's character, something I had not considered or thought of. Up until now, I had viewed Sita exactly as how she was portrayed--submissive, weak and lacking conviction or strength of character. 'Woman of substance' would be the last phrase I would have used to describe her. It is possible that, like I did, most people would have this submissive image of Sita's because her character sketch in Ramayana remains faint and unclear, unlike that of Draupadi's in the Mahabharata. But you have offered a new angle to her personality in your blog--and I'm beginning to think of a few aspects of her personality that I myself might have glossed over--a princess who marries a man of her choice, chooses to be with the love of her life in the forest rather than stay back with in-laws at Ayodhya, with trace elements of "spoilt-brattish-ness" (imagine demanding a golden deer, right here and right now!!:) have yet to muster up the courage to demand anything golden from my husband!!:):)..), trace elements of stubbornness (insisting that Lakshman go and check on his brother), strong elements of defiance (with Ravan in the Ashok van), and extremely strong elements of self-esteem and self-respect. It occurs to me now that Ram indeed offers Sita a second 'chance' to come back to him (Uttara-kand), on the condition Sita goes through the 'agnee-pareeksha' a second time. And that is the point in the epic, when Sita shows complete strength of character (defiance of her husband, and the 'enough is enough' attitude by giving up on him and refusing to go through the agnee-pareeksha a second time over).
    In spite of all the unfortunate events that shaped Ram-Sita's love story, I personally have felt, that more than any other mythological/historical couple in Indian history, Ram-Sita enjoyed a friendly openness and casual ease in their very-romantic relationship (exceptional and unusual for their times) and always viewed each other as equals in the marriage. It beats me as to why then the Ramayana was so hero-centric, and why only one facet of Sita's character was wholly described in the epic.

  2. Thanks Vadina. I agree whole heartedly with your assessment of Sita. it is amazing how all girls in India are told to be like Sita when we dont even understand an ounce of her charecter and strength. She is the perfect wife and mother but unfortunately I dont think Ram could match up in being the poerfect husband. For large parts their marriage was one of equals except at the most crucial times when Ram's dharma came in the way of being a more trusting and supportive husband. But I guess the lesson for us to understand the compulsions these persons went through and realize that they made conscious and deliberate choices. These choices were meant to mould the lives of mankind and offer lessons to us. Unfortunately we only take a few lessons and loose a lot more in translation.

    If you are interested in knowing the real Sita you must read this collections of essays on her compiled in a booked called 'In search of Sita'. Incidentally, it was given to me by my mother to helo me understand this charecter better. Quite a co-incidence I must say becuase I dont think I was ever exhorted to be like Sita but today I feel, i do want to be like her :-)

    PS: I picked up Yagnaseni and am enjoying it a lot. Alos, why does your id say Sneha?

  3. Really nice...