Is the Ramayana relevant today?
Question: Is the Ramayana, comprising as it does stories from ancient times, practically relevant today?
Answer: Yes, it is relevant because the stories, though from an ancient setting, embody timeless values.
From “me” to “we”
One of the primary values that it conveys – selfless sacrifice – is especially relevant in our present times that are characterized by obsessive selfishness. Contemporary culture largely glamorizes the “me” paradigm, which impels people to seek their personal gratification without caring about its cost for others. When the same inconsiderate individualism causes us to neglect or manipulate the people around us – our family members, our neighbors and colleagues, then it boomerangs to wound our heart, afflicting it with emotional ruptures and gnawing loneliness. Thus, the “me” paradigm, despite its instinctive appeal to our ego, is disastrously myopic.
If we wish to have more satisfying and sustainable relationships, we need to rise from this myopic “me” paradigm to the holistic “we” paradigm. As this paradigm shift can be challenging, it is helpful, even essential, to have inspiring role models and narratives to draw from. For mining such inspiration, the Ramayana serves as an inexhaustible mother lode; it offers us a panorama of jewel-like personalities who embody the spirit of sacrifice in various poignant real-life situations:
1. The example of Rama’s sacrifice in accepting the sentence of exile despite having committed no fault just to preserve the word of honor of his father, king Dasharatha, points the way to bridging the ever-expanding parent-children generation gaps.
2. The example of Sita’s sacrifice in preferring the dangers of the forest to the security of the palace offers a stirring example of valuing the marital bond that has become much devalued due to an increasingly casual approach to sexuality and matrimony.
3. The example of Lakshmana’s sacrifice in choosing to stand unflinchingly by the side of his elder brother during the latter’s hour of crisis and thereby gaining a profound mutually enriching bond can serve as an antidote for the superficial relationships that characterize today’s siblings.
4. The example of Bharata’s sacrifice in resolutely refusing the kingdom meant for Rama can offer a signal lesson for the many succession battles among children that break open after the death of a wealthy parent – and sometimes even before the death.
Inspiration, not imitation
At this point, we may object, “If we sacrifice like this in today’s self-centered culture, we will be exploited.” That’s possible – and that’s why the Ramayana tradition offers the examples of its protagonists not for imitation, but for inspiration: not for duplication of the particulars of their sacrifices, but for appreciation of the principle of sacrifice. As our relationships and interactions occur in real life, we need to consider the various contexts and their implications before we decide how to apply the spirit of sacrifice in our lives.
Lest we feel that the spirit of sacrifice is entirely inapplicable today, we need to look no further than popular team sports like cricket or soccer which throws up both jarring incidents when a self-seeking player chases after a personal milestone at the cost of the team’s success and uplifting instances when a sacrificing player puts aside individual glory for the sake of the team’s victory. If sacrifice plays a valuable, even critical, role in a relatively frivolous activity like team-sports, then how much more indispensable will be its role in real life relationships which are also like teams, but teams that last much longer and mean much more to us?
Shades of black
The Ramayana complements these examples of heroic selflessness with examples of tragic selfishness and its unfortunate consequences. Significantly, it demonstrates these ramifications of selfishness through characters with varying shades of blackness:
1. At the pitch dark end of the spectrum is the epitome of ungodliness, the demon-king Ravana, who due to his selfish lust, commits innumerable atrocities and finally meets his nemesis when his evil eye extends to Sita, the goddess of fortune.
2. Toward the middle of the spectrum is the monkey-king Vali, who lets himself be misled by a hasty and nasty misjudgment about his brother Sugriva’s mentality and so selfishly dispossesses the latter of home, wealth and family, and eventually meets his own end in a heart-rending fratricidal showdown.
3. At the bright end of the spectrum is the queen Kaikeyi, whose temporary spell of selfishness perverts her from her normal kindness, gentleness and wisdom to an uncharacteristic cruelty, harshness and folly that causes agony to her family members, brings about the anguished death of her husband and subjects her to a lifelong regret for her insane self-obsession.
Thus, the Ramayana by illustrating its caveats about selfishness not just through outright ungodly characters but also through godly persons who succumb temporarily to selfishness inspires all of us to keep up our guard against selfishness and thereby prevent it from sabotaging our relationships.
Redefining the “we”
If this message of sacrifice as a means to deep fulfilling human relationships was all that the Ramayana offered to the world today, then that message in and of itself would be valuable. But the Ramayana’s gifts are much greater and deeper.
The central hero of the Ramayana is not a human being, but the Supreme Being. Rama is an incarnation of the Supreme Lord playing the role of a human being. So the bonds of all the associates of Rama with him are examples of the human-divine relationship that is far more lasting than the best human-human relationship. All human-human relationships, even if fulfilling, are ultimately distressing due to the inevitability of rupture at death. But the human-divine relationship, when understood as a spiritual relationship between the eternal soul and the eternal Supreme, is eternal – and eternally fulfilling.
The Supreme Lord possesses fully and forever the six opulences – beauty, wisdom, strength, wealth, fame and renunciation – whose fractional and fleeting presence in worldly people attracts our heart to them. Lord Krishna indicates that the attractive features that worldly people possess ultimately originate from him when he states in the Bhagavad-gita (10.41), “Know that all beautiful, opulent and glorious creations spring from but a spark of my splendor.” Just as the complete fire can provide far greater warmth than a tiny spark, the Supreme Lord can provide far greater warmth of love for our hearts than any worldly person.
In fact, the Lord descends as his various avataras to offer us this supreme warmth and ultimate fulfillment. The Bhagavad-gita (4.9) indicates that when we understand the true transcendental nature of the Lord’s pastimes – the incredible loving exchanges between the Lord and his devotees that comprise their heart, then the desire to have a similar loving relationship gets kindled in our heart and that desire when fully developed helps us attain the Lord’s eternal abode, where we eternally rejoice in love with him.
But developing our relationship with the Lord, like developing any other relationship, requires commitment and sacrifice. If we miss this essential point, then we end up conflating authentic spiritual life with the inanity of ritual religiosity or the “feel-good” sentimentality of new-age spirituality or any other similar form of shallow or shadow spirituality. The Ramayana conveys the necessity and the glory of sacrifice in the service of God through its refreshing portraits of extraordinary – and ordinary persons – who achieved deep devotional relationships with the Lord by activating their individual spirit of sacrifice.
Present-day reenactments of Ramayana principles
Srila Prabhupada embodied an unprecedented and unparalleled example of the same spirit of sacrifice in our times, when he at the advanced age of 69 went singlehandedly across the ocean to fulfill the mission of the Lord to share spiritual wisdom with the world. Thus he demonstrated how Hanuman’s example of leaping to Lanka in service of Lord Rama can be followed today. Just as Hanuman searched zealously to find Sita in a Lanka that was densely populated with ungodly elements, Srila Prabhupada searched industriously for spiritually inclined individuals in a world that was densely populated with ungodly materialistic crowds.
The advanced age of Srila Prabhupada and the logical improbability of the success of his mission are evocative of the sacrifice of Jatayu, the aged bird who fought gallantly and became a martyr while trying to stop Ravana from abducting Sita. Srila Prabhupada’s mission was as imposing and impossible as Jatayu’s: to stop the rampaging advance of materialism and hedonism, symbolized by Ravana, from carrying sincere souls, symbolized by Sita, away from the devotional service of the Lord. But, by the miraculous mercy of the Lord, Srila Prabhupada succeeded on multiple fronts in his mission impossible.
Most of us may not be called upon to perform such herculean sacrifices, but we can sacrifice and contribute to the Lord’s cause by rendering services according to our individual capacities, as did the monkeys to Lord Rama’s cause. If we strive to serve the Lord sincerely, some of us may even discover hitherto unknown abilities within ourselves, as did Hanuman just before his stupendous leap to Lanka. Some of us may even become empowered to do extraordinary feats in the Lord’s service, as was Hanuman.
Perhaps the most relevant example for us as spiritual seekers is that of Sita when separated from Lord Rama and held in captivity in Ravana’s Lanka. All of us are also separated from the Lord of our hearts and are held in captivity in material existence which is the arena of Ravana-reminiscent materialism. Sita demonstrated her unfailing and unflinching devotion to Lord Rama by rigidly rejecting all the overtures of Ravana for ungodly indulgence and intensely absorbing herself in the remembrance of the Lord. We too can demonstrate our unflagging devotion to the Lord by firmly rejecting all the overtures for ungodly indulgence in meat-eating, gambling, intoxication and illicit sex, no matter how much the pressure from our social circle. We can gain strength to withstand such pressure by contemplating on the extremity of Sita’s predicament. She was threatened with death if she refused to indulge – and yet she refused. Surely the pressure on us from our social circle is not that bad, then why should we give in to it? We can further strengthen ourselves by following in Sita’s footsteps in attentively absorbing ourselves in the remembrance of the Lord – at least for the time of our mantra meditation.
When we understand these timeless devotional principles that underlie the stories of the Ramayana, then we no longer fall prey to the misconceptions that these stories are just outdated historical tales or mythological ethical parables; we recognize them to be authentic and dramatic demonstrations of eternal spiritual principles, principles that have inspired enterprising individuals to the highest human attainment throughout history and that beckon us to the same supreme adventure and accomplishment. Therein lies the ultimate, unfading relevance of the Ramayana. No wonder eminent literary historian A. A. MacDonnell noted about this timeless classic: “Probably no other work of world literature has produced so profound an influence in the life and thought of a people as the Ramayana.”
To summarize, the Ramayana’s perennial relevance lies in its power to inspire us to broaden our consciousness from “me” to “we” and to momentously expand the definition of “we” from the human-human paradigm to the human-divine paradigm.