How Rama-ness holds good today
The epic begins with a list of sixteen good qualities that Sage Narada seeks in an ideal man.
This year, Rama Navami falls on March 30, giving us another opportunity to recall some endearing points about Sri Rama as we, the common people, know him, far away from politics. I take my cues from the “root Ramayana” of Sage Valmiki and would like to retell some of my impressions.
We learn early on that Rama has dark curls on his forehead and a glossy dark-brown complexion. Hanuman later describes Rama to Sita as having ‘coppery eyes’ of a gleaming golden-brown, broad shoulders and strong arms.
According to Valmiki, the seventh avatar of Vishnu did not know his divinity while in mortal form. He says, “I am only the son of King Dasaratha.” Yet there is an occasion when he “forgets” and behaves like the god he actually is. That is when he cremates Jatayu in the jungle and declares, “I am sending you straight to Heaven.” It is a tantalising slip that we are meant to grasp the significance of ourselves.
The epic begins with a list of sixteen good qualities that Sage Narada seeks in an ideal man. Lord Brahma tells him that Rama is that person. As the story proceeds, it is by Rama’s reactions in deed and word that we obtain impressions of his Rama-ness. A glimpse of what Rama is like at merely seventeen comes from the citizens of Ayodhya. When Dasaratha asks his subjects what they feel about Rama becoming the crown prince, there is a roar of approval. His subjects are so happy that Dasaratha thinks, “They love him more than they love me.”
The people say of Rama, “He speaks lovingly to everyone and his words have never been false. He respects elders and wise people. He is genuinely interested in the welfare of others. When out riding, he stops and talks to the man on the street. He readily forgives and forgets a wrong but remembers even the smallest nice thing that anybody ever did for him. He is well-read and well-mannered. He is a drapi, angry only when rightfully required and in the right proportion.”
We get to gauge Rama’s nature further when the big tests come. For one, his lack of greed, when he promptly accepts being exiled. Secondly, his forgiving nature, when he meets Kaikeyi at Chitrakoot. Despite the great wrong she has done to him, he behaves well with her and tells Sita and Lakshmana to do the same.
Thirdly, his democratic gift of making friends with people of all classes. He impulsively hugs Guha the boatman and Hanuman. Be it his own people, great sages in the forest, a motley crew of Vanaras given to carousing, a person of superior intellect like Hanuman or an asura prince like Vibhishana, Rama attracts affection and support just by being himself—open and friendly.
Fourthly, Rama loves deeply and does not deny his pain. Moved by the beauty of Lake Pampa, he laments aloud for lost Sita. During the weary wait through the monsoon before the search for Sita can resume, he is thoroughly homesick for Ayodhya and does not hold back from saying so. From Rama, we learn that it is not at all unmanly to feel and express pain.
In sum, a picture emerges of a person who feels things deeply but tries to do his best through setback after setback while sticking to his values, and without losing consideration for others. That, I feel, is his real Rama-ness.
Like many others, I grew up deeply upset that Rama sent Sita away, but over the years I discovered that scholars say of the last book, Uttara Kandam, that it is prakshipta, a later interpolation, not Valmiki’s work. This makes sense for it does not match the Rama we know from the first six books.
The manner in which the three make their home in exile can be a lesson to us all. It is in the Valmiki Ramayana 3:15 (Aranya Kandam, Sarga 15). They arrive in the “flowering forest” of Panchavati in a green valley by the Godavari, with mountains all around. They’re looking for a place to build a little hermitage. Rama notes the ideal location of a woodland glade full of flowering creepers and shrubs, with a lotus pond. It is conveniently by the banks of the river, on which they see swans and chakravaka birds just as Rishi Agastya told them they would.
Rama observes that the mineral streaks in the mountains catch the light and gleam like the oval vents in the houses and buildings back in Ayodhya, or like the ceremonially painted hides of the royal elephants in the Ikshvaku stables.
Sita, who loves gardens and parks, finds the air sweet with the scent of golden champaka flowers. Her favourites are the karnikara and the ashoka. Rama is delighted to see many kinds of trees—sal, tamal, jackfruit, mango, date palm, shami and kimshuka. He turns to sturdy Lakshmana and says, “Will you make a parna-shala, a thatched cottage, for us here?”
He doesn’t give Lakshmana a single order, nor does Sita tell him to do this or that. Lakshmana gets to work, raising a high clay floor, making strong pillars of bamboo for the clay walls, rafters of shami branches and a snug thatch of kusa and kasa, grass and leaves.
The cottage is so tactfully built that it thrills Rama and Sita. Rama is so moved that he hugs Lakshmana and says, “It’s like father is back”, meaning Lakshmana has shown so much love and care in making the cottage that Rama, grieving for his father, feels comforted.
As family situations go, it seems to be about giving each other space and, in turn, doing our thoughtful best for each other. Valmiki is subtle like that. He creates touching incidents in which we may appreciate the nuances ourselves, which are satisfyingly modern in this case, and make us further appreciate Rama’s personality. Indeed, there is so much more to say about Sri Rama, perhaps another time.