By Swami Sanmatrananda
The Lonely Voice• ‘I walk alone when the day folds its wings and the setting sun bids adieu to the earth. Birds are returning to their nests. The dark curtain of evening is descending slowly. But I don’t feel like seeing all this. With my head bent I walk the path of life in an indrawn mood. My days are monotonous. I have none to go back to in the evening: no relative, no friend, not even an acquaintance.
‘I entered life like a blooming lotus on an autumn morning. I was brought up under the affectionate care of my parents. I received love and afection from all quarters. But the story of my life soon changed. My dreams turned into dust …‘
I feel myself the loneliest man on earth. This loneliness creeps into me and turns my heart into a haunted house…‘
I don’t like rubbing shoulders with others, knowing full well that the story of my life is different from theirs. I stand alone. Is it possible for me to accept my present life wholeheartedly? Is it possible for me to attain a poise of heart in spite of my failures and depression?
‘Is there any way out of this prison of loneliness and sufering for those who have lost everything in their lives? Metaphysical speculations do no good to them. Moral codes are but dry prescriptions. A life, a burning life, a living example of an individual who surpasses them in both suffering and endurance—who is intensely human and who, at the same time, reaches the dizzy heights which ordinary humans dare not scale—such a life alone can show them the way. Is there one such?’
A voice reaches the lonely soul, breaking the stillness of the evening. It is not a singular human voice; it speaks for all suffering souls of the world those who are lonely, who have lost all, who have found no solace in their lives.
The Reply • ‘Yes, there is one. The hero of an ancient epic, yet more real than beings in our mundane world of action and contemplation; of royal lineage, yet identifed with every one of the common run through insufferable loss and bereavement; separated from us by an almost unbridgeable gulf of time, yet intertwined with the unending life of humanity: Sri Rama, the central character of the Ramayana, has long remained the mentor to all who suffer, the solace for all who are persecuted and who have never found rest in their weary journey through time.’
We have all heard the queries that the lonely voice raised. The poet-prophet Valmiki too has raised similar questions at the beginning of the Ramayana. When the floodgates of his creative imagination opened in his heart, Valmiki felt the deep urge to portray a colossal character that would inspire humankind, cutting across the barriers of untold ages. He poses his queries to the mythical sage Narada: Tell me about a person of our time who is the very abode of vigour and virtue, who knows the mystery of dharma, the all-encompassing life-principle, who is the very embodiment of truth and gratitude, who never wavers from the vows he has taken, who is endowed with great character and is constantly engaged in the welfare of all beings, who is of adorable form and a man of knowledge, skill, and self-realization, who has conquered anger, who never finds faults with others, whose being is lustrous, and whose valour in war even the gods fear. I am deeply interested to know of such a human being from you, since you alone are fit to speak about such a person.
In reply, Narada briefy narrates the life of Sri Rama, which is later elaborated upon by Valmiki in his epic.
Valmiki’s main thrust is on the human aspect of Rama; but he does not overlook his hero’s divinity altogether. As we go through the pages of the Ramayana, we come across both these facets of Rama’s character; and the simultaneity of these apparently contradictory aspects sometimes bewilders us. We wonder: Are we reading the life story of one person or of two? Are there two Ramas, then? The reconciliation of these two apparently divergent visions alone can lead us to the conception of this mighty personality as the sure shelter for suffering humanity.
Humans love their kith and kin dearly, get attached to them, and mourn their loss. They respect their elders and show love and kindness to their young ones, though they resent ingratitude. They are elated at the prospect of success and fall into abysmal depths of despondency in the face of failure. They are ofen swayed by doubts and blame destiny in the hours of dejection. They critically analyse their past and lament over their mistakes, but long for a bright future even when the last ray of hope grows faint. These human qualities are all conspicuous in Rama’s character. In this respect, there is no other avatara in the Hindu pantheon more human than Rama. When he saw the gods praising him and ascribing divinity to his character, he was wonderstruck. He called himself human and asked the gods to tell him what he was, if not human:
Ātmānam mānusam manye rāmam daśarathātmajam; Yo’ham yasya yataścāham bhagavāmstad-bravītu me.
I know myself as a human being—Rama, the son of Dasharatha. Tell me then, O Lord, who I am, to whom I belong, and wherefrom I have come.
This profoundly human face of Rama has brought him into the closest possible proximity to the average human being.
Born and brought up amidst the luxury of the royal palace, it was all sunshine for Rama in his childhood. He was the eldest of four brothers, the unfurled fag of victory to the royal lineage, the favourite of his father, 'tesām keturiva jyestho rāmo ratikarah pituh’ (1.18.23), and bliss itself mātrnandana—to his mother, Kausalya (2.20.20). To Rama, his brother Lakshmana was ‘bahih prāna ivāparah; like the life force playing outside his mortal frame’, his shadow, his alter ego (1.18.28). His relationship with his subjects was equally intimate. He was as compassionate as the earth, as wise as Brihaspati, the preceptor of the gods, and as valorous as Indra, the king of the gods (2.1.32). The subjects of Ayodhya were so shocked at the news of Rama’s exile that they were ready to leave their homes and hearths and go to the forest with him. Rama had to strongly dissuade them from doing so. He was enshrined in the hearts of his subjects even before the preparations for his formal coronation.
What was Rama doing just before he received the heart-breaking news of his exile? He had not concealed his joy at the prospect of coronation under the garb of indiference of a so-called ascetic. Seated on the royal bed in his decorated chamber, adorned with glittering ornaments, and anointed with auspicious sandal paste, he was talking joyously with his beloved wife. He looked like ‘the lustrous moon by the side of the star Chitra’. Sumantra, the ageing minister, approached him with reverence and conveyed the message that both Dasharatha and Kaikeyi were expecting him at the royal palace. Rama could not even dream what terrible news was awaiting him. He turned to Sita in all innocence and said: ‘Surely both of them are discussing my coronation. Mother Kaikeyi is ever afectionate towards me. She must certainly have been elated on hearing the news of my prospective coronation from father. She probably has asked father special gifs for me. It’s my great good fortune and I must see them’ (2.16.15–20).
As he approached his father, he saw Dasharatha seated by Kaikeyi’s side, looking like ‘the eclipsed sun or like a rishi who has spoken an untruth’. It was from Kaikeyi that Rama came to know about the sudden turn in his fortunes—that the king’s mind had been changed, that he was to go into exile for fourteen years and Bharata was to be installed as the king of Ayodhya. It is true that Rama’s calm demeanour was not disturbed by this shattering news. But the epic poet did not forget to tell us that Rama felt like ‘a horse lashed with a whip to hasten to the forest by the terrible words of Kaikeyi’ (2.19.18). He accepted this fiery ordeal and went to inform his mother Kausalya about his impending departure. Before breaking this sad news to his mother, Rama had to make special eforts to control his senses and conceal his mental sufering (2.19.35). However, when he returned to his inner apartments, back in the presence of Sita, his beloved wife, he could restrain himself no more. He entered the room with his head bent in shame. Sita found her husband overcome by sadness and his senses restless, cintāvyākulitendriya. His face was pale and he was sweating. ‘He could not control his sufering and (his heart) was laid bare; na śaśāka manogatam tam śokam rāghavah sodhum tato vivrtatām gatah’ (2.26.6–8).
Like an ordinary human being, Rama seemed to blame destiny for his fall from grace. He said to Lakshmana: 'Stop this coronation ceremony of mine. I am ready to go to the forest to fulfill father’s promise. It is destiny that has brought me to this sad plight. Otherwise, mother Kaikeyi who is the daughter of a famous king and who is so well behaved would not have spoken like an uncultured woman in front of father. That which cannot be comprehended by the mind or altered by human efort is called fate. Who can fight fate? None can see the cause of fate; it is only known through its efects. This mysterious, unknowable fate is responsible for happiness and misery, fear and anger, gain and loss, and creation and dissolution (2.22.11–22).
Fatalism attacks humans in the hours of trial and tribulation. Was Rama also afflicted by this common human predicament? We shall address this question later.
Let us now see what happened when Bharata came to Chitrakuta and tried to take Rama back to Ayodhya, though in vain. Rama was determined to fulfill his father’s word. When he received the sad news of his father’s demise from Bharata, he was so shocked that he lost consciousness and fell down on the ferny forest foor like a huge tree suddenly chopped down with an axe, vane paraśunā krttastathā bhuvi papāta ha (2.102.3).
It is perhaps for this intensely sensitive heart that Rama captivated the hearts of others very easily. His love was limitless. He was no clan-conscious king. Irrespective of caste or clan, he could embrace all and become one with them. As Rama, along with Sita and Lakshmana, reached the banks of the Ganga, he received the cordial hospitality of Guha, a chieftain of a local tribe. Guha was so captivated by the friendship of Rama, of the famed clan of Raghu, that he remained awake throughout the night to guard his sleep. He said to Lakshmana: ‘We can bear all types of suferings for his sake. We shall remain awake through these hours of tribulation for his sake. I tell you in the name of truth that there is none on earth dearer to me than Rama’ (2.51.3, 4).
It is also evident from the joy he expressed to his brother that Rama knew his dear Hanuman at first sight. And when he met Rama for the frst time, Sugriva expressed his feelings guilelessly: ‘I have heard of you from Hanuman. You adhere to righteousness; you are valorous and dear to all. I am a humble monkey (a forest dweller). Lord, I am blessed that you have asked for my friendship. I am extending my hand to you. If you so wish, please join your hand with mine and cement our alliance, grhyatām pāninā pānirmaryādā badhyatām dhruvā’ (4.5.12).
The pathos of human existence, however, has found its deepest expression in Rama’s inconsolable lament afer Sita’s abduction by the demon king Ravana. Seeing Lakshmana approach him without Sita, he seemed to foresee a great disaster befalling her. He scolded his brother for leaving Sita alone in the demon-infested forest. He was terror-stricken on seeing the hermitage deserted. Perhaps, she has gone to fetch water or to pluck fowers, Rama thought. He searched for her everywhere, but in vain. Terror seized his heart and his mind was in a frenzy; filled with terrible grief, he started asking mountains, brooks, trees, and plants the whereabouts of Sita: ‘O dear Kadamba tree! She loved your fowers! Have you seen her? O Bilva! O Arjuna! Have you seen my beloved? Tell me if she is living! O Ashoka, kindly remove my śoka (grief ) by telling me her whereabouts. O Karnika, flowers have decorated your branches tell me if you have seen my soft-spoken, lotus-eyed darling who adored these fowers! Bees are buzzin around you, O Kutaja Vanaspati! Surely you know what has befallen her! Then, tell me without fear don’t remain silent! Her eyes were like you—innocent and restless—O deer! Do you know where my chaste wife is? …
But the forest did not rustle even a wee bit, as if to conceal the horror of the scene that it had witnessed a while ago. Rama then addressed Sita directly, imagining her to be playing a prank on him by hiding herself behind some flowering shrub: ‘There is no need to play such a terrible game, my dear! Please come out; I cannot bear your absence any more. O sweetheart, don’t you have compassion in your heart? You never laugh loudly, you are always self-controlled. Why then are you playing this joke on me?’ (3.60–1).
As he searched for Sita through forests and over hills, his sorrow deepened; he nearly died of anguish. Fortunately, he had Lakshmana by his side to take care of him. When they reached Lake Pampa, he was mad with grief. Valmiki—an artist par excellence—has drawn the picture of the lake in springtime, painting all the beauties of nature in a timeless landscape. Having placed the mourning Rama at the centre of this vibrant landscape, the poet has created a powerful contrast. The external nature here is full of beauty whereas the human heart is soaked with suffering. Rama expresses his agony to his brother: ‘The forest, resonating with the cooing of birds, ignites sorrow in my heart. … I have lost her … the lovelorn birds remind me of her. … The redness of twigs adorned with new leaves and buds is the lustre of spring; to me, at this moment, it is like an all-consuming fire burning me to naught with its myriad tongues of flame’ (4.1.29).
Even in the battlefield, this intense sensitivity of heart did not leave him. When the valorous Indrajit put both the brothers in a state of torpor, the whole world was shocked. Rama soon regained his consciousness though, but he was so moved on seeing his brother’s condition that he wept bitterly over Lakshmana’s unconscious frame: ‘What is the use of regaining Sita afer this? I shall give up my body if my brother doesn’t come back to life. …What shall I tell mother Sumitra if I have to return to Ayodhya without him? Fie on me! I have behaved rudely with him. … O Sugriva, you have helped me as best as you could. Now, leave me alone and turn back (from the battle-feld). No human being can overcome fate!’ (6.49).
The Ramayana has been told to us times without number. Every line of it has been scanned and commented upon minutely, not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of times over. … Nevertheless, in our mixed human nature, there is a tendency which we nourish to come again and yet again to the story, whether before breakfast or after siesta in the afternoon, or at midnight when it is time to be sleeping. At whatever time we go, to whatever place, whoever the \ expounder may be, somehow or other there is that in us which helps us to put aside all disturbing illusions, all the things that are calculated to take us away from the environment of the story itself even while our circumstances are such as to cause distraction for the time. … I should ask you always to put yourselves in that condition and remain in it whenever you read this great epic. The whole thing is done before you with a set purpose and unless you help that purpose to fulfill itself in you, you read it for nothing. Everything therefore depends on the way in which you open the book and read it. I take up the book anywhere and read it. To me Rama is not divine. Nevertheless, the illusion is always there, in full force. I can throw myself heart and soul into the very essence of the story. When I read the book, I read that book and do nothing else; my whole mind is devoted to it. A hard-hearted man like me, I read it, and, strange to say, there is not a page which does not bring tears into my eyes! … Why has it that effect on me? I suppose it is because deep down in my nature, going to strata which perhaps in my waking life I shall never touch, there is a spirit of the utmost reverence and affection for those great characters. Why? Even if Rama and Sita were not of this land but were the hero and heroine in an alien poem, I should feel, probably not so very much affected, but nearly as deeply. Human nature is human nature; whether nurtured here or in another land, it is just the same. —Adapted from V S Srinivasa Sastri, Lectures on the Ramayana
Through weeping and wailing, grief and lamentation, Rama is identifed with the sufferings of humankind. But that is not enough. He has also to show us through his character a way to get rid of sufering. And for this, we have to go to another dimension of his personality: his divine nature.
Human divinity is that calm centre of poise that is beyond this phenomenal universe, beyond one’s body-mind complex, beyond the duality of pain and pleasure or of praise and blame. This calm centre of poise, lying in the depth of our being, remains unassailed amidst all the trials and tribulations of life. It is the ever present, ever awake, ever blissful Atman; in and through it, one knows this universe. The Upanishads proclaim, at their highest pitch, this divinity of the human being. According to the Upanishads, this is satyasya satyam, the Truth of truth.
The historico-mythical hero Rama was born in that particular phase of India’s history when society, after witnessing the might and glory of the Self-realized sages of the Aranyakas, was struggling to translate their vision into the day-to-day practicalities of life through the implementation of a grand Upanishadic concept: rta.
The word rta has been used in various contexts throughout the corpus of Vedic literature. Two famous examples are: ‘rtam pibantau sukrtasya loke; the two drinkers of rta who have entered into this body’ and ‘rtam vadisyāmi satyam vadisyāmi; I shall call you rta, I shall call you truth’. In his commentary, Acharya Sankara has interpreted this word thus: ‘rtam satyam-avasyambhāvitvāt karmaphalam; rta is the fruit of actions, it is true because of its inevitability’, and ‘rtam yathāśāstram yathākartavyam buddhau supariniścitam-artham; rta is an idea fully ascertained by the intellect in accordance with the scriptures and in conformity with practice.’  Often we incorrectly use the two words rta and satya synonymously. But satya or Truth is eternal, whereas rta, being the fruit of action, deals with matters that are transient in the ultimate analysis. Faith in its inevitability leads humans to a dispassionate outlook towards the events of their lives. It is, however, not fatalism; it invites humans to participate consciously in the battle of life without being carried away by hopes and aspirations or driven into despair and despondency. One having this attitude towards life and the world may continue to smile or weep, yet even while smiling or weeping will know within oneself the inevitability of one’s joy and sorrow, and thus will prepare the mind to realize and manifest one’s hidden divine substance.
‘Looked at from this standpoint, that which seemed to be an attack of fatalism on Rama may have a diferent signifcance. In his case, the acceptance of destiny may have been rooted in this philosophy of rta as a sure background of one’s duties in life, which is remarkably strengthening. Although he behaved like an ordinary human being, somewhere deep within himself he remained aware of that calm centre of poise that held him and carried him unscathed through fiery human predicaments. He expressed this philosophy of his as follows:
Naivāham rājyamicchāmi na sukham na ca medinīm; Naiva sarvānimān kāmān na svargam naiva jīvitam. Tvāmaham satyamicchāmi nānrtam purusarsabha.
I desire neither kingdom nor happiness, neither the earth nor heaven, nor objects of enjoyment. I do not even desire to live. O, Best of Men (Dasha-ratha), I desire truth and not untruth for you.
Asamkalpitameveha yadakasmāt-pravartate; Nivartyārambhamārabdham nanu daivasya karma tat. Etayā tattvayā buddhyā samstabhyātmānamātmanā; Vyāhate’pyabhiseke me paritāpo na vidyate.
If such a situation arises, when that which has been well begun is suddenly taken away and that which has never even been thought of falls to the lot of a human being, one must know it to be the play of destiny. By this understanding, I have controlled myself by myself. Though my coronation has suddenly been stopped, I have no grief (2.22.24–5).
Valmiki has left some such suggestive hints for his readers about this aspect of Rama’s character, and these have to be carefully unearthed with diligent effort. At the time of their first meeting, Sugriva broke a leafy branch of a sal tree and made Rama sit on it. That was when Rama did not know of Sita’s whereabouts and was searching for her. What did Sugriva see in Rama’s demeanour? Valmiki says that in Sugriva’s eyes he was like the calm ocean, prasannamudadhim yathā (4.8.15). How can an ordinary man remain so calm and composed when his beloved wife has been abducted in the forest? And we have also seen Rama mourning inconsolably for her! The explanation again lies in his philosophy of life.
One day, while gazing at the blue autumnal night sky, Rama was overcome by anxiety for his lost wife and fell unconscious. What was his first thought on regaining consciousness? Valmiki aptly records:
Sa tu samjñāmupāgamya muhūrtānmatimān punah; Manahsthāmapi vaidehīm cintayāmāsa rāghavah.
He regained consciousness in a few moments, the wise Rama, and started thinking about his beloved wife Vaidehi who was in his own mind (4.30.4).
This mysterious statement gives us an insight into Rama’s nature. Rama knew full well that the entire phenomenal universe of duality, including his beloved Sita, perceived in and through the mind, is in reality nothing but the mind itself. It is manodrśya, a vision in the mind, which is perceived when the mind acts, and vanishes when the mind is withdrawn into itself in samadhi or stops functioning, as in deep sleep or in a state of swoon. This view is especially emphasized in the ancient tradition of Yogavasishtha Ramayana, which has been ever associated with the character of Rama. Sita too, perhaps, knew this attitude of her noble husband and was established in the same philosophy of life. Even when she was pained at Rama’s words that cast doubt on her character at the end of the Lanka war, she reminded him: ‘Madadhīnam tu yat-tan-me hrdayam tvayi vartate; my heart, which is under my control, is always with you’, ‘if my body happened to come in contact with Ravana’s, it is destiny that is to be blamed; yadyaham gātrasamsparśam gatā’smi vivaśā prabho, … daivan tatra-aparādhyati ’ (6.119.8–9).
Was it all then a mock search, and Rama’s tears mock tears? Were his actions altogether without purpose? Not at all. Every teardrop he shed for Sita was real, as much as this empirical world of existence is real. But this phenomenal universe, along with all our relationships, although relatively real, vanishes completely in nirvikalpa samadhi, and so cannot be said to have an absolute reality. Since Rama was well aware that this entire universe—including his own body and mind and his dear ones—is merely superimposed on Brahman, the Being-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute, and since it does not have an independent existence apart from Brahman, deep within himself he could remain unperturbed, although outwardly he was incessantly engaged in the intensest activity. Moreover, Rama himself told Sita the purpose of his actions: ‘I have done what a man should do to protest the insult to his wife. I have both vanquished my enemy and have removed the last trace of dishonour that my ill-luck brought upon me’ (6.118.2–3). Again, he thus addressed the fire-god afer Sita’s ordeal by fire: O lord, I know that Sita is purity herself, but it is also true that she lived in Ravana’s inner apartment for a long period of time. If I were to accept her without putting her through this fiery test, the world would call me a fool, given to lust. Just as the sun’s rays are inseparable from the sun itself, Sita is inseparable from me. Ravana could not have laid hands on Sita—who is like a blazing fire even in his mind (2.121.13–18).
Swami Vivekananda’s statement about the mental make-up of an ideal karma yogi—‘in the midst of intense activity, intense calm’—also characterizes Rama. His mental poise is a manifestation of the tremendous valour that ought to be emulated by one and all. In the battlefeld, when he was being repeatedly attacked by the terrible demons, he faced them in a mood of amusement, sa tam drstvā patantam vai prahasya raghunandana (6.79.45). Before the final attack on Ravana, he announced: ‘Today I shall accomplish the greatest task of my life. As long as this creation remains, men and women, gods and demigods, the dwellers of the three worlds will keep narrating the story of this war.’ According to Valmiki, he appeared like a huge mountain, unmoved and calm, even when he was being vigorously attacked by the redoubtable Ravana, mahāgiririvākampyah kākutstho na prakampate (6.105.4). On the battlefeld, he stood like an indefatigable angel on his way to victory.
Rāmo rāmo rama iti prajānām-abhavan kathāh; Rāmabhūtam jagad-abhūd-rāme rājyam praśāsati.
With Rama ruling their kingdom, his subjects were always singing his glory, for the entire world was then permeated by Rama (6.131.102).
Encounter with Death
A successful reconciliation between these two apparently contradictory aspects of his character—the human and the divine—is noticeable in Rama’s encounter with Kala or Time at the end of the Ramayana. The characterization of Kala is clearly symbolic; he represents the end of Rama’s mortal career. He came to Rama as a sage and wanted to talk with him in private. At his behest, Rama promised that anyone who intruded into his private chamber while they were conversing would be done to death. Then the sage revealed his identity to Rama and said: ‘I am Time, the all-destroyer. I have come to tell you that the purpose of your incarnation has been fulfilled and the period of time you yourself decided to stay on earth is over. Do you wish to spend some more time here?’
Rama answered with a gentle smile: ‘I am glad to meet you, Time, the all-destroyer. I was thinking of you just now. I incarnated myself for the good of the three worlds. My mission is fulflled. I shall return to my abode where from I descended.’ At this moment Lakshmana had to interrupt the conversation to inform Rama about the arrival of the irascible sage Durvasa. To keep his word to Kala, Sri Rama had to abandon Lakshmana and order him to enter the waters of the river Sarayu. He too did the same and casting of his mortal body like a disused garment returned to his divine abode.
This episode, as we have said earlier, is allegorical. Death is inevitable in human life. But those who have lived with the consciousness of death through-out their lives, who have prepared themselves to die for a noble cause, who have offered their thoughts and actions, their happiness and suffering in the worship of all beings, who have clearly perceived the inevitability of the fruits of action through such continual offering, and who have discovered the imperishable Atman behind their perishable selves alone can smile at death. And that smile, like an effulgent star in the distant firmament, will keep shedding its lustre for all eternity.
- Ramayana,1.1.2–5. The references to the Ramayana in this article are based on Śrīmad Vālmīki Rāmāyanam, ed. S Kuppuswami Sastri, S Krishna Sastri, S K Padmanabha Sastri, and T V Ramachandra Dikshitar (Madras, 1933)and Ramayana (Bengali), trans. Dr Dhyaneshnarayan Chakravarti, 2 vols (Kolkata: New Light, 1997). Reference has also been made to Swami Gitananda, Sri Ramer Anudhyan (Kolkata: Udbodhan, 2002) and M R Yardi, Epilogue of Ramayana (Pune: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2001).
- Ramayana, 6.120.11–12.
- Katha Upanishad, 1.3.1; Taittiriya Upanishad, 1.1.1.
- See Eight Upanishads, trans. Swami Gambhirananda, 2 vols (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2006), 1.161, 247.
- Ramayana, 2.34.47–8.
- Originally published as "Valmiki's Rama: Human and Divine" by Prabhuddha Bharata October 2008 edition. Reprinted with permission.