The Way of Dharma in the Ramayana

Dr Prema Panduranga, Madras, Discourse at Ram Naam Aradhana, Rikhia, December 1996

By the grace of the Lord we will look into the highlights of the Valmiki Ramayana, concentrating in particular on the Sundarakand. All great works of the world have withstood the test of time because they have been in the form of a dialogue between two inspiring people. In the Ramayana Valmiki is asking Sage Narada, one of the greatest of speakers, “Tell us who is the ideal man?”

Who is the ideal man?

Thousands of years ago, long before management schools were talking about leadership qualities, Indian history recorded what these qualities are. Long before the Ten Commandments, the Gita gave us the Three Commandments in the 18th chapter. Every man is asked to do three things in this world: yajna, thanksgiving, daana, charity, and tapa, holding oneself within oneself.

Everybody, whether a student in a classroom or a citizen ruled by a government, wants an ideal person at the helm of affairs. The Bhagavad Gita tells us there is nothing more important or pure than gyana. However, this gyana is not available in supermarkets or in bound books or in museums. It is available only with live souls like Paramguru Satyananda, who is sitting here with us. That is why you all leave your homes, your countries and come here and search, because only after constant querying and persistent humility can you gain gyana.

A man who has not eaten sugar cannot describe sugar, a man who has not known the Lord dare not and cannot talk about the Lord. We want someone who has known the Lord, a tattwadarshi, who has known the Supreme Truth. Narada is such a person.

Goodness, bravery, gratitude and truth

The first quality of the ideal man is goodness. Whether you are looking for a job, a husband or a wife, whatever you are looking for, you are impressed by a man's good conduct. All the scandals in the newspapers are caused because people lack goodness. It is not enough to be powerful, rich, proficient and efficient.

At the same time we want someone who is brave. There are good people who are cowards sitting in dining rooms and drawing rooms talking about the world. They don't contribute at all. We want people who are good and we want people who are brave. Today there are many brave people who are not good, like the terrorists who can blast bombs, destroy airports and kill people by the thousands. But that is bravery without virtue. We want virtue accompanied by proficiency, efficiency and bravery.

Among all the qualities of Sri Rama, the one that stands uppermost is gratitude. Today people who have risen in life have forgotten those who have helped them. They suffer from terrible diseases, children dying, ups and downs in life, emotional breakdowns, because they have forgotten those who were responsible for their elevation in life. In the Ramayana never did the Lord exhibit even one moment of ingratitude. No wonder Shakespeare said, “Blow, blow thou winter wind, Thou are not so unkind as man's ingratitude.” Animals are never ungrateful, gratitude is a natural feeling in them. It is only man in his supreme selfishness who can turn ungrateful.

We want a man who will speak the truth, who will keep his promises. We want a man of perfect good conduct. No leader can afford to have skeletons in the cupboard. He must wash his dirty linen in public and expiate for his sins, otherwise one day his blackmailers will undo him. Righteousness itself will undo him. He doesn't need external enemies, adharma will kill him. As he passes on in the world, one day he will have to face destruction.

Kindness, wisdom and self-control

We want a leader who loves everybody, who is kind to everybody. We want a man who knows the wisdom of learning. We all know we have to learn to unlearn. After learning we come to know that mere bookish knowledge is not enough. Exposition has its limitations, experience has none. Exposition has to lead us on to experience. Those of you who practise yoga know that it is not enough to merely read books on yoga, you must practise a little too. As you go on learning more and more, you come to the essence of experience. We want a man who knows everything, who has registered everything that he has read. Today we have scholars but scholars are not efficient people, they are only good at reading and writing. We want an efficient scholar.

I used to tell my students, “You can't choose your faces but you can choose your expression.” Whenever you look at Sri Rama he smiles, whether he is offered the kingdom, denied the kingdom or sent into the forest. We want a man who has self-control, who has conquered his anger. People often say, “We can't control our temper.” The commonsensical answer is that it is your temper and your business to control it, nobody can do it for you. People often say, “I lost my temper”. The very phrase suggests that there is something that should not be lost, something that should be preserved. Anger should be used only when it works. Most of us use anger as an expression of helplessness. Anger should work as a principle, not as passion. Anger should be used to get the work done, when you want your subordinates or children to improve and they won't listen to you. But please remember it's more play acting than a passionate distortion of the mind or body. When the Lord got angry, not only the world but the entire heavens trembled with fear.

Valmiki asked Narada, “O Naradaji, you are capable of knowing the entire world. You have a cosmic passport, you can travel whenever and wherever you want. Please tell us who is the ideal man.” Narada replies, “You want all these qualities in one man. Impossible! To combine these qualities in one man, the Lord had to come down as the son of King Dasaratha. He came as Sri Ramachandra, as the prince of Ayodhya, and proved to the world that he is nonpareil, incomparable, without equal, that he is a master and fund of virtue.”

This is how the Ramayana begins and this is the narration Narada gave to Valmiki.

How did this great work happen?

One day Valmiki went for a bath in the river. On his way back he saw two birds billing and cooing. Into this idyllic scene came a ruthless hunter who shot at the male bird. The male bird died and the female bird cried. That is the way of the world.

Out of Valmiki's sorrowful reaction came a sloka. “O you ruthless hunter, you will come to no good. Because you have destroyed the joy of another, you will never be happy.” We all know that every action will have a repercussion and we have to be prepared for the repercussion. The Ramayana was the first epic poem written in world literature. So when this little sloka – “You will come to no good” – came, Valmiki was surprised at the arrangement of words and syllables. Then his disciples learned the sloka and began to repeat it. They sat around him in the ashram chanting together. Then Brahma appeared and told Valmiki, “Don't worry sir, you have written a sloka and it is by my grace that you have been inspired to write it. With this particular style in mind you are going to write a great work. Go on writing about Rama.” “But I don't know about Rama, sir.” “Don't worry, you will know about Him. Everything about Rama will be shown to you and people will accept everything that you write as authentic.”

“How long will my Ramayana remain in the world?” asked Valmiki. Every artist wonders, “Will my work be read? Will it be published? I hope there won't be a malignant review in the newspapers which will kill me before it appears.” “No”, said Lord Brahma. “So long as the Himalayas stand, so long as the rivers flow, so will the Ramayana remain a popular work. It will be famous in the world as long as life continues.” That is why the popularity of the Ramayana continues.

After a work is written comes the problem of who will publish it. In a world of advertising, everything sells by marketing. The problem was, “Who will market the Ramayana and make it popular?” When a good soul has a problem the answer comes instantaneously. As Valmiki was sitting in deep meditation wondering, “Who is going to sing the glory of the Lord?” he felt two small pairs of hands touching his feet. When he opened his eyes he found Lava and Kusha, the twins born to Sita, the children of Rama. He was so happy that the Lord had give him the subject, the style, the creativity, the imagination, the vocabulary, and now He had also given him singers. Everything was provided by the Lord.

The children of Rama began to sing the glory of Sri Rama on the highways of Ayodhya. Sri Rama himself was the first official listener to his own biography, the Ramayana.

King Dasaratha and family

There was a great warrior king called Dasaratha who could control ten chariots simultaneously. Dasaratha had everything: the best country, capital, ministers, citizens and wives. But he did not have a child and so he felt sad. The Lord always denies us something, otherwise we would not go to Him. He creates a vacuum and He is also the one who fills it. Dasaratha asked all the pundits of his country, “Can we perform a yajna, a sacrifice, and propitiate the gods so that we may have progeny at home.” They agreed and an offspring giving sacrifice was performed. At the end of the sacrifice, a beautiful person came out of the fire and gave Dasaratha payas, a preparation of sugar, milk and grain, which he took to his three wives, Kaushalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra, all of whom were devoted to him. He gave half to Kaushalya, who was to be the mother of Sri Rama, a quarter to Sumitra, one eighth to Kaikeyi and the remaining one eighth again to Sumitra.

It is difficult to bring leaders into the world but it is more difficult to produce servants of these leaders. Sumitra is held in high esteem, because although Kaushalya produced a master and Kaikeyi produced a master, Sumitra produced two servants, one to serve the Lord and one to serve the servant of the Lord. That is why we bow down to Mother Sumitra, who in the Ramayana is called a tapaswini, a woman of sacrifice.

King Dasaratha had four beautiful children, all stalwart sons. They grew up stately and proud, brave and brainy, fond of their parents and of each other. One is better than the others – he is called Rama because he pleases everyone. The second brother is called Bharata, the bearer, because for fourteen years he had to bear the burden of the kingdom when the Lord went into exile. It is he who bore the insults of the public who said, “Oh here is a man who won the kingdom through foul means.” It is Bharata who served the Lord day and night. The third brother is called Lakshmana who had all the good qualities of serving the Lord. The fourth brother is called Satrughna, the conqueror of enemies. Within us there is a constant civil war raging between kama, lust; krodha, anger; lobha, greed; mada, arrogance and moha, infatuation. These are the six enemies which have been conquered by Satrughna.

The importance of dharma

The highlight of the Ramayana is dharma, which means righteousness, in Sanskrit 'that which holds together'. It is dharma which finds significant repetition throughout the Ramayana. Dharma is used when Viswamitra takes the Lord to Mother Sita and the wedding takes place. “Hey Rama, I present my daughter to you. Sita is beautiful. She has a big dowry, she brings elephants, horses and jewellery with her. But the greatest dowry that she brings is her dharma.”

According to Indian custom the wife is not a biological counterpart, not a sexual vessel, but a spiritual counterpart of man. She sits with him and performs all the holy jobs he has to do. Without her he is incomplete. The wife plays a very spiritual role in man's life. “She is going to be with you against the law of primogeniture. When you go to the forest for fourteen years she will travel with you; she will not return to her mother's house.” This is the usage of dharma.

When Sri Rama is seated with Sita in Chitrakoot, Bharata comes along with the army to take Rama back to Ayodhya. He wants to return the kingdom which his mother had snatched away because of the two boons she had received from her husband Dasaratha. Lakshmana grossly miscalculates and says, “Sri Rama, our killer brother, Bharata, is coming. Please get your spears, lances, swords and shields ready.” The Lord said, “You don't need any protection with weapons when Bharata, the great master of non-violence and dharma, comes to you.”

Whenever the word dharma is used in the Ramayana, the Lord makes it significant. Suparnakha, the sister of Ravana, the demon king, meets the Lord. She is ugly, pot-bellied, has a terrible voice and is unrighteous. The Lord is handsome, kind, slender-waisted, sweet and lovely to look at. He is everything that she is not and she is everything that he is not; they are a picture of contrasts. She stands for lust and he stands for righteousness. Naturally, her heart goes out to him. She calls to him lustfully, “I would like to make you my own. I will take you everywhere as my consort.” But Rama is a very faithful husband and tells her, “Please gentle lady, understand that my wife is here beside me. She loves me and I love her which means there is no possibility of my accepting you.”

Sattwa, rajas and tamas

It is clear that Rama has no intention of entertaining any of her lustful passions. Then she introduces herself, “My name is Suparnakha. My eldest brother is Ravana, he who makes the world cry. A second brother is called Kumbhakarna. He sleeps for six months and is awake for six months.” She pauses. “There is a third brother called Vibhishana who is a dharmatma, a righteous soul. How he came into our lives, I don't know. Every morning he prays to the Lord. He is totally different to us.”

Throughout the Ramayana there is sattwoguna, rajoguna and tamoguna. In Ayodhya there are sattwic people. In Kishkinda there are two brothers, Vali and Sugriva. One is rajasic, the other is tamasic. In Lanka you have Ravana who is rajasic, Kumbhakarna who is tamasic and Vibhishana who is sattwic. It is very clear that only he who is sattwic can choose the Lord. If you want to choose Supreme Reality, to realize the Supreme Brahman, you have to be sattwic. There is no compromise. Rajoguna and tamoguna will not allow you to do your sadhana, and you will fail.

The entire Ramayana is a path of sadhana, a way of self-evolution. It takes place through these lovely incidents which look like stories but which have deep inner meanings.

Hanuman – the Lord's messenger

To cut a long story short, Mother Sita is abducted by Ravana who comes in the form of lust. It is dharma who will bring her back. To save the soul from lust you need absolute sattwa. Only the Lord can do it and for this a medium is needed. Hanuman is the Lord's main messenger. There cannot be a better yogi that Hanuman – his kundalini shakti is always high and the moment he sits in deep meditation he has Sri Rama, Lakshmana and Sita in his heart.

Hanuman comes into contact with the Lord. He tells him, “Hey master, there is a monkey king by the name of Sugriva.” It is the vanaras, the monkeys, who will be the Lord's associates in bringing back Mother Sita from Ravana's clutches. In this context Sugriva is praised by the Lord and is given back his kingdom after he kills Vali. For a while Sugriva forgets his promise to Lord Rama. He is then advised by Hanuman who goes flying across the ocean, a powerful yogic feat. Imagine flying across a huge ocean, reaching the other side safely, then coming back safely after having fought with the rakshashas, with the message that Mother Sita is safe and is waiting for the Lord to bring her back.

As soon as the Lord's devotee, Hanuman, arrives on the scene, even Sri Rama pales into insignificance. Hanuman shows through his life and behaviour who is the real messenger of the Lord. As he flies across the ocean all the great devatas watch over him and the gods in the heavens are kind to him because he is on the Lord's mission.

One-pointed aim

All of us who are on the Lord's mission will encounter difficulties. Hanuman encountered three types of difficulty: a sattwic temptation, a rajasic temptation and a tamasic temptation. In sadhana we will face these three types of temptation but it is our duty to overcome them with the help of the Lord. Hanuman overcomes these obstacles only because he is sure of his target. Those of us who have one single aim, one ambition, will naturally reach our goal. Hanuman is such a sadhaka.

As Hanuman reaches Lanka a demoness watchwoman is sitting there. He tells her, “I have come to Lanka to look for Sita.” She objects to his entry. At this point Hanuman strikes her. As he does so she remembers an ominous prophecy that on the day a large ape strikes her the end of Lanka will begin. She wishes him well and says, “Now it's your time to take over. We, the demons, are going to fall.”

Alone, Hanuman travels through Lanka looking for Mother Sita. A human soul is also looking out for grace. Mother Sita stands for grace. We are also looking out for grace but we have to search everywhere for it. Sometimes we find the wrong person and think it is the right person.

Ravana is the demon king who has ten heads, which stand for tenfold arrogance. He has all the bravery in the world and yet he is smitten with lust. Our scriptures say you can have power, position, all the great qualities in the world, but if you lack poise and virtue you are going to fall. This is what the Ramayana teaches us. Ravana is a symbol of evil; he has ten heads, twenty arms, twenty eyes and yet he has misused all his power. He has a beautiful wife with a golden complexion who looks like Sita. Hanuman finds her asleep in her bed and for a moment mistakes her for Sita. Then he says, “It cannot be Sita. Sita would not be sleeping so peacefully away from Sri Rama. She must be one of the wives of the demon king.” He is surprised that such a beautiful woman is the wife of such a man who has gone after a married woman and made himself miserable because he has left the path of virtue. That is the irony of life. All those who abandon beautiful wives and run after the wrong women are only Ravana's incarnate. It is lust in man which prompts him to forget the beautiful wife at home, run after a married woman who is attached to her husband and living a life of righteous- ness, abduct her and cause so much adharma in the world.

Trials on the path of sadhana

The entire Sundarakand is the way of sadhana. While we are on the path of sadhana there are many trials, many moments when we feel depressed. Spiritual depression is the worst form. You can get over every other depression but the depression of a sadhaka is the worst because it takes a long time for him to get back to where he was. He has to keep his morale up otherwise he fails. No wonder the Lord said in the Gita, “Let bhaktas be with bhaktas.” It is necessary for us to have good company which is God-reminding company. Depression is God obliteration, forgetting that there is a Lord within you, that the Master's power, the Supreme power, is within you. That is depression.

Great preachers and sadhakas often get depressed. Hanuman said, “I have searched everywhere for Sita. Where has she gone? Master, why is it that I am not receiving success in my sadhana? Today I have had negative thoughts. If I go back and tell Sugriva that I have not seen Mother Sita then he will die.”

As soon as Hanuman had come through this depression he wondered about the reason. “Why can't I find Mother Sita? It is because I have not prayed.” What is prayer? Prayer is not merely chanting or ritual. Prayer is an experience of the palpable presence of the divine within us. And Hanuman sat in silence with folded hands and began to pray to Sri Rama, to Lakshmana and to Mother Sita. Without their grace he cannot see her. He prayed to all the gods and demigods everywhere.

When Hanuman prayed he got a flash. Most of us say, “I got a flash”, without knowing that the Lord has sent the flash. This intuition comes from the power within us. Only prayer can discover this unknown strength within us which is what we lack at times. In order to regain that strength and have it constantly we need consistent prayer and sadhana. That is why bhakti is not spasmodic, sporadic or capricious. It is the continuous, consistent conviction that the Lord is with us.

That bhakti is now in Hanuman and after he prayed he got a flash: “There is a place called Ashokvana where I have not searched. I am sure Mother Sita is there.” He finds her there. She is sad without the Lord. Anybody who is separated from the Lord and cannot have His darshan is naturally sad when he is a devotee. She wonders when the Lord will come and take her back. In the Sampurna Ramayana it says, “It is possible for the moon to live without moonlight, for the sun to live without sunlight, but how can Sri Rama live without a beautiful, good woman like Mother Sita.” Hanuman wonders how the Lord can live and breathe being separated from a wife like Sita.

He finds she is being persecuted and threatened by Ravana. Ravana, who has so much power, is going to fall because of that infirmity of the noble mind called lust. Sita is contemplating suicide. She decides not to live in a world where she is separated from her husband. As she is about to commit suicide Hanuman appears. She asks him, “Does my Lord ever remember me?” Hanuman replies, “He remembers you day and night. Just as the supreme soul is remembered by the individual soul, the individual soul is remembered by the supreme soul.” Sita says, “Ask Rama to come and take me away. I can't live without him. Death will take me if my master doesn't come and take me back within one month.” Hanuman promises to take this message back to Ram and Sita gives him a crest jewel, a chudamani.

The ideal ambassador

Hanuman is the ideal ambassador. According to the rules of politics a messenger should know what is happening in the enemy's camp, what their military strength is. He wants to destroy that beautiful place because it is the only way to invite attention and get taken into the courtroom of Ravana. He sees a ten-headed eagle seated on the throne. From his mouth comes this ejaculation, “What a great, charismatic personality, how splendid, prosperous and courageous he is.” For a while you wonder if Hanuman has forgotten his fidelity to Rama? He says, “No, no. If only this great man was not adharmic, not lustful, he could have become the king of the demigods. Sometimes the greatest people fall because they lack poise.”

An ambassador should not be attacked. Even according to the laws of international politics if two countries declare war the ambassador of the other country should be sent back to his country by first flight. Even today those ethics are still observed by all great states and countries. Unfortunately Ravana wanted to kill Hanuman who had begun to attack him with sharp and abusive words. But his younger brother, the dharmatma Vibhishana, said, “No, my elder brother, one does not attack ambassadors. You can't kill the postman if he brings a bad letter, because he is not responsible for it; he is only delivering a message. The person who writes the letter is offending you not the postman.”

Here Hanuman's tail is set on fire. With his tail alight he sets fire to the entire Lanka. Then he wonders, “Why was I so impulsive? Mother Sita must also be burning in this fire.” He begins to curse his anger, saying, “Anger is a terrible enemy, so terrible that a man can even kill his guru when angry because anger is temporary insanity. Why does anger come? Anger is born out of ahamkara, ego. If a man has no ego there is no anger at all.” Hanuman looks at his tail and sees that only the tip is burning. He realizes, “This is not by my power, it is only because of Rama and Sita's grace, their kripa. I am sure Sita can save herself.” He gets over his little mood of repentance and realizes that Mother Sita has saved him.

Hanuman allows the monkeys to celebrate. They enter a beautiful forest garden, full of beehives and drink so much madhu that they are all happy and making merry. Then Hanuman says, “No, celebrations can't go beyond a certain point. We have to go back, it's our military duty to report to the Lord.” When they return it is Angada who goes to Sugriva, because military protocol demands that you first report to your commander-in-chief, who reports to the king, who reports to the king of kings. The hierarchy has to be observed.

The most enviable combination in Hanuman is brains, brawn, beauty and bravery. Those who are strong in mind are not strong in body, those who are strong in body are not strong in soul, those who are strong in all these are not capable, and if they are capable they are not successful, whereas Hanuman is successful in every way.

The gift of God

Now the Lord asks Hanuman, “What can I give you? You have brought me the best of messages. I am an impoverished prince. I don't have a credit card, I have nothing with me. I give myself to you.” The Lord takes Hanuman into his arms. What more does a man want? The greatest gift from God is God Himself. What else can you want but the embrace of the Lord? We belong to everybody else in the world, to our husbands, our children, our relatives, our friends, but not to the Lord. The only thing that the Lord wants is the ultimate commitment that we belong to Him.