Ramayana: D’harma in the 21st Century
The principle of d’harma that appears throughout Ramayana is one that calls for a specific kind of righteousness. D’harma is a difficult concept to pin down, but it essentially translates as the individual’s proper place and role in the cosmic cycle. D’harma manifests in many forms throughout Ramayana, but perhaps its most concrete manifestations are the father and son relationship and the husband and wife relationship. The principle of d’harma is brought to life by Rama’s respect and devotion to his father. Similarly, Sita is celebrated for her devotion to her husband Rama. These themes of respect and devotion appear in 21st century culture but have developed over time to account for new values. While the d’harma of the Ramayana places significance on duty to the father and husband, modern d’harma moves away from roles of obligatory respect and focuses on the autonomous individual.
Rama’s characterization as the ideal man in Ramayana relies heavily on his adherence to the principle of d’harma. D’harma entails righteousness, purity, and nobility. In Rama’s case, this righteousness, purity, and nobility mean an unquestioning respect for his father’s wishes. In this way, Rama’s duty to the principle of d’harma is a duty to his father. Rama’s unwavering devotion to Dasharatha is seen when Kaikeyi orders that he accept his father’s demands before he even hears what they are. Kaikeyi demands: “From faith, as well the righteous know/ Our virtue and our merits flow/ Now, be they good or be they ill/ Do thou thy father’s words fulfil:/ Swear that his promise shall not fail/ And I will tell thee all the tale” (2. 95-100). D’harma calls for such unconditional respect for the father that Rama is expected to accept Dasharatha’s command before the fact. Once Rama hears that he will be exiled, he responds without question: “Yea, for my father’s promise sake/ I to the wood my way will take/ And dwell a lonely exile there/ In hermit dress with matted hair” (11. 144-148). The d’harma celebrated in this scene is Rama’s loyalty before and after he is exiled. His righteousness is not derived from the knowledge of a greater good or consideration for his father’s possible intention behind banishing him. Rather, Rama displays d’harma in that he promises to obey his father’s command without regard to its severity or purpose.
Devotion to one’s father is a principle that has been dismantled over time. In 21st century society, unwavering devotion to the father has namely been disregarded for its inherent misogyny. The principle of devotion to the father stems from the belief that he is the assigned and rightful authority over the wife and children. The 21st century recognizes that a principle of unconditional loyalty to the father suggests a lack of loyalty to the mother, or at least a less pressing or significant one. The inherent misogyny of this aspect of d’harma can be seen in Sita’s unconditional devotion to Rama. When Sita learns of Rama’s impending exile, she responds, “The wife alone, whate’er await/ Must share on earth her husband’s fate./ So now the king’s command which sends/ Thee to the wild, to me extents./ The wife can find no refuge, none/ In father, mother, self, or son” (2. 388-393). Here Sita’s unchanging loyalty to her husband is celebrated as d’harma, although a 21st century reader would likely recognize the pressing issue of the perception of the wife as an extension of the husband. Though this form of d’harma is between husband and wife, Sita displays the proper righteousness by ignoring any desires of her own to follow Rama into exile. Kaikeyi is portrayed as manipulative and antagonistic for taking advantage of Dasharatha’s integrity and ordering that he banish Rama. Though Kaikeyi is antagonistic, her antagonism is made more severe in the face of the expected d’harma, or devotion to her husband. The 21st century sees past these obligatory forms of devotion to male figures and instead deals in the rights of the woman as an individual. This point brings forth the fact that 21st century society has also developed from ideas of individualism and autonomy. Unwavering respect for the father’s command, under the lens of 21st century culture, undermines fundamental rights of the individual. A modern family wouldn’t call for or be expected to call for the child’s blind adherence to the father’s every desire. Instead, individual thought, free will, and contemplation have been set forth as highly valued principles in their own right. Similarly, the ideas surrounding the family unit itself have shifted. While the Ramayana holds Rama accountable for fulfilling the commands of his parents, 21st century culture has established that “family” may not necessarily be blood relatives. Rama’s unwavering respect and calm acceptance of banishment might be seen as a form of manipulative abuse on his father’s part. The individual of the 21st century might rightfully take Dasharatha’s command as cruelty, and forge new connections and meaningful relationships that offer security, love, and compassion.
The d’harma celebrated in Ramayana stems from the notion of the individual’s “proper” behavior and actions in the cosmic cycle. Part of the ascribed proper behavior deals in an unconditional respect for the father’s authority. Rama is celebrated for his unconditional respect for Dasharatha, following his every command without question or regard for his own well-being. While these values are applauded in Ramayana, a 21st century individual would likely view them as dangerous. Rama’s code of conduct deals in reverence for his father, but 21st century culture recognizes that one’s code of conduct must deal in his or her individual needs and desires. Instead of viewing the individual as an extension of the father, the 21st century values the individual for his or herself.
How to Handle Your Feelings: Anger as an Antagonist in the Ramayana
Negative emotions such as despair, disappointment, fury, bitterness are very impactful on one’s life and actions; at times, such sentiments can drive one away from the right path. The complexity of feelings is accountable for the depth and dimension of a being. One of the reasons why the Indian epic the Ramayana has such profound layers is the emotional development of its characters. The flow of the story paints the perspectives of each character, good or bad, through multiple lenses. The demons, Rakshasas, may appear to be the main antagonists of Rama in the Ramayana, but negative emotions are the true fatal enemies within each characters, no matter whether men or animals.
In this epic, anger is a negative emotion that can destroy a person’s life with its immediate, horrifying consequences. When the evil Manthara fuels the Ayodhya queen Kaikeyi with hatred, and when she shows her rage; “Kaikeyi ran to the palace anger-room, slammed the door and locked it behind her. She broke off her strands of pearls. […] I want to die!” (Buck, 68). This moment of fury leads her to the inescapable hole of misery and misfortune. Shortly after, her beloved husband Dasaratha passes away due to tremendous grief, caused directly by her decision to exile Rama. However, the most painful results that Kaikeyi has to suffer is the denial of her son Bharata and the death of her husband Dasaratha. The queen does everything in her power to make Bharata king, but he does not accept the throne. Contrary to her imagination, Bharata disagrees with his mother’s actions, calling them “hateful” and telling her that she is “like a deer lured into a snare by a sweet song” (114, 115). He does not appreciate what Kaikeyi considers “efforts” and “good intentions” to him. One who causes destruction to another must receive the same result. She is deeply wounded by her son’s words, just as how Dasaratha suffers immense depression because of hers. Similar to Kaikeyi, Surpanakha’s rage leads to a terrible result. When Ravana’s sister fails to seduce Rama, her anger leads to an outburst, in which “she rushed at Sita, and held out before her her claws curved like elephant hooks” (157). Her intentions to harm Sita ultimately result in Lakshmana’s anger and cause him to cut off her ears. Her will to hurt Sita, in a moment of burning fury, causes her own wounds. Her brother, the demon king Ravana, also makes the same mistake. When Ravana and Time hold a conversation, the Rakshasa lord lets fury take over him and insults Time: “You little liar! […] And whatever you give you steal back, by fraud, from hiding, when you’re not watched” (337). Time and Death are the most powerful entities known, but Ravana, in his moment of anger, dares to humiliate Time. When Kala goes on, Ravana loses his patience and “made ready to seize Time and crush him with his steely strength” (339). Similar to Kaikeyi and Surpanakha, his anger catches him and his insult backfires. Not long after, he faces his doom, in his own ignorance and isolation. Thus, fury is a catastrophic negative emotion that has the ability to cause devastation within a very short amount of time.
Anger is not the only negative feeling that exists in Ramayana. Lust plays an important role in the epic as well. Its consequences are shown most clearly through Ravana’s actions and his life. Ravana is a role model for a lecherous lifestyle. He is so lustful that he steals women who are happily married, ultimately leading to Nalakubara’s curse after he rapes his wife: “Ravana, when you next attack a woman who won’t have you, your ten heads will burst!” (180). This curse stops the king from conducting wrongdoings towards women and preventing him from stepping into his own doom. But lust is a lethal foe of all beings and even the mighty Ravana cannot escape his fate. The feeling that Ravana has towards Sita, which he calls “love”, is in fact another appearance of lust. It covers his eyes, lures him from his path to Dharma and ultimate happiness and pushes him to the edge of doom. Because of lust, the Rakshasa king abducts Sita and indirectly causes his loved ones, even his brother and his own son, to die. Lust is the basis of the stubbornness in Ravana’s actions when he neglects the truthful advice from others. Regardless of Kumbhakarna’s warning “A King is the roof his people’s happiness, and if he is wrong their lives are in danger and their nation will die” (301) or Indrajit’s wisdom “You took Death on your lap the day you stole Sita, and Death have you courted all this time” (318), he insists on killing Rama and seizing Sita. He ignores the well-being of his people and even himself, just because lust deceives him. He has to undergo the sorrow of loss, exactly as Rama feels when he took Sita away. Even though the consequences that desire brings are not as swift as rage, their impact is much worse. In the end, the demon king dies at the hand of Rama, the man whose wife he steals. While the appearance of lust seems to be beautiful, as what Ravana calls “love”, it is a deadly enemy that slowly crushes one to death.
While anger and lust lead to actions that are controllable, grief — another destructive negative emotion, is a reaction and the greatest suffering that is unstoppable and inevitable. Dasaratha, once the mighty king of Ayodhya, suffers an agonizing depression due to his son’s departure. When Rama goes to visit his father before his great journey of fourteen years, he finds Dasaratha who “shut the wine-vault doors and locked them closed and barred them; […] he sat not in a palace but in a death-waiting house; he was a pilgrim come to die at some holy place in one of the little stone-built rooms” (77). His actions show how destructive grief can be. He abandons his status and hope, just waiting for death to claim him. Grief transforms him from a wise king to a hopeless man and takes away all his hopes and joy. The heartbreak ends Dasaratha’s time on Earth and death approaches him, shortly after Rama is exiled. However, grief is not identical to anger or lust. While rage and lust are the roots of sin and often expressed by an action of one on another, grief is a reaction that usually only has impact on oneself rather than others. This difference makes the emotion unique and reveals a hidden aspect: if one can get over the agony of grief and let go of vengeance and bitterness, they can achieve happiness and peacefulness, according to their definitions.
Sita is one character who is a victim of grief, but later successfully overcomes it. When Indrajit, the master of illusions, creates a false death of Rama, it causes Sita such sorrow that she decides to die: “She quietly opened her hand, and let life slip and fall away through her fingers” (286). Grief is so devastating that it can take away her life if Rama no longer exists. Her patience and willingness to continue is barely clinging onto her hope in her reunion with Rama. However, at the end of the epic, Sita finally lets go of her sorrow and becomes independent from grief. Even though Rama is still alive, she decides to return to her mother’s arms, indicating that she no longer relies on her husband. Rama is also a role model in his ability to prevent himself from falling into the hands of grief. Sita’s departure from his life at the end of the Ramayana certainly affects him, but he does not let it take over him:”[…] I will never meet Sita again as a man.” Rama sighed, and still he was smiling” (417). His smile shows his acceptance of the event. Indeed, he cannot eliminate grief completely, but he does not fight it either. He makes peace with grief and stays calm. In the end, Rama receives his long, deserving rest from life and reunites with Lakshmi in Heaven, after transforming back into Narayana. Therefore, even though grief is devastating, if one can overcome sorrow without harming others, he or she will be able to find joy and wishes fulfilled. Negative feelings are the main factors that lead to the ruin of Ramayana characters.
While anger and lust cause the immediate destruction of one when they do harm to others, grief acts as a challenge that test if one has the ability to seize happiness. Emotions are the biggest obstacles to stop a person from obtaining their goal, thus it is important to stay aware and conscious of our own actions. If one survive the impact of feelings, he or she can achieve the “everlasting Dharma wheel and truly set it turning”, an achievement tantamount to ultimate joy and happiness, as well as freedom from desires and needs.
Buck, William, translator. Ramayana. University of California Press, 1976.