The relevance of Ramayan to the modern world

With excerpts from Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s ‘Why Bharat Matters’

From our Leader in Indian Newslink Digital Editon dated February 1, 2024

Venkat Raman
Auckland, January 31, 2024

Ramayanam or Ramayan was an essential part of our lives in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a part of our curriculum (especially in the Tamil Medium of instruction) and there were special papers on the Epic at the annual examinations.

We learnt Ramayan (both the Valmiki and Kamban versions which contain seven and six Kanda or Chapters respectively). Valmiki’s Uttara Kanda (the Seventh Chapter) describes Ram Rajya or the Rule of Lord Ram after His return to Ayodhya.

The quintessential form of learning was to understand and appreciate the importance of building the human character and therefore human values and living by the latter.

The Exemplary Example of Lord Ram

Our elders encouraged us to listen to the discourses (in Tamil) on the various Kandas of Ramayan recited by great scholars. We attended these evening sessions spread over 40 days every year and learned about the life and times of Lord Ram. His intense respect for His parents, Gurus and elders; the tolerance and understanding that He showed towards His brothers and the compassion and benevolence that He displayed towards His people were all taught to us.

Tolerance (religious and social), Understanding (each other’s circumstances and compulsions), Compassion (especially to the vulnerable in times of need) and Benevolence (towards its own people and the world) are the traits of today’s India as it emerges as a global power. The life of Lord Rama is being played out in full, making the current era the Golden Age of India.

Not that Lord Ram did not know how to assert Himself. He was a Kshatriya and as a Leader of the Warrior Class, He fully understood the importance of protection, perseverance and the inevitability of reaction when provoked. Modern India has begun to assert itself, to maintain and promote its interests in a multipolar world.

Jaishankar’s ‘Why Bharat Matters’

In his highly readable book, ‘Why Bharat Matters’ (published earlier this month), India’s External Affairs Minister Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar draws analogies of various incidents that occur in Ramayana to current affairs.

“In essence, the Ramayana is a saga of a divine force that assumes human incarnation, Rama, to cleanse the world of evil. In that process, He sets the norms for personal conduct and promotes good governance. For that reason, we see His Rule as the epitome of a rules-based order known as ‘Ram Rajya.’ The story of Rama is an account of a rising power that is able to harmonise its particular interests with a commitment to doing global good,” he says in the Chapter titled, ‘Presenting a World View.’

Swami Vivekananda described Lord Ram as “the embodiment of truth, morality, the ideal son, the ideal husband and above all, the ideal king.”

“He is a symbol of the victory of right over the evil. Lord Rama characterises how a man should fulfil His moral commitments and should strictly follow His limits so that social order can be maintained. It is precisely due to this fact that He is known as ‘Maryada Purushottam.’ Our society realises the strong value system that revolves around Lord Rama,” he said.

During our younger days, we read Ramayan to learn what to do while emulating the qualities of Lord Ram; we were advised not to read Mahabharat but if we did, we were to learn what not to do. This is essentially the difference between Suryavamsa or the Sun Clan (Pure) and Chandravamsa or the Moon Clan (Tainted) under which Ramayan and Mahabharat are classified.

Ramayan was favoured for recitation. We were taught to socialise, be selfless, honest, courageous and maintain the highest standards of integrity.

Virtues of political leadership

Political leaders who follow these virtues find public acceptance.

‘Why Bharat Matters’ brings out the thought succinctly.

Dr Jaishankar says, “Life is rarely a black-and-white choice, and appreciating the complexities of decision-making is an essential part of grasping international relations. A major rising power, however, needs more than just an accurate landscape analysis and the ability to act on it. It must first of all be confident of its own values and beliefs and base its policies on those convictions. These will draw from the totality of its culture, heritage and cultures. That is why India can rise when it is truly Bharat.”

Lord Ram’s advice to his younger brother Bharata on the duties of a King is a part of the political discourse in the current day polity of India. The Lord said that good governance should eschew non-belief, falsehood, anger, distraction, procrastination, disregard for the learned, laziness and aversion to criticisms. He said that as a King, Bharata must command absolute loyalty from a battle-ready army and should ensure timely and adequate remuneration for the soldiers. For battle preparedness during peacetime, all the forts must be stocked with riches, grain, weapons, water, machines, artisans and archers.

The right to dissent

Patience and respecting the other person’s point of view were also among the advisory pieces of Lord Ram to his brother Bharata; for where exist people, diversity of views will also exist. Those who dissent need not always be correct, but they have the right to dissent. The Ruler will however intervene when there is a risk to national unity and outside forces try to intervene and disturb internal peace and harmony.

Dr Jaishankar perhaps had these thoughts when he said, “The optimal Indian strategy is, therefore, to rise above the day-to-day developments and create structural linkages. For this to happen, a combination of non-reciprocal, generous and patient policies has to come together. They must connect societies at a fundamental level, facilitating infrastructure development, socio-economic initiatives and political comfort.”

In many ways, the Pran Pratishtha of Lord Ram (now christened Balak Ram) on January 22, 2024 in Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Ram and the debates surrounding before and after the event, should be seen as a welcome development. However, these debates should help us to appreciate all points of view, as Lord Ram did when he became the King of Ayodhya.

Modi on criticism

While we use the word ‘dissent,’ India’s Prime Minister has used a stronger word- criticism and has emphasised its importance (in the constructive format of course).

Speaking during the Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address in Parliament on February 8, 2023, he said, “I acknowledge the importance of criticism in a democracy. And I always believe that India is the Mother of Democracy and democracy has been in our veins for centuries. And that is why I always believe that criticism in a way is the ‘Shudhi (Purification) Yagna’ for the strength, promotion and spirit of democracy. We see the criticism in this form.”

And Mr Modi, Dr Jaishankar and all other ministers of the government have emphasised enough the freedom of speech and expression. You can get many of them in Podcasts.

The plurality of Hinduism

Hinduism is the only religion based on plurality. There is no single God prescribed for prayer. Muslims pray only to the Almighty Allah, Sikhs pray to the Reverent Guru Granth Sahib, Buddhists submit themselves to Lord Buddha and so on.

Every Hindu has a choice. Lord Ganesha (the Elephant God), Lord Murugan or Karthikeya (the War God), Lord Aiyappa, Lord Hanuman, Lord Vishnu, the Protector of the Universe and His several Manifestations or Avatars (including Lord Ram, Lord Krishna, Lord Venkateswara, Lord Guruvayurappan), Lord Shiva, Goddess Durga and Her varied forms. There are at least 700,000 Temples located in various parts of India and some of them are of great importance, like the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

Hindus belong to one of the four major sects: Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smartism (Smartas). There are also several smaller sects with their own religious practices.

We end with a quote from Mr Modi, from his speech at the inauguration of Kashi Tamil Sangamam held in Varanasi on November 19, 2022: “Today, India has put forward taking pride in our heritage through ‘Paanch Pran’ (Five Pledges). If any country in the world has any ancient heritage, then that country takes pride in it. It proudly promotes it to the world. We can see many such examples from the Pyramids of Egypt to the Colosseum in Italy and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We also have Tamil, the oldest language in the world. Till today, this language is as popular as it is alive. When people in the world come to know that the world’s oldest language is in India, they are surprised. But we lag in glorifying it.”

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