Monday, July 25, 2016

Dharma Relativity Theorem in the Ramayana

The following was written for a catch-all class on Asian great books, philosophy, and calligraphy which kicked off with a reading of the Good Parts Version of the Ramayana.  The paper won’t make much sense to the uninitiated, firstly because I wrote it for a professor reasonably familiar with the Ramayana, secondly because the Ramayana itself just doesn’t make much sense.  It’s still a pretty good entry point to Eastern literature, as it feels like the best Michael Bay movie Hollywood hasn’t yet had the good sense to green-light and offensively recast with non-blue people of European descent.  Where the Ramayana falls apart as religious epic – or stands tall depending on your spiritual persuasion – is in its confused, progressive, and relativistic presentation of the moral code of dharma.

The essay is way too long and rephrases the same idea over and over because I was being graded on a page count and because a pretty big chunk of it was written overnight.  Teachers in other fields may take this as a cautionary paper.


The concept of dharma in the Ramayana takes a multitude of forms, encompassing such meanings as natural calling, social obligation, and right behavior more broadly.  Pretty much every character in the epic lays claim to knowing and walking in the way of dharma, even those whose aims are diametrically opposed to one another’s.  As such it’s often hard to discern what the author of the Ramayana believes real dharma to be.  The contradictions within the moral order and its manifold interpretations are most easily reconciled when one sees dharma not as a concrete, immutable, absolute code but as a personal excuse pleaded by fallible, selfish characters in justification of their actions.  In the grand scheme of the epic, fate plays a much larger role in Rama finishing his exile and reclaiming Sita than does his inconsistent, continually revised commitment to dharma.

The author commonly refers to Rama as a perfect incarnation of dharma, Avatara of the deva Vishnu.  The introduction to Rama at the beginning of Book Two describes him as a human in whom “all the virtues that Brahma ever created were gathered as the galaxies are within the universe”.  When held up to scrutiny, though, Rama often falters from the very principles he describes as dharma, succumbing to fits of wrath and needless outbreaks of violence. In one chapter he lectures Lakshmana on the foolishness of violent resorts, saying, “Violence is never dharma and you must not give in to your anger.”  But throughout the Ramayana, Rama not only engages in violent acts but veritably relishes the opportunity for them.  When the “hideous” and pitiful rakshasa Surpanka enters their encampment, Rama recognizes her for what she is, but instead of attempting to defuse the situation quickly and peacefully, he entertains her seductive behavior and toys with her by recommending his brother in his stead.  Aiming to capitalize on the brothers’ pretense of flirting, Surpanka aggressively moves to devour Princess Sita, and Rama responds by brutally disfiguring the demon with the aid of his brother.  Rather than lamenting this unfortunate defensive act, necessary to protect the wife who gave up everything to enter the wilderness with him, Rama celebrates the maiming of Surpanka, for as the text reads, “The brothers dissolved in mirth.”

Was it dharma for the exile to break his former testimony against bloodshed, in such a sadistic and excessive manner none the less?  Did the dharma of defending his wife overrule the dharma of nonviolence he’d spoken of earlier?  The key implication of this scene is not that Rama has somehow violated dharma, considering that his personal “dharma” is ever changing to suit his current circumstances, but that fate or destiny is using him in unpredictable, seemingly ungodly ways to fulfill his ultimate purpose of toppling the tyranny of Ravana.  As the abducted Sita says in her encounter with Hanuman, “Ravana is part of our destiny and destiny must take its course.  Rama must come to Lanka and kill Ravana... Then dharma will be established on earth… Let there be a war, a dharma yuddha, as is honorable.”  The humiliation of Surpanka only leads to Rama’s decimation of Khara’s rakshasa – another sweeping reversal of his prior counsel –, which leads to her inflaming Ravana with jealousy over Sita, which leads to the beautiful woman’s separation from Rama and his ensuing, predetermined quest to regain her by any means.

Rama, Lakshmana, and Jatayu hunt rakshasas in a notoriously unsuccessful 2009 adaptation.
© 2007 Twentieth Century Fox

Rama again resorts to gratuitous, ill-informed brutality when he unhesitatingly offers to assassinate Sugriva’s brother, the monkey king Vali, for reasons not entirely clear on a very one-sided account.  “It is plain that only Vali’s death will bring you peace,” he tells his new ally, “And I swear to you, he will die.”  These don’t sound like the words of a man who “shuns violence wherever he can”, nor do they make much sense given his address to the dying Vali, whom he reasons he can justly kill within his dharma because the vanaras are wild animals that have been hunted through the ages by his ancestors.  Since Rama isn’t beholden to the same rules when dealing with the punishment of animals, one can only wonder why he treats so solemnly the suffering of one like Sugriva, who has simply fallen short in the natural world’s battle of the fittest.

In any case, the prince of Ayodhya breaks his initial tenets of dharma in several ways, by needlessly killing a creature instead of negotiating a peaceful resolution, by shooting him from hiding like a coward – an insult frequently levied at Ravana for stealing Sita in the night –, and by subjecting his reason and concern for justice to his emotion.  “You are the worst kind of sinner: the one who pretends to be dharma itself… You have not even heard both sides of our story,” accuses Vali in his dying throes, but even now Rama tries to rationalize his execution of the monkey as an act of dharma, saying he’s called to judge and punish the sinful.  Whatever choice he makes resolving any given conflict Rama passes off as dharma, whether or not it clashes with the precedents of dharma he’s set in the past.

Rama’s unwavering adherence to a rigid dharma, if it existed, would probably be an impediment to his destiny more than anything.  The more pragmatic, impulsive Lakshmana expresses as much after he’s been deceived into thinking that Sita’s died by the hand of Indrajit.  “My brother has been a savior to the munis of the forests… But his dharma has not saved him from evil.  Gentleness and dharma are of no use in this world.”  In fact, “real dharma”, or honorable action, often seems like it would counteract destiny, which depends on people acting in accordance with their baser natures and desires, i.e. with their personal, contextualized sense of dharma.  All the events that set in motion the eventual destruction of Ravana and his kingdom are motivated by transient adharma so that a different, generalized kind of dharma can prevail at the end of the ancient war.

Hanuman smashes Aksha while razing Lanka to the ground in Peter Jackson’s dumbed-down crowdpleaser.
© Universal Pictures

One example of this pattern is Ravana’s disagreement with Vibheeshana, who urges him to follow “the way of dharma” and return Sita to her husband, “the perfect man”, so as to avoid innumerable casualties in a catastrophic war with the vanaras.  Yet for Ravana to do this would not only contradict his own dharma as a demon, but further undermine the whole pretext for Rama dethroning Ravana in the first place.  Here the author introduces the theory of dharma as a natural, rather than a spiritual obligation, for Ravana repeatedly emphasizes the importance of what he’s doing to his role as a king and a rakshasa.  “You say it was dishonorable for me to abduct you, but you forget I am a rakshasa.  It is natural, and so entirely honorable, for me to take another man’s wife if I want her... That is a rakshasa’s nature, and his dharma.”  The dharma of a rakshasa, who’s given over to animalistic rage and orgies, differs starkly from the dharma of a human or a vanara, whom Rama judges must never take another man for his wife lest he be worthy of death. According to Ravana, who may be speaking falsely to get his way but nonetheless points out the relativity of dharma, even Sita violates her own calling as his prisoner by resisting his advances.  “You are denying your own nature, Sita.  Other woman have been brought here as spoils of war, as frightened as you… But when they knew me, none of them resisted me for more than a week.”

So too does the dharma of a king, who has to exercise aggressive, ruthless, often stubborn dominance to sustain his power, differ vastly from the dharma of everybody else, as both Vali and Ravana observe at various points.  “Let Rama come not with an army of monkeys but with the host of heaven, and I will not give Sita up to him,” objects Ravana to his wisest advisor Vibheeshana.  “Your counsel is the way of cowardice.  How can a king like me heed such advice?”  The disparity in dharma arises because each character, being in pursuit of different interests, reveres a different, private dharma that condones their actions specifically.  For Rama, that dharma is the divine authority of his judgment passed on other souls, and for Ravana it is the natural course of things when people follow their most essential, ravenous tendencies.

Where they overlap is in their confidence that everything they do is directly working out for fate.  “Sita, fate is all-powerful.  You and I were created for each other.  Why else would you have come to me at all, by the long and winding way that you did… Don’t resist the will of God.”  Ravana, for once, speaks truth without fully realizing it, because it is the will of Brahma that Sita and the Lord of Lanka be together for a while, just as it is Brahma’s will that Dasaratha banish Rama for 14 years and that Rama fulfill his inborn purpose of killing Ravana and inheriting the kingship.  Sita echoes this sentiment: when she defies her captor: “Now that I have seen how evil you are, I think fate conspired to make you abduct me.  So Rama would come to kill you.”  Whether or not the characters reach the final point by “dharma” is an insignificant detail, because destiny is the only constant in their lives and destiny dictates that dharma will ultimately triumph over adharma.  The path to this victory is paved with sin and violence, but sometimes it’s necessary for people to bend or pervert their sense of dharma in order to satisfy the will of the gods.

Another place one sees the relativity of dharma is in the prevalence of suicide threats from almost every grief-ridden character, including Rama and Sita themselves.  Hanuman briefly comments on the depravity of suicide in his scouting trip to Lanka: “But they say it is a grievous sin to kill oneself, worse than murder.”  This shows that most of Rama’s family are either ambivalent to their dharma concerning suicide, not understanding its consequences, or think that other forms of dharma – sharing the fate of one’s spouse, loyalty to one’s brother, motherly love – outweigh the bad karma they’d inherit by taking their own lives in violence.

If the subjectivity of dharma can be summarized in a single passage, it would be in Rama’s preparations to depart from Rama, when he tries to comfort his anguished mother and temper the furious Lakshmana.  “All this is fate working toward her own inscrutable ends.  Not even the rishis who are masters of their sense are beyond fate; even they fall prey to the passions of destiny… It is not that mother Kaikeyi is evil… only that destiny uses her, even against her own nature.”  Such is true of all the adversaries the hero faces on the path to Lanka, of Surpanka and Khara and Vali and Maricha and the dark lord Ravana himself.  Though Rama encounters much resistance and deception and constantly adapts or qualifies his dharma to meet the challenges he faces, fate in the Ramayana is always utilizing dharma and adharma, righteous deeds and sin alike to advance the final will of the Devas, and that which seems immoral or contrary to dharma in the present is just one of many instruments used by the divines in a greater plan.



On a side note, the Ramesh Menon adaptation/condensation of the colossal poem is hilarious and makes for a great read even if you have no interest in Hinduism or Indian folklore.  The Good Parts Version of his translation had me bursting into laughter almost as frequently as Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and I would gladly have finished it if I wasn’t enrolled in 18 units and it wasn’t practically impossible.  Here are some of the more riotous or just plain interesting passages:

“One moment, the rakshasa rushed at Rama with his claws outstretched to seize his throat; the next, he screamed as the astra struck him and his flesh fell away from his skeleton in anxiety to escape the intolerable pain of that missile.  His heart exploded, then his giant head, and nothing was left of Khara but patches of blood, skin, and a heap of bones on the ground.”
“‘Have you seen her?” he cried to the kadamba and the tilaka, the asoka, the karnikar and the kritamala.  But they stood mute, on the eloquent verge of speech.”
“Playfully, he cut off her nose and her ears, so black blood spurted from her face.”  [One of at least two nose & ear removals in the Ramayana.]
“Hanuman thought, ‘By her beauty she must be Sita.  But how does she sleep so contentedly in Ravana’s bedchamber, with a smile curving her perfect lips?’  He slapped himself again, across his cheek this time, as monkeys do.”
“Rama seemed undecided what he wanted to do first: look for Sita or consume the world.”

And those are just the ones I feel secure in sharing on this blog.

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