Selfless sacrifice, as exemplified by the characters of the Ramayana, is more relevant today than any time in the past
The Ramayana comprises stories from ancient times. Is it practically relevant today?” When I was asked this question during the recent Rama-navami festival, I felt it could be an excellent topic for an article. As an author, I am always looking for themes that trigger the thinking process and lead to articles. And I have always found question and answer sessions with students and seekers a goldmine for such themes.
So, here we go. The short answer is that the Ramayana is relevant because its stories, though from an ancient time, embody timeless values. Now for the long answer.
From “Me” to “We” One of the primary values the Ramayana conveysselfless sacrificeis especially relevant in our present time, in which people are becoming increasingly enamored by self-seeking lifestyles. Contemporary culture largely glamorizes the “me” paradigm, which impels people to seek their personal gratification without caring about its cost too thers. When the same inconsiderate individualism causes us to neglect or manipulate the people around us our family members, our neighbors, our colleagues then it boomerangs to wound our heart, afflicting it with emotional ruptures and gnawing loneliness. Thus, the “me” paradigm, despite its being instinctively appealing to the ego, is disastrously myopic.
If we wish to have more satisfying and sustainable relationships, we need torise from this “me” paradigm with its emphasis on immediate gratification and ascend to the holistic “we” paradigm. As this shift can be challenging, it is helpful, even essential, to have role models and exemplary narratives to inspire us. For mining such inspiration, the Ramayana serves as an inexhaustible mother lode; it offers us a panorama of jewel-like personalities who embody the spirit of sacrifice in various poignant real-life situations:
1. The example of Rama’s sacrifice in accepting exile despite having committed no fault, just to preserve his father’s word of honor, points the way to bridging the ever-expanding generation gap between parents and their children.
2. The example of Sita’s sacrifice in preferring the dangers of the forest to the security of the palace offers a stirring example of valuing the bonds of matrimony, which have become much devalued due to an increasingly casual approach to sexuality and marriage.
3. The example of Lakshmana’s sacrifice in choosing to stand unflinchingly by the side of his elder brother during the latter’s hour of crisis, thereby gaining a profound mutually enriching bond, can serve as an antidote for the superficial relationships that characteristically exist between today’s siblings.
4. The example of Bharata’s sacrifice in resolutely refusing his brother’s kingdom can offer a lesson for the many succession battles between children that often break out afterand sometimes even beforethe death of a wealthy parent.
Inspiration, Not Imitation
At this point, one may object: “But if we sacrifice like this in today’s self-centered culture, we will be exploited.” That’s certainly possible. And that’s why the Ramayana tradition offers the examples of its protagonists not for imitation, but for inspiration; not for duplication of the particulars of their sacrifices, but for appreciation of the principle of sacrifice. As relationships and interactions occur in real life, we need to consider the various contexts and their implications before we decide how to apply the spirit of sacrifice in our lives.
Lest we feel that even the spirit of sacrifice is entirely inapplicable today, we need look no further than popular team sports like cricket or soccer, in which self-seeking players sometimes chase after a personal milestone at the cost of the team’s successor a self-sacrificing player puts aside individual glory for the sake of the team’s victory. If sacrifice plays a valuable, even critical, role in a relatively frivolous activity like team sports, then how much more indispensable will be its role in real life relationships, which are also like teams but last much longer and mean so much more to us?
Shades of Black
The Ramayana contrasts these examples of heroic selflessness with examples of tragic selfishness and their unfortunate consequences. Significantly, it demonstrates these ramifications of selfishness through characters with varying shades of blackness:
1. At the pitch dark end of the spectrum is the epitome of ungodliness, the demon-king Ravana, who due to his selfish lust, commits innumerable atrocities and finally meets his nemesis when his evil eye falls upon Sita, the goddess of fortune.
2. Toward the middle of the spectrum is the monkey-king Vali, who lets himself be misled by a hasty misjudgment of his brother Sugriva’s mentality and so selfishly dispossesses the latter of home, wealth, and family, and eventually meets his own end in a heart-rending fratricidal showdown.
3. At the bright end of the spectrum is the queen Kaikeyi, whose temporary bout of selfishness perverts her from her normal kindness, gentleness, and wisdom to an uncharacteristic cruelty, harshness, and folly that causes agony to her family members, brings about the anguished death of her husband, and condemns her to lifelong regret for her insane self-obsession.
Thus, the Ramayana, by illustrating its caveats about selfishness not just through outright ungodly characters but also through godly persons who succumb temporarily to selfishness, inspires all of us to keep our guard up against selfishness and thereby prevent it from sabotaging ourselves and our relationships.
Redefining the “We” If this message of sacrifice as a means to deep, fulfilling human relationships was all that the Ramayana offered to the world today, then that message in and of itself would be valuable. But the Ramayana’s gifts are much greater.
The central hero of the Ramayana is not a human being, but the Supreme Being. Rama is an incarnation of the Supreme Lord playing the role of a human being. So the bonds shared by Rama and His associates are examples of the relationships between the divine and His human servitors, which are far more lasting than the best human relationships. All human relationships, even if fulfilling, are ultimately distressing due to the inevitability of rupture at death. But human-divine relationships, when understood as spiritual relationships between the eternal soul and the eternal Supreme, are eternal and eternally fulfilling.
The Supreme Lord possesses, in full and forever, the six opulences beauty, wisdom, strength, wealth, fame, and renunciation the presence of which, however fractional and fleeting, in worldly people is enough to attract our hearts to them. Lord Krishna indicates that the attractive features worldly people possess ultimately originate from Him: “Know that all beautiful, opulent, and glorious creations spring from but a spark of My splendor.” (Bhagavad-gita 10.41) Just as the blazing fire can provide far greater warmth than a tiny spark, the Supreme Lord can provide far greater warmth of love for our hearts than any worldly person can.
In fact, the Lord descends as His various avataras to offer us this supreme warmth and ultimate fulfillment. The Bhagavad-gita (4.9) indicates that when we understand the true transcendental nature of the Lord’s pastimes the incredible loving exchanges that comprise the heart of the Lord and His devotees then the desire to have a similar loving relationship gets kindled in our own hearts. And that desire, when fully developed, helps us attain the Lord’s eternal abode, where we will eternally rejoice in love with Him.
But developing our relationship with the Lord, like developing any other relationship, requires commitment and sacrifice. If we miss this essential point, then we end up conflating authentic spiritual life with the inanity of ritual religiosity or the “feel-good” sentimentality of new-age spirituality or any other similar form of shallow or shadow spirituality. The Ramayana conveys the necessity and the glory of sacrifice in the service of God through its refreshing portraits of ordinary and extraordinary persons who achieved deep devotional relationships with the Lord by activating their individual spirit of sacrifice.
Present-day Reenactments of Ramayana Principles
Srila Prabhupada embodied an unprecedented and unparalleled example of the same spirit of sacrifice in our times, when at the advanced age of sixty-nine he went single-handedly across the ocean to fulfill the mission of the Lord to share spiritual wisdom with the world. Thus he demonstrated how Hanuman’s example of leaping to Lanka in service of Lord Ramachandra be followed today. Just as Hanuman searched zealously to find Sita in a land that was densely populated by ungodly elements, Srila Prabhupada searched industriously for spiritually inclined individuals in a world that was densely populated with an ungodly materialistic throng.
Srila Prabhupada’s advanced age and the logical improbability of the success of his mission are evocative of the sacrifice of Jatayu, the aged bird who fought gallantly and became a martyr trying to stop Ravana from abducting Sita. Srila Prabhupada’s mission was as imposing and impossible as Jatayu’s: to stop the rampaging advance of materialism and hedonism, symbolized by Ravana, from carrying sincere souls, symbolized by Sita, away from the devotional service of the Lord. But, by the miraculous mercy of the Lord, Srila Prabhupada was given the incredible potency by which he transformed mission impossible into mission unstoppable; he tirelessly circumnavigated the globe fourteen times, wrote nearly seventy books, established one hundred and eight temples, and inspired millions of people to practice devotional service, not only stopping devotionally minded people from being carried away by materialistic allurements, but also redirecting materialistic people to become devotees.
Most of us may not be called upon to perform such herculean tasks, but we can contribute to the Lord’s cause by rendering services according to our individual capacities, as did the monkeys to Lord Rama’s cause. If we strive to serve the Lord sincerely, some of us may even discover hitherto unknown abilities within ourselves, as did Hanuman just before his stupendous leap to Lanka. Some of us may even become empowered to perform extraordinary feats in the Lord’s service, as was Hanuman.
Perhaps the most relevant example for practicing devotees is that of Sita, who was separated from Lord Rama and held in captivity in Ravana’s kingdom. We too are separated from the Lord of our hearts and are held in captivity in material existence, which is the arena of Ravana-reminiscent materialism. Sita demonstrated her unfailing and unflinching devotion to Lord Rama by rigidly rejecting all of Ravana’s overtures for ungodly indulgence, intensely absorbing herself in remembrance of the Lord. We too can demonstrate our unflagging devotion to the Lord by firmly rejecting all overtures for ungodly indulgence in meat-eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex, no matter how much pressure comes from our social circle. We can gain strength to withstand such pressure by contemplating the magnitude of Sita’s predicament. She was threatened with death if she refused to indulge and yet she refused. Surely the pressure on us is not that bad. Then why should we give in to it? We can further strengthen ourselves by following in Sita’s footsteps and attentively absorbing ourselves in remembrance of the Lord at least during the time we chant the maha-mantra.
When we understand the timeless devotional principles that underlie the stories of the Ramayana, then we no longer fall prey to the misconceptions that these stories are just outdated historical tales or mythological ethical parables; we recognize them to be authentic and dramatic demonstrations of eternal spiritual principles, principles that have inspired enterprising individuals to the highest human attainment throughout history and that beckon us to the same supreme adventure and accomplishment. Therein lies the ultimate, unfading relevance of the Ramayana. No wonder eminent literary historian A. A. MacDonnell noted about this timeless classic: “Probably no other work of world literature has produced so profound an influence in the life and thought of a people as the Ramayana.”
To summarize, the Ramayana’s perennial relevance lies in its power to inspire us to broaden our consciousness from “me” to “we” and to momentously expand the definition of “we” from the human-human paradigm to the human-divine paradigm.
Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To subscribe for his daily Bhagavad-gita reflections, please subscribe for Gitadaily on his site thespiritualscientist.com.