Of a brave, old bird that died in the woods: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan
Although we know about the impermanence of life at an intellectual level, death, be it sudden or slow, is startling at an emotional one. For a while, we are shaken by ‘shamshan gyan’, the realisation of death’s physical finality and inevitability. Then the comforting rhythm of daily life reclaims us. As to which, an extraordinary death has stayed with us from the time Valmiki first told of it in his Ramayana. But first, a couple of Ramayana points that may be of interest…
One, if you’d like to read a really close translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana in English, please see the one by Kamala Subramanian, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Read it slowly, a page or two a day. Savour the flavour, read between the lines and make your own discoveries — one of mine was that the phrase ‘scion of Ikshvaku’ comes from Kamala Mami’s long-ago English rendition of Valmiki. Her translations of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Srimad Bhagvatam may weigh half a ton, but I like to have them nearby because you never know when you’re going to need to read a few pages, like a spa treatment for the mind.
Two, some people out north have been led to believe that keeping a copy of the Mahabharata at home will cause a family quarrel. As far as I know, nobody thinks so in the Deccan: Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra, Telangana, Odisha, Gujarat, Goa and Maharashtra.
On the contrary, a wood-inlay panel of the Parthasarathiyam or Krishna and Arjuna in the chariot is standard wall decoration in many Deccani homes. They see it as a representation not of war but of the holy word. So we may all keep the Mahabharata at home quite safely and peacefully.
Indeed, the epics teach us to look closely at the dynamics of love, affection, duty and discipline; to not sweat the small stuff; remind us that in fact, it’s all small stuff compared to God-awareness.
Jatayu’s death makes this point with poignant irony in the Ramayana. What was Jatayu but a bird of prey? Yet he dies with his head on Rama’s lap, looking into Rama’s face, murmuring Rama’s name. Rama cremates Jatayu with the Brahma Meda Samskaram, a special rite meant to honour a true scholar’s life of austerity, virtue and dedicated study for the well-being of society.
Whereas King Dasaratha, who performed elaborate rituals for an entire year to obtain sons, did not get to be cremated by Rama.
Rama vows in Verse 330, Sarga (Chapter) 18 of the Yuddha Kandam of Valmiki’s Ramayana: ‘Sakradevam prappanaya ‘tavasmi iti ca yachate/ abhayam sarva bhutebhyo dadami etad vrtam mama’, or ‘Those who seek refuge in me just once, saying ‘I am yours’, I assure him of safety against every kind of being; this is my vow’.
So it is that even today, combining resonances of Shiva and Vishnu, Rama’s name is considered the Taraka Mantra or Mantra of the Great Crossing when we die.
The views expressed are personal