The other side of ‘ideal’ icons like Lord Ram
One of the advantages of being a writer on mythology is that one gets invited to literary festivals. On the stage, at one such affair, I found myself fielding tough questions regarding religious philosophies. Wherever there was reason to criticise a religious narrative, I unhesitatingly did so. And wherever there was space to clear a misunderstanding, I attempted to do that as well.
One interaction, however, saddened me. While explaining a philosophy of Hinduism, I referred to Lord Ram to explain my point. A lady friend spoke with me after the event. I know her well and can certify that she is not a secular-extremist (the kind who have a distaste for every religion, especially their own). She is religious and liberal. She asked why I used the honorific ‘Lord’ for Lord Ram. I said I respect him. I worship him. I will call him Lord. She said that she sees me as a liberal who respects the women in his family; then how can I respect Lord Ram, who treated his wife unfairly? She then went on to make some very harsh comments about Lord Ram.
Sadly, it has become almost fashionable in liberal circles to criticise Lord Ram. In Hinduism, we are encouraged to question: Lord Krishna very clearly states this in the Bhagavad Gita. We are advised to form our own opinions on all philosophies and even on God. But before we make up our minds, we are also encouraged to think deeply and examine all aspects of the subject. We may be failing in our efforts to do this when we think of Lord Ram.
Lord Ram is referred to as ‘the ideal man’, which is supposedly the translation of the Sanskrit phrase ‘Maryaada Purushottam’. But anyone with a basic understanding of Sanskrit will tell you that this is an incomplete translation. ‘Ideal man’ is the English equivalent of the word ‘purushottam’. But what about the other word, ‘maryaada’? Maryaada means honour or rules or customs. So if you add ‘maryaada’ to ‘purushottam’, then what is the correct translation in English? It is not ‘the ideal man’, but ‘the ideal follower of rules’.
Let us dwell upon the role of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat in Hindu scriptures. These two epics are not a part of the ‘Shruti’, which are divinely-revealed philosophical texts like the Vedas and Upanishads. The Ramayan and the Mahabharat are called ‘itihasa’ or history. They are stories which tell us ‘what occurred’; they talk to us about archetypes and ideas that we can learn from. And Lord Ram is the archetypal ‘ideal-follower-of-rules’. So what do we learn from the life of this ‘ideal-follower-of-rules’?
We learn that such archetypal leaders benefit society as a whole. They create conditions where their people prosper and lead happy, contented lives. It is no surprise therefore that his reign, the reign of the ‘ideal follower of rules’, was regarded as the gold standard of benevolent administration. It was known as Ram Rajya. Sadly, while such archetypal leaders impact society positively as a whole, they tend to struggle with their impact upon their own family. Normally, the ‘ideal follower of rules’ himself, has a rather sad life. Of course we all know that Sita suffered when she was abandoned by Lord Ram. I am not belittling her suffering at all. Yes, he was unfair to her. He was also unable to be fair to his children who lived without him in their younger years. But how many of us know that Lord Ram himself suffered as well? He ended his life by committing ‘jal samadhi’, essentially giving up his body by drowning. Legend holds that when Lord Ram walked into the Sarayu River in his last moments, he was chanting the name of his wife; he was chanting “Sita, Sita, Sita”. Yes, he couldn’t keep his family happy. He couldn’t keep himself happy, either. Rules bring order to society as a whole; but within families, devotion to rules rather than love is usually a path to unhappiness.
Now, do we know other people from history or myth who followed this archetypal path of the ‘ideal-follower-of-rules’? Who greatly benefited the people they led, but the lives of their own family and themselves were full of pain?
How about Mahatma Gandhi? He united our nation in a peaceful struggle for Independence. He taught Indians, nay the world, a better way of life; that violence is not the answer. We love him today as the father of the nation. But he struggled in the role of a father to his own children, as well as a husband to Kasturbaji.
Let’s consider Gautam Buddha, one of the greatest Indians ever. He taught us powerful philosophies that continue to guide hundreds of millions of people today in navigating through the difficult waters of their lives. His kindness, his compassion, his brilliance are worthy of worship. His ‘middle path’ is worthy of instilling discipleship. But he too struggled as a father, son and a husband. He moved away from his wife Yashodharaa and his son Rahul in search of enlightenment. In fact, the very name he gave to his son was indicative of his developing ideas on human bonds; Rahul means chains or fetters. He accepted his son in his sangh only when Rahul gave up all his rights as a son and became just another monk in the order.
So contemplate upon these lives deeply. We have every reason to love them, because they sacrificed their own lives so that we could have a better life. But had we been their family, maybe we would have cause to complain.
And now tell me. What do you think of Lord Ram?
I, for one, am very clear. And I say it without any hint of embarrassment: Jai Shri Ram. Glory to Lord Ram.
Amish is the author of the bestselling Shiva Trilogy. His twitter handle is @amishtThe views expressed by the author are personal.