My mother taught me alphabets long before I joined school in 1988. So, when I was between the ages 2.5 and 3.5 I had learnt how to write my A,B,C’s. The earliest memory from my life that I can recollect is the one where my mother is making me practice the alphabets. She had associated each alphabet with some object that would remind me of the shape of that alphabet. When I got stuck at ‘U’, I recall her telling me, “‘U’. The one which looks like Rama’s nAma (mark on rAma’s forehead).”. That is how early I was acquainted with rAma and his stories.
Since we got a TV in our house only after 1988, we never got to see the famous rAmAyaNa TV serial at home when it was telecast for the first time. I think we were one of the few families which gave that series a miss. However, I was introduced to these stories much before the TV series started. I had mentioned earlier on this blog that I was one of the few grandchildren who used to humour my grandmother by listening to the stories she narrated. Given that her knowledge of our itihAsAs and purANAs was quite vast, she often used to narrate to us the stories from rAmAyaNa, mahAbhArata, purANAs and other sources. So, even as I was beginning to learn my mother tongue Konkani, I was being introduced to the stories from rAmAyaNA. Bows made from slender branches or long enough twigs and broomsticks used as arrows was a common sight in our homes during my childhood. Whenever we we played amongst ourselves enacting episdoes from rAmAyaNa, we all wanted to be rAmas. The fight for the second place, needless to say, would be for the role of hanumanta.
Despite rAmAyaNa featuring in my earliest memories, the story is still fresh in my mind. I must have come across it hundreds of times through nATakas, yakshagAnas, stories, poetry, essays, lectures, harikathAs, bhagavatas, and still, I haven’t gotten bored with it. Each time I come across any of the prasangas, I am able to relive them as if they are happening right in front of me. And all this is without being forced to listen to it, without having read it as a lesson in the text book or without attending the “culture-classes” that seem to be growing popular in our cities these day. Such is the power of simple verbal narration of this wonderful story.
If you remember your rAmAyaNa, you’ll know that the whole of bAlakANDa is filled with stories where we learn about rAma’s prowess, his ability to learn new things, the way he interacts with his brothers, fellow students, and elders. We see him slay tATaki with a single arrow. Later on, we see him slay subAhu and dispatch mArica off to a distant shores in order to protect vishvAmitra’s yajna. We see the ahalya-uddhAra episode and the famous sItA-swayamvara. And then we see him lock horns against that bull amongst the bhRgus, bhArgava rAma and emerge victorious. Thus we are introduced to our hero rAma who can do no wrong and can set things right. There is no trace of sadness in bAlakANDA.
Thus having firmly established rAmA in our hearts, ayodhyA-kANDA begins on a positive note with dasharatha desiring to crown rAma as the the future king of ayodhya. When all the ministers wholeheartedly support this decision, we rejoice just like the prajA of the ayodhya did when the news reached their ears. This is the perfect thing we all wanted for our perfect hero. However, our jubiliation doesn’t last long since the spoil-sport comes in the form of that kill-joy manthara who, to use rAja bhojA’s phrase, like a she-buffalo dirties the clean pond that was kaikeyi’s mind and sets things into motion by prompting kaikeyi to force dasharatha into exiling rAma to the forest for 14 years and coronate her son bharata as the king of ayodhya. This is where we encounter sadness for the first time. I find it hard even now to sit through that episode where a character as pure and blameless as srirAmachandra is deprived of the kingly life that was his to enjoy by all accounts. The sorrow becomes magnified when except for kaikeyi we see the whole of ayodhya ruing the fact that rAma won’t be their king. In their curses, we find an expression for our sorrow. When rAma’s mother kausalya pleads him to take her to the forest along with him, he calmly tells her that she is a wife to his father first, and then his mother. So her duties lay in ayodhya and not in danDakAranya. We can feel for kausalya who despite being the eldest queen was mostly relegated to the role of the dharma-patni while dasharatha took kaikeyi to be the kAma patni. Kausalya explicitly says that the respect which she was deprived of during the reign of her husband, she was hoping to enjoy that during the reign of her son. But kaikeyi deprived her of even that joy. We cannot see the pious kausalya lose to kaikeyi just like that. lakshmaNa, who followed rAma more faithfully than rAma’s shadow itself gets enraged and tells rAma, to use rAja bhoja’s phrase again, the he need not bloody his legs walking on the thorny forest floor when he his younger brother would bloody his hands by killing anyone who comes in the way of rAma and the throne, even if that person is their father himself. We find in lakshmaNa a conduit to channel our own anger. But rAma refuses this help and calms lakshmaNa down, thereby letting our dip in the waters of vIra rasa to remain just a dip for now. And then, for the first time we see rAma cry. That’s when he has to inform sIta about the 14 years of vanavAsa. In his heart, rAma knows that sIta would insist on accompanying him. He knows that no matter what vAda he put forth, she would be able to counter it. And hence, he knows the difficulty that lay ahead of her. He couldn’t bear the thought of sIta walking bare-foot in the forests. rAma is a husband who doesn’t want his wife to suffer. He loves her to such an extent that later on when a crow pecked her, the enraged rAma let loose nothing short of a braHmAstra on the crow. How could that rAma expect his wife to experience the pains that were his to suffer? When he tries to dissuade sIta, we see sIta outsmart him in every argument. She taunts him with his own words and tells him that as his wife, her place is by his side in the forest and not in ayodhya. Such a devoted wife gets to taste the first slice of hardship right inside the palace when kaikeyi gives her the chIrAmbara, the uniform of the vAnaprasthas. sIta is truly at loss, because she doesn’t know how it is worn. rAma, realizing her predicament comes to her rescue and helps her wear the chIrAmbara on top her saree itself and ensures that no scene is created. But kaikeyi doesn’t, and objects to sIta wearing jewellry. Here, we see even vasiShTa lose his cool and warn kaikeyi of her excesses. He goes so far to say that he will install sIta on the throne of ayodhya right then and there, leaving nothing for bharata. Amidst all this agony and anger, rAma’s face glows calmly and not once does he allow the clouds of sorrow pass over it. However, the same cannot be said about the other members present there, whose sorrow covered faces were already raining tears. The citizens of ayodhya follow rAma, lakshmaNa and sIta all the way till they reach the borders of ayodhya. They don’t want to bid him goodbye. This whole episode pulls the rug beneath our feet and makes us walk on the hard ground along with rAma. And walking on the hard ground does hurt quite a bit.
Each time I hear/see this episode I wish that it hadn’t occurred. I wish that kaikeyi doesn’t fall prey to manthara’s words. I wish that dasharatha falls dead the moment he hears kaikeyi’s demands so that he doesn’t have to grant them. I wish that lakshmaNa puts an end to this episode while he was still bubbling in anger. I wish vasiShTa steps in. I wish all this, not because I hate kaikeyi. She did what she did, keeping her son’s interests in mind. We see that later on when bharata rebukes her in every way for sending his elder brother to the forest, she breaks down and repents. We see her repentant in the ashrama of bharadhvAja muni and later during bharata’s meeting with rAma. No, the only reason I wish that things didn’t happen this way is because it’s too hard to bear the sorrow that one is made to experience all of a sudden. In some variants of rAmAyaNa, especially the adhyAtmika oriented ones, we find an explanation that it was the devAs who inspired manthara to do such a thing so that earth can be rid of the menace that was rAvaNa. Since rAma was the only person on the earth who was capable of this task, they had to make rAma go to lanka. And hence they prompted manthara to do what she did. Whatever others think about this explanation, more than giving rAmAyaNa the interpretation of being a divine play on earth, I feel that the explanation is given to provide comfort against the sorrows that one encounters during the above mentioned episode. The explanation is a float for the ones among us who aren’t strong enough to cross the river of sorrow but still wish to see what lies in store on the banks. In the araNya kAnda we encounter similar pangs of agony when rAvaNa abducts sIta. I cannot count the number of times I wished that sIta had not fallen prey to the golden deer, that she hadn’t forced rAma to fetch it, that she did listen to lakshmaNa when he told her that this was all AsurI mAya since no one was capable of defeating rAma, that lakshmaNa had not truly gone in search of rAma but stuck around in the vicinity of the parNa-kuTIra so that the mishap wouldn’t happen, that jaTAyu beats rAvaNa to pulp when he tried to stop him from abducting sIta. But no, none of these happen. And as a result, we are made to cry with rAma when he finds that sIta is no longer in the kuTIra. We are made to feel the vengeance when he threatens to destroy the entire creation when his beloved wife was taken away from him. We want to console him when he speaks of giving up his life. How can we bear to see rAma broken like that? Why did any of this happen at all, we wonder. And we are provided with the explanation of “mAya-sIta” where in both rAma and sIta knew what was in store for them, and the person whom rAvaNa had abducted was not sIta, but vedavati and that the real sIta was safe with agni-deva and was restored to rAma latter on during the sIta’s agni parIksha. With a single explanation, we are comforted against the sorrow emanating from two heart-rending episodes namely sItApaharaNa and sIta-parityaga.
We do all this because we feel deeply for these characters. We are happy when good things happen to them and get extremly upset when they are made to undergo difficulty. We relate to these characters. rAmAyaNa is the story of our family of our society seen through a magnifying glass. As a result, all the emotions get magnified. The sorrow is intense and so is the joy which follows the sorrow. Thus rAma, sIta, lakshmaNa hanumanta are like family to us. This is the reason why the story of rAma, the first poem ever to be composed is so beloved to the people of bhArata. In no other part of the world is a literary work “lived” by its people. One doesn’t find discourses, debates, plays, series, comics, poems on Homer’s Illiad or Odessey outside the academic circles. But this is not true with rAmAyaNa. In every nook and corner of every city, town, village in our country you’ll find a person who knows the story , who cherishes the story of rAma. If rAmAyaNa is alive today, it is not because it was published on the glossiest of papers, bound with the best quality leather, kept in the best of bookshelfs in the most prestigious library having been decorated with the various literary awards. No. rAmAyaNa is alive today because it people live it daily. They don’t need to consult a book to narrate you the story of rAma. In the truest sense, rAmAyaNa is printed on the pages of our mind, bound with our emotions and placed in the bookshelves of our hearts. As long as this tradition continues, rAma’s story shall be told and retold.
If in devakinandana kRShNa we found a friend with whom we could climb trees, play cricket, share a coffee, discuss our problems, seek counsel, rAma for us has been the dignified father figure we looked up to and wanted to be when we grew older. They say that for kids, their father is their first and the ultimate superhero. So is rAma for us.