Monday, October 30, 2006

Hindu Mythology: Raama Part 1

One of the most powerful ancient methods of disseminating morals and knowledge was through the art of myth telling. The cultures of the ancient world used this uniquely human aspect to attempt to explain the world and the drama of human existence. Most people in the modern world know a few of the ancient myths such as the Hellenic myths: Illiad and the Odyessey. People also know the Teutonic myths of Thor, Odin and Loki. The least known myths are the myths of South America, Africa and ancient Sumeria and Persia. My particular area of expertise is Indian and Persian Mythology. So given that, I want to try and discuss a few of the characters that have been highlighted in Indian mythology beginning with Raama, of the Ramayana epic.

Raamayana means the Journey of Raama. There are numerous versions of the Ramayana but the original version is known as Valmiki's Ramayana, named after the first poet in India, Valmiki. Indian mythology has a unique feature in that the author of the epic also is a character in the epic, which also occurred in the Mahabharata with Veda Vyasa. Raama ("he who causes joy") was the first son of the monarch Dasaratha ("He who controls ten chariots"). He was born due to the intervention of the Gods. Dasaratha could not have children on his own so he performed a yagna or sacrifice in which he recieved divine nectar which he split up between his three wives. Raama was the oldest and first born. In later times, Raama became identified as the full avatar or manifestation of the Supreme Being, Vishnu. In Valmiki Ramayana, Raama was considered human but only in a few places was his divinity hinted at.

Raama was considered to be the perfect man, husband, father, king and son. I personally think this was the later thinkers imposed on the epic and character. Valmiki, I think, was trying to show that there cannot be a perfect human being that will appease all people. The crux of the entire Ramayana laid in the simple fact that each of the characters had to pick which duties they held to be superior. Dasaratha when he exiled Raama picked his duty as a husband and king over that of a father due to the promise he made to his third wife Kaikeyi. Raama, when he abandoned Sita in the forest during her pregnancy chose his duty as King over his duty as husband.

In the story, Raama abandons his pregnant wife Sita in the forest near the ashram of Valmiki because his subjects thought that Sita was impure because she was held captive of the Rakshasha King Ravana. Hindu thought at that time was that the King is both the civil, political, military and moral leader of the people. The king is to be a moral individual who sets the model for the rest of society. As Raama was king, he decided that he should be beyond reproach by his subjects that he left her in the forest. This is one of the few issues that I have always had with Raama, instead of changing the incorrect values of his people, he succumbed to them. Maybe this was the moral of the story because finally at the end of the story, after Raama realizes his mistake and tries to take back Sita, she rebukes him and returns back into the earth from whence she came.

Valmiki, I believe was trying to show that the choices we make are based on our priorities and sometimes our priorities conflict and during those times we might make the wrong choices. The Raama of Valmiki was a very conflicted individual, not in the emotional sense but in the sense that he had so many values he was trying to uphold all at once. He was a king, prince, man of his word, honest, a son who held his parent's decisions as paramount and so on. Valmiki's point was that there is no such thing as a perfect person, we can strive for that perfection but more often than not we will fail. In my next post, i'll try and delineate the qualities of Raama and show how he is an extremely complex character, who still has a lot to teach us about being human.

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