It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Ramayana to Southeast Asian culture. In the prior chapter, we explored an important parental theme. Raising heroes is painful due to the angst of separation. The next generation must leave the nest to engage the challenges of the world – to pursue their dharma/destiny.
Although this plot element may overtly appeal to all parents, the primary plotline lies elsewhere. It concerns a cosmic war between good and evil. Specifically, Rama, the epitome of a good warrior king, ultimately conquers the demon Ravana, the epitome of a bad warrior king.
To establish context for the following discussion, let’s briefly continue our summary of this famous tale.
The evil demon king, Ravana, has enslaved the gods. In response, the Hindu god Vishnu incarnates as Rama to save the gods from Ravana. After Rama reaches adulthood, a Sage requests his assistance in performing a special sacrifice that will benefit humankind. After the King grants his reluctant approval, Rama and the Sage leave the security of the kingdom.
On their journey to the Holy Place, Rama slays a powerful demon that has devastated a part of the earth. This act reveals Rama's dharma, his destiny as demon slayer. The Sage is told by the gods to teach Rama all the secrets of weaponry, at which the Sage is a master. After he teaches Rama all his martial secrets, the spirits of the weapons, the asthras, pledge loyalty to Rama. While the bow and arrow are his specialty, Rama is the consummate martial artist.
Because of Rama’s martial abilities, the sacrifice goes well. After completing the process, the Sage suggests that Rama go to a neighboring kingdom, as an ‘interlude’. While there, Rama falls in love with Sita and she with him. Their love is immediate and overwhelming, presumably because they were married as gods in heaven before incarnating in human form to save the world.
One day the King notices that he is aging. He decides to abdicate and put Rama in charge of the kingdom in his place. Everyone loves Rama. What could possibly go wrong? The king’s expectations are not unreasonable.
Unfortunately, his 3rd wife, one of the queens, sees things differently. It seems that she had saved the King’s life at some time in the past. The King was so grateful that he granted her 2 wishes. She declined to take advantage of the King’s offer at that time, but decides to take him up on his offer on this occasion.
The Queen makes a straightforward request: “Send Rama into the forest for 14 years and coronate my son as king in your place.”
Recall that the aging King had 4 sons, each from a different wife. Although this queen is his favorite wife, she didn’t bear Rama, but one of his brothers instead. She wants her son on the throne rather than Rama. She is worried that she and her son might be abandoned when the king dies and Rama becomes king.
Although everyone is outraged by the Queen’s request and tries to dissuade her, she is obstinate and refuses to budge from her demands. Because her requests are based upon the King’s pledge, Rama respects her wishes and leaves for the forest. Despite Rama’s attempt to dissuade them, Sita and another one of his brothers choose to accompany him. His expectations shattered, the King goes into shock and dies.
While in the forest, a female demon, an asura, sees Rama and immediately falls in love with him. After realizing that Rama is already married to Sita, the Demoness attempts to steal Sita away. Rama’s brother catches her in the act and cuts off her nose, ears and breasts.
Mutilated, the Demoness goes to her brother for revenge. Her brother happens to be Ravana, the fearsome demon who has been terrorizing and enslaving both the gods and humankind. His sister’s plight initially amuses Ravana and he refuses to fight mere humans. But then she describes Sita in great detail. Evidently the description is so good that Ravana, the demon king, becomes obsessed with Sita without having ever seen her.
Against his better judgment and the advice of others, Ravana traps Sita and brings her to his demon kingdom. Distraught, Rama employs the monkey Hanuman to first find Sita and then assist him in his battle to retrieve her. Eventually, Rama employs his martial powers to defeat Ravana, the demon king, and restore the divine order. To accomplish this task, he teams up with his brothers and a monkey army, including Hanuman. All of Rama’s allies are divine incarnations.
What significant features does the plotline reveal?
All the incarnated gods and demons of the Ramayana belong to the warrior class – the kshatriya caste. None of these incarnated gods and demons are artists, craftspeople, musicians or writers. Even the mystic Sage, who trains Rama on both spiritual and martial levels, was formerly a powerful warrior-king. The incarnated gods are good warriors, while the demons are warriors gone bad. As a virtuous warrior, Rama's mission is to destroy the warriors who have turned to the dark side.
The demons, led by Ravana, practice austerities, achieve spectacular powers and misuse them to enslave their teachers, the gods. These austere practices are rooted in ancient yoga-like disciplines, which include meditation and martial arts. However, the plot suggests that these practices don’t necessarily lead to moral behavior. In fact, the considerable powers that results from these disciplines can be badly abused.
If the martial artist primarily cultivates the body (jing) and mind (chi) at the expense of the spirit (shen), the temptation to become a bully becomes almost irresistable. It is necessary to integrate body, mind and spirit to become a sage. A central theme of the Ramayana addresses this need to balance body and mind with spirit.
Although the gods trained the demons, the moral development of the demons somehow didn't keep up with their martial training. They became bullies rather than protectors.
This is a common problem of power. Being a good ruler takes a lot of work because one must use the power responsibly. The ideal ruler maintains the peace, administers the kingdom, and dispenses justice.
Being a bad ruler is easy, although it might not end well. The bad ruler, a Ravana, follows his personal fears and desires at the expense of the state. Being a bad ruler has two main aspects.
First, when fear is the primary motive, the bad ruler tends to misuse his power in order to dominate his opponents. His pursuit of power lacks the wisdom to consider what may be in the best interests of the country. In the 2nd case, when desire is the primary motive, the bad ruler misuses his power by pursuing pleasure rather than responding to the duties of responsible leadership. In both cases, the ruler is thinking about his fears and desires rather than the good of the state he rules.
The lack of a spiritual compass results in the abuse of power – what has been called by some the arrogance of power. As we’ve seen this arrogance can manifest itself in the political realm, but it can also manifest in the realm of the personal ego. The Demon Ravana would not have developed such a big ego, if he didn't possess prodigious powers.
Personal ego is an unfortunate side effect of power. This is a dynamic process. As our skills increase, it is natural that the personal ego/self image of the undisciplined mind also grows. Ravana, the powerful demon king, is corrupted by his personal power, and believes that he is immune to moral consequences. This leads to his destruction. Those on the spiritual path must constantly guard against and ward off this illusion of personal power.
Rama, the demon destroyer, is the classic warrior prince. He has been trained to follow in his father's footsteps and is destined to become king. However, his education has been special. The Sage trains Rama on both spiritual and martial levels. In other words, Rama’s moral development has been cultivated in equal measure with his military training. Vishnu’s incarnation, Rama, was born a human, hence imperfect. His innate godly tendencies had to be encouraged and refined. As a result of this training, Rama becomes a moral leader as well as a great warrior.
The Greco-Roman traditions of Western Europe possess many powerful warrior heroes, yet wisdom is rarely one of their attributes. Achilles and Hercules are prime examples of Western warrior heroes, but are not noted for their wisdom. The great Western conquerors, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon, possess enormous egos. These celebrated, yet arrogant, conquerors are rarely emulated as role models. In contrast, Rama represents worthy values that moral kings and citizens can both embrace.
A major feature of Rama is that he is socially active, fighting against evil with the powers at his command. He is the good warrior who uses his training for the benefit of his people, while resisting the temptation to use his power for personal gain. He has not received this intense martial training in order to attain power, wealth or fame. He receives his martial training so that he can take constructive action in this world. He is the archetype of the positive warrior king.
Nor does he receive his yogic training in order to detach from and escape this world of illusion. He does not renounce the world like Buddha or Lao Tzu, but engages the world to fight the demons in order to restore justice. He has gained great powers that he will use to fight evil and restore the good.
Rama is no pacifist, no Buddha, no Jesus, no Gandhi. He does not ‘kill with kindness’, or achieve his ends through negotiation or non-violent protests. Instead, conflicts are resolved in armed combat on a battlefield, where he employs his trusted bow and arrow. Rama is a wise warrior king, using aggressive military techniques to achieve his ends. His Dharma led him into this world of action, rather than toward personal salvation from suffering.
In like manner, the Ramayana’s Brahmin ascetics, the yogis, did not escape this world of action to attain personal enlightenment. Sensitive to the universal order, these Brahmin sages listened to and followed their internal, presumably divine, directives. Due to self-cultivation, they understood their personal role, their dharma, as teachers.
The dharma of these ascetics was not to retreat from the world. Instead, their personal dharma was to use their enlightened understanding to cultivate Rama's talents and refine his personal ego for the good of the universe. These wise men did not feel threatened by Rama, but instead felt inspired to assist this incarnation of Vishnu to fulfill his divine dharma/destiny.
The Ramayana presents the image of a warrior king, who has reached a high level of attainment. He did not achieve this elevated state by removing himself from the ‘world of illusion', but by engaging in it. As such, the Ramayana conveys the dharma of the ideal warrior.
The mythologies of both the King Arthur legends and the Star Wars series of Western culture explore similar themes. In more recent renditions of the Arthur story, Merlin acts as the Sage who transmits his knowledge and wisdom to the young prince. Similarly, in one significant storyline of the Star Wars series, Yoda, a Jedi master, trains Luke Skywalker to fight the evil Darth Vader and the Empire.
Like Rama, Luke and Arthur are not pacifists. Luke Skywalker, King Arthur and Rama are cultivated as warriors so that they might overthrow the forces of evil that attempt to enslave the peoples of the earth. All three of these warrior kings fight for their individual conceptions of human rights. They refrain from selfishly pursuing power for personal gain.
Each of these mythologies occurs within a very different cultural context. Arthur is an early Christian; Luke embraces the Force, and Rama is Hindu. However, their shared role as warrior-king is a common thread that runs through each of these unique cultures.
We have been bandying about the notions of good and evil. We all have our personal beliefs concerning the meanings of these words. But what do these terms mean in the context of the Ramayana? Valmiki, the author, is quite specific in drawing a comparison between the moral values of Rama and Ravana.
He begins the entire work by posing a question to a Sage that focuses our attention on the moral qualities of ideal man.
“Who is a perfect man – possessing strength, aware of obligations, truthful in an absolute way, firm in the execution of vows, compassionate, learned, attractive, self-possessed, powerful, free from anger and envy but terror-striking when aroused?” (Narayan, The Ramayana, p 1)
The Sage answers that Rama is that man.
Deeper in the story, Valmiki expands his discussion of these ideal qualities. When the King is on the verge of abdicating power to Rama, he affirms his son’s attributes:
“If you will agree, I want to hand over the kingdom to Rama. He should be my successor, an embodiment of all perfection. He is perfect and will be a perfect ruler. He has compassion, a sense of justice, and courage, and he makes no distinctions between human beings – old or young, prince or peasant; he has the same consideration for everyone. In courage, valor, and all the qualities – none are equal to him. He will be your best protector from any hostile force, be it human or subhuman or superhuman. His ashras [weapons] acquired from his master Viswamithra, have never been know to miss their mark.” (Narayan, The Ramayana, p 1)
In another episode, Rama slays a king for stealing his brother’s wife. He justifies his actions by saying that everyone should treat women with respect. Indeed, one of Ravana’s fatal flaws was that he stole Rama’s wife Sita.
Rama epitomizes the perfect warrior king. He is powerful, compassionate, fights injustice, and treats everyone, including women, with egalitarian respect.
In contrast, the demon king Ravana epitomizes the evil warrior king. What does that entail? In the beginning of the story, the gods go to Vishnu for assistance from the demons that are terrorizing them:
“[The Demons] have acquired from us extraordinary powers through practicing austerities and prayers, and now threaten to destroy our worlds and enslave us. They go along recklessly in their career of tyranny, suppressing all virtue and goodness wherever found.”
Ravana rules as a despot, enslaving the populace and suppressing virtue. Via the narrative, we also see that Ravana doesn’t respect women or marriage. Further, he pursues and satisfies his carnal desires at the expense of morality.
Seen from this perspective, the Ramayana is a portrayal of the contrast between a virtuous ruler and an evil ruler. It is easy to imagine the historical context. Many petty kingdoms fight for supremacy amongst each other. Some of the warrior rulers are tyrants and others rule justly. The author highlights these differences and their consequences, as a way of honoring and encouraging virtuous leadership.
Curiously in the same historical time period, China was going through a similar phase, where many small kingdoms were engaged in constant battle. In response to the political chaos generated by these warrior kings, many philosophers, including Confucius and Lao Tzu, teach and write about what it is to be a responsible ruler.
Confucius presents the Duke of Chou, one of the first kings of China, as an example of the ideal ruler. As well as being a great conqueror, he was also a philosopher and writer. More importantly, he ruled responsibly in the sense that he attempted to maintain the peace and addressed the needs of the citizenry, including the peasant population. For the generations following Confucius up to the present day, the Duke of Chou continues to epitomize the ideal ruler to the Chinese.
Confucius and Valmiki differ in philosophic approach. The Confucian philosophy is far more secular, emphasizing the pragmatic political actions of the Duke of Chou. Valmiki’s Hindu philosophy in the Ramayana employs symbols in an overtly religious manner. The story revolves around gods, their divine incarnations, and the rarefied spiritual insights of the Brahmin ascetics. Despite these differences in philosophic orientation, both ‘authors’ come to very similar conclusions about the nature of the virtuous warrior king.
Another powerful underlying theme of the Ramayana is that each human has the potential to be a divine incarnation. The novel identifies innumerable Hindu gods who incarnate as living beings in this world. When Hindu gods are born as a human or animal, they frequently don't remember their divine origins.
Rama, as a human, is unaware of his divine background. If this can be so for Rama, it is easier for us to imagine that we may also be gods who have forgotten our divine origins. When experiencing the Ramayana, as a play or a book, we are inspired to serve a higher mission because of our divine blood.
In the story, demons dominate the earth and enslave most of the gods. Humans and monkeys, all incarnations of the gods, join forces to overcome the demons. One reason for this success is that the demon king, Ravana, felt that humans were so puny and weak that he underestimated their power.
Instead of recognizing their divine potential, Ravana felt that his challenge would come from the gods. He failed to recognize the possibility of the divine in humanity. Rama, although a powerful warrior, is viewed as a mere human being by the god-like demons. However, Rama, as a divine incarnation, is able to both challenge and destroy the demon kingdom.
This theme is incredibly empowering. Although the message of this story appears to be primarily addressed to powerful warrior-kings, it also applies to the less powerful, and even the powerless. The average citizen may view him or herself as powerless. One of the challenges for average human beings is to avoid seeing themselves through the demeaning attitudes of their ‘masters’. Just as Rama has the potential to vanquish the demons, the individual citizen has the potential to confront apparently insurmountable challenges, whether those challenges are personal or political.
The story inspires us to tap into our divine essence to surmount these challenges. The notion that gods may incarnate in human form and yet not remember their divinity, draws us inward. The introspective approach empowers us to both discover and cultivate our own higher potentials.
Unfortunately, cultural conditioning, combined with our own humanity, pollutes our divine nature and clouds our ability to respond to a higher calling. We, like Rama, must cultivate mind and body to filter out impurities, as we practice our art. Without his intense spiritual training, Rama, like Ravana, might have turned out to be a demon, rather than a demon-slayer.
The Brahmins could have employed and even designed the Ramayana to appeal to and communicate with the greater populace. This mythological notion of divine incarnation, certainly dovetails with what we will call philosophical Hinduism, i.e. Yoga.
In Hinduism’s Yoga, the bodhi is the divine spark contained within prakrti, the changeable, transitory material world. Through spiritual practices, the yogi goes through constant refinement of the polluted material self. To this end, s(he) attempts to gain control of the 3 attributes/gunas. The yogi hopes to reduce the over-active/rajas and sedentary/tamas aspects and replace them with balance/sattva. Eventually, if successful, s(he) becomes pure bodhi, the purified self. In popular parlance, the term ‘bodhi’ could be considered the divine incarnation within the polluted human.
Buddhism, as an outgrowth of Hinduism, incorporates the same theme. The individual who has refined oneself sufficiently becomes a bodhi, i.e. a Buddha. At this point, some of these enlightened individuals leave the material realm altogether, and escape the cycle of birth and rebirth. Escaping the wheel of transmigration is an important theme in both Yoga and Buddhism.
In Buddhism particularly, some of these individuals stay to help others on the path to enlightenment. Indeed they take the vow that they will not leave this realm of existence until everyone becomes enlightened. These individuals are called Bodhisattvas. The Buddhist term is straight from yogic philosophy – bodhisattva, those who have gained control of their gunas and achieved complete balance/sattva to become a Buddha.
Through his physical and spiritual practices, Rama realizes and manifests his purified god nature or bodhi/Buddha nature. In Hindu kingdoms, he becomes a god-king, a devaraja. Buddhist kingdoms view him as a Bodhisattva. While Buddhists and Hindus perceive the devaraja/Bodhisattva through different cultural contexts, the role of the king is essentially identical.
The citizens expected their rulers to fulfill the ideal role by employing spiritual practices to purify themselves and their kingdom. Many of the kings of India and Southeast Asia certainly identified with the notion of devaraja or Bodhisattva. In this regard, they attempted to set up the ideal social conditions that would lead their kingdoms to enlightenment.
The Hindu kings of Java were the first to call themselves devarajas and act accordingly. Inspired by the Javanese, the Khmer kings, also Hindu, deliberately identified themselves with Vishnu and his incarnation Rama. To this end, Angkor Wat is dedicated to Vishnu and the story of Ramayana is etched into its sandstone walls.
While there is a distinct identification with Rama going on in the Khmer kingdom, the Thai kings take this act of identification a step further. The Thai kings call themselves Rama and the Thai people respect them as so. However as a Buddhist nation, the Thai consider their king to be Bodhisattva, rather than devaraja.
In the East, there is a blend of the human and divine world, as represented in the Ramayana. Rama was the divine incarnated in human form. Further Vishnu and the other gods regularly incarnated in human affairs.
This mixture of human and divine, which is exhibited in both Hindu and Buddhist tradition, doesn't exist in the West. While the Pope speaks for God, he is not God. The Biblical God is of a fundamentally different nature; he only incarnated in human form once. Typically the gods and humans are distinctly different in Western mythology. This certainly holds true for the God of the Bible.
In summary, Rama, as warrior king, represents the classic devaraja/Bodhisattva, the Southeast Asian god-king. The Ramayana portrays him as the archetype of the ideal ruler. Spiritual and martial masters are required to train Rama so that he can save the world from oppression. As part of the warrior tradition, he transcends religion. His myth is of the same genre as King Arthur and Luke Skywalker. Rather than detaching from the world or dominating it, they are all social activists, fighting the evil powers of the world.