Introduction in Ramayana Philosophy


Introduction in Ramayana Philosophy

1. Introductory Remarks
2. Social and Intellectual Background
3. Philosophical Undercurrents
4. The Dominant Ideas
a) The ends of human existence
b) Dharma
c) Theology and Religion
d) Ethics
e) Fatalism
f) Materialism

5. Conclusion

1. Introductory Remarks

The Rāmāyaa, a national epic, like the Mahābhārata, in the truest sense of the term, has exerted profound influence on the thoughts and feelings and conduct of the Indian people ever since it saw the light of day.

It has set up ideals of manhood and womanhood which have been cherished and imitated by people of all classes and denominations and have thus helped to ennoble them and succour them in their tribulations.

It has served as an inexhaustible source of inspiration to the great Indian poets, using Sanskrit, Prākṛta or the vernacular as the vehicle, who have drawn upon it not only for their themes but even for poetical conceptions and imagery.

But in spite of its unsurpassed popularity, and mostly because of it, it has not come down to us in the original form in which its author, Vālmīki, conceived it, but as considerably overlaid and disfigured with interpolations of all sorts.

Moreover, it appears today in at least three important recensions, the West Indian, the Bengal and the Bombay, which differ from each other to such an extent that about one-third of the verses in each is found in neither of the other two.

Jacobi, who in his Das Rāmāyaṇa (Bonn, 1893) has made by far the greatest contribution to the critical study of the text of the Rāmāyaṇa, holds that of the seven books constituting the present-day Rāmāyaṇa the whole of the seventh and parts of the first are comparatively later additions.

Even if he is right, they must have been made very early, as all the recensions have them and all later tradition includes them.

Discussing the age of the Rāmāyaṇa, he comes to the conclusion that it must have originated before the fifth and probably in the sixth or the eighth pre-Christian century.

The present gleanings of philosophical views are made from the Bombay recension which, according to the experts, contains mostly the oldest version and is the one most widely used.

It is hoped that they represent the spirit of the Rāmāyaṇa fairly correctly and will not lack corroboration from the other recensions.

2. Social and Intellectual Background

The Rāmāyaṇa envisages a society in which the order of the four castes (varas) and that of the four stages of life (āśramas) are firmly established, and the various occupations and professions are suitably attended to;

firm faith in the Vedas and the sayings of the seers (Ṛṣis) is ingrained; sanctity of the cow and the brāhmaṇa is repeatedly emphasized; and a sense of the overriding importance of religious and moral duties (dharma) amounts to an obsession.

Vedic studies and rites are attributed even to those that are designated vānaras (apes), and Rākṣasas (ogres).

The cities (and presumably also the villages) abound in places of worship, with or without images and called āyatanas and caityas. Ascetics of various types, who usually live in hills and forests, roam about the country and are highly respected.

On the other hand, there are also the unbelieving sceptics (nāstikas) who are a constant source of worry to the pious.

The king, who rules with the consent of the people and on the advice of wise ministers and is called the protector of the varas and the āśramas and defender of dharma, has to be very careful in his private life, lest he should set a bad example to the people.

On the intellectual side, great emphasis is laid on education (vinaya) as bringing out and adding to the innate virtues, and the following subjects, besides others, appear, from express or tacit references, to be cultivated:

Vedas, Upaniṣads and the six auxiliaries to their study (i.e. phonetics, rituals, etymology, grammar, metrics and astronomy), codes on law and duty (dharma-śāstra), legendary and mythic lore (Purāṇa), politics (artha- śāstra and rāja-nīti), military science (Dhanur-Veda), logic (ānvīkikī)fastrology and palmistry (jyotia), fine arts (vaihārika-śilpa), medicine, and agriculture, cattle-breeding and commerce (vārttā).

The terms śruti (direct revelation) and smṛiti (sacred tradition), so common in later literature, have already gained currency.

Practical effects of a sound mastery of grammar, phonetics, logic and the Scriptures mark the con­versation of the cultured and are highly appreciated, while theories of politics are at the tip of the tongue of anybody, man or woman, talking about the king or the State.

As against this, a general belief in omens and portents, the fantastic and the miraculous, and the powers of magic, sacred formulae and austerities may be inferred.

3. Philosophical Undercurrents and General Outlook

Darśana in the sense of “view,” “attitude towards life,” or “philo­sophy” (and once pradarśana, interpreted by commentators as “know­ledge of subtle, non-perceptual matters by means of authority and inference") is a term of common occurrence.

In spite of the repeated indul­gence in description of miraculous facts or situations, immutability of the laws of nature and of the order of things appears to be recognized in such statements as:

"Just as old age, death, time or divine decree is never impeded amongst all beings . . ."; “Three couples (dvandva) operate indis­criminately among animals";

“you should not be (affected) like this about them that are inevitable"; “earth, wind, ether, water, and light abide by their own nature, following the eternal course";

“Nobody touching the burning flame of fire escapes being scorched"; “No animal in this world can be absolutely immortal."

Frequent use of the terms maryādā (bounds) and sthiti (settled state of existence) with reference to natural as well as religious or moral affairs also points to the same conclusion.

A good number of technical terms scattered throughout the work indicate strong under­currents of philosophical speculation,

and although testimony of the super­sensitive sages as revealed in the Scriptures is, as a rule, held in high esteem and preferred to the depositions of perception and inference in subtler matters,

nothing appears to be too sacred to be immune from the searching logical criticism (ānvīkṣikī) of the Lokāyatikas who are fairly in evidence.

The general outlook seems to be characterized by a sensible optimism, grounded, as it apparently is, on a dispassionate view of the inevitable concomitants of life.

Unlike later literature and the teachings of the Upaniṣads notwithstanding, life is nowhere looked upon as a bondage and final release (mokṣa) from the concatenation of births and deaths does not appear to be openly preached as a desideratum.

“No living being," it is said, “is immune from calamities, " and “uninterrupted happiness is not easy to secure," but “joy comes to a person, if he holds on to life, even after a hundred years."

“A heartless evil-doer causing anxiety to created beings does not survive even though he be the lord of the , three worlds." “All end in decay, elevations in fall, connections in separation, and life in death."

“Just as two pieces of wood may come together in the ocean and, after a while, separate, so wives, sons, relatives and wealth come upon a man and slip off, their separation being inevitable.

No living entity can escape the course of nature, so one is powerless, lamenting over the dead."

Considering that “life is constantly and irrevocably gliding off like the stream, one should direct one’s self towards happiness, for all created beings are held to deserve happiness" and one of the five congenital debts is that to one’s own self, repayable with pleasurable experience.

But true happiness cannot be had by pursuing it per se, but is derivable only from dharma.

4. The Dominant Ideas

The ends of human existence.-The ends which motivate human activities and which every normal human being should strive to attain (puruṣārtha) are, according to the Rāmāyaṇa, three in number and hence collectively called tri-varga:

They are dharma (spiritual merit), artha (wealth or material advantage), and kāma [(gratification of) desire or pleasure].

Of these dharma is the supreme and the other two should be subordinated to it. One who is actuated only by artha comes to be hated in this world, while excessive seeking of pleasure cannot be commended, as it leads one promptly to grief.

One should judiciously and harmoniously pursue each of the three at its right moment, but one who pursues only pleasure to the neglect of the other two wakes up after a fall like one asleep at the tree-top.

Dharma is ubiquitous in the Rāmāyaṇa and has been used almost indiscriminately for the end as well as the means - any or all of the religious, social and moral duties enjoined by the Scriptures or recognized by the wise as such.

The conception of dharma has been of profound significance in Indian thought of all times and its etymology is a pointer to its connotation:

In Vedic times dharma in its variant form dhārman ( “to hold," “to support") meant “prop" or “support" and “law" or “ordinance"; later it naturally developed the senses “innate property of a thing," “customary law," “religious injunction" and “duty."

All these meanings it has ever continued to have, so that dharma has been understood and interpreted as that which supports the universe as well as the society:

Dharma is supreme in this world" and “the most potent refuge." “Material advantage or pleasure issues out of dharma; one gets everything through dharma; dharma is the sustaining power (or quintessence) of this universe."

Dharma guards one who guards it, and “those who are devoted to truth and dharma have no fear of death."

But the fruit of dharma alone does not accrue to one who has earned it, but who is bound up (also) with the fruit of a-dharma, its opposite, nor does dharma destroy a-dharma: one gets the fruit of the one as surely as that of the other.

But the course of dharma is subtle and extremely difficult of appre­hension even by the wise. The inscrutable ways of events in this world often raise doubts as to its pretensions.

Owing to frequent apparent anomalies in recompense in the shape of prosperity or adversity in this world, the potency and even the existence of dharma and a-dharma are sometimes challenged and the absoluteness of might, wealth or expe­diency advocated, while those who deny themselves enjoyment and undergo austerities for the sake of dharma are ridiculed.

Theology and Religion.—

By the time of the Rāmāyaṇa the Vedic deities have become completely anthropomorphized and a host of new deities has been introduced.

Their immortality is not absolute, being only an exaggeration of the ordinary human span, and their positions are now considered attainable by human beings through virtuous actions.

But three super-deities Brāhma, Viṣṇu and Śiva, credited respectively with the cyclic evolution, maintenance and merger (sṛishṭi, sthiti and laya) of the universe and deemed as three functional, personal aspects of the Absolute (Brāhman), appear on the scene.

They form the Trinity and are given, jointly as well as individually, all the epithets of the Absolute such as "unborn,” “eternal,” “immutable,” “all-pervasive,” “infinite,” “the source and container of all,” etc.

The impersonal Absolute as the source of Brāhma is termed a-vyakta (unmanifest) or ākāśa (the All-pervasive one), and as the soul of all beings, ātman or paramātman, the individual soul receiving the characteristic designation bhūtātman (“the spirit apparent in the senses and sensations”), or ligin (“endowed with indi­cators”).

The inscrutable power in the Absolute that is responsible for the evolution, duration and merger of the universe and for its assumption of personal forms is termed māyā.

In religion the Vedic mode of worship is supplemented by the worship of images in temples.

The articles of offering also are augmented by flowers, scents, sweets and all the best varieties of food, and, in fact, it has become a truism that “the deities of a person have the same food as he himself.”

Āsana (sitting in right posture), prāṇāyāma (control of the breath), dhyāna (meditation), and yoga and samādhi (absolute concentration of the mind), and vows of all sorts are frequently men­tioned in this connection.

Austerity, study of the prescribed portion of the Veda, liberality to the brāhmaṇas and the needy, hospitality, and adoration of the manes as well as the brāhmaṇas form other items of pious work.

Great liberalism in the matter of worship seems to prevail and bigoted sectarianism of the later times is clearly out of the question.

Asceticism is in the air and, besides confirmed ascetics of various orders, every pious man or woman exhibits ascetic traits in his or her habits.

There seem to be two classes of hermits, tāpasas and śramaas (both including women), the subtle distinction between them, if any, is not apparent from the text. Bhikṣu and bhikiṇī for the male and the female hermit respectively are also met with.

Although regular asceticism is often resorted to for attaining objects, ordinarily well-nigh impossible of attainment, there seems to be a much higher motive for the best of the ascetics who are presented as striving after absolute placidity of the mind through control of the senses and passions, freedom from desires and compassionate kindliness towards all living beings.

It has been stated above that “final release” (mokṣa), is not openly preached, but there are occasional hints that this is what they are striving after, their goal being indicated by the ambiguous term brahma-loka (the world of Brāhman or of Brahmā).

The last stage of asceticism seems to be characterized by absolute disregard for the creature comforts and constant meditation on the self.

Ethics.—Ethical virtues, as integral to dharma, have found so much emphasis in the Rāmāyaṇa that it is virtually “ethics turned poetry,”

and its success in this difficult task may be gauged by the immense popularity and veneration it has enjoyed among millions of Hindus throughout the ages.

Kindly regard for all animal existence, truthful­ness, self-control, forbearance, tolerance for the shortcomings of others, hospitality and succour even to an enemy who seeks it, and purity in mind, speech and act are some of the virtues highly extolled.

Devotional regard for the parents, the teacher, the elder brother, the husband and the master and the corresponding affectionate regard in them for the others are emphasized again and again.

Monogamy and chastity form one of the highest virtues for both the sexes.

Women, who are normally dependent on the father, the husband or the son, are entitled to tender courtesy under all circumstances, and no females must be killed.

The wife, who is the inalienable self of the husband and his comrade in the pursuit of dharma, enjoys solicitous care and supreme authority in domestic life.

Her character is her best armour, and the respect and even veneration that a chaste and devoted wife, reputed for her character, enjoys is unparalleled, and is hardly less than that enjoyed by any great ascetic.

The king, who owes his position to the loving consent of the people, is to be looked upon as a god in disguise, since it is he who is the guarantor of the dharma, welfare and life of the people. But he commits a heinous crime, if he, while enjoying the privileges, neglects his duty.

The judge and the criminal who is justly punished both go to heaven. It is not a sin to kill one who has struck first, for one has to save one's life as best one can.

But even in war one must not kill an enemy who is not fighting, has taken to hiding or sought refuge with folded hands, is running away or drunken. Killing of a king, a woman, a child or an old man, or desertion of a dependent is considered a great sin.

The absoluteness of moral conduct is emphasized more than once. But its disparagement is sometimes met with in the speech of one engaged in immoral action or as an outburst of passion, roused by occasional non- appreciation of moral virtue in this world.

Thus in the speech of Indrajit killing the magic Sītā:

“That a woman should not be killed, as you say, O monkey, anything that causes suffering to the enemy has to be done";

or in the speech of Rāma offended with the behaviour of the ocean:

“The world honours a boastful, evil-hearted, shameless fellow who rushes about and chastises everybody," and “Chastisement is the supreme expedient for a man in this world, I should think; fie upon forgiveness, sweet words or presents to the ungrateful."

The criteria of moral judgment appear to consist in (1) consideration for the other world, (2) regard of the elite, (3) effect on other people’s morals, and (4) one's own conscience and self-respect.

Fatalism.—Fatalism is frequently exploited in the Rāmāyaṇa as a refuge in irremediable adverse circumstances. “That which surpasses logic is fate (daiva) and its course is unimpeded amongst all entities."

Fate matures in time and the two are so inseparably connected that often time (kāla) is held responsible for all that happens.

Sometimes fate is looked upon as predestination (niyati) ruling absolutely over all that is, as in the address of Rāma to Tārā:

“Niyati is the author in this world; niyati is instrumental in achievements; niyati is responsible for the undertakings of all entities in this world.

Nobody does anything; one is not one's master even in respect of one's undertaking; the world rolls on its inherent state, and time is its supreme resort.

Time does not transgress itself; time is not to be avoided; and having attained its inherent state, nothing transgresses.

For time there is no relationship, no logic, no powers; connection with friends and relations is no consideration; it is beyond one's own control.

But one, who sees rightly, should observe the evolution of time: dharma, artha and kāma are achieved in the course of time."

Often, however, fate is regarded as the maturation of the deferred potentialities of one's actions (karma) in this or a previous life, thus entailing a belief in transmigration.

The two conceptions are evidently due to two angles of vision: the one looking upon the individual as a tiny particle buried in the immensity of the universe, and the other regarding him as distinct from other individuals and hence responsible for whatever he comes by, injustice or chance being ruled out.

Despite this homage to daiva, the importance of human effort (puru­akāra or paurua) is nowhere disparaged. In fact, success is considered to be dependent on both.

The second of the above conceptions also implies the importance of puruṣakāra, for daiva here is the fruition of some previous puruṣakāra.

Some protagonists of puruṣakāra would even pity daiva as powerless before human effort, while not to be sub­missive to time (i.e. daiva) is considered a great virtue.

Materialism.—The views of the materialists, who are vehemently condemned as Nāstikas (nihilists), time and again, appear summed up in the speech of Jābāli to Rāma:—

“A creature is born and annihilated alone; it has no relations or com­rades. Therefore, a man who is affected by the consideration that it is his mother or father should be looked upon as a lunatic.

For men ‘father,' ‘brother,' home’, ‘wealth’ are all like a halting stage for a traveller and no sane persons become attached to them.

The father is just the initiator, but it is really the seminal and menstrual fluids combined in the mother's womb that leads to a man's birth. At death one meets the inevitable end: this is the way of things and one need not be aggrieved.

Those that give precedence to wealth and spiritual merit are really to be pitied—not the others, since it is they who suffer misery here and annihilation at death.

People busy themselves with funeral rites and offerings to the manes: just look at the extravagant waste of food, for what can a dead man eat?

If food eaten by one is transferred to the body of another, similar offerings should be made in favour of those that are living abroad instead of supplying them with provender.

'Sacrifice,’ ‘give,’ 'receive initiation,’ 'practise penance,’ 'renounce'—such texts inducing liberality have been composed by clever people.

Therefore, an intelligent person should make up his mind that there is nothing else, and entertain that which is directly apprehended by the senses and reject the rest.”

The materialistic ideas of Jābāli look like an exact replica of the views of Cārvāka who, however, is nowhere mentioned by name.

5. Conclusion

It will appear from the foregoing survey that the Rāmāyaṇa presents a practical philosophy, underlining ethics and religion, in the shape of a poem of engrossing human interest.

The higher philosophical truths and the views of the heretics are touched only incidentally in presenting a verisimilitude of the cultural atmosphere.

No philosophical Schools, except ānvīkṣikī favoured by the Lokāyatikas, are mentioned by name, or views that are peculiar to any particular School, although the general trends and the numerous technical terms show that philosophical speculations along various lines must be rife.

Sectarianism is not in evidence, although pious devotion to various deities is frequently alluded to. Taken as a whole, the philosophy of the Rāmāyaṇa, free from dogmatism and sectarian prejudice as it is, deserves to have a universal human appeal for all times to come.