Suman K Sharma
Humanness is so well intertwined with godliness in Lord Ram that it is easy to take him as a man. We know his ancestry, his parentage, the place he was born, how many brothers he had and their names (and perhaps a sister too, by the name of Shanta), how he got married, lost his wife Sita and won her back after a fierce battle with Ravan across the ocean. We know too that Lord Ram parted with his earthly aspect in the Saryu River. Balmiki gives a vivid description of his looks and how he comported himself in the society –
Born in the Ikshvaku dynasty is a man who is renowned in the public by the name of Ram; he is the one who is master of his mind, supremely powerful, splendorous, forbearing and in control of his senses. He is wise, prudent, eloquent, radiant and destroyer of foes. His shoulders are thick and arms big. His throat is conch-like and his chin is firm. He has a broad chest and his bow is big. His collar-bone is hidden under flesh. He is suppressor of enemies. His arms are long enough to reach his knees, his head is well-shaped, his forehead is magnificent and elegant is his gait. He is of medium height, neither too tall, nor dwarfish. His body is well formed and his skin glossy. Most glorious is he. He has a fleshy chest. His eyes are big. He is a man of grace and auspicious features.
Balmiki Ramayan, Balkand, Canto 1(viii-xi)
Lord Ram’s Glories
‘Supremely powerful’, ‘forbearing’, ‘prudent’, ‘destroyer of foes’ are not just poetic hyperbole in praise of a prince who would be a king of lasting fame and adulation. Lord Ram indeed manifested such qualities from an early age. Seer Vishvamitra, himself a former king, perceived his potential as a warrior. Troubled by the upheavals caused day in and day out in the arcadia of rishis and munis, he prevailed upon a most reluctant King Dashrath to send away Lord Ram with him to eliminate daityas. The Raghva scion was then of tender age, cocooned in the luxuries of the royal palace. This did not deter him to face Tadka, a fearsome man-eating rakshasi. The conventions of war made him reluctant to kill a female. But Vishwamitra was able to convince him that it was all right to kill Tadka as many eminent princes before him had slayed sinful women. Lord Ram carried out the rajrishi’s dictate. Vishwamitra then vested in him numerous psychic weapons for future use (Balmiki Ramayan, Balkand, Cantos 25 and 26). At Sita’s swayamvara, he demonstrated his unmatched physical strength by effortlessly lifting Shiva’s humongous bow (which broke down during the action) and won the princess’s hand.
Life was going well with Prince Ram. He was happily married. His father was proud of him. His brothers adored him. Ayodhya’s citizenry cherished him. The ageing Dashrath read the signs and decided to declare him the crown prince. Everyone in the kingdom was happy with the king’s proclamation. But there was that hunchback, Queen Kaikeyi’s maid-in-attendance, Manthra. She spoilt the show. Or, was it because of the wheeling and dealing of the self-seeking devas? (Tulsidas would have us believe that way – Ramcharitmanas, Ayodhya Kand, 10-11). Call it the obduracy of Manthra-incited Kaikeyi or Ram’s destiny, there was an abrupt turn in the course of his life. One day he was universally celebrated as the crown prince and the next, an exile; his beloved wife and brother Lakshman following him to the wilderness for a span of fourteen years. Old Dashrath was mortally shocked at the quirk of fate. Ram, in contrast, bore the brunt with uncommon fortitude, and even contentment that he was enabling his father to keep his vows.
With fortitude comes prudence. Lord Ram lived quietly in a dense forest with wife, Sita, and half-brother, Lakshmana. Here Ravan managed to kidnap Sita. Lord Ram knew that it was not possible to trace Sita in the wilderness all by himself. His circumstances brought him in contact with King Sugriva, the lord of monkeys. Sugriva too had lost his wife to his bullying older brother, Bali. Lord Ram killed Bali rather craftily. In return of the favour, Sugriva placed at his disposal the entire vanara-sena, each member of which was thoroughly familiar with the jungle. It was only a matter of time before Sugriva’s minister, Hanuman, who was one among the leaders of the army, would find Sita in Ravana’s custody across the ocean. The Lanka war ensued. Both sides fought bravely. Lord Ram decimated Ravan’s army, including his sons and all of his brothers, except Vibhishan, who had taken shelter with him. Yet, the Ramayan’s antagonist, the ten-headed Ravan, seemed invincible. His heads would fall to Lord Ram’s arrows, only to be instantly replaced by new ones. Eventually, it was Vibhishan who revealed the secret of his hydra-like regeneration that Lord Ram was able to put an end to the enemy. Vibhishan had repaid in full for the trust that a prudent Lord Ram had reposed in him in granting him refuge against all odds of a raging war.
His more than manly exploits aside, there are at least two episodes in Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, revealing quite a different aspect of Lord Ram- that of a highly emotional man. The first relates to the point of time when he approaches the Ocean, expecting the sea-god to give way to his army to reach across to Lanka. Three days pass, but nothing happens. Lord Ram loses his cool, threatening to vaporise its waters:
O Lakshman! Fetch my bow and arrows, I am to dry up the ocean with my fiery arrows. Ramcharitmanas, Sunder Kand, 57 (i)
The other episode is about Lakshman getting gravely wounded in a battle with Ravan’s son, Meghnad. On the instructions of Vaidya Sushen, Hanuman is already on the way to fetch the Sanjivni herb to revive the warrior. Even so, Lord Ram is inconsolable:
As a bird without wings, a snake without its mani and the best of elephants without its trunk become pathetic
So shall my life be without you, O brother! Even if some mindless god keeps me alive!
Ramcharitamanas, Lanka Kand, 60 ‘kh’ (v)
Balmiki goes on to give us a closer look at Lord Ram’s disposition:
He is as powerful as Bhagwan Vishnu. His appearance is captivating like moon. In anger, he is Kaalagni – fire of the god of death (cf Wisdom Library) – in forgiveness, he matches Earth, in renunciation he is similar to Kuber and in truthfulness, he is the other Dharmaraj.
-Balmiki Ramayan, Balkand, Canto 1 (xviii)
All Powerful Bhagwan?
Was then Lord Rama mere mortal? Or, was he the all-powerful Bhagwan? Sati, Shiva’s spouse in her first incarnation, nursed this doubt, with the devastating aftermath she and her kin had to face. Tulsidas narrates the horrific tale at some length in Balkand, 47-63. The saintly poet never passes any opportunity in Ramcharitmanas to insist that Lord Ram is an avatar of the omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent Bhagwan Vishnu. The problem, as the astute Tulsidas seems to say, is that absolute power, even in the Godhead, invites recrimination from the lesser beings against whom it is used. Narad Rishi had a moment of pride when he spurned the enticement of Kamadeva’s carnal pleasures. Vishnu won’t have his prime devotee languish in hauteur. So, he created an elaborate masquerade. Narada was lured to participate in the swayamvara of an exquisitely beautiful princess. Unaware of Vishnu’s subtle workings, the celestial sage begged him for a visage that would sweep the maiden off her feet. Vishnu assured him that he would get what he thought was best for him. At the swayamvara, a dispirited Narada watched to his dismay as the bride, despising him pointedly, garlanded Vishnu, who was also present in the garb of a king as one of the hopefuls. Narada’s disappointment turned into fulminating rage when he discovered that Vishnu had given him but a monkey’s face! “You are absolutely self-willed. There is nobody to hold you in check, that is why you do what comes to your mind!” shrieked poor Narada at the Lord of the Universe. (Ramcharitmanas, Balkand – 136(i)). The fuming devotee placed a curse on the Lord that he would be born a man suffering the torments of the loss of a cherished woman as he, Narada, had been made to suffer. The Lord gracefully received the curse with all that it entailed. That became one of the causes of his reincarnation as Ram.
Indeed, one way to look at Ram’s life is to see God atoning for his autocracy. Here was a god who seldom exceeded the limits traditionally imposed on man. If he killed Tadka even though she was a woman, it was because Vishwamitra persuaded him to do so (Balmiki Ramayan). Proceeding on exile, he refrained from performing any godly miracle and let his father Dashrath die of grief. In the Dandkaranya, he could not see through Ravan’s stratagem of enticing him away from Sita, so he could kidnap her. Siding with his new-found ally, Sugriv, he hunted down Bali from behind a tree in Kishkindha, which again was a very human act. He seemed to have no clue about Sita’s whereabouts. It was Hanuman who, at the instance of the vulture Sampati, brought him the news of Sita being held captive in Lanka. It was Hanuman again who brought the life-saving herb to revive the injured Lakshman. Lord Ram could not do much about it except breaking down at the immensity of his brother’s sacrifice….and so on.
Man as God, or God as man; Lord Ram remained an epitome of conventions. Our ancestors rightly called him ‘Maryada Purshottam’ – the Man Supreme who always upheld the restraints of convention. Ridding the earth of rakshasas as a manly warrior, he demonstrated that one can achieve any task without having to follow miraculous shortcuts. Believing in Lord Ram is believing in earthly man’s godly potential.