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The perfect human being

Dr Ananth Rao

The Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata are the two great epics of India. The Rāmāyana is the older work and consists of about 25,000 couplets. It is regarded with reverence as the ādi kāvya (the first great work of poetry). The legendary sage Vālmīki who composed the epic is therefore the ādikavi (the first poet). It has indeed been the source of inspiration for a considerable body of literature in Sanskrit and other Indian languages.

The later epic, Mahābhārata, is four times longer than the Rāmāyana. It covers a vast canvas dealing with various themes governing the human condition. A verse that appears at the beginning of the Mahābhārata proclaims: “what is in the Mahābhārata can be found elsewhere; what is not in it, is not to be found anywhere”. In contrast to the vast canvas in the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyana tackles simpler issues in a paradigmatic manner, issues of human concern as they are subjected to the pulls and pressures of competing values and choices in life. The story of how Vālmīki came to write the Rāmāyana illustrates the point.

The Rāmāyana consists of six books and a seventh as an epilogue. The first four sargas (chapters) of the first book, the Bālakānda (book of childhood), describe the circumstances that lead to the creation of the epic itself. Vālmīki, the head of an āsrama (an academy of ascetics) has a distinguished visitor, the celestial sage and bard Nārada who, with his majestic vīna (Indian lute), moves in all the worlds freely and knows everything. Vālmīki asks his visitor a question that is uppermost in his mind: “Is there in this present day world a human being perfect in every way? If such a human being exists, you are bound to know of him”.

Nārada is pleased to be asked the question and replies that it is rare to find such a human being, but there indeed is one – none other than Prince Rāma of the Ikshvāku lineage, who is the delight of his mother, Queen Kausalya. In about 100 verses, Nārada outlines Rāma’s story to Vālmīki.

Having outlined the story, Nārada departs, but his positive answer about the possibility of perfection in the real world has a profound effect on Vālmīki’s mind. After a while, he goes with his disciple to the nearby river, Tamasā. The pure clear waters of the river Tamasā (its literal meaning being ‘placid’) suggest “the mind of a good human being” and enhance Vālmīki’s state of rapture at the possibility of perfection in the real world. He decides to take a dip in the river, an urge to “experience the sense of peace”.

The sense of tranquility in the external world is enhanced by a pair of kraunca birds (water birds) in a state of love union, flying inseparably as they make sweet sounds. Vālmīki’s inner world is at one with the external tranquil scene, thereby creating an almost perfect moment in space and time. All this is suddenly changed when a heartless hunter enters the scene and shoots the male kraunca bird with an arrow. The pitiable cry of the female at the fall of her mate rouses the sage’s compassion and in a fit of anger he utters a curse that the hunter may never find a home.

Reflecting on the utterance of the curse, Vālmīki realises that it came forth involuntarily as a new verse form consisting of four equal quarters: what we now know as the very first sloka. As Vālmīki returns to his āsrama, he is in a state of intense introspection as a result of all that has happened since Nārada’s visit. He then has another visitor, this time the lord of creation, Brahma, who assures Vālmīki that what flowed out of his mouth is indeed the sloka, and that he should employ this verse form to write the story of Rāma as he heard it from Nārada. Brahma assures him that as he writes: 'yaccāpi aviditam sarvam viditam te bhavishyati' (what is not known to you will become known). Brahma disappears, Vālmīki’s disciples rejoice that their preceptor has created a new verse form, and Vālmīki proceeds to writes the Rāmāyana.

The Rāmāyana is the story of Prince Rāma’s journey through life. Vālmīki explores the joys and sorrows, the challenges and choices that confront such a person in the real world. King Dasaratha has four sons. Rāma, the eldest, born to the senior Queen Kausalya, is his dearest. As Dasaratha prepares to anoint Rāma as the crown prince in the capital Ayodhya, his youngest and favourite queen, Kaikeyi, calls upon the king’s past promise to fulfil her two chosen desires. She demands that her son, Bharata, be made crown prince and that Rāma be exiled in the forest for 14 years. Dasaratha is distressed at having to agree to her demands, but Rāma willingly accepts exile to honour his father’s pledge and goes to the forest with his devoted wife Sita and loyal brother Lakshmana. The heart-broken king dies.

All this takes place while Bharata is away on a long visit to his maternal grandparents’ kingdom. He is summoned back and finds that he now has to take over as king. He is truly devoted to Rāma and is reluctant to accept what he thinks is rightfully Rāma’s. He is angry with his mother and tries to persuade Rāma to come back. Rāma insists that he has to fulfil Dasaratha’s promise and continues his exile.

While in the forest, the powerful King Rāvana of Lanka abducts Sita, whom he has long desired. Rāma sets out on a great campaign helped by an army of monkeys led by Hanumān, the great monkey warrior. After killing Rāvana, Rāma returns triumphantly to Ayodhya, for by then the 14 years of exile have come to end. Bharata gladly hands over kingship to Rāma, who is crowned as king.

Vālmīki composed the epic after Rāma’s coronation. The poetic work is “sweet to read and to sing and lent itself to the cadences of the stringed instrument vīna”. Vālmīki teaches it to a pair of young twins, Lava and Kusa, who perform it to gatherings of sages and, as a result, their fame spreads. In his travels as king, Rāma has heard of the twins and organises for them to give a royal command performance of the Rāmāyana in the palace. Endowed with good looks and sweet voices, the twins give a magnificent performance of the poetic work. In addition, they look like a pair of images of Rāma as if emanating from him. It is a poignant scene, for Rāma does not know that they are his sons: they were born after Rāma had exiled pregnant Sita to the forest when one of his subjects had cast doubts about her chastity, because she had spent a year in captivity under Rāvana.

As the performance proceeds, Rāma is engrossed in it. He eventually leaves his throne and joins the gathering as one of the audience. It is his own story told by his progeny but he has no more ownership of it than any other member of the gathering. The story of the royal performance itself carries layers of tragedy, irony and dilemmas that are part of the human condition, as faced by the ideal representative Rāma himself.

Two instances among many from the epic may be cited as typical of the sorts of choices and dilemmas faced by a good human being in the journey of life and in the attempt to be faithful to what they deem to be perfection, as much as possible in the real world.

The first example occurs early during Rāma’s exile in the forest, when Bharata attempts to persuade Rāma to return to Ayodhya. Bharata takes a delegation consisting of Dasaratha’s three widowed queens including his mother, the royal preceptor, Vasishtha, and a number of wise sages. Bharata argues that his mother was wrong in demanding what he himself did not want, and that the king was wrong in exiling Rāma. Vasishtha argues strongly for convention, citing that the succession of rulership in the Ikshvāku lineage has always been through the eldest son inheriting, and this sacred convention must trump all other considerations. A chārvāka (atheist) sage argues that Dasaratha is dead now and death confers finality to all human obligations, that therefore Rāma is the true heir and he should resume full rights to lead a joyful life. Rāma rejects all these pleas on the ground that Dasaratha as king was within his rights to do what he did and that, having pledged to live in exile to fulfil his father’s promises to Kaikeyi, he cannot take expedient excuses to escape them. Truth is the ultimate arbiter, the strict code for rulers is satyātmakam rājyam, satye lokah pratishthitah: truth is the very soul of kingship, on truth rests the entire world. The traditional Indian ideal of good government based on supremacy of truth is Rāma Rājya, the ideal that inspired Mahatma Gandhi in the movement for Indian independence.

The second example relates to the moral dilemmas faced by rulers when someone seeks refuge. Just before the war between Rāma and Rāvana, Rāvana’s brother, Vibhishana, comes to Rāma for refuge. Vibhishana is a kind of conscientious objector in the war: he advises Rāvana that his ways are wrong, that he should return Sita and make peace with Rāma. Rāvana is angry with Vibhishana and accuses him of being a traitor. Left with no choice, Vibhishana goes to Rāma’s camp for refuge. There is considerable distrust of Vibhishana’s bonafides in Rāma’s camp, with most arguing that after all he is a rakshasa (demon) who cannot be trusted, as he is selfishly deserting Rāvana in order to get rulership of Lanka after Rāvana’s inevitable death at the hands of Rāma. Rāma gives a considered answer, concluding that a sharanāgatha (one who comes seeking refuge) must be offered shelter as that is the right conduct. Rāma, as head of state, is strong enough to take the risk, and therefore decides to err on the side of kindness. This could be interpreted in contemporary political discourse as a code of conduct for leaders, a sort of refugee convention.

Vālmīki’s Rāmāyana is a literary experiment exploring the trajectory of an ideal being in sāmpratam loke (the real human world). This experiment isolates key elements from the complexities of life to show them at work in a sharper focus. The point is not whether the protagonist lives up to the vision of the ideal. Rather, it is that there are no simplistic ideal answers, but people who are willing to face such challenges in their individual capacities find that adherence to, or deviation from, the notion of perfection is itself an exciting experience sometimes yielding desirable fruit.

Dr Ananth Rao’s professional career has been as an Applied Mathematician. He has worked at Monash University and Flinders University, as well as held visiting positions overseas in universities such as Delft University in The Netherlands. He has published research articles in leading journals on his specialisation in elastodynamics. Parallel with his academic career, he has had a scholarly interest in Sanskrit and Kannada epic and classical literature. He has given harikatha/katha kaalakshepa (storytelling) performances in English, and also in Kannada for Kannada-speaking audiences. His storytelling performances in English are to multi-lingual audiences in Australia as well as overseas in countries including India, Singapore, England and Germany. The performances are based on musical recitations of select original texts from the classics and their interpretations in English or Kannada. His performance repertoire includes about 20 different stories. The twin interests in literature and performance have led to articles in scholarly journals on themes such as myth and the creative process, variations in traditional performance styles, and the relevance of ancient stories to modern audiences.

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team