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The concept of Dharma in Ramayana

The concept of Dharma is not adequately understood by Hindus themselves, not to mention others. Dharma is not a set of do’s and don’t’s or a simplistic evaluation of good and bad. It requires considerable intellectual exertion to even begin understanding Dharma, let alone mastering its use.

Is Dharma Translatable?

Few words of a language cannot be faithfully translated into another without injuring its meaning, context & spirit. English translations of Dharma are blurred and yield words like religion, sense of righteousness, discrimination between good and bad, morals and ethics or that which is lawful. All these fall short of fully grasping the essence of Dharma.

Every language has an ecosystem of words, categories and grammar which allow a user to stitch words together to maximum effect such that meaning permeates the text without necessarily being explicitly explained at each point. Sanskrit words such dharma, karma, sloka, mantra, guru etc., now incorporated in English, lose their depth because they’re deprived of their ecosystem of interconnected words.

Of course, languages evolve, and incorporating foreign elements improves their vitality and usability. My argument here is not of cultural purism or chauvinism, it’s merely an affirmation of the fact that cultural differences are important to observe, nurture and retain for they provide the much needed diversity to life, in turn a prerequisite for harmonious coexistence. The uniqueness of a language shouldn't be sacrificed at the altar of some misguided attempt to find commonalities.

The concept of Dharma in Ramayana

Lord Rama is considered the embodiment of dharma – every act of His worth emulating without reservations. Be it His ready acceptance of father’s order for exile, rejection of Bharata’s fervent pleas for return, sticking to ekapatnivrata, giving shelter to Vibhishana, everywhere His decisions reflect His ardent desire to stick to dharma at all costs.

Poets had said: rAmO vigrahavan dharmah – Rama is the personification of Dharma.

Two controversial events in Ramayana where Rama’s steadfastness to dharma appear a bit on shaky grounds are the killing of Vaali and sending a pregnant Sita to exile. Examining these in detail will help us understand dharma as understood by Valmika and so many saints ever since.

Dharma is not a fixed, unchangeable set of principles that needs blind adherence irrespective of the situation. The same set of actions that serve Dharma at a given place and time, cannot be blindly used for any other context.

Dharma is a means to uphold harmony and social cohesion over long-term. It’s a standard. This eternal process of achieving harmony guides design of contemporary rules and regulations. Dharma in 21st century wouldn’t imply following age-old traditions without contemplating on the purposes they serve today.

The episode of Vaali

As a prince of Ayodhya Rama, although on exile, was still duty-bound to protect his subjects from harm and arbitrate in case of any dispute. Exactly this duty was responsible His battles against rakshasas even during his exile (when he was not a prince officially) and the subsequent annihilation of the entire rakshasa clan of Khara – Dooshana.

Now, Kishkinda region ruled by Vaali was an independent tribal kingdom that still came under the broader authority of Ayodhya. Vaali by driving his brother Sugreeva out of his kingdom and more importantly keeping Sugreeva’s wife with him committed a great sin punishable by death. Precisely, this sin by Ravana burned his punya achieved through austerities and rendered him vulnerable to death. “If only he hadn’t committed this sin, not even Indra could have equalled him” rues Hanuman marvelling at Ravana’s strength in Sundarakanda.         

Vaali invited stringent punishment [death] upon himself by committing the sin which couldn’t be implemented merely because he was the monarch. Rama under these circumstances was obligated to deliver justice in whichever way possible. The end-result – the death of Vaali – was the primary objective and means were of secondary importance.

Because of a boon by which the opponent’s strength was transferred to Vaali during combat, Rama had no option but to kill him from behind. As a deliverer of justice he couldn’t afford to fail in implementing justice – and uphold, yes, Dharma.

During his final moments, Vaali criticizes Rama’s act and asks how he, a non-human (Vanaras aren’t humans, they’re ape like humanoids), is bound by human laws. To which, Rama states that the fact that he raises this technicality itself suggests that he has human-like intelligence and therefore being bestowed with this intelligence he was expected to have behaved in accordance with dharmic principles that guide humans.

The episode of sending Sita on exile

Vaali episode is fairly explicable. But the episode of sending Sita on exile based on hearsay – words of a drunk husband casting aspersions on his wife who wasn’t home for a night – is more complicated, given the more personal and sensitive nature of this event.

Firstly, Rama struck to his vow of ekapatnivrata (one wife) at a time when polygamy (His father included) was the norm. Also, if one bothers to check it, Rama always treated Sita in the highest esteem and with utmost care. When Rama visits a beautiful place like Pampasara in search of Sita, he breaks down into few stanzas pregnant with pathos & intensity, describing how the surrounding beauty reminds him all the more of Sita.

But Rama, now the king, had the primary responsibility of upholding dharma and any doubts on his integrity however uninformed had to be dealt with. He couldn’t allow a misinterpretation of his conduct to stain the understanding and resolve of his subjects to uphold dharma. Rama, the husband, wanted himself relieved from his duties as a king so that he is no longer constrained to act like one. But Rama, the king, had to go beyond his personal considerations of happiness and pain and act in line with his dharma – to set the right example for his citizens lest they use this incident as an excuse for relaxing their moral standards.

It’s pretty clear that Rama himself never had any doubts in this connection. That’s the reason he never discussed this with Sita and sent her to forest through Lakshmana in the pretext of helping her fulfil her desire to spend some time in pious atmosphere with rishis. He knew that he had no answer to give Sita if she confronted him. But as a king he had no option but to execute what was personally an excruciating experience, but nonetheless necessary to uphold dharma.

I overheard what some telugu poet said regarding this (cannot recall exact verses now, heard this on TV, but roughly it goes): By sticking to dharma even in these harshest circumstances, whether or not God came as Rama, Rama for sure became God.

Ramayana is credited with being the most beautiful epic and pregnant ladies are often advised to read it. Chanakya advises people to read it in mornings to start the day with noble thoughts.

Its later-day cousin, Mahabharata, however is more complex, disturbing and human in its epic proportions. And dharma’s intricacies are even more sophisticated here – I’ll save that for another day.

Meanwhile, I end this post with the beautiful lyrics (Telugu) penned by Sirivennela gaaru describing Ramavataram (Krishnam Vande Jagadgurum movie)


Ey mahimalu leka ey mayalu leka
Nammashakyamu gaani ey marmamu leka
Manishigane putti manishigane brathiki
Mahitha charitaga mahini migalagaligemaniki
Sadhyamenani parandhamude raamudai ilalona nilachi

Rough Translation : Without having any tricks , magic or charms just by living as a simple human being by following certain principles, God through Rama avatar demonstrated the you can still do great things and attain greatness.

(my Telugu knowledge is limited and my translation does inflict some damage on the poetic beauty of these lines, if any reader can translate them better, I'll put them in this space)


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