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What Valmiki's Ramayana teaches us about dharma

Scholar Arshia Sattar’s new book explores the multiple meanings of ethical life through the lens of the epic

A 17th century painting from Basoli depicting a scene from the Ramayana. (Alamy)

To millions of Hindus, Rama is the dharma purush—a god in human form, who exemplified an ethically unimpeachable life. A belief cemented through the centuries, it has gained firmer credence in recent times, as the jubilation over the foundation stone of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya recently showed. The ultimate model of statecraft, people are led to believe, lies in the establishment of a “Ram rajya”.

Yet, in the hands of Valmiki, one of the greatest tellers of Rama’s tale, the noble king was not a god. Rather, he was a far nuanced, at times troubled, character, torn by his desire to do right by his dharma as well as by his subjects. It is this ambiguity in Rama, engendered by the shifting sands of the meaning and purpose of dharma, that scholar and translator Arshia Sattar explores in her new book, Maryada: Searching For Dharma In The Ramayana.

Maryada—Searching For Dharma In The Ramayana: By Arshia Sattar, HarperCollins India, 224 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
Maryada—Searching For Dharma In The Ramayana: By Arshia Sattar, HarperCollins India, 224 pages, 499.

“It started off as a plan to write about the so-called minor characters in the epic—Dasharatha, Lakshmana, the queens, and so on,” Sattar says. “Eventually, it turned into a book about the choices these people make, which, somewhat inevitably, leads to the question of dharma.” In her earlier books, Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish (2011) and Uttara: The Book Of Answers (2016), Sattar surveyed the tragedies that befall when love collides with dharma. In Maryada, the focus is squarely on dharma as a moral compass for individuals. In her erudite yet conversational style, Sattar unpeels the layers of uncertainty that elude the public’s simplistic understanding of the epic’s moral arc as one where good triumphs over evil.

But dharma, as the numerous folk and contemporary retellings of the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective show, is a slippery slope. It is the hill that characters in Valmiki’s epic are willing to die on. At the helm of dharma is Rama himself, the maryada purushottama (he who defines the limits of dharma, and is the dharma), especially in the textual traditions that follow Valmiki. For the latter, though, dharma is not an immutable principle that governs all creatures equally. Its injunctions shift with the context in which it is invoked. Dharma, as the Mahabharata puts it, is sukshma, so subtle that it is almost elusive.

“The broad idea of dharma—the right way of doing things—is universal and absolute,” says Sattar, “but what the right thing is changes with such factors as caste and gender, which are the basis of hierarchy, with the Brahmin male being at the top of this pyramid.” Arguably, this social order is held to be immutable in Hinduism, and is also the leading cause of confusion over the correct application of dharma in Valmiki’s text.

As Sattar argues, dharma is grounded in an individual’s sense of duty and their place in society. Kaikeyi’s dharma as a mother makes her devise the best outcome for her son even if it involves putting her husband in a spot and wishing doom on her stepson. Lakshmana, in the grip of his dharma as a devoted sibling, urges Rama to disregard their uxorious father’s diktat. When Rama says it is his “fate” to live in the forest for 14 years, Lakshmana upbraids him sharply: “It is your attachment to dharma that confuses you!”

In the universe of Valmiki’s Ramayana, dharma is evoked, directly and indirectly, by characters to defend their way of life and choices. From Sita (who decides to follow her husband into exile in spite of his objections), to the rakshasi Surpanakha (Ravana’s sister, who is a law unto herself), to Vali (the king of the monkeys, who is slayed by Rama surreptitiously), everyone has their innate notion of right dharma. Yet, when measured against Rama’s presumably superior grasp of correct action, the dharma that is followed in Lanka, for instance, or in the kingdom of Kishkindha by the monkeys, falls pitifully short.

Sattar’s endeavour in this book, as in others, is to alert the reader to the many interpretive possibilities inherent in Valmiki’s Ramayana. Reading the epic is as much an exercise in learning to ask the right questions as to find fresh meanings between the lines, as her analysis indicates. Written between the period of the composition of the Vedas and the Puranas, Valmiki’s Ramayana is a dialectically rich text. Unlike the figure of Krishna in the Mahabharata, who is the giver of law and arbiter of right action (as in his famous dialogue with Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita), Valmiki’s Rama is fraught with self-conflict and freely criticised by members of his cohort for acting in ways they deem unfair. Curiously, over the centuries that have passed since Valmiki, Rama has become unrecognisably deified and shorn of all the edges that make his persona so compelling in the epic.

The most intriguing contrast to Rama, in Valmiki’s epic, is Lakshmana, who finds his dharma in cultivating a sense of justice as opposed to his older brother’s adherence to righteousness. In Sattar’s analysis, Lakshmana stands out as a man whose moral compass is ever busily searching for its true north. Be it in his opposition to Rama’s obedience to their father’s order to go into exile, or his discomfort with Sita’s abandonment by Rama to appease his subjects, or even in the final moments of his life, Lakshmana appears to be a man with his heart in the right place. Passionate in his fight against adversaries, he is equally unshaken in his loyalty to the people he loves. He is a study in contrast with Rama, who lives by his need to do the right thing, even when it isn’t becoming of a kshatriya (like attacking Vali on the sly).

“Both Rama in Valmiki’s Ramayana and Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata are much less competent warriors than their brothers, Lakshmana and Arjuna, respectively, who wear the mantle of the kshatriya far more boldly,” Sattar says. Rama even reprimands Lakshmana for being fixated on the duty imposed on him by his warrior caste. Instead of dishonouring Dasharatha’s wishes, Rama tells Lakshmana, he should “take refuge in dharma and not in violence”. It is yet another of those statements that is hard to square with the figure of the militant hero that the 21st century cult of Rama has fostered.

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