7. Rama and Ravana

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Chapter 7

Rama and Ravana

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Bharata did not wish to be king. He understood what his father wanted for Rama and the kingdom, and he wished to live according to his father’s wishes. At court, he underscored the fact that he was really just a regent, acting on behalf of Rama, by refusing to sit on the throne. He sent to Rama, asking for a pair of his sandals, which Rama gave him, and these were placed on the throne to take the place of Rama himself. And so Bharata administered his brother’s kingdom.

In time, Rama and Sita moved to a different land somewhat to the south of where they had been. This placed them in about the center of India. There they settled down for what would have been two years, waiting for the end of the exile’s time. Together with Laksmana and Urmila, they broke the ground and planted their crops. They lived a rustic cottage they had built with their own hands.

It happened that at that time there was in that place a Rakshesha, or demon in the form of a woman, named Shurpanakha. She could be very beautiful, when she had no desire to be beautiful. Shurpanakha had the unusual ability to be able to appear in whatever form she wished, however, and she could also be very ugly, when she felt so inclined.

She had a great deal of skill, to be sure. Her abilities took intense spiritual training over a long time. She was able to change her form to please or horrify anyone she encountered, but her training had no positive value, because it had no moral foundation. It was a type of training that can only lead to a downfall.

Shurpanakha had led a troubled life. She had married a man who took her as part of an attempt to kill her brother, Ravana, the King of Lanka. When the time came for the attack, the brother killed her husband, and though Ravana had acted in self defense in this case, Shurpanakha broke off most relations with him. Having to leave her home, which had depended on him, she travelled through southern India and Ceylon, staying in different places according to the time of year.

During the course of her travels, she came across Rama. She was so struck by his good looks that she could not stop thinking about him. She wanted to possess him, with a feeling that to her way of thinking was love. Adorning herself in the finest gowns and jewelry, she made herself into a woman of astonishing beauty, and in that form she approached him.

Though she had believed that she could seduce any man, Rama would not have her. She asked boldly why not, and he replied that he was married, was in love with his wife, and would have no other. When Shurpanakha tried to press further on the matter, she found that he was quite adamant. He was loyal to Sita, and he would remain so.

Perhaps acting out of frustration, Shurpanakha next tried to seduce Lakshmana. In this, she was no more successful than she had been in trying to win Rama for herself.

Shurpanakha had gone through intense spiritual training, but she did not understand of the nature of real love at all. Not only She had never experienced it herself, she had never really witnessed it. The closest she could get to it was a base sort of animal desire, untutored, undeveloped, and even unexamined. The deep love that ordinary people had for one another, the devotion that they had to their families, and the sense of belonging that these feelings bring were all unavailable to her. Somewhat cynically, she thought of the ideas people have about love as the fraudulent inventions of impostors.

Feeling scorned, she sought revenge. Shurpanakha decided she would murder Sita.

Her plan was foiled by Lakshmana, who was able to see easily what Shurpanakha was up to. He stopped her.

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“Stopped her?” Justus exclaimed, “He cut off her nose and her ear!”

“I don’t believe it.” It was Gloria Evans speaking. “I think she lied to make her brothers angry. Besides, what good would it do to cut off her nose. She could take any form she chose. She could appear with or without a nose as she chose, and cutting it off would not have changed her.”

“That is not what the scriptures say,” Justus said a bit assertively.

“What they say is that she could change her form to look as she wished. And if that is true, she could appear with or without a nose. Her brothers were taken in simply because they were prone to anger and believed her lies. She told them Lakshmana cut her nose off, and they did not think about whether that was true. And so they acted like fools because she had made them into fools.”

“Nonsense!”

Everyone sat in silence for a moment. A far-off cloud glowed briefly as lightning flashed within it. Overhead, the sky was still clear. A meteor made a quick streak and disappeared.

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Shurpanakha appealed to her brother Khara. That man sent seven assassins to kill Rama and Lakshmana, all Rakshasas, the same type of demon as she and her brothers. These were quickly killed by Lakshmana, so Khara went himself to attack Lakshmana. In the end, Khara was defeated and killed in this attack.

Another brother, Dushan, similarly attacked Rama over the insult Shurpanakha claimed he had given her. That brother fared no better, and, like Khara, was defeated and died.

Shurpanakha next appealed to Ravana, the King of Lanka, the brother who had killed her husband. Ravana was willing to fight with Rama, but Shurpanakha had a better idea. Sita, she told him, was a lovely woman, and Ravana should carry her away to force her to be one of his wives.

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Owen Evans, who was sitting on the porch next to Gloria, said, “Well, Ravana was not a nice man, and Shurpanakha knew how to move him to action.”

The little gathering was joined by Evan Owens. The fact that Owen Evans and Evan Owens lived in the same tiny city was a source of occasional mirth. “What are the chances?” People would ask. A clue to the answer could be seen in the fact that the local chapel was dedicated to Saint David, the patron saint of Wales. Evan sat and listened.

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Ravana went to the little farmstead where Rama, his brother, and their wives lived in a cottage and grew their food. He found that Sita was every bit as beautiful as Shurpanakha had said. He was overcome with desire. He wanted to have her and he wanted to punish her husband by doing so. To this end, he enlisted the aid of Maricha, another demon.

Maricha loved nothing more than to terrorize the royal and noble human families. He had run afoul of Rama twice previously, however, and did badly both times. He tried to persuade Ravana not to run such a risk. He told Ravana that nothing good would come of the project, and that those undertaking it would almost certainly die. He said he would not take part in it.

Nevertheless, Ravana was not to be put off. His blood hot with anger and desire, he threatened to kill Maricha if he did not help with the task. And so, knowing Ravanna could do this, Maricha complied, expecting to die. He may have reflected that dying at the hand of Rama would be a much more merciful end than being killed by Ravana.

Like Shurpanakha, Maricha could take whatever form he chose. He made himself appear as a glistening gold-colored stag, and he walked near to Sita. When she saw him, she called Rama and Lakshmana to capture him, so she could have him as a pet. Lakshmana went after the stag, leaving Rama with Sita.

Not much time passed before Rama and Sita heard what sounded like Lakshmana calling for assistance. But it was not Lakshmana. It was Maricha. And when Rama was only gone an instant, Ravana, disguised as a begger-monk, approached Sita. When he was close, he suddenly snatched her, with one hand covering her mouth so she could not call. And he took her away.

Sometimes, when things go terribly wrong in the affairs of human beings, nature itself revolts. And so it was when Ravana kidnapped Sita. Horrified by his actions, much of nature stood against Ravana. Streams swelled unnaturally, rain poured down unexpectedly, and the earth shook.

The birds and beasts, stood in the way of their progress also. In one case, a vulture named Jatayu attacked, only to have his wings cut off by Ravana’s sword. His wound was mortal, and he fell to the Earth.

Rama and Lakshmana returned to their cottage only to find that Sita was missing. As students of nature, they were easily able to see Sita’s tracks on the ground, and they could see that a man had carried her off. They realized in an instant that Sita had been kidnapped, and they went after her frantically.

Not very far off, they found Jatayu dying. Jatayu was able to tell them that a demon had taken Sita and had headed south with her. And with that, Jatayu died.

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“I love these fanciful Hindu stories,” Justus said. “A talking vulture! The gods need to know which way to go, and they are given guidance by a talking vulture!”

“Don’t forget, Hanuman, the monkey,” Gloria reminded him. “He did really important service, carrying messages.”

“There must be a meteor shower tonight,” Gus said absently, as he looked up at the sky. “That is the third I have seen this evening.”

“Well, you won’t be able to watch them much longer. It looks like a storm is coming,” Evan told him. The distant clouds continued to glow from time to time.

Gus looked off toward the west. “Somehow, I don’t think that storm will hit us,” he said. “I think it will pass to the north.” And then he continued, “Hanuman – yes, we will get to him soon. In fact, we get to him next.”

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While nature did not give much aid to Ravana, it aided Rama and Lakshmana. Ravana, who was a king in Ceylon, had an army at his disposal. Rama, however, had armies from nature.

Early on in his search, Rama became aware of the fact that someone was spreading a story that Sita had run off with Ravana willingly. This was, of course, a lie intended to discourage him and turn his followers against her. He came across Hanuman, a monkey, who was willing to enter Ravana’s compound and discover whatever he could about Sita.

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“Well, Hanuman was a monkey,” Justus said. “Who could you trust more to find the truth?”

“I think he was an avatar of Shiva,” Gloria said.

“And the fact that he was a monkey made it really easy for him to get to Sita without being noticed,” Dora Snyder added.

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Hanuman found Sita and asked her about her treatment by Ravana. She told him that she wanted nothing more than to be able to get back to Rama. She also told him that Ravana, while he had kidnapped her and held her prisoner, had otherwise not harmed her.

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“If Ravana was so evil, why didn’t he just do despoil her has he wished? I think you have him wrong. He was not as bad as you think,” Justus said.

“It was not good intentions that saved Sita from being attacked physically by that rascal,” Dora replied. There was a note of vehemence in her voice as she continued. “He was hoping to win her affection for himself, so he could triumph all the more over Rama. He was just evil.”

“How could you possibly know that?” Justus demanded.

“He told Queen Mandodari. And she didn’t like it one bit! You can bet your last dime on that!” Dora sounded angry.

Those looking at Justus could see his head jerk in surprise, even in the dark.

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Knowing that Sita wanted him to rescue her, Rama put together armies of human beings, birds, monkeys, bears, and other natural and supernatural creatures. Together, they invaded Ceylon, destroyed Ravana’s army, killed Ravana, and rescued Sita.

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“Wait a minute!” Justus exclaimed. “Is that all you have to say about the war? You are dismissing great struggles of both Rama and Ravana as though they were worthless! There were brave and courageous deeds to be retold! What way to tell a story is that?”

“I am not telling this story to extol the fighting abilities of a demon,” Gus replied.

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8. Rama the King

File:Sita Mughal ca1600.jpg
Sita in the fire ordeal
Artist unknown, ca 1600

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Chapter 8

Rama the King

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“Well, Rama had an unfair advantage,” Justus Fowler said. “So there is no special honor in his actions or reason to extol his successes.”

“How so?” Gus Altmann asked.

“He was a god. Presumably he could just ‘snap his fingers,’ or ‘wave his hand,’ say some magic incantation, and get what he wanted.”

“Actually, Just, that is part of the difference between a god and a demon. When he is acting for himself, a god incarnate as a human acts as a human being. He relies on the skill he has developed, the knowledge he has learned, and his own hard-won wisdom. He can fail, as I said earlier, just as any human being can. A demon, by contrast, does whatever it takes to achieve his ends.”

“So why did Rama win?”

“Because Ravana was in the wrong.”

“I don’t understand that at all.”

“Rama and Ravana were both highly skilled in all sorts of arts, physical and arcane. When Ravana tried using magic, he was properly countered by magic. The two were pretty evenly matched in many ways, except that Ravana was in the wrong. When all else is equal, what is wrong fails. It does this because it is wrong.”

“So the right always wins,” Justus said sarcastically.

“All else being equal, which it often is not.”

“And Rama won because he was right.”

“Yes, but that was not the end of his troubles. The evil results of Sita’s kidnapping unfolded for years. In fact, some still remain, unresolved, today.”

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Rama rescued Sita with the help of multitudes. And they returned to Ayodhya. They were welcomed by Bharata, Rama’s brother, who had ruled for fourteen years as his regent.

Rama and Sita were crowned king and queen. They sat enthroned, and the country prospered, just as it once had, when they had lived there in earlier times. Once again, Ayodhya felt like a magical kingdom.

Despite the prosperity and happiness of nearly all of the people, there were those who wished to stir trouble. They whispered and spoke, sowing discontent. They fulminated against Sita, pretending to be righteous and questioning her innocence. They professed that they did not believe she could have been faithful to Rama, while she lived for a year in the household of Ravana.

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“They wanted to avenge the death of Ravana,” Dora said. “They were demons, too.”

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Very quickly, the people of the land began to act discontented. Hearing of this, Rama decided to go out among them himself. He took on the appearance of a worker, the sort of man who would go from place to place looking for whatever employment he could find.

As he walked through the streets, he could hear whisperings. They spoke of the faithlessness of Sita. They came not just from the windows of buildings or people passing by, but from the breezes and the leaves they rustled. They came from a brook and from the grain in the fields. It was as though all nature was trying to express one truthless idea, and the one idea was a lie about the woman he loved.

He called Rudra, the god of wind and storm, to find what was behind the lies. That god told him, indeed, it was demons. They kept themselves invisible, and their voices expressed in words that sounded as the sounds of nature. They imitated nature to spread deception.

Rudra told Rama to go to the river Sarayu, which ran through the city, to learn the truth. There, Rama heard a laundry man rejecting the entreaties of his weeping wife. “King Rama may not have the courage to reject a cheating woman, but I will have nothing to do with you!” The woman protested her innocence, but in a day ruled by division and hate, she was cast off.

So it is, Rudra said, everywhere the wind blows. And so, he said, it shall be, until the voices are stopped and the minds of the people were put to rest.

Rama called Bharata, the brother who had been his faithful regent, for advice. Bharata said he had never seen such discontent in Ayodhya, and he did not know how to counter it. He suggested that if perhaps Sita could convince the people of her innocence, the rumors could be silenced.

Rama called Lakshmana, his brother who had lived so long with him and Sita, for advice. Lakshmana said that Sita was both strong and wise. She was the object of the slander, and she should be consulted. She would know what she could do.

When Rama told Sita about the problem, her reaction was decisive. Outraged at the falsehood and the cruel cowardice of the attack, she told Rama at once that she would undergo the fire ordeal.

Rama was horrified. The fire ordeal, Agni Pariksha, came in different forms. One had a person mount a funeral pyre while mantras asked Agni, the god of fire, to protect the innocent. The fire was lit, and if the person survived, innocence was considered proven.

Sita chose a form of the fire ordeal in which a ring of fire like the walls of a tunnel was formed around a path big enough for a person to walk through. In this way, she would prove her innocence. Rama was not satisfied, but very reluctantly agreed to allow this because Sita was absolutely, indignantly adamant.

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“I thought Rama insisted on the ordeal,” Justus said.

Grace MacDougal answered him. “Rama was really upset about the whole idea,” she said. “He believed that by allowing the practice, he would be giving it a sort of sanction in the eyes of the people. He knew that Sita would be able to go through the it without harm, because he knew her strength and innocence. But he knew that other people would die in such an ordeal if it were used much.”

“The truth is, he trusted Sita.” August was speaking. “He knew her innocence, and he knew her wisdom. He allowed the ordeal to proceed, because he trusted her judgment. But he was not happy about it.”

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The fire tunnel was set up. The smoky fire was lighted, before a large crowd of people. Prayers were said, and all looked at its exit.

Sita’s emergence from the fire had a magical effect on the people. And even those who had been most disparaging of her broke into cheers and applause when she appeared. She was wearing a jeweled blue gown trimmed with gold, and she stepped out of the fire unhurt, unsoiled, and immaculate. She was stunningly beautiful, and all rejoiced. Peace and order returned to Ayodhya.

But peace and order did not last. The voices were stopped for a while, but it was only for a few short months. And this put Rama into a dilemma.

When he was married, Rama had promised Sita that he would be the best husband he could be, and that was a promise he meant to keep. But he had also promised the people of Ayodhya, when he was crowned, that he would be the best king he could be. Knowing that the people were likely to go into rebellion if he kept Sita, he had to act. Weighing his options, he decided to send Sita away, back to the ashrams where they lived in the time of their exile.

Sita was not happy about this. It was not that she minded going to the ashrams, forgoing the pleasures of royal life in a cultured city. She did not want be separated from Rama again, and the fact that the separation was of his doing made her feel abandoned. Nevertheless, she went to the forest to live.

Immediately, the demons felt that they had won. There was no need to keep working on this particular evil, and so they went away. The voices of dissent fell silent. The people were no longer dissatisfied.

The kingdom returned to peace. But there was no peace for Rama.

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“No peace?” It was Annie Altmann, who had come out to find out what Gus was doing. “That’s putting it a little mildly. He cracked his gourd!”

“Hi Annie. Get a beer and join us. I’m telling Justus here the story of Rama.”

“Ah! I was wondering when you would get around to that. All these years!”

Annie was the daughter of a Scottish Presbyterian minister who she had not seen since she was about five years old. His absence was contrasted by the care of her Pawnee mother, who raised her. She spoke as she thought. She also never got over feeling abandoned by her father.

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Rama was faced with the dilemma of whether to be true to his wedding vows or his royal vows. In his view, he could not do both.

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“He was a god, but he could not make up his mind.” Justus was again being sarcastic.

“He could not see the right and wrong of the situation, Just. And he could not make sense of its complexities. It was monumentally important to him, and he failed to find a solution. It is possible that no solution existed.”

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It was clear to Rama that the people would not allow Sita to return. If she came back, so would the voices against her. Eventually, that would have led to rebellion. People would die, the peace would be destroyed, and only the demons would think themselves happy.

The people pressed Rama to take another wife, but he could not do that. He had promised Sita that she would be the only woman in his life, and he was true to his word. It was not just that he had made a promise. He really loved only her. When the people pointed out that he needed a queen consort for an important religious ceremony, he had a statue made of Sita, covered with gold leaf, and had that image perform Sita’s part.

In the end, it was clear to everyone that he was gradually losing his mind. He was the avatar of the great god Vishnu, the god for whom, some people said, this world was made. But he found joy in nothing.

He was alone for a long time. For sixteen years, his advisers tried one thing after another. Their last attempt came when they decided some exercise would do him good, and they took him hunting. In the woods, not far from the ashram Sita had been living in, Rama found a boy who looked very like Sita.

Rama wanted to find out who the boy was, and so they talked. But before he could learn anything, another boy joined them. That boy looked exactly like Rama did when he was young. The first boy said the second was his twin brother.

Rama asked who their mother was. When the boys said, “She is called Sita,” he felt faint.

At just that moment, Sita herself appeared. When she saw Rama, she started to weep. “Take me back with you!” she pleaded. When Rama said he could not, Sita, overwhelmed by grief, fell to the earth and died.

An extremely sad Rama took his sons back to Ayodhya. He made arrangements for succession, passing the government to the next king. And having done that, a job taking about two weeks, he died also. He felt, as he died, a sense that he had been utterly defeated.

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“So he failed,” Justus said.

“Certainly, he failed to do what he had come to do, which was to stop a plague of little wars that had been going on for centuries.”

“Even though he was a god – he failed despite the fact that he was a god.”

“He was human. He felt as a human and thought as a human. He had to deal with the human condition, and so he had to be subject to human failures.”

“Perhaps,” Annie said as she sat down on the porch, “You should tell Justus what the difference is between gods and demons.”

“Yes. A god tries to act for the good of all. Sometimes he fails. A demon, by contrast, acts for his own good, which means that he always fails in the end, because he has to live with the results of his own misdeeds.”

Justus asked, “And Rama failed because he was unable to deal with the voices of invisible demons who spread lies?”

“No, Rama failed because he by sending Sita away, he was not the best husband he could be, and by allowing himself to be overcome by grief, he was not being the best king he could be.”

“So what should he have done?”

“Bharata would have been a much better king than Rama as he was in his misery. Perhaps he should have abdicated and gone to live with Sita in the ashram.”

Gus went on, “No hero can exist without the possibility of failure. And so all heroes fail, sooner or later, because they can. For Rama, some failure was part of the job.

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