Mythology has always set context to culture, especially in the case of a country like India, which has been one of the greatest mythological, spiritual and religious canvases for a vibrant culture. Ramayana and Mahabharata are the two epics which have so mingled with the collective conscience of our people that, to this day, the ideas and values in them continue to influence our lives.
Ramayana pictures the whole gamut of life of an individual. It throws light on his/her duties and responsibilities in various roles as father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, brother, sister, friend, master, servant, teacher and so on. Valmiki presents Rama as the ideal man and Sita as the ideal woman.
The Ramayana is not just a story, but also an educational medium to demonstrate the importance of values such as loving and respecting your family, keeping your promises, protecting the weak and so on.
Why did Lakshman, who was used to all the worldly luxuries by virtue of being a prince, decide to give all of that up voluntarily to live with his elder brother for 14 years of hardship in a forest? Because he loved his brother, and could not bear the thought of having to live 14 years without him.
Differentiating between Right and Wrong
To choose right over wrong, even when wrong may feel more right, perfectly embodied by Bharat, who was awarded the honour of ruling the mighty kingdom of Ayodhya. Bharat could have just accepted the throne and the absolute power and luxury that came with it but his sense of right and wrong would not permit him to do what most others would greedily do.
The Value of a Promise
Dashrath had granted Kaikeyi two boons when she had saved his life on the battlefield. The day before Dashrath was to retire and crown his eldest son Rama as king, Kaikeyi demanded that Dashrath grant her the boons she desired as promised. Her first desire was that Rama should be exiled to the forest for fourteen years, and the second, that her son, Bharat, be crowned King in his stead. Dashrath was naturally heartbroken at the prospect of having to send his son into exile for fourteen years, but for this noble hearted clan, where honouring one’s word was the highest duty. Even when Dashrath began to falter at the prospect of actually following through on his promises due to his love for his first born, and pleaded with Rama not to leave, Rama reminded his father of the value of a promise given and left Ayodhya to keep his father’s word. When Bharat begged Rama to return to Ayodhya, Rama once again reminded Bharat that he could not, and would not, dishonour his father by breaking the promise that he had made to Kaikeyi.
Love and Respect for Parents
Rama’s insistence on keeping the promise made by his father also shows the deep love and devotion that he had for his parents. He willingly chose to spend 14 years in exile in a forest to protect his father’s much respected honour. Such was the regard, he paid to his father. Dashrath too loved his child so deeply that when Rama left for the forest, Dashrath could not bear the thought of being away from his son for 14 years and breathed his last.
Beware of Bad Counsel
Kaikeyi was fundamentally a good natured woman, but was convinced to send Rama into exile and insist on her son, Bharat, being crowned king by the venomous counsel of her maid servant, whom she considered loyal and wise. Manthara’s vicious scheming not only poisoned Kaikeyi’s mind into demanding those two appalling boons, but also ruined her life. She lost her beloved husband to heartbreak and her son Bharat, for whom she asked for those very boons, chastised her for dreadful behaviour.
Protecting the Weak
Jatayu, an aged demigod in the form of a vulture, witnessed Ravana kidnapping Sita and taking her forcefully to Lanka. Disregarding his old age, Jatayu tried to save Sita by fighting Ravana valiantly but failed. Rama and Lakshman came across him where he was breathing his last. Jatayu informed Rama about Sita’s whereabouts and Ravana’s plans before breathing his last. Moved to tears by the gallantry and courage of the aged Jatayu, Rama gave the bird its last rites, as though the bird was his father.
Aside from the above moral lessons, the short stories within the Ramayana seek to address many social issues that have chained societal growth for many years.
Lord Rama breaks many dogmatic, exploitative and prejudiced social taboos thereby setting an example for future generations of Indians – first by accepting berries at the hut of a so-called low born Shabari who was one of His ardent devotees. Similarly, when he is befriended, loved and worshipped by the vanar sena in the jungles led by Lord Hanuman, Lord Rama readily accepts their support and love. Many modern mythologists and sociologists in India now feel that the vanar sena actually represents the indigenous people of the forests who Lord Rama had befriended during the campaign against Ravana.
If that is indeed the case, then Lord Rama, in an ancient age, demonstrated the very modern and contemporary political position of not discriminating on the basis of birth or genetic features and culture – something that rings true even in the modern world with all its struggles and victories against apartheid, imperialism, colonialism, racial discrimination and caste based exploitation.