John Stavrellis talks about the idea of dharma in the Ramayana.
The ideal figures of Rama and Sita are focal points of dharma in the storyline of the Ramayana. In the actions they take, as well as in their interactions with others throughout the epic, a surprisingly forthright, warts-and-all representation of dharma emerges, as characters agonize over it, struggle to uphold it, call it into doubt, use it to bargain, or make a farce of it. One of the qualities which shows Rama and Sita to be ideal figures as man and woman is their ability to arrive at the best possible answers to the dharmic puzzles they face in situations of adversity. However, even they do not always get it right. Sometimes, they require each other’s help, or the help of the indefatigable Lakshmana. At other times, however, errors are made with disastrous consequences. As we will see, even the following of dharma itself, when overly rigid, can have baneful side effects. In this way, through the figures of Rama and Sita, readers of the Ramayana catch a glimpse of the fraught relationship between dharma, fate, the gods, and human action.
Rama often has to weigh various categories of dharma against each other in solving ethical dilemmas. The dharma of a son, a husband, and a Kshatriya must be brought into line with a more expansive and encompassing “eternal dharma” which is at once more fundamental but nevertheless presents problems of how and when to reconcile it with the more specific personal and varna-centered dharmas. One example of how Rama effectively manages these different facets of dharma in choosing how to act is provided by his interactions with characters on the ill-fated day meant for his coronation. When Rama is first confronted by Kaikeyi, his devotion to his father is evident even before he is presented with the order to leave the kingdom. As the king is too grief-stricken to speak to him, Rama asks, “How is it that today the king does not speak kindly to me?…[I]ncurring his displeasure, I cannot live even for an hour” (18). The answer for Rama is thus simple when he is actually presented with the order to depart–he must obey his father, at all costs. Kaikeyi, for her part, gives a sham dharmic quality to her selfish demands by insisting that the king and Rama obey her if they really are devoted to dharma, as they claim to be: “Long ago I rendered [the king] a great service, and he granted me two boons. I claimed them now…If you wish to establish that both you and your father are devoted to truth, let Bharata be crowned…and go away to the forest for fourteen years” (18). She thus couches her blackmail of the king in dharmic language, covering over the fact that it is precisely adharma for the younger prince to succeed his father as king while the rightful heir is still alive, as it is adharma for Rama to be kept from the duties of his varna by having to live as an ascetic in the forest. But, as is made clear in Rama’s arguments with his own mother and Lakshmana later that day, the nature of Kaikeyi’s demand and the circumstances under which the king is forced to deliver it do not negate the fact that it still amounts to a parental injunction to which he must comply.
Upon telling Kaushalya of his impending exile, Rama finds that he must justify his compliance with Kaikeyi’s order; while both she and Lakshmana admire his noble devotion to filial obedience, they have their own arguments about which aspect of dharma should prevail, and with what outcome. Initially, Kaushalya seems more concerned with her own misfortune than with Rama’s predicament; she bemoans her continued mistreatment at the hands of the king and other queens; somewhat melodramatically, she states that she has never been happy in her life (19). She then tries to use dharma as a bargaining chip to get Rama to refuse Kaikeyi’s demands, become king and ensure her future happiness. “If, as you say, you are devoted to dharma, then it is your duty to stay here and serve me, your mother. I, as your mother, am as much worthy of your devotion and service as your father is: and I do not give you permission to go to the forest” (19). Not only does Kaushalya’s argument further complicate Rama’s ethical dilemma, but it is followed by Kaushalya’s double threat that if he disobeys her, she will commit suicide and he will suffer in hell. Again we see Rama’s devotion to dharma used as a means of coercion through its being called into question: If you are really devoted to dharma, then do X.
Rama’s response is that he is not only fulfilling his father’s promise, but also following the example of his venerated ancestors in the Iksvakus lineage by doing so, thereby garnering fame and paradise in the afterlife (20). He thus implies that to follow the tradition of his lineage and obey his father all at once would do more to preserve dharma than only obeying his mother’s (decidedly self-centered) wish by itself. Lakshmana takes a different approach, questioning Rama’s abilities as a statesman and Kshatriya; for the good of the kingdom and to uphold his own rightful claim to the throne, it would be dharmically permissible for a Kshatriya to overthrow his senile and infatuated father (19). The solution Rama gives to Lakshmana’s argument is that following one’s father’s wishes takes precedence even over the requirements of dharma as a Kshatriya, namely, to be a good statesman and a valiant warrior. To obey one’s father is dharma of a higher order; Rama appeals to the eternal dharma common to all in refuting Lakshmana’s argument. Furthermore, as he makes clear, if he were to reclaim the throne, particularly through violent means, he could be accused of doing so only for the purpose of seizing wealth and pleasure (20). However, though he might successfully show why he is still justified in leaving the kingdom as the best way to preserve dharma in spite of ethical complications, he does not fully and directly lay to rest the issues brought up by Kaushalya and Lakshmana. Indeed, acknowledging that obeying one’s father trumps all else, does not do away with the underlying questions and tensions raised by their protests. For example, Rama can later be seen showing regret at being separated from his parents and viewing the exile as a misfortune caused by his evil deeds in a past life (40). No matter how clear the choice to obey his father may be at the time of Rama’s departure, the underlying tensions are still there to stab at him later on, especially with Sita’s abduction.