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Dharmic dilemmas in the Ramayana

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Lastly, the problematic role that the will of the gods plays in the epic, deserves mention, particularly in relation to the working of dharma.  It is not entirely clear how much of the plot has been predestined by divine will.  We may be rightly shocked, however, when, at the moment of Sita’s abduction by Ravana, “The Creator, the gods and the celestials who witnessed this, exclaimed: ‘Bravo, our purpose is surely accomplished.’  Even the sages of Dandaka forest inwardly felt happy at the thought, ‘Now that Sita has been touched by this wicked demon, the end of Ravana and all the demons is near’”(35-36).  How are we to make sense of the gods and sages delighting at the suffering of Sita, or for their delighting in what is patently adharma?  Had it been their (and Vishnu’s) plan all along to have her kidnapped or otherwise assaulted?  In any event, it would seem that even the gods are troubled by the turns their machinations have taken when Sita continues to contemplate suicide in the Ashoka grove.  Indra appears to her out of concern, consoles her, and gives her heavenly ambrosia so she can survive.  What of the innocent citizens of Lanka who die as a result of the gods plot to get rid of Ravana?  Was his having turned demonic in the first place also part of their plan?  It certainly would appear that way in the poignant scene where Vibhishana speaks to the corpse of his dead brother: “[I]t is surely not because you did what you liked, because you were driven by lust, that you lie dead now: God’s will makes people do diverse deeds.  He who is killed by the divine will dies.  No one can flout the divine will, and no one can buy the divine will nor bribe it” (69).

In summary, this paper has sought to demonstrate how the Ramayana, through its ideal hero and heroine, reveals the inherent difficulty of living the dharmic life.  They are ideal because, more than any other character in the epic, they are champions of dharma.  They seek to preserve it in their actions, and strive to reach at the most dharmically sound option even in the most hazy of ethical dilemmas.  That they get it wrong, and that their failings have terrible circumstances, should only communicate to less-than-ideal readers the very human difficulty of always trying to do the right thing.


[1] Might we take this statement of Rama’s as a retort to Kaikeyi? “I am devoted to truth.  Even if father had not commanded me, and you had asked me to go to the forest I would have done so!” (19).  Here, Rama is declaring his dispassion for wealth and pleasure, but this can also be seen as a veiled statement to Kaikeyi that she need not have  blackmailed the king and cruelly misused her boons to achieve her ends.

[2] The question of how Rama or Sita can repeatedly blame their hardships on past bad karma while at the same time being incarnations if Vishnu and Lakshmi is indeed a difficult but fascinating one.

[3] Various characters threaten suicide at a number of points throughout the epic; the use of suicide as a concept and as a device in the Ramayana is a significant topic which space unfortunately does not allow me to treat in any depth here.

[4] One might say in Rama’s defense that he is bewitched, but that presents the problem of how an at least semi-divine figure like himself can be bewitched by a lesser creature in the first place.

All quotations are from Swami Venkatesananda’s translation, (1988) The Concise Ramayana of Valmiki, SUNY Press: New York.

John Stavrellis is a doctoral student in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After completing a master’s degree in Buddhist Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies in 2006, he enrolled at UW-Madison to continue his study of Pali, Sanskrit, and Hindi. The MA thesis he completed in 2009 dealt with the efforts of one untouchable intellectual, Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu, at “rediscovering” and popularizing a shared libratory Buddhist identity and social history for untouchables through pamphleteering in the 1940s. John’s doctoral research seeks to assemble a comprehensive history of how marginalization of particular castes, tribes, and religious groups was encoded into classical and medieval Hindu law, and the impact Hindu law had on British colonial law dealing with the same or similar communities.


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