David Shulman’s remarkable phrase that Rama is ‘the portrait of a consciousness hidden from itself’ provides the perfect entry point for a deeper understanding of this complex hero whose life seems to have spun out of control. Of course, Rama is an epic hero whose trials and triumphs conform to the tropes and structures of the genre in which he appears: he is a warrior who has to engage a formidable enemy in battle, he has to leave his homeland on a long journey that brings him back a changed man, he travels through parts unknown and seeks the aid of beings unlike himself to accomplish his goals. And through all of this, the hero has the special favour of the gods.
Because Rama is a hero whose story is told within a world of Hindu ideas, aspirations and constraints, his heroic tale is coloured not simply by the particular favour of Hindu gods, but bound by crucial and culturally specific referents. The hero’s battle with destiny is common to all epics, but the Ramayana and the Mahabharata further burden the quests of their heroes with boons and curses, karma and dharma. And, placing an even greater demand on the actions of the heroes, the Hindu epics layer their heroes with their own divinity. In the Mahabharata, Krishna knows he is god and reveals himself as such when the occasion demands it. In Valmiki’s tale of Rama, the question remains as to whether Rama knows he is god at all: Does he know that he is god all the time? Do flashes of his own divinity come upon him only at crucial moments? Does he know he is god only when others around him act as if he has the power to liberate them from their lives or situations? Or does he recognize himself as divine only when he is told who he is and when he listens to the story of his own life?
The Bala Kanda weaves a long and complex story around the birth of Rama and his brothers who are engendered from a gift of food proffered by a divine being that emerges out of the sacrifice that Dasharatha is performing for the birth of sons. The food ensures that Dasharatha’s queens will produce sons who are avataras and amshas of Vishnu, born on earth to vanquish the mighty rakshasa Ravana. Here, the issue of Rama’s divinity is beyond question as it is clearly stated, but how this divinity will be manifest and how it will be made known to Rama and those around him remains open to storytelling, if not to theological debate.
The argument could be made that there are two Ramayanas within the composition that is attributed to Valmiki – one which consists of the five middle books and the other which includes the Bala Kanda and the Uttara Kanda as integral parts of the story. It is also in these outer books that Valmiki himself appears as a character and a narrator of the great tale. We can reasonably suggest that the two Ramayanas tell two stories that differ on the crucial fact of Rama’s divinity and his own knowledge of it. In the story of the middle books, Rama seems not to know that he is god until the end of the war when the other gods descend to redeem Sita and tell Rama that he is Vishnu. In the story that includes the outer books, the Bala Kanda and the Uttara Kanda, the audience knows that Rama is god and it would appear that Rama knows it as well. This critical difference allows us to approach and understand the character of Rama and the nature of his deeds in very distinct ways.
In the story of Rama that is bracketed by the Bala Kanda and the Uttara Kanda, there is nothing to suggest that Rama knows he is god. In fact, it is quite to the contrary: the story opens in the Ayodhya Kanda with Dasharatha considering abdication in favour of his eldest son Rama who is ‘born from his flesh’ and at the end of the Yuddha Kanda, the gods appear after the war with the rakshasas and tell Rama that he is Vishnu when they return Sita to him. Until that point, Rama is simply an exceptional man among men. It is almost as if the return of Sita and the proof of her chastity are what Rama needs for his divinity to be realized by himself as well as by those around him. After this dramatic revelation, Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya and Rama reclaims the kingdom.
In the story of the five middle books, the fact that Rama is declared to be god at the end of the war with the rakshasas allows us to review his acts and, as we choose to examine them retrospectively in the light of his divinity, they appear transformed. The killings of Viradha and Kabandha have already been depicted as moments of liberation for the cursed creatures. But now, if Rama is divine and has a purpose on earth, we can see the mutilation of Shurpanakha as the catalyst that brings Ravana forth as he must be drawn into battle and killed for the good of the three worlds. The killing of Vali becomes another moment of divine grace where the victim is freed from the cycle of rebirth and redeath, and the rejection of Sita after the war becomes a means for the public revelation of Rama’s divinity.
However, if in the story told between the Ayodhya Kanda and the Yuddha Kanda, we take Rama to be a man struggling to overcome the obstacles in his path and in his heart, then we would be justified in seeking explanations for why he does the things he does and why he does them in the way he does. I argue elsewhere that Rama is deeply troubled by two things: his embarrassment at his father’s attachment to his young queen, and his disappointment with himself at not being able to fully live out the ascetic code which he had found so compelling during his forest exile. His discomfort with himself causes him to act or react unfairly in certain situations.
Excerpted with permission from Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish by Arshia Sattar, HarperCollins India.