Told and retold over two and a half millennia, the story of the Ramayana, or of Rama's struggle for the dharma, is masterfully described in various books and is known to all Hindus, as well to many other individuals, the world over. Through an inspiring cast of characters such as Rama, his wife Sita, the king, the monkey leader, Rama's brother, and others, the search for, and importance of, the Dharma is manifestly depicted. All great narratives contain conflict, and the conflict, in this case, is the agony and sacrifice that attainment of the Dharma involves. The Dharma, as understood in Hinduism necessitates a persistent attempt for truthfulness and obedience that is founded on order and that guarantees stability and endurance of creation (Knott, 16). Each has his or her own dharma regulated according to the specific class, or status, that he or she occupies. In the Ramayana, we see the concept of the dharma played out by the various characters, specifically Rama, Sita, Lakshamana, and the father each in his or her way. The following essay precedes by a concise retelling of the Ramayana before noting how the various characters, in particular Rama and Sita, chose to obey their dharma and were, ultimately, praised and condoned for their sacrifice. It is no wonder; therefore, that the story of Rama endures as story of inspiration since it serves as work of exemplars, which people in distress and times of challenge can follow. Rama stoically and dispassionately endures tremendous hardships whilst Sita serves as the model for the dutiful Hindu woman and wife. This is one of the reasons that the Ramayana had become so enduring and memorable. It helps many a person through tough times, challenging him or her to seek the dharma, or the good.
The Ramayana appears in various versions, but the most widely known Ramayana story is the one attributed to Valmiki and transmitted to him by the sage Narada, although there are countless other written and oral versions that differ in both major and minor aspects. The varying stories focus on varying characters: most on Rama himself, other on Sita, and still others on the demon Ravana. Some show the demon evil, misguided, scheming, and cunning, whilst others show Ravana as an able, strong, brave, misunderstood, character; he may even be an anti-rebel (Amar Chitra Katha, 54).
Dasharatha, the king of Ayodhya, due to his plentiful sacrificing to the gods, had several sons who were born to his three wives. Rama, the oldest and beloved by the citizens of Ayodhya, was intended to succeed Dasharatha as king. Kaikeyi, Rama's stepmother, however, feared for her life and, wishing to see her son, Bharata, installed as king, managed to exact a promise from Dasharatha that Rama be exiled to the forest and that Bharata replace him as ruler. Sita, his wife, attracted to and courted by Rama in a show of strength, accompanies him as does Lakshmana, his loyal younger brother. Bharta follows him shortly thereafter pleading with him to return, but Rama will not break his vow.
Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana meet various interesting ascetic inhabitants and animals in the beautiful forest as well as legions of the devils (Rakshasas) who stalk the forest in search of mischief and, after a period of wandering, finally settle in a hermitage. There they are discovered by the sister of the demon Ravana, who attempts to kill Sita and to entice Rama. Wounded by Lakshmana, the sister hurries to Ravana, who is ruler of Lanka (now Ceylon, or Sri Lanka), and told him what had occurred. Ravana, determined to capture Sita since he is enraptured by her beauty, disguises himself as a holy man, and carries Sita to his city in Lanka. Shortly thereafter, the divine monkey Hanuman finds Sita whilst Rama and his troop of thousands of monkeys destroy Ravana and return with Sita. Reluctant to accept Sita because of her time in Ravana's household, Rama makes her go through an ordeal by fire in order to persuade Rama of her virtue.
Upon their return to Ayodha, Rama becomes king but since rumors continue regarding Sita's chastity, Rama unwillingly banishes her. She lives in the forest and gives birth to Rama's twin sons, Kusa and Lava (who are later taken care of by Valmiki, the author of this story) and later leaves the world disappearing into the earth from whence she came. Rama, grieving, then ascends into the heavens with his followers.
Dharma and the Ramayana
Dharma is known as uprightness, order, law, duty, and truth.
The concept of dharma is seen various times throughout the story in various forms. In Hinduism, each has his or her own dharma regulated according to the specific class, or status, that he or she occupies. People are expected to follow their own dharma according to their varan (social class), and stage of life (ashrama) -- thus the terms 'varan-ashrama-dharama'. For all individuals, regardless of station, exist the overarching obligations of the dharma of the maintenance of order in the world and the relationship between humanity and the gods (Knott, 51).
In the Ramayana, we see the concept of the dharma played out by the various characters, specifically Rama, Sita, Lakshamana, and the father each in his or her way.
The father reluctantly expels Rama. His dharma tells him to do so. He whispers to his son that he has had to keep his promises but that his child can consider him insane and depose him if he wishes. In turn, his son asserts: "I will never make your lose your faith or honesty.. I will go out today from Ayodhya for fourteen years" (Buck, 71), and he says to Kaikeuyi " Dasharatha never takes back, never fails to carry out what he has once spoken. Mother, I am like my father. Trust me, have no fear.' (ibid.).
Likewise, Sita is obedient throughout, even though her reputation is at stake and even though she is innocent to the end. Nonetheless, she reluctantly and obediently follows Rama's missives. Rama, yielding to his duty as king (here, too, is dharma), reluctantly banishes Sita. Lakshamana, too, acts as loyal and dutiful younger brother fulfilling his dharma in his unique manner. Each follows his or her particular duty to ensure their belief of the right ordering of society, and in this there is not one but many conflicts, for each dharma is a conflict in itself. It is just this point that Lakshmana attempts to articulate to Rama when he tells him to leave Sita alone by herself in the forest:
Rama, since we were young children, I followed you; now I will still serve you. For right and wrong are very subtle and hard to tell apart, and the Dharma law is difficult to know -- and it is inconceivable to me that I shall ever willingly disobey you, Rama." (Buck, 392)
For Sita, as it was for Rama, it was not easy for either to, in turn, banish or be banished from the other, particularly after their mutual ordeals. Neither could it have been easy for the king to banish his beloved son and to hand his throne over to the stepbrother. Bharata is to be commended for seeking Rama out and for attempting to restore the throne to the rightful owner, and when unable to for insistently reigning as regent rather than as king.
Throughout, good order is founded on truthfulness and obedience. Dasharatha must not break the vow made to his wife, and neither does Rama break the vow made to his father. This is Rama's realm, as it is his father's. As he tells his father:
Every broken promise breaks away a little dharma and every break of dharma brings closer the day the worlds too must break apart. When Dharma is altogether gone, the three worlds will end; they will be destroyed once more. If a man breaks his word, why should the stars above keep their promises not to fall? Why should Fire not burn us all or Ocean not leap his shores and drown us?" (Buck, 80)
Sita has a different dharma to fulfill. Hers is of the dutiful daughter and obedient wife. She fulfills her dharma by following Rama into the forest, by demonstrating chastity in Ravana's palace, and by acceding to Rama's decree of expulsion later on. Sumantra the charioteer tells Sita that he has bad news to give her: "Rama will live alone from now on apart from you" (Buck, 394). Sita weeps. Says Sumantra:
All the universe is but a sign to be read rightly; colors and forms are only put here to speak to us; and all is spirit, there is nothing else in existence.. Let us not grow old still believing that truth is what the most people see around them.." (ibid.)
People may treat us unjustly, but we have dharma, a certain obligation to do right in the world.