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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Ramayana

The epic poem dealing with life and adventures of R€ma (whose name means “charming”), also called “Rāmacandra” (lit. “lovely moon”), identified as the 8th Incarnation (avatāra) of Viśu; the title in Sanskrit means “relating to Rāma.” It is the shorter of the two great epics of India, the longer being the MAHĀBHĀRATA; it consists of about 24,000 couplets in seven books. It is traditionally ascribed to the sage Vālmīki (whose name means “anthill”; tradition has him meditating so long ants built a hill around him) who is said to have written it in the 4th cent. BCE. It describes Rāma’s royal birth in the kattriya class in the northern kingdom of Ayodhya (modern Oudh). He was taught by the great kattriya sage Vivamitra. Learning of a svayamvāra (lit. “self-choice,” but often involving a martial contest) in Milthilā by King Janaka of his daughter Sītā (whose name means “furrow” because Janaka found her one day in a plowed field), Rāma entered the contest and strung a bow which none of the other contestants could do. Thus, he won Sītā as his wife. Later, during a pilgrimage to the western part of India, during which Rāma put his brother Lakman on the throne, the demon king of Lanka (modern Śri Lanka, called by the British Ceylon), Rāvana, disguised as a beggar, abducted Sītā and carried her away in his magic flying chariot to his palace on the island of Lanka. Rāvana’s other name was Daagr…va, literally “ten heads,” each of which was extraordinarily handsome. He had also had won from Vinu, as result of austerities, a boon of immortality, modified only to the effect that he could not be killed except by an arrow shot by God to his heart. In other words, if one cut off one his heads, it merely grew back again. (A theosophical or metaphorical interpretation of this would be that he represents pride that cannot be eliminated from one’s nature by merely getting rid of one of its manifestations.) Not wanting to ravish Sītā, he attempted first unsuccessfully to seduce her, then to frighten her with his horrible demons. She, however, remained faithful to her husband.

Sītā had dropped crumbs along the way as she was being flown to Lanka. Rāma, an incarnation of God (although he was unaware of it) followed this trail, enlisted the aid of the “monkeys” and others in South India, the chief of the army being Hanuman (lit. “having a jaw”), crossed the isthmus between India and Lanka with the aid of birds who dropped stones in the ocean, and attacked Rāvana and his army, eventually killing him with an arrow to his heart. When Rāma returned to his kingdom with his wife, the people were not sure she had remained faithful to her husband and demanded she undergo a trial by fire, which she passed successfully as a result of intervention by the gods. Some years later, the people began to question her fidelity again and she pointed to the earth, asking her “father” to vouch for her. The earth opened up and swallowed her. Rāma, disconsolate, wandered in search of her. Imagining that he saw her image in a river, he dove in and drowned. When he arrived in heaven, he found to his amazement that Rāvana was seated alongside Visnu, and was told that Rāvana had in earlier years committed a ritual fault and was given the choice of 100 incarnations as a devotee of Visnu or 10 incarnations as his opponent; not wanting to be away from Visnu any longer than necessary, he had chosen the latter course of action.

The theosophical or metaphorical interpretation of this epic, briefly, is that all forces, even those we consider evil, come from God. Thus, even pride is ultimately a divine force, just misused. Rāma represents our spiritual self (an incarnation of God), wedded to the soul (usually depicted as feminine in mythology), which must overcome pride with the help of our lower nature (symbolized as an animal nature, specifically in the form evolved from a monkey) by means of one-pointed action (arrow) to its very heart. Note also that Ayodhya is located in the north center of India, Lanka in the south center below the sub-continent and Rāma’s journey goes clockwise by way of the west, returning home by way of the east — clearly symbolizing the general pattern of involution and evolution depicted in what is termed in theosophical literature as the Three Outpourings. There is, in other words, a theosophical interpretation of this great epic.

P.S.H./R.W.B.

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