Rama Chandra an embodiment of supreme human values?

Illustration on the original Constitution of India portraying a scene in the Ramayana.

The praise for Rama Chandra by Congress (India’s “liberal” party) leaders following the foundation of Ram Temple in Ayodhya should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the pre BJP-in-power history of India. What many others have recognized as an unfortunate day, these “liberal” leaders are hailing as a day which will bring about national unity in India.

Ashok Gehlot, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, tweeted that Rama’s life teaches us the “importance of truth, justice, equality for all, compassion and brotherhood” and that we should “focus on establishing an egalitarian society based on the values espoused by #LordRam.” Rahul Gandhi, a top Congress Party official and potentially the PM candidate for next Union level elections, said: “Maryada Purshottam Lord Ram is the ultimate embodiment of supreme human values. He is the core of humanism embedded deep in our hearts.”

Now, there is nothing wrong in the act of celebrating past heroes (real or mythical) if they offer a solution to a problem you are facing today; you can do that as a liberal too. But, can this be done in the case of Rama Chandra? Did he actually promote, through his words and actions, the values these leaders are claiming that he did? This Article will answer that question using Valmiki’s Ramayana which is the oldest Ramayana we know of. I would be using the translation by Robert P. Goldman.

The article will not repeat the usual criticism levied upon Rama i.e. his refusal to take in his wife Sita after she was kidnapped by Ravana (despite her success in the fire ordeal that Rama claimed would establish her chastity) and his execution of the sudra (slave) Shambuka, whose only fault was that he violated the Hindu caste law. Instead, the Article will illuminate some of the lesser known aspects of Ramayana, more precisely, the nature of Rama Rajya and Rama’s wars of conquest and expansionism.

Indian leaders (both left and right wing) often speak about the idea of Rama Rajya, which is generally understood as the perfect society as existed during the time of Rama Chandra; but is this characterization accurate according to the scriptures? The best description for this perfect society lies in Chapter 6 of the First Book, Balakanda. This chapter describes the rule of King Dasaratha, who is Rama’s father. This same information in its condensed form is used to describe Rama’s rule. I am using the description of Dasaratha’s rule here because it is detailed and clear enough to drive the point I am about to make.

Dwelling in that city of Ayodhya, Kind Dasaratha ruled the earth, just as powerful Manu once ruled the world.
(Verse 1, Chapter 6, Balakanda, Valimiki Ramayana tr Robert P. Goldman)

This verse establishes the basic nature of Ram Rajya, which according to Valmiki was ruled using the Manusmriti which is the most authoritative source of the Hindu caste laws. More details are provided in the following verses.

Nowhere in Ayodhya could one find a lecher, a miser; a cruel or unlearned man, or an agnostic.
(Verse 8, Chapter 6, Balakanda, Valimiki Ramayana tr Robert P. Goldman)

The kshatriyas accepted the brahmans as their superiors, and the vaisyas were subservient to the kshatriyas. The sudras, devoted to their proper duty, served the other three classes.
(Verse 17, Chapter 6, Balakanda, Valimiki Ramayana tr Robert P. Goldman)

If you are getting some totalitarianism vibes from the mention of non-existence of “unlearned people” or “agnostics” in Verse 8, you are not alone. Verse 17 provides a short description of the Hindu caste system which consists of four birth-based castes: Brahmins (priests), Kshatrias (warriors and rulers), Vaisyas (traders) and Sudras (slaves). How do we know these are birth based? Because that is how they are described in the Manusmriti and that is also how they are described in the Ramayana.

Nor was there in Ayodhya a single brahman who did not kindle the sacred fires, sacrifice, and donate thousands in charity. Nor were there any who indulged in mixing of the social classes.
(Verse 12, Chapter 6, Balakanda, Valimiki Ramayana tr Robert P. Goldman)

Since there was no mixing of the social classes, and since mixing is apparently such a bad thing that it did not even exist in Rama Rajya, your caste can be decided by nothing other than your birth. A sudra male marries a sudra female and the children of the couple are sudra who then follow sudra occupation and this process continues forever with individuals having no opportunity for social or economic advancement. It should also be clear that the social system as described is anti-democracy and pro-slavery.

The closest we can get to Rama Rajya in the contemporary world would be something like the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea, a communist totalitarian dictatorship where your occupation is decided by the State and any free-thought or skepticism regarding the legitimacy of the State is punishable by death.

When you are an established king in the ancient world, there is peace at home, booze and meat is plentiful, and you have the best singing and dancing girls the land can offer to entertain you every night (Verses 13–15, Chapter 41, Uttarakanda), it is understandable if the thought of expanding your domain crosses your mind. I personally would not hold that against Rama but even conquest can be carried out in many different ways, some of which are more respectable and humane than others. The final book of Valmiki’s Ramayana, the Uttarkanda, among other fascinating stories recounts an incident in which Rama orders his brother to lead an army to conquer the “country of Gandharvas” which according to the tale lies in geographical proximity to the Sindhu (Indus) river in present day Pakistan. The story begins as following:

Your maternal uncle, Yudhajit, has uttered these affectionate words, great armed bull among men. Now hear them, if you please. “There is a country that lies along both banks of the Sindhu. It is the supremely beautiful kingdom of the gandharvas and it is richly endowed with fruits and roots. The thirty million heroic and immensely powerful sons of Sailusa, heavily armed gandharvas, protect that country in battle. After conquering them, great-armed Kakutstha, along with the splendid kingdom of the gandharvas, you must, with great concentration, establish two cities. No one else can accomplish this. That country is extremely beautiful. You will love it, great-armed hero”. I would not lie to you. When Raghava had heard this, he was delighted both with the great seer and with his maternal uncle. He spoke thus, “So be it!” and fixed his gaze upon Bharata.
(Verses 9–14, Chapter 90, Uttarakanda tr Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman)

Basically, a seer who here is acting as a messenger for Rama’s uncle tells him about this beautiful country which should be conquered, and the idea sounded pretty good to Rama. The terms “Kakutstha” and “Raghava” are names used to refer to Rama. Hindu epics will often have multiple names and titles that refer to the same character. Rama then assigns the task to his brother Bharata and his two sons.

[Rama:] “These two, Taksa and Puskala, are the valorous sons of Bharata. Well guarded by our maternal uncle and focused on righteousness, they will place Bharata at their head, and then, together with their troops and retinue, they will annihilate the sons of the gandharva. Then they will divide the two cities between them.”
(Verses 16–17, Chapter 90, Uttarakanda tr Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman)

As if commanded by Sakra, that army set forth from the city. It was unassailable by the gods and asuras, and it was accompanied for a long way by Raghava himself. Flesh eating creatures and enormous raksasas, thirsting for blood, shadowed Bharata. And many hosts of malignant and extremely fearsome spirits, in their thousands, lusting to devour the flesh of the gandharvas’ sons, went before the army, as did many thousands of the lions, tigers and jackals, while carrion birds circled the sky.
(Verses 21–24, Chapter 90, Uttarakanda tr Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman)

The trio (Bharata and his two sons) along with their army march for the Gandharvas. This army consists of “flesh eating” and other demonic creatures. Interestingly, this army is accompanied for a long way by Rama himself. Rama previously fought against these creatures in his effort to free Sita from Ravana, but later he had no moral qualms hiring the same creatures for his own war efforts. The following extract describes the battle that finally takes place.

Upon hearing that Bharata had come, the immensely powerful gandharvas assembled from all directions, roaring and eager to fight. Then began a tumultuous, hair-raising, and immensely terrifying battle that went on for seven nights without either side gaining the victory. Then in a rage, Bharata, Rama’s younger brother, employed Kala’s supremely terrifying divine weapon-spell, known as the samvarta against the gandharvas. Caught by Kala’s noose and torn to pieces by the samvarta, all thirty million of them were instantly annihilated on the spot by great Bharata. The gods, denizens of heaven, could not recall such a ghastly slaughter of such great warriors within the space of an instant.
(Verses 4–8, Chapter 91, Uttarakanda tr Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman)

The battle continues for seven days, but there seems to have been no decisive engagement. Having lost his patience, Bharata employs what seems to be a mythical equivalent of a modern day nuclear weapon to instantly eliminate all thirty million Gandharas. This “nuclear weapon” Samvarta might remind you of another “nuclear weapon” called the Brahma-astra mentioned in Mahabharata, another Hindu epic. Often touted by believers as a religion of peace, Hinduism has a long and deep relationship with violence, weapons of mass destruction and genocide. What is Rama’s response when he is informed of this slaughter?

When majestic Bharata had respectfully saluted great Raghava, who was like righteousness incarnate, just as Vasava might Brahma, he reported to him the great slaughter of the gandharvas, and the settlement of that region, just as they had transpired. When Raghava had heard all this; he was delighted with him.
(Verses 15–16, Chapter 91, Uttarakanda tr Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman)

The questions I would like to propose to these “liberal” Indians who are presenting Rama as the source of humanism is: what kind of a person does one have to be so that one is delighted upon hearing about a genocide of thirty million people? Is that someone you would want to be your ethical role model?

According to the tale, one of the cities established after the conquest is named Taksasila and this city stands today in reality in West Punjab, Pakistan. If it were right for Rama to mass murder the inhabitants of Gandhara and establish his rule, why would it be wrong for today’s Hindu leaders to undertake another modern military expedition today in the footsteps of Rama? Why is it wrong for the Indian State to mass murder and repress Kashmiris and others to maintain their rule in the region(s)?

I also understand that some practicing Hindus might be offended by this Article. However, to them I would like to say that I was not the one who wrote and preserved the Ramayana; I merely read it and shared it with you. If you find this material offensive, it only demonstrates that you have a stronger moral compass than that of the composer of Ramayana and its hero characters.

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