Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Ramcharitmanas

(from a talk I delivered recently -- better heard than read, of course.)

It has been said that you cannot truly understand the people of northern India unless
also have some understanding of their national spiritual epic, "The Ramayana."
The name,
"The Ramayana" means
"The Way of Ram." But who is Ram?
Well, then -- I would add that you cannot understand the Ramayana without some modicum of
understanding of the Hindu pantheon... so here it is in the briefest of nutshells (show "graph" and explain briefly). Now that you understand that, it also helps to understand that the Ramayana is but one of a number of sacred scriptures. There are other, far older scriptures such as the Rig-Veda, which approach the spirituality of the Hindu through Wisdom... But the quickest way to know God is through Love, and the most honeyed text of Love is the Ramayana.

Especially a particular version of the Ramayana. In the 15th Century, when Shakespeare was penning his masterpieces, the lyrical poet, Tulsidas was busy creating his masterpieces. The most famous is his "Sri Ramcharitmanas" which translates: "The Manas Lake Brimming Over With the Exploits of Sri Rama." It is THIS version that lakhs and crores of Hindus (100s and 1000s, to you) have memorized, many sing it in its entirety every Saturday.... And then again, every Tuesday, many sing their favorite chapter, known as "The Sundarakand" -- "The Beautiful Story." They love to do so, because as a meditation, this book can transport you to higher realms of consciousness.

Tulsidas himself SAYS so in the final paragraph of this epic book. You've heard this once already this morning: "This translation has been rendered into the common tongue by Tulsidas for dispersing the gloom of the heart. This glorious, holy, purifying, blessed, and most limpid lake of Ram's exploits ever begets happiness; nay, it bestows both wisdom and devotion, wipes out delusion, infatuation and impurity, and is brimful with the water of Love. Those who devoutly take a plunge into it are never scorched with the burning rays of the sun of worldly illusion."

It is this book, on one delightful day, that my own guru handed out to each and every westerner then seated at his feet. (Hold up my tattered Ramcharitmanas....) Before that, I knew NOTHING of this book. Shortly after receiving my copy I got a small taste of the power of the book. I was on a train, third class, women's car, and had the book in my lap. Sitting across from me, were three wizened "grandmothers", as sweet and gentle as warm honey. Our knees pressed against each others' across the narrow space.

Spying my Ramayana, one grandmother asked to look at it. She flipped through the pages and found, in the Hindi text section, a favorite passage. She and her companions offered to sing it to me. She passed the book back, and showed me where to follow along in English. You had to be there, of course, but the atmosphere became charged with light, and the meaning of the words took form as they sang praises to the dust of the feet of the guru. It begins in this way:

"I greet the pollen-like dust of the lotus feet of my preceptor, refulgent, fragrant and flavoured with love. It is a lovely powder of the life-giving herb, which allays the host of all the attendant ills of mundane existence... It rubs the dirt off the beautiful mirror in the shape of the devotee's heart. When (this dust) is applied to the forehead it attracts a host of virtues. .."

Once I began reading this book myself, I was delighted by Tulsidas' disclaimer of his own skill as a writer... Here is but a taste of it: "...recognizing the entire creation as full of Sita and Rama, I make obeisance to them with joined palms. ... I have no confidence in my intellectual power, hence I supplicate you all. ....(For herein, I dare to) recount the virtues of Sri Rama. But my wits are poor, whereas the exploits of Sri Ram are unfathomable. ... my intellect is exceedingly mean, my ambition is pitched too high. (Of those who are ) slaves of the flesh, anger and passion, and who are unscrupulous, hypocritical and foremost among intriguers --I occupy the first place among them. (...) I am no poet, nor an adept in the art of speech. (... ) There are elegant devices of letters, subtleties of meaning, various figures of speech, metrical compositions of different kinds, infinite varieties of emotions and sentiments and multifarious flaws and excellences of poetic composition. Of these details of poesy, I possess critical knowledge of none. My composition is devoid of all charm; it has only one merit, which is known throughout the world. ... It contains the gracious name of... Ram."

Despite this elegant denial, "The Ramcharitmanas" is a pleasure to read, just to absorb the exquisite skill of the poet as he takes off on highly descriptive sidepaths, as he wanders into philosophical and spiritual realms. Furthermore, it is a rich compendium of the Hindu culture. This book contains numerous stories-within-the-story, which explain the background and history of the various characters and events. Each of these stories is filled with humor, pathos and wonder.

For the sheer mischief of it, may I share with you an excerpt from one of them... In this one, the world's very existence is being threatened by an all-powerful demon, and it has been said that only the son of Shiva can conquer this demon. Unfortunately, Shiva is childless, celibate, and deep in an eons-long trance. Someone must volunteer to awaken him. The onus falls on the God of Love, who mutters to himself, "I expect no good to come to myself from this."

Love tries many tactics to awaken Shiva, all of which fail. But his most memorable attempt -- and it fails also, by the way, though I doubt any of us here would escape -- Anyway, his most memorable attempt to awaken Shiva was to set all of creation into a state of pure lust. Listen to these excerpts:

"(Love) then exhibited his power and brought the whole world under his sway -- the sway of lust. All the barriers imposed by the Vedas were swept away in a moment. The whole army of discriminating knowledge such as celibacy, religious vows, self-restraint, fortitude, piety, spiritual wisdom, and the knowledge of qualified divinity both with form and without form, morality, muttering of prayers, yoga, dispassion and so on fled in panic. They all went and hid themselves in mountain caves in the form of sacred books! Whatever creatures existed in the world, whether animate or inanimate, were completely possessed by lust. The boughs of trees bent low at the sight of creepers. Rivers in spate rushed to meet the ocean. Lakes and ponds united in love. Where such was reported to be the case with the inanimate creation, who can relate the doings of sentient beings? Beasts that walk on land and birds traversing the air and water lost all sense of time and became victims of lust. As for gods, demons, human beings, serpents, evil spirits, fiends, ghosts and vampires -- I have refrained from dwelling on the condition of these, knowing them to be the eternal slaves of passion. Even spiritual adepts, Siddhas and yogis gave up their practices under the influence of lust. (...) For nearly an hour this wonderful game of Love lasted in the universe. Shiva's unbroken trance, however, could not be disturbed."

Finally, Love DOES find a way to awaken Shiva --but at the cost of his own embodiment. Shiva dutifully fathers a son, who goes on to destroy the demon and so on..... But this background story is still simply setting the stage.
So now, on to the main text of the Ramayana. Overall, it is a simple story. There is a despotic king -- a demonic king from the south who aspires to dominate over all the three worlds: the underworld of the demons, the human realm, and the heavenly realm of the gods. He sets out to destroy all the temples, and all the holy priests, as well as capture all the pretty women including (and herein lies the kernel of the tale) -- including capturing Ram's lovely wife Sita. The demon's name is Ravana. He is intelligent, handsome, and charming when you look directly at him. But glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, he is terrifying with 10 heads and 20 arms, violent and angry. The terrified people, even the Earth herself, pray to the heavens for salvation. Lo and behold, their prayers are answered! A savior, by the name of Rama, is born -- and he does just that. With the help of a humble monkey named Hanuman, who locates the kidnapped Sita, and the help of other jungly creatures who fight the smaller demons, Ram confronts and destroys this scourge of creation, this Ravana, sets free his wife, and sets the world back on a righteous track. End of story.

Ah, but the glory is in the details! How the Hindus treasure each and every step of the way -- allegorically, romantically, spiritually... They see the essence of this story repeated continually, in their personal lives, AND they see it expanded into the flow of national and international politics. And they often speak of it. Here is one example of how The Ramcharitmanas was applied to our modern times... It is embodied in another interesting pre-story. This one gives a deeper understanding of the demonic Ravana. And it gives a far deeper understanding of the vastness of Love which permeates all Creation. It is a great story. Here is but a snapshot:

As the story goes -- Ravana, in his previous incarnation, had been a goodhearted king named Pratapabhanu. This Pratapabhanu was a spiritually advanced soul, kind and generous to his people. His only flaw was pride -- pride in how well he ruled, and thus he could not resist conquering neighboring kingdoms and imposing his rule over them. Not surprisingly, this pride led to jealousy and anger on the part of the conquered kings, and sure enough, one such king took revenge. Through an elaborate deception, he caused Pratapabhanu to be cursed by 1000 Brahmins! Oh, they cursed him! They cursed him to be reborn as the demonic scourge of creation in his next life, him and all his family! Thus this once good king became... Ravana. His only hope for salvation from this dreadful embodiment was to be conquered by the embodiment of Love, by the godhead incarnate... Enter Ram, whose arrows behead him and split his body in half... emphatically freeing him from his demonic debt. He is now free to be reborn, as a humbled spiritual adept, and continue on his path to enlightenment. Applying that birth/rebirth pattern to modern times, one Hindu friend of mine said, quite matter-of-factly, that that same reincarnation pattern was true of.... Hitler.


All of this teaching is so sweetly embedded throughout the story of Ram. So... here's a quick glance at the symbolism of a few of the characters in the epic:
For example, according to Tulsidas, Ram is the unfathomable, incomprehensible Godhead beyond words... but for now let'ss say that Ram represents our Pure Self of Noble Instincts-- that pure being within us who longs to manifest. However, we cannot easily achieve that state of awakening because our willpower, our inner strength, our pure self, our kundalini (which is Sita) is held too tightly captive, entrenched by our worldly entanglements -- the entanglements of lust, greed, anger and attachment (Ravana). It is only by deep inner resolve, calming ourselves down, humbling ourselves with some sort of regular spiritual practice that we can hope to break free (symbolized by the monkey, Hanuman, ever the humble servant). Then --and only then-- can we find the deep and stable inner peace that we seek (symbolized by the union of Sita and Rama).

Let me play with that for a bit... by looking again at the storyline,. But this time, I will add the symbolism of the characters and actions:
Here we have a world suffering under the scourge of a despotic king (that would be each of us doing the suffering, thanks to our own desires and attachments). Then, because of the passionate prayers of the people (our own longing), Vishnu incarnates as Ram (we become aware of our own spiritual potential). All looks good. Ram is slated to be crowned king -- but on the very eve of his coronation, the intrigues of jealousy break out (our desires distract us)... and Ram is instead banished to wander in the jungle for 14 years (recall our own detours along the way). As Ram sets off, his brother Lakshman and his lovely new bride Sita come running after him. They will NOT be left behind.

The journey leads them deeper and deeper into the dark jungles, closer and closer to the kingdom of the despotic and ambitious Ravana (what risks have each of us taken in our life's journey? what tempting detours?). While wandering in the jungle, there are demonic spies who have been watching the trio, and reporting back to Ravana. (this would be our personal justifications for our transgressions... lying to ourselves) Most ominously, these spies praise the beauty and purity of Sita. Ravana, who must always have the best, decides to personally kidnap Sita for his harem, which he does. (in other words, we succumb to the self-deception of pride in our accomplishments -- but there is no peace in that, and so comes the next development)

Rama (our soul), distraught with grief at the loss of Sita, and with no standing army to turn to, engages the help of the local denizens of the forest -- the humble beings around him -- the monkeys and bears, and chipmunks.
One monkey emerges from among the many -- the clever, deeply devoted, very capable and surprisingly humble Hanuman (personal spiritual practice). Ravana feels no threat whatsoever from humans and monkeys (spiritual practice! HA!)! He cannot recognize their inner strengths. Indeed, he exclaims triumphantly, "They are our FOOD!"
Thus the story goes on. You're on your own now, to make the symbolic connections.

I would like to end my talk by touching on the most beloved chapter of the entire epic, "The Sundarakand/The Beautiful Story"... and I want to highlight it. It tells of how the humble Monkey, Hanuman, finds Sita and reports back to Ram.

It is beautiful because of the antics and cleverness of Hanuman. It is beautiful because of his gentleness with Sita. It is quite delightful how Hanuman outwits the demons, even Ravana -- and how cleverly he burns down the demon's city of Lanka. And, it is beautiful because of the words he speaks to Ram, reassuring Ram that his lovely Sita is alive...

What happens next in The Sundarakand, is the moment perhaps the most highly prized by the Hindu. There is an image of this moment in stained glass in the Hanuman Temple in Taos. I have used it as the cover on my CD. And it is there, on the cover of this morning's program (and at the top of this post, btw). The image portrays this: Hearing Hanuman's report of Sita's wellbeing, Ram is overwhelmed with emotion. Tears flood from his lotus eyes. He draws Hanuman to his feet and gently enfolds him in his arms. (that moment!) Ram says: "No one, no god, no human, no sage, has done for me what you have done, o Hanuman. How can I repay you? Listen, my son. I have thought over this question, and I have concluded that the debt which I owe you for finding my beloved Sita can never be repaid...." Hanuman, utterly overwhelmed with love, falls to the ground sobbing, "Save me, save me, from the grasping tentacles of egotism!" That moment in the narrative, for the Hindu, is a show-stopper....

Then, the action picks up considerably. It is time for the battle! Ravana must be destroyed. Sita must be rescued! And few details are ignored. This is a thick book. The army of monkeys and bears -- and chipmunks -- spring into action and engage the demon forces in battle. It is not a pretty sight, and it is described in its full gore... with unholy rivers of blood, and ghouls and goblins taking their plunge in it, and dead warriors floating down it like boats, with birds perched on them... There are even heat-seeking missiles and multiple warheads. Our modern weapons are nothing new. The battle goes from the physical realm into the psychic realm of illusion, as well... In the end, as I've said earlier, the final battle comes down to one-on-one between Ravana and Ram. Ram kills Ravana and then praises him for the great -- but flawed -- king that he was. His karmic debt has now been erased.

This entire adventure, from the moment Ram was banished to this dramatic death of Ravana, by the way, has taken exactly the same 14 years for which Ram had been banished. Ram is now free to return to Ayodhya. There is, however, one controversial snag. Something about the fact that Sita had been under the roof of another man... There is an older version of the Ramayana, written by Valmiki in classical Sanskrit, which does not shy away from this snag. But our beautiful poet Tulsidas does not have the heart for it...

So, let us leave the happy couple here (we can touch upon this "snag" in the discussion afterwards).
Let's watch as they ride in their aerial chariot back to Ayodhya, Hanuman ever by their side. Let's see how ecstactically they are welcomed home to a city aglow with little votive lamps lining every roof in the city...

Let's not look -- not now -- at the ending of this story as recorded in the older Valmiki text.
Let's leave this story here... for now.