The “Heroic” dilemma

Off-late there is a trend that seeks to undermine Ram and hype Ravan. Ram is being portrayed as patriarchal and misogynist, not worth a Hero’s salt. To be clear, it is not the undermining that is the problem, but the lack of nuance in critiquing is.

Societies are defined by the Heroes they look up to. These Heroes cannot be/ should not be beyond critical enquiry. As the social ethos changes, Heroes have to be put through the critical gaze to examine their relevance. Be it Ram, be it Krishna, be it Jesus or Mohammad or any other historical figure, they all have to go through the agni pareeksha periodically. This also helps a society redefine and recalibrate its value systems. But to ensure this recalibration is forward looking and beneficial for social sustenance, it is also essential to ensure right parameters and paradigms are put in place.

Take for example this line of thinking heard often

Ram left innocent pregnant Sita => Ram is a misogynist and a BAD husband => Ram is anti-Hero.
Ravan took revenge of the unjust done to his Sister, but ONLY kidnapped did not rape Sita => Ravan loved his sister, Ravan did not force himself on Sita => Ravan is a hero

The flaw here is not so difficult to spot, but somehow to our increasingly binary logic, nuances have become elusive. Ram is not just Sita’s husband, Ram is a king. Ravan is not just Shurpanakha’s brother, Ravan is also a king. So when we analyze the two, even if from a contemporary view point, some questions should naturally follow –

  • What is a King’s or an Administrator’s Dharma?
  • When faced with a tradeoff between personal desires, familial obligations and social responsibilities, how and what should an administrator prioritize? (Husband vs. King, Brother vs. King).
  • What do WE expect from OUR Head of State in a situation like this – where being just to a personal/familial matter may undermine his/her work amongst the subjects?
  • What is a brother’s Dharma – is it about fulfilling every desire of his sibling or overall wellbeing of the sibling which includes not entertaining them when the desires are socially unacceptable?

These questions HAVE to be delved upon, not for Ram or Ravan. But for our own sake, for making our own decisions in life and defining our social priorities.

Here I am not even getting into veracity of the Ram abandons Sita story. Neither am I getting into the overall aspects of personality and relationship between Ram and Sita. Ideally, any honest analysis would take into account overall context including past and present behavior, not just a single event in isolation. So if one analysed Ram’s behaviour towards Sita, one would see that he was indeed a very good husband.

Just to fulfil Sita’s desire, he went out to hunt the golden deer, against his own wish. Their time in the forest, is one of the best love stories of ancient times. He did whatever he could to find Sita, to the extent of fighting a war with one of the mightiest kings of those days, without any sophisticated army at his disposal. His own father had 3 wives, so there was no need for Ram to stay with a single wife. Especially after he let go off her (the incident used to portray him as a misogynist), he could have very well re-married. He didn’t. At a time when he polygamy was a norm, he chose to remain loyal and committed to just Sita. By this, he also showed that he may have let her go per the wishes of the citizens, but he trusted her. Even though he let go off her, he didn’t give up on her.  He gave up all the luxuries of the palace because he couldn’t revel in those which his wife didn’t have.  But when it came to choosing between being a good husband and a good king, he chose to be the ideal king, who is beyond reproach. A king in the Ramayana era was venerated as God himself.

Ravan on the other hand, kidnapped someone else’s wife and desired her. And this wasn’t the first time, he had previously violated his brother Kuber’s to be daughter in law Rambha and was cursed that if he violated any other woman against her wishes, he would be destroyed. That was perhaps the reason why Ravan did not outright violate Sita. Quite far from feminism’s Hero, isn’t it? However, my interest here is not to arrive at any conclusion defending one or the other, rather to seek to ask the right questions for analyzing an action, and a person.

Also worth noting is that Ravan is not the anti-thesis of Ram. It is not a play of God and Satan where one is 100% Good and the antagonist 100% Bad. Good to bad is a spectrum and all personalities lie somewhere along the spectrum. The end points of the spectrum too are context dependent and not absolute. How else can it be that even today amongst the most chanted stuti of Shiva is the one authored by Ravan – the Shiv Tandav strotra. The same can be said about Duryodhan. He was a charitable man. On the other hand, Yudhisthir who was said to be Dharma personified loved to gamble, an interest that eventually became the cause of Pandavas exile.

So if there are no perfect human beings, who do we look up to and who do we call our Heroes?

The answer to the same is found in Mahabharata itself. And interestingly, the words are spoken by Duryodhan. This happens when Krishna, in his last ditch effort to prevent the war tries to put sense into Duryodhan and asks him to be fair. Duryodhan gives an interesting reply.

He says “जानामि धर्मं मे प्रवृत्तिः, जानामि अधर्मं मे निवृत्तिः।” I know what is Dharma, but I cannot get myself to engage in that. I know what is A-dharma but I can’t give it up.

The statement hit me hard the first time I heard it and since then it has stayed with me. I believe all of us are innately and intiutively aware of Dharma. In a given situation, we usually know what is the right thing to do and the right path to take (in sync with our capacity and ability). Dharma implies that which will sustain and perpetuate the society over an extended period of time. In a way, Dharma is the survival instinct of the aggregate humanity. But this instinct is more often than not clouded by short term desires, attachments, impulses and mental conditioning (or what Rishi Patanjali calls “Vrittis”) leading to conflict in “Should do vs. Want to do”. To overcome this conflict and act per Dharma  needs vision, clear thinking, courage, drive and discipline. (Thus, the focus of Yoga on cleansing of all mental conditioning to gain clarity in perception and see the “truth” – Tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam)

The questions then is, in absence of any absolute, how do we define and demarcate “a society”? Duryodhan might have been a hero for his siblings as Osama bin laden may have been for his co-religionists. One may say, they too fighting for the survival and perpetuation of their respective “societies”, a family after all is a microcosm of society, so is a community. But “were they, objectively speaking”, is the question to be asked. In case of Duryodhan we do know, it led to the end of his clan and about Osama, not sure his idelogy is helping survival, even of his so called “brethren”.

Duryodhan’s intent was not upliftment of his brethren, it was causing the downfall of his cousins. Had it been just the former, he would have been happy with Hastinapur and let Pandavas have their Indraprastha.  Osama was not fighting to uplift his community, he was rather bent on destroying the “other”.

Hence, it really doesn’t matter how you slice and dice to define a society. What matters is the cause one is trying to uphold and whether that cause will help sustain or will it destroy. The questions aren’t easy and answers can be deluding. Cutting through these delusions to internalise Dharma and being able to act unto it – Therein lies the essence of Hero-ism.

ॐ शान्तिः ||


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