UPANISHADS AND THE RAMAYANA
Upanishadsand the Ramayana
The Upanishads and the Ramayana are two of the most famous Hindutexts that play a huge role in shaping Hindu beliefs and culture fromancient times up to now. Although these texts are different in termsof content, style, subject and approach, they tend to agree on thecore human values and priorities in life. Basically, the Upanishadscomprise a collection of texts developed from the Vedic traditionstarting from between 800-200 to the 16th century. Theyare largely concerned with understanding the sacrificial rites of theHindu and Brahman as a concept that influences the conception ofreality. The Ramayana on the other hand largely tells the story ofPrince Rama who was exiled into the wild together with his wife Sama.The story, written in 24,000 couplets between 500 BCE and 100 CE,also preaches the importance of one’s duty or the triumph of goodover evil. The two pieces to literature play an important role notonly in Hindu culture and religion but also in modern literature.
The Upanishad is accredited with forming most of the major Hinduvalues. However, the Upanishad philosophically urges individuals tosearch for higher values in life as opposed to earthly values as theyappear to human beings. The Upanishads perceives the self, also knownas
the Satya, Brahman,Aatman, Jeevaatman, Paramaatman and Purusha as the most importantvalue. The self can seek to pursue the absolute values “Sreyas”(the better course) as opposed to the “Preyas” (the pleasantcourse). Wise men are expected to pursue the absolute values (bettercourse) as opposed the pleasant course (earthly). In pursuing theabsolute values, one becomes united with the self as the ultimatevalue which is called Moksha or Mukti. Pursuing this state is amatter of choice which means that human beings control their destinythrough the choices they make. The verse clearly states
Youare what your deep, driving desire is.
Asyour desire is, so is your will.
Asyour will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.
(BrihadaranyakaUpanishad IV 4.5)
Ideally, this destiny pertains to fulfilling a given duty. Accordingto the Upanishad teachings, the sole purpose of the existence ofhuman beings on earth is to fulfill the enjoyment of the creator orGod. Thus, the duty of individuals is to facilitate the enjoyment ofGod not pursue the joys of life for one’s own gratification. Thiscan be attained through actions and thoughts. First, one mustacknowledge the existence as a soul and his physical being as amanifestation. Svetashvatara Upanishad (5.10-12) clearly indicatesthat the soul is separate from the physical being and a soul isassigned a physical body dependent on desires and karma.
Unfortunately, human beings cannot escape from their duty. The dutyto keep God happy cannot be avoided and applies even to the tiniestof creatures. The question that arises then is how does one keep Godhappy? Ideally, it is simply by following the rules conceived by manand rules of nature. Therefore, by extensions, it can be argued thatthe Upanishads preached good citizenship from the Hindus because bysimply following the rules set out by governments, they were not onlybeing on the safer side of the law but were also serving their dutyby making God happy.
The truth according to the Upanishads pertains to understanding thecosmos and their origins as well as the status of individual souls ingod’s creation and the relationship with God. This conception ofthe ultimate truth was perceived to be very important and evenpreceded other values. In essence, living in truth requires one tounderstanding his duty on earth and also focusing one’s being inthe soul rather than mind and body. This truth also relates to livingin a responsible manner in order to create order and regularity inthe world. The simple truth relates to mainly aligning one’s lifewith his soul and living to serve his duties on earth which areobligatory. The state of one’s world and life is determined by howwell one performs or ignores his duties.
This aspect of fulfilling’s one duty and obey the law is wellportrayed in the Ramayana through Rama and other characters. In thisancient tale, Rama makes it his goal to fulfill the wishes of hisfather who is prevailed upon by his second wife to hand over histhrone her son instead of Rama. Rama does not contest and obliges toa 14-year exile in the forest. Some of the villagers were notcomfortable with such an act from the king and vowed to follow himexile which he declined. When his wife was kidnapped, Rama knew itwas his duty to rescue and protect her. He thousand faced manydangers in attempts to save his wife. To him, it was his duty torescue and protect his wife.
Rama also sought to rescue his wife as an illustration of his lovefor his wife. He Cleary understood the role and place of Sita in hislife and thus he place of women in society. although most of theHindu books are dominated by men such as male gods, male authors andmale teachers, Rama and Sita’s relationship and the Ramayana ingeneral point to the importance of women in Hindu society. Severalchapters revere and praise women for the fact that they bear sons andraise them into responsible adults. One chapter of theBrihaddaranyaka Upanishad provides a long list of a lineage of fiftyteachers who all bear the names of their mothers as their last names.This clearly shows that men derive some of their greatness from theirmothers. In the case of Yajavalkya, he had deep philosophicalconversations with his wife Maitreyi. Another poem in MahabharataUpanishad also captures the many roles played by women as wives anddaughters in society and most importantly captures their intelligenceand wisdom that they have to offer to men. The verse reads:
Awife is half the man, his truest friend
Aloving wife is a perpetual spring
Ofvirtue, pleasure, wealth a faithful wife
Ishis best and in seeking heavenly bliss
Asweet speaking wife is a companion
Insolitude, a father in advice
Amother in all seasons of distress,
Arest in passing through life’s wilderness.”
The Ramayana also captures the place and desired values of women insociety.When Rama is exiled to the Forest, he insists on leaving hiswife Sita behind arguing that she was not accustomed to the hardshipsof forest life. While Sita is keen to remain subjective to herhusband, she offers her counsel to her husband and tells her that shewill be handy in offering companionship and he obliges. While in theforest, Sita is abducted by Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka. Aftershe rescues her and takes her back to the palace, Rama is forced totest her chastity after the public questions her faithfulness to Ramaduring her abduction. Sita passes the test which involves beingsubjected to fire. This alone shows how much value was attached tochastity and faithfulness of women among the Hindu.
At the same time, women were depicted as humans who could liveindependently of men. For example, Satyakama Jabala’s mother was afree woman who never committed to marriage. She had many intimatepartners during her youth and lived as single parent after conceivingSatyakama. Thus, books teaches that women should be respected asshould be perceived as people with choices but not who are naturallybound by god to men hence can be abused and mistreated. The book alsoteaches women that they can empower themselves and liveindependently.
In the process of preaching these values, the Upanishads and theRamayana carry with them literary styles. The Ramayana is written asan epic long poem. It follows a simple but powerful narration style.The various characters that shape the plot are well described interms of their traits and habits. The seven books of the Ramayana arealso illustrated in three different styles of Mewar painting.Stylistic devices are widely used in the book with similes andallegory being the most common. Again, the literary piece provides agood example of poetry writing. The work is organized into sevenbooks that comprises of 24,000 verses. The verses are written in 32-syllable meter called anustubh, a style that impacted Hindu poetryand literature.
In contrast to theRamayana, the Upanishad is written in difficult style which is alsovery obscure and hard to follow for modern readers. As a religioustext, repetition is common similar to some common modern poems. As avedic literature, the Upanishad reflects on worldviews, spiritualpreoccupations and the higher social class of the Brahmas. Thearrangement of the text varies widely mainly because the Upanishadsare meant to be chanted and not read out. The dominant stylisticdevice applied is metaphors.
The description ofcharacters and examination of their traits is also impressive. In theRamayana, the man characters are well described and given traitsnecessary to play their role in the tales. Rama is portrayed as achivalrous gentle man and a darling of the people. His good qualitiesand astute leadership skills attract hate from his step mother whohacks the plan to have him exiled by his father into the forest forfourteen years. As a good leader, Rama is very popular with thepeople and is rightly favored by the gods in vary many ways. As such,his good nature attracts the evil and is persistently put to manytests but passes them.
Sita is portrayed as a paragon virtue. She remains dedicated to herhusband through thick and thin and is fiercely loyal. While she isaccustomed to the niceties of the palace, she chooses to accompanyher husband Rama in exile for 14 years in the forest. Again, sheremains committed to her husband while in abduction as she refusesthe advances of her abductor, the demon king Ravana.
Dasaratha is theking of Ayodha and father of Rama. He is depicted as an indecisiveleader who is easily manipulated by his second wife to exile his son.The fact that he exiles his own son and the rightful heir of thethrone causes him agony and dies from this agony. His second wife,Kaikeyi, is depicted as evil and highly manipulative. She takesadvantages of the promises or boons that her husband had made her totake the throne from the rightful heir and award it to his son.
Kaikeyi evil nature is fueled by another character named Mantharaa.She is an evil maid to Kaikeyi. She is jealous of Rama and hacks aplan that poisons Kaikeyi’s mind to see her son inherit the throneand have Rama exiled. Her looks and description aptly capture thenature of her soul as she is ugly, hunch-backed and antagonisticespecially in relating with Rama.
The brief essaythus examines key Hindu text and the key influences on culture andliterature that these ancient writings have had. Therefore, theRamanyana and the Upanishads are not just relevant as religious textsbut have a lot to offer about Hindu culture and ancient literature.