Thoughts on the Ramayana

I’ve been rereading the Ramayana to prepare for my session teaching myth and archetypes to a teacher training class for Sattva Yoga. The last time I sat down with this ancient text was in graduate school, and it was fascinating to see what ideas jumped out at me now, eight years later. So much of the story of the Ramayana is about love, both appropriate and inappropriate expressions of it. At the time, I was a few months away from my wedding, and I wrote about the experiences of falling in love that Ravana and Soorpanaka have for Sita and Rama. I find it interesting that the Indians imagined the moment of falling in love so similarly to the Greeks, both feeling “pierced” by the arrows of the god of love. Ravana falls in love with Sita based on hearing a description of her image alone.

However, this time, I was struck, not by the arrows of love, but by the insights that the poem gives us into how to live a purer, more “perfect” life. Rama and Sita are held up as idealized, perfect people, but there are moments where their “humanness” gets in the way. I loved the way that Rama was able to show compassion for Ravana, observing that the prayers that Rama uses in his battle against the demon lord have burned away all the dross of his life, leaving behind only the pure soul, able to ascend into heaven after he loses his battle with Rama.

However, Rama shows more compassion for Ravana at the end of their battle than he does for Sita. When she is returned to him after Ravana is defeated, he intends to put her aside, because she must have lost her purity after having lived in Ravana’s court for so long. It is not until Sita goes to immolate herself on the fire, and the fire rejects her for being too pure, that Rama is willing to accept her back as his wife, into his heart. Troubling, and I’ll need to think more on this part of the Ramayana before I’ll really feel I have a handle on it.

One last favorite moment. 🙂 Rama helps the monkey Sugreeva, making him king of the monkeys. Rama and Sugreeva agree that, after the rainy season, Sugreeva will send an army to help Rama defeat Ravana, but Sugreeva forgets, becoming lost in the luxuries of wine and kingship. When he finds his way back to Rama, he says:

“I have failed in my duty, in my promise, lost myself in pleasures. I have betrayed the limits of the monkey mind.” (p. 124, Narayan version)

The concept of “monkey mind” itself should be the topic of another blog post of it’s own, but I love the way this illustrates how we all can lose ourselves to “monkey mind”. It reminds me that the monkeys are not in this sacred text by accident; they show us challenges that we all face in our quest for purity and holiness.


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