While trying to find a role model for an ideal national hero during the days when India was yet to break free of British colonial domination, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) Rabindranath Tagore found the hero of the Ramayana to be a figure that commanded universal respect over the vast expanse of the country from Kashmir in the north to the Cape Comorin in the south.
In an essay, Ramayana Katha, Tagore wrote a critique of a Bengali version of the Ramayana, Tagore had spoken of the two ancient epics of India, Ramayana and Mahabharata, as a form of history. Unlike formal histories, they did not record specific incidents. But these narratives reflected the eternal values and emotions of the country far better than any formal history. Formal history might change with the passing of times. But the joys and sorrows of the people embodied in these two epics never exhausted their appeal for subsequent generations.
Shri Ramchandra, the hero of Ramayana, was found by Rabindranath to be an ideal role model for an Indian male. He was obedient to his father to the extent that he agreed to leave the capital just on the eve of the day when King Dasaratha was going to declare him as his heir to the throne following his death. His father had promised a boon to his stepmother for having nursed him during a severe illness. The stepmother now succumbed to the evil counsels of a palace maid Manthara and demanded that her own son Bharat be made the crown prince instead of Rama. She also desired that Rama would leave the capital immediately for the forest, and this banishment order should continue for fourteen long years so that her own son might get the respite to settle down as a ruler. Rama’s immediate compliance to his father’s bidding without the slightest demur was held up by Tagore as the eternal Indian ideal for all Indian men to follow. The way his wife, Sita Devi and his loyal younger brother Lakshman accompanied him to the forest, leaving the comforts of palace life was also an exemplar for all good wives and brothers to follow. Ramchandra’s subsequent acquiescence to his subjects’ objections to his acceptance of his wife after her abduction by the demon King Ravana, despite her acquittal in the trial by fire, was also celebrated as the ideal of a ruler. Ramchandra valued his subjects’ opinions so much that he agreed to part with his wife and sent her to the hermitage of a sage deep inside the forest. This could be the best example of a rule with popular consent. Ramchandra had thus set the pattern for an ideal human being for all time to come. In Tagore’s perception, the story of the war against King Ravana pales into insignificance against these noble values exemplified in the career of Rama.
However, the appeal of Ramachandra’s character for Tagore did not get exhausted with the epitomisation of domestic and royal virtues. For him, Ramchandra’s career held the key to the entire philosophy of India’s history. Rajarshi Visvamitra’s request to King Dasaratha to take Rama to the court of King Janaka of Mithila symbolised a fresh turn to Aryan expansion. King Dasaratha’s family priest was Vasistha, a rival of the Kshatriya Raja Visvamitra, who had attained his Brahminhood through great penance despite being born a Kshatriya. Like many other Kshatriyas, Visvamitra was more open to new knowledge. He wanted Rama to learn the art of agriculture and make a beginning towards transforming the Aryas from a pastoral to an agricultural people. The Haradhanu in the court of Mithila was the symbol of this new knowledge. On their way to Mithila, they came across several incidents of disruption of Brahmic sacrifices by Rakshasas, by which the poet Valmiki had probably meant non-Aryans. Rama was said to have scared away these disruptors and ensured the uninterrupted conduct of Brahmanic rituals. These incidents confirmed that the Aryas originally were a people of the forest, where they were engaged in their search for Brahma Vidya or an understanding of the universe of which they formed a part.
The art of agriculture had till then been the preserve of the non-Aryans, symbolised by their God Hara or Siva. Breaking the Haradhanu meant breaking into this new knowledge, which a person of Rama’s statue alone was capable of. The prize for this feat was Sita, who had appeared from out of the deep furrows of the earth. Tagore saw in her a personification of the new agricultural technology, which Rama imported from Mithila to his own kingdom of Ayodhya.
According to Tagore’s interpretation, the palace intrigues against Rama’s coronation was nothing but a concoction by Valmiki to carry conviction for Rama’s journey to the south of the country. Tagore believed the journey to be one undertaken for the country’s colonisation with the help of the new technology, which Rama had picked up from Mithila. The story of Ahalya showed that an earlier mission by Rishi Gautama to colonise the land beyond the Vindhyas had failed, and the land had been declared unfit for Arya expansion. The literal meaning of Ahalya was unfit for cultivation. Rama succeeded where Gautama had failed, and the uncultivable was converted into the arable.
News of this new technology reached the non-Aryan king of Sri Lanka, who sent his emissary Surpanakha to woo Rama so that the new technology could be mastered. But Rama’s brother saw through the ploy and drove her away. This made Ravana so desperate that he stole Sita and tried to apply the new technology to his kingdom. Rama, however, overwhelmed him and retrieved Sita, who symbolised the new knowledge.
What transformed Rama from an adored prince to a universally venerated Lord of people’s hearts from the extreme north to the farthest south was his uniting together of the Aryans and the non-Aryans. His successful employment of Banaras and Bhallukas in his army of conquest against Sri Lanka stood for his fraternising with the non-Aryans. Tagore thought that Banaras (monkeys) and Bhallukas (bears) were probably totems used by certain non-Aryan tribes with whom Rama had tied the knot of love and friendship.
Rama’s mission of unity did not end with only the non-Aryans. He had defied the caste barrier and embraced Guhaka, the Chandala as his beloved friend and thus cemented the bond of love across the limits of caste defined by the Aryan Rishis.
Unlike the Europeans, India had never been keen on conquests and annexations. For India, a moral conquest of people had been much more important than armed conquests. Since time immemorial, India has been trying only to unite people. Her emphasis was never on armed conquest. Unlike the European settlers in America and Australia, where the earlier inhabitants had simply been butchered and eliminated to make room for the new arrivals, India never contemplated the destruction of the vanquished. Hers was the conquest of love.
Ramchandra’s treatment of his vanquished rivals illustrated this Indian attitude of mind. When Ramchandra succeeded in bringing about the defeat of King Ravana of Sri Lanka, he did not attempt to annex the country. Rather he left a Prince of the same line on the throne. This was Bibhisana, who had been one from the royal line and a native of the soil.
It was both the sagacity and nobleness of Rama that he had conquered but did not humiliate. He formed a bond of love with the reigning Prince and did not attempt to trample on the people by introducing foreign rule.
Similarly, Ramchandra helped his ally Sugriva to get the better of his rival King Bali. But the conquering army never behaved like an army of occupation. They left the Banaras in peace and seated Sugriva on the throne. This cemented the friendship of Ramachandra with the Banaras, and together they could invade and win Sri Lanka. 12 This was in stark contrast with what the western races practice. They did not know of any solution except ‘extermination or expulsion by physical force’ and were known to have been prejudiced against darker races. They kept on fighting each other in distant colonies and indulged in a ferocity’ unparalleled in the history of the barbarian.’
The career of Shri Rama was the best example of the Indian approach to life. India’s domestic values stressed the Upanishadic ideal of ‘enjoyment in renunciation’ (ten takhtena bhunjitha). Her foreign policy did not indulge in war and conquest. Even when she was victorious, she preferred to leave the conquered nation in power instead of humiliating it and trying to lord over it. Wherever Rama went, he entered into alliances of friendship with the local powers and left them in control when he left rather than placing local administrators appointed by him. Rama’s treatment of Sri Lanka, the non-Aryan tribes and rulers like Guhaka, who stood outside the Aryan caste hierarchy, firmly establishes the point. This policy of conciliation and assimilation won Ramachandra a divine entity throughout the wide expanse of the country. Rama had been born a Kshatriya Prince, but his significance soon transcended the image of an ordinary mortal, and he became a symbol of the country’s national integration.