Ramayana is just not a mythological story; it is one of the two "Itihasas" most widely read in India. Itihas means "thus happened". The Ramayana is considered the true story of Rama, the king of Ayodhya. The great sage poet Valmiki, who wrote the magnum opus Ramayana was the care-taker of Sita, Rama's wife, at the turbulent and concluding period of her life.
The historic period or Yuga in which Rama lived is known as the Treta Yuga, when dharma (righteousness) and moral standards of people were generally of high order. In the subsequent yuga (Dwapar Yuga), when the story of Mahabharata took place and the present Kali yuga in which we live, dharma and morality keep steadily declining. Thus the story of Ramayana, whenever read, gives us a great insight into the very high moral and ethical standards of the period. At times of mental turmoil, we get peace of mind by reading Ramayana.
Most of us are familiar with the story of Ramayana. However, many of us are not fully conscious of the lessons that we can imbibe from a reading of this Epic which has been the guiding light of our countrymen for thousands of years. Listed below are some of the key insights among several others that we can gain from Ramayana:
(1) Relationship between Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha
Human life is generally spent in chasing materialism (Artha) and sense pleasures (Kama). Ramayana makes it clear that these two pursuits should never be at the cost of Dharma (righteousness). In upholding dharma, both artha and Kama will perforce have to be pursued in moderation and with detachment. The ultimate goal of life is Moksha (liberation) and it can be attained only by relinquishing Artha and Kama and by strictly following a life of Dharma.
(2) Adherence to truth and the need to honor one's word
When Rama was a young boy, the love and affection his father Dasarata had for him was immense. He never like to be separated from his son. He promised to offer whatever help that the visiting Sage Viswamitra asked for; but when the sage requested for Rama's help to fight the demons in the forest, Dasarata was terribly shocked. But still, he agreed to part with Rama, to honor his promise.
Later in time, when his third wife Kaikeyi wanted the throne of Ayodhya for her own son Bharata and wanted Rama to be exiled to the forest, it was nothing short of a deathly blow to Dasarata. But still, he never used his kingly authority to decline her request, because of the promise he had made long ago to Kaikeyi, to grant her two boons whenever she chose to ask for them.
(3) Sacrificing one’s own interests to help father honour his word.
On the previous night of Rama's crowning ceremony, Kaikeyi invoked the two boons her husband had promised her, thereby denying Rama his right to the throne and sending him in exile to the forest. Rama, as the rightful prince to the throne could have disobeyed his father. But Rama, true to his greatness, with total detachment and without any trace of disappointment reflecting on his face, obliged his father to honour the pledge. For Rama, "pitru vakya paripalanam" (honoring his father's words) was one of the highest dharmas.
(4) The fickleness of the mind: Kaikeyi listens to evil advice
Kaikeyi, an essentially good natured woman, allowed her maid servant, Mandara, to persuade her into extracting the two devastating boons from Dasarata. Though she was not enthusiastic in the beginning, she gradually allowed Mandara's words to poison her mind. Did she gain anything finally by asking these boons? No. She lost her husband, Dasarata, who died soon after the departure of Rama to the forest, due the pain of separation from his beloved son. Bharata, Kaikeyi's son, for whom she obtained the very kingdom, scolded her for her evil act and even refused to assume kingship, when Rama was away in exile.
Now see a contrast: Upon hearing the developments, Lakshmana, the most beloved brother of Rama, who was by nature short tempered, got instantly flared up. He could not just tolerate the injustice meted out to Rama. He wanted Rama to fight for his rights; he wanted to proceed and fight with his father and imprison Kaikeyi. But the ever sober Rama, never heeded to his counsel. He pacified Lakshmana with soothing words, pointing out the need for adhering to dharma. The effect of Rama's counseling not only pacified Lakshmana, but also gave him a steely resolve to relinquish his own comforts of the palace in order to accompany Rama to the forest, despite Rama’s objections.
(5) Refusal to accept unjust reward
Bharata, the son of Kaikeyi, is another sterling character in Ramayana, who could not accept the idea of usurping the throne that belonged to Rama. He could not forgive his mother for her misdeed. Bharat goes to the forest to bring his brother and requests him to return to rule the kingdom. As Rama declines the request, he carries back on his head Rama's footwear and places it on the throne of Ayodhya and rules as a representative of Rama.
(6) The danger of getting trapped by illusory attractions
Sita, in the forest, got madly attracted by a beautiful golden deer. She refused to heed to her husband's counsel that such a deer could not be a natural one and it could be a demon in disguise. It is her obsession to acquire the deer that forced Rama to go after it. It paved the way for her getting separated from him and getting abducted by the raakshasa king, Ravana.
(7) Giving up one’s life fighting injustice
Jatayu, the aged and once powerful bird, who noticed Ravana abducting Sita forcibly and flying with her in his vehicle towards his country Lanka, fought valiantly to obstruct Ravana and release Sita, but could not succeed in its effort. The bird sacrificed its life in such a noble effort. Before breathing its last, Jatayu managed to convey the news to Rama, who, moved to tears by the courage of the old bird, performed the last rites at its funeral, as though he was the son of Jatayu.
(8) Divine love transcends all barriers of caste and creed
Guha, a devoted boatman, helped Rama, Lakshmana and Sita to cross Ganga river on his boat. He was accepted as a brother by Rama even though he belonged to the supposedly lower caste fishermen community.
Likewise, Rama treats Sabari, an old woman from a lower caste, like his own mother when he reaches her hut during his wanderings in the forest in search of Sita. Sabari, who was very devoted to Rama, offers fruits to him after biting into each one of them first, to ensure that she did not offer any sour fruits. Rama instead of being offended, gladly accepts them, acknowledging her genuine devotion.
(9) Humility as a great virtue
Hanuman, the minister of the Vanar King, Sugriva, is one of the great characters of Ramayana. Hanuman had several great qualities: he was very strong physically, was a great diplomat, was very erudite in speech and was very wise. Yet his humility was unsurpassed. The moment he met Rama, he was attracted by Rama's divinity and charm and he committed himself to be a life-long devotee of Rama. The great feats he could accomplish in the service of Rama were unmatched and the humility he displayed, despite his greatness, was truly humbling.
(10) Showing mercy even to the enemy
Ravana's younger brother Vibhishana was a righteous person who was bold enough to warn and advice Ravana against his act of immorality in abducting the wife of another person. When the furious Ravana threw him out of Lanka, Vibhishana approached Rama and surrendered at his feet. Despite reservations from Sugriva and others, Rama accepted Vibhishana and gave him refuge.
On the occasion of the first fiery combat between Rama and Ravana, Rama destroyed all the weapons and armor of Ravana; Ravana stood on the war field, unprotected. Rama, who could have easily killed Ravana at that moment, in one of the greatest acts of graciousness, asked Ravana to retire for the day and return to the battle field the next day, fully re-armed, as it was against dharma to kill an un-armed person.
(11) The need for highest standards in a King
After killing Ravana and freeing Sita from confinement, Rama asks Sita to prove her loyalty to him by entering fire. Sita pass the test successfully and only after this does Rama accepts her as his wife once more. But later, when he became King of Ayodhya, he comes to know of a washer man talking ill of Rama for having accepted his wife Sita who had stayed in the confinement of his enemy for months. Rama, who had great love for Sita, takes the most painful decision of sending her to Valmiki’s ashram, just because he had to maintain a very high standard of personal probity as the ruler of Ayodhya.
We can come across any number of lessons in dharma by reading Ramayana in depth. It is no wonder that the Ramayana as a source book of wonderful stories for children and elders alike, as a piece of literature and as a source book for guidance in righteous living has stood the test of time. It continues to inspire millions of people, cutting across all religious and linguistic barriers.