Dharma and the Ramayana

~ Nikitha Ashok ’11

Dharma, roughly the equivalent of the English terms law and duty, has a much more defined meaning in Hinduism. It is a principle which every person should strive to follow. Dharma implies right conduct and the upholding of morals and virtues. The maintenance of these morals enables an individual to attain salvation, or liberation of the soul. The elements of dharma vary for each individual depending on his or her birth and societal position and therefore it is the responsibility of the person to act accordingly. The only aspects of dharma that could apply to all people equally are those that discourage inflicting harm to another, either by thought or deed. Hinduism teaches that taking the dharmic path is the only possible way to rid one’s karma accumulated throughout his life. The concept of dharma is an overbearing theme in the epic Ramayana, originally penned by Valmiki in Sanskrit. Each one of the protagonists and the antagonists in the story has a unique dharma. The adherence or abandonment of dharma facilitates to drive the story to completion.

Rama in his kingdom is a son, a husband, an apt warrior and an ethical future leader. Dasaratha is a king, husband and father. Sita’s major role in this book is the role of a wife to Rama. Lastly, Hanuman’s only role is to be a blind supporter and fighter for Rama. All of the decisions made by these characters are crucial in this book and all of them adhere to only their own dharma depending on their character roles. Characters in the Ramayana that are considered to be malevolent also have their own, exclusive set of dharma. Ravana is the king of the asuras and holds up his dharma by being a king of Lanka who protects his land and as a brother to Soorpanaka until he encounters Rama and Sita. Soorpanaka lives her life in abandon. Although there is no defined role she plays, she functions to aid the asuras in attempting to destroy Rama. Ravana and Soorpanaka overstep the boundaries of their dharma and therefore never achieve salvation of their souls and perish by the hands of one who does uphold his dharma, Rama.

Decisions made by Rama serve as the driving force for the plot of Ramayana. These decisions are influenced by his dharma or means of right conduct. In the beginning of the story, Kaikeyi asks King Dasaratha for two boons, to position her son Bharata as the next king of Ayodya and to send Rama away for fourteen years to live in the forest. When Rama hears of this, he agrees to the condition and serving his duty as son to his parents and adhering to his dharma. Upon hearing that Rama will be sent away, Sita chooses to follow him. She also fulfills her duty and dharma as Rama’s wife. King Dasaratha has one duty as a king in this early stage of the plot. It is indecent for him to take back a word of honor he has given to his wife that he will satisfy any wish that she may ask for and grants her wish. Hanuman has accepted to live a life of solely serving Rama, and he remains steadfast on his dharma till the end, accepting to save Sita from the evil hands of Ravana.

There are many instances in the Ramayana where conflicts arise over principles. When Dasaratha agreed to his wife Kaikeyi’s demands, he was letting down the people of his kingdom from preventing them from living under the perfect king and letting down his son Rama by going against his promise to make him the king. Rama seems to act adharmically in two situations, one while in the quest of saving his wife from Ravana, kills Vali. Vali and Sugreeva are in a battle for power when Rama shoots an arrow into Vali from hiding behind him. Vali labels this as a dishonorable act, for Rama did not assess both the arguments from Sugreeva and Vali when he chose to side with Sugreeva, letting down the dharma of being a fair warrior. Another situation in the plot where Rama acts against his dharma is at the end, where he refuses to accept Sita back as his wife. She in turn uses fire, the purest element, to prove that she is honorable. Rama disregards the comments made against him and justifies his actions as dharmic for the people of his kingdom. Lastly, when Hanuman visits Ravana to learn about the whereabouts of Sita, he is caught by the asuras. When released, he sets the kingdom of Ravana on fire, killing innocent civilians in the process. One could justify this act as moral since he did help to eliminate some of the asuras, but Hanuman foregoes his dharma to right conduct by his blind submission to Rama.

These events fail to properly follow the rules regarding dharma. The reasons why such events exist in the dharmic Ramayana, some of them executed by the highly moral Lord Rama, are best left to personal interpretation.