Ethics of exile in the Ramayana

Rama and Laksmana receive Bharata and his companions – Wikimedia Commons (Shyam Sundar)

Themes of exile, quest and wandering are prominent in epic literature, at least of the Indo-European tradition.  The Odyssey tells the story of the ten years Odysseus spent trying to make his way home, and in the Aeneid, Aeneas similarly wanders for many years after the Trojan War, before arriving in Laurentum, that is, Latium.  Indeed, the story of Genesis would seem to fit the same pattern of exile, in this case, from the Garden of Eden, followed by wandering of Adam and Eve and their descendants in the world outside it.

In the Indian epic literature, similarly, these themes of exile, quest and wandering feature in manifold ways.  In the Rāmāyaṇa, Rāma is exiled for 14 years, during which time his wife Sītā and younger brother Lakṣmaṇa accompany him.  In the Mahābhārata, the Pāṇḍavas are exiled for 13 years, accompanied by their wife Draupadī, during which 12 years are spent wandering in the wilderness.  These journeys of exile, however, end in the same place as they start, with an exactly pre-specified duration of the exile.

Interestingly, in the Rāmāyaṇa, it is Rāma himself who makes an ethical determination that leaving the kingdom and wandering in exile is the morally right thing to do, in order to fulfil the pledge given by his father Daśaratha to Kaikeyī.  This is made most explicit in the episode where Bharata comes to meet Rāma in the forest, immediately after the death of Daśaratha, when the kingship must pass on to the next generation.  Bharata attempts to persuade him to return to rule Ayodhyā, but is at first actually too filled with grief when he sees Rāma to actually speak much.  Rāma responds to Bharata’s inital request for him to resume the kingship as follows –

“Knower of Dharma, best doer of dharma [Bharata], whatever authority [our] father has, honoured by the world, [our] mother has the same authority too.  Told by mother and father, who follow a dharmic way of life, ‘Go to the forest!’,  how can my conduct be different from that?”

[Rāmāyaṇa Canto CI verses 21-22; my own translation]

Bharata responds to this with both argumentation and emotional appeal as follows –

“How can kingly dharma be mine, going against dharma.  This has always been the constant dharma for us, excellent man – while the elder brother is there, the younger cannot be king … your father died thinking of nothing but you, without you and shattered by grief for you.!

[Rāmāyaṇa Canto CII verses 1cd-2 and 9cd; my own translation]

As he is hearing the news of his father’s death for the first time, Rāma is emotionally overwhelmed by this message, but still refuses to return to Ayodhyā, and performs some rudimentary rituals.  Some time later, Bharata tries again with further and more sophisticated arguments for Rāma to resume the kingship of Ayodhyā, including a somewhat cryptic analogy –

“Like a dam burst by a powerful current during the rainy season, this great kingdom is difficult to keep by anyone but you.  Like the gait of a horse for a donkey, like the flight of Tārkṣya for a bird, I don’t have the power to imitate your way of doing things, king … but just as a tree that has grown tall, being nurtured by someone, is difficult to climb for a very short person, then if fruits are not seen after it blossoms, that purpose for which it was planted will not be attained.  Please understand the meaning of this analogy.”

[Rāmāyaṇa Canto CV verses 8-10ab; my own translation]

Rāma again refuses to accept the kingdom, taking a rather fatalistic stance, with his own colourful analogies –

“Let me explain.  The self is not the doer of action.  This puruṣa is not īśvara.  Deeds previously done drag it this way and that way … the night which passes does not return.  The Yamunā river goes to the full ocean.  The days and nights pass for all living beings here.

[Rāmāyaṇa Canto CV verses 15, 19ab; my own translation]

Following various such unsuccessful attempts by his brother to persuade Rāma to return, the sage Jābāli also has a go, using more of an appeal to Rāma’s self-interest and encouraging him to ignore the words of his father.

“Being born from a king, enjoying the splendid pleasures of a king, move through Ayodhyā like Indra moves through Triviṣṭapa.  Daśaratha is nothing to you and you are nothing to him.  He is one king and you are another.  So do as I say … That king has gone to where he had to go.  This is the way for living beings.  However, you are wrongly being obstructed [from the kingship].”

[Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, Ayodhyākāṇḍa, Canto CVIII verses 9-10, 12; my own translation]

Finally, the sage Vasiṣṭha also appeals to him on the basis of dharma again, in a speech which with a recitation of the distinguished lineage of Rāma, and culminates in the same argument as Bharata –

“Let me explain.  Amongst all the Ikṣvākūs, the king is the eldest son.  In the presence of an earlier-born son, not the lower son but the elder is consecrated as king.  This is the eternal family dharma of your Rāghava [lineage].  Please do not violate it today.”

[Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, Ayodhyākāṇḍa, Canto CX verses 36-37ab; my own translation]

However, Rāma remains adamant to complete his term of exile and to relinquish the kingship to Bharata throughout these dialogues.  This article has just given a small flavour of these dialogues with his brother Bharata and with Jābāli and with Vasiṣṭha.  These dialogues on the morality of Rāma’s course of action, and Rāma’s accompanying ethical determination, take place within a long and sophisticated tradition of moral philosophy and legal reasoning, that is, the tradition of dharma-śāstra.  As Prof. P.V. Kane very helpfully explains about the term ‘dharma’ –

“its most prominent significance came to be ‘the privileges, duties and obligations of a man, his standard of conduct as a member of the Aryan community, as a member of one of the castes, as a person in a particular stage of life.'”

[History of Dharmaśāstra Vol. 1 Part 1 p.3]

We might only perhaps question whether this male-specific formulation is correct, especially when we consider the sophisticated ethical appraisals and determinations made by such figures as Śakuntalā, Sītā, and Draupadī, which I have discussed elsewhere.  Such ethical and moral determinations in the Indian tradition typically do not take the form of absolute commandments or universal teachings, but are rather the product of individual judgment about the right thing to do in a particular situation.  Thus Prof. Kane quotes the following definition of Dharma from the Manusmṛti –

“Know Dharma to be that which is practiced by the learned that lead a moral life, that are free from hatred and partiality, and that is accepted by their hearts (i.e. conscience)”

[History of Dharmaśāstra Vol. 1 Part 1 p.5]

This can be seen to contrast with the legal and ethical codes of many other ethnic and religious traditions, such as the famous Pillars of Aśoka, or the Tablets of the Law apparently brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses, on which were written the Ten Commandments.  These latter systems seem to have intended to display the permanence and invariability of such laws, by inscribing them in stone, and hence to impose uniformity of such laws over diverse peoples, across diverse regions and over a long period of time.  A different type of relationship of ethical norms and law-abiding behaviour seems to have been achieved within the tradition of dharmaśāstra, in which the landscape is encompassed by these rich and vital literary and epic traditions.

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