Wisdom from the Ramayana – Chaitanya Charan
Wisdom from the Ramayana – Chaitanya Charan
Ramayana has two versions, Valmiki’s Ramayana and Tulsidas’ Ramayana. Why is the latter more popular? And how would you say they are different?
Tulsidas’ Ramayana has had much greater reach primarily because it was written in a vernacular language as compared to Valmiki’s Ramayana which is in Sanskrit. Valmiki’s epic is much more foundational as it is the original epic and is the source of all future renditions, including Tulsidas’. Valmiki’s epic focuses on depicting Rama as the ideal human being – his divinity, though implicit, is not emphasized as that would interfere with the purpose of delineating ideal human behavior. If he is the omnipotent supreme, then there’s no difficulty for him in facing difficulties which trouble us humans. Tulsi Ramayana focuses on Rama as the eminently lovable Lord, the object of sweet devotion.
The Ramayana has been criticized for being patriarchal and misogynistic. How would you respond to that? Would you agree with the statement that the epic objectifies women at various instances?
Patriarchy and misogynism are two significantly different things: patriarchy is a longstanding social structure; misogynism is a reprehensible mental disposition. Patriarchy was prevalent throughout the world for most of human history. Undoubtedly, it has been sometimes misused by oppressive men, who incidentally oppressed not just women but other men too. Still, the very fact that humanity has survived for millennia with patriarchal social structures suggests that the structure had some functional utility.
Women have exclusive monopoly on being the wombs for humanity. If patriarchy had oppressed women relentlessly throughout history, as it is fashionable to depict in some circles nowadays, humanity’s wombs would have been choked to death; the human species wouldn’t be existing today.
Having said that, regrettably, misogynism has occurred repeatedly in history. And wherever misogynism occurs, it deserves to be condemned in the strongest terms; everyone, irrespective of gender, deserves opportunities for developing their God-given gifts and fulfilling their destinies.
Given that we humans are all vulnerable to vice, all human hierarchies tend toward tyranny. But that doesn’t mean all hierarchies are intrinsically tyrannical; many can be functionally useful, even essential. Like any other hierarchy, patriarchy can degenerate into misogynism, but that doesn’t mean patriarchy is misogynism.
Ramayana is patriarchal but not misogynistic. And even when it is patriarchal, patriarchy is not its central message – spirituality is.
In many ways, women are treated differently in the epic than how they are treated today. Whether that difference is objectification is debatable; a strong case could be made that objectification occurs equally, if not more, in today’s sexualized depictions in various multi-billion-dollar ad and entertainment industries.
After spending several decades trying to understand the Ramayana’s mood and appeal, I am convinced that its essential thread is sacrifice and service. In my book, Wisdom from Ramayana, I have explained how the incident that seems outrageously misogynistic – Sita’s banishment – is actually sublimely sacrificial. When earlier in the epic, Rama is exiled by Dasharatha, Rama is not the victim and Dasharatha the victimizer; both father and son are co-participants in a difficult sacrifice that duty demands of them. That they both stay steadfast in duty shows their strength of character. Similarly, in the end of the epic, Sita and Rama both participate in an extremely difficult sacrifice demanded by duty – and their dutifulness amid duress reveals their glory.
Due to lack of space, we can’t go into the rationale of the duty here. But suffice it to say that to reduce the profound sacrificial incidents in the Ramayana to misogyny is like reducing complex cartographic notes by experienced sailors to senseless scribblings.
For sailing through life’s turbulent voyages, Ramayana has served as a map for millions for millennia. Historically speaking, India ranks high up in the list of the world’s most resilient countries. Hardly any other country has been subjected to as many invasions throughout history, and has continued as a living culture from ancient times till today. For this remarkably resilient culture, Ramayana has been one of the foundational texts. To dismiss such an epic by labelling it as misogynistic is to deprive ourselves of an immense treasure of empowering wisdom.
The epic’s wisdom strengthens our spiritual muscle and infuses us with the spirit of service. When we become thus selflessly motivated, we can root out misogyny and figure out how the genders can best synergize in today’s world.
Religion, historically and in contemporary times as well can be used to distance or polarise communities. Do you think that religion is also used as a weapon by some radical groups?
Yes. Few things can incite people as much as a perceived threat to their religion – and radical groups often exploit this human vulnerability. Consequently, religion is nowadays frequently in the news for all the wrong reasons. Violence instigated by religious extremism is indelibly etched in the modern mind, due to horrendous acts of terrorism.
Still, we can’t let selective imagery blind us to universal reality. And the reality is that religion doesn’t cause violence; humans use religion, and a hundred other triggers, to justify violence for fulfilling their agendas. And the worst violence in modern history has occurred not in religious violence, but in non-religious secular wars such as the World War I and II, and even more so in the anti-religious communistic regimes of USSR and China, which killed three times more people than both the World Wars combined.
These statistics are not to rationalize violence in the name of religion, but to contextualize violence in the backdrop of humanity’s deep-rooted propensity for aggressiveness. Most aggression arises from the self-centered craving for power and wealth. To have lasting peace, we need to raise human consciousness from self-centeredness to selflessness.
If we compare the human quest for harmony to climbing a mountain, the bottom of the mountain is material consciousness characterized by selfishness and the top of the mountain is spiritual consciousness characterized by selflessness. Different religions are like different paths for climbing to the peak of the mountain; Religion sees the diversity of the various paths; spirituality sees the shared purpose of all those diverse paths. If more people rise from being religious to being religiously spiritual, we will progress toward uprooting the self-centeredness that is at the root of most violence.
Your book mentions Bhakti Yoga as an ultimate and supreme way of attaining liberation. Why is it considered one of the supreme forms of Yoga? How do you think a person could start taking to it?
The various yoga paths are progressive and conclusive. They all help seekers from various backgrounds to progress in a customized way toward the conclusion of pure spiritual consciousness, wherein awaits lasting peace and joy.
Among the various yoga paths, bhakti-yoga channels the force that lies at the core of all our actions: love, the longing to love and be loved. Where our heart is, our head and our hands go there naturally. Bhakti-yoga by working on the heart channels our entire being so that we can manifest our best, in a mood of contribution and service toward the object of bhakti. And that object of bhakti is understood to be not a sectarian parochial deity, but the all-inclusive ultimate reality, who is revealed as the supremely loving and supremely lovable person. Bhakti wisdom explains that we all are parts of that Divine, and thus when we love the Whole, we learn to love all living beings as parts of the Whole.
Bhakti-yoga is sometimes treated as the path for sentimental people; such an understanding is overly simplistic, because bhakti isn’t just about sentiments; it is about sublime spiritualized sentiments. Such sentiments don’t come merely from a sentimental nature; they come by conscious continuous cultivation of one’s heart and life.
Thus, by activating the strongest force of love that lies at the core of our being and channeling it for our and others’ all-round welfare, bhakti-yoga can empower us to fulfill our deepest potential.
Bhakti-yoga can be started by a simple ABC set of practices:
Association: Our desires and dreams are shaped by the kind of people we associate with. If we make it a habit to associate regularly with bhakti practitioners and exponents, we will find the bhakti journey becoming intelligible, practical and relishable. Satsang programs in one’s vicinity or nowadays even online talks and forums centered on bhakti can provide us association.
Books: Bhakti offers a way to our heart that goes through the head – bhakti wisdom is profound, answering life’s fundamental questions coherently and cogently. If we read wisdom texts such as Ramayana, Bhagavata and Bhagavad-gita, especially as these are explained by their living exponents, we will find our bhakti journey become not just emotionally enriching but also intellectually invigorating.
Chanting: Bhakti wisdom considers sound as a powerful mediator between the material and spiritual levels of reality. Chanting of mantras, singing of devotional songs, and recitation of scriptural verses are all ways to tap sonic power for fueling our inner growth.
Taking up a path of spirituality is often confused with asceticism. Could you tell us about how the two are similar yet different?
Spirituality has two thrusts: world-transcending and world-transforming. The world-transcending aspect centers on raising one’s consciousness to a higher, spiritual level of reality, recognizing that the material level of reality is unfulfilling and unenduring. Those who stress world transcendence often embrace an ascetic mode of life, turning away from worldly pleasures and goals.
Simultaneously, bhakti spirituality stresses world transformation. The epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, highlight this world transformational aspect, for their central characters are diligent in doing their duties. The Gita in fact discourages its student, Arjuna, from premature asceticism, asserting that he stick to his dharma in the world.
Despite the world-affirming core of the Indian wisdom-texts, spiritual practice historically shifted toward world transcendence in the medieval times. Why? One reason was prolonged political subjugation, which left common people very few avenues for transforming the world.
Significantly, both these aspects, transcending and transforming, can be integrated if we strive both to raise our consciousness and use that raised consciousness to contribute more selflessly. Pertinently, bhakti wisdom recommends not renunciation of action, but renunciation in action – spiritual activism for a cause bigger than oneself
Why did you decide to give up your corporate career and become a monk? Would you tell us a bit about how that change was for you?
I always had strong faith in the power of education for personal and social transformation. I pursued science because it promised such transformation. While I was studying engineering, I joined a social welfare organization to offer free tuitions to slum kids. When I found that their families were dysfunctional because of rampant alcoholism, I started looking for ways to empower people to overcome self-destructive habits.
That’s when I discovered the transformational potency of Gita wisdom in curbing our lower side and channeling our lower side. Not only was I able to curb by temper which had troubled me for long, but by sharing bhakti practices, I was able to help many of my friends change their life for the better.
After my engineering, I secured a position in a prominent MNC as well as admission in respected US universities. But by then, I was convinced that I could contribute more to society by sharing wisdom about inner engineering. That’s what I have been trying to do in my small way for over two decades now.
For nearly a decade, I have been writing a 350-word reflection on the Gita daily at gitadaily.com. Those reflections are read by thousands across the world.
Additionally, for the last several years, I have been giving about 400 talks across 100 cities in 4 continents.
I find it immensely fulfilling to hear from people from various backgrounds, through personal meetings and online messages, how bhakti wisdom has enriched their lives is immensely fulfilling.
Are you writing a next book?
Yes, several actually. I have nearly completed another book on the Ramayana; I am also working on a series of books on Indian epics, specifically Mahabharata, Bhagavata, Gita, Upanishads and Yoga sutra. God willing, these should be published in the coming few years.
My memoir on how and why I chose to become a monk is also soon to be published by Fingerprint.
About the Interviewee:
Chaitanya Charan: Mentor, monk, speaker
• Author of 25 books on applied mindfulness and purposeful living
• Author of 3500 daily inspirational meditations on Bhagavad-gita.
• Invited speaker at TEDx, World Peace Conference, UNESCO, Intel, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Massachusetts, and Cambridge.
• Gives 400 talks across 100 cities in 4 continents every year
Chaitanya Charan: Mentor, monk, speaker