The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Legend of Ram... The Khiladi

The story of Ram, like one luminary rightly pointed out, is themed after what later came to be known as the archetypal theory i.e. the fight between Good and Evil. But long before the story existed, or the character itself, there was just a name - that of Ram.

The first lesson in Sanskrit grammar is of noun declension. And the first masculine noun to be traditionally taught is the word Raama, and the first feminine noun, Ramaa (Another of Sita's names). The reason is far from religious. Both words come from the root Ram (pronounced rum) which means 'to play, or to have fun'. The noun form therefore means 'player'. The idea is, that knowledge of grammar is the key to be a player of words, hence the choice of the first noun.

How this secular and seemingly innocuous word took on the power to invoke both devotion and hatred, hatred strong enough to threaten our noble republic is what I intend to discuss today.


The religious system that goes by the name of Hinduism today, is what a theologist would classify as 'polytheistic', i.e. worshiping multiple divine entities, which are parts or representatives of a single Almighty being/consciousness. But history is proof, however, that these entities have always vied for dominance over public consciousness, in the form of cults and cult wars.

Most ancient polytheistic religions, like the Egyptian for instance, were wiped out largely because of the weaknesses induced by constant warring between the cults. And in the same fashion, Hinduism too was once threatened.

The Hindu religion was (and still is) composed of numerous cults, of which finally six had dominated (one exclusive to the south of India). Four of the deities involved were reconciled, by giving them the status of family, i.e. Shiva, Shakti and their sons Ganesha and Karthikeya. The Solar Cult reconciled with all five cults. This resulted in the formation of essentially two remaining factions that clamoured for domination - the Shaiva and the Vaishnava. These cults fought possibly the bloodiest of the battles ever fought in the name of religion, easily surpassing the eight crusades combined. It is in these conditions that the Name was born.

Now the vaishnavas' chief and most powerful mantra was the asthakshari "Om namo naaraayanaaya", of which the essential, or original syllable was the syllable "raa". The shaiva equivalent was the panchakshari "Om namah shivaya", of which the original syllable was the anusvara sound "m". Pronouncing these powerful sounds together resulted in the word "Raama" which was already attributed the meaning of 'player'. This was the most potent discovery in Indian history and theology. For now a phonetic form was discovered that contained not only the powers of both the dominating schools of spirituality, but also gave the image of an Almighty who was "the player", and whose creation were all pawns.

Valmiki's Ramayana was indeed written with the purpose of unifying the cults into a single faith system. It starts with the story of Valmiki's reformation, aided by the name "Raama", clearly establishing the precedence of the name to the character. Although the character himself was an avatara of Vishnu (then the dominating deity), he is shown throughout his journey as a worshiper of Shiva and his family, and as a scion of the Solar clan. Later in the epic, we come across an instance where Hanuman uses the name of Raama to repel the arrows of Raama himself, proving the powers of the name to be superior to the avatara himself.

The years passed, and the war was by no means over, although no longer as physically manifest. In time Vaishnavism took the upper hand, and the name which was previously neutral was firmly associated with Naaraayana. But its powers were never undermined.

In the Vishnusahasranaama (narrated by Bheeshma in the Mahabharata), Shiva responds to Parvati's query by saying "the name Raama equals and exceeds the power of all of Vishnu's thousand names, and by chanting this name alone may humans derive the benefits of reciting the whole Vishnusahasranama"


Valmiki's intentions in naming his hero "khiladi" however, wasn't as religious as it was spiritual. His inherent message seemed to be "you are not pawns of any power, but players yourselves - remember your powers, and live by them".

The idea was, that the Lord has created the universe to be a self sustaining system, with its own laws. It is a gameboard in which the Lord has split his attentions into moving the various pawns, our bodies & characters, giving them sentience. But, engrossed in the gameplay, we lose the realization that we are not beings of the gameboard, but the player Himself. We, all of us, are the Lord descended into the gameplay. We are all avatars. But this loss of memory makes us feel that we are the characters, the pawns. The intention of Valmiki was to refresh our memory, to make us realize that we're masters of the gameplay, that we're responsible for our destinies.

Raama, by virtue of his name itself, is a apecial avatar. He realizes that He is indeed a Khiladi. Throughout the epic, we see him making choices, with the determination and confidence that he was making his destiny. And he was constantly reminding his companions to do the same. Through his life, we are all taught how not to be manipulated by the situations, but to use them .

Today, on the day we celebrate the birth of our republic, we need this lesson more than ever. For only in acknowledging this truth and accepting the responsibilities that come with this power, can we claim to be true citizens, or even living beings.


Amit Sondhi said...

OMG this is pure awesomeness!!!

Ankit said...

very insightful.. :) thanks

Bunty said...

unbelievably engrossing and insightful...would thank you for this post, honestly!!! would really love to spend some time with you listening to more insights :)

Anonymous said...

Take a was an eye opener...........cheerios.....keep posting more stuff like this

Curious said...

You mention that the Shaivaite Vaishnavaite fights were worse than Crusades. Any reason to say this?