After decades of dispute, the Supreme Court has finally enabled the building of a Ram temple at the assumed place of birth of the Lord. This is good news, since it not only ends the sterile communal acrimony on this matter, but because a befitting temple for Rama in Ayodhya would be an appropriate way to inspire Hindus to the compassionate, caring, loving and benevolent persona that one of India’s most loved deities represents.
However, Ram has been in the news for all the wrong reasons too. Illiterate bigots have weaponized the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’ for wanton acts of violence, crime and hatred, which are anathema to what Ram actually stands for. These lumpen elements do not know that Ram is maryada purushottam, the epitome of rectitude, the touchstone of impeccable behaviour, the role model of the perfect human being, and the very incarnation of saumya rasa, harmonious equilibrium.
In the face of the deliberate distortion of the image of Lord Ram, it is particularly imperative now for ordinary people to understand who he is and what he really stands for. This has been brought out in the most lyrical and exemplary manner by Tulsidas (1532-1623 CE) in his remarkable epic Ramcharitmanas. Based on the much earlier Sanskrit epic Ramayana (dated variously between fifth century BCE and the first century BCE) by Valmiki, the Ramcharitmanas is a shorter version of the same story, but with the inimitable stamp of Tulsi’s loftiness of mind and sheer poetic genius. Although shorter, it is nevertheless an epic, consisting of 12,800 lines divided into 1,073 stanzas, and seven kands or sections.
Mahatma Gandhi regarded the Ramcharitmanas ‘as the greatest book in all devotional literature’. In north India, in particular, the Manas is equivalent to the Bible for most Hindus. The book also ranks among the greatest works of literature in the world. Given the great impact of the work, especially since it was consciously written not in Sanskrit but in Awadhi, the spoken and understood language of the masses, the historian Vincent Smith has called Tulsi the greatest man of his age in India, greater than even Akbar himself. The linguist Sir George Griffith has described him as ‘the greatest leader of the people after the Buddha’.
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How does Tulsi profile Ram? For him, Rama is, in the words of the sage Valmiki, sab ke priya sab ke hitkari (beloved of all and loved by all). He is benevolence incarnate, chivalrous and valorous but always gentle and caring, compassionate towards the weak and the vulnerable, and magnanimous towards the enemy even when he chastises them for what is wrong. Countless examples can be given to illustrate this central message of Tulsi, but given the constraints of space I will mention only a few. In Tulsi’s famous stanza describing the birth of Rama, he writes in the very first line: ‘Bhaye pragata kripala, deen dayala….’. The birth of Rama, Tulsi says, heralded the one who is merciful, and who is eternally considerate to the weak and needy. Further on in this stanza, Tulsi describes Ram as ‘karuna sukh sagar, sab guna aagar’ — one who is the very reservoir of kindness and joy, and endowed with every auspicious attribute. He calls him also ‘jana anuragi’ — one for whom each member of the populace is beloved, and for whom he is equally so.
When Rama meets Kaikeyi, one of Dashrath’s queens, who has conspired to unfairly deprive him of his kingdom and banish him to the forest for 14 years, he is not angry or vengeful. On the contrary, he is forgiving, polite, affectionate and the very picture of equanimity. Completely in conformity with his essential character of maryada purushottam, for which he is venerated by millions, he says to Kaikeyi: Suna Janani soi suta badbhagi, jo pitu maat bachan anuragi (Listen mother, that son is blessed who has the opportunity to lovingly obey his mother and father).
Pavan K Varma
It is most instructive too to understand Tulsi’s description of Ram Rajya, that social utopia that every devotee or bhakt of the Lord cherishes. Ram Rajya, Tulsi says, is a place where, ‘Daihik daivik, bhautik tapa, Ram Rajya nahin kahuhi byapa, sab nar karahin paraspar priti, chalahin svadharma nirat shruti niti (None suffers from physical, spiritual or material disability, everyone lives with love and harmony, and each follows their religion peacefully)’. For the misguided who use the name of Rama to inflict violence and cruelty on others, it is essential that they actually understand what, according to Tulsi, are Ram’s views in this regard. The Lord himself sums up his conviction — and in many ways illustrates the essence of Hindu religion — when he tells his younger brother Bharat: ‘Parahita saris dharam nahi bhai, parpida sam nahin athmai (The welfare of others is the greatest dharma, and injury to others the greatest sin)’.
The sincere purpose of this book is to bring selections of Tulsidas’ great ode to Ram to the largest number of readers in a readable, accessible and enjoyable form. The Ramcharitmanas is an epic. It is a brilliant literary work, scintillating from beginning till end. However, since it is an epic, and is written in Awadhi, not everybody may be able to — in spite of their best intentions — read it from beginning to end, or to comprehend the full meaning of the stanzas. Yet, it is too great a work of literary and spiritual value — full of nuggets of sheer wisdom — not to be read at all. The attempt, therefore, is to present a briefer version of the epic, with carefully chosen selections that reflect the best examples — from my point of view — of the greatness of Tulsi’s writings, and the inspiring profile of Lord Ram. Given the enormous richness of the material, the selection itself was a very onerous task. Along with the selections, translations in both Hindi and English are provided. These have been taken from the Gita Press, which stand out for their fidelity and linguistic quality. Finally, my commentary has been appended to each selection, so that the reader can assimilate not only the text, but also the context, background, characters, reasoning and meaning of the poet’s narrative.
It is only when ordinary Indians realize the real values associated with maryada purushottam Ram, and that too from the pen of Tulsi, one of his most devoted bhakts, that we can genuinely say — without the mutilating distortions — Jai Shri Ram.
Pavan K Varma is an author and politician. His latest book is The Greatest Ode to Lord Ram: Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, published by Westland, March 2020. He is also the author of Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker.