Ramayana is just not a mythological story—it is one of the two most widely read “Itihas,” and revered by Hindus everywhere. Itihas means “thus happened.” As per Hindu belief, Ramayana is the true story of Rama—the king of Ayodhya who is considered to be the very incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Great sage poet Valmiki, who wrote the magnum opus “Ramayana,” was a caretaker for Sita, Rama’s wife during the turbulent, tail end period of her life.
The historic period (or Yuga) that Rama lived in was known as Treta Yuga. This was during a time when people’s righteousness (dharma) and moral standards were of a high order. In subsequent yugas (namely Dwapar Yuga, when the story of Mahabharata took place; and the present day Kali yuga that we live in), dharma and morality seem to be steadily declining. Thus, the story of “Ramayana,” whenever read, tends to give us great insight to the very high moral and ethical standards of yore. During times of mental turmoil, we can often find enlightenment from reading “Ramayana.”
Rama, an Avatar of Vishnu, the Hero of the epic story Ramayana.
Here are some of the lessons one can learn from reading Ramayana:
The relationship between Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.
Human life is often lost while chasing materialism—known as Artha, and sensory pleasures—known as Kama. The story of “Ramayana” makes it clear that these two pursuits should never be sought at the cost of righteousness—Dharma. The ultimate goal of life is liberation—or Moksha, and this can be attained only by relinquishing Artha and Kama and by strictly following a life of Dharma.
The importance of one man being wedded to only one wife
During the Ramayana period, practice of polygamy (by men) was quite prevalent and it was quite an acceptable social norm for kings to marry many women. Rama’s own father, Dasaratha, was wedded to three wives, and he also had innumerable concubines at his palace. In a stark contrast to his father, Rama remained wedded and staunchly loyal to his only wife, Sita. From this practice, he held his head high as the greatest king ever to rule in Bharat, India. He set a good example for future generations of men as to what was considered the gold standard for a respectable man in society.
Adherence to truth and the need to honor one’s word
When Rama was a young boy, the love and affection his father Dasarata had for him was immense. He would never want to get separated from his loving son. When Sage Viswamitra visited his palace and asked for help to ward off demons who were disturbing his spiritual practices at his forest hermitage, Dasarata promised to offer whatever help he could give. The Sage asked the king to send young Rama with him to fight the demons at the forest and naturally Dasarata was terribly shocked. Still, though, he agreed to part with Rama, to honor his promise to the Sage.
Later on, his third wife Kaikeyi wanted the throne of Ayodhya for her own son Bharata. She also wanted Rama to be exiled to the forest. This was nothing short of a deathly blow to Dasarata, but, still, he never used his authority as king to veto her request. This is because of the promise he had made long ago to Kaikeyi to grant her two boons whenever she chose to ask.
Respecting a father’s word of honor
On the night before Rama’s crowning ceremony, Kaikeyi made use of her boons not only to deny Rama his rightful ascend to the kingdom, but also to send him into exile in the forest. Rama, as a kshatriya (a person belonging to a ruler or warrior class), had every right to question such an injustice. He was also not duty bound to honor his father’s unjust promises, either. However, true to his greatness, Rama, with total mental equipoise and without even a trace of disappointment on his face, conceded to both the demands. For him, “pitru vakya paripalanam” (honoring his father’s words) was one of the highest dharmas.
The futility of listening to vicious counseling
Kaikeyi, who was an essentially good-natured woman, meekly allowed her very loyal maid servant Mandara to brainwash her into demanding these two atrocious boons from Dasarata. Though she was not enthusiastic in the beginning, she gradually allowed Mandara’s venomous words to poison her mind. Did she gain anything finally? No. In fact, she lost her beloved husband Dasarata who died very soon thereafter, on account of the shock and the pain of separation he experienced from having from his beloved son Rama being sent off. Bharata, Kaikeyi’s son, for whom she obtained the very kingdom, reprimanded her for her atrocious act. He never ever took charge of the kingdom as a King.
Now, notice this contrast: Upon hearing about these developments, Lakshmana, Rama’s brother, (who was very short-tempered), like a true Kshatriya, got angry. He could not tolerate the injustice doled out to Rama. He wanted Rama to fight for his rights, he also wanted to proceed and fight with his father and imprison Kaikeyi. However, Rama never heeded to his counsel. He pacified Lakshmana with calming words, pointing out the need for adhering to dharma. The effect of Rama’s counseling not only pacified Lakshmana, but this also gave him a steely resolution to relinquish his own comforts of the palace to accompany Rama to the forest, despite the latter’s objections to it.
Not accepting any booty that came in an unjust way
Bharata, Kaikeyi’s son, also could not tolerate the very idea of bequeathing the throne that rightfully belong to his elder brother Rama, which was wrongly acquired for his sake by his mother. He felt wrath towards his mother on this issue and took her to task for having asked for such a boon. So, he went to the forest in search of his brother and pled for his return to the country to rightfully rule it. Rama refused to concede, of course, so he took Rama’s shoes, carried it on his head, and placed them on Ayodhya’s throne. He took care of administration of the country as a representative of Rama till Rama returned from exile.
The futility of getting swayed by dubious attractions
Sita, who was in the forest, grew madly attracted to a beautiful golden deer. She wanted her husband Rama to catch the deer. She refused to listen to Lakshmana’s warning that such a deer was not natural, and that it could be a demon in disguise. Because of her incessant pestering to acquire the deer to be her playmate, Rama had to go behind it. Unfortunately, this led to her getting separated from him, and she then got forcibly abducted by Ravana, the demon.
The importance of being watchful about one’s utterances
Afterwards, Rama killed the demon. Then, Maricha, the demon who was disguised as the golden deer, called out “Ha Lakshmana! Ha Sita!” mimicking Rama’s voice, and died. Sita, upon hearing it, urged Lakshmana, who was standing guard next to her, to go and help Rama (who was actually not in any trouble). Lakshmana tried his best to counsel her, but he could not convince her that Rama was fine. In a fit of rage, Sita accused Lakshmana of wanting to have an illicit relationship with her in Rama’s absence. Lakshmana, who was then shell-shocked from hearing such an abominable accusation, left immediately, leaving her alone. Ravana then utilized this opportunity to abduct her.
Some interpreters of Ramayana say that Sita was forced to prove her chastity by the test of fire by Rama (after she was freed from the clutches of Ravana) only because of her intemperate and terrible accusation against the saintly and devout Lakshmana.
The importance of fighting against atrocity done to woman
Jatayu, the old and once powerful bird, noticed Ravana abducting Sita forcefully and flying with her in his vehicle towards his country Lanka. Jatayu fought valiantly with Ravana in an effort to release Sita. Unfortunately, he could not succeed in this effort. The bird sacrificed its very own life on such a noble effort. Before taking his last breath, though, Jatayu managed to convey the news to Rama, who was moved to tears by the old bird’s gallantry. Rama performed its last rites and funeral, as though he was the bird’s son.
Divine love transcends all barriers of caste and creed
Lowly fisherman Guha was was full of devotion to Rama. He helped Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita cross the Ganges river in a boat. Impressed by his devotion and service, Rama accepted him as if his brother. Sabari, an old hunter woman of low caste, became a staunch devotee of Rama, just by hearing about Rama’s greatness.
When Rama was wandering the forests in search of Sita, he happened to visit Sabari’s hut. The old lady, overwhelmed with love for Rama, reportedly offered him fruits after nibbling each a bit to make sure that she did not offer sour fruits to her beloved Rama. Rama treated Sabari as though she was his own mother and showered his grace on her.
The importance of humility as a great virtue
Hanuman, estranged Vanar King Sugriva’s minister, was one of the greatest characters of Ramayana. Hanuman was physically very powerful, a great diplomat, very articulate, and very wise. Despite all his great traits, his humility was still unsurpassed. The moment he met Rama, he was bowled over by Rama’s divinity and charm and he committed himself to be Rama’s lifelong servant. The great feats he subsequently performed in serving Rama were unparalleled. The humility he displayed despite his greatness was unfathomable.
The greatness of true friendship
Rama befriended the estranged Vanar King Sugriva with a mutual promise of help. Sugriva’s brother Vali had forcefully taken Sugriva’s wife. Not only that, but he also denied him his share of the Vanar kingdom. Sugriva and Rama teamed up in an effort to eliminate the immensely powerful Vali. Sugriva, in turn, helped Rama in seeking and locating Sita. He also helped Rama to wage war against Ravana in order to retrieve Sita. Both did a commendable job in honoring their words.
Showing mercy, even to the enemy.
Ravana’s younger brother Vibhishan was an extremely righteous person. In fact, he was bold enough to warn and advise Ravana against abducting another person’s wife just to satisfy his own carnal desires. When the furious Ravana showed his brother to the door, Vibhishana went to Rama and surrendered to him. Despite reservations from Sugriva and others, Rama accepted Vibhishana into his fold.
During the first fiery combat between Rama and Ravana, Rama destroyed all of Ravana’s weapons and armor. So, Ravana stood on the war field unprotected. Rama, who could have easily killed Ravana at that moment, in one of the greatest acts of graciousness, then asked Ravana to retire for the day and return to the war field the next day, fully rearmed, as it was against dharma to kill an un-armed person.
The need for the highest standards in a King
After annihilating Ravana and freeing Sita from confinement, Rama performed one of the most controversial and oft-criticized demands in asking Sita to jump into the fire to prove her chastity. Sita did it, and she came out unscathed. Rama took her into his loving fold once again.
Later, when he became King of Ayodhya, he came to know that a washerman who spoke ill words about Rama for having accepted his wife Sita who had stayed in the confinement of his enemy for months. Rama, whose love for Sita was unfathomable, then made the most painful decision in relinquishing her—simply because he had to maintain a very high order of personal probity as the ruler of Ayodhya.
One can go on discussing many more lessons of morality and dharma that can be found from an in-depth reading of Ramayana. It is no wonder that Ramayana is a wonderful story for both children and elders alike. It’s both a wondrous piece of literature and a great source of guidance on righteous living that has stood up to the test of time. It continues to inspire millions of people, breaking through both religion and linguistic barriers across the world.