India and Indian culture are often seen as being averse to change. This land is often viewed as a place where things happen because of fate and not due to human effort. But is this really true ? Do the Ramayana and the Mahabharata teach us that caste matters ? What do the epics say about ties of blood ? What lessons can we learn from the epics on the matter of social hierarchy ? The answer is CHOICE — The epics teach us that often, what matters is not the family you are born into, but the people you choose to make your family.
Here are some examples from the Ramayana that indicate blood relations are secondary to relationships of choice. Ram and Lakshman were not born to the same mother. Their mothers were Kaushalya and Sumitra respectively. In fact, Lakshman had a twin brother by the name of Shatrughna but he preferred the company of Ram, the eldest of the four sons of Dashrath. Lakshman’s devotion to Ram lasted a life time, with him choosing to follow Ram into exile and even into war. At no point in the Ramayana is Lakshman’s love for this elder brother in question because they are not related by blood.
And here is another interesting fact – Dashrath was not the biological father of any of his sons. Ram, Bharat, Shatrughan and Lakshman were born after the king gave his three wives kheer that came from a yajna conducted by Rishyaringa.
In the Mahabharata, none of the Pandavas — the five-brother team named after their father Pandu — were actually the sons of Pandu. Though Pandu acknowledged them as his sons and legitimate successors, all the five brothers had different biological fathers. Yudhisthira was the son of Yamraj, the god of death and truth. Bhima was the son of Vayu, the wind god. Arjuna’s biological father was Indra, the ruler of Amaravati. And these three were only the sons of Kunti – Pandu’s first wife. His second wife Madri gave birth to two sons – Nakul and Sahdev, both of whom had the Ashwin twins for fathers. Not only were the Pandavas not related to Pandu by blood, we might even say that the elder three were not related to the youngest two. What brought the 5 heroes of the Mahabharata together was the name of Pandu and the will of Kunti.
Also in the Mahabharata, Krishna and Balram were not related to each other by blood. Krishna was the biological son of Devaki while Balram was born to Rohini. Despite this, Krishna and Balram remained close for their entire lives.
In the Ramayana, Vibheeshan was the blood brother of Ravana and yet he parted ways with his family and his people to side with Ram and the vaanaras.
Let us move ahead and leave family ties behind. Let us talk about caste. Despite India being nearly seventy years into independence, we are still often told that caste matters. That the caste we are born into determines the shape your life will take. And yet, the epics are full of examples that say it is the individual’s action and not his birth that determines his destiny.
Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, was a Dasyu – a forest bandit – and not a Brahmin. But he is acknowledged as a poet and sage today because of his work – the Ramayana. It was not his birth, but his choices that elevated him.
The composer of the Mahabharata — Ved Vyasa — was also not of high birth. His father was a sage by the name of Parahar. But his mother was a fisherwoman by the name of Matsyagandha. Despite this, he is known as one of the most illustrious poets.
Hanuman, perhaps one of the most beloved gods of the Hindu pantheon, was part of a forest tribe and hence, had no caste. He was part of vanara society that lived in the forests, far from the urban culture where varna vyavastha was prevalent. This never affected his acceptability among Hindus. If anything, he holds a more exalted position than many higher deities.
Ravana, the villain of the Ramayana, was the son of Sage Vishrava, a Brahmin. Yet he is known to be a dastardly villian whose ill-deeds caused him to be eventually slain by Ram.
Karna, the son of Surya the Son god, lived his whole life as a soot-putra despite being of royal and divine lineage. He was born into a high caste — his father was a god and his mother Kunti was a princess — but this nothing to alleviate the suffering he had to undergo his whole life.
Ekalavya, the forest-dweller, despite being caste-less and untrained, became a great archer. So great was his skill that he managed to shame Arjun, who was a bona fide disciple of Drona, the greatest teacher of that age.
The epics therefore, are not about static social values and fate. They are also about individual will and effort. They are about being but they are also about becoming. People’s position in life is not wholly dependent upon what they are born as. It is also shaped by how they act and the choices they make.
I believe Bill Gates had to say something similar to this, which shows that our choices and efforts in life can help us shape our destiny.
“If you are born poor its not your mistake, But if you die poor its your mistake.”
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, was a man of similar virtues. He was born in South India to a Muslim family, he used to play musical instrument with great interest in carnatic music. He was a scientist and he rose to become the President of India. He was a man, I believe who gave an example of how your choices can make you great in life and they are not driven by where, in which caste or which family you are born in. May be he understood the true meaning of the Epics.
We have many examples from late history and near history, where people have made choices that shaped their life. Buddha was a prince, who chose to become a saint and his preaching changed the course of entire human history. Ashoka, was a fierceful king, who after the war made a choice to accept peace and he spread Buddhism to its peak. Mother Teresa, was a foreign lady in India, who choose to spread humanity. Abraham Lincoln, was a poor boy with lot of difficulties in life and his choices made him the President of America, so is the case with Barack Obama. History is full of examples, we just have to take a look and accept it.
So, as much as your family, your location and your culture can have a great impact on you, it is not the caste, the family preferences or anything that can be the only guide to your fate. Your choices and your decisions can shape your fate and life, in a different way. Your free will make you, who you can be. Make A Choice !