What is my take from Indian Epics ?

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 !

What was the turning point in Ramayana which led to Battle of Lanka !

There are many versions in the Epic Story of Ram, like the Valmiki version, the Tulsidas version and various others. I have a general understanding of various events in Ramayana, which are normally known to the people of India as TV series, books, novels or the Ramayana itself. I was contemplating on various aspects of Ramayana and if you follow my blog, you would know recently I have been doing some study on this Epics and hence frequent posts on them.

Today I want to take you on a ride to a complete new chain of thoughts which can blow your mind on what your understanding about the Ramayana and the characters in the story. As the story goes, the turning point happens in Ramayana happens when Kaikayee influenced by the words of Manthara, asks King Dasharth to drive away Prince Rama out of the kingdom into exile, so her son Bharath becomes the king in future. So that happens, but this event has not yet become the cause of demise of Raavan or Lanka.

Sita, wife of Rama, decides to follow her husband into the exile or jungle. Well good, she was his wife and they vow to be together in good and bad. Fantastic, both go along. Hold on, there is a twist ! Lakshman, brother of Ram, decides to follow his brother and leaves behind his wife, breaking the vow of being together in good or bad. So the Trio, Ram-Sita-Lakshman go to the jungle. Nice. Enjoy the Trip.

The Biggest Turning Point of the Story – Surpanakha. You don’t know her ? She is sister of Raavan, who becomes the antagonist of the Ramayana, because of the event that I am going to describe shortly. Surpanakha, was a widow, who used to roam in the Jungles of South India. One fine day, during her visit to Panchvati, she falls for beauty of Ram. Ram however denies her saying he is faithful to Sita and can’t be interested in her. Well, Surpanakha turns to equally good looking Lakshman, who denies her too. What follows is some discussion, fight and Lakshman cutting her nose. She goes to her brother, Raavan and asks him to take revenge with the Brothers. You know what happens next, Raavan kidnaps Sita, Ram follows to Lanka along with Hanuman, who fires the entire Lanka, a epic War and demise of Lanka. Adios Raavan, thanks to your sister. Well, not her fault actually.

Now, what is interesting in my point of view is, if only Ram and Sita, went to exile. Lakshman stayed back with his wife and took care of Ayodhya. Then Surpanakha, would have agreed to that Ram is faithful to Sita and might have left. Then there would be no nose cutting and no Epic War. Raavan would be away from all this and so would Lanka be. Also, Lakshman was a angry youthful person, hence he treated with violence, may be. Ram on the other hand, if Surpanakha insisted, to be with him, would have found a different way to solve the issue. You are getting where I am going with this  ?

Everything happened in a way, because of Kaikayee and Surpanakha. But I believe there would have been a lot of different series of event, if Lakshman didn’t pitch in on the day, Ram left Ayodhya. There was no need. Ram was powerful enough to take care of himself and Sita. Why did he go ? WHY ! Poor Lanka, burnt in fire.

So if you ask me ! What was the turning point in Ramayana which led to the Battle of Lanka, then it would be the day or event when Lakshman opted to go with Ram !

The Underdogs of Epics

The two epics of India and Hinduism especially, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, have been point of my study recently. They are considered to be holy books by many and lot of stories have been a part of the religious beliefs. There are a lot of important learning from both the Epics and the understanding increases when both of them are read in parallel. However today I am not going to talk about the Heroes or any stories in the Epics. I am going to take a upside down view, pick few of the underdogs and discuss about them.

The Epics are very long and each one has a part in the story, a previous life and an after life. Lot of stories are inter-tangled and lot of connections between the events. But there are a few who get mentioned here and there. That is all that we get to know about them. There isn’t detailed explanation about their life, events or characteristics. May be I didn’t dwell deeper into either of them yet, however naturally my understanding is that every other kid in India knows on a higher level about the Epics and they can explain almost clearly the events that happen and the Heroes involved.

So given that I have never heard much of the following characters in the Epics and hence I call them UnderDogs. I don’t mean to de-signify their importance or intend to say that they didn’t do anything, probably you can add to my knowledge by commenting on your information about them. I just feel like talking about them and see what is the reason behind it. Here are those in no special order –

Bharat – The brother of Ram, the Hero of Epic Ramayana, named after him. Bharat is the key to the entire episode, where his mother feels insecure about the position of her son in the kingdom, after being influenced by Manthara. So she asks King Dashrath to send Ram to exile and make Bharat the king. Bharat rules the kingdom in the absence of his brother, however he is devoted to Ram as much as Laxman. He uses footwear of Ram on his throne, as symbol of Ram’s presence. Bharat comes to give Ram the control of kingdom. But I don’t know of any other mention of Bharat in the entire epic, about the wars he fought or any other events that is spoken of him. During 13 years of Ram’s exile and what does he do. I understand it is Ramayana the story of Ram, but hey what does Bharat do ?

Shatrughna – A lot of people even fail to recover his name properly and mix him to be a Pandav or from Mahabharat. Sad 😦 Anyway so I know he is the less spoken brother of Ram. I don’t remember what his skill set is and what is his character. Does he do anything in the entire course of Ram’s exile or after the return. What is he doing in the entire life ? Please feel free to share your views and knowledge.

Nakul & Sahadev – Well since they are often spoken of together, I will keep them together as well. They are 2 of the 5 Pandavas, sons of King Pandav and his wife Madri. There might be mention about their skills once in a while. But what they do during childhood, during the adolescent, during the schooling, during the game of dice, during the exile, epic Mahabharata war, after the war anything ? Am I being very abrupt here ! I don’t know. I believe as much as the information flows about Arjun, Bhima and even Yudhistira, I don’t see enough events or information associated with Nakul & Sahadev. Again feel free to share your views and inputs in comment.

Were they of less significant in the entire story or was it really so uneventful I am not sure. I believe the scholars who composed the Epic, didn’t want to make it big, but hey it is already so big. What does it mean of having them less spoken of ? Were they not at par with the other brothers ? As always I will be revisiting these episodes and the people mentioned above over and over again in various phase of my life and try to see what sense does it make to me. What do you feel !