Friday, May 29, 2009

Book Review: The Life We Are Given

"The Life We Are Given is a synthesis and culmination of seventy years’ combined experience by two of the wisest and most pioneering explorers and teachers of the possibilities of human transformation. I recommend it highly.” Dean Ornish, MD, President and Director, Preventive Medicine Research Institute

The first thing that fascinated me about The Life We Are Given is the authors themselves: George Leonard and Michael Murphy.

I have always loved George Leonard in a special way ever since I read his beautiful book The Ultimate Athlete. The book has remained an obsession with me and ideas from it have enriched a large number of my training programmes for corporate executives, to whom I invariably recommend the book. The ultimate athlete Leonard speaks about is not really an athlete in the normal sense of the term, though it can include athletes too. He means by the term every person who performs at his best in any field – in athletics, in other sports, in singing, in dancing, public speaking, mountain climbing, brain surgery, leading a team or an organization or even such plain ordinary areas as a desk job in a nine-to-five office. In The Ultimate Athlete Leonard studies the physical and psychological state that makes peak performance possible in any walk of life. Associating Leonard’s ideas with ideas from the Bhagavad Gita and other Indian texts has enriched my insights into how we can transform work through karma yoga to achieve self-transcendence and experience timelessness. It is through Leonard that I gathered my first western insights into what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would later call the flow state – the peak performing state in which excellence is effortless.

George Leonard is one of the founders of the human potential movement in the west and was a senior editor of Look for seventeen years. He is also an aikido teacher of great repute who has introduced the martial art to tens of thousands of people across the world. He is currently president of the Board of Esalen Institute and a past president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology.

Michael Murphy, the other author of the book, is the co founder of Esalen Institute whose work has been of great interest to me, particularly what relates to human consciousness and altered states of consciousness. He is also a member of the International Advisory Council of Auroville Foundation, Pondicherry.

Murphy’s introduction to Sri Aurobindo was through Frederic Spiegelberg, who also introduced him to Sri Ramana Maharshi [my grandteacher – two of my teachers were the maharshi’s direct disciples]. Murphy was a student at Stanford University doing his premed when he attended a lecture by Spiegelberg who had just returned from India where he had met both Ramana Maharshi and Aurobindo. Inspired, Michael Murphy gave up his studies for premed and switched to philosophy. He began reading widely, with special focus on Indian wisdom and also started practicing meditation. Soon he was in India where he visited Ramana Ashram in Tiruannamalai and spent a year and half at Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. Back in the states, he founded with his friend Richard Price Esalen Institute, which soon drew world attention and became the world’s new spirituo-intellectual capital in an age when humanity was breaking off chains of traditions that have been binding it for thousands of years and casting off blinds that kept it on the ‘straight path’. Those who led programs at Esalen included such intellectual celebrities as historian Arnold Toynbee, theologian Paul Tillich, psychologists Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers and BF Skinner, mythologist Joseph Campbell, gestalt therapist Fritz Perls and family counsellor Virginia Satir.

The Life We Are Given, described as “A Long-Term Program for Realizing the Potential of Body, Mind, Heart, and Soul,” is a manual for personal growth based on what the authors call Integral Transformative Practice [ITP]. It is based on certain principles from Leonard’s book on long-term practice, Mastery, some of which are: Lasting transformation requires long-term practice; the most effective transformative practices involve the whole person – body, mind, heart, and soul; transformative principles in this age are best guided by several mentors rather than a single, all-powerful guru; and, though practitioners at times must surrender creatively to mentors, community and transformative agencies beyond ordinary functioning, the final authority always remains with the individual. Much of the book is also based on Murphy’s The Future of the Body.

The book also owes its existence to the first ITP programme, called Cycle 92, that began in January ’92 and continued for eleven months with one two-hour session every week. Cycle 92 is discussed at some length in the first part of the book, called Vision and Practice. The programme seems to have been quite effective. As the programme began, one of the participants, a thirty-nine-year-old psychologist, wrote describing her condition: “I am frequently in conflict over finances, writing ability, and my relationships with [a former teacher].” At the end of the programme she wrote: “This has been my most startling result. My financial situation has tripled as a result of my not plotting how it would resolve. My most serious interpersonal conflict has completely resolved…. There has been an almost total shift in my attitude. From former attempts to ‘make’ things happen to an acceptance of whatever is presented and an acceptance of whatever I am feeling. I truly feel more flowing and internally without the former obstacles that caused me sadness. I no longer feel stuck.”

One of the beautiful exercises described here reminded me of one line from a prayer from Rabindranath Tagore that I love very much: “Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.”

Part II of the book, A Transformative Practice for Our time, where the authors discuss the ITP practice in detail, gives a large number of beautiful exercises. Exercises for developing balance and centre are named GRACE exercises, because they involve grounding [G], relaxation [R], awareness [A], Centering [C], and Energy [E]. The exercises in this group include several using water metaphors – Drill for Water, Pump Water, Fountain, Finger Spray, Half Windmill, and Rowing. I was happy to find surya namaskar included here [which I find beautiful but do not practice] along with many exercises from Yoga.

The instructions for deep relaxation exercises are thorough and include a relaxation visualization. I found the instructions [and the exercise] splendid. The instructions are practically identical with an exercise I have been using in some of my own training programmes for years and I have noticed they work beautifully every time. Those who are familiar with yoganidra would observe this is very close to the basic yoganidra practice. This could be a light meditation exercise in itself or could be the foundation exercise for numerous other practices, including a variety of meditations, NLP and regression.

The book proceeds from the deep relaxation exercise to creating energy waves, affirmations, image work and so on. The image work includes imaging for improving vision, preventing /reversing coronary artery disease, opening our hearts to others and becoming more loving, for reshaping the body and improving physical performance, increasing creativity and so on. The book also describes a simple meditation per se and discusses the benefits of meditation at great length. A full chapter is devoted to physical exercises [The Exercise Factor] and another to food [Food for Transformation]. I loved the chapter titled The Body as a Teacher. Like the authors, I have always believed that there is profound wisdom in the body and taught that the body’s wisdom is far superior to that of the mind. I totally agree with what the book says: the body is also a master teacher.

The book’s core vision has close affinity to what Sri Aurobindo said about the divinity within man and its unfoldment. With Aurobindo and several other masters since antiquity, eastern and western, the book believes that we enjoy “a secret contact or kinship with the founding principle of the universe. The recognition of a reality ordinarily hidden but immediately apprehended as our true identity, our immortal soul, our “original face,” our secret at-one-ness with God…. The idea that divinity is present in all things, manifesting itself through the immense adventure of evolution, helps account for the mystery of our great surplus capacities, our yearnings for God, our inextinguishable creativity, our sense of grace in human affairs. It helps explain our quest for self-transcendence and humanity’s proliferation of transformative practices.”

The authors of the book are convinced that “Every person on this planet can join the procession of transformative practice that began with our ancient ancestors. That is the guiding idea of this book. The ways of growth described here, which can be adopted by anyone, embrace our many parts. We call them integral to signify their inclusion of our entire human nature – body, mind, heart, and soul.” [From the Preface to the book]

There is one point on which I disagree with the authors: when they say “transformative principles in this age are best guided by several mentors rather than a single, all-powerful guru.” Certain things are not all that much influenced by social changes or lifestyle changes, and spirituality is one of these. Your growth happens not because of others, but from within yourself. It is not others who help you grow, but your own psychological and spiritual disposition. When you open yourself up completely, growth begins. To whom you open up is not as important as how completely you are open. In fact, as spiritual traditions all over the world have always believed, working with one master is better than working with several at a time. Working with several masters, in any age, modern or ancient, could even be detrimental to spiritual growth. Which is not to say that we cannot learn from several teachers.

Apart from this, The Life We Are Given is a beautiful, compact package of integral growth exercises and insights that can transform us completely – provided we are willing to give it time, dedication and commitment, a need the authors make sure we realize. They repeat it many times throughout the book. If you are willing to give these to the book, then it is for you, and a wonderful journey awaits you. If you just intend to browse through the book and then put it away, you might as well forget it.

By the way, I loved the short collection of quotations from masters across the world, given in the chapter The Marriage of Theory and Practice. I liked best the one from St Catherine of Genoa, who said: “My Me is God, nor do I recognize any other Me except my God himself.” This proves for the millionth time that the highest experience of masters is the same all over the world. The ancient Indian rishis would cheer Catherine, and say, true, and they do not know “any other God except the Me in myself.” This is the truth expressed by the Upanishads in such words as aham brahmāsmi.

The title of that chapter, The Marriage of Theory and Practice, is perhaps the best description of the book. For, it contains the highest wisdom with practices that will work beautifully for anyone who is sincere about them. This is a marriage that works as all marriages should but not all do.


The Life We Are Given, by George Leonard and Michael Murphy, Editions India, an imprint of Stone Hill Foundation Publishing, Cochin 2006, xiv+210 pp, ISBN 81-89658-43-3

Mind Power: Can It Move Machines?

We have all heard about people bending spoons and stopping clocks using their power of concentration. But does it really work? Can mind power really influence mechanical things?

I was recently reading The Life We Are Given by George Leonard and Michael Murphy, my review of which appears elsewhere on this blog. While reading the book, I came across something interesting about mind power there. Here is the short passage from the book that speaks about it:

From 1973 through 1975…a researcher named Duane Elgin conducted a remarkable series of exercises at Stanford Research institute, attempting to influence a sensitive, heavily shielded magnetometer by his intentionality alone. The magnetometer measures changes in a magnetic field and records these changes on a moving sheet of paper.

The first few exercises generally followed the same course. Elgin would sit or stand a few feet from the magnetometer, where he could see the recording device, and would focus all the force of his will on the instrument, trying to influence it and thus make the needle move. He could continue this concentrated effort for twenty to thirty minutes, watching the needle tracing an almost straight line – but with no results. Finally, exhausted and exasperated, he would say to himself, “I give up.” At that moment, the needle would start indicating a change in the magnetic field. These changes were by no means insignificant. In some of Elgin’s exercises, the needle went entirely off the scale; to get such results by normal means would take a force estimated to be one thousand times stronger than that of the earth’s magnetic field. Nor did physical distance lessen Elgin’s effectiveness. In one instance, he was able to affect the magnetometer strongly from his home several miles away.

Later, Elgin learned to refine his technique. “I’d spend twenty to thirty minutes doing the best I could to establish a sense of rapport and connectedness with the instrument, and with great will and concentration I would coalesce that sense of connectedness into a field of palpable energy. I’d feel myself coming into a magnetic field and pulsing it to respond. Then, when there would be a moment of total surrender, the response would occur.”[1]

The power of the mind is enormous. The Yoga Vasishtha, a classic text of Vedanta that discusses the nature and powers of the mind in great details, says that as minds we have limitless power at our command. “Thought in the forms of desire, imagination, effort, and will is the most potent force in the world. Mind is endowed with creative power. In its creative activity mind is absolutely free. We all attain to what we aspire after. All that we intensely desire and make efforts for comes to us sooner or later. In fact, our own efforts guided by our aspirations are the warp and woof of our destiny. Our lives are what we make them by our thoughts. The world around us changes in accordance with our own thoughts.”[2]

[1] The Life We Are Given, by George Leonard and Michael Murphy, Editions India, an imprint of Stone Hill Foundation Publishing, Kochi, Kerala, India.

[2] The Philosophy of Yoga Vasishtha, by Bhikhan Lal Atreya in The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol. III, The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkata.

A Short Exercise in Miracles

Affirmations are statements we make about the changes we want to see in ourselves. These are statements made in the present tense and are usually used in conjunction with visualizations. An affirmation for an obese person, for instance, could be: I have a slim and fit body. An affirmation for a person who suffers from lack of confidence in public speaking could be: I am confident about speaking in public, and I speak relaxed and with full assurance. Neuro-Linguistic Programming [NLP] makes use of affirmations and visualizations to effect several of the changes it brings about at the body, mind and spiritual level of individuals. Ancient Yoga and modern psychology both believe in the enormous power of affirmations to transform ourselves. Several meditations and meditation traditions make use of the power of affirmations to bring about transformations and events that appear miraculous.

The Life We Are Given by George Leonard and Michael Murphy[i], a book teaching what the authors call Integral Transformative Practice [ITP], speaks about Focused Surrender which Leonard discovered during his work on another book, The Silent Pulse. Focused Surrender is based on the principle that affirmations, visualizations as well as openness to grace work best when they involved “the unlikely marriage of trying and not trying, of zeroing in and letting go.” According to the book, “it appeared that both focused intentionality and the surrender of ego were necessary for experiencing existence at such a fundamental level and creating what often appeared miraculous.”

Given below is an exercise in Focused Surrender from The Life We Are Given . For more such exercises, as well as for several other exercises in self-transformation and personal growth, get a copy of the book.


Find a carpeted or matted space where you won’t be disturbed. Lie on your back with your feet about as far apart as your shoulders and your arms out a few inches from your sides, palms up. Close your eyes and breathe deeply, letting the incoming breath expand your abdomen as well as your chest. Feel the surface beneath you. Shift slightly, as if you are nestling deeper into this surface.

Now send a beam of awareness through your body, searching out any area of tension. Wherever you find tension, le tit melt away, as if it is sinking into the surface beneath you, then into the earth. After completing this process of relaxation, you will spend a few minutes on a special kind of breathing that will require your concentration – your surrender.

Start by taking a deep breath through your nostrils, with your mouth gently closed, being sure to let your abdomen expand. After you have inhaled fully, part your lips slightly and consciously blow the air out. But do it noiselessly, as if you are blowing a soap bubble away from you. Continue blowing the air out consciously until you have fully exhaled. Then gently close your lips and simply wait, fully relaxed, expecting nothing. This is your moment of surrender. The incoming breath will enter your nostrils of its own accord. You need do nothing at all. If you are in a complete state of surrender, the precise moment of inhalation will come as a slight surprise. After the inhalation has filled you, open your lips slightly and repeat the cycle, consciously exhaling, then closing your lips and waiting for the spontaneous inhalation.

In this process, you are joining the voluntary with the involuntary, the willed with the spontaneous, the conscious with the unconscious. Then in the timeless pause between the willed exhalation and the spontaneous inhalation, you can begin to experience that state of egoless not-doing that is the very essence of creation and grace. Continue with this mode of breathing for a few minutes, then let your breath return to normal.

Now place your left hand, palm down, on your abdomen. With eyes still closed, bring to mind one of your affirmations. Say it aloud several times. Then create a mental image of yourself and your life as it would be, were the affirmation already realized. Make it real in your consciousness in your body. Flesh out that reality with as many feelings as you can. As soon as the realized affirmation becomes vividly present, let your left hand rise a few inches above your abdomen. Le tit float there as if suspended, with no effort on our part. Focus intently on the image, holding it in your mind with all your will. Concentrate!

When you can no longer hold the image in place, simply give up and let your hand fall to your abdomen. Lie there in a state of grateful acceptance of whatever maybe, with a feeling of total surrender, a sense of alignment with the divine spirit or with the universe itself.

Whenever you are ready, repeat the exercise. There’s a good chance the image will become more vivid with repetition. It might well be that your left hand will begin to rise spontaneously, with no conscious effort on your part, accurately signalling the presence of a vivid image in your consciousness.

When you choose to end the exercise, remove your left hand from your abdomen and put it on the floor a few inches out from your left side, palm up. Lie there in a state of acceptance for a while, then deepen your breathing. Move your body around gently with increased awareness of the surface beneath you. Stretch your arms and legs and, if you feel like it, yawn. Then open your eyes and sit up.


While in many ways different from this, another tool used for achieving personal transformations is the swish technique, which I have used in a few of my training programmes for corporate executives. For several reasons, though, I like Focused Surrender much more than the swish technique, one of them being that Focused Surrender has roots running into the rich soil of spirituality which the swish technique lacks.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the transformations and events brought about through the power of affirmations appear to be miraculous. The Life We Are Given talks about many such experiences.

[i] The Life We Are Given, by George Leonard and Michael Murphy, Editions India, an imprint of Stone Hill Foundation Publishing, Kochi, Kerala, India.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


I have always loved the rainy season. Maybe it is because I spent all my growing up years in Kerala, where it rains incessantly for months when the monsoons come. There too, I remember, I used to sit and watch the rains, sometimes for hours at a stretch. Nature would be at its most beautiful and most powerful, with thunderstorms and torrential rains, the trees would get into wild dances, and I would sit in my veranda and watch it all for hours. The most beautiful thing to watch would be the bamboos, which were everywhere in my village and gave my village its name. They loved the storm taking possession of them, they loved surrendering themselves to the wind. And together, the rainstorm and the bamboos would go into screaming raptures – bending and stretching, quaking and shivering, shrieking and howling, clutching and letting go, every bamboo in each thicket filled with unending throes of ecstasy.

Rains have come to my city too, almost a month before it is due this year. This is probably what the meteorologists call pre-monsoons. It rained all day yesterday, almost non-stop. There were strong winds too – cyclone Aila, they say. When I was coming back from the college where I am part of a team giving a two week summer workshop to a hundred teachers, I noticed on the roadside an auto-rickshaw crushed by a fallen tree.

It was a rather strange sight. The auto-rickshaw was not on the road, but away from it, among the bushes by the roadside. I wondered how it reached there at that moment for the tree to fall exactly on it.

Some people slowed down as they saw the sight, to have a good look at it and to understand what exactly had happened. And others behind them grew impatient and blew horns. They had no time.

Like other impatient drivers, had the driver of this auto-rickshaw too hurried and hooted his horns impatiently on the way to get there exactly at that time? Had he furiously tried to overtake all other vehicles on the way, so that he could reach there exactly at that time? Had he cursed every other driver on the way who stood in his way of getting there exactly then? To be punctual on his appointment with this accident?

Did some power, say destiny, lead him on so that he reached that exact spot at that exact moment? Or was it all mere chance, coincidence?

One of the most moving short stories I have ever read is Stig Dagerman’s To Kill a Child – a very small short story. I remember reading years ago a volume of horror stories collected by Alfred Hitchcock, some of which were chilling in every sense of the word – Stories that Scared Even Me. But I found Dagerman’s story even more chilling. Deeply unsettling, the story makes us think deeply about the mysterious ways in which life suddenly takes new turns, giving us no chance to anticipate anything. Here is the complete short story:


It’s a peaceful day as sunlight settles onto the fields of the plain. Soon bells will be ringing, because today is Sunday. Between fields of rye, two children have just come upon a footpath that they have never taken before, and in the three villages along the plain, windowpanes glisten in the sun. Men shave before mirrors propped on kitchen tables, women hum as they slice up cinnamon bread for the morning meal, and children sit on kitchen floors, buttoning the fronts of their shirts. This is the pleasant morning of an evil day, because on this day a child will be killed in the third village by a cheerful man. Yet the child still sits on the kitchen floor, buttoning his shirt. And the man who is still shaving talks of the day ahead, of their rowing trip down the creek. And still humming, the woman places the freshly cut bread on a blue plate.

No shadows pass over the kitchen, and yet even now the man who will kill the child stands near a red gas pump in the first village. He’s a cheerful man, looking through the viewfinder of his camera, framing a shot of a small blue car and a young woman who stands beside it, laughing. As the woman laughs and the man snaps the charming picture, the attendant screws their gas cap on tightly. He tells them it looks like a good day for a drive. The woman gets into the car, and the man who will kill the child pulls out his wallet. He tells the attendant they’re driving to the sea. He says when they reach the sea they’ll rent a boat and row far, far out. Through her open window, the woman in the front seat hears his words. She settles back and closes her eyes. And with her eyes closed she sees the sea and the man sitting beside her in a boat. He’s not an evil man, he’s carefree and cheerful. Before he climbs into the car, he stands for a moment in front of the grille, which gleams in the sun, and he enjoys the mixed aroma of gasoline and lilacs. No shadows fall over the car, and its shiny bumper has no dents, nor is it red with blood.

But just as the man in the first village climbs into his car and slams the door shut, and as he is reaching down to pull out the choke, the woman in the third village opens her kitchen cupboard and finds that she has no sugar. The child, who has finished buttoning his shirt and has tied his shoes, kneels on a couch and sees the stream winding between the alders, pictures the black rowboat pulled up into the tall grass of the bank. The man who will lose his child has finished shaving and is just now closing his portable mirror. Coffee cups, cinnamon bread, cream, and flies each have a place on the table. Only the sugar is missing. And so the mother tells her child to run over to the Larssons’ to borrow a little. As the child opens the door, the man calls after him, urging him to hurry, because the boat lies waiting for them on the bank of the creek, and today they will row much, much further than they ever have before. Running through the yard, the child can think of nothing else but the stream and the boat and the fish that jump from the water. And no one whispers to the child that he has only eight minutes to live and that the boat will lie where it is today and for many days to come.

It isn’t far to the Larssons’. It’s only across the road. And just as the child is crossing that road, the small blue car is speeding through the second village. It’s a tiny village, with humble red houses and newly awakened people who sit in their kitchens with raised coffee cups. They look out over their hedges and see the car rush past, a large cloud of dust rising behind it. The car moves fast, and from behind the steering wheel, the man catches glimpses of apple trees and newly tarred telephone poles slipping past like gray shadows. Summer breathes through their open windows, and as they rush out of the second village their car hugs the road, riding safely, surely, in the middle. They are alone on this road – so far. It’s a peaceful thing, to drive completely alone on a broad road. And as they move out onto the open plain, that feeling of peace settles deeper. The man is strong and contented, and with his right elbow he can feel the woman’s body. He’s not a bad man. He’s in a hurry to get to the sea. He wouldn’t hurt even the simplest creature, and yet, still, he will soon kill a child. As they rush on toward the third village, the woman again shuts her eyes, pretending those eyes will not open again until they can look on the sea. In time with the car’s gentle swaying, she dreams about the calm, lapping tide, the peaceful, mirrored surface of the sea.

Because life is constructed in such a merciless fashion, even one minute before a cheerful man kills a child he can still feel entirely at ease, and only one minute before a woman screams out in horror she can close her eyes and dream of the sea, and during the last minute of that child’s life his parents can sit in a kitchen waiting for sugar, talking casually about the child’s white teeth and the rowing trip they have planned, and that child himself can close a gate and begin to cross a road, holding in his right hand a few cubes of sugar wrapped up in white paper, and for the whole of that minute he can see nothing but a clear stream with big fish and a wide-bottomed boat with silent oars.

Afterward, everything is too late. Afterward, there is a blue car stopped sideways in the road, and a screaming woman takes her hand from her mouth, and it’s dark with blood. Afterward, a man opens a car door and tries to stand on his legs, even though he has a pit of horror within him. Afterward, a few sugar cubes are strewn meaninglessly about in the blood and gravel, and a child lies motionless on its stomach, its face pressed heavily against the road. Afterward, two pale people, who have not yet had their coffee, come running through a gate to see a sight in the road they will never forget. Because it’s not true that time heals all wounds. Time does not heal the wounds of a killed child, and it heals very poorly the pain of a mother who forgot to buy sugar and who sent her child across the road to borrow some. And it heals just as poorly the anguish of a once-cheerful man who has killed a child.

Because the man who has killed a child does not go to the sea. The man who has killed a child drives home slowly, in silence. And beside him sits a mute woman with a bandaged hand. And as they drive back through the villages, they do not see even one friendly face—all shadows, everywhere, are very dark. And when they part, it is in the deepest silence. And the man who has killed a child knows that this silence is his enemy, and that he will need years of his life to conquer it by crying out that it wasn’t his fault. But he also knows that this is a lie. And in the fitful dreams of his nights he will try instead to gain back just a single minute of his life, to somehow make that single minute different.

But life is so merciless to the man who has killed a child that everything afterward is too late.


Did it all l happen because it was destined to happen? Was it all inevitable, unavoidable, unalterable? Is there something called destiny that is inviolable? Is nothing then in our hands?

Step by step, small events lead up to the spine-chilling final event. Every event innocent in itself, and giving us no clue to what is to come like lightning and strike us in a moment, when we least expect it.

Speaking of my all-time my favourite work of literature, the Mahabharata, was the epic war there destined? Was it destiny that made Draupadi burst out in wild laughter as she watched Duryodhana mistake still water for solid floor and fall into it as he took the first step to walk across it? That abandoned laughter is in many ways uncharacteristic of the very dignified Draupadi. Was it destiny that made her abandon her dignity to the lightness of the moment? Her laughter definitely was one of the reasons that led to her humiliation later in the dice hall and that humiliation was again definitely one of the reasons that made the war inevitable.

Throughout the Ramayana, Sita has the greatest respect for her brother-in-law Lakshmana and Lakshmana’s feelings for her are more reverent than those for a sister-in-law – it is as though Sita is his mother. That is how his mother Sumitra had asked him to look at Sita as they were leaving for the jungle, and that is how he has looked at her throughout their stay in the jungle. Sita knows this. And yet when she asks him to go after Rama who has gone after the golden deer and he refuses, fearing for her safety and in the sure knowledge that no harm can come to Rama, she shockingly accuses him of lusting after her and waiting for Rama to die so that he can have her. Was it destiny working through Sita that made her say such unutterable things in those sad moments?

Or was it all matters of chance, resulting from what we are as human beings?

Arabian literature and Persian literature are full of stories about unalterable destiny. The Arabian Nights, for instance, tells several such stories, including that of prince Ajib [Agib], told by the third kalandar [calandar] in which the young son of a merchant comes and lives in a secret underground house in an uninhabited island in the middle of the ocean to avoid death that has been predicted to happen on a particular day at the hands of a particular man, Ajib. And destiny brings Ajib from his faraway kingdom through a shipwreck and other adventures to be with the youth in his underground hiding to deal him with his death exactly on the appointed day.

A Persian story tells us of the servant of a rich man who rode all day on the fastest horse, thinking he is avoiding death but was in fact running towards it. Here is the story as retold by Somerset Maugham, whose title for the story is Appointment in Samarra.

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.

The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

There are many versions of the story, each slightly different, but all of them telling more or less the same thing. Here is one more.

A certain rich merchant was walking through the market place of Baghdad when, standing across the street, he suddenly saw the figure of Death, beckoning him. The terrified man ran home, mounted his fastest horse, and raced five hundred miles to Samara. Later that night, there was a knock at the door. When the man answered it, there stood Death.

"Why did you beckon me in the market place of Baghdad today?" asked the man. "I did not beckon you." replied Death. "I was merely surprised to see you, for I knew that tonight, we had an appointment in Samara.

Popular Indian literature too has several such stories. Many years ago I was in Uttar Kashi in the Himalayas, conducting a meditation camp there. There was a group of some forty men and women with me, mostly officers of Tata Steel [TISCO then, Tata Iron and Steel Company] and Tata Motors [TELCO then, Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company]. While we were there, I took some of the group for a satsang with a mahatma there, a very sweet, elderly monk and a great scholar, and he narrated this story to us.

Once a bus was travelling from Rishikesh to Uttarakashi and on the way at some place a young man boarded the bus. From the moment the young man got in, accidents started taking place. Once a tire went flat, another time the bus got stuck in lose mud, and a third time it went out of control and narrowly escaped from plunging into a gorge. Everyone was frightened and everyone began saying it was all because of the young man – he is an evil omen, an apshakun. Finally the bus reached a ramshackle bridge which looked like it would collapse any moment. The river beneath the bridge was deep and narrow, scary to look at. And all the passengers in one voice protested against the young man – they wanted him to get down from the bus. They would then cross the bridge by bus, and he can walk across it and join them on the other side. The driver and the conductor of the bus sided with the passengers and the youth reluctantly agreed. He got down and the bus moved on, as he stood and watched. The bus was now in the middle of the bridge, and suddenly there were loud cracks. To the horror of the young man watching from this side, all on a sudden the bridge broke into two and the bus plunged into the depths of the river, taking the driver, the conductor and all the passengers with it.

Was it destiny saving the young man and taking all the others to their death? Or is it all just chance?

I love to believe with the Mahabharata that it is the impotent ones that worship destiny – daivam klībā upāsate. And yet at times life makes me wonder – isn’t there a powerful force called destiny? Wasn’t it destiny that led that auto rickshaw driver reach that exact spot exactly at the moment when that tree was uprooted? Wasn’t it destiny that killed the young child? Wasn’t it destiny that saved the young man and killed all the others in the bus?

Or was it? Couldn’t it all have been mere chance? [I am ignoring Appointment at Samarra here because it is a teaching story told to tell us that death is inevitable.]

Even Dagerman’s story, To Kill a Child – couldn’t it be explained as mere chance? Pure coincidence?

The newspapers carried the sad story of a young girl and her brother during the recent terror strike at Mumbai. As I remember, the girl was studying in Bombay and felt lonely and asked her brother to come over from Kolkata. A terrorist bullet killed the brother, leaving the girl unharmed. Was it destiny that made the young girl invite her brother to Mumbai, or was it pure chance, just her homesickness.

I once watched a child being run over by a bus. Right before my eyes. A little girl of around six years of age. Her school was on one side of the road and her home, on the other side, about a minute’s distance by walk. As the bell rang ending the school, the child picked up her books and ran straight to her home. And on came the bus, running over her. I can still see before my eyes the little girl falling, the front wheel of the large bus climbing over her small body as the driver desperately tried to apply the break. For full half a minute, the entire weight of the bus was on her, and then the wheel climbed back from her, leaving her dead.

What made the little girl run on that day, when she could have easily reached home in one minute? Just the urgency every child feels to reach home? Or destiny?

Not ten meters away from where the little girl was killed, I had once seen a young man lying dead, his body bathed in blood. The bus stop was five-six seconds away, but the young man wouldn’t wait. Unwilling to wait, he had jumped down from the fast moving bus.

What made him decide to make that jump? The impetuosity of youth? Or destiny?

Both the youth and the little girl were my distant cousins.

By the way, Stig Dagerman, who wrote To Kill a Child, met with his own death on 4th November, 1954. He committed suicide.


The image shows Seyella, Santharian Goddess of Destiny and Time. Santharia is an online community, engaged in developing a mythical world as JRR Tolkien did.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Little Corner for Yourself

During the Stress Management workshop I conducted last week for the Confederation of Indian Industries, a young man came to me with a problem. He was trapped in a job he not only did not love, but positively hated. What could he do, he asked me. His job paid well, he has been working for his organization for many years now, but he hated every moment he worked and now that hatred had begun to spill over to his life – poisoning his relationship with his friends, with his family, even with himself. What should he do?

Choose the profession you love, and you won’t have to work a single day in your life, they say. Absolutely true. Work is no more work then. Work is no more a drudgery then, no more a chore. Work becomes pleasure. Work becomes fun. Work thrills you. It fills your life with excitement. Work becomes growth. The money you make is no more the real reward then; the real reward is the fun, the excitement, the thrill and the growth that comes through these. Then money becomes the bonus.

Unfortunately, all of us cannot choose the profession we love. Or do not choose the profession we love. For various reasons. Sometimes it is that the competition is so tough, opportunities so few, we do not get the job we love. Sometimes that job is not well-paid, sometimes it does not command great social respect, and you choose a profession that you do not love but is respected and well-paid. With young people, frequently their parents want them to do something entirely different from what they themselves want to do. And they give in to parental pressure. A fact so particularly true of lots and lots of young Indians today. I know so many young boys and girls who detest the profession they are in. They have no aptitude for it, and yet they are in it because of parental pressure.

In India we have always had the concept of swadharma. Swadharma is one’s dharma, and here the best meaning for the word dharma is ‘nature’. The word dharma is used in so many different senses that it is difficult to list them all, but essentially it means the true nature of a thing or a person. Thus, speaking of things, the ancient masters say the dharma of fire is heat, the dharma of water is to flow and find its level and so on. Dharyate iti dharmah – what sustains a thing’s nature, what makes a thing what it is, is its dharma.

According to the rishis, swadharma is not the profession of the family one is born into – a brahmana’s son is not necessarily a brahmana, a kshatriya’s son is not necessarily a kshatriya and so on. Swadharma is decided by what they called one’s gunas – swabhāva-prabhavair gunaih, as Krishna puts it in the Gita. One’s gunas need not be the gunas of the family one is born into. In the Mahabharata we have a clear example of this in Yudhishthira. Yudhishthira, by birth a kshatriya, was by gunas more a brahmana than a kshatriya, which created problems for him and all people around him all his life. Unless we choose the profession that our gunas – nature or qualities – decide for us, we will throughout our life be miserable, as Yudhishthira was.

Each plant in your garden has different requirements – some require more water, some less; some require shade, others, bright sunlight; some require certain minerals, others, other minerals. If you water the cactus every day, it might die. But the marigold in the post next to it needs to be watered daily.

At the heart of the concept of swadharma is the simple psychological-spiritual truth that unless we choose the profession that is right for us, life will not give us the challenges we need to grow, to actualize our potentials. And that is why Krishna tells Arjuna in the Gita: swadharme nidhanam shreyah, paradharmo bhayāvahah. It is better to die in one’s own dharma. Terrible is [the life of] paradharma – what is not one’s own dharma.

Past midnight, one day about a month ago, my wife and I were standing outside our home talking to two friends of ours – a professor friend from XLRI and another professor friend from Hawaii University. They had been with us all evening and we had been talking for some six hours at a stretch about various things, and now they were leaving. But so interesting had the conversations been, we were reluctant to end it and it continued outside our gate for a while more. Suddenly one of them asked me: How do you recognize your swadharma? And I answered: When you are doing your swadharma, you feel as though you are floating – light and weightless. The work you do sends thrills through you. Every moment becomes exhilarating. Excellence becomes effortless.

My friend who had asked the question commented – “You get into the ‘flow,’ right?”

The flow state is exactly what you get into when you are performing your swadharma.

Flow is the modern psychological term for that state in which you perform effortlessly at your best. Prof. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one authority who talks at length about the flow state in his books. [If you do not know how to pronounce his name, the professor himself explains – “Chicks send me high.” That’s easy, of course!]

This is how it feels when you are in the flow. You feel completely involved, focused and fully concentrating. You experience a sense of ecstasy – sort of being outside everyday reality. You have great inner clarity – your perceptions are absolutely clear, you know exactly what needs to be done and you do precisely that. You experience a sense of serenity – “no worries about self, feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego – afterwards feeling of transcending ego in ways not thought possible.” And you experience a sense of timelessness – you have no awareness of time passing, though you are fully alert and awareful.

A musician performing at his best frequently gets into flow. So does a dancer dancing, a player playing, an orator giving a speech, a runner running…a surgeon performing a complex surgery on the human brain. Yes, he too. The Mahabharata uses an unforgettably beautiful word describing Bhishma fighting in the battlefield – nrtyanniva, as though dancing. He is slaughtering people by the dozens a minute in battle and as he does so, he looks as though he is dancing. That is the flow state.

Only by following swadharma can we achieve flow. Only through flow can we achieve self-actualization.

But what about people like the young man who asked me that question in the Confederation of Indian Industries workshop? What should they do, now that they are trapped in the wrong dharma and have been so for many years?

My answer is, it is never too late to change.

That is, if you can afford to take the risk. Sometimes we lead our lives so deeply into paradharma, which Krishna describes as bhayāvahah, terrible in its prospects, that it becomes almost impossible to turn back or change course.

Is there then no hope for such people?

Here is something from Jim Cathcart’s essay in Jack Canfield and Jacqueline Miller’s Heart At Work. In the essay, Cathcart narrates the experience a professional musician friend of his shared with him:

When my second daughter was born, it was an emergency caesarean operation. We were very worried and I was there at the hospital. I remember prior to going into the hospital, talking with my wife’s doctor about what I did for a living. The doctor confided in me and said, “I wish I had been a musician because I love to play concert piano.”

Later, after my wife had the delivery, the doctor came out with the good news that my wife was fine and I had a brand new healthy baby girl. While we’re standing there and I was receiving the good news, another doctor walked up to the physician who had just delivered my child and said, “Excuse me, Doctor, I just wanted to tell you that you performed brilliantly in there, and it was an honour to have assisted you.” The doctor thanked his colleague, and the colleague left.

I just turned to the doctor and said, “Now tell the truth. You have just brought a new life into the world, saved another life, and you’ve had one of your colleagues tell you it’s an honour to be in your presence – for heaven’s sake, can you honestly say you wish you had been a musician?”

The doctor grinned, nodded his head and said, “I was pretty good in there.” We both chuckled and then the doctor said, “I know exactly why, too – because this morning, I got up early and, for one hour, I played Chopin at the piano.”

So there it is. The doctor could not choose the profession that was his swadharma. It should have been bhayāvahah, terrible, for him. But he does something beautiful. He finds a little corner for his swadharma in his life. He finds a little corner for himself in his life. And that corner enriches his entire life. Making whatever he does, even his paradharma, beautiful. Making him excel even in his paradharma.

If you cannot have the profession that is your swadharma, then find a little corner for your swadharma in your life. Find a little corner for yourself in your life. Nurture yourself. And your self, nurtured by your swadharma, will spread its fragrance to your entire your life, and to the whole world around you.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Rama: A Study in Self-Mastery

[This study is based exclusively on the Valmiki Ramayana. Other narrations of Rama’s story, which frequently differ from Valmiki’s narration, have not been taken into consideration.]

It was the Greek Historian Xenophon, I believe, who said, “A king should not only prove himself better than those he rules, he should cast a spell on them.” That is, cast a spell on them by the excellence of his thought and action, by the totality of his commitment to his vision and mission, and by the quality of his living and being. A close look at Rama’s life shows us that he, a man from a period much earlier than that of Xenophon, fully believed in this. That is one of the reasons why his life gives us so many invaluable lessons even for our age separated from his from a few millennia.

One of the most important lessons Rama’s life gives us is in self-mastery, at which he frequently falters, as all human beings do, but invariably triumphs. To look at how Rama falters again and again and eventually masters himself every time is as fascinating to do as it is rewarding. Rama’s failures and triumphs are invaluable lessons for all human beings, and particularly so for men and women in leadership positions who are expected to lead by example and set role models for others to follow.

The most beautiful example for this could be found in the Ayodhya Kanda of the Ramayana.

On that fateful Pushya morning when he was supposed to be installed as the crown prince of Ayodhya, the first major crisis of his life takes place. The previous evening he had been called twice to his father, King Dasharatha, the first time to be informed that he would be crowned the next day and the next time, to give advice regarding his role as a crown prince of the Ikshwakus, who have been kings for generations and have produced several legendary kings. The first meeting is very formal and takes place in the assembly. The second one is informal and intimate, and takes place in the antahpura [inner palace apartments].

On the day his coronation was supposed to take place, early in the morning Sumantra, the minister, comes and informs him that he is wanted at Queen Kaikeyi’s palace, where the king is waiting for him along with the queen. Rama believes it is with regard to something in connection with the coronation – perhaps Kaikeyi is not able to contain her joy at the news. He goes there, accompanied by his brother Lakshmana and several friends. He leaves his friends behind as he goes to the queen’s chamber – we are not sure whether he takes Lakshmana with him or not. There is no reason for him to leave Lakshmana outside: the two brothers are inseparable and he is going to meet his father and step-mother, who has all along been as loving and close to him as his own mother. However, the text perhaps implies that he went in alone into Kaikeyi’s chamber.

The sight that meets him there is disturbing. Both the king and the queen are seated together, but Dasharatha’s face is marked by deep sorrow. He utters just one word – Rama, his beloved son’s name – and becomes silent. The king in his grief is terrible to look at. Rama wonders what could be the reason for his father’s misery and we see Rama upset for the first time in the Ramayana. Describing him the Ramayana says he was agitated as an ocean on the full moon night – babhūva samrabdhatarah samudra iva parvani. [2-18-7]

He asks Kaikeyi what has happened – his main suspicion is that he has done something that has made his father unhappy with him. Or maybe, the king is now well. Kaikeyi assures him he has done nothing wrong, nor is the king suffering from any ailment. The king’s problem is, she tells Rama, that he made a promise to her a long time ago and now he does not want to fulfil that promise. She also adds she would tell Rama about it all if he promises to do whatever the king wants, whether it is good or bad.

The very idea that he would not fulfil a wish in Dasharatha’s mind is shocking to Rama and he tells Kaikeyi as much. He tells her he shall jump into fire at one word from Dasharatha; he shall eat deadly poison, if that is what he wanted, or drown in an ocean. He vows that he would do whatever the king wants. He assures her “Rama does not speak two things.” He would stand by whatever he says once.

Kaikeyi now tells Rama that Dasharatha had long ago given her two boons and using them she has demanded that Bharata should be crowned as the crown prince in Rama’s place and Rama should go on an exile to the Dandaka forest for fourteen years. She asks Rama to now fulfil the king’s promise and save Dasharatha’s truth. She wants Rama to leave for the forest that very day.

Hearing those harsh words of Kaikeyi, the Ramayana tells us, Rama did not become unhappy: na caiva ramah praviveśa śokam [2-18-41]. This is in the last verse of chapter 18 of the Ayodhyakanda. Again in the first verse of the next chapter, the epic repeats: hearing those words unpleasant like death, Rama did not become distressed. [Tad apriyam amitraghnah vacanam maranopamam, śrutvā na vivyathe ramah. 2-19-1] Instead, he tells Kaikeyi, “All right, let it be so. Obeying the king’s orders, I shall go from here to live in the forest, clad in a piece of bark and wearing matted hair.” In the next verse, he asks Kaikeyi” “But why doesn’t father talk to me happily as he always does?”

In spite of the Ramayana repeatedly telling us Rama was not upset by what he was told, we see that Rama is deeply distressed. Those are the words of a deeply upset mind, for his father has no reason that morning to talk to him happily as he always does.

However, the epic again assures us Rama did not lose the equanimity of his mind. As he made up his mind to go to the jungle, giving up the earth, according to the Ramayana, there was no disturbance in his mind, as in the mind of a man who has gone beyond all worldly things. [Na vanam gantukāmasya tyajatah ca vasumdharām sarvalokātigasya iva laksyate cittavikriya 2-19-33]

According to Valmiki Ramayana, was Rama then affected by the news or not? Did he lose mastery over himself when he received the news or not?

These two are really two different questions and not one question put in different words.

As to the first question we can categorically say yes, he was. He was definitely affected by what Kaikeyi had told him. He was even a little unsettled, as the question he asks about why Dasharatha was not happily talking to him shows. If that is not enough, here is confirmation from the Sanskrit epic itself. In verse 2.19.33, we saw how the Ramayana tells us there was no disturbance in Rama’s mind. But in verse 2.19.35, the poet-sage clarifies the position when he describes in what mental state Rama entered his mother Kausalya’s palace after leaving Kaikeyi’s palace as he went there to give her the bad news: The Ramayana tells us, “Holding his sorrow in his mind, keeping his senses under control, a master of himself, he entered his mother’s palace, to give her the unpleasant news.“ [Dhārayan manasā duhkham indriyāni nigrhya ca, praviveśa ātmavān veśma māturapriya śamsivān. 2-19-35]

This verse makes the answers to the two questions above very clear. Was he affected by the news or not? The answer is, yes, he was, to the extent that he became sad and there was at least the threat of his losing control over his senses, if he did not actually lose it. [In Sanskrit literature, the senses are usually ten: the five sense organs like the eyes and ears, and the five organs of action, like the hands and legs. Sometimes the mind is counted as an eleventh sense organ]. But did he lose control over himself? Not really, and if he did, it was only very temporarily. For when he enters his mother’s mansion, we find he is able to hold his sorrow in his mind, his senses are in full control and he is a master of himself.

Self-mastery is not never losing control over oneself. It is not never being affected by bad news or sad events, or good news, for that matter. True self-mastery is when you are able to hold yourself together in spite of being affected by these. And that is exactly what Rama shows.
Rama is a very deeply emotional individual. I think of all our epic heroes, he is the most emotional. And people with emotional depth are easily affected by the events around them. Rama is repeatedly affected by the events around him, by all major events in his life. But every time he gives in to his emotionality, he controls himself and becomes a self-master again.

That is exactly what he does before his mother Kausalya. Kausalya in Valmiki’s Ramayana is like Dasharatha – extremely sentimental and weak, unable to take stress, and prone to faint under strain. Besides, she has suffered much in life because of the king’s affection for his younger and clearly more talented and attractive wife, Kaikeyi.

When Rama enters his mother’s palace, Valmiki tells us, he is a master of himself, in spite of being deeply distressed. On the way to the inner chambers of Kausalya’s palace, Rama meets in the outer sections of the palace “a very elderly, revered man, seated at the door” [probably the kanchuki, officer in-charge of the women’s quarters], numerous other men around him, groups of honoured Vedic scholars, and several young and old female guards. None of them suspects either from Rama’s face or his manners that anything dreadful has happened.

When Rama sees Kausalya, she is engaged in a ritual worship for his welfare. Such is Rama’s mastery over himself by now that his mother sees nothing amiss in spite of the fact that Rama’s coronation has been cancelled, he has been ordered to go on an exile into the dreadful Dandaka forest for fourteen years, it has been decided the crown of Ayodhya would go to Bharata instead of him and Rama is deeply distressed [bhrśam ayastah] about all this. Rama greets her, she gathers him in her arms and speaks words of blessings. She then invites him to take a seat and offers him food. She still has no clue about Rama’s inner condition because of his supreme control over himself – she gets to know of what has happened only he himself tells her of it.

The news devastates Kausalya when she hears it. She swoons and collapses. Rama gathers her from the floor and raises her up. Kausalya laments that she has never known joy in her life, has never once known the joy an eldest queen should know. She tells him she was living under the hope that once Rama became the ruler, she would be able to know the joys she was denied during the day’s of her husband’s power. She says the other wives of the king have constantly been insulting and humiliating, even when he, Rama, was around, and if he went away she would certainly die. In the palace, she wails, her status has been that of the servants of Kaikeyi, or even worse.

Rama loves his mother deeply. He sees her misery and it powerfully moves his heart. But that does not make him lose his control over himself – he knows it is not weakness that would give his mother the strength she now needs more than at any other time in her life. It is Lakshmana who loses his hold over himself and gets into a violent fury.

In his fury Lakshmana says many unforgivable things. He wants Rama to capture power by force and says if anyone stood in his way, he would make the
entire Ayodhya devoid of people [nirmanuṣyām ayodhyām kariṣyāmi. [2.21.20] He says he would slay anyone who took Bharata’s side or desired his welfare. As for his father, Lakshmana says if he turns an enemy goaded by Kaikeyi, then he should be either imprisoned or if necessary, killed. He swears his loyalty to Rama and tells Kausalya that he will kill Dasharatha who has become obsessed with Kaikeyi and has turned stupid in his old age. Kausalya tells Rama he has heard what Lakshmana has said and if it appeals to him, he should act on it.

Rama is now a master of himself, unlike Lakshmana and Kausalya, however devastated he is deep within himself. He tells his mother he would follow the path followed by other great men in the past, who have obeyed their father even when what had to be done was great evil, like Sage Kandu who killed a cow [one of the gravest sins in Rama’s society] in obedience to the wish of his father; even when some of them met with great calamities in obeying their father, as happened to the sons of his ancestor King Sagara. He admonishes Lakshmana and asks him to forget the ideas suggested to him by the evil kshatra greed for power, and follow the path of dharma as he himself was doing. As for himself, he wouldn’t give up dharma for the sake of something as small as a throne. He blames all that has happened on daiva, Divine will. Or else why should Kaikeyi who has never once in the past made any distinction between him and Bharata, now do what she has done, he asks. Eventually, after a lot more arguments among them, Kausalya gives Rama her blessings to go to the forest and agrees to stay back in Ayodhya awaiting his return, giving up her demand that he take her with him.

The strain of keeping himself in control, however, takes its toll on Rama soon. The imperviousness that he maintained before Kausalya deserts him as soon as he leaves her apartment. He would be very different when he enters his wife’s chamber.

Rama is a dreadful sight when Sita first sees him after he had left early that morning. She has no idea of the new turns events have taken. But one look at him, Sita starts shivering. The Ramayana tells us here that at the sight of Sita, Rama could no more retain his control over his sorrow and his grief came out in spite of himself. His face loses all lustre, he is perspiring all over. This is a man who has failed in keeping his sorrow in check, who is no more in control of himself.

We see something of tremendous beauty here. Before his father, who is deeply sentimental and psychologically weak, Rama keeps his mastery in spite of being deeply affected. In front of his friends, who look up to him as their leader, he maintains self-mastery. He maintains self-mastery again in front of his mother, to whom it is his duty to give strength in her moment of crisis – for the crown being withheld from Rama is a greater tragedy to her than to Rama himself; she has been all her later years with the single hope that one day he would become king and she would reclaim the position she had lost when Kaikeyi became the king’s favourite wife. But in the presence of Sita, his wife, who is emotionally as strong as he is, if not more, he allows his emotions to overpower him for the first time.

During this breakdown, he would tell Sita a lot of things that would never occur to him if he were a master of himself. After informing her about what happened in Kaikeyi’s chamber, he tells her he is going on exile and she should stay back at the palace. He then gives Sita instructions about how she should conduct herself from then on. He tells her she should never talk of Rama in Bharata’s presence! Because men in power do not endure other people’s praise, she should never extol Rama’s virtues in Bharata’s presence, particularly so while talking to her [girl] friends! Now that Bharata is in power, Sita should always try to please him!

After this breakdown in Sita’s chamber, he would once again regain command over himself. This time he would maintain his mastery over himself until after he has left Ayodhya, crossed several rivers, and has finally crossed the Ganga and is in the forests beyond it. There, for the first time alone since he received the order of exile from Kaikeyi, with just Sita and Lakshmana with him, in the loneliness of the jungle, with night cutting him off from the rest of the world, he would again let go of himself and breaking down, wail aloud, filling the forest with his grief and sorrow.

But before going to that, let us see how he maintains, with a supreme effort of will, mastery over himself throughout the rest of the agonising day and the following days and nights until he reaches the forest across the Ganga.

In Sita’s chamber, Rama has to give in to Sita’s demand to be taken with him to the jungle. All his arguments against it prove futile. Sita proves here she is a woman of iron will and gets her way. Sita has no grief over the loss of the kingdom, but that she would have to live separated from Rama is intolerable to her. In her agony at the thought of being forced to live in Ayodhya, of being denied Rama’s company and the opportunity to serve him as his wife, she momentarily loses control over herself and insults Rama, questioning his masculinity itself, but Rama himself never loses his hold over himself. Later he agrees to take Lakshmana too with him.

It is as a master of himself that Rama does the many things he has to do before he leaves for the jungle on the same day as desired by Kaikeyi. He distributes wealth among brahmanas; gives diamonds and ornaments to Guru Vasishtha’s son Suyajna and his wife and to lots of brahmacharis, friends and servants. He also distributes his remaining wealth among the poor, the old and children.

And in the middle of sorrow that is engulfing all of Ayodhya, Rama amazingly becomes light-hearted and has some innocent fun at the cost of a brahmana. The brahmana lives in the jungles near Ayodhya. He is old, yet such is his lifestyle that he glows with spiritual power. The man has a young wife and several children and, unable to find food for them and for himself, he used to always roam around jungles with digging tools in his hand searching for roots and gathering fruits from trees and bushes. His wife very reluctantly addresses him asking him to go to Rama seeking some cows. Rama smiles amused at the wiry old man’s sight and shows him a huge herd of several thousand cows. He gives him a staff and asks him to hurl it as far as he can and tells him that all the cows within the fall of staff will be his. The brahmana tightens his dhoti and hurls the staff with all his strength. Such is the brahmana’s strength that the stick falls on the other bank of the Sarayu. Rama happily gives him all the cows that stood within the fall of the staff. Still smiling, he apologises for asking the brahmana to do what he did. He says he did what he did to see how much spiritual energy that wiry body of his contained. He tells him that all his wealth belongs to brahmanas and the needy and asks him to ask for anything else he needed.

This is a young man who has just lost his kingdom, snatched away from him moments before his crowning, and has been given an order of exile for fourteen years.

Rama now goes once again to Dasharatha – to take leave of him. Dasharatha begs him to stay for one more night – but Rama knows that is no solution to his father’s problem. By staying back he would only increase Dasharatha’s agony. He refuses.

There are moments when, during this meeting of the father and son, in spite of his self-mastery Rama’s pain and despair show through his words. For instance, while telling his father that the only desire in his mind is to see that his, Dasharatha’s, words [to Kaikeyi] are not broken, Rama says: “I have no desire for the kingdom, nor for the earth, nor happiness; I do not desire any of these pleasures, or heaven. I do not even want to live.” This is not what he will say two days later, when he is away from Ayodhya and alone with his wife and brother in the jungles beyond the Ganga. Rama’s pain and sense of loss come through in his other words here too – for instance, when he repeatedly says how happy he would be surrounded by quiet animals and listening to the chirping of birds in the jungle; how contented he would be eating the fruits and roots of the jungle and seeing the mountains, lakes and rivers.

Of course, it is possible that Rama is, reversing roles, trying to console his father, rather than Dasharatha doing so to his son. Even in this moment of crisis, he knows fully well his duty as a son: be the old father’s strength in his moment of debilitating weakness. He not only shows strength and courage, thus imparting to Dasharatha these, but also reminds his father it is his duty in this moment of crisis to give strength to those around him.

In spite of Rama’s brave words, the father senses his son’s feelings and faints.

Rama’s self-mastery is clearly visible again during the scene when the princes give up royal clothes and change into ascetic clothes in preparation to going on exile to the Dandaka forest. In a touching scene Sita too tries to wear ascetic clothes following Rama and Lakshmana, fails and stands confused and embarrassed. Rama comes forward and helps Sita wear the clothes. This is a scene that would break anyone’s heart – while Rama has been ordered to live in jungles for fourteen years as an ascetic, there are no such compulsions on Sita. She is doing what she is doing out of her love for Rama. The whole royal family watching it breaks down but there is one man totally unshaken by it: Rama. The women of the antahpura beg Rama not to take Sita with him, but to leave her in the palace, but Rama without paying any heed keeps helping his wife wear her new clothes.

Such is the poignancy of the scene that old Sage Vasishtha, a man of full self mastery, too loses his control over himself and, tears flowing down from his eyes, shouts in rage at Kaikeyi, calling the queen evil and wicked. He tells her they [that is, he and others] would put Sita on the throne, for that is where she belongs as Rama’s ‘half’, since a wife is a husband’s half. He tells Kaikeyi that if Sita goes to the jungle with Rama, then the whole city of Ayodhya too would go with them to the jungle. He warns Kaikeyi that even Bharata and Shatrughna would leave Ayodhya and go and serve Rama in the jungle. It is Sita who now speaks and insists that she too would dress like her husband and continues wearing ascetic clothes. During this poignant scene, Rama never loses his self-mastery once.

Dasharatha now insists that Sita would not wear ascetic clothes and would go in clothes of silk. Kaikeyi does not object.

Eventually the scene of actual leave taking comes. Rama, Lakshmana and Sita board the chariot. As Sumantra, the minister, driving the chariot urges the horses forward, a sense of loss spreads over the populace watching it. The whole city goes into a swoon. When they recover, the entire populace of Ayodhya run after the chariot like people tormented by thirst runs towards water. They beg Sumantra to drive slowly so that they could have another look at Rama’s face. Women wail aloud filling the whole place with their anguish. Tears falling down from the eyes of weeping women so drench the earth that the dust raised by the chariot and thousands of men and women immediately settles down. Dasharatha comes out of the palace gates and seeing the disappearing chariot, falls down on the earth like a felled tree. When he comes to, he and Kausalya both begin running after the chariot. Dasharatha shouts at Sumantra asking him to slow down the chariot, to stop it.

Again the one man still in control of himself is Rama. He turns around and looks back. He sees his mother and father and the masses of people running after him, and he knows the sooner this scene ends, the better it will be for all. While thousands of voices from behind ask Sumantra to slow down the chariot, Rama asks the minister to drive faster and faster. He tells Sumantra moving slow will not only increase everyone’s sorrow, but might even have disastrous consequences.

Amazingly, even in his great sorrow, he thinks about Sumantra! What reason will the minister give the king when he comes back for not obeying his order to slow down, to stop. Rama tells him, “If the king questions you when you come back, tell him you did not hear him.”

That is how Rama leaves Ayodhya. He would maintain tight control over himself for the rest of the day and two more days and nights. And then, when he is for the first time alone after he takes his orders from Kaikeyi, with just Sita and Lakshana with him, he would let himself go.

So devastating is his grief now, held under check for three days and two nights, that when it comes out it is shocking not only in its power, but also in its nature. He now accuses his father of being a slave to Kaikeyi, who would do the meanest thing to please her. He accuses Kaikeyi of being an evil woman who can do anything for power, including poisoning Dasharatha to get rid of him to make her son Bharata’s path easier for him. He speaks of the possibility of Kaikeyi poisoning both Kausalya and Lakshmana’s mother Sumitra. He feels that Bharata would now enjoy all the pleasures all alone. He then wails aloud piteously in the solitude of the jungle, tears streaming down from his eyes. It is only after this that he eventually becomes calm like a fire without flames, like an ocean without waves.

Self-mastery does not mean being untouched by emotions.

A World War II movie shows us a shocking scene. Inside a moving train are several passengers, including an ex-soldier. Next to him is seated a young mother, with her baby in her lap. As the train makes its lonely journey through a dull, monotonous afternoon, the passengers fall asleep, including the mother. The baby slips down from her lap and slowly crawls dangerously towards the open door of the compartment. The ex-soldier, awake, watches it without a muscle on his face moving. Watching the scene on the screen, the entire audience holds its breath. But the soldier feels nothing and he does nothing to stop the baby or wake up the mother.

This is no self-mastery by any standards. This is being dead. The ex-soldier hasn’t risen to any spiritual height. What has happened is that he has become sub-human. What was human in him has died. What Rama shows through those three agonising days is self-mastery of the highest kind. And it does cast a spell – not only on the people of his time, but also over us, across a distance of a few millennia.


Retelling the Ramayana: How Padma Purana Does It

The voluminous Padma Purana, essentially a Vaishnavite text, makes fascinating variations in its retelling of the Ramayana story.

It is one of the largest Puranas, with around 55,000 verses, which is more than twice the size of Valmiki Ramayana, with only the Skanda Purana among the Puranas being bigger than it. The Padma Purana is thus the third largest book in Indian literature, after the Mahabharata, with 100,000 verses, and the Skanda Purana, with 84,000 verses. It consists of seven books, each called a khanda. These are the Srishti, Bhumi, Swarga, Brahma [also called Swargottara], Patala, Uttara and Kriya Khandas, in that order. The text is also divided into six khandas in some recensions, leaving out the Brahma Khanda, and into just five in others, leaving out the Kriya Khanda too.

The Srishti Khanda of the Purana has a small section dealing with Rama’s killing of Shambuka and a couple of other things. Uttara Khanda too deals with Rama’s story in a few chapters which tell the story of his birth, birth rites, the naming ceremony, etc. Here we are also told briefly of the birth of Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna as well as of Sita, Rama’s guarding Vishwamitra’s sacrifice, the weddings of the four brothers, Rama’s exile to the forest and life there, Sita’s abduction and Rama’s subsequent battle with Ravana, his return to Ayodhya, the crowning and his eventual departure from the world. The narration here is mostly the same as what is found in Valmiki Ramayana, with some variations. Rama’s story here ends with Sita entering the earth and later Rama and his brothers walking into the Sarayu accompanied by the citizens of Ayodhya, the Vanaras, the Rikshas and so on, to end their life on earth, as in the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki’s epic.

However, it is in the Patala Khanda that we have the detailed narration of Rama’s story. Though this Khanda also speaks of other things, most of the Khanda is essentially Rama’s story, named Rama Ashwamedha, which is the story of the last part of the Ramayana narrated against the background of the first Ashwamedha sacrifice that Rama conducts years after he abandons the pregnant Sita in the jungle. The story is not narrated in strict chronological order – for instance, the abandoning of Sita, an incident that takes place at the earlier part of the story, is narrated towards the end.

Let’s now take a look at how the story of Sita’s abandonment given here differs from that in the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana.


Rama Abandons Sita: the Uttara Kanda Story

In the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana, we meet Sita for the first time in Chapter 42, in the beautiful Ashoka Vanika gardens attached to the palace. This is a beautiful place, filled with all kinds of flowering and fruit trees, with hundreds of birds perched on the trees. A beautiful fragrance fills the whole place. There are several bowers there. There are pools and tanks with steps paved with gems, their water cool, in which stand lotuses and water lilies in bloom. In the middle of all this beauty, Rama is seated with Sita and is giving her a drink [madhu-maireyaka] with his own hands. The Ramayana compares Rama here to Indra who gives drinks with his own hands to his wife Shachi. Servants bring all kinds of delicious food. Apsaras and Naga and Kinnari women, all experts in dancing and singings, sing and dance near Rama. Several pretty women get drunk [pānavaśamgatāh] and in their intoxication, dance close to Rama.

The Uttara Kanda now tells us this is how Rama spends his all his days. He spends the first half of the day in his court, dealing with official matters, and the second half with Sita.

It is on one of these days that Rama discovers signs of pregnancy in Sita. Rama is delighted and asks her of her longing [the desire of a pregnant woman, which according to culture and tradition the husband should be fulfill without failure]. Sita, smiling, tells him she desires to spend at least one night in the ashram of holy ascetics living on the banks of the Ganga. Rama assures her that her desire will be fulfilled the very next day.

That night, as was his habit, Rama is with his friends, ten of them mentioned by name, sharing light moments of fun with them. In the middle of some story, Rama asks them what the people of the city are saying about him, about Sita, about Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna and about Kaikeyi. One of the friends, Bhadra, tells him the people are all praise for him, but Rama insists on hearing their criticisms too. He assures Bhadra that he can speak freely about these, for he wants to know so that he can practice what people appreciate and avoid what they criticize.

Bhadra again assures him that the people have only the best of things to say about him. But he also tells him people are not happy about his having brought Sita with him. She was abducted by Ravana and kept in the pleasure gardens of his antahpura for long and it is amazing that Rama does not detest her. The men of the city say` they are afraid that now they will have to keep their own tainted women too with them [asmākam api dāreṣu sahanīyam bhavishyati] – for what the king does is what his subjects follow. Bhardra tells Rama people are saying many such things all over in cities and towns [evaṃ bahuvidhā vāco vadanti puravāsinah nagareshu ca sarveshu rājañ janapadeshu ca].

Rama asks his other friends if this is true. They all say it is so without a doubt, such talks are common among the people. Rama immediately sends away his friends and asks one of the guards to go and fetch all his three brothers. They come to him immediately. Rama embraces them and asks them to be seated. Then he tells them how the people of the city are talking evil of Sita and of him. He reminds Lakshmana he was present when Sita entered the fire to prove her chastity. Agni, the god of fire, had appeared and testified to her purity. The gods in the heavens and the sages had appeared and declared her stainless. Indra himself had appeared and handed her over to him. He knew she was pure and that was why he had brought her to Ayodhya with him. But now things have changed. The people of Ayodhya do not approve of her, do not approve of his keeping her with him.

Rama then tells his brothers that there is nothing worse than ill fame. He says he would give up his very life out of fear of the censure of the world, he would give up them, his brothers, what to talk of Sita.

Having stated this, he asks Lakshmana to take Sita the next morning and leave her beyond the Ganga in the forest near the ashram of Sage Valmiki. He tells Lakshmana, “Obey my order. I do not want to hear anything more on this subject from any of you. If you do, it will cause my great displeasure. My curse shall be upon you if you try to dissuade me from my decision. Do what I ask you to do if you want to remain within my command. Take Sita away from here to the forest. She has asked me to take her to the great ashrams on the banks of the Ganga. This way her desire will be fulfilled.”

As Rama speaks these words, his eyes well up with tears.

The next morning Lakshmana takes Sita to the jungle in a chariot driven by Sumantra. Sita has no idea that she is being abandoned, though evil omens throughout upset her. She can see Lakshmana’s open grief. She asks him lovingly if it is because he will have to be away from Rama for two days. She tells him she too loves Rama more than her life itself, but she does not grieve as he does. She asks him not to behave so childishly. They will visit the ashramas, give gifts to the ascetics and after spending the night there, come back.

They spend the first night on the banks of the Gomati and continue travelling the next day. Lakshmana is silent throughout the journey. When they reach the Ganga, Lakshmana leaves the chariot with Sumantra on this side of the Ganga and crosses the river with Sita in a ferry.

On the other side of the river Lakshmana is no more able to control himself. Joining his palms he weeps uncontrollably and says he wants to die rather than do what he is doing, or if there something worse than death, even that is better. Unable to stand the heartlessness of what he is doing, he collapses on the ground. Sita is shaken and asks him what is wrong. It is only then that he reveals the truth.

Sita faints on hearing what Lakshmana has to say. When she comes to, she asks Lakshmana what she would say when the sages ask her for what fault Rama has abandoned her. She tells him she would have ended her life – she was not doing that only because she was pregnant and she did not want her husband’s royal lineage to come to its end. Through Lakshmana she sends her respects to all her mothers-in-law and all her elders at Ayodhya and assures Rama that he should not grieve over abandoning her, he should do what will get him keerti – righteous fame, and that is his dharma.

When Lakshmana leaves, leaving her to the mercy of the jungle, she falls on the ground again, weeping. She watches Lakshmana disappearing across the Ganga and on the other side, feeling fully the sense of being abandoned by her husband and being all alone in the world.

Later Valmiki hears of her wailing in the forest from ashram boys who happened to be near where she was and takes her to the shelter of his ashram.


The Padma Purana Retelling

In the Patala Khanda of the Padma Purana, the palace garden scene is altogether missing. There is no scene describing Sita and Rama sitting together in the gardens attached to their palace, no scene in which Rama tenderly offers Sita drinks with his own hands, no scene in which Apsara, Naga and Kinnari women, intoxicated with drinks, sing and dance near Rama.

The Padma Purana is specific about the fairly advanced stage of Sita’s pregnancy – we are told she is five months pregnant, while Valmiki tells us only that Rama observes on Sita the signs of pregnancy.

In Padma Purana it is rahasi, in private, that Rama asks her about her dohada – the desire of a pregnant woman.

And whereas in Valmiki it is the ascetics that she wishes to visit in their ashrams on the banks of the Ganga, it is specifically female ascetics that she wishes to see in the Padma Purana: Lopāmudrādikā striyah…sundarīh – Lopamudra and other beautiful women [ascetics].

It is interesting to wonder why the author of the Padma Purana felt the need to make these changes – to avoid the scene of intimacy between Rama and Sita which includes his giving her a drink with his own hands, and the scenes of drink-intoxicated dances close to Rama by Apsara, Naga and Kinnari women, which he appreciates. It is also equally interesting to wonder why the Padma Purana felt the need to change the gender of the ascetics – the ascetics of the Ramayana become female ascetics here, with Lopamudra specifically mentioned. Also, the ascetics are mentioned as sundarīh, beautiful. No doubt the princess-turned ascetic Lopamudra was an extremely beautiful woman – but beautiful is not a very common word used to describe holy ascetics.

As in the Ramayana, here too Rama gladly promises her that her desire shall be fulfilled the next day.

As we saw, in the Ramayana he makes the promise in the evening and it is the same night that he hears about the displeasure of the people. And it is his close friends that tell Rama about what the people are saying. When Rama hears of the evil talk of the people from Bhadra, his friend, in the Ramayana, he has been joking and laughing with his friends for a while. When he asks his friends to tell him what people say about him, his brothers, his wife and about Kaikeyi, it is his past achievements that Bhadra mentions as what people are happy about: his commanding the obedience of the Vanaras and Rikshas, his building a bridge across the sea, his slaying the mighty Ravana, etc. There is no mention about how pleased people are with his rule [It is not implied that they are not – only that it is not what they mention]. And the whole conversation, including the report of the evil thing that people say about his keeping Sita with him, is very brief.

Whereas in the Padma Purana, it is all very different. Here it is not from his friends that Rama seeks and gets feedback, but from his spies. Unlike in the Ramayana where this takes place the night after Rama’s conversation with Sita, in the Padma Purana it is in the morning, and it is in the royal court where Rama is seated with his ministers, sages and advisers, his brothers attending on him, that his [six] spies approach him to report to him. They are apparently disguised as citizens. Seeing that they wish to speak to him, Rama takes them into a secret inner chamber. Alone with them, he asks them to report to him. The question Rama asks them here is strange. “What do people say about me, and what do they say about my wife? What do they say about the conduct of the ministers?”

Lokā bruvanti mām kīdrg bhāryāyām mama kīdrśam
Mantrinām kīdrśam lokā vadanti charitam katham.
[Patala 56.8]

Rama instructs them to give him the facts exactly as they are – yathātathyam.

We can understand Rama asking feedback about himself and his ministers, but it is indeed strange that he should ask his spies about what people say about his wife, who, for all we know, has no public functions. [The word used by Rama is his ‘wife’ and not ‘the queen.’]

The spies had previously met during the night and decided among themselves that the words that the washerman spoke were evil, born of a wicked heart, and there was no need to report them to Rama. They are aware of Rama’s central preoccupation in life – his keerti, righteous fame. They report that his keerti is sanctifying everyone in the whole world. Rama is happy at this report but he notices that the face of one spy is rather dull, in disagreement with the general mood. Rama questions him closely and repeatedly and eventually lays on a curse on him unless he tells the truth and then he reports what he has overheard at the washerman’s house.

In the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki’s epic, what Bhadra reports is that there is widespread displeasure among the citizens about Rama still keeping Sita as his wife after her stay in Ravana’s pleasure gardens as his captive. They speak about it in cities and towns, everywhere where people assemble. In the Padma Purana, the sixth spy reports that while his kirti has spread everywhere, because of such things as his slaying of Ravana, this is not so about his wife who has lived in Ravana’s house. He reports what he has overheard the washerman telling his wife. The implication is that only one person – the washerman – is unhappy about his keeping Sita with him.

The Padma Purana not only says all people are happy about Rama, it gives us interesting details of the conversations among Rama’s subjects at night, reported to Rama by his spies [all collected from their homes and not from the streets]. For instance, in one home a mother, suckling her infant asks him to drink as much of her milk as possible – for he is not going to get it in his coming lifetimes. There will no future lifetimes for him – those who live in Rama’s city will have no future lifetimes, they will attain liberation in this life itself. In another home, a wife compares her husband to Rama and the pleased husband denies the comparison – where is Rama the sun in the sky and where is he a mere moth; where is Rama, the sacred Ganga and where is he, but a mere pool on the road? In yet another house, there is a game of dice going on between a love-intoxicated young husband and wife. The wife beats her husband quickly at the game and declares herself the winner, making her bangles dance as she speaks gesturing with her arms. The husband, laughing, refuses to take the beating and declares he is not yet beaten and is going to beat her in an instant, by remembering Rama, as the Devas in the past defeated the Daityas. And he does exactly that and the delighted man and woman give themselves up into each other’s arms in a tight embrace.

Interestingly, while people are certainly proud of Rama’s past achievements, it is equally about his present rule that they are happy.

It is in yet another home that a spy overhears a washerman shouting at his wife asking her to get out of his home, kicking her brutally, his eyes red with rage. “You have spent the day in another man’s house and you can go back there now. I am not going to keep you in my house.” His mother interferes and tells the man his wife is innocent but he won’t listen to her. “I am not Rama,” he says repeatedly. “He can keep his wife who lived in the house of his enemy the Rakshasa, but not I. I won’t keep a wife who has lived in another man’s house.”

The spy’s words strike Rama like lightning. He faints and collapses on the floor and the spies fan him with the ends of their uttariyas and soon he comes to.

In Valmiki, Rama remains in control of himself when he hears the criticism, though he is deeply upset.

He immediately sends for Bharata.

In the Ramayana, it is all three of his brothers he sends for on hearing of what people say about his keeping Sita, though Rama’s order to take Sita to the forest and abandon her there is given specifically to Lakshmana. In the Padma Purana, initially it is only Bharata that Rama calls to his chamber.

Rama, weeping, tells Bharata of how his kirti, otherwise spotless, has been tainted by the words spoken by a washerman. He asks him what he should do now: end his life, or give up Sita? Saying this Rama starts shivering all over and, weeping profusely, collapses on the floor.

Bharata tells him Sita’s purity has been proved through the fire – she is agniśuddhā. And her purity has been testified by Brahma himself, and also by their father Dasharatha. He tells him his kirti that is sanctifying all earth cannot be spoiled by a washerman’s words and asks him to continue ruling the kingdom along with Sita. Bharata also tells him that Sita would not be able to live one moment if he is separated from him.

Rama agrees what he says is in accordance with dharma, and Sita’s purity has been proved by fire. But Bharata should now do what he orders – because he, Rama, is afraid of ill fame. He is giving up Sita. “Take a sharp sword and cut off [my] head, or take my wife Sita and abandon her in the forest.” Hearing these words of Rama, Bharata starts shivering all over and tears flowing down from his eyes, he faints and falls down on the floor.

Rama now sends for Shatrughna. When he comes, Bharata is still lying unconscious on the floor. Rama tells Shatrughna of the washerman’s allegations and of his own decision to abandon Sita. Shatrughna argues against this, calling it wrong but Rama keeps repeating his decision to abandon his wife until eventually, unable to stand the pain of it, Shatrughna too falls down like a felled tree.

Bharata is still lying unconscious on the floor. Leaving them there, Rama in his single-mindedness now asks the guard to fetch Lakshmana from his palace. When he comes he sees his brothers lying in a swoon on the floor. He asks Rama what terrible thing has occurred to make all this happen and Rama tells him all that has happened right from the beginning. Rama then repeats his decision to abandon Sita, hearing which, Lakshmana is stunned. Rama then gives vent to his feelings by saying that he is going to end his life – there is no point in living on the earth with his name tainted, he does not want to live any more, he is going to kill himself. He despairs that until now his brothers have invariably obeyed him and now even they are contradicting him. He fears the other kings will now revile him as healthy people revile lepers. Rama rejects all the counter suggestions of the shocked Lakshmana and orders him to obey him without delay and take Sita and abandon her in the jungle – or, alternatively, kill him, Rama, with a sword: mām vā khadgena ghātaya.

Lakshmana now recalls Parashurama who had killed his mother on the orders of his father – perhaps the right thing to do is to obey the orders of your elders. He agrees eventually, expressly telling Rama he does not like what he is going to do. Rama is pleased with his acquiescence and repeatedly expresses his pleasure. Weeping profusely, Lakshmana takes leave of Rama and orders Sumantra to bring the chariot. He goes to Sita and tells her he has been sent by Rama to take her to the ashrams to visit the female ascetics there. A delighted Sita gets ready immediately.

As the Ramayana does, the Padma Purana too describes several evil omens on Sita’s way to the jungle, the first of which happens as she takes her first step out – she trips over the threshold.

Lakshmana takes her up to the Ganga by chariot [driven by Sumantra] and then across the river by a ferry. All along he is silent and weeping, puzzling Sita. The jungle that they reach is nothing like the area were ashrams are to be found – it is wild, filled with terrifying animals and scalded trees, and there is no sign of human habitation anywhere near. A shaken Sita now insists that Lakshmana should tell her the truth. It is only then he informs her that Rama has abandoned her. At those words, Sita collapses on the ground. Lakshmana brings her back by fanning her with the end of his uttariya.

When she comes to, Lakshmana consoles her by telling her Valmiki’s ashram is close by. He then circumambulates her in reverence and then walks away, eyes streaming with tears. Sita watches him with wide open eyes, unable to believe what is happening.

The Padma Purana tells us here that Sita is still unable to fully believe what Lakshmana has just said, in spite of all she has spoken. After all, says the Purana, Lakshmana is her devar [and the relation between the devar and bhabhi is of joking] and perhaps he is joking with her: hasati ayam mahābhāgo lakshmano devaro mama. She keeps looking at Lakshmana who is walking away, with unblinking eyes – animeshanā. It is only after Lakshmana has crossed the Ganga and disappeared in the distance leaving her in the middle of the fearsome jungle that she finally accepts the reality and faints again – for ‘how could Rama abandon me: I am without sin and dearer to him than his life?’ [katham mām prāṅatah preshthām vipāpām raghavo’tyajat]

The very forest is moved by Sita’s grief. The air of the jungle changes and a breeze starts to blow, scented with the perfume of flowers. Swans dip their wings in water and coming to Sita, fan her with them. Elephants fill their trunks with water and sprinkle it on her, washing away the dust on her body as she lies on the ground. Wild deer stand in a circle around her, their eyes wide open as hers were a moment ago. The trees around her instantly blossoms with flowers, though it is not the season of spring.

When she comes to again, she begins wailing aloud, calling out to Rama. Valmiki who happens to go to the jungle at this time hears her cries and sends his disciples to find out who is wailing in the middle of the forest. That is how Sita reaches the sage’s ashram.


Many things here suggest that the author of the Padma Purana is trying to glorify Rama going beyond the Valmiki Ramayana, as most of the retellings of the Ramayana since Valmiki do. He drops both the light scenes in this episode – the one in which Rama sits with Sita, watching female dancers performing and giving Sita a drink with his own hands, and the one in which he is sitting and having fun with his close friends at night. It is perhaps beneath the dignity of the Rama of Padma Purana to do such things – he is not only a maryada-purushottama, but is God himself, the Supreme Lord of the Universe.

It is the need to justify him in the process of glorification that makes the Padma Purana tell us the past life story of the washerman. Through the story, the blame has been shifted quietly from Rama to Sita. It is Sita who is to blame for her abandonment, and not Rama. She is abandoned because of what she did long ago when she was a young girl – it is the curse of a pair of birds to whom she had been cruel.

Very briefly, the washerman’s past life story says that he was a male parrot in that other life time and one day he and his wife parrot, both perched on a mountain cliff, were speaking about Rama and Sita – how Rama would wed Sita and how they would live a happy life as king and queen and so on. Sita asks her sakhis, her girl friends, to catch the birds and bring them to her so that she can get more details of her future from them. When they are brought to her, they answer all her questions, but she refuses to let them go, saying that she would let them go only after Rama comes to Mithila and weds her as they said, for they have created longing for Rama in her heart through their words. She tells them she would keep them in her palace with all love and care. The female parrot tells Sita this will not do, they will not be happy in the palace since they are birds of the wild. She also tells Sita she is pregnant [with eggs] and would go to the wild and after the chicks are born, would come back to her.

When Sita does not agree, the male parrot too speaks, promising to bring his wife and give her to Sita after the chicks are born. Sita tells him he can go wherever he likes, but she is not going to let the female parrot go. The bird requests her repeatedly to let his wife go, but Sita refuses. Eventually, the female bird give up her life after cursing Sita that she too would be separated from her husband Rama while she is pregnant. Seeing her dying, the male birds throws himself into the waters of the Ganga, vowing he would be reborn in Rama’s city and because of his words Rama would give her up. It is the male bird who dies with vengeance in his heart after cursing Sita that is reborn as the washerman.

In addition to shifting the blame for abandoning the pregnant Sita from Rama to Sita, the washerman’s past life story achieves another purpose. It says that none of his subjects is really unhappy with Rama. The only one who criticizes him is the washerman – and his criticism is not valid because it is only an expression of the sorrow that Sita had caused him in his previous birth.

The Padma Purana intensifies Rama’s pain at the words of the washerman: such is his pain that he faints at the words of the spy and has to be brought back by all the spies together fanning him. It also intensifies Rama’s pain at what he is going to do to her, and through it, speaks of the intensified depth of his love for her.

True, the Padma Purana shifts the blame for Rama’s abandonment of Sita to Sita herself through the past life story of the washerman and thus exonerates Rama from the responsibility for an action which Indian culture has never been able to accept or digest. But apart from that, the Purana does not in any way reduce Sita. She is purity itself, and her purity sanctifies the world. Such is the awe in which Bharata and Shatrughna hold her that as realization sinks in that Rama is bent on abandoning her, they both faint. So deeply are they shocked that when Lakshmana enters Rama’s chamber, they are still lying unconscious on the floor. No less is Lakshmana’s love and respect for Sita.

When evil omens are seen one after the other on her way to the forest, Sita’s first thoughts are that no evil should come to Rama or his brothers, nothing bad should happen to the people of Ayodhya. Subsequently she sees the omens as relating to herself – something bad is going to happen to her, but she deserves it, she concludes, for leaving Rama, albeit so briefly, and desiring to visit the female sages in the ashram.

The Padma Purana adds fine touches to Sita’s innocence and naivety. One example is that even after being told that Rama has abandoned her, even after she is left behind in the wild forest on the other bank of the Ganga, Sita does not believe it. As Lakshmana walks away, she keeps looking at her with incredulous eyes, suspecting perhaps he is playing a practical joke on her. After all, he is her devar, younger brother-in-law, and as a devar, he has a right to play such jokes on her.

A question that naturally arises is if the Purana’s attempt to exonerate Rama succeeds or not. The answer is in the negative. The story of the birds does in no way exonerate Rama from the responsibility for his action. Even if we take the story at its face value, it only gives a reason for the washerman to accuse Sita – it does not give a valid reason for Rama to abandon her. In fact, in the Padma Purana, Rama’s action becomes all the more glaringly disturbing. While in the Ramayana he has the reason, however invalid it is, that all of Ayodhya is speaking against his continuing to keep Sita as his wife after she has lived in Ravana’s ‘house’, here he has one only single man speaking against it – an intemperate man whose name itself, the Purana tells us, is Krodhana, Short Temper. Also, frightening is Rama’s determination to get rid of Sita the moment he hears the accusation. He calls Bharata, who faints at Rama’s order. While he is lying unconscious in the chamber, Rama calls Shatrughna and gives him the same order. He too faints and while both Bharata and Shatrughna are lying unconscious at his feet, he calls Lakshmana to him and gives him the order. The only choice Rama gives his brothers is between chopping off his, Rama’s, head and abandoning Sita in the jungle.

Both the Ramayana and the Padma Purana give us the same reason for Rama’s decision to abandon Sita: his boundless attachment to spotless keerti, untainted righteous fame, which Indian culture asked every king to strive for.