Is Rama really a Purushottam? What does the term Purushottam, which denotes the ideal man, or even the ideal human really mean? When was the term Purushottam coined to describe Rama and what would the term meant during the time of its coinage? What are the standards of ideal for an Indian male or a human? Why are those standards known as the ideal? What is an ideal and why and when does something become an ideal? One may attempt an answer to this problem through a wider understanding of the Ramayana and its central hero, Ram. Ram, is an ideal human and in his idealness almost a rank holder as a Divine. He is the perfect hero in the sense he can kill any demon, he can survive any crisis, he is the perfect son who obeys every word of his parents, he puts the needs of the institution before his personal wishes and has absolutely no semblance of anything which is selfish or self centred. He is free of ego and desire and is a perfect player of the roles assigned to him by the society. His agency is exercised only to further the execution of his responsibilities as the incumbent of a social role. In Rama, the social role rather than his personality presides.
Contenders to the Divinity of Ram insist that there are clinks in the hero’s armour precisely in the three episodes of his life viz his treatment of Sita, his assassination of Bali, his murder of Shambuka. The Bengali literati add yet another, namely the killing of Meghnad, Ravana’s son while he was unarmed in his morning worship of his deity. Though Lakshman was the one killed Meghnad with the help of Bibhishan, Ravana’s own younger brother who had crossed over to Rama’s side, yet the murder took place with the full knowledge and acquiescence of Rama and hence can well be attributed to his intentions. Rama’s assassination of Bali and the stealthy murder of Meghnad may be attributed to the theory that everything is fair in war and that ethics which apply to conditions of peaceful conduct of life may be abrogated while the parties are at war. But Rama’s treatment of Sita at the instance of public opinion against a rape victim and his murder of a Dalit boy, Shambuka at the instance of the Brahmins in his royal court. The last two, namely Sita and Shambuka are used to show how Rama is loyal as a king towards his subjects so that he gives into their will even if that involves sacrifice of his own attachments. The more endearing the character of Sita is or more devout Shambuka is, the greater appears the sacrifice of Rama the person to Rama the social role. Such sacrifices are used to extract Rama out of his personhood and establish him as a post, a social role. What is the sociology of this?
Let us take the instance of Shambuka. On a personal level, Rama is open and amiable. He has friends among strange people; Guhak is a good friend, his affections towards Hanuman even at times exceeds his attachment towards Lakshman, his treatment of Bibhishan especially his complete trust towards him is exemplary and his deference and love for Jatayu is legendary. Rama and Lakshman actually perform his last rites as the legendary bird’s sons. Shambuka was a celebrated ascetic born in a Shudra caste who Rama was forced to behead because a Brahmin insisted that his child had died because of the “sins” committed in Rama’s kingdom and identified Shambuka’s enormous talent as the “sin”. Shambuka on his own was allowed to survive and even thrive as an exceptional individual in Rama’s kingdom. Why did Rama listen to the Brahmin? Why did he choose to believe that Shambuka was the sin for which the Brahmin’s child died? Did he genuinely believe in the caste system? Or did he sustain a difference between personal beliefs and community beliefs? He was prepared to sacrifice his personal ideas to the prevailing traditions of his community? Was Rama the ideal because he laid a greater stress on the community values and norms instead of insisting that his beliefs had their way? Rama was no social reformist but a pliable king who inevitably has given in to social conservatism. Here again, Rama the person is sacrificed in the altar of Rama the social role, the king in this case.
Rama’s treatment of Sita was in no measure any more merciful than a veritable murder in which Sita was goaded to commit suicide as the great epic ends. Rama does not have anything to say about his dispensation of Sita’s claims as a loyal wife except that he finds it to be his bounden duty to honour the wishes of his people, the people being always right irrespective of the tragedies these may involve for the royalty. The ideal king must give in to the wishes of his subjects even if that means sacrificing his own attachments, his principles, his personal beliefs and ideologies. The sovereignty of the subjects, rather than that of the king is the ideal sense of the State and it is because of this that Rama is the Purushottam.
Rama is always willing to let go whatever is dear to him; the idea of the Kingdom and his own coronation which is a miss between the cup and the lip, his wife, his friends. Rama is emotionally attached to his father and is extremely pained at the separation between the father and him and has constant nightmares about his father’s imminent death and yet when Bharat says that Dasarath has summoned him back into the kingdom, he refuses to go. Rama splits Dasarath into two, the father who he loves and the father who commands him. He clearly chooses the latter over the former. Sita is split into two as well, the beloved wife who he loves very much and never ever doubts her attachment and loyalty towards him but as the principal queen of a good king, he lets her go as she has been tainted by a crime committed against her! Here too, individuals are sacrificed to social roles and imagined ideas of perfectness.
Rama is born a nice person; he knows no envy, no anger, no greed, and no lust. He is not envious when he hears that Dasaratha has chosen Bharat instead of him as the heir apparent. Rama is more hurt because father has cold shouldered him, not hugged him. He is upset because his father’s behavior appears changed and which it has because Dasarath can no longer face Rama as he is overcome by grief. Rama is not really happy when Sita wishes to accompany him to the forest for he can live the life of an ascetic, he lets Sita tag along since she nags so much. Even as Surpanakha descends upon Rama in the guise of a beautiful woman, he remains unmoved. Rama weeps openly for Lakshman when he gets nearly fatally hit by an arrow in the war and yet mercilessly kills Rakshasa women even as Sita winces at his cruelty. Rama appears to be a set of contradictions; kind and cruel, affectionate and indifferent, attached and detached, he seems to make a clear separation between personal values and morals and the mores and traditions of the larger society. Yet, all of these makes him into an ideal person as is implied by the term Purushottam. Purushottam refers to the ideal human, or the man and not necessarily the king. Interesting why should the person who sets aside his own set of beliefs even if they are kinder and more refined to let the values of the larger community have its way be the ideal human being?
Clearly in the Ramayana, there is an attempt by the society as a whole to prevail over the individual will. The talented individual, the woman especially the learned and the self-assertive ones are systematically snubbed and decried. Karna, Shambuka and Ekalavya are destroyed but also a person like Rama is tortured as well by making him murder Shambuka, assassinate Bali and abandon Sita not before forcing her to walk into the fire. The society is a set of commands by the elders and the superiors and also a source of moral pressure through tongue wagging, scandal mongering ordinary subjects. Rama is a Purushottam because he gives preference to the society than to his own idea of justice, which also means that he prefers the collective will over individual rights an entitlements. What kind of a society did the Ramayana try to promote? One in which the Brahmin dominated over the king; in which age was such a society in ascendance?
The Ramayana is not confident when it discusses Rama’s treatment of Sita, or or Bali or of Shambuka. It is not also confident when it discusses how Rama kills the females among the Rakshasas and especially where Sita is concerned, the Ramayana appears to change its voice from lauding Rama into lolling in Sita’s grief. Ramayana is a composed epic; why did its several versions not eliminate the possibility of Rama abandoning Sita, or Rama killing Bali? One has to understand that the Ramayana is a series of folk tales, recited by folk artists, travelling tale tellers, and of bards and musicians, of players and performers. It is not easy to put forth a legitimate text of the Rama’s tale which does not take into account all the episodes that go to unmake the status of the perfect man, Rama.
Rama’s ideal hood is repeatedly challenged by citing his weaknesses in which Rama as an individual and a human being has been constantly faulted. Rama’s pursuit of greatness as a king has been severely compromised by his emerging into a good human being and in his ambitions to be king, Rama has to repeatedly compromise his values as an individual. Yet, the writers have not dared to weed out the contradictions in Rama’s character and in fact continued to apologize for these pitfalls through elaborate justifications from the Puranas, Brahmanas and a host of other Sanskritic sources by saying that Rama and Sita were bearing the curses of previous lives, or that they were Divinities playing up the part of ordinary mortals and hence trying to make the contradictions more and more acceptable for the sensible and sensitive readers.
To my mind and logical inference the Ramayana speaks of an important moment of conflict and that which is between the institution of kingship and the society of the subjects. The Ramayana is a tale of moralities among members within a patriarchal family set up and between the king and his subjects, also the extension of patriarchy. The family and the king together constitutes one large family; Rama is therefore an imagined king whose is metaphorically subjected to an ordeal by fire by being forced to sacrifice his loved ones. There is a subtext of the Ramayana in which Rama accepts humbly his fate as the most unfortunate son who loses the father, the husband who loses his wife, the father who cannot witness the birth and growing up of his children, the older brother who snatches the happiness of conjugal life from both his younger brothers namely Bharat and Lakshman. He is enticed by Sugriv to kill the valiant Bali, instigated by a Brahmin to kill Shambuka, and because of Sita’s error of judgment he is forced to enter into a battle with the blemishless king Ravana of Lanka who is also a high grade Brahmin. Rama is therefore a man for who everything ends in a net loss. Yet he goes through this and suffers in silence and in complete surrender. Rama’s suffering is the direct victory of the society over the State, the victory of the subjects over the king. Dasaratha the father, Sita the wife, Shambuka the devout all become subjects who through their respective sufferings embarrass Rama.
The Ramayana is a critique of the king as the giver of values, as a social reformers, as a law maker. It is a template for kings to be forever subjected to the subjects and the society. It is the saga of the society’s discipline of the king.