11 Jan, 2008, 0548 hrs IST,TNN

When a family business breaks down, one is reminded of an old Indian tradition: never read the Mahabharata inside the house, always the Ramayan. For the Mahabharata is the tale of a household divided while the latter is the story of a household united.

The Ramayan speaks of three sets of brothers: those of Ram, those of Sugriv and those of Ravan. An exploration of the relationship of these three sets of brothers throws light on that one principle which can make or break a household or indeed any organisation.

Ram is asked to give up his claim to the throne and go into the forest so that his younger brother, Bharat, can be king in his stead. Ram does so without remorse or regret. Bharat, however, refuses to take a kingdom obtained through this mother’s guile. He chooses to serve as regent until Ram’s return. Another brother, Lakshmana, follows Ram into the forest to share his suffering and give him company.

Sugriv is driven out of his kingdom, Kishkinda, by his own brother, Vali. The two brothers were supposed to share their father’s throne but following a misunderstanding , Vali is convinced that his brother wants the kingdom all for himself and in fury, drives away Sugriv, ruling out all possibilities of reconciliation .

Ravan too drives out his brother, Kuber , to become king of Lanka. But neither has he any inheritance rights over Lanka nor is there any misunderstanding between him and Kuber. His is an action purely motivated by sibling rivalry. When Ravan abducts Ram’s wife, Sita, one of his brothers, Vibhishan, turns away from him on moral grounds but another brother, Kumbhakarn, stays loyal to him.

The epic asks: who is the good brother ? Is it the selfless Ram, the upright Bharat or the obedient Lakshman? Who is the bad brother – Sugriv who uses Ram to kill Vali ? The ambitious Ravan, the traitor Vibhishan or the loyal Kumbhakarn? The answer is not simple as it first appears.

Ram gives up his claim to the throne not out of brotherly love but because dharma demands he respect his father’s wish that he give up his claim to the throne. Bharat returns Ayodhya not out of love for Ram but because dharma frowns upon trickery. Yes, Lakshman follows Ram out of filial love but later in the epic Ram teaches him a tough lesson.

One day, Ram asks Lakshman not to let anyone enter his chambers as he is giving a private audience to Kala, the god of time. Lakshman obeys saying , “I shall kill whoever tries to disturb you.” No sooner is the door shut than Rishi Durvasa, renowned for his temper, demands a meeting with Ram. Lakshman tries to explain the situation. “I don’t care,” says an impatient and enraged Durvasa, “If I don’t see the king of Ayodhya this very minute I shall curse his kingdom with drought and misfortune.”

At that moment Lakshmana wonders what matters more: his love for his brother which manifests as obedience or a royal family’s duty to protect their kingdom? He concludes that Ayodhya is more important and so opens the door to announce Durvasa, interrupting Ram’s meeting, an act for which he has to, to be true to his own enthusiastic declaration, kill himself. Inside, Lakshman finds Ram alone. No sign of Kala. Outside there is no Durvasa . Lakshmana realises this was Ram’s way of saying that dharma matters more than filial love or obedience .

But what is dharma? It is often translated to mean duty or righteous conduct. But at a fundamental level, dharma is what distinguishes man from animals; it is what makes man human. All other living creatures subscribe to matysa nyaya or law of the jungle: might is right. But man is capable of reversing the law. In human society might need not be right. The weak can have rights too. Even the feeble can thrive. An ideal human society is one based not on power and domination as in nature, but on the very opposite — love and generosity.

Vali does not display this love and generosity when he is eager to believe the worst about Sugriv. Ram does not tolerate this. When Ram kills Vali, Vali says, “I could have saved Sita from you because I am stronger than Ravan.” To this, Ram replies, “I killed you not to gain an ally in Sugriv but to establish the law of Bharat.” Bharat here refers to Ram’s brother, temporary regent of Ayodhya and ‘law of Bharat’ means dharma , the code of civilisation, that Ram’s family has subscribed to for generations.

Vali then accuses Ram of killing him unfairly while he was engaged in a duel with Sugriv. In response, Ram says, “Fighting for the dominant position is the way of animals. Those who choose to live by the law of the jungle must allow themselves to be killed by the law of the jungle, which makes no room for fair play. By destroying you I will, through Sugriv, institute the law of Bharat in this land so that henceforth the mighty do not dominate the meek.”

Ravan, though highly educated, also does not subscribe to dharma when he drives his own brother out of Lanka and claims his throne. This behaviour of domination and force, suitable for animals but unsuitable for humans, is repeated when he abducts Ram’s wife, Sita. Loyalty to Ravan is not about loyalty – it is about rejection of dharma. That is why Ram kills Kumbhakarn and makes Vibhishan king of Lanka.

Ramayan is an epic about what humans can be. By destroying Vali and Ravan, Ram destroys the animal instinct of domination . That is why Vali is called a monkey and Ravan a demon while Ram is purushottama , the perfection of man. The epic never makes a virtue of brotherly love or loyalty. It transcends such myopic views on relationships and prescribes dharma to truly binds a family together.

And dharma is all about giving, not taking . It is about duty to the world, not individual or family rights. It is about love for all, not power for a few. It is about affection not domination. The epic indicates that the pressure of love and loyalty cannot bind family businesses and organisations . True unity can happen only when one abandons the power hierarchy , when one neither dominates nor gets dominated.