Waiting to Exile

Business, Ramayana 6 Comments

First Published in Corporate Dossier, Economic Times, March 21, 2008

In the Ramayan, Ram is asked to string a bow – a feat that will win him the hand of Sita in marriage. Ram, however, bends the bow with such force that it breaks. Since no one until then had even been able to pick up this bow, Sita’s father is so impressed with Ram that he is more than happy to accept him as his son-in-law.

One cannot help but wonder:  Why did Ram, known for his obedience, break a bow that was supposed to be strung? The bow is an ancient symbol of kingship. It represents poise and balance, useful only if the string is neither too loose or too tight. That Ram, the ideal king, breaks a bow in his youth is surely an act of some significance. No ordinary bow this: but the bow of Shiva, the great ascetic.

With a wife by his side, Ram’s father feels he is now old enough to be king and so declares his decision to retire. Unfortunately the planned coronation does not take place. Palace intrigues force Ram to go into forest exile instead. Is there a correlation between the breaking of the bow and the denial of his kingship? The epic does not say so explicitly. Nor has any scholar commented on it. But the question is an interesting one. After all everything in Hindu narratives is symbolic and there is surely here a meaning that is waiting to be decoded.

Ram’s breaking of Shiva’s bow probably suggests an act of passion and attachment, for Shiva is the god of renunciation and detachment. Is that why he is considered unfit to be king? Is that why he must go into the forest for 14 years, and return only when he has cultivated adequate detachment? Observe the almost inhuman lack of passion displayed by Ram, fourteen years later, when he finally kills Ravan and rescues his wife Sita. He tells her that he killed Ravan not to rescue her but to uphold dharma and clear his family’s honor. It is almost as if showing feelings for one’s spouse is unacceptable for one who seeks to be king. He had shown his passion once, when he broke the bow. He shall not do so again.

The ancient seers demanded such detachment from kings. Kingship had to be more important than family. That is why Ram is put on the highest pedestal. One may not quite agree with this philosophy today, but it is clear that the epic considers the years in the wilderness not as a tragedy but as a period to mature until one is ready to truly wear the crown.

This theme of ‘growing up’ in the wilderness is repeated in the Mahabharata. Krishna helps the Pandavas establish the kingdom of Indraprastha. But the five brothers foolishly gamble away their kingdom in Krishna’s absence, a crime for which they have to suffer thirteen years of exile. When Yudhishtira moans his fate, the sages tell him the story of Ram who suffered fourteen years of exile, one year more than them, and that too for no fault of his. They tell the Pandavas to stop whining and use the period in the forest to learn. And they learn: Arjuna learns humility when he is defeated by a common hunter (Shiva in disguise) in battle, Bhima learns humility when he is unable to lift the tail of an old monkey (Hanuman in disguise) and all the brothers learn humility when they are forced to live as servants in the final year of exile. Only then does Krishna lead them to a triumphant battle against their enemies.

Most leaders who have done anything worthwhile in the corporate world have had their own forest exile. Talk to any CEO, or successful entrepreneur, and they will tell of their years in the corporate wilderness, when no one respected them, when they were pushed down and not given what was due to them,  when they were kept away from power by lesser men, men who feared them. They will tell you of a time when they were treated as wannabes, or worse, as has-beens. Unfortunately, many leaders do not take such periods of corporate exile positively. It makes them bitter and more insecure. Rather than become Phoenixes, brilliant mythical birds who rise from their own ashes, they turn into Banyan Trees, giving comfort to all but not letting even a blade of grass to grow in their shade.

It has been observed that one leader of a medium sized company loves to give every member of his team the impression that they are powerful. But the truth is that he is the sole decision-maker. He has not created a talent pool, a second line of command. Ask him why and he will refuse to acknowledge this very evident truth. Perhaps he is not even aware of it. There was a time when he headed a marketing division of another company with high growth prospects. But when a new CEO took over the company, he fell out of favour and was shunted out, given a high sounding lowly post in a faraway country for three years. Those three years in the corporate wilderness shattered him. He became bitter and aggressive, determined to fight back and emerge a winner. In rage he left the organization and joined a new one and now, after years of struggle, is back – heading a bigger organization, in a far greater position that all those who shunted him out. He is enjoying every moment of his triumphant return. He has shown them!

But the event has taken its toll – he is not the generous man he once was. He looks upon everyone as a potential threat, a future back-stabber. His actions and influence on the organization display a pessimism that has seeped into his being. He lacks the hope that he should have discovered in the days of his struggle. Once a victim, he is now become a victimizer perpetrating the vicious cycle of bitter exiles and vengeful returns.

The scriptures frown upon such myopic leadership. It reeks of lack of character and a lack of faith in the bigger picture. Both epics view the forest exile as opportunities to discover inner strengths and return as greater men. Had Ram not gone to the forest, he would have not triumphed over Ravan and had the Pandavas not suffered the exile they would not have the moral high ground over their enemies. Ultimately, after a long period of glorious rule, both Ram and the Pandavas voluntarily give up their crown, passing it on to the next generation of worthy rulers, illustrating to all that ultimately every leader has to move on.

  • Aditi Chakravarti

    It is said that Sita herself was someone who could lift the bow of Shiva. It is due to this fact that Janak had decided to have the stringing of the bow of Shiva as the only test which could determine a worthy husband for Janaki.
    Running the risk of sounding like a cliche, why is Ram’s realisation of detachment at the cost of Sita? How do you interpret Sita’s 2nd exile (when she was pregnant)? Perhaps in Hindu faith it is possible to be detached and get your wife pregnant at the same time. But can there be a possible justification of the very act of abandoning your Pregnant wife without having to fall back on the supposed divinity of Ram and Sita and their cosmic calculations? I think it is important to deconstruct this event in human terms since Ram is an icon which all self-respecting Hindu boys are taught to become like-the maryada purushottam. Why is a pregnant Sita a less important duty than maintaining an immaculate public image and greater good of Ayodhya?

    • Pathfinder

      Hi Aditi

      I would like to make few things clear to you.
      First of all Lord Rama did not banish Sita. Banishment implies sending her away into the forests without proper arrangement of food, clothing or shelter. That was what happened to Lord Rama when he was banished by his step mother kaikeyi. But Lord Rama asked Lakshman to accompany Sita and drop her in the hermitage of Valmiki where she was received with respect by the people of the ashram. As the ashram was well within his kingdom and thus under his protection we cannot tell that lord Ram has banished sita.

      Now before I answer the question why he sent her away even when she was pregnant I would like to tell what lord Ram symbolizes. Lord Ram is the personification of Dharma himself, he cannot at any instant go wrong. In previous days a king is supposed to behave as a guardian of his people and now since Ram is ideal in every sense he is also an ideal guardian, and the best guardian of any one is ideally supposed to be his father(mothers are not seen in that sense as protectors of kids. Their role is different and important when it comes to rearing the kids). So Lord Ram is the father of all the subjects over whom he is ruling. Now Ram has to choose between the duty of a father and duty of a husband and Lord Ram has chosen the former role over the later. It’s like a father sacrificing his martial pleasure for his children. As I told you in previous paragraph even though he sent her away to forest, she was still under the protection of him as everything within his kingdom is under his protection. We can also expect the ashram environment to be more pure(satvic) than compared to the environment in the palace, so it provides an ideal place for the development of the kids in the womb. So Lord Ram has simultaneously taken of Sita by indirectly arranging for Sita’s food, clothing and shelter and also taken care of his subjects


      • Aditi

        Interesting answer. But of course, Sita was not asked about it…….whether she would like to spend the rest of her life in a hermitage or beside her husband, family and friends. Before you point out that as the wife of the king, she had her duties written down for her the day she married Ram, let me clarify that Sita was sent away without any amenities and the hermitage may be a proper place for kids to grow up, but perhaps not the best place to have them.

        “Arranging for Sita’s food, clothing and shelter” has such a magnanimous ring to it. Ever wondered whether Sita preferred the insulting demotion for queen to an outcast? If Ram was so just even to all his subjects, and Sita was a subject before being his wife, didn’t he owe her an explanation/a fair trial, before pronouncing the life sentence. Not a very good king to his own wife, was he? He was always sure of her ‘virtue’, I’ve read. Then a washer man could not have been able to sway that maryada purushottam’s will. Tell me something…even if Raavan had violated Sita, how on earth is Sita at fault? The irony of the situation is she would have been punished anyway (she did get punished). Her situation is always reduced to choosing between two punishments. Your personification of Dharma went very wrong as a righteous king, a father and a husband, when he decided his wife was a liability on his family honor.

        • Pathfinder

          Mother Sita is first a wife and then a subject to Lord Ram. You mentioned that Mother Sita had duties written down the day she got married to Lord Ram, that is how very true..but how did you miss the fact that one of the duties of a wife (in earlier times) is to take it as a dharma whatever has been granted to her by her husband (by saying this it is obviously meant that the husband himself follows dharma, this law doesn’t apply these days because husband’s no longer follow dharma in kali yug). Her opinion was not asked for because that was not the customary of those days. You should look upon the things enacted in Ramayana from a time and age perspective. Had Ram and Sita been incarnated today at this age things would have been really different. The story Ramayana would have taken a different course. I think may be Ram would not want her to leave the palace or may be in the first place the washer man would not have accused Sita for staying at a stranger’s place(Raavan)though it’s not of her own will and desire.

          You mentioned in the first paragraph that she wasn’t sent with any amenities. That’s true. I never said that she was sent with amenities I said that “things were arranged for her”. Both these statements are entirely different.

          You have also mentioned that ashram might be a best place to grow kinds but not to have them. I would ask you why? I can confidently tell you that if ashram is a best place to grow children then its also a best place to have them. I can give many reasons for this but I need to tell something more important below.

          Yes I agree that her situation is reduced to choosing between 2 punishments and so was Ram’s, it’s a mistake to think that while sita was suffering in both Raavan’s place and in the hermitage Ram was enjoying his life. Ram suffered the anguish of losing a wife in both the cases. Living in a palace doesn’t mean living in luxury. And remember one thing there is a secret behind Lord Ram asking Mother Sita to undergo agnipariksh(the fire test). Lord Ram very well knew the chastity of Mother Sita. In fact who else could know better about Sita other than Ram and vice versa? Then why did he ask her to undergo such a terrible and cruel test??Well, it’s for fools like us who are to be born in the age of darkness (kali yug) to not to question the character of Mother Sita, if on that day Mother Sita would not have gone through the agni pariksh and proved to the world her chastity we just can’t imagine what sort of nonsensical talk would have been centered around Sita and Raavan. This test might have been terrible for us but not so for Sita who is chastity and good character personified because she very well knew the intention of Ram and more over what could a mere fire do to the mother of the universe. Thus while Mother Sita got sympathy and approval of her character by undergoing this test what sort of benefit did Ram get? He got to bear all kinds of words from unintelligent people like us. We accuse him of being cruel to his wife. We call him by names, that he doesn’t adhere to dharma and blah blah. As a consequence of this Agni Pariksha the nonsensical talk which would otherwise have been centered on Sita is now directed towards him. Just look at the enormous negative feeling towards Ram on account of this agni pariksha. He absolved Sita of all that guilt and punishment to be handed to her by us and instead taken the blame on him. That is the way of an ideal husband willing to take blame upon himself to protect the character of his wife. The message hear is so subtle yet very resounding like an echo that we need to protect and support the people who have taken shelter at our feet , people who depend on us even at the cost of one’s own name. Isn’t there also a managerial lesson to be learned? So it is wrong to tell that Sita was punished by Ram by way of giving her agnipariksha
          Thus Lord Ram at every instance proved that he is dharma himself.
          Yes, he is an ideal son one every father would love to have. He protected the name of Dasarath and his family by rejecting all the kingdom( though people want him to be the king). Like how a lion rejects third grade meat, like how a swan rejects water and takes milk.
          Yes, he is an Ideal husband one every wife would love to have. So charming and yet daring. Always ready to give protection to his wife.
          Yes, he is an ideal father one every son/daughter would love to be taken care by. Just Imagine if a person so lovingly takes care of his subjects then what to speak of his children.
          Yes, he is person of truth a person of dharma nay nay he is dharma himself.

          It is all the more need of these days to have men of Rama’s character.

          I by no means am trying to undermine the role of the Mother Sita the divine mother. I remember once reading a speech by swami Vivekananda “Though the nation may produce many Rams there could but be only one Sita” .That is the position of Sita . It is very difficult for any girl of these days to even get near her.(I mean no offense to any one)

          Jai Sri RAM Jai Maa SITA

        • Arvind Kumar Sharma

          The fact that Lord Ram acted upon the uncharitable remarks of a washerman induces very strong sentiments in people against His decision of sending Sita away from the palace into forest. But I think we can look at the incidence from another angle. Lord Ram had defeated Ravan in a long and horrible war and it was clear that there was none who was either equal or more powerful than Him. There was no one who could ever challenge his decision. He was invincible and could have always had his way if he wanted to. Now, despite this invincibility, He chose not to crush the opinion, though factually wrong,of a lowly washerman and allowed even His foolish subject to voice his opinion. After Sita left the palace, the Lord Himself used to sleep on the floor and not the royal bed. He chose to put Himself and His consort in distress rather than his subject, who was distressed because of the past instances. The washerman’s reason for distress were wrong but he being a person of poor understanding would, in all likelihood, not have changed his opinion even if somebody reasoned with him and would have continued his tirade against Lord Ram and Sita. Now, does this not indicate democracy even at that remote point of time? Will any of the present day politician, anywhere in the world, dare to sacrifice his/her/family’s comforts so that the democratic beliefs and ideas of one and all, though flawed, are protected? Don’t these people not use their muscle power frequently to hush up the people’s voice against them even if they have been indulging in wrong doings? Doesn’t a modern day politician have a lesson to learn from this instance?

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