The Great Forest Exile

Articles, Mahabharata, Ramayana 17 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, July 15, 2012


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, breaking 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 rescue 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.

  • Pingback: Benefits of Exile: Detachment and Humility | Ranjan Varma's Blog()

  • Ramya

    Beautifully written and wonderfully expressed. Thank you

  • T.N.Sethumadhavan

    Very good examples from Ramayana and Mahabharata for managerial success. Every impediment, every obstacle is a challenge to bring out the best in us. They are the sacrificial fire- yajna kund – in which one’s ego and attachment are offered as oblation so that the divinity in us can shine.

  • Manish

    awesome observation that only a person of such depths as yours can delve into… thanks for your works!!

  • Suchira

    This is very symbolic to life Dr. Pattnaik, most of us who pass through the exile of life in form of tragedies and losses emerge more stable and prepared to search our purpose and eventuality of life!

  • Hari Krishna Gupta

    Hi !
    The story shows the correct example who things take place when we get attached to the situation and take the decision and after that we pay for the consequences. but my question is that how we can detached from the feeling every time and what will be mantra for that . every story tell us always be detached observer but nobody tells us how to be detached observer and leaning ?

    Hari Krishna Gupta

    • Amita Kolnad Khatri

      It is very difficult to detach ourselves from our loved ones or our possessions. To learn detachment we need to study our scriptures regularly and consistently under the guidance of a good guru. Then the mind is trained and our intellect starts functioning.This is when we are assured to follow the path of detachment,let go,faith etc.

  • Reshmy Pillai

    Beautifully expressed! Is it a coincidence that Shiva and Hanuman (who is beleived to be shiva’s Incarnation) come to teach humility to the Pandavas. Does the great ascetic take it on him to impart some lessons before vishnu (as krishna) takes up his task?

  • doniv

    Couple of questions Sir
    1. If fate was to drive Ram into forest to learn detachment, do we conclude that Bharath who ruled in Ram’s absence had this required quality (or did Ram’s father Dasarath, for that matter) ?
    2. The article indicates that the Pandavas spent their exile period on introspection. Shiva and Hanuman acted as catalysts in this process.
    One always gets the feeling that the Pandavas were given ample chances for redemption. But did Duriyodhan get the same opportunities too to introspect at any point in time ? Din’t the lords come for him ?

  • Manoj Chandran

    Nice article, but I have different perspective on Ram’s answer to Sita. It is after all the truth in a very practical sense. Afterall Hanuman could have lifted Sita out of there and rescued her or Ram after defeating Ravan could have still let him live and rescued Sita. So, I would not say that Ram did not show passion for his spouse, but I would say killing Ravan was infact really to uphold dharma (as Ram saw it) since he could have rescued Sita without killing Ravan.
    More importantly though I agree with the larger theme of your well written article. The finest steel has to go through the hottest fire. Adversity is almos essential for Greatness.

  • kiran2

    [[Ram’s breaking of Shiva’s bow probably suggests an act of
    passion and attachment, for Shiva is the god of renunciation and detachment.]]

    I don’t agree with your guess work on why the bow was
    broken. Its not right to speculate on such matters since assumptions can
    mislead others and yourself.

    Your next sentence sums up what Im trying to say when your
    speculation leads to you to ask

    [[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?]]

    You completely missed the bigger picture as to why he was
    born on earth. Rama was an Avatar of Vishnu to rid earth of Ravan’s cruelty.
    Even here there is another bigger picture because Ravan was once a gatekeeper
    to Vishnu who was then cursed to be born on earth as a human. Vishnu promised
    to free them (there were two gatekeepers) and the only way to free them (ie
    bring them back to heaven) was for Vishnu Himself to kill them (Death at the
    hands of Vishnu assures anyone immediate place in His abode). Again there is
    more story as to why they choose be villains instead of good guys but all this
    can be read up.

    So basically Rama had to go to Ravan down south and hence
    the many circumstances like spending 14 years in the forest and kidnapping leela
    –a reason for Rama to attack and kill Ravan. All this is His leela and many
    Hindus forget this.

    He didn’t go to forest because he broke the bow of Shiva.

    Someone has written another website the following–

    “Shiv Dhanush was broken to break the egos of arrogant
    Kshatriyas who were also tormenting the people like Rakshasas.

    Breaking of Dhanush had depicted that ParshuRam’s tenure is
    over and now the earth is in the hand of Shri Ram.”

    The Bow– Lord Vishnu gave it to Rcika. Rcika to Jamadgani, then
    Parasurama and finally to Janaka.

    Well many will continue to speculate and do guess work.

    • Chandra

      You are right. As much as i would like to respect this author, he is venturing into unknown territories and claiming things by adding ‘probably’ conveniently hoping that the word ‘probably’ is obliterated. Ridiculous and unnecessary guess work.

      I am sorry for being rude, dear author. i just came to see what your work is all about. If it is for corporate world, please spare the epics. You could have certainly avoided controversial areas or taken guidance from the learned.

  • vishal

    i like the last paragraph it is the crux of whole narration.
    Beautiful :)

  • Hari Upadrasta

    Good articles man. Got your idea of subjective thinking. Thanks

  • Rakesh Reja

    I, however, disagree with this theory. Ram And Laxman had teachers like Vashishth who trained them in all respect. Also When Vishwamitra took them with him for to kill Maricha ans Subahu it was not just because of he was good worries but his Physical as well as mental ability. Also Ram was always known as calm and cool person. And that’s why we have stories of Krishna bal-leela but not of Rams. What I believe is exile of Ram was totally plan to kill the Ravana.


    Indeed explanation for exile is justified. Renunciation, so essential for a any human being, is taught through exile of even noble persons.

  • Ved Vashishtha

    Probably breaking of Shiva’s bow has a great symbol. Shiva is a formless divinity,hence he can not have a bow. A Bow represent 3 stages: Beginning, maturity and End. One must tie its two ends with a string to make balance. Rama is a symbol of transcending force by which one can break this endless cycle and by breaking the Bow of three state maya (Birth, Growth and death). That is why Rama Break that bow instead of tying it with the string. Sita ( a symbol of soul) thus won by Rama (Supreme Purusha).