The Ramayana: How an Ancient Tale Slowly Made a Monkey Out of Me
About 20 years ago, I was standing in Borders Books in Stamford CT, leafing through this beautiful and expensive hardcover volume that I decided to buy for a friend of mine who was an artist as well as an India-phile. An artist myself, I knew a beautiful set of illustrations when I saw them, and knew she would adore the book. I was vaguely familiar with the fact that the Ramayana was an ancient Indian tale, albeit one I’d never read. As I paged through the story, I read the brief recounting of the tale that accompanied the lush illustrations. When I got toward the end of the narrative— which involved a hapless woman being forced to give a test of her purity by fire—I lost all interest, but I still loved the pictures. I meant to eventually buy myself a copy of the book, but I never got around to it.
I did not know then that the illustrator, B.G. Sharma, was one of the most famous modern sacred artists in India. I did not know then that the monkey on the cover would, over the course of many more years, subtly inveigle his way into my consciousness. And I certainly did not know then that this tale would slowly take over my very existence.
I’m hardly alone in that, though. Versions of the Ramayana are known all over Asia, and the tale has been told for time out of mind. There are hundreds if not thousands of entire websites devoted to it; there have been an abundance of film and tv versions made in India (every decade inspires a new remake that can keep up with advances in special effects); there are books of philosophy written about it and teachings in universities and business schools based on the lessons therein. It is told and retold and re-enacted and re-illustrated.
And anything that has that kind of sway over that many people for that long a time seemed to be at least worth familiarizing myself with.
One thing I came to appreciate: it’s impossible to have an understanding of India or Indian culture without familiarity with its two great epics: The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. The two express the very soul of India in a way that, in my opinion, has no comparison in Western culture. It forms a vocabulary and a frame of reference for everything from the most ordinary facets of life to the highest halls of learning and spirituality.
But that does not explain why it stole into my own life to the point where, really, I could only admit to others of the same ilk the degree to which it has taken over and pretty much crowded out 80% of everything else.
I should pause here to say that my involvement with The Mahabharata preceded my romance with Ramayana. It all started in 2005 during a visit to India, when I shipped home two huge volumes that constituted an abridged (only 2000 pages) Mahabharata, and was soon followed by a translation of the Ramayana. My obsession with both epics has continued pretty much unabated since then. It seems that The Mahabharata alternates with the Ramayana in my life, much like Beethoven contrasts with Mozart—different temperaments; both awesome, both transformative, both able to bring you into the realm of the transcendent if you allow them.
Each character in these epics embodies an aspect of human life and aspiration. We can see ourselves in all our greatness and all our folly, much like the phenomenon that makes Shakespeare timeless despite the changing idioms and languages of five centuries.
But that understanding was still not enough to explain my obsession.
Until finally, the mystery got solved a year ago, when, driven by this compulsion, I attended a three-day Ramanyana retreat with Swami Jyotirmayananda of Yoga Research Foundation in Miami, FL, whom I’d heard about from my friend Patty.
That retreat afforded me the rare opportunity to be in the presence of one who is both an eminent scholar & author and an enlightened sage. It’s a killer combo; and I’m sure he was drawn into my life at that juncture by the intensity of my interest. When I say he is an enlightened sage, I don’t mean enlightened as in “he sheds light on the subject”, (although he does that too), but enlightened as in “has attained total Divine Union and bliss consciousness with God while still in a human body.” Only an enlightened sage can speak of the symbols and deep meanings in these stories not from a philosophical speculation or intellectual explanation, but from direct soul experience.
What I realized in the first few hours of listening to him was that the reason these tales had moved into my mental neighborhood and evicted most of the earlier residents is that they are encoded maps to enlightenment. Far beyond being references for life in the everyday world, they are maps of the journey of the Soul to Re-Union (yoga) with itSelf. At the deepest, most archetypal level, the part of me that had been on this path for a long time recognized that fact even though I could not name it. And understanding that which Swamiji calls the mystic meanings, resolves most of my conflicts about various events in the story.
I now believe that certain archetypes speak to our understanding of the Journey of Life, but on different levels. Some archetypes serve to inform us about the wisdom of leading our life on this earth plane. Many fairy tales come under this heading, as do Shakespeare and other beloved stories from many cultures.
The Ramayana (and the Mahabharata) do this as well, but they go a giant leap further—beyond the earth plane to the true purpose of the journey of the soul: Divine RE-Union.
I was taught by Caroline Myss that the ancient Mystery Schools divided the Mysteries into Lesser Mysteries and Greater Mysteries. The Lesser Mysteries were for those in the outer courts; those who needed the veil of symbols and rituals to enact for them great spiritual truths that the masses were not capable of digesting whole. Only Initiates were allowed into the Greater Mysteries; and the net result of the Greater Mysteries was attaining the actual integrated experience that All is One, aka Divine Union—enlightenment.
The Ramayana is the Lesser and the Greater Mysteries all rolled into one. At the level of the Lesser Mysteries, it’s a great mythic story with the usual gangs of Gods and Demons, Heroes and Villains, Damsels in Distress, Triumphs and Tragedies. But at the Greater Mysteries level, it’s the Treasure Hunt Map to the Long Journey Home. The same holds true for the Mahabharata, which holds at its great heart the Bhagavad Gita, which serves as the ultimate scripture for more than a billion people.
The Ramayana contains something that the Mahabharata does not*: Hanuman.
(*Note: Hanuman actually has an important cameo role in the Mahabharata, but in the Ramayana he is one of the hearts of the story.)
Hanuman is the monkey on the cover of the book that first drew me in. Devotion to Hanuman was, at another point in my own journey, frankly, quite alien to me no matter how expansive my background.
Long before I had any familiarity with any epic outside of my own culture’s, I remember reading a quote from Sathya Sai Baba in one of my study groups, how Hanuman was the Lord’s greatest devotee of all time.
“Great,” I thought, knowing absolutely nothing about Hanuman at the time, “a monkey is the greatest devotee. Then what chance do humans have? Very discouraging.”
When I actually read the story, I came to understand that the vanaras, which we translate as “monkey”, but which I’ve seen translated as forest dwellers, were far beyond our present-day conception of monkeys. In the Ramayana, they are the incarnations of demigods, born expressly to help Vishnu, the aspect of God that is devoted to preserving and sustaining creation, to overcome the evil which had gotten out of bounds. The demigods needed to take this form because the chief antagonist of the age, the demon Ravana, had secured a boon which made him invulnerable to all—all except for man and apes, both of whom he considered too puny to be concerned about. Vishnu descends to earth to aid mankind by incarnating as a man—four men in fact: Rama and his three brothers. Vishnu’s eternal consort, Lakshmi, incarnates as Sita, born of the earth itself, intimately expressing the connection between God and Nature, between Creator and Creation. In order to help Vishnu in this divine mission to destroy evil, the aspect of God that represents destruction (or transformational energy)—Shiva himself—is born as the invincible Hanuman, whose only raison d’etre is to serve Rama.
It was through Swami Jyotirmayananda’s teachings that I came to understand why the most recognized pictures of the Ramayana always depict this quartet: Rama, his wife Sita, his brother Lakshman, and kneeling at their feet, always, Hanuman. Ram is the embodied symbol of the all-pervasive pure God consciousness; the Eternal Witness. Sita represents the intuitional intellect, or the higher intuitional wisdom of the mind. Lakshman, the devoted warrior-brother-with-a-quick-temper embodies the Will to action, and Hanuman, the immortal and invincible one who could literally “move mountains” is the aspect of Devotion. Where there is Hanuman, there is Ram; where there is Devotion, there is God. It is the power of devotion that moves mountains, that melts the heart of the Lord, that creates miracles, that manifests our own Superpowers. Ram is victorious only because of Hanuman; Hanuman accomplishes all his victories through the power of Ram.
Among the various routes back to divine knowledge of the eternal Self, (yoga), Devotion, or Bhakti in Sanskrit, is the path of yoga to which I gravitate. I’ve never been a disciplined meditator (Raja yoga), I often fail to live up to my own noble notions of spending more time in selfless service (the path of Karma, or Action-oriented yoga), I’m not proficient or consistent in my occasional flirtations with Hatha (physical) yoga, and while I love to read, I’m far more drawn to the stories and legends (Puranas) than I am to pure Jnana (philophical inquiries). But Bhakti is like my home country: singing, chanting, mantras, silent repetition of one of the names or aspects of the Divine have become so integrated into my life that they are all like breathing.
Since Hanuman is the ultimate symbol of devotion, it followed that, whether I liked it or not, I have, little by little found that indeed, there is a legendary Monkey on My Back, and I have no intentions of shaking him off any time soon, or any time at all, for that matter. I do intend, from time to time, to share some reflections on the Ramayana and its well-traversed episodes, of which there is a seemingly inexhaustible font of interpretations and observations to mine.
Although I’d already read several book versions of the Ramayana, and had seen the great 1988 television series by Ramanand Sagar—which, when first aired, literally brought India to a standstill and which has been seen by an estimated 100 million people in its time—it was when I stumbled across the later 2008 Sagar tv version that I became a totally lost cause.
The music throughout the series by legendary composer and singer Ravindra Jain slays me, and to this day I react viscerally to the theme song.
Fortunately for me, I have infected my housemate, friend and colleague, Jan, with Ramayana disease. One night, when we were watching yet another go-round of some version of Rama’s story, she turned to me and asked: “Is this what we’ll be doing for the rest of our lives? Watching the Ramayana?”
“Pretty much, yes,” I replied. “is there anything else?”
It’s my intention to share some of the rich journey with that story on these pages here from time to time, hopefully making the wisdom accessible to people who are not so enamoured of immersing themselves in the story.
Jai Hanuman! Jai Sri Ram!