Was vanavas a punishment? Was Sita really abandoned?
Ramayan is not a tale of injustice and oppression. It is a parabole and shouldn’t be read literally or simplistically. That causes a rift in Hindu society which can be harmful for future of the nation. Other avatar stories too use animal metaphors to illustrate important points. Ramayan illustrates concepts of the Upanishads and is about the Surya bija mantra in action; HRAM-HREEM-HROOM-HRAIM-HRAUM-HRAHA. The names of each character can be read as descriptive nouns. All beings are made of five tattvas : Ram (agni tattva), Sita (prithvi or cold fire), Laxman (water) and Hanumant (Vayu). These work together in ether (akash). Each character including Ravana’s team represent different stages of a karmayogi tapasvi’s journey and the challenges they face in maya. These 6 syllables are the bij (seed) mantras of the 12 names of Surya, or the sun, in long form of this chant. According to Georg Feuerstein they are known as seed mantras…
“…because they are the sonic seeds planted in the body-mind from which higher consciousness or awareness can sprout in a properly prepared Yoga practitioner. Such sacred germinal sounds play an important role in Tantric ritual but have been known and used since Vedic times. They are not meaningless but are sonic representations of particular deities or other subtle realities. So, in creating the bija mantra with our body through sound we, in a sense, align ourselves with the vibration of the idea or energy they represent. It is about “resonance.”
The surya also means the inner surya chakra which is about the creative force in us and is very powerful. It is another version of the older story about Sati (Sita or Jiva), Rudra (Ram, Siva) and Daxa (Ravana, mind-maya). The main concept remains the same; i.e. the Jiva gets bound in maya as generated by the mind (represented by Daxa’s court). On symbolically ‘burning’ gross desires by intense meditation (agni parixa), the tapasvi activates inner Rudra who defeats the mind-maya, gives dharmic wisdom and then Siva and Jiva merge. Sita is the main protagonist and it is her journey of development from Dvaita to Advaita.
Key words like setu, kavach, nauka, pada, shabar are also mantras. So, Shabari was probably the representative of the Shabar people who were named as such, due to being experts in Shabar mantras which are needed to keep vanas healthy. Thus Ram blessing her, in parabole terms is about the divine power activating inside her. She ‘feeds’ him sattvic karmas or sweet berries. On the physical level she is assuring her raja that she and her team are doing a good job in maintaining their patch of vana.
Yagyas were team activities done after achieving mantra siddhi to make them effective. Some were done by Raja and Mahisi, who was not wife but dharmic partner, eg: Kaikeyi (inner voice of manipura chakra) who was also a formidable warrior. Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari are called panchkanyas (virgins) so could not have married the way we understand it today. In matters of dharma they were consulted. Ravana, Dashrath, Janaka etc. were all spiritually advanced since it was the norm and the enlightened public of the times too wanted that. So Manthara (intellectual churning) advised vanavas; a journey of spiritual development, not an exile. Ayurveda, the science of medicine, involves using herbs, so the country was full of oshadhi vanas tended by qualified people who were supervised by rajas and rushis. Vanas such as Ashokvan, Tapovan, Lumbinivan, Vanravan etc. were conducive for enlightenment. (Even Krushna is van-mali and van-ke-vihari, or one who tends inner and outer vana). Tapovanas comprised of five trees, Ashoka, Pipli, Vadh, Bili, Dhavad. Sita is sitting in Ashokvan and doing tapasya on her inner divine Hram. She is holding the kusha grass because, the munja, durva, and kusha grasses enhance spirituality and are used for yagyas. Munja was woven into a janeo and was worn by those qualified to do yagyas. Something like a stethoscope worn by doctors. This is why unqualified people were not allowed to wear janeo. It is not about discrimination.
Hanu (war) Mant (advisor), wore munja janeo so he too was probably a Brahman by qualification, not monkey which would be a different species. Va+Nara can be read as vayu+nara so maybe they had both elements in them which were strong. Valmiki Ramayan says they were vegetarians, which explains why they could fly over oceans since it is a siddhi. He is Vajra+Ang Vali. Vajra means diamond. Ang means aspects or parts. This implies he is master (polished diamond) of all anga of yoga and a Vali or expert warrior. Rushis had ordered him not to interfere in the development of mankind or nara jati since everyone has to learn to improve karmas on their own, just like at school and in the army. (Vajrayan explains this in detail which probably means they followed the same disciplines since Buddhism is an offshoot of Sanatan Dharma.) Rig Veda mentions that Siva was called ‘markat-lochan’ by Daxa. This is a simile that could mean causing mischief like a monkey. Chinese kungfu legends too mention kings expert in monkey style kungfu. So Hanumant was probably called ‘markat’ in that context. Hanumantji was an officer of his people and since they had an alliance with Ravan he could not jeopardise this by fighting him like a maverick. Just like today, ancient armies had rules that had to be obeyed.
Ancient Vedic society was cashless and martial. Everyone went to gurukul and varna was based on level of mantra siddhi achieved after which svadharma and position were decided. The final goal was to attain moksha. Therefore, it is necessary to read history in that context. Many books such as Yogasutras of Patanjali, Mantra Vigyan etc. help in comprehending important concepts. Highly qualified Rushis taught Vedic vidya to everyone without discrimination. (Therefore, entire Aryavart was, atleast in theory on the same page). Then they would be apprenticed to different people depending on their abilities. This could also be in another Rajya. In those days they treated mentees as children and were supposed to impart all their knowledge and thus do their rushi run (debt). For example, Dasharath’s daughter Shanta was apprenticed with another raja but people misinterpret it as adoption. This is also why Ravan and Bhisma pass on their knowledge to the winners. It was ingrained in them, that knowledge should not be withheld or be allowed to get ‘lost’. They were very brilliant and didn’t believe in putting things down on paper.
When Dashrath does a yagya it’s not for biological children, but suitable mentees, who are then mentored by the women in his team (Kaushalya, Kaikeyi and Sumitra) in specific areas of government. Svayamvars were done to find a suitable dharmic partner to balance the yin and yang in government and could have perhaps also involved tantric sex. ‘Pati’ means leader in context of Kulapati, Pashupati, Ganapati and not personal husband. Sita, Draupadi etc. were very powerful Mahisi, who specialised in yagyas. Every Raja or Mahis had one on his team. Sita was a very powerful Mahisi since she had lifted the Siva Dhanush which was not a physical bow. Please see quote that explains the spiritual significance:
Mundakopanishad II (ii) 4: “The sacred word Om is the bow, the arrow the soul, and brahman is its aim; he shall be pierced by him whose attention does not swerve. Then he will become one with him as the arrow (becomes one with the aim when it has pierced it.)”
The founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu was Baba Bogarnath, a Siddhar from India. He says in Tao Te Ching chapter 77:
‘The Tao of heaven is like the bending of a bow.
The high is lowered, and the low is raised.
If the string is too long, it is shortened;
If there is not enough, it is made longer.’
The main reason why I feel vanavas was not a punishment is in the meaning taken from ‘The abhidharma-mahāvibhāsa-sāstra’, a sarvastivādin commentary, 3rd century BCE.
Nature of nirvana
The path of Rebirth
Being away from the path of rebirth permanently avoiding all paths of transmigration
To be in a state which had got rid of, forever, of the dense forest of the three fires of lust, malice & delusion.
Freedom from the know of the vexations of karmas and in which the texture of both birth and death is not be woven.
Stench or stink
Being without and free from all stench of karmas
To work selflessly as a renunciate and subduing one’s ego was very important. So, Rama (a.k.a. Padma) and his team did that by going on a vanavas. Bharat, Shatrughan wanted to join them but are reminded that at least one team was needed to mind the fort. They were advised to work as renunciates while living among comparative comfort. The whole system of how to achieve this is explained in Sadhna Pada. Thus, when Bharat mentions taking Ram’s padukas, it implies that he will step into Ram’s shoes and govern in the same spirit of renunciation. It could also mean that if a bhakta (Bharat) does his duties as a true renunciate, his inner divine (Ram) will clean up inner and outer jungle. The word padika could also refer to a group of mantras that a raja should use to generate divine power.
No-one ‘owned’ the kingdom. So it’s wrong to say that Bharat was given Ram’s inheritance. Also, if Kaikeyi’s intentions were bad she would not ask Ram to come back after fourteen years, but ask him to leave forever. And, since Ram was already very popular this would not be a very good move politically as Bharat could then possibly face a rebellion from Ram’s supporters. So realistically that explanation does not work. And, Ram’s prarabdha karmas, vasanas and svadharma propelled him in the right direction. Also, since they were the army, Dashrath and Kaikeyi were the senior officers whose command had to be obeyed. It was not about Ram blindly being an ‘obedient son.’
Kaikeyi was a warrior, not a scheming stepmother and so had her own team of advisors for e.g. Manthara. She had helped Dashrath in the Deva-Asura war by putting her kanishta finger in the wheel of his ratha. This too can be read as a parabole; ‘rath’ is vehicle or body of a sadhak, which is propelled by wheel of dharma. Dashrath did not grant her promises. The word ‘var’ has been translated as ‘acceptance’ by Pandurang Shastri Athavale. So it could mean that Dashrath is agreeing to accept her judgement in matters of governance due to her expertise.
Agni Parixa was a ritualistic ceremony undertaken by a renunciate to symbolise burning of gross body. (Just like in the story of Sati). Also meant testing of knowledge about agnitattva and yagyas. She had been preparing for this in Ashokvan. It did not involve literally sitting in the fire. Ashram means a certain stage of development (not an orphanage). This implies that Sita (Vaidehi from land of Videha-mukta people), had reached the level of a rushi which is why she was sent for advanced training. Towards the end she is said to have gone back to the earth. This obviously implies that she took samadhi. Only a highly disciplined yogi can do that. She was not abandoned. Dhobis were known as rajakas or junior officers, which is why their opinion was important. Ram’s willingness to do tyag of Sita, or pruthvi tattva tells us that a true ruler should not be covetous and can progress in sadhna by working as a renunciate. Vedic government included women too since they too were highly qualified and did swadharma. All were expected to mentor ideal youngsters and live like a family.
Her sons were Luhv, (with an ‘h’) and Kush. Luhv possibly means nano-particle and Kush means the holy grass which rejuvenates the earth. Thus the parabole here would be that when the prithvi tattva in us (Sita) gets caught up in Maya-Lamka, we, as sadhakas should do tapasya to activate our inner Ram/Hram (fire tattva), Laxman (water tattva) and Hanuman (Vayu tattva) to vanquish the materialistic powers. After that, prithvi can be rejuvenated by the rushis or wise people when it produces the holy grass Kush and Luhv the particle of life.
The Rig Veda story of Varaha Avatar has a similar meaning. It was said that the bristles on Varha’s back were the holy grasses Kusha, Durva and Munja, as were the hair in Hanumantji’s metaphorical tail. These were used in yagyas and grew in vanas in soils dug up by wild boars. One of the tests of young disciples in a gurukul was to be able to differentiate between and collect the three prickly grasses for the guru. That is the reason why janeo or holy thread in those days was made from Munja grass. It was probably like a yagya kit. Once qualified, a person travelled wherever required, to perform yagyas for various purposes. Also, Varaha does not mean literally a boar. It is a metaphor for a huge cosmic event and/or social upheaval. It is also the exhalation when one does the pranayam. Once inner shaktis are developed, this exhalation can do a lot of good or damage depending on the sadhaka’s intentions and abilities. Etymologically it could be var+hra. Var can be interpreted as acceptance. So it means that people activated the energies of Surya using Hram bija mantra which was accepted by the divine and so manifested. Or it could be va+ra+ha. Va for vayu, Ra for agni and Ha the exhalation of the breath.
During vanavas Surpankha threatens to complain to Ravan when Laxman chops her nose. On a real life level, Ravan’s group were causing mischief in those areas. It is necessary for Brahmans to preserve their virya as it empowers them when doing yagyas which strengthen the nation. Surpankha was weakening the country’s defences by leading Brahmans into temptations. This is why it was necessary to disable her abilities to do pranayam, (not literally cut her nose), which leads to developing riddhis and siddhis which Surpankha was misusing. Another explanation is that if a sadhak (Surpankha) misuses or overuses their shaktis, the water element (Laxman) could destroy/damage from within. Another angle is that when Brahmans have such temptations they can rely on their inner Laxman to help them to overcome those.
Ravan had attended Sita’s swayamvar so they already knew who they would be dealing with. Marich appears in the form of the golden deer. Deer were used as symbols for attachment in ancient art. Also, deer by nature are pure and their vrittis are conducive to sattvic development. So, tapasvis preferred to use skin of those who had died naturally to sit on when meditating. But in this story Sita, who has seen through Marich’s deception, asks her inner divine Rama to destroy this maya illusion. She later says the same to Laxman. The Laxman rekha is about the boundaries that a highly evolved spiritual mind will put on the aspirant. ‘Man’ means mind. ‘Lax’ is goal. In context of Laxmiji it would mean one who gives spiritual wealth. After that, Ravan comes disguised as a sadhu. This means that no matter how good and benign things appear, actually they are harmful for the Jiva as they keep it bound and away from Shiva. It is wrong to read it as an example of the popular saying ‘atithi devo bhava’. The word tithi means auspicious time. Therefore, a+tithi would mean inauspicious time. The general meaning of the phrase could be, ‘let this inauspicious meeting be blessed by the gods and hope nothing goes wrong.’ Sita was not a fool to welcome anybody. Also, in those days genuine sadhus, who helped people in various ways, were venerated and so it was people’s duty to feed them. But, by impersonating one, Ravan was breaking this trust. This dishonesty was adharma.
The word Lamka derives from the bija sound ‘Lam’ of the Mooldhara chakra. If Ravana was a high tapasvi his people could not have been much different. So it tells us about how a group of very spiritual people have become materialistic and power crazy. Ravana is said to have been a few thousand years older than Ram and Sita. This could be read as many years of corrupted power as personified by Ravana. The word could be broken up into Ra, meaning energies of Hram or Surya, and Van(weaver of maya). He was known to have been an expert Veena player and some sources even say that he invented Vichitra Veena. The word Vainik meant an expert Veena player. In those days when they did yagyas, mainly women vainikas accompanied chanting of mantras, since our universe is made of sound and the Veena is probably the instrument that probably best duplicates the sounds required to make yagyas successful. This could be why he was abducting women; either to make them materialistic or use them for yagyas for world domination. He could not win over Sita and that was upsetting him since yagyas have to be done voluntarily otherwise the power would wane. He could not possibly have had evil designs on her or others as that would reduce his virya and powers gained by tapasya. Ravan also kills Jatayu, Dashrath’s friend. Jatayu could represent the Athirathram yagya vedi which is bird shaped. Implying that even this yagya had no effect on Ravana.
Valmiki says that the Vanara were vegetarians. When they were ruled by Vali, a valiant warrior and were Ravan’s allies, or, metaphorically happy in Maya-Lamka they did not want to fight him. Once Vali left them, Sugriva or one with a good countenance or character took over, implying a changed mind-set. Then, they were able to accept Hanumant’s advise, accept Hram (the divine) who defeated the arrogant, power-crazy warrior vrittis, or Vali, and when only goodness remained they were ready and able to use their riddhi siddhis to fight Ravan. Thus, Hanumant – like qualities are the harbinger of Hram who ‘kills’ arrogance from behind the asvattha tree as described in Vedanta. Vanaras who have siddhis to leap, use the Hram setu group of mantras (among others), leap over bhavasagar, and rescue pruthvi tattva or their self (Sita/Jiva), from the clutches of maya-Lamka. This is also good advice for warriors since Vali and Sugriva could be described as two aspects of their personality. Another puzzle is that if they had been thrown out of Ayodhya as paupers, than how did Sita get jewels which she apparently threw out of the viman window when Ravan abducted her? This reads better as a metaphor where the jewels represent riddhi siddhi. (Viman could be a verb rather than noun). So Sita, the tapasvi tries to access her inner divine Hram by giving those up, since this is necessary. She was known as Vaidehi from the land of the Videhas who are high level tapasvis. Videhamuktas, are aspirants who strive to master their gross matter, and give up bodily desires. So there is no way that Sita is a helpless woman by any standards. She was given a special cloth by Kaushalya, that would never need to be washed. Recently scientists have invented such clothes that get ‘cleaned’ by bacteria and do not have to be washed for long periods. This is advanced science. It could also mean that Sita’s Kaushalya (adjective) or high level of dharmic expertise had given her ‘clothes’, or chir or mind-stuff a purity that could not be tainted by any impurities in maya.
We then come to the point where it is said that a mere dhobi influenced Ram and he deserted Sita. Once again this has been misinterpreted. Before jumping to hasty conclusions one should read information on ancient Vedic governance. Dr.Sanjeev Kumar Sharma writes in ‘India Good Governance in Ancient India Remembering Kingship in Shantiparavam of Mahabharat’:
“The cabinet of the king should contain four Brahmins with knowledge of Vedas, eight Kshatriyas with immense physical force and power, twenty – one Vaishyas with prosperity, three Sudras with benevolence and good manners and one Suta knowing Puranas.”
D.K. Agarwal and Suresh Chandra Shukla write in ‘Washerman and Washing Materials in Ancient India,’ that:
“Ancient society was divided into four varnas. The last varna known as ksudra had a subclass known as rajaka and its profession was to wash clothes. This was one of the five special categories of workers who were given a higher place as silpins or artisans, the other four classes of artisans being carpenter, weaver, barber and shoemaker. They were regarded as a superior class of workers.
This proves that the dhobi was not merely a lowly servant but a respected member of the government. Also, it may not be that literally a dhobi questions Sita. It could be that people have taken bhajans too literally and created an episode involving dhobi. There is a very famous bhajan by Sant Mirabai:
‘Shyam piya mori rang de chunariya
Eisi rang de ke rang nahi chhoote,
Dhobiya dhowe chahe sari umariya’
Here, the chunariya symbolises her mind stuff. It could also refer to the colours of the chakras that can be seen when they get activated. She prays that the colour should be so strong that the dhobi should not be able to wash it. This could mean that the divine is like a dhobi and would wash a sadhak’s karmas, chir or mind-stuff and they would become pure and be ready to leave maya. (which is what happened with Sita and she does only detached karmas thereafter). But Mira wants to remain ‘coloured’ in Krushna’s love. Even if a dhobi does raise a question it would be in his capacity as a representative of the people, (since it was not a dictatorship), which is why Ram had to accept it. They may have felt that Sita was no longer qualified to be a Mahisi since she has advanced to a level of rushi aspirant. Or, they feel that she could have become tainted in Ravana’s materialistic maya world and so needed to do more training and tapasya with a rushi. Later, Ram does a yagya using a gold image of Sita. Gold was an important ingredient in certain yagyas and was probably the monatomic metal with special properties that enhances spirituality. Also, he probably had not found another Mahisi.
Some say ashwamedha yagya involved eating horses. This sounds illogical. Vedic scientists were known as Ashvinau. So the word Ashva could mean scientific knowledge, or sun as suggested by some. It could mean a+sva. Sva is in context of Siva and adding ‘a’ means that which is not Siva, or that knowledge which does not involve final moksha. This would imply everything in maya. Medh means essence and Medha means wisdom. So the purpose of the yagya could be to spread science and wisdom at the speed of a horse. This is why people accepted Ram as chakravarti raja. Even the Ram setu bridge doesn’t have only a religious significance. It links India to Lamka and helps balance the land mass. The twelve Jyotirlingas were made in places where the balance has been considered delicate. They are made of meteoric stones or original shaligram which have divine properties if activated. This is why there is one on the Setu.
The word Valmiki means ant-hill and the mud from a white ant’s hill was used for yagyas. So, just the way many ants make an ant-hill, many people’s contribution must have made up the Ramayana. Valmiki was a rogue born of low caste parents. In that case it’s likely that he was born in Kaliyug since in Vedic times they did not have caste system. Varnashram is not the same. Vedic rushis took the ‘title’ of their predecessors and the names described their areas of expertise. Sometimes the word ‘rushi’ has been used in context of stars too. So, was Valmiki one man?
Sanskrit has a gender for all non-living things too. And also, the energies are explained in terms of groups that those qualities fall under. The ‘male’ qualities and the ‘female’ qualities which may roughly be explained as the yin and the yang, derive from ida and pingala nadis, irrespective of the gender of the gross body. Most Sanskrit words and names are compound words and it helps to check the etymology and read them in context of the sadhna system since education and development in those days was measured in terms of progress on the sadhna path.
One has to bear in mind that a lot of information could have been distorted when people re-wrote the texts through the tough centuries of slavery, war, famine etc. Even language skills have deteriorated. It is unwise to make sweeping statements and explain history covering millions of years without establishing the timeline and other factors. Especially since everyone cannot be expected to behave in the same way forever. We need to stop denigrating our ancients and work together to preserve our cultural heritage for our collective future. Rather than being judgmental we should make it a learning experience.
Submitted by : Sona Parivraj
(Sona Parivraj graduated from Mumbai University and lives in London now. She likes to read and write fiction and has deep interest in dharmic matters.)