The Ramayana character Maricha was faced with choosing who would kill him.

By Chaitanya Charana Dasa

Knowing he’d be killed by Ravana or Rama, Maricha acted with spiritual knowledge, but worked against the purpose of such knowledge.

We all are going to die one day. This is one of life’s hardest truths – hard to endure and hard even to contemplate. Equipping us to face this reality, Gita wisdom explains that at our core we are eternal souls; death is an event that happens only to our bodies, not to us.

Seen in this light, death is not a termination but a transition. Where do we go after death? That is determined by how we live and how we leave – by the consciousness we have at the time of death, which in turn is determined by the consciousness we cultivate throughout our life. If we die remembering God, we attain Him (Gita 8.5)

The Ramayana depicts a fascinating character, named Maricha, who uses his knowledge about one’s postmortem destination to make a decision that is life-defining, in fact, life-ending. Whether his decision was right or not is open to debate – a debate that reveals the difference between self-centeredness and God-centeredness in the application of spiritual knowledge.

Self-Fulfilling Fear

Maricha appears first in the Bala-kanda, the first book of the Ramayana, wherein Rama is still young and unmarried. The Ayodhya prince has gone to the forest with the sage Vishvamitra to protect the sage’s sacrifices from being desecrated by demons. When Maricha along with the demoness Tadaka and her son Subahu attack Vishvamitra’s sacrifice, Rama and His brother Lakshmana counter the demons. Rama slays Tadaka and Subahu, but Maricha is spared, being hit by a blunt arrow shot by Rama. Though blunt, the arrow is so forceful that it hurls him a long distance away. Maricha, a demon powerful enough to hurl trees far away with the force of his arms, finds himself hurled far away by the force of Rama’s arrows.

The trauma of the forced flight leaves Rama’s awesome power forever impressed in Maricha’s mind. Experiencing Rama’s incomparable and unbearable power, he has a change of heart induced by fear. Recognizing that he will never be able to counter Rama’s power, he decides to give up his demoniac way of life and atone for his past misdeeds by becoming an austere sage. He lives on simple forest fare, chants mantras, and meditates on higher spiritual reality, yet he lives in constant fear of Rama. Such is his fear that even hearing the syllable Ra petrifies him, for he dreads that the sound of that syllable will be followed by the person Rama, who will kill him. Maricha understands that Rama is God descended in human form to this world, but he doesn’t understand that God is benevolent, not malevolent.

Whatever we fear fervently, we may draw towards ourselves by that concentrated negative mental energy of fear. Because our fears can become self-fulfilling, they can sabotage us by bringing upon us the very things we dread. Of course, our thinking about a thing doesn’t alone make it happen. But our obsessive thinking can make us act and can set up the circumstances that induce that thing to happen. Maricha, who lives constantly in fear of Rama’s arrows, eventually dies by those arrows, despite performing his austerities to avoid that fate.

Constrained into Conspiracy

To understand and analyze how this happens, we pick up the Ramayana narrative at the point when the demon-king Ravana is scheming to abduct Rama’s consort, Sita. Having heard of Rama’s formidable prowess, Ravana decides to avoid a head-on confrontation with Rama. He hatches a conspiracy for sidelining Rama and conscripts Maricha into it.

Maricha is a specialist at shape-changing. Many demons have shape-shifting abilities, but Maricha’s are extraordinary even among demons. Knowing this, Ravana goes to Maricha and tells him about the scheme. His normal fear on hearing the name of Rama heightens to terror when he hears about Ravana’s plan to abduct Rama’s wife.

Vehemently and desperately, he urges Ravana to avoid provoking Rama, for the Ayodhya prince’s power is unmatchable. Cautioned by Maricha’s assessment of Rama’s power, Ravana reluctantly abandons his plan.

Ravana had wanted to abduct Sita primarily because he saw her as a means by which he could get back at Rama for having destroyed the demons he had stationed at his outpost at Janasthana. Women are often treated as pawns in the power games of men, but then, women too treat men as pawns in their power games. Little did Ravana know that he was soon going to become a pawn in the hands of his sister, Surpanakha.

The demoness, who feels she was dishonored by Rama, wants Ravana to punish Him. When Ravana remains reluctant, she incites him by describing Sita’s devastating beauty, and the lusty demon’s intelligence soon lies devastated. He resolves to abduct Sita and again goes to Maricha, ordering him to assume the form of an attractive deer, go the forest where Rama and Sita are living in exile, and lead Rama away, thus leaving Sita unguarded.

When Maricha protests against the foolhardy plan, Ravana silences him with an ultimatum: Do as I say, or I will kill you. Hearing Ravana declare haughtily that he has come to order Maricha and not to hear his suggestions, Maricha realizes that the demon king is beyond listening to any good counsel and reluctantly agrees to go along with Ravana’s scheme. He reasons that his death is inevitable – so he might as well choose the best death. Dying at the hands of Rama will lead to his elevation, possibly even liberation, whereas dying at the hands of Ravana will take him to some unknown destination.

Resigning himself to fate, Maricha assumes the form of an irresistibly attractive deer. He starts playing near Rama’s hermitage, thereby attracting Sita’s attention, and Sita begs Rama to get her the deer as a pet. Rama moves to catch the deer, but it flees, and Rama follows. The deer keeps bounding away, suddenly jumping huge distances, suddenly disappearing and reappearing at a distance, and doing things impossible for ordinary deer. Rama’s suspicion about the identity of the deer increases, and finally, when the deer has led Him far into the forest, He decides to shoot it. On being struck by Rama’s arrow, the deer yells in Rama’s voice, “O Lakshmana, O Sita, help!” Hearing this, Rama realizes that the deer’s drawing Him away from Sita was a plot by the demons to catch her unguarded. Alarmed, He begins to turn around to rush back to his hermitage. As He turns, Maricha breathes his last. While dying, he beholds Rama and achieves his purpose of dying in Rama’s presence. But he dies while working against Rama’s purpose.

Self-centered or God-centered

The great nineteenth-century bhakti saint Bhaktivinoda Thakura lists in his book Chaitanya-shikshamrita four motivations with which people approach God: fear, personal desire, duty, and love. When we approach Him out of fear or personal desire, we are largely self-centered, thinking, ‘What can God do for me?” Connecting with God at any level is better than living a godless life. Still, a dutiful connection is on a higher level, and an even more mature devotional connection – when we approach God to serve Him for His pleasure – is the ideal.

At one level, Maricha’s reasoning that dying at Rama’s hands is better than dying at Ravana’s hands reflects his spiritual knowledge. He knows that he will continue to exist after death and that his postmortem destination will be favorable by dying in Rama’s presence.

However, at another level, his failure to consider whether he is working for Rama’s purpose or against it reflects that he hasn’t internalized the purpose of spiritual knowledge – to rise from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. Despite his spiritual knowledge, he doesn’t think of Rama and Rama’s service; he thinks only of his own elevation and destination. Because of his self-centeredness, he perceives God as a tool for his elevation, not as the purpose of his elevation. Bhakti wisdom explains that we are God’s eternal parts and when we learn to love him selflessly we find life’s highest satisfaction. We become absorbed in the Lord’s loving service, an absorption that eventually elevates us to His eternal abode for a life with Him in eternal love.

Though Maricha had spiritual knowledge, his consciousness was materialistic, and he saw God as a tool for our elevation. He ended up working against the person he should have been serving.

Could he have done anything differently? Wasn’t he left with no choice when Ravana threatened him with death if he refused to cooperate? Yes, his choices were restricted, but still he could have used his intelligence. He could have gotten away from Ravana by agreeing to go along with the demon’s scheme, but taking shelter of Rama. He could have alerted Rama to the conspiracy that was afoot and could thus have  helped foil the abduction of Sita. Rama would surely have protected him – as He protected another demon who sought his shelter. Later in the Ramayana, just before the final battle between Rama and Ravana, Vibhishana, a younger brother of Ravana, came over to Rama’s side, being appalled by Ravana’s unrepentant viciousness. Though Vibhishana was not explicitly threatened with death by Ravana, he knew well what that demon would do to those he considered traitors – kill in the most heartless and cruel way possible. Despite the risks, Vibhishana followed his intelligence and conscience. In contrast, Maricha simply obeyed Ravana in his fiendish scheme to abduct a virtuous lady.

At yet another level, the various characters in the Lord’s pastimes can be seen transcendentally – they are furthering His pastimes by acting as needed, sometimes congenially and sometimes inimically. Simultaneously, if we wish to learn ethical lessons from those pastimes and thereby make wiser decisions in our own lives, we can learn a valuable lesson from Maricha. He serves as an excellent example of a person whose knowledge is nullified by his lack of understanding its purpose. Thus he antagonizes the person who is the purpose of that knowledge.

Another bhakti saint, Rupa Goswami, an illustrious predecessor of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, offers a relevant insight in his classic devotional guidebook Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu. He states that only those activities performed with a favorable disposition towards the Lord, when one seeks to please Him, are considered devotional activities. When the Lord’s service is not the intention, then what is performed is not devotional service, even if performed in relation to Him. Though such action may lead to some elevation in one’s postmortem destination, devotees don’t seek an elevation divorced from devotion. That’s why Maricha is never considered a model of devotion, whereas Vibhishana is.

When we practice bhakti, our focus is not so much on how we die but how we live – not at whose hands we die, but for whose hands we live and, if necessary, die. The person for whose hands we live and die is the person for whose purpose we dedicate our life. Srimad-Bhagavatam states that the Lord executes His will sometimes through His own hands and sometimes through the hands of His devotees, those who work for Him. The process of bhakti-yoga helps us become the Lord’s hands. When we become devoted, we’re concerned not so much with our pleasure in this life or even our destination after this life – we’re concerned primarily with our Lord’s purpose and His service. To live for Him and to die for Him – that is the purpose and perfection of devotion.

Another character with whom Maricha can be contrasted is Jatayu, who died just a few hours after Maricha. Jatayu was an aged vulture who attained martyrdom while trying to stop Ravana from abducting Sita. Rama felt deeply indebted to Jatayu for his death-embracing service. Rama Himself performed the last rites for Jatayu, just as a son would perform them for his father. Though Jatayu was killed at the hands of a demon, he died for the hands of the Lord, working for His purpose. In fact,  he died in the hands of the Lord – he breathed his last with his head resting on Rama’s lap and his eyes beholding Rama’s divine face. With such a supremely auspicious departure, he attained the supreme destination.

In whose presence we die is not as important as for whose purpose we die – and for whose purpose we live. How to live in devotion, risking death for the Lord’s sake, is exemplified by Vibhishana. And how to leave in devotion, embracing death for the Lord’s sake, is exemplified by Jatayu.

The integrated understanding of both spiritual knowledge and the purpose of spiritual knowledge is best achieved through the living bhakti tradition, whereby we can learn through both relevant exposition and living examples how to practice bhakti in our own lives.