By Caitanya Carana Dasa

Finding inspiration in examples of selfless sacrifice in an ancient epic. 

When I was asked this question in the midst of the rush of this year’s Rama Navami festival, I answered briefly, stating that though the Ramayana’s stories may be from an ancient setting, they do indeed embody timeless values relevant to us even today. Here I’d like to explain just how they are relevant.

From “Me” to “We”

One of the primary values the Ramayana conveys is selfless sacrifice. It is especially relevant in our present times, when people are becoming increasingly enamored by self-seeking lifestyles. Contemporary culture largely glamorizes the “me” paradigm, which impels people to seek their own gratification without caring about its cost for others. When the same inconsiderate individualism causes us to neglect or manipulate the people around us—family members, neighbors, colleagues—it boomerangs to wound our heart, afflicting it with emotional ruptures and gnawing loneliness. Thus, the “me” paradigm, despite its instinctive appeal to our ego, is disastrously myopic.

If we desire more satisfying and sustainable relationships, we need to rise from this myopic “me” paradigm to the holistic “we” paradigm. As this paradigm shift can be challenging, it is helpful, even essential, to have inspiring role models and narratives to draw from. For mining such inspiration, the Ramayana serves as an inexhaustible mother lode; it offers us a panorama of jewellike personalities who embody the spirit of sacrifice in various poignant real-life situations:

1. To preserve the word of honor of his father, King Dasharatha, Rama accepted the sentence of exile despite having committed no fault. This example of sacrifice points the way to bridging the ever-expanding parent-child generation gap.

2. By choosing to accompany her husband into exile, Sita preferred the dangers of the forest to the security of the palace. This is a stirring example of valuing the marital bond, now much devalued due to an increasingly casual approach to sexuality and matrimony.

3. Lakshmana chose to stand unflinchingly by the side of his elder brother during Rama’s hour of crisis and thereby gained a profound mutually enriching bond. His example of sacrifice can serve as an antidote to the superficial relationships that characterize today’s siblings.

4. Bharata resolutely refused the kingdom meant for Rama. His example of sacrifice can offer a lesson for the many succession or inheritance battles among children that erupt after the death of a wealthy parent—and sometimes even before the death.

Inspiration, Not Imitation

At this point, someone may object, “If we sacrifice like this in today’s self-centered culture, we will be exploited.”

That’s possible—and that’s why the Ramayana tradition offers the examples of its protagonists not for imitation, but for inspiration, not for duplication of the particulars of their sacrifices, but for appreciation of the principle of sacrifice. As our relationships and interactions occur in real life, we need to consider the various contexts and their implications before we decide how to apply the spirit of sacrifice in our lives.

Lest we feel that the spirit of sacrifice is entirely inapplicable today, we need to look no further than team sports. Whereas a self-seeking player who chases a personal milestone may the cost the team success, a sacrificing player who puts aside individual glory may ensure the team victory. If sacrifice plays a valuable, even critical, role in a relatively frivolous activity like sports, then how much more indispensable will be its role in real-life relationships, which are also like teams, but teams that last much longer and mean much more to us?

Shades of Darkness

The Ramayana complements examples of heroic selflessness with examples of tragic selfishness and its unfortunate consequences. Significantly, it demonstrates these ramifications of selfishness through characters with varying shades of darkness:

1. At the pitch-dark end of the spectrum is the epitome of ungodliness, the demon-king Ravana, who due to his selfish lust commits innumerable atrocities and finally meets his nemesis when his evil eye extends to Sita, the goddess of fortune.

2. Toward the middle of the spectrum is the monkey-king Vali, who lets himself be misled by a hasty and nasty misjudgment about his brother Sugriva’s mentality and so selfishly dispossesses Sugriva of home, wealth, and family and eventually meets his own end in a heart-rending fratricidal showdown.

3. At the brighter end of the spectrum is the queen Kaikeyi. Her temporary spell of selfishness changed her normal kindness, gentleness, and wisdom to uncharacteristic cruelty, harshness, and folly. Her actions agonized her family, brought about the anguished death of her husband, and subjected her to lifelong regret for her insane self-obsession.

Thus, the Ramayana illustrates its caveats about selfishness not just through outright ungodly characters but also through godly persons who succumb temporarily to selfishness. Their examples inspire all of us to keep up our guard against selfishness and thereby prevent it from sabotaging our relationships.

Redefining the “We”

If this message of sacrifice as a means to deep fulfilling human relationships were all the Ramayana offered the world today, then that message in and of itself would be valuable. But the Ramayana’s gifts are much greater and deeper.

The central hero of the Ramayana is not a human being, but the Supreme Being. Rama is an incarnation of the Supreme Lord playing the role of a human being. So the bonds between Rama’s associates and Rama are examples of the human-divine relationship, far more lasting than the best human-human relationship. All human-human relationships, even if fulfilling, are ultimately distressing due to the inevitability of rupture at death. But the human-divine relationship, when understood as a spiritual relationship between the eternal soul and the eternal Supreme, is eternal—and eternally fulfilling.

The Supreme Lord possesses fully and forever the six primary opulences—beauty, wisdom, strength, wealth, fame, and renunciation—whose fractional and fleeting presence in worldly people attracts our heart to them. Lord Krishna indicates that the attractive features worldly people possess ultimately originate from Him. He states in the Bhagavad-gita (10.41), “Know that all beautiful, opulent, and glorious creations spring from but a spark of my splendor.” Just as a blazing fire can provide far greater warmth than a tiny spark, the Supreme Lord can provide far greater warmth of love for our hearts than any worldly person.

In fact, the Lord descends as His various avatars to offer us this supreme warmth and ultimate fulfillment. The incredible loving exchanges between the Lord and His devotees comprise the heart of the Lord’s pastimes. The Bhagavad-gita (4.9) indicates that when we understand the true transcendental nature of His pastimes, the desire to have a similar loving relationship gets kindled in our heart. When fully developed, that desire helps us attain the Lord’s eternal abode, where we eternally rejoice in loving Him.

Developing our relationship with the Lord, like developing any other relationship, requires commitment and sacrifice. If we miss this essential point, we end up conflating authentic spiritual life with the inanity of ritual religiosity or the feel-good sentimentality of New Age spirituality or any other similar form of shallow or shadow spirituality. The Ramayana conveys the necessity and the glory of sacrifice in the service of God through its refreshing portraits of extraordinary and ordinary persons who achieved deep devotional relationships with the Lord by activating their individual spirit of sacrifice.

Present-day Reenactments of Ramayana Principles

In our times, Srila Prabhupada embodied an unprecedented and unparalleled example of the same spirit of sacrifice. At the advanced age of sixty-nine he ventured singlehandedly across the ocean to fulfill the mission of the Lord: to share spiritual wisdom with the world. Thus he demonstrated how Hanuman’s example of leaping to Lanka in service of Lord Rama can be followed today. Just as Hanuman searched zealously to find Sita in a Lanka densely populated with ungodly elements, Srila Prabhupada searched industriously for spiritually inclined individuals in a world densely populated with ungodly materialistic crowds.

Srila Prabhupada’s advanced age and the improbability of the success of his mission evoke the sacrifice of Jatayu, the aged bird who fought gallantly and became a martyr while trying to stop Ravana from abducting Sita. Srila Prabhupada’s mission was as imposing and impossible as Jatayu’s: to stop the rampaging advance of materialism and hedonism, represented by Ravana, from carrying sincere souls, represented by Sita, away from the devotional service of the Lord. But, by the miraculous mercy of the Lord, Srila Prabhupada was given the incredible potency by which he transformed mission impossible into mission unstoppable. He tirelessly circled the globe repeatedly, wrote dozens of books, established more than a hundred temples, and inspired millions of people to practice devotional service. He not only stopped devotionally minded people from being carried away by materialistic allurements, but he also redirected materialistic people to become devotees.

Most of us may not be called upon to perform such herculean sacrifices, but by rendering services according to our individual capacities, we can sacrifice and contribute to the Lord’s cause, as did the monkeys to Lord Rama’s cause. If we strive to serve the Lord sincerely, some of us may discover hitherto unknown abilities within ourselves, as did Hanuman just before his stupendous leap to Lanka. And also like Hanuman, some of us may even become empowered to perform extraordinary feats in the Lord’s service.

Perhaps the most relevant example for us as spiritual seekers is that of Sita when separated from Lord Rama and held in captivity in Ravana’s Lanka. All of us are also separated from the Lord of our hearts and are held captive in material existence, the arena of Ravana-reminiscent materialism. Sita demonstrated her unfailing and unflinching devotion to Lord Rama by rigidly rejecting all the overtures of Ravana for ungodly indulgence and intensely absorbing herself in remembering the Lord. We too can demonstrate our unflagging devotion to the Lord by firmly rejecting all the overtures for ungodly indulgence in meat-eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex, no matter how great the pressure from our social circle. We can gain strength to withstand such pressure by contemplating the extremity of Sita’s predicament. She was threatened with death if she refused to indulge—and yet she refused. Surely the pressure on us from our social circle is not that bad. Then why should we give in to it? Following in Sita’s footsteps, we can further strengthen ourselves by attentively absorbing our mind in remembering the Lord—at least for the time of our daily mantra meditation.

When we understand these timeless devotional principles that underlie the stories of the Ramayana, we no longer fall prey to the misconception that these stories are just outdated historical tales or mythological ethical parables. We recognize them as authentic and dramatic demonstrations of eternal spiritual principles. These principles have inspired the highest human attainment throughout history. They beckon us to the same supreme adventure and accomplishment. Therein lies the ultimate, unfading relevance of the Ramayana. No wonder eminent literary historian A. A. MacDonnell noted about this timeless classic: “Probably no other work of world literature has produced so profound an influence in the life and thought of a people as the Ramayana.

In summary, the Ramayana’s perennial relevance lies in its power to inspire us to broaden our consciousness from “me” to “we” and to momentously expand the definition of “we” from the human-human paradigm to the human-divine paradigm.