By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
When disagreement threatens the unity of a party searching for Sita, help arrives in an unexpected form.
The Ramayana features many intriguing group dynamics, among human groups, vanara* groups, demon groups, and even groups comprising both humans and vanaras. In the group of vanaras that went south in search of Sita, divisive and cohesive forces are graphically evident.
The Search and the Schism
Rama and Sugriva, leader of the vanaras, had formed an alliance: Rama would help Sugriva regain his wife and kingdom, and Sugriva would help Rama regain Sita, who had been abducted by the demon-king Ravana. Rama had done His part, and the now-enthroned vanara monarch Sugriva had started doing his part. He had organized his leading vanaras into four groups and instructed them to go in the four directions to search for Sita. The search parties were asked to return within a month, with latecomers liable for severe punishment. Among the groups, the southbound group was most likely to locate Sita – Ravana had been seen carrying her southwards. This group had as leaders three great vanara generals: Angada, Hanuman, and Jambavan. Rama gave Hanuman a signet ring that he was to show Sita on finding her; the ring would assure her that its bearer was an authorized messenger of Rama.
The southbound group searched vigorously for over six weeks, braving many dangers, but couldn’t find any clue to Sita’s whereabouts. And amidst the consequent disappointment, concealed tensions within the group came to the fore. The group’s three leaders had different things to commend them: age, lineage, and empowerment because of blessings. Jambavan was the senior by age and was accorded due deference. But his age had lessened his physical prowess. Angada was a valiant prince of a noble lineage, the son of the previous vanara monarch, Vali. But he was young, impetuous, and inexperienced. The fortunate Hanuman had received from the gods many extraordinary powers. But when he was still a mischievous child, those powers had made him into an innocent menace for forest sages, who cursed him to forget his powers until he would be reminded of them at a later, more opportune moment. Therefore, up to this point in the Ramayana, Hanuman hadn’t done anything extraordinarily heroic.
Their search for Sita having drawn a blank, the disheartened vanaras discussed their next strategy: Should they keep searching? Or should they return, report their failure, and seek further orders?
Angada, Vali’s son, had pent-up resentment against Sugriva, who he felt had conspired to kill Vali. So the vanaras’ current predicament triggered residual suspicions in him. Angada said that Sugriva would use their failure to find Sita and their delay in returning as justification for executing them. Venting his suppressed anger, he said that such excess wouldn’t be beyond someone who had conspired to kill his own brother. Angada concluded that fasting to death in the forest would be better than returning only to be executed in disgrace in front of their loved ones.
On hearing Angada’s apprehension, the vanaras responded variously, discussing to and fro, until they split into two groups. One group agreed with Angada and resolved to fast to death. The other group sided with Hanuman, who underscored Sugriva’s fairness and assured that no one would be penalized for the delay.
Seismic Fault Lines in Relationships
Were Angada’s doubts about Sugriva justified? Yes and no. Sugriva had undoubtedly arranged to kill Vali. But he had done so not because he craved power, but because Vali had left him with no alternative. Vali had blown out of proportion an unfortunate misunderstanding with Sugriva. Without giving his brother any chance to clarify things, Vali had driven him to the forest, stripping him of all royal status and taking his brother’s wife for himself. Worse still, Vali had chased Sugriva far and wide with murderous intent. He had given up only when Sugriva sought refuge near a hermitage that Vali couldn’t approach due to a sage’s curse. Sugriva had tried repeatedly to reconcile with Vali, but Vali had instead rebuffed, rebuked, and threatened him. Seeing no other way to guarantee his life and regain his family, Sugriva had felt constrained to arrange for Vali’s death.
Significantly, before his death Vali had reconciled with Sugriva, seeking his forgiveness and requesting him to treat Tara (Vali’s wife) and Angada kindly. Moreover, Vali had requested Tara and Angada to stay under Sugriva’s shelter and serve him as they had served Vali earlier. So the animosity between the two brothers had been fully dissolved before Vali’s death.
Even after gaining the kingdom, Sugriva had shown no glee. Quite the opposite. Vali’s death had filled him with such deep remorse that he had desired to enter the funeral pyre with his brother’s corpse. He had been dissuaded only by the words of his well-wishers Rama and Lakshmana, who had reminded him of, among other things, his duty to his citizens. After reluctantly ascending the throne, Sugriva had carefully honored his dying brother’s request by being consistently considerate towards Angada.
Moreover, presently, Sugriva had sent them on a mission to serve Rama, who would certainly not allow the unjust execution of anyone, let alone the prince.
Unfortunately, none of this reasoning could allay Angada’s suspicions, disheartened as he was at their fruitless search. He chose unilaterally the extreme measure of suicidal self-mortification.
It’s revealing that Angada’s suspicions came to the fore when their mission met with a reversal that bordered on failure. The mind often magnifies problems. The Bhagavad-gita (6.6) cautions that our mind is presently our enemy. One of the ways it acts inimically is by distorting our perception – sometimes it trivializes big problems and sometimes it magnifies small problems. Sometimes, when faced with one big problem, it becomes so pessimistic and paranoid as to imagine other problems to be bigger than what they are. Thus does the mind escalate minor relationship issues.
Relationships are often so subtle and multilevel that some small tensions can exist even in the closest relationships. But the mind transforms these tensions into seismic fault lines that if unresolved can give rise to a relationship-shattering quake.
A Predator Turns Benefactor
Hanuman found himself in a delicate situation. Angada, the prince and heir, was leading the vanaras to mass suicide. Moreover, he was voicing serious accusations against the king. Still, Hanuman exhibited maturity in not going off the handle and counter-accusing Angada of treason. He understood that the prince’s words came from a hurting heart – he was still a youth, a bereaved son who had unexpectedly lost his father just a few months before and was now burdened by his failure in the leadership responsibility entrusted to him. That he had even accepted such a responsibility was laudable.
With gentle words and sound arguments, Hanuman tried to persuade Angada. But, despite his best efforts, he couldn’t make any headway.
Often when we do the best we can, God helps us do what we can’t. And his help may well come in the least expected ways – sometimes in ways that don’t look like help at all. For the arguing vanaras, divine help came in a scary form.
While the vanaras’ talks had come to an impasse, suddenly a giant vulture emerged from a nearby cave. On beholding the vanaras sitting in a posture meant for fasting until death, he declared that he would soon feast on these vanaras.
Angada saw this giant bird’s arrival as providence’s punishment for his failing to serve Rama’s purpose. Seeing this vulture reminded Angada of another vulture, Jatayu, who had died while trying in vain to stop Ravana from kidnapping Sita. The despondent prince mentioned to a neighboring vanara that in their service to Rama, they seemed fated to die unsuccessfully, as had the heroic Jatayu.
On hearing the mention of Jatayu, the vulture froze. Recovering after a few moments, he asked about Jatayu, stating that he was Jatayu’s older brother, Sampati.
Relieved and intrigued, Angada told the story of how Jatayu had attained martyrdom while trying to stop Ravana from abducting Sita. Sampati cried in agony and anger, lamenting that he hadn’t been able to protect Jatayu and couldn’t even avenge his death because he no longer had wings.
Seeing that the vanaras were hearing sympathetically, he told how he had lost his wings. Long ago, the two bird brothers had in their youthful impetuosity decided to fly to the sun. When the sun’s heat started scorching them, Sampati shaded Jatayu with his wings. The heat burnt his wings and he fell to the earth, wingless and separated from Jatayu. While he grieved, a sage named Candrama solaced him with timeless spiritual knowledge and assured him that his adversity would give him an opportunity to serve the Lord, who would descend in the future.
As Sampati fell silent, Angada contemplated his words. It struck him that the far-flying Sampati might know the location of Ravana’s kingdom. When he asked Sampati, the vulture perked up, excitedly realizing that his destined opportunity had arrived: The vanaras were servants of Rama, the Lord’s current incarnation. Further, by helping Rama’s servants in finding Ravana, he could contribute to the cause of avenging Jatayu.
Sampati told them that several months earlier he had seen Ravana carrying a beautiful woman southward through the sky. Informing the vanaras that despite his age he still had keen sight, he drew himself to his full height. Focusing his eyes across the ocean, he announced that Sita was there in Ravana’s kingdom, Lanka.
The vanaras became elated. Their mutual differences forgotten, the two groups of vanaras jubilantly embraced and started planning their next move. Angada too put aside his suspicions. He had always wanted to serve Rama and hadn’t abandoned his devotion to Rama, even when doubts about Sugriva had overwhelmed him. Now that an avenue to succeed in his service to Rama had opened, he was able to push back his doubts about Sugriva.
After this incident, Angada never succumbed to similar doubts about his uncle. In the climactic war, he fought faithfully under Sugriva, heroically felling many dreadful demons. And the other vanaras too never mentioned Angada’s accusations. Leaving the past behind them, they worked unitedly and successfully in Rama’s service.
A Big Problem Solved Through a Bigger Problem
The specifics of this story may not seem relevant to us when we face divisive tensions in our daily lives. But if we look beyond the specifics of the narrative to generic patterns, we can discern four stages that may well resonate with our experience:
1. A group of strong individuals come together for a challenging cause.
2. A reversal aggravates underlying tensions, creating a schism.
3. A bigger problem appears, bringing the group together.
4. In working unitedly, the group tackles the bigger problem along with the original problem.
The turning point for the vanaras was an incidental, distress-triggered reference to Jatayu. Significantly, their comparing themselves with Jatayu revealed that they were still committed to Rama. And that casual expression of their devotion turned out to be life-saving and mission-saving. Hearing Jatayu’s name, Sampati turned from predator to benefactor and told Sita’s whereabouts.
Still, even that turning point had initially looked like a worsening point. Sampati hadn’t seemed godsent; he had seemed devil-sent, being bent on devouring the vanaras. But despite appearances, behind the scenes things were moving by divine arrangement to assist them. And when they persevered, that assistance manifested itself.
When we face problems while serving the Lord, we can’t know when and how a turning point may come. Even if things seem grim, we never lose until we lose hope. And even if we lose hope, our Lord doesn’t. He can work in the most inconceivable ways to give us hope and direction.
While we work together, as we often must to achieve anything big, differences of opinion are inevitable. Focusing on the cause that brings us together rather than the factors that push us apart is vital for the group’s success or even survival. If we can voluntarily maintain this focus, that is the best. But if we somehow lose focus, problems seem to balloon. They compel us to choose between correcting course by uniting around the common cause or being ripped apart by the problem and the consequent exacerbated divisive forces.
The best common cause is the cause of devotion to God, for He is the well-wisher of everyone, as the Bhagavad-gita (5.29) states. And He engages His devotees as agents of His wisdom, helping them find their way through obstacles.
Interactions and Inner Actions
Successful teamwork rests on not just the interactions between individuals but also the inner actions within the individuals’ minds. This is seen from how Angada’s internal suspicion caused external dissension. Pertinently, devotion to God can unify us not only with others, but also with ourselves. That is, devotion can unite our present consciousness with our pure consciousness as spiritual beings, parts of God.
We have a lower side that prods us towards shortsighted actions. And we have a higher side that inspires us towards nobler, farsighted actions that are truer to our essential nature and core values. Devotion to God activates and strengthens our higher side, gradually elevating and uniting our self-conception with our spiritual self.
However, our lower side tends to minimize devotion, making us believe that worldly exigencies are far more important and urgent than any spiritual cause. And as such exigencies keep coming, one after another, they leave us spiritually disoriented and de-centered. Thus, we become vulnerable to divisive influences that aggravate worldly exigencies, thereby trapping us in a circle of spiritual distraction and worldly obsession. To avoid this trap, we need to use our intelligence, sharpened by regular study of scripture, to keep our devotion at the center of our heart and our relationships.
When we keep ourselves devotionally grounded, we get the inner security to act maturely in outer relationships. We can firmly resist unwarranted suspicions and agreeably resolve warranted concerns. And adversities that could rupture unity can instead strengthen it if we see those adversities as spurs for focusing on God and the common cause of serving Him.
* A humanlike monkey species.