Ramcharitmanas: Love and Devotion
By AVM (Rtd) V.P. Misra and Vibha Lavania
Publisher: Beas, India: Radha Soami Satsang Beas, 2019. ISBN: 978-93-88733-18-2
Ramcharitmanas, by the sixteenth-century Indian mystic Tulsidas, tells the epic story of the battle between Lord Ram and the demon Ravan over the kidnapping of Ram’s wife Sita. The tale serves as a profound analogy for the plight of the soul in the human body and the spiritual path that leads the soul to God. It particularly dwells on the wondrous truth that God himself manifests in human form to lead souls to their salvation.
According to the book, Lord Shiva, one of the three gods in the Hindu triumvirate, relates the tale of Ram and Sita to his wife Parvati in answer to questions she asks about Ram:
If Ram is the son of a king, then how can he be the Absolute Lord? And if he is the Absolute, then why was he roaming about in the forest, lamenting the loss of his wife like an ordinary human being? When I see his actions on one hand, and on the other I hear his praises being sung, my mind is completely confused.
Throughout the narrative, Parvati’s questions are returned to again and again, not only in her dialogue with Lord Shiva, but also in exchanges between other characters in the tale. Characters express confusion about who Ram really is, as they struggle to “fathom the mystery of the incarnated Lord, who is at the same time both the pure and unlimited Absolute and completely human.”
The title Ramcharitmanas is comprised of three words: Ram, charit, and manas. Ram is a name for the Lord and charit means action or play; thus Ramcharit means the Lord’s play. The word manas refers to the inner eye, and can also mean a sacred body of water. It specifically refers to Mansarovar, a celestial lake encountered in subtle regions that, when bathed in, removes all impurities from the soul. Tulsidas says that Ram’s story is a “hidden inner lake shining with splendour.”
Tulsidas wrote Ramacharitmanas in a dialect of Hindi, the language of the common person, rather than in Sanskrit, the language of the elite classes. Not only that, but he chose to convey profound spiritual teachings through a popular and engrossing story that would appeal to ordinary people. In part his method is that of allegory – thus Ram is symbolic of the Lord who comes to this earth to rescue the soul; Sita is symbolic of the soul; and various characters represent different positive and negative human traits. The battle between the demon’s army and Ram’s forces is symbolic of the struggle we wage within our minds. Commentaries are interspersed throughout the book so that the modern reader can better grasp the deeper meaning of the story.
Tulsidas holds out Ram’s positive and compassionate actions as a model for how all humans should live. Ram faces the same challenges all humans do. He remains patient when confronting angry people, extreme loss, and family members going through shock and pain. He is compassionate toward his enemies, even to the point of giving them a place in the heavens after their death.
In Ramcharitmanas we also gain insights into true discipleship. Some lessons are conveyed through dialogue, such as when the eagle Garud, the king of the birds, asks the wise crow Kakbhushundi about the struggles faced by disciples trapped in the powerful grip of maya or illusion. The crow advises him that the most effective means for disciples to extricate themselves from maya is the path of unwavering devotion to Ram. Other lessons in discipleship shine through in examples. Although Ram’s wife, Sita, could have stayed in the comfort of the palace, she cannot bear to be separated from Ram and accompanies him into the dangers of exile.
Both of Ram’s brothers display deep devotion to him: Lakshman, also unable to bear the separation, follows him into exile, and Bharat, who becomes heir in place of Ram, humbly gives up the throne when Ram returns home. Hanuman, the valiant monkey warrior, and Jambavan, the king of the bears, are utterly devoted to helping Ram find Sita and conquer the demon Ravan.
The story of Vibhishan is particularly inspiring, because, though he is a demon and the younger brother of Ravan, he is unwavering in his devotion to Ram and plays a part in bringing about the death of Ravan. Ram later installs him as king in place of Ravan because of his nobility and devotion. In the character of Vibhishan we see the love that Ram had even for a demon, giving great hope to the common disciple: in the darkest moments the Lord can love, forgive, and accept us into his fold.
As a perfect disciple, Ram’s younger brother Lakshman describes how a disciple comes to see the world as unreal:
Union and separation, the experience of happiness
and pain, people who are for us or against us,
and those who are indifferent to us
are all but snares of delusion.
They are not real – even birth and death,
the entire network of the world, prosperity
and adversity, destiny and time, lands, home,
wealth, town, family, heaven and hell.
Reflect that all the phenomena of the world,
all that is seen, heard or thought of with the mind –
all are rooted in delusion; nothing exists in reality.
Throughout Ramcharitmanas Tulsidas emphasizes Nam bhakti, devotion to the Lord’s name. He uses the word katha or tale to describe the story he is telling, the Ram katha. He says that “the katha of Ram brings forth blessings and wipes away the impurities of Kaliyug, the present age,” and that “wisdom develops in the minds of those who listen to the katha of Ram.” The Ram katha itself is a metaphor for Nam, the akath katha, “the story that cannot be uttered”: it is not just the story of the heroic deeds of the human being named Ram who lived in India, but also the ancient and eternal story of the Lord’s Name that reverberates through all time.
Tulsidas points out the true meaning and power of Nam when recounting several incidents in the story:
Ram broke the bow of Shiva with his valour, but the glory of Nam shatters the fear of the cycle of birth and rebirth. Ram purified the Dandak Forest and by his presence freed it from its curse, whereas Nam has purified the minds of countless devotees. Ram destroyed a group of demons, but Nam destroys all the sins of Kaliyug… Ram gathered the monkeys and bears and laboured hard to build the bridge connecting Lanka to the mainland. But, Tulsi says, O wise one, reflect on the fact that Nam dries up the entire ocean of transmigration itself.…
Nam is greater than both the Absolute (Brahm) and Ram because it showers its blessings on those who confer boons on others…. It is with the grace of Nam alone that Shiva is immortal…. It is only by remembrance of the holy Name that Hanuman has won over Ram… I have no words to sing the praises of Nam. Even the incarnate Ram cannot sing its praises adequately.
It is through devotion to the transcendent Nam that the disciple bathes in the inner sacred body of water, the manas, and comes to understand who the human form of God really is. Tulsidas explains that Nam is the link between the formless Reality and the human form of the Lord:
Both forms are, however, inaccessible by themselves –
it is only through the power of Nam
that they are easily attainable.
Thus I declare that Nam is even more powerful
than either the Absolute or the incarnate Ram.
Tulsidas describes the relationship between Nam and God:
Nam and the Named are actually one and the same –
both are lovingly entwined with each other.
Wherever Nam is manifest, God invariably follows.