Ramayana: The Hero’s Journey and the Quest for Enlightenment
Guest Post, By Linda Egenes
In one of my all-time favorite movie lines, Kate Winslet says to her mentor in Holiday, “One should at least be the heroine of one’s own life.”
This idea resonates with me. When teaching writing to a lively group of octogenarians a few years ago, they decided to self-publish their delightful vignettes in a collective memoir called Being Our Own Heroes. What I learned from these plucky elders was a new way of thinking—that every life is heroic, every journey a quest for growth and a better way of living. Every person is a hero in his or her own way.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the hero’s quest in literature, because a book that I co-authored with Dr. Kumuda Reddy, a labor of love for 18 years, has just been published that features the ultimate hero and heroine. The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive is an abridged version of the most widely read epic in the world.
The Ramayana is not a dusty old tome. It’s the most widely read epic in the world today, partly because it’s a ripping good story. In just a few lines, it’s the story of prince Rama, who is beloved by all in the kingdom yet is unjustly banished to the forest for 14 years on the day he is to be crowned king. His faithful wife Sita and his devoted brother Lakshmana follow him, and the three encounter friends and foes—from forest sages to horrific demons to flying monkeys and wise bears. When his innocent wife Sita is captured by the demon king Ravana, the hero Rama ends up not only rescuing her, but liberating the earth from darkness.
As Ramayana scholar Michael Sternfeld notes in the introduction to our book, the Ramayana has been described as the original epic quest—comparable to the Bible, Star Wars, and Romeo and Juliet all rolled into one.
Yet it’s so much more than just a great story. It’s a spiritual guide to over one billion people living in India today—and to millions more in Bali, Thailand, Nepal and Sri Lanka. One of the main themes of the Ramayana is dharma, which could be defined as action that upholds evolution and harmony for us as individuals, for everyone around us, and even for nature and the environment.
This is an abstract concept, yet in the Ramayana it’s played out in the many relationships that the heroes Rama and Sita form on their journey. And in every instance—whether they are interacting with friend or foe—these two heroes treat each person with respect, compassion, forgiveness and kindness. They invariably reach for the highest course of action, the one that will bring happiness to everyone around them.
There are many examples of Rama and Sita’s compassion throughout the story. At the end of the story, when Sita is finally released from captivity, a friend suggests that the demon women guards, who have tormented her for months, should be put to death.
But Sita says, “It would be wrong to punish these women, because they are slaves who must follow the orders of their ruler, and some have been kind to me. . . . It is never right to answer evil with evil. The jewel of the virtuous is their good conduct. The virtuous are compassionate to all, even criminals who are sentenced to death. For who is so perfect that he can say he is without fault?”
And of course, compassion leads to forgiveness. Rama is incredibly forgiving to everyone he meets, including his enemies. One of the most telling moments of the story happens at the climax of the story when he finally destroys Ravana, his greatest enemy. Rather than exulting in this amazing feat, Rama quietly consoles Ravana’s brother Vibhishana by saying, “Death quells all enmity. We have achieved our purpose. Perform his rights with honor, for he is as dear to me as he is to you.”
I think of this line whenever I’m confronted with the kind of prickly situations that can happen to us human beings. I may feel that I’ve been treated unjustly, but at the same time I remember that ultimately there really is no such thing as an enemy—that all our fellow humans are our friends in the end. Thanks to the Ramayana, when I’m given a choice, I try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
Yet even if we admire Rama and Sita as heroes who always seek the highest good, and think of them as role models, how do we apply that kind of lesson in our own lives?
It strikes me that while most people want to do what is right, the problem is in choosing the right response when we’re pressed to our limits, when we’re tired, or sick, or upset because of something that happened to us during the day.
For instance, think about your choices with food. When you’re rested and happy, it’s easy to choose healthy foods. When do you reach for the junk foods, the comfort foods that add on the pounds and give little nutritional value? When you’re tired or stressed.
And then there are those times when we don’t know the right course of action. In other words, to be the hero of our own story, how do we decide when we’re confronted with dilemmas, or don’t clearly know what is right and what is wrong?
Personally, I have found that the most important thing I can do for myself and others around me is to stay rested. And that doesn’t just mean a good night’s sleep, but the additional rest from my twice daily practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique. This not only helps me to think more clearly, to have a more positive attitude and to make better decisions for my self, it does all this spontaneously, without me having to think about it.
And it’s not just me. Thousands of women today are finding that TM helps them to stay rested and to think more clearly. Research shows that this has an effect not only in thinking more creatively and profoundly, thus making better decisions, but in creating more harmonious relationships and engaging in higher moral reasoning.
I think you could say that the Transcendental Meditation technique is a way to effortlessly unfold the hero or heroine inside us—a way to reach for our highest self.
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Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.
She is a featured blogger for TM-Women.org.