Monday, March 20, 2006


Remember the death of Viradha, a wicked demon. When Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita entered the Dandaka forest, this monster appeared to them and blocked their way. He was awful to behold; his eyes were black and sunken, his mouth a bloodstained gate into hell, and his bloated crooked body was covered in the skins of men and animals. He was as large as a storm cloud and his voice, like thunder, shook the ground and the trees of the forest. His eyes fell upon Sita and lust swelled his heart. He said to Rama, “Who are you?”

Rama was not afraid and said, “I am Rama, son of Dasaratha. This is my brother, Lakshmana. This is my wife, Sita. We are…”

Viradha interrupted Rama; he took hold of Sita in his monstrous hand and said to Rama, “You and your brother may go back with your lives. This one I will keep as my own.”

At this, Lakshmana became enraged and brandished his bow. But Viradha only laughed, saying, “I have been granted a boon by Brahma. No earthly weapon can harm me. So put away your bow and escape with your lives. This pretty one is my pet. Are your lives so worthless that you would trade them for the price of a mere woman?”

Rama said, “Whatever boon was granted, was granted in my name. I may rescind such a boon at my pleasure and I am not asked of my doings.” Rama and Lakshmana each fired two arrows at Viradha; they streaked across the sky like meteors. One pierced his swollen belly. Two severed his crooked arms. The last struck off his head and Viradha fell dead where he stood. But before their eyes his corpse was transformed and a beautiful youth stood before them in Viradha’s place. He knelt at Rama’s feet and then at Lakshmana’s and Sita’s, pressing the dust upon his forehead. He said, “Lord, I have been transformed, released from a curse. I have been living as a demon, evil in word, act and intention. You have lifted me from that curse by killing me. For whomsoever God punishes in this world, he is freed from punishment in the next. I am free of my sin by your grace and you have granted me forgiveness at the point of your arrows. Forgive me, Rama. I was blind before, but you have lifted the darkness from my eyes and washed the evil from my heart.”

Rama held up his right hand and said to the youth, “Go in peace to the world beyond. I have heard your pleas; I accept your repentance and rescind your debt.”

Thus, see how Rama is the arbiter of right and wrong. See how Rama repays those who trespass against dharma, who act evilly in the world. See how such evil rebounds upon itself and how good redeems it entirely.

After Sita was abducted by Ravana, Rama and Lakshmana were attacked by the demon Kabandha. Kabandha possessed enormous arms that could reach into the three worlds and with these arms he took whatever he pleased. This was a tremendous power, and Kabandha abused this power often. He stole what did not belong to him. He grasped men and animals, taking them into his mouth to sate his unyielding appetite. And he wrecked the sacrifices and austerities performed by others. Kabandha took hold of Rama and Lakshmana and told them, “I am hungry for your flesh. If you have erred or are angry, make peace with the world for in a moment you will be food for me.”

Rama and Lakshmana, however, were no easy prey. With their swords, they hacked off Kabandha’s arms at his shoulders. The demon howled while blood poured copiously from his mutilated body, drenching the earth. Kabandha said, “You are Rama for only God could overcome me with such ease. Listen to me for a moment. Hear me out, O best of men. Once I was as beautiful as Lakshmi, your wife, and as strong as Indra, your servant. But because I was proud and foolish I sometimes shed my handsome form and took on this loathsome aspect. With my grotesque arms, I harassed the world until one day I angered a sage who cursed me to remain in this form, unable to transform into my original self. At first, I thought nothing of the curse, for this body allowed me to act always as I pleased and no one could stop me. But at last I grew weary of this body and even of my own behavior. I had indulged my many appetites for so long, I could no longer control them; they mastered me and I became their slave. But I took solace in the sage’s curse, for he had promised that I would be released from this punishment when Rama appeared and hacked off my arms and immolated my broken body. I ask then, Lord Rama, to destroy me entirely. Build a pyre for me and cast me into the fire. To die at your hands is my sincerest wish.”

Rama and Lakshmana fulfilled Kabandha’s request and Kabandha took on his previous form and ascended into heaven. Rama’s seeming punishment was, in truth, the sweetest blessing.

With this, now you might understand what Rama meant when he arrived in Lanka and called Ravana out to fight, “I have come to punish you, to put you to death. Show me your courage for which you are famous. I have heard rumors of it, but all I know of it is that you deceived me and carried off my wife to satisfy your lusts. Come out warrior. My arrows will purify you and, with the blows of my arms and with the edge of my sword, I will make your blood holy that you may perform your final ablutions in it. Do not be afraid. Death at my hands is inevitable for all creatures and to be desired.” Ravana trembled but answered, “My life is not yet in your hands.” But Rama said, “From the moment you were born, your life has belonged to me. But it has been for you to decide how I would take it. When you abducted my unwilling wife, only then was the matter decided. Already I have devoured your life, Ravana, and the lives of all these warriors. Come out, King of Lanka, and face me. Though I deprive the world of life, few are blessed to look into my eyes as they die. Though I stand always in the presence of all creatures, few perceive me as directly as you do.”

With the tip of his arrow, Rama set the world aright. Rama saw all of this according to dharma and was himself at peace, even as Kaikeyi rejected him and sent him into the wilderness. Rama obeyed and never spoke harshly to her, never faulted her nor humiliated her and forgave her readily when she sought his forgiveness. See, Aurangzeb, in the examples of Viradha and Kabandha how Rama acted. He sought nothing from the fruit of his actions, except to maintain dharma. Because Viradha and Kabandha understood who Rama was, they died seeking his blessing, even as they died at his hands. At first, Valin could not understand, but when understanding swept over him, he likewise blessed Rama, though Rama’s actions, to others, seemed shameful. Surpanakha however found no relief, for though her mutilation revealed her true self, she still saw nothing of herself and lived on in willing blindness. Likewise Ravana was proud and arrogant and even as he faced Rama’s power, he thought he could overcome dharma and thus he died again and again even to this day. Through this, you might understand the meaning of samsara.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Shadow Play (2)

In Kerala, where I stopped briefly, I saw a shadow play of the Ramayana. But the day was warm and, as my eyes gradually dimmed, the shadows took on wondrous shapes of many colors. My mind drifted and I dozed to the sound of Rama’s wedding and exile, Sita’s abduction and rescue, Ravana’s defeat and death, and Rama’s coronation.

In his time, Rama was the best of creation, born the oldest of four noble brothers; he was the incarnation of Vishnu; he was the presence of God on Earth. Rama was the favorite son of King Dasaratha of Ayodhya and was trained by Vasishta and Viswamithra. In a test of strength, he broke Shiva’s bow and strung Vishnu’s bow and in this there are signs to understand. He captured the heart of Sita; she was his wife and his dear companion. After Rama came of age, his father stepped down from the throne to see Rama crowned in his place. But Kaikeyi, Rama’s stepmother, conspired to give the throne to her son, Bharatha. Calling upon Dasaratha to fulfill a promise he had once made to her, Kaikeyi sent Rama into exile for fourteen years. And though the people, and even her own son, cursed Kaikeyi, Rama was obedient and fulfilled his father’s promise. Renouncing the luxuries of the palace, Sita and Lakshmana, Rama’s brother, followed Rama into forest exile. There they lived for many years as ascetics until Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, abducted Sita.

To reclaim his wife, Rama killed Vali, who was king of the monkeys, and crowned Sugreeva king in his place. Hanuman, a servant of Sugreeva, set fire to Ravana’s city on the island of Lanka, returning to Rama with news of Sita’s whereabouts. Under Rama’s command, Sugreeva and Hanuman led their army against Ravana. When Rama defeated the demon king, Sita proved to the people that she had been faithful. At the end of his fourteen years of exile, Rama returned to Ayodhya where Bharatha had ruled not as king, but as Rama’s regent. Rama was crowned in his father’s city and restored peace in his family, making Bharatha his heir and granting Kaikeyi the forgiveness she sought saying, “Though you contrived against me, God made it for good. You are as much my mother as the one who bore me, therefore accept me again as your son.”

When I awoke, a sliver of moon was setting in the west. The greater part of its surface, untouched by the sun but bathed in the light of the Earth, glowed dimly and ghostly white. I saw in that moon the whole of the Ramayana; that splinter so well illuminated, bright like a struck match, and above it the full surface. I thought, “I will not let the brightest part distract me; I will look with deeper perception and see the whole of it, the entirety of it.”

Sunday, March 5, 2006

The Shadow Play

In Kerala, as I dreamed during the shadow play, I saw Hanuman and he spoke these words to me.

Hanuman said, “Near the end of Sri Rama’s life as I kneeled beside his deathbed, tears like the Ganges pouring from my eyes, a ring slipped from the king’s finger and rolled to the floor. Where the ring rested, a tiny hole opened in the Earth and swallowed it up and the ring disappeared from my sight. Sri Rama said to me, ‘Hanuman, you are my ancient friend and my faithful servant. Please will you find my ring?’

“I said, ‘The Earth has taken it; I will find it and return to you.’ At once I shrank down and slipped through the tiny hole in the ground in which the ring had disappeared. For ages I fell but when I reached the end of the world I found myself in a deep cavern poorly lit which was the throne room of the King of Ghosts.

“That king was terrible to see, more terrible than Kumbhakarna, or Indrajit, or Ravana enraged. For the first time in my life I trembled. From the darkness he emerged, gigantic, yet barely discernable. I saw only his eyes and his teeth as he spoke. The rest was blackness.

“The King of Ghosts said to me, ‘You are in my domain and you are in my possession. Whatsoever has passed away comes eventually to me, for I am the keeper of all memories. They are like flowers robbed of sunlight; I watch them fade, wither, and vanish into dust.’

“I said, ‘I am in Rama’s service and you not permitted to detain me. You, like all devas and rakshasas, like all men and monkeys, all creatures in the earth living, dead, and yet to be born, are in his service.’

“I made out in the dim light that the King of Ghosts pressed his palms together in homage. He said, ‘What command does he bring me? I will fulfill it, though I am among the least of his servants.’

“I said, ‘I have come to find his ring. It slipped from his hand and fell here, into this cavern.’

“At once, the King of Ghosts brought before me a great golden tray covered with unnumbered rings. They were all nearly identical, and I sifted through them with my hands. I said, ‘I can’t tell if any of these are Rama’s, or even if they all are.’

“The King of Ghosts said, ‘Whenever an incarnation of Mahavishnu is about to ascend into heaven, his ring falls here. These are all his, and yet not any one is his. When you return to Rama, you will not find him waiting. But keep searching as he commanded you.’

“My heart was broken and I said, ‘How can I search when now it's too late? I failed to find his ring as he commanded me and now I have lost him as well. What will I do?’

“The King of Ghosts said no more, and I returned to the king’s room. Vasishta, the king’s priest, saw me and he said, ‘Rama has ascended and is again with God.’ But my mouth would not open and I bathed Rama's sandals with my tears.

“I left the kingdom and lived a long time in the forests, chanting Rama’s name, hiding myself from people. I wandered for ages, again as though falling into darkness, meditating upon my failure to fulfill Rama’s final command to me.

“One day I came to the forest of Vrndivana and saw Krsna braiding Radha’s hair by a gentle river. I turned toward them, but Krsna approached me without delay and embraced me, as though recognizing me. He smiled and said, ‘O Hanuman, my ancient friend, my faithful servant.’ At the sound of his voice, I could barely speak. I fell to his feet and, clasping them, wept without shame. Krsna lifted me up, embracing me again and laughing joyously. ‘Why are you crying? Don’t you see? You have found the ring at last, the ring I told you to seek.’

“At that moment, I was in paradise.”

When Hanuman finished speaking, he opened his chest with his monkey’s hands and he revealed to me what he enshrined in his heart.

Saturday, March 4, 2006

Two Masks of the Buddha

I’ve been reading some scholarly monographs on the subject of the Ramayana and, in one, came across an essay on Buddhist Rama traditions and stories. The essay’s author noted several textual sources of Buddhist Rama stories; one in particular was the Dasaratha Jataka which was not only a Buddhist version of the story of Rama, but has been posited as the earliest written version of the Ramayana yet known, earlier even than Valmiki’s classic version. Suddenly I recognized the possibility that while Hinduism accounted the Ramayana as originally “Hindu” in origin, the Ramayana might, instead, have come out of Buddhist tradition. Valmiki, rather than being the original author of the work, or even the first to put down on paper the oral tradition of the Ramayana, was instead simply incorporating and recasting the Ramayana into the Hindu tradition. If the Dasaratha Jataka is an original written source of the story of Rama, whether it preceded or followed oral traditions, it opens an important insight into Buddhism and makes more credible the belief that the Buddha was himself the original teller of the tale. This is probably not the case, but elements of truth can be found here.

It is unlikely that we can uncover a true original version of the Ramayana. The stories of Rama have been told throughout South Asia for generations and have been colored by local variations that bear only a resemblance to Valmiki’s version of the story. Finding the original source of the Ramayana is not likely possible today, as the stories and their origins are hopelessly tangled together, receding from one another and returning intertwined, retold, redacted and recycled to fit local tastes and customs. The Dasartaha Jataka appears to be one such redaction. However, if the stories of Rama’s journey are a thousand tributaries, it is fair to ask which version was the original river. Can that original version be discovered? Were the original tales strictly oral? Were Rama stories told originally only to entertain? Were Rama stories told to illustrate political, social, or theological points? Many scholars agree that Valmiki’s version is possibly the closest we will come to that original source. Yet it is almost as certain that the Buddha told stories of Rama, as teaching tales, to illustrate important points (and probably told stories of Krishna as well). No one, for example, would argue that Muhammad “wrote” or even “revealed” the Book of Genesis, yet the version of the story of Joseph that appears in the Quran was a teaching tale that imparted important lessons to Muslims both then and today.

I raise this because I feel almost certain that the stories of Rama and Krishna and the Buddha are largely valuable theologically; yet only the Bhagavad Gita seems to contain any part of Krishna’s original teachings in a form that makes sense. What Rama taught, or if he taught at all or simply presented his life itself as the teaching, we cannot know. The same is true of the Buddha. Is the Dhammapada all we have to go on? Is there more that can accurately be said to reflect the original teachings of the Buddha? Or are stories like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata the closest we are likely to come to knowing what the Buddha even said or ever taught his students? Surely these stories of Rama and Krishna formed the context in which the Buddha taught and in which Buddhism developed. But is it also possible that the original teachings of the Buddha receded into the mists of stories of Rama and Krishna? If so, then my attempts to reconcile Semitic religion with Indo-Aryan religion is curious modern reflection of the Buddha’s probable attempts to reconcile his own teachings with the Indo-Aryan religious traditions that preceded it. Some undoubtedly resisted such reconciliation, particularly individuals with a vested interest in maintaining Vedic superiority and the class superiority of the Brahmin caste with it. Ironically, Hinduism reabsorbed Buddhism by proclaiming the Buddha an avatar of Vishnu whose mission was to mislead and confuse weak-willed Hindus, as though the Buddha was born to play Iblis’ role. In the meantime, so much of original Buddhism has been lost, muddied, or mutilated, that going back to those Indo-Aryan traditions and stories of Rama and Krishna appears to me the only effective way of acknowledging the Buddha’s rightful station, even if his teachings cannot be uncovered with any certainty.