Lesson 1: Discovering Śrī Rāma
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Śūbh Rāma Navamī! This important celebration day is when we invoke and honor Śrī Rāma. Rāma-bhagavān is a major deity in the tradition. Even though he is an incarnation of Bhagavān Viṣṇu, he represents the universal divine presence in his own right. In fact, many people use the name “Rāma” to refer to God, regardless of tradition or lineage, something you will learn more about in Lesson 2. Like Śrī Viṣṇu, he is a protector of dharma and of life itself.
The entire journey of his life was compiled into a classical epic known as the Rāmayaṇa, and attributed to the sage Vālmīki. It's one of the two great mythological epics in the tradition alongside the Mahābhārata. Both texts feature incarnations of Viṣṇu-bhagavān and help shed light on what it means to live a dharmic life.
Here is a short version of the tale (for an even shorter one, you can learn the one-verse Rāmāyaṇa in Lesson 6)!
Śrī Rāma was the eldest of four sons born to King Daśaratha, and the heir to the throne of Āyodhyā. As a young man, he won Princess Sītā’s hand-in-marriage by unintentionally breaking Lord Śiva’s bow (the significance of this is covered in Lesson 4). His wife, Sītā, like him, was not a normal human being, but an incarnated goddess. She was found as an infant lying peacefully in a furrow, and is considered an embodiment of the earth and Lakṣmī herself.
Out of fear and greed, Rāma-bhagavān’s stepmother wanted her son to have the throne. She manipulated the king so that Śrī Rāma, Sītā-devī, and his younger brother Lakṣmaṇa were banished to live as ascetics in the forest for 14 years.
While wandering through the forest, they faced tremendous hardships. The most horrific part began when the ten-headed demon-king Rāvaṇa caught sight of beautiful Sītā. Using his spiritual powers, he snuck in and forcibly kidnapped Sītā-devī, intending to rape and enslave her.
After a long search, Lord Rāma was able to find her with the help of several animal-beings who recognized him as their lord. In particular, his powerful and devoted servant, the monkey-god Hanumān jumped across the sea and found her trapped in Rāvaṇa’s garden.
Each day, the demon-king would try to possess her, and her only weapon was a small blade of grass. When she held it up, he could not touch her. She remained steady, trusting, and brave even as she was being terrorized. Sītā had perfect faith that her beloved would find her.
Meanwhile, Śrī Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa gathered a small army of monkeys, bears, and other forest creatures. They created a magical bridge across the sea and began a truly epic war with Rāvaṇa and his army. At the end of the last battle, Śrī Rāma's penetrating arrows cut off each of Rāvaṇa’s heads, and pierced his navel, finishing him completely.
They returned to Āyodhyā, where first Lord Rāma asked Sītā to sit in a fire to show that she was pure and had been faithful to him. She did this with ease, and they ruled together happily for some time. Unfortunately, a few citizens unjustly complained about her, and so Śrī Rāma, with a heavy heart, asked her to leave him and the kingdom forever. Eventually, their twin sons reclaimed the throne, but the two did not reunite on earth again.
Now, this is a fairly complicated story, and as you can tell, somewhat morally problematic if we assume that Rāma is a man showing us how to treat his wife who has just been to hell and back! However, it is extremely important when studying traditional mythology that we remember that we are not talking about human beings here. Śrī Rāma and Sītā are principles of reality — cosmic forces — that exist within us, and also around us.
So from this perspective, what can we understand about them? First, that Śrī Rāma represents the divine Truth, the sacred presence, the wisdom-heart. He is a powerful protector, virtuous leader, and pure benevolence. Śītā represents the earth and life-energy - visible to us in the form of nature, and also our own body. Her actions teach us to have faith, courage, and patience.
Rāvaṇa is the clever mind, which starts out good but as it grows more powerful, can become blinded by pride and greed. He thinks he can control nature, can control life - that he OWNS it and can do whatever he likes with it. He tries to imprison the earth/the body and force it to obey his will. But the power of life contained in a single blade of grass is actually strong enough to stop him.
Finally, the divine, with the help of the animals — our pure and original instincts, our childlike virtue and goodness, our natural devotion and courage — defeats the tyrannical forces of mind by penetrating his abdomen, where all mantra (i.e. all power) resides. This is actually a profound yogic teaching disguised in a simple detail of the story!
Upon returning, the earth/the body has to go through the fire. We don't need to prove anything. Lord Rāma would not have fought so valiantly to rescue his wife if he actually believed her capable of betraying him. The willingness to be tested, however, reveals God’s truth, Rāma’s truth — that no matter what karmas — actions, thoughts, feelings — our beings have experienced, we remain eternally pure and whole. And no matter what fires we have to sit through, our love for the divine protects us.
Even on a lesser scale, anyone who has healed from any kind of trauma can attest that it is not enough simply for the traumatic event to be over. There is a process of healing afterwards that can feel like sitting in a fire, but which ultimately leaves us stronger and more radiant than before. So again, we see that there is a sort of natural wisdom/ecological truth that runs through all the Rāmāyaṇa myths.
Despite Lord Rāma's victory over the ego-mind, there is still duality while we live on earth. Cultivating the light of integrity means that we will simultaneously face darkness at every turn. As a king, Śrī Rāma’s duty is to listen to and respect the wishes of his people. In asking his beloved wife to leave in order to keep his people happy, he teaches us that following one’s dharma may require us to face seemingly unbearable situations with equanimity and firm resolve.
Another interpretation of her banishment is that she represents the human body which has fulfilled its purpose, which is to love, surrender to, and honor the divine. Once her purpose is served, and enough time has passed, no one wants her (the body) around.
And even though it pains the Lord himself, part of the body’s dharma is to return to the earth from which it came. This might be why there are traditional songs where, even as Śītā is leaving, she is happy and content, singing of her love for him and how she would do it all again in a heartbeat. When it is our turn to leave the Lord’s kingdom here on earth, we can only aspire to have a similar outlook!
These are just some of the traditional teachings encoded in this amazing myth. We warmly invite you to study it in greater detail. Ultimately, the Rāmāyaṇa is many things, but one thing is clear - it is not a story of how a human man should treat his human wife!
As a sacred power, Śrī Rāma is the blinding white light of God's pristine justice and righteousness. He is perfect, unflinching, uncompromising integrity, no matter the cost to him personally. More so than any other deity, he is defined by the fact that he always. just. does. the. right. thing.
Sometimes, we can get lost in our cleverness and lose our way, forgetting not just our purpose, but even what basic decency and goodness are. Śrī Rāma’s penetrating arrow can set us free, reminding us once again, that our true greatness lies not in status, wealth, sophistication of thought, or even in spiritual mastery, but in simple virtue put into right action - for example, kindness, devotion, humility, integrity, courage, patience, steadfastness...
As the leader of a pack of animals, and literally married to the earth, Rāma-bhagavān is a presence that even the humblest person can feel that they belong to. Unlike some other forms of the sacred, he really is available to all - we are all born with pure instincts and good hearts. We all have an innate desire to serve (just observe any toddler begging to “help” their parents as they try to do something)!
And, because he is fair and available to all, he also exemplifies virtuous leadership. His kingdom, called Rāma-rājya, is used to refer to an ideal society where justice thrives and all beings prosper, including animals, forests, rivers, and the earth. (Rāma-rājya as a term has been used by some to push a specific political or religious agenda, but narrow-mindedness is not in alignment with this ancient concept).
In fact, when there are government upheavals, failures of leadership, or unethical tyranny, it is traditional to worship and invoke Śrī Rāma’s energy and blessings. Doing so connects us with truth, with integrity, with courage, and with goodness. We are protected by the very powers we awaken within ourselves. And by doing so, we are able to protect others, and the earth as well.
Traditional practices for Rāma Navamī:
–Perform pūjā, chant to, or reflect on Śrī Rāma, and also Sītā-Devī and Hanumān. In Lesson 2, you will learn 8 ancient Sanskrit names and mantras for Lord Rāma, and Lesson 4 dives deep into the spiritual meaning of his bow and arrow, and how that applies to our life and practice.
-Read, study, or recite the Rāmāyaṇa. Some people actually start this practice early and culminate their recitations on Rāma Navamī. In Lesson 6, you can learn to chant the traditional verse which summarizes the entire story. It is also used for japa practice and if repeated with devotion, contains the blessing of having recited the entire thing.
-Make the traditional prasāda for this day (instructions are available in Lesson 3). Pānakam is a strong drink made with herbs you might find in the forest, and is both strengthening and healing as we move through spring. Like Lord Rāma’s arrow, there is a piercing quality to it!
–You can decorate your house with orange (the traditional color of dharma) or green (the color of life) fabric or flags, rangolīs (sand and chalk art that invites grace), and many bright flowers. If nothing else, you may want to place new offerings on your altars. Wear clean and bright colors if possible.
–Pray to Bhagavān Rāma and invoke his blessings. In Lesson 5, you will learn a Sanskrit verse that is a prayer for protection and strength. Lesson 7 will teach you how to write his name as part of a traditional japa practice, which is also a simple but powerful practice. Singing the name or mantra of a deity invokes the vibrational power of that deity.
-Resolve to be part of a just and compassionate world. Step up and fulfill your dharma. Śrī Rāma's grace and blessings contain great antidotes for fear, self-doubt, and weakness. Awaken your own unflinching resolve to do the right thing. Know that it is your integrity that protects your life, and the lives of all.
Is there somewhere in your life where you are being called to do the right thing, to defend against injustice, protect loved ones, or to embrace your sacred purpose? For centuries, inspired seekers have leapt forward into courageous moral action, joyfully exclaiming, "Jaya Śrī Rāma!" - which means, "Victory to Śrī Rāma!" Victory to dharma! If you have been hesitating to do the right thing, NOW is the time!
Jaya Śrī Rāma!
Teacher: Shivani Hawkins
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