Forest Bathing with Dharma: Why the Ramayana Still Resonates

This ancient Indian epic, with its star-crossed lovers, epic battles, and yes, monkey warriors, might seem as relevant as a chariot race on Orchard Road, but beneath the fantastical surface lies a timeless meditation on love, duty, and the enduring power of a good fight.

Immanuel recently left Singapore, chasing dreams on a distant shore. It felt like the past year gifted us the opportunity to grow closer, sharing countless hours devouring stories in my parents’ living room on ancient wobbly chairs that threaten to crumble under our weight. Now, with his absence echoing in the quiet house, the books he left behind feel like a tangible connection. “Immanuel asked me to give ya’ll these,” said Mum one sweaty Singaporean afternoon. Inside, nestled amongst brand new t-shirts for my son, Harry Potter books, lay another familiar title – the Ramayana. This wasn’t just any book; it was the very same one we’d discussed a year ago. “In English?!” I had asked him, high on our animated conversation, “oh my gosh, I’d love to read it someday!” I eagerly cracked open the book, ready to delve into this timeless tale, now imbued with a new layer of meaning – a testament to a cherished bond and the power of stories to transcend boundaries.

A bridge between cultures and a promise kept, the Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic poem, has captivated audiences for millennia. Its sprawling narrative, filled with gods, demons, and heroic deeds, transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. Though some might scoff at the epic’s fantastical elements – ten-headed demon kings and monkey armies wielding mountains are a far cry from the quotidian concerns of a Singaporean – it is these very elements are more than just special effects. They’re woven from generations of storytelling, where the line between the divine and the earthly delightfully blurs. It’s a testament to a time when faith wasn’t a compartmentalised belief, but a living, breathing part of the cultural landscape. As I read, I allowed logic to take a backseat to sheer narrative audacity. Even the seemingly outlandish act of Hanuman leaping across the ocean became a testament to the boundless power of faith. Here, the earsplitting roar of Ravana’s ten mouths and the intoxicating fragrance of lotus flowers blooming in celestial gardens transport you to a world where gods and mortals walk hand in hand, and the power of belief itself becomes a force to be reckoned with.

The deeper you delve into the Ramayana, the more you begin to suspect it’s not just a story, but a meticulously crafted philosophical treatise disguised as an adventure romp. Take, for instance, the concept of dharma, a term that defies easy translation. Encompassing duty, righteousness, and moral law, it forms the bedrock of the Ramayana. Rama, the archetypal hero, embodies this concept to a fault. His unwavering commitment to dharma, even when faced with personal exile and the abduction of his wife, Sita, becomes a touchstone for the narrative. It’s a concept that resonates across cultures, a reminder that even in the face of immense hardship, adhering to one’s moral compass ultimately leads to a better outcome. But somewhere along the dusty, demon-infested pages, a nagging question arose: wasn’t his unwavering faith bordering on…well, blind? Here was a man, after all, considered an avatar of Vishnu, the preserver god. Surely, with such foresight and power at his disposal, couldn’t he have bent the rules of dharma a tad to, you know, save his wife? The simmering frustration of a seemingly passive Rama threatened to derail the entire epic for me. Then, a flicker of understanding. Perhaps Rama’s unwavering adherence to dharma wasn’t just about personal righteousness, but about a grander cosmic play. Perhaps his suffering, Sita’s abduction, were all necessary threads in a story far beyond my comprehension. This realisation didn’t erase the initial frustration, but it did add a layer of complexity, a reminder that the Ramayana isn’t just a hero’s journey, but a meditation on fate, free will, and the divine order of things.

Sita herself deserves more than a cursory glance. Sure, on the surface she might appear as the archetypal damsel in distress, a pawn in a celestial power struggle. But a closer look reveals a woman of remarkable strength and unwavering devotion. Her abduction by the villainous Ravana sets the central conflict in motion, but Sita is far from passive. Her resilience, her unwavering faith in Rama, and her refusal to compromise her purity are testaments to her inner strength.

This unwavering devotion extends to Rama’s loyal brother, Lakshmana. Their bond transcends mere brotherhood; it’s a partnership forged in loyalty and shared hardship. When Rama is unjustly exiled, Lakshmana, Rama’s ever-reliable right-hand man (and chief mango-gatherer, no doubt), didn’t hesitate to follow his brother into the wilderness. Life in the forest, however, isn’t a walk through a mango grove. Lakshmana, the ever-protective brother, grapples with the weight of responsibility. He’s not just Rama’s confidant, but also a shield against danger, constantly vigilant and fiercely protective of both Rama and Sita. The ever-present threat of attacks from demons and the harsh realities of life in the wild test his resolve, forcing him to confront his own vulnerabilities alongside Rama’s.

The Grey Areas of Morality

The Ramayana isn’t exactly your grandma’s bedtime story. Forget the good guys in white hats and the bad guys with, well, ten demon heads permanently attached. Ravana, the supposed villain of the piece, is more than just a mustache-twirling caricature of evil. He’s a powerful king, a scholar who could quote the Vedas like a Wall Street banker spouting stock options, and even a (somewhat creepy, admittedly) devoted husband. So, what makes him the ultimate party crasher in Rama’s celestial soiree?

His motivations are a tangled mess, like a plate of leftover naan at a particularly enthusiastic wedding reception. Maybe it’s pure arrogance, an insatiable hunger for power that could rival a toddler with a new juice box. Or perhaps his abduction of Sita wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill kidnapping (though that was definitely part of the package). Could it be a twisted reflection of a deeper yearning – a longing for something he could never possess, like true righteousness? Here’s a guy with immense power and knowledge, yet the Ramayana paints him as strangely hollow, like a billionaire’s mansion with nobody home. Maybe conquering everything in sight just wasn’t enough to fill the emptiness.

The Monkey Army: More Than Just Mischief-Makers

Now, let’s talk about the monkey army. Their leader, Hanuman, the monkey god, is the ultimate hype man. He’s a walking, talking ball of unwavering faith and boundless enthusiasm. There’s a scene scene where he leaps across the ocean in a single bound – that’s the kind of dedication you need when facing a ten-headed demon king with a serious case of kidnapping envy.

The beauty of the Ramayana lies in its enduring relevance. Across cultures and time, the story has been adapted and reinterpreted, each generation finding new meaning in its timeless themes. It’s a testament to the power of storytelling, a reminder that even a tale filled with fantastical elements can hold a mirror to the human condition. So, the next time you find yourself yearning for a good adventure story, don’t dismiss the Ramayana. You might just discover a world where gods and mortals walk hand in hand.