Hinduism, with its eight hundred million practitioners worldwide is unique among the world’s major religions because it cannot be traced to have been founded by any specific individual nor can it be said to have come about out of any specific historical event. “It is as diverse as India itself and is an extraordinary collection of variations and expansions –some ancient and some more recent. (Toropov and Buckles 113)”
What is interesting about Hinduism is that it does not have any specific one book which its followers can turn to for moral guidance like the Quran for Muslims or the Bible for Christians.
Also, because it arose from no single person or institution, it is seen as eternal and unchanging in its existence with believers even regarding it as having existed forever (Toropov and Buckles 114).
Such is the case with the complexity of pin-pointing a basis for Hinduism, its aspects and social implications that it is indeed a chore to point to a specific work or oral tradition that should be followed.
“It is an ongoing, pragmatic and inspired synthesis, not the product of any strict ideology or doctrine (Toropov and Buckles 116).” There are of course, still various ancient texts that can be considered to support the existence and traditions of Hinduism.
For many, the Rig Veda, known as the Gayatri manta, equates to what Hinduism truly is and is said to be the first thing that even little children are taught. Aside from the many doctrines and mantras, Hinduism also has a long history of literary work that has become a basis or foundation for Hindu ethics.
There is the ever popular Kama Sutra, the epic story of the great war, The Mahabharata and of course, the other great epic which is The Ramayana.
The Sanskrit Ramayana is attributed to the poet and mystic Valmiki and is believed to have been composed between 400 BC and 300 AD although the ending is thought to have been added only much later. Unfortunately, it is often only read by people interested in literature and so does not share the popularity of other great ancient epic works especially in the west.
The Ramayana is one of the most attributed Hindu literary works and in reading the book, one is hard pressed not to notice how the values and cultures depicted in it are emulated by Indian society even up to this day. For example, The Ramayana would later be turned into an epic television serial by Ramanand Sagar and would run from 1986-1988 though it was criticized by feminists in its one-dimensional portrayal of Sita when she embodied the docility and submissiveness prized by Hindu males (Lal and Van Loon 155).
At this point however, it has now become important for one to ask, what exactly are the core values of Hinduism and what tenets—if any at all—does Hindu society actually follow? As mentioned earlier, Hinduism does not exactly have a “moral guidebook” to refer to in this regard and in its complex and often interweaving traditions would definitely be overwhelming to the outsider.
Of course as diverse as it is, the different traditions that most Hindus base their values from do share some basic concepts with each other and notwithstanding the theological aspects for these values, we can say that in general most Hindus share a set or two of the different values of their religion and social culture.
In essence most Hindus hold that their core values are demonstrated through practices with this emphasis on realization of knowledge imbibing importance to the role of authority through texts and gurus (ISKCON Educational Services). Therefore authority is the first core value of Hinduism in that “the guru is considered indispensable in explaining scripture, modeling exemplary behavior, and providing hands-on guidance (ISKCON Educational Services).”
From the guru, the Hindu then learns different values and morals of which there are twelve important “core” qualities according to Hindu scripture. These are: non-violence, mind and sense control, tolerance, hospitality, compassion, protection, respect, wisdom, austerity, celibacy, honesty and cleanliness. The importance of these values and the priority given to them however are taught by the guru according to what tradition the Hindu is learning from (ISKCON Educational Services).
Considering these values while reading The Ramayana can give us a great view of how the epic poem has shown these values in its characters, most especially in the character of Rama whom occupies a special place in Hinduism. One must of course remember that The Ramayana, mostly presents these values as seen through the eyes of the character’s Dharma or duty and, as typical of Hindu practice, is often interpreted according to the character’s own sense of dharma.
The Ramayana with its principal protagonist, Rama, occupies a different place in Hinduism because not only is the story simpler than the other Hindu texts but its hero, Rama, is widely idolized especially in north India, as a ruler, husband and son (Lal and Van Loon 57). As such, he is the litmus test of what a Hindu should be and how he should practice his religion and carry himself especially in relation to his duty or dharma. This high regard for Rama is primarily because he is seen all throughout the epic as exemplifying the core values that a Hindu must possess.
As early as the first parts of The Ramayana, Rama shows his dedication and loyalty in upholding his duties as a son. When the queen Kaikeyi’s mind is poisoned by her evil maid-servant Mantara and she demands that Rama be banished and her son Bharata be crowned in Rama’s stead— Rama ultimately shows his duty and accepts a Dharma of exile as he voluntarily accepts the 14-year exile imposed upon him no matter how unjust. He did this out of family loyalty and duty to his father, the king, whom he knew must never break a solemn vow (which was given earlier to the queen).
Rama’s actions in that part of The Ramayana is a clear-cut example of the foundation and precedent of how Hindu society today sees loyalty and duty to one’s family. Hindu society today can be seen as very pluralistic and widespread and families can extend into a whole network of relationships where respect and aid is expected of each other. In fact, individualism, personal goals and even self-expression are considered less important than family goals and The Ramayana—specifically Rama—shows it during this early part of the epic.
In terms of the core Hindu values, Rama here shows the values or virtues of wisdom, tolerance and non-violence all according to his Dharma or duty as a loyal son and a highly regarded prince of the land.
Rama continues to exemplify the core Hindu values in the story as he never loses respect for his elders, showing great humility and even reverence to the authority figures in his life. He acts without selfishness and above all, avoids bringing disgrace into the family and achieves all these by maintaining a high regard for authority which is a center piece of the core values of Hinduism.
The Ramayana also shows an exemplary picture of what a Hindu marriage should be in the relationship of Rama and his wife Sita. In fact, Rama and Sita are viewed as the ideal Hindu couple though some recent feminist interpretations of are extremely critical of this, often citing The Ramayana as an example of the patriarchal basis of Hinduism. Despite this negative feminist connotation however, the relationship of Rama and Sita is still viewed as the ideal Hindu union, if only because Hinduism expects women to be subservient to men (Lal and Van Loon 61).
Regardless of recent feminist interpretations though, The Ramayana still shows the core values of Hinduism at work in the union of Rama and Sita. Through Rama, we are shown the values of compassion and protection when Rama does his best to give Sita the comforts she was accustomed to and in how Rama does his best to protect Sita while they were in exile in the forest. This can be interpreted also as Rama’s dedication to his dharma because at this point in the story he also shows the values of tolerance and wisdom.
During this part of the story, we can see in Sita her unwavering dedication to her husband and in fulfilling her duty as a wife. Her dedication to Rama is even further proven when she is abducted by the demon-king Ravana and when she consistently rejected the multiple advances of her abductor. Sita remained chaste of both body and mind and not once wavered in her faithfulness towards her husband, Rama. Exemplifying the Hindu values of cleanliness, honesty and celibacy.
There are further examples of the concept of the Hindu duty or dharma among the many passages of The Ramayana but perhaps the most striking examples can be found at the part of the epic where Rama has finally returned to his Kingdom of Ayodhya after rescuing Sita and vanquishing his nemesis, the demon-king Ravana.
After Rama returns triumphantly to Ayodya and is crowned king, there is much rejoicing throughout the entire kingdom. Unfortunately, this rejoicing would be cut short as soon after their return, Rama consistently hears rumours of Sita’s infidelity with the demon-king Ravana while she was captive for seven years. Though he believed that Sita was without blemish, he could not get the rumour our of his mind and the rumourmongers in his kingdom often cited that he only had Sita’s words to prove that she had remained chaste all those torment-filled years.
The rumours about Sita’s infidelity finally grew to a point that Rama could no longer ignore and so, torn as he was in making the decision, he was duty bound to insist that Sita undertake the agniparishka or trial by fire. The concept of a benevolent ruler’s duty or dharma in Hindu society is exemplified by Rama at this point in The Ramayana because he sentences Sita to sit on a pile of logs which are set ablaze. Sita does however, emerge from the fire unscathed and all doubts about her chastity and fidelity are put to rest.
In that part of the story, Rama truly shows that he was only duty bound to order Sita to undertake the agniparishka when he says “I never doubted your word and was prepared to swear by your chastity. But, as ruler of a Kingdom, I had to put my subjects before you. (Lal and Van Loon 61)” with these comments he shows the Hindu value of wisdom and exemplifies it further by acting upon this wisdom as a benevolent ruler.
Rama’s duty as a benevolent ruler of his kingdom made him put his subjects before his feelings and thus, out of duty to his people, does what others would not even think twice to consider. The fact that he would put his kingdom before his wife may be one of the reason why he is viewed as a just king by the Hindus and certainly exemplifies the Hindu value of tolerance in relation to his subjects and their seemingly ungrateful and insensitive treatment of his wife.
At the end of the day, The Ramayana, gives the reader some answers in his quest for enlightenment regarding the Hindu concept of dharma and how this concept affects a Hindus sense of morality and its relationship in setting the core values that a Hindu believes in. The Ramayana is therefore an excellent and compelling epic that would introduce the reader into the many facets of dharma in Hinduism as well as the realities of the core values that the Hindus posses.
ISKCON Educational Services. Heart of Hinduism. 2004. 3 October 2007 <http://hinduism.iskcon.com/concepts/201.htm>.
Lal, Vinay and Borin Van Loon. Introducing Hinduism. Singapore: Tien Wah Press Ltd., 2005.
Torchlight Publishing. The Ramayana Website. 1 March 2001. 1 October 2007 <http://www.ramayana.com/who_is_rama.htm>.
Toropov, Brandon and Luke Buckles. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religions. Indianapolis: Beach Brook Productions, 2002.