Rama, The Beloved of Janaki, The Maryada Purushottam


He, in more ways than one, defines not just India of today, but India through the ages. 

By Anshu Tandon

Rama was the first superhero of the Indian sub-continent. What has sustained the lore of Rama in spite of sustained efforts to besmirch his name by labeling him anti-women?

A detailed inspection of Rama’s story reveals a very thin core which was best summed up by Mahakavi Tulsidas more than four centuries back—

एक राम अवधेस कुमारा । तिन्ह कर चरित बिदित संसारा ।।

नारि बिरहँ दुखु लहेउ अपारा ।भयउ रोषु रन रावनु मारा ।।

Ram Charit Manas 1/45/7-8

Rama, whose deeds are well known to the world, was Prince of Awadh. He suffered great sorrow due to separation from his wife (because of Ravana abducting her), as a result of which he got furious and slayed Ravana in battle.

The thin core, as is evident, is the slaying of Ravana as a retribution, as some would have us believe, for the abduction of Sita. It is hard to believe that a legend can be built and sustained around so thin a core, however resilient it be. Evidently, in our reverence and piety, we have done a great injustice to Rama as an individual whose achievements are belittled and shortcomings highlighted because we bestowed divinity on Him. Rama earned ubiquitous admiration, primarily, because of his support for monogamy, in deeds and words.

One must make note of the fact that polygamy, and not monogamy,  was the norm in times of Rama. Dashrath had three wives, or so is widely believed. However, the Valmiki Ramayan clearly states more than once that Dashrath had more than three hundred wives besides the mothers of his famous sons.

Shlokas  10-13 of the 34th verse of the Ayodhya Kand (Gita Press edition) read thus:

सुमन्त्रानय मे दारान् ये केचिदिह मामकाः । दारैः परिवृतः सर्वैर्द्रष्टुमिच्छामि राघवम्।।
Sumantra! Call all my wives who are there, I want to behold Rama with all of them.

सोऽन्तःपुरमतीत्यैव स्त्रियस्ता वाक्यमब्रवीत्।आर्यो ह्वयति वो राजा गम्यतां तत्र मा चिरम्।।
Then Sumantra immediately went in the queen’s room and asked all the ladies there, “The Emperor is calling for you. Please come quickly”.

एवमुक्ताः स्त्रियः सर्वाः सुमन्त्रेण नृपाज्ञया।प्रचक्रमुस्तद् भवनं भर्तुराज्ञाय शासनम्।।

Sumantra’s saying so at the King’s behest all the ladies started for the palace believing it to be the Emperor’s order

अर्धसप्तशतास्तत्र प्रमदास्ताम्रलोचनः। कौसल्यां परिवार्याथ शनैर्जग्मुर्धृतव्रताः।।
A little redness in their eyes, 350 husband loving young ladies covering queen Kausalya entered the palace in slow manner.

Further, shlokas 36-37 of the 39th verse say—

एतावदभिनीतार्थमुक्त्वा स जननीं वचः।
त्रयः शतशतार्धा हि ददर्शावेक्ष्य मातरः।।
ताश्चापि स तथैवार्ता मातृर्दशरथात्मजः।
धर्मयुक्तमिदं वाक्यं निजगाद कृतांजलिः।।
Informing mother his definite resolve, son of emperor Dashrath, Shri Rama looked at His 350 mothers and found them as stricken with gloom as Kausalya. Joining hands before them he told them—

Interestingly, even Yagyavalka, the intellectual giant who straddles Brihadkaranyaka Upanishad, was twice married.

It is evident that Rama had the conviction and strength of character to wed only once while at Ayodhya. Much later, when Surpanakha, sister to mighty Ravana, approached him with a marriage proposal, he refused it, not for any other reason, but on the plea that he was already wedded to Sita, which was unsurprisingly, a most unconvincing argument for Surpanakha. Such would have been the times.

Interestingly, the word ‘Rama’ in Vedic Sanskrit has three connotations—handsome, farmer an dark skinned. ‘Sita’, meanwhile, means furrow. And therein hangs the tale of Rama’s greatest contribution to not just Sanatan Indian culture, but humanity at large.
There is a broad consensus amongst social anthropologists that hunting and gathering promotes monogamy. However, it must be pointed out that, human monogamy – the pairing up of male-female – is not the first choice in nature.

“While 90 percent of bird species are monogamous, 97 percent of mammal species are polygamous and individual pair bonds are almost unknown. The adoption of social monogamy by early hominids created something unique in nature – a society where males cooperate at common tasks with a minimum of sexual competition. In almost all species, males spend most of their time fighting among themselves for access to females.”

-William Tucker, Marriage & Civilization – How Monogamy Made Us Human
Owen Lovejoy, anthropologist, who earned his spurs for his work of reconstructing the skeleton of “Lucy”, the 3.5 million year old hominid discovered in Ethiopia, holds that transition from polygamy to monogamy happened at the very beginning of hominid evolution and that laid the foundation to all evolutionary steps that followed it. Let us face it: civilisation would not have dawned on homo-sapiens if our early ancestors had not chosen to be monogamous. The immediate cause for choosing monogamy were simple. Monogamy allowed the early humans to live in larger groups for protection and co-operative hunting without being disturbed by sexual competition. Interestingly, Lovejoy is of the opinion that evolution of human brain would not have been possible without humans choosing to be monogamous.

“The unique social contract of monogamy  – a male for every female, a female for every male –  lowers the temperature of sexual competition and frees its members to work together in cooperation. It is at this juncture that human societies – even human civilization is born.”

William Tucker, Marriage & Civilization – How Monogamy Made Us Human
But as societies moved from hunting-gathering to agriculture, some humans began to accumulate greater wealth than fellow beings, resulting in inequalities, which soon became pronounced. One of the fallouts of inequality and greater wealth was that these neo-rich could take more than one wife. Apparently, it was the invention of agriculture and the accumulation of property and permanent wealth that had caused primitive agriculturists to take up polygamy, as wealthier men began to acquire more women.

And herein lies the great paradox at the beginning of visible human history. It is the earliest settled agricultural people that have become warlike while the earlier hunter gatherers seemed much more content to pursue their hunting and live at relative peace with their neighbours. Why? Because the earliest agricultural societies reverted to polygamy after almost five million years in which monogamy seems to have prevailed.”

William Tucker, Marriage & Civilization – How Monogamy Made Us Human

It is apparent that monogamy had to be restored if civilization had to survive else internecine conflicts would have subsumed it. But monogamy is not the first choice of mammals, least of all powerful males. That monogamy requires strong injunctions to force society into adopting customs that can only be enforced by exemplary and powerful individuals is a stark fact that needs no emphasis in today’s India.

Though the Mahabharata does mention one Shvetaketu, son of Uddalaka, (Adiparva, chapter 113) instituting that no man shall covet any one else’s wife, his admonition fails to mention monogamy.

It was Rama, Janaki Vallabha, who cemented monogamy into Sanatan thought through one of the most momentous military campaigns in the history of civilisation. Monogamy and military campaign have a direct link in Rama’s narrative. It was easier for Rama to get married again than to organise a military campaign, exiled as he was from Ayodhya. None would have objected had he taken another wife and left Sita to suffer her fate, such were the sensibilities and norms of the time. Yet, he chose to undertake a military campaign against the mightiest invulnerable military power of the time. In doing so, he harnessed the dynamism of a vast multitude of humanity from peninsular India that had been outside the pale till that time. Even while engaged in that epic effort, he never once missed a chance to highlight the best of Vedic thoughts and customs. During the conduct of the campaign, many a people sought to dissuade him, yet, he refused to renege on his commitment to Sita. Those deeds and his conduct, more than his words, still reverberate in our consciousness and prompt us to address him as Maryada Purushottam, even if grudgingly. Grudgingly – because a sustained effort has been made by the disgruntled and offended elements to discredit Rama. Disgruntled – because he chose to disturb the social status-quo, where the rich and the powerful could take as many wives as they could afford. Offended – because he renounced the privilege of polygamy for no apparent logical reason.

We should re-evaluate the Agni-Pariksha episode in the above perspective. Why would a man ask his wife to prove her innocence after he has rescued her at the end of a military campaign that had commanded the material and human resources of entire Indian peninsula and which had been planned for a year, ever since she was abducted.

Definitely, the military campaign was not for territorial or material gains. Yet, the mud-slinging continues to this day.

Rama, in more ways than one, defines not just India of today, but India through the ages. Our sensibilities draw sustenance from that perennial stream that flows even today. The stories of Pururava-Urvashi, Dushyant-Shakuntala, Nal-Damyanti are amongst the few most iconic stories in Sanskrit. They suffer as much from poetic excesses and hoary veneration as any other narrative in Sanskrit literature, yet there is no mention of any other consort of the legendary alpha males. Instead, what is remarkable is the pining of the alpha male for the woman from whom he has been separated due to divine intervention.

The effect of Rama on Indian psyche would help us better understand the controversy regarding Padmavati of Chittore. Whatever be the historicity of Padmavati, the suggestion that a sane wedded woman subscribing to the Sanatan thought would entertain thoughts of intimacy with a man other than her husband is unacceptable to Sanatan Indian psyche. The cause, very obviously, is the staid character of Janaki Vallabha Rama.

A line from Mahakavi Tulsidas’ Ram Charit Manas aptly sums up the reasons why Rama is venerated as Maryada Purshottam. At the very end of his epic poem, the Mahakavi seeks to make devotion to Rama as intrinsic to his nature as is lust and greed in human psyche.

कामिहि नारी पिआरि जिमि, लोभिहि प्रिय जिमि दाम,

तिमि रघुनाथ निरंतर प्रिय लागहु मोहि राम।

Tulsidas has definitely submerged his identity in Rama for he has identified his defining characteristic. Lust and Greed are the two primal driving forces of nature that have shaped human civilisation. But, Rama, the beloved of Janaki, is Maryada Purushottam because he mastered both the urges.


— Anshu Tandon is an author, playwright and and theatre director based in Lucknow.