Here are three questions for you to ponder, dear reader: First, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Second, what do a highway billboard, a small town storefront, and the Greek philosopher Aristotle have in common? And third, what do either of these questions have to do with Lord Rama?
The ancient Sanskrit epic Ramayana describes the life of Ramachandra, the incarnation of God whose advent in this world is celebrated each spring by Hindus and followers of Vedic culture worldwide. The work contains 24,000 verses and is considered to be the original Sanskrit poem. However, the Ramayana is not simply an epic tale; because it describes the activities of the Personality of Godhead, it is a complete guide to God-realization.
The story is told in response to Sage Valmiki’s question to Narada Muni: “Who is an ideal man?” Narada’s answer, a brief description of the life and qualities of Lord Rama, forms the basis for Valmiki’s much longer epic.
So which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or, in other words, is Lord Rama a God to whom we ascribe human qualities, or are we made in the image of the divine Rama, whose form we thus reflect and whose qualities we aspire to embody? Srila Prabhupada clearly stated, “The materialistic theory that God-worship is anthropomorphic is not correct.” On the contrary, he explained that “because we are part and parcel of God, we have got all the qualities of God, but because we are a minute part of God, therefore all the qualities of God are present in minute quantity.” “The impersonalist rascals,” he goes on to say, “they cannot understand what is the nature of God. In the Bible also it is said: ‘Man is made after God.’ You can study God's quality by studying your quality, or anyone's quality. Simply the difference is in quantity.”
So, what’s the proof that man follows God, that we are theomorphic? That’s where the billboard, the storefront and the teachings of Aristotle come in.
I saw the following message on a highway billboard along the Florida Turnpike: “A Commitment to Something Greater than Themselves.” Was the message religious? Not overtly. Was it marketing something? No. Was it aimed at some sensual enjoyment? Nope. The billboard was a recruiting ad for the U.S. Marine Corp. It pictured a young man, maybe 20 or 21, smartly dressed in a Marine Corp uniform (the best looking uniform the armed services have to offer) and sharply saluting. The billboard carries the legacy of self-sacrifice, of self-sacrifice, nobility of spirit, and being prepared to lay down one’s life for higher principles. What is the origin of these ideals? The answer can be found in the Ramayana.
A central theme of the Ramayana is how to live according to dharma: Right action or sacred duty according to one’s social role, status, and gender, even if it means sacrificing one’s own interests.
Rama was to be king, but, on the night before his coronation, palace intrigue led to his sudden banishment. Kaikeyi, one of the wives of Rama’s father Dasarath, demanded the king deny Rama his right to the throne, and instead send him in exile to the forest. Rama, as a kshatriya (a person belonging to the ruler/ warrior class), had every right to question this injustice. Was he really duty-bound to honor an unjust promise made by the hen-pecked Dasarath? No, but, in line with his true greatness, Rama conceded to both demands, with utter detachment and without a trace of disappointment. For him, "pitru vakya paripalanam" (honoring his father's words) was one of the highest dharmas. As an ideal warrior, obedience was important, regardless of the propriety of the request to be obeyed. Thus Rama’s heroism lies in both his acts and his attitude.
I saw the following message on a small town storefront in the rural South of the United States: “Honor, Loyalty, Respect, Confidence, Etiquette.” When I peered inside the window, it became obvious that the storefront housed a martial arts academy.
Back to Godhead magazine recently published a story about Jaya Vijaya Dasa (aka Jason Goreing), a third degree black belt and 1994 Australian Taekwondo master. Jaya Vijaya said, “The true value of martial arts lies not in learning the art itself, but in acquiring the internal qualities developed by learning its basic practices.” The sign on the storefront carries the legacy of internal character development.
Students at the Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics in India recently did a project on personality development for their course “Indian Management Thoughts and Practices” and came to these conclusions about the Ramayana: “Culture and values are the base on which a person builds his personality and his character. Ramayana teaches an individual the way to live by enriching his personality.” Two elements of eastern culture that students particularly highlighted are key themes in the Ramayana: the importance of loyalty in relationships and respect for one’s elders.
Lord Rama Himself exhibits such loyalty and respect, so why should we not also aspire to do so? Lord Rama said, “As the Supreme Personality of Godhead, it is My eternal principle that if any living being takes shelter of Me, even once, saying, ‘I am Yours,’ then I award that person freedom from all fear. Even if Ravana [who had stolen away Rama’s wife Sita] were to come here and surrender to Me, I would give him all protection.”
Finally we come to Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, and his thoughts on happiness. He taught that unlike momentary feelings of pleasure, happiness is a state of overall spiritual well-being and fulfillment. As such, it’s the ultimate end underlying all of our strivings. He believed that such happiness can only come at the end of a life well-lived in accordance with virtue. Aristotle’s teachings carry the legacy of sensual restraint, the message that true happiness is achieved through being bound by the chords of virtue.
During the time of the Ramayana, polygamy was prevalent and it was an acceptable social norm for kings to marry many women. Rama's own father Dasaratha had three wives. Lord Rama, however, took a vow (“eka-patni-vrata”) to accept only one wife and eschew any other connection with women. This determination is his glorious example for today’s couples, particularly setting the sterling standard for a truly respectable man.
We know that we are made in the image of God because we can find the original and purest example of our ideals in the activities and character of Lord Rama. Whether we are an officer in the Marine corps, a student at a martial arts school, or a scholar of philosophy, we all strive to live up to his divine standard, whether we realize it or not. For those of us who understand his true position and our eternal relationship with him, there is all the more reason to hear about, celebrate, and follow the life and qualities of Lord Rama as our highest duty and greatest pleasure.