Grief in The Buddhist Ramayana

The Jaataka tales are a collection of parables about the 500 lives of the Buddha until he achieved Nirvana, salvation. After that there are no more re-incarnations. The stories proceed from simple morality tales in which the Bodhisatva ( the soul of the Budha) was alive in the body of a lower life-form: a rabbit, an elephant and so on. Until he attains human form and the stories get more sophisticated. Various versions of these stories have been told and retold over many generations all over the Eastern World.

One of these stories is a stripped down version of the Ramaayana, the Hindu epic. Unlike in the other Jaataka tales, the Bodhisatva does not appear as a character. In his place is Rama, but no connection is made beteeen him and the Buddha.

Rama and Seetha

A long time ago there ruled in Varanasi a benign and just King named Dasaradha.

Hey, wait a minute, Dasaradha was King of Ayodhya. Not Varanasi. Duh.â

Yes, that is in our Ramayana. This is the Buddhist version. It is like people abroad think everyone in America lives in New York.

Whatever.

He had 16,000 wives. The most mature of them, he made the queen.

Now we know which of the two Dasaradhas was busier. Which one was happier you think? A glare from she who shall not be named. Need to get back to the story.

She had two sons named Rama and Lakshmana. And a daugher named Seetha.

I wasnt going to say anything. But Seetha was Rama’s wife. Not his sister!

Yes, but again, that is in the Valmeeki Ramayana. The Buddhists were the first to have priests who did not marry. May be they wanted a hero like themselves.

The King was devastated when the Queen died unexpectedly. After some months of grieving Dasaratha returned to state matters. Eventually he installed one of his other wives as the Queen. In time he came to adore this young and pretty new queen. They had a son named Bharatha.

He was so pleased with his wife that he told her she could ask for any wish and he would grant it. She recieved his offer humbly, but said she would rather ask some day when she had need of something. She was quite happy with things as they are now.

When Bharatha was seven she went to the King and reminded him of his promise. She wanted him to name her son as the crown prince and successor in place of Rama. The King couldn’t believe his ears. His whole body shook “How dare you ask me that! What do you want me to do to my two older sons? Kill them?” The Queen ran away in tears into her room.

But she persisted and schemed to get her way. Dasaratha got very worried.

Yeah we know all this.

See, it is not a completely different story.

Dasaratha called in the palace astrologer and asked him how long he had left to live. Twelve years, came the answer. Then he told his older sons:

Rama, Lakshmana, things are getting really bad for you guys here. I even fear for your life. You should go way for twelve years and return to claim your country after my time. That is how long I have to left to live.

Rama and Lakshmana protested. But eventually they came to see the wisdom of their father’s words. Seetha insisted on leaving with them in their exile. They established an Ashram in the forest, where they lived on fruits and berries and things that grow under the ground.

You mean like potatoes.

Yeah like that, except that potatoes themselves were not introduced to India until much later.

Did they make French Fries?

Not exactly. Probably more like a barbecue.

Dasaratha could not contain his grief. He lived a broken man and died after only nine years. Bharatha’ss mother immediately wanted him crowned King. But Bharatha remembered his brother Rama fondly. He refused to become King. Instead he set off with the Royal Seal and the four divisions of his army to the forest. Meeting with Rama, he told him of Dasaratha’ss death.

Rama was worried how it would affect his brother and sister, who had just returned from gathering berries. He asked them to immerse themselves in a pond of fresh water. When they came up after the dip, he told them the sad news. Both of them fainted. After reviving them they were told again. They fainted again. Only the fourth time they were able to take it. Even then they cried for days and days after that.

Bharatha asked Rama How come you are so unmoved by our father’s death? Why are you not mourning like them? Rama said,

Life is finite. No point in grieving for something you always knew you would lose. The strong and the weak, rich and poor, scholar and ignoramus, all die. The fruit that is ripe will fall from the tree. The one you see in the morning may not be around in the evening. Just as you pour water to control fire, the wise learn to control their emotions.

He then asked Bharatha to go back and rule Varanasi for three years. After the twelve years that his father asked him to be away was up, he would return. And rule the Kingdom for many, many happy years.

Hey where is the war?What happened to Ravana? Why didn’t he steal Seetha? Hello.. Hanuman??

I guess the Budhists edited all that out. After all it is only a parable not an epic.”” Or maybe they don’t want a war hero.”

3 Responses to “Grief in The Buddhist Ramayana”

  1. Bireshwar Banerjee says:

    The story of Rama as told in the buddhist jatakas also portray Rama as a great saint. He is shown as a very wise and able ruler too. Unfortunately Hanuman and Ravana dont find mention in it as the Buddhists probably wanted to eschew violent details. Still they go out of the way to portray Lord Rama as a great person. This is a snub to those persons who would portray Lord Rama as a mythical figure. Long Live Lord Rama and his devotees.

  2. S. G. Rajeev says:

    Bireswhwar,

    Surely, myth and historical fact are hard to disentangle after all these centuries. I doubt if the Buddhist writers intended to snub anyone.

  3. S. G. Rajeev says:

    Of course the word Buddha in Sanskrit means wise; how do we know that it is a reference to Guatama Siddhartha Buddha?

    It would not surprise me that the Valmiki Ramayana is a later retelling of stories that were extant long before then. After all, every language in India has its own Ramayana, not all of them a retelling of Valmik. A story that arose as a local legend in Ayodhya could have become embellished and made into a pan-Indian tale. We see this process of local heroes becoming national Gods even now, as with the Ayyappa phenomenon in Kerala.

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