A Stiff Upper Lip


Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

We hold Sri Rama to be the Model Man, one who was the repository of all virtues, one who was the ideal son, brother, friend, husband and monarch, portraying model behaviour and setting an example in all that He did or omitted to do. Try as they might, detractors have been unable to find even a speck of blemish on this august personage, which might tarnish His unsullied image as the role model for all humanity for all time to come. Biased critics may cry themselves hoarse over the episode of VAli vadham, but those who go through the relevant verses of VAlmIki would need no convincing that what Rama did was indeed correct, as the aggrieved party (VAli) himself admits in the end. Thus, if a person’s life itself could be a shining model for all to emulate, it was indeed Sri Rama’s. When you come to think of it, Sri Raghava did not do much by way of upadEsam or advice, though He did say a word or two to those who were around, as the occasion warranted. All the unspoken homilies and sermons were contained in His conduct and character, which shone through in all His actions. Considering the propensity of people who are adept at preaching but not so particular about practicing, here is a shining example of a person who did not preach much, but let His flawless conduct speak for itself and to remain a role model for all to follow.

Among the innumerable virtues of this Model Monarch is one, which is specially worthy of emulation—Equanimity. The normal human reaction is to be joyous in the face of glad tidings and to put on a long face when greeted by sad news. There is possibly none who doesn’t feel overjoyed when told of laurels in the examination, of the birth of a bonny baby boy, of an advancement in his career through a coveted promotion or posting and so on. On such occasions, our faces beam and are wreathed in smiles, our hearts thump with joy, we feel like hugging the nearest person and sharing the glad tidings with him (even if he is a total stranger)—in short, the uncontainable happiness and joy we feel in our hearts is displayed vividly on our faces.

If we take the other range of emotions, they too affect us considerably. When he hear about the demise of a loved one, when something we expect eagerly doesn’t come about, when the promised rewards of hard work do not materialise, we are crestfallen, our hearts beat feebly and in sorrow, tears well up in our eyes, we feel unable to go about normally with our routine—in general, sadness and sorrow make us beside ourselves with grief. Our long and lugubrious faces tell the world plainly that some mishap has befallen us. Similarly, at the slightest of provocations and at the merest of insults, actual or perceived, our faces become suffused with anger, our eyes blaze, lips tremble with unformed words and we become temporarily crazy with anger. Words, which we would never dream of uttering normally, flow freely from our enraged lips, often inflicting unhealable wounds. Even the severest of burn wounds would heal, but not those caused by searing words, says Tiruvalluvar, depicting the extent to which anger clouds our reasoning intellect and correct conduct.

These are the normal ways in which we react, when confronted by joy, sorrow or insult. It is impossible for us to ignore these feelings, which rise up in our minds automatically and involuntarily, in response to the aforesaid stimuli. However, Shastras tell us that we should neither go overboard with happiness at glad tidings, nor fall down in the dumps at sad ones.

Sri Ramanuja, in his GitAbhAshya, defines Tolerance as remaining stoic and unaffected even in the face of the grossest of provocations—“manO vikAra hEtou satyapi avikrita manastvam”

Our reaction should be measured and appropriate, with reward and its absence taken in our stride. Once we learn not to be affected by extremes of emotions, then life is one continuous saga of peace and tranquillity. This is evident from the following Gita sloka, which prescribes such equanimity as an essential prerequisite for God-realisation and defines the virtue as being unaffected by happiness and distress, heat and cold or honour and dishonour—

“JitAtmana: prashAntasya ParamAtmA samAhita:
seetOshNa sukha du:khEshu tathA mAna apamAnayO:”

It is such equanimity that we find in Chakravartthi Tirumagan.

Eloquent display of this virtue is provided in the Prince’s reaction to His stepmother’s instruction, on the eve of His Coronation, that He leave immediately for the forest, relinquishing all claim to the throne of Ayodhya for 14 long years.

What would be the normal reaction of a Prince, whose coronation is imminent, when told that the event is being cancelled and that he is not to be Crown Prince, but is to leave forthwith for the jungle? How would anyone feel, when the promised post of heir-apparent to the throne is substituted by that of a landless nomad? How do you expect a Prince to react, when he is told that instead of the regal splendour and palatial comforts that he is used to, he would have to assume the garb of a mendicant and roam the forests for 14 years? Those who have read Tennyson’s poem would recall how blissful the small girl is, on being selected to play “Queen of May” in a school event. However, here is an instance of a person who is to be the Crown Prince of the vast and powerful kingdom of Ayodhya and has the coveted honour denied to Him at the very last moment, when all preparations therefor are complete.

Is this not enough provocation for the most mild-mannered of persons to react with violence? Not only is the promised Crown of Ayodhya denied, to add insult to injury, Sri Rama’s junior is chosen as the Prince-in-waiting. In what way could Bharata be better than Rama, the eldest-born and acknowledgedly the best of the lot, according to all those whose opinions counted? On top of snatching away the throne at the last minute, when the added punishment of an extradition to the inhospitable jungle is inflicted on the unsuspecting Prince, would not any Kshatriya worth his salt rise up in arms, destroy or at least incapacitate those responsible for the dastardly machinations, and snatch the Crown that is rightfully his?

Thus, by all accounts, we would expect Sri Rama to react with 1) anger at the palace intrigue, 2) frustration and disappointment at the denial of the distinction, especially at the last minute 3) distress at His stepmother (whom He had regarded with greater love and affection than His own mother) being responsible for His banishment, 4) humiliation at His younger brother Bharata being chosen in His stead, for no apparent reason than that he was born to the scheming KaikEyI 5) determination to retain what was rightfully His, by virtue of His being the eldest son of the Emperor and to destroy all those who dared to oppose His claim.

However, Sri Rama displays none of these emotions. In fact, He receives the revised instructions as calmly as if He were being told the time. There was absolutely no sign of sorrow, distress or anger in the Prince, says Sri Valmiki, even after these words of Kaikeyi, dipped in poison, as it were, fell on His unsuspecting ears—

“itIva tasyAm parusham vadantyAm na chaiva Rama: pravivEsa shOkam”
“tat apriyam amitraghna: vachanam maraNOpamam
shrutvA tu na vivyathE Rama: Kaikeyim cha idam abraveet”

KaikEyI was after all a step mother, whose words Sri Raghava could have disregarded: and even if the instructions had indeed emanated from His father, Sri Rama could have very well ignored those too, as they were in contravention of the earlier, considered decision to crown Him, taken with the full consent of the RAjaguru, the erudite Council of Ministers and above all, the citizenry of Ayodhya. As such, Sri Rama would have been on safe ground, had He chosen to display anger, rebel against the patently unjust instruction for abdication of the Crown in favour of His younger brother and assumed the mantle Himself as per original plans.

However, He did none of this. He displayed no emotion at all on receiving the tormenting tidings, least of all disappointment or distress. He hastened to assure KaikEyi of immediate and implicit compliance, should she entertain any doubts of her unholy efforts bearing fruit. Sri Rama’s words bring tears to our eyes, when He tells His stepmother, in all sincerity and without a tinge of sarcasm or irony, that He would leave for the forest immediately and that she need have no worry on that count, as He had groomed Himself to put up with adversity and was more than a Rishi in practicing renunciation—

“nAham arttha parO dEvi! lOkam Avastum utsahE
viddhi mAm rishibhi: tulyam kEvalam Dharmam Astthitham”

The only words of chiding from Sri Rama were at KaikEyI professing to convey the message from the Emperor. Raghava tells her, “Would I not obey implicitly, if you yourself were to tell me so? Do you need to tell me that these are instructions from father? To me, you are as venerable as father”. Here are the glorious words of KambanAttAzhwar, describing Rama’s model response—“ Mannavan paNi endrAgil num paNi maruppEnO, iLayanan pettra selvam adiyEn pettradu andrO?”

This episode also displays another glorious trait in the Prince of Ayodhya, viz., Tolerance or “Porumai” or “KshamA”. Sri Ramanuja, in his GitAbhAshya, defines Tolerance as remaining stoic and unaffected even in the face of the grossest of provocations—“manO vikAra hEtou satyapi avikrita manastvam”. It is not enough if one were to preserve a stoic and stony countenance , a stiff upper lip and a poker face, when confronted by adversity and distress. If the control stops with the physical features, with the inner feelings raging rampantly, it would only result in bottling up of the true emotions, which would burst out some time or the other, to the detriment of all. However, if one is able to remain unmoved at the emotional level, having groomed oneself to accept good and bad with dispassion, that then is the true test of Tolerance or “KshamA”.

It is this magnificent trait that Sri Raghunandana displayed in His aforesaid interaction with KaikEyI. In doing so, He only lived up to the tribute paid to Him by Sri Narada, comparing Him to Mother Earth in Tolerance—“kshamayA prithivI sama:” Just as Mother Earth puts up with the innumerable transgressions Her children commit against Her, Sri Rama too preserved His poise and received the sentence of banishment from KaikEyI with extreme lack of concern and unmoved at what it entailed.

Each and every word, gesture and action of Sri Rama stand eloquent testimony to His absolute espousal of Dharma, in all its forms and facets.

We are told that it is often difficult to define Righteousness, with circumstances determining what is correct and what is not (“Dharmasya tatvvam nihitam guhAyAm”) While in absolute terms, Dharma might be constant and unchanging, yet in tricky daily life situations where we find it difficult to determine the right course of action, it is to role models like Sri DAsarathi that we look up to, for providing us the requisite inspiration, guidance and strength of character, for adopting the straight, narrow and often thorn-strewn path of Dharma—

“MahA janA: yEna gata: sa panthA:”

Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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