Reconciling Dharma and Selfless Love: Lessons from The Ramayana
Ever since civilization began we have been seeking happiness in our personal lives and harmony in the society around us. But in trying to do so, we sometimes face a conflict between love and duty, between following the path of selfless love and devotion (bhakti) and the path of duty based on truth and righteousness (dharma). All spiritual traditions proclaim the greatness of both paths. They tell us “Love is the Lord of Life; Love is the fulfillment of the law; Love conquers all.” But they also say “Truth is the heart of the universe; Truth is eternal and not subject to time and space; Practicing truth in thought, speech, and action is the highest duty—dharma—and dharma is the only way to eternal peace and happiness.”
In situations in which there seems to be a conflict between these two great spiritual laws, most of us would be hard-pressed to choose between them.
History is rich with examples of those who have sacrificed their lives for dharma and those who have sacrificed their lives for the principle of love, even at the cost of renouncing their dharma. In situations in which there seems to be a conflict between these two great spiritual laws, most of us would be hard-pressed to choose between them. The following episode from the Ramayana shows that it is possible to reconcile the conflict between dharma and selfless love in a way that deepens our understanding of how to live a happy and spiritually fruitful life.
Who Is Right?
The story involves two half-brothers, Rama and Bharata, sons of the King of Ayodhya. Rama is the embodiment of dharma, and Bharata is the embodiment of devotion and selfless love. As the story begins, King Dasaratha has decided to abdicate his throne in favor of his eldest son, Rama. But as Ayodhya joyfully prepares for the coronation, Bharata’s mother, Queen Kaikeyi, hatches a plot. Seeking glory for her own son, Bharata, Kaikeyi goes to the king and asks him to grant her the two boons he had promised her years ago when she had saved his life. Trusting her completely, the king agrees to grant anything she wishes. Then, like one possessed, she orders him to crown Bharata king instead and to send Rama into exile in the forest for 14 years. According to the law of dharma, Dasaratha is trapped, for he cannot go back on his word. He begs Kaikeyi to relent, but she is adamant.
The grief-stricken king sends for Rama. When the prince sees his father in such a terrible state, he fears that Dasaratha is ill, or worse, that he has done something to disappoint his father. But when Rama learns what is causing his father’s anguish, he smiles and cheerfully agrees to relinquish the throne. He assures the king that there is no need to grieve over such a small matter and thanks the queen for sending him to the forest, the abode of saints and sages. Then Rama departs with his wife, Sita, and his brother, Lakshman, who refuse to stay behind in comfort while Rama wanders in exile. Overcome with grief and torn by guilt, Dasaratha dies shortly after they leave.
Bharata is absent from Ayodhya when all this transpires. He returns to find the kingdom in chaos. When he learns the cause, he bitterly disowns his mother, declaring to the assembled court that he will find Rama and beseech him to return to his throne. Kaikeyi, jarred to her senses by her son’s anger, begs his forgiveness. Although Bharata’s heart remains closed, he does allow his mother to accompany him to the forest. There Kaikeyi tells Rama that she has withdrawn her request and pleads with him to return to Ayodhya. Rama greets her warmly and tells Bharata that he must forgive her, but he refuses to return—dharma dictates that he must fulfill his father’s final order and remain in the forest while Bharata is crowned king.
Impelled by his great love for Rama, Bharata implores Rama’s mother, Queen Kaushalya, to intercede. She has the power to order her son to return, and Bharata knows that there is nothing that she wants more. But grieved as she is by her husband’s death and her son’s exile, Kaushalya’s love for Rama is boundless and unconditional. She refuses to intervene, telling Bharata, “My love must not be an obstacle to Rama’s path of dharma.”
Amidst the tumult Rama’s father-in-law, King Janaka, arrives. This great sage is the acknowledged master of dharma; both Rama and Bharata recognize his love for them, and both respect his sense of justice. So they ask him to decide who is right—Bharata, whose love for Rama will not permit him to keep a kingdom that rightfully belongs to his brother, or Rama, who believes he must follow the path of dharma by honoring his father’s word. How is it possible to decide which is greater? Janaka prays to Lord Shiva for guidance.
The sage carefully weighs both sides of the argument. He praises Rama for a dedication to dharma so absolute and unswerving that even the gods bow to him in acknowledgment. He points out that the scriptures say that nothing in the three worlds is greater than the force of dharma. It is dharma that gives the world stability, and all are bound by it.
Love is the only force that dharma cannot rule. When love is steadfast and unselfish, it transcends dharma. And when that love reaches the pinnacle of true devotion, then God must break His own laws for He is bound to uphold His devotee’s honor. Thus, Janaka tells Rama, the purity of Bharata’s love outshines the call of dharma.
Love is the only force that dharma cannot rule.
Those listening to Janaka’s discourse are overjoyed, imagining Rama enthroned in Ayodhya. Then the sage changes course by telling Bharata that he must contemplate the meaning of this. He has won the right to express his love for his brother. But what is love? “Remember,” King Janaka reminds him, “Love has its own rules—it makes its own laws. Love’s power lies in selflessness. Selfless love asks for nothing; its only desire is to give to the beloved. Now you must decide what you want to give to Rama.”
Bharata answers that nothing is greater than life—he will offer his life to Rama. King Janaka replies, “It is easy to die. It is harder to live for those we love. If you are a true devotee, sit at Rama’s feet. Ask him what would please him, and then grant his wish as your puja (worship).”
Bharata realizes his error, and bowing humbly to King Janaka says, “You have lifted the veil of selfishness covering my eyes. Until now I only thought of my desire to honor Rama. I believed that that was love, but I was wrong. I am eternally indebted to you.” Bharata then turns to Rama and, with folded hands, waits for his command.
Overwhelmed by the depth of Bharata’s devotion, Rama accepts the kingdom which Bharata wishes him to have. But then, in a stroke of brilliance, he asks his brother to administer the kingdom on his behalf for the next 14 years so that he can honor his father’s promise to Kaikeyi. Bharata agrees, asking only for Rama’s sandals so that he can place them on the throne as a royal symbol until Rama’s return. He will watch over the kingdom as Rama’s regent.
The Power of Love
There are several versions of the Ramayana, differing subtly as to how this conflict between devotion and dharma is viewed. One version raises the question of whether Rama’s father had the right to dethrone Rama, who as the eldest son was entitled to the crown and whose coronation had already been declared by the royal assembly as well as the king. Rama’s father had made two conflicting promises—the first to Rama, the second to Kaikeyi. Honoring either will bring pain to someone, infringing on another great virtue, nonviolence. In Valmiki’s version, the sage Jabali advises Rama to disregard his father’s wishes in favor of a higher good—serving his subjects and claiming his birthright—for Rama’s departure has caused his father to die of grief and brought pain to his mother, his brothers, and his subjects. Still another viewpoint is that Rama’s purpose in life (another way to define dharma) was to conquer Ravana, the king of the demon race, and that Rama’s exile was the necessary catalyst for this dharma to be fulfilled.
The force that compelled Rama to go into exile was the same force that would not allow Bharata to rest until he restored Rama to the throne.
Dharma is a complex concept, one that can never be understood by those who insist on a clear, crisp, isolated code of conduct based on the concept of truth and righteousness alone. After all, it is Rama’s love and devotion to his father that shapes his dharma. The power to sacrifice comfort, wealth, honor, prestige, and even life itself comes from pure and selfless love. The force that compelled Rama to go into exile was the same force that would not allow Bharata to rest until he restored Rama to the throne. Rama and Bharata are both following the path of selfless love and personal sacrifice. As they march on this path, the dust rising from their footsteps clouds the vision of those of us who try to see truth and righteousness in isolation from selfless love.