There is a famous quote from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana:
Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.
In a globalized world, lessons are not just limited to a single country but across countries and cultures. Indian history gets more complicated due to its length that its various aspects are blended into what is considered as mythology. Whether history or mythology, the lessons themselves are there for all to read and reflect.
There has been a lot of talk in the last few days (and likely for days and weeks to come) about the US administration’s decision to ‘temporarily’ restrict refugees from certain parts of the world. Given the literary focus of this blog, we won’t delve into the politics of this decision, but are compelled to look back and search for similar patterns – and don’t have to go too far.
In the last post, we talked about the dangers of delay and lack of communication between Sugreeva – the monkey king – as rAma was preparing to go to war with rAvana. Fast forwarding the story, we get an incident at the beginning of the யுத்த காண்டம் (Yudha kAndam) – War Chapter – just before rAma starts his war with rAvana to get back sIta.
The scenario is eerily similar to current events, and like many of the stories embedded in the epics, puts it in a what-if context and considers the moral dilemmas within the situation.
RAma is ready to cross over to rAvanA’s kingdom (current Sri Lanka). While resting near the shores, they see Vibheeshana, the younger brother of rAvana, come to them seeking asylum! In general, it is known that Vibheeshana is a morally upright person who is completely different in his character from his elder brother. However, it does not negate the fact that he is as close as it gets to the enemy. rAma has to decide whether to accept his asylum request and provide refuge or whether to reject him (or kill him).
While the story, as we learned as kids, cut to the chase and moved to the next chapter, we find many nuances if we stop to smell the roses! In this post, we will explore two of them:
- Does rAma counsel with anyone before making a decision? If so, who and why?
- What pros and cons are considered, if any?
When the sentries posted near the shore tell him the news that Vibheeshana has come seeking asylum, what does RAma do? After all, he is the King and the entire army would be ready to accept whatever he says. They know him to be learned, wise, and God-incarnate. You would imagine that in such a situation that he can simply make a decision and that’s about it.
However, that’s not the case.
இப் பொருள் கேட்ட நீ இயம்புவீர் இவன்
கைப் புகற் பாலனோ? கழியற் பாலனோ?
ஒப்புற நோக்கி நும் உணர்வினால் என்றான்.
ipporuL kEtta nee iyambuveer, ivan
kai pugal paalano? kazhiyal paalano?
oppuRa nOkki Num uNarvinaal, endraan
Translation: Having listened to the sentries (about Vibheeshana’s request for asylum), please tell me your thoughts and feelings on whether we should include or exclude him.
Even though he could very well have made a decision unilaterally, rAma looks at his counselors and asks them to provide their opinions so that he can make an informed decision. What is as interesting is the choice of people that are selected by the author for further narration. Kamban (and essentially, in Ramayana) picks four viewpoints:
- Sugreeva – the monkey king, who is his ally and counterpart. Not getting his opinion would be an insult to the alliance on such an important decision and may cause dissent within ranks.
- JAmbvAn (SAmban) – the learned minister / advisor, who is the elder of the group. Having his input will provide credibility to the decision.
- Neelan – the army general. Seeking his input is critical to enforcing the authority of the decision made within the troops.
- Hanuman – the diplomat, who is the best judge of character due to his multi-cultural understanding. He has been to Lanka earlier and has observed Vibheeshana in action, which others have not done. He is also the most nuanced in terms of diplomacy and politics and hence can consider the ramifications of the decision.
When we conduct all-inclusive meetings – those held to bring in as many key stakeholders as possible to get consensus – we end up finding that more often than not, such meetings end up being useless, with a lot discussed but no tangible action taken or decision made.
This seems to have been carefully considered here, where the selection is very targeted. They have been made so that critical stakeholders buy into the decision, detractors are pacified, and the merits are discussed both objectively and emotionally. The rest are optional! Simple, and to the point.
This also reminds me of the award-winning film Roshomon by the famous Director Akira Kurasawa, which looks into a single incident in multiple viewpoints, all of which have their own merits and demerits, but are different.
செம்மை இல் அரக்கரில் யாவர் சீரியோர்
semmai il arakkaril yaavar seeriyOr – How can someone among the demons be virtuous?
Bam! Sugreeva doesn’t mince words! We are fighting the asuras (typically translated to mean demons or evil people, but we believe it is more nuanced in that it refers to those who do not follow the righteous path, as it has been repeatedly mentioned about many of the asuras, including rAvana, that they did many things right). Even though good things may have been heard about Vibheeshana, how can we trust someone who is born in that race? Isn’t it their nature (either by birth or by circumstance), to not be righteous? How can we trust them?
விண்டுழி, ஒரு நிலை நிற்பர்; மெய்ம் முகம்
கண்டுழி, ஒரு நிலை நிற்பர்; கைப் பொருள்
கொண்டுழி, ஒரு நிலை நிற்பர்; கூழுடன்
உண்டுழி, ஒரு நிலை நிற்பர்–உற்றவர்
viNduzhi oru nilai niRpar; mei mugam kaNduzhi oru nilai niRpar
kaipporuL konduzhi oru nilai niRpar; koozhudan uNduzhi oru nilai niRpar – utRavar
Translation: These people are fickle-minded. Their loyalty will not be to us but to their own self. They will act one way if they talk to us in person, another way behind our backs, yet another when they are getting money from us or when dining with us. They are not to be trusted.
Kamban’s mastery in Thamizh is reflected in rhyming passages like this. In a few verses, he masterfully describes the opportunistic nature of the asuras and why one cannot just take one incident to trust them.
வஞ்சனை இயற்றிட வந்தவாறு அலால்,
“தஞ்சு” என நம்வயின் சார்ந்துளான் அலன்;
நஞ்சினின் கொடியனை நயந்து கோடியோ?-
vanjanai iyatRida vandha vaaRu allaal
thanju ena nam vayin saarnthuLaan alan
nanjin kodiyanai nayanthu kOdiyO?
Translation: Even if he has come here for asylum, his intentions are not pure and would only be to deceive us. Such people are deadlier than poison. We cannot willingly accept them into our fold.
As a King, Sugreeva’s viewpoint is focused on ensuring safety of the kingdom / army and so is suspicious of Vibheeshana.
JAmbavAn is the learned minister. His approach is more nuanced and he looks at the past to learn lessons for the future. He also uses the same lens to theorize how history will judge them if they were to be wrong in making this decision.
கைப் புகுந்து, உறு சரண் அருளிக் காத்துமேல்,
பொய்க் கொடு வஞ்சனை புணர்த்த போதினும்,
மெய்க் கொள விளியினும், “விடுதும்” என்னினும்,
திக்கு உறும், நெடும் பழி; அறமும் சீறுமால்
Kai pugundhu, uRu saraN aruLi kaathu mEl
poikkodu vanjanai puNartha pOdhinum
meikkoLa viLiyinum, “viduthm” eNNinum
thikku uRum nedum pazhi aRamum seeRumaal
Translation: Even if we give asylum, if they deceive us in future, or do injustice to us, or even if we deport them later, we will still be blamed for our initial actions (of giving them asylum). Rings a bell?!
He goes on to ask, “He may bring us victory, give strategic advice, and might get the job done. But we know that group is evil. Would it behoove use to associate ourselves with someone from that group?”
Neelan, the general of the army, approaches RAma’s question from the angle of warfare, and quotes the rules of engagement to provide his opinion.
I am still trying to understand some of the terms here and will try to get this clarified, but a few that are mentioned as being eligible for asylum are:
- Those who are unable to defend themselves
- Those who have lost their wealth because the enemy coveted it forcefully
- Those who have lost their kith and kin in a war with the enemy
- Those who have lost in a war and have escaped the war zone
- Those who have lost their money in business and are looking for a fresh start
He then points out that Vibheeshana does not fall into any of these categories and hence is not qualified to provide asylum.
So far, all the views are unsurprisingly against Vibheeshana’s asylum application. Hanuman takes a different tactic. Knowing very well that he is going to say something that will be against the general sentiment, he provides a brilliant start – he ain’t called the best orator for nothing!
First, he appeals to RAma’s generosity:
Will it befit you as a gracious king for turning away someone who has come here with nothing, seeking your grace?
An emotional jolt is much more powerful than a logical jolt! Even though Hanuman knows that his arguments are powerful, he first conditions RAma to listen to him by appealing to his emotions so that even if RAma had made up his mind, he would now be forced to listen to Hanuman’s arguments.
Second, he states that he does not mean to disrespect other opinions:
Those who have spoken before me are wise and learned and have provided great advice. What else can I say? Their intentions are pure and they mean well. That said, I will still provide my thoughts.
Third, he uses the classic Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) management strategy:
I don’t believe Vibeeshana means ill. I will explain why I feel that way.
He is going last in the conversation and when doing so, there is no point in building up an argument, as arguments have been made already – so better to cut to the chase.
Lastly, he provides his reasons:
- Just looking at someone, one can infer whether they mean well or not. What’s inside cannot be masked easily.
- The last thing an enemy would want to do is to risk surrendering – would they do such a thing in haste even if they know that they will have to bear that shame forever?
- Vibeeshana knows that you helped the younger brother win over the older brother (Sugreeva vs. vAli) and subsequently gave him the kingdom. He wants the same (to get Lanka by having you beat rAvana). In other words, he tends to benefit by being loyal to you.
- He knows that the rule of asuras is going to end soon because they rule by force and not by wisdom.
- He knows that the time of decline is upon rAvana (refuting Neelan) and hence has decided wisely to leave them and get away from certain death
- Having him will help us devise a better strategy as he knows the tricks of the enemy and can advise us accordingly. In other words, he can be an intellectual asset to us.
- Casting doubts just because of circumstantial evidence would be doing injustice to someone who may be truly looking for asylum. Can we afford to err?
- When I was captured earlier by rAvana and everyone goaded him to kill me, Vibeeshana stopped it and said it is not right to shoot the messenger. This implies that he is pure at heart and yearns for justice, even though circumstances may necessitate him to be associated with RAvana
- You have provided refuge for so many. How can you not do it this time? Can an ocean be afraid of a pond?
What a beautiful narration! We won’t get into who is right and who is wrong, as circumstances and context change over time, but it would be unwise to ignore such careful analysis that was done thousands of years ago that strikingly are relevant in today’s world.
Do we go the way of Hanuman’s advice or those of the other learned ministers in RAma’s counsel?
Source of Kamba Ramayana verse and translation: Tamil Virtual University (verses 6576 – 6594)
There are also some interesting deviations between Kamban’s version of RAmAyana and Valmiki’s version. While the crux of the message is the same, some attributions seem different and it looks like Kamban has provided a slightly abbreviated form, skipping a few details. One such detail that seems to have been skipped is a version of ‘extreme vetting’ proposed by the counsel:
The suggestion is to first give a few tasks to Vibheeshana and then observe him through spies to confirm his loyalty before accepting him into the fold. The claim here is that without true observation, one cannot have solid facts to make a decision.
Hanuman refutes this in two ways: One, there isn’t enough time to go through such a long process, and two, even if they were to do it, it would only sow distrust within Vibheeshana, and if he indeed had best intentions in serving RAma, it would now be tainted forever and make him suspicious going forward.
You can find some additional nuances in Valmiki Ramayana in the post Lie to me, O Vibhishana
So many parallels!!