My childhood teacher Rammurti Mishra was, both, a yogi and a Western-trained psychiatrist. He liked to tell traditional stories like the Ramayana from a psychological perspective. He encouraged us to think of the characters and events as if they were parts of ourselves; he suggested that we might seek personal solutions by “actively imagining” the stories. The Ramayana tells the story of a perfect couple, Rama and Sita, who are separated by events and reunited through righteous and dharmic choices. Rama is regarded as a “Perfect man,” the personification of dharma; Ram Rajya has passed into popular parlance as a term for an “ideal government,” a kingdom where righteousness and light prevail.
For those unfamiliar with the Hindu epic Ramayana – Rama’s story turns on a great injustice: instead of affirming his ascendancy to the throne of Ayodhya, his stepmother Kaikeyi claims that right for her own son and banishes Rama into exile for fourteen years. Great sorrow befalls the people as a result of her selfish (though dharmically defensible) action, but Rama forgives her and accomplishes many good deeds while in exile. He restores order to the kingdom of the Vanar people, vanquishes the demon king Ravana, establishing a peaceful and just reign in Ravana’s kingdom of Lanka. He defeats the rakshasas who have been tormenting the forest yogis, and restores life to the woman renunciate Ahalya. Most significantly, he rescues his beloved wife Sita, who had been held captive by Ravana. With his exile completed and wrongs set right, Rama can come home.
Throughout his exile, Rama repeatedly solves problems and resolves conflicts. He is light personified, you might say, and he has a clarifying, enlightening effect on his environment.
Tulsidas’ Ramayana tells us:
“When Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya, it was a moonless night. The people illuminated their homes and placed lamps along the roads to light the way as he, with his beloved Sita and his most faithful brother Lakshman, walked slowly home. When Ram returned to Ayodhya, the light of his inner being overcame all inner darkness. No one lied or stole or harmed another with unkindness or ill will. There was no violence or discord in the city. Night-roaming predators remained in their lairs. Animals forgot their natural enmities; predators and prey became friends. The earth was rich in crops. Flower gardens bloomed extravagantly. Everyone’s heart shone with gladness, and everyone spontaneously cherished friends and neighbors as if they were dear family. Petty jealousies and conflicts disappeared like shadows at noon.”
On Diwali we recall Rama’s return and the pure, joyous state of the people. We clean and decorate our homes, we light lamps and eat festive foods, we give gifts to families and friends, we lovingly remember our ancestors. We banish the shadows of criticism and fear and bask in the light of the Lord’s presence.
But the light does not prevail undiminished forever, even in Rama’s kingdom. After a few idyllic years, suspicion and sorrow began to creep back into Ayodhya. Truth, purity, compassion and charity began to erode. Self-interest and callousness found new footholds. The animals began to quarrel. Crops grew less abundant. In the marketplace, innuendos arose, hinting at a dark side in Queen Sita’s relationship to Ravana. To pacify the people, Rama (knowing that the accusations against her were false) sent her back to the forest, breaking his own heart.
It is tempting to wait for another shining embodiment of light, like Rama, to appear and banish the shadows in our lives. We imagine such people in politicians, entertainers, and spiritual teachers. We may even be fortunate to know someone whose very presence “lights up the room” and makes everyone feel happy and harmonious.
I think that each of us has the potential to be such a person. Maybe if we work together we can come up with creative solutions to make the light stay, if not permanently, then a while longer. Let’s brainstorm the actions we can take, or refrain from taking (I’m looking at you, gossipers in the marketplace!), to nurture harmony and joy in ourselves, our families, and our communities. Every effort in that direction can be a step toward establishing Ram Rajya in our world, a world in which every day is Diwali.
Zo Newell is a writer and certified yoga therapist. Her first book, Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis was published in 2007 and its sequel, Flying Monkeys, Floating Stones: More Wisdom Tales, is slated for publication in spring 2020. She has written numerous articles for Yoga International exploring the interface of asana and Indian mythology. She holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University.