By Sharon St Joan
Peering around a screen to catch a glimpse behind the stage, the eight-year old boy saw a man smoking. Startled, he burst into tears. The problem was not that a man was smoking – the problem was that it was Rama, the great cultural hero and god-king of India who was smoking. Standing off stage and out-of-sight of the audience, taking a break during an intermission in the performance, there was Rama, with his blue skin and regal bearing, smoking a cigarette. How could Rama be smoking? The young boy Jagam with tears streaming down his face, told the other boys what he had seen, and they started crying too.
What would otherwise have been an inspirational performance of the life of Rama had turned into a disappointment. Over time, the shock of the actor smoking faded into the background, and only the heroes of the Ramayana remained in the forefront of the boy’s consciousness.
The impact of the story of Rama and his wife Sita on the people of India cannot be overstated. Their influence extends across all strata of society and every region of the country. In every rural village there may be found among the fields, nestled under a tree, stone icons of Rama and Sita – worshipped and cared for. Rama is the divine figure who lived maybe 5,000 years ago, maybe much earlier, who exemplifies the deeply-rooted Indian concepts of truthfulness, selflessness, and absolute devotion to duty.
Rama, unjustly exiled into the forest for fourteen years by his father, at the demand of his step-mother, went willingly and graciously, placing his duty to obey his father above all other considerations.
To this day, Indian children are taught to obey and respect their parents and all elders – not only while they are children, but throughout their entire lives – this is the glue that holds Indian society together. The ideals that are intrinsic to their society are not, as in the west, the values of freedom, of seeking one’s rights, and the pursuit of individual happiness, but rather, devotion, respect, and reverence for those who came before them. Uppermost is the concept of placing the welfare of others before one’s own personal wishes and desires.
Obviously, in the world as it is today, one finds exceptions; in India there is immense western influence, and age-old traditions have suffered much erosion over the centuries. Yet, despite all this, one still finds, even now, in the heart of nearly every Indian, deep within the psyche, a fundamental attitude of reverence and humility that has never been entirely extinguished – a wish first and foremost to carry out one’s duty in life and to fulfill one’s sacred obligations.
Every character in the epic story of Rama and Sita offers either an example to follow, or, instead, a lesson in patterns of behavior to be avoided. All are instructive and are remembered by children for the rest of their lives.
Jagam carried throughout his life a reverence for the Ramayana, and especially one of the great heroes of the story, Hanuman – the divine monkey God, much beloved all over India. Every day of his life he read at least one passage from the Ramayana.
Many see Hanuman as the real hero of the Ramayana. He is worshipped for his unfailing loyalty and devotion to Rama. It is Hanuman who enables Rama to cross the sea to rescue his wife Sita who has been abducted by the wicked demon-king of Sri Lanka, Ravana.
The boy who was dismayed by Rama smoking became a man, A.R. Jagannathan. His daughter, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, recalls her parents taking her on a trip when she was a child to the island of Rameshwaram, where floating in a boat over the sea, her father lowered her into the waters (much to the alarm of her mother!) so that she could experience firsthand the waves of the ocean where Hanuman and Rama had so long ago stood on the shore planning how to rescue the beloved Sita, how to build a bridge to Lanka, and with what strategy to conquer the armies of Ravana.
Nanditha Krishna also credits her father, as well as her mother’s father and her great-grandfather, with instilling in her a great love and reverence for the world of nature. He took her when she was a child on countless trips to the forests and wildlife preserves of India, pointing out the graceful beauty of the trees, plants, birds, and animals, imparting a profound love of the wild places and the living beings who find their home there.
In his public life, A.R. Jagannathan was Founder Managing-Director and Vice-Chairman, Tata Projects Ltd. A very wise and conscientious man, he was a beloved counselor to this extended family, who sought out his advice for all the important decisions of their lives: marriages, careers, businesses, and any important decisions. Kind and always thoughtful, his counsel was given sincerely and was of great benefit.
One of his favorite songs, which he loved to listen to all his life was one of the songs about the God Kartikeya. The song told the story of how the heart of his beloved was filled with love for him. Kartikeya was radiant as the moon.
He felt a great love for wildlife and the forests, while his wife, Shakunthala, felt a tremendous appreciation of Indian culture and tradition. They complemented each other beautifully, in a marriage made in heaven.
He often told the story of when he was a boy, walking with a group of people, 40 kilometers through the forest, up a hill towards the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. They walked all day, gradually climbing higher along the jungle terrain. As they walked, they saw movement off to the side in the brush. They became aware that in the underbrush there were tigers walking along with them, just out of sight, visible here and there, gliding through the spots of sunlight and shadows of the thick forest. The number of tigers grew over the hours, as more tigers joined them. They were curious, but never threatening. The tigers were simply walking with them, keeping them company. It was a beautiful experience of harmony with nature and the profound peace of the forest.
Top photo: Sumeet Moghe / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / A Bengal Tiger in Jim Corbett National Park
Second photo: Raja Ravi Press / Wikipedia Commons / “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.” / A painting done in the 1920’s / Rama, exiled to the forest, accompanied by his wife Sita and his brother Laksmana.
Third photo: CC-by-sa PlaneMad/Wikimedia /”This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.”/ The bridge near Rameshwaram.
© 2015, text, Sharon St Joan