Honour is a word that is thrown around often. We extol the honourable sacrifices of our men and women in the armed services. We click our tongues disapprovingly as we read about tragic “honour killings” in the news. Hip hop artists such as Tupac Shakur discussed the “death before dishonour” doctrine in their music… but what is honour? We can point to actions that we see as honourable. We can even pull a definition out of the dictionary. However, there must be something more. Honour as a concept must be greater than a record of laudable actions or words on a page.
The stories of our ancient past explore honour in great detail. Our heads are filled with stories, poems, and songs that praise men and women with the ability to hold fast to commitments, uphold the peace, and face adversity with composure. In India, grand epics like the Mahabharata, the poem of Shravan Kumar, or the tale of Sahiban and Mirza are awash with themes of honour, duty, love, and loyalty. Valmiki’s Ramayana is one of the earliest exemplars of this. On the surface, it is easy to dismiss this story as the typical hero’s journey. A prince from a powerful family finds himself thrust into the wide world. He must save a beautiful princess and is beset by challenges until he ultimately defeats the villain. Upon deeper examination of this epic multiple times the length of Homer’s Iliad we find not only examples of the honourable, but also the dishonourable, whether by intent or misstep.
Considering the length and complexity of the tale, the Ramayana is somewhat challenging to summarize. The basic elements of the story begin in the ancient Indian kingdom of Ayodhya. King Dasharatha sits high and proud on his throne, surrounded by his many wives and bathed in luxury. When the time came to choose a crown prince, he selected Rama Chandra, his eldest son. Rama was loved by the people of Ayodhya, known for his humility, bravery, wisdom, and pride as a Kshatriya (warrior). Kaushayla, co-wife to Ram’s mother, was unhappy with this decision. Her preference would be to have Prince Bharata, her son and Rama’s half-brother, given this honour. To achieve this end, she demanded that Dasharatha grant the two wishes he promised her when she saved his life after a battle. The first wish made Bharata the crown prince, the second banished Rama to the wilderness for fourteen years. King Dasharatha was taken aback by these requests, but reluctantly honoured them. Prince Rama accepted this edict without a word of protest, humbly begged for blessings from his father and his father’s wives, (Kaushayla included) and obeyed. Accompanying Ram in his exile were his wife Seetha and his brother Prince Lakshmana, who refused to stay in the palace while his brother wandered the wilderness. Some years into their exile, a demoness tried to seduce Ram. Scorned by the rejection, she tries to murder Sita so that she could have Ram for herself. During the attack, Prince Lakshmana amputated the demoness’ nose and sent her screaming to her brother Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. She demands vengeance for the injury done to her. Ravana agrees to preserve his sister’s honour and his own by getting revenge on the princes. When spying on the them, Ravana fell for Seetha and decided to punish the brothers by abducting her for himself. A war ensued. In a colourful melange of engaging characters, fantastical feats, acts of devotion to the gods, and epic battles, the story came to its conclusion with Rama defeating Ravana and rescuing Seetha. After this victory, they returned home to Ayodhya for their happily ever after.
The concept of honour in this story is explored from several angles: respect for one’s enemy, devotion and faith, fulfilling one’s life purpose, honouring our commitments, and questioning our assumptions. To cover all of these would turn this short blog post into a lengthy dissertation on Hindu philosophy more suited to authors with higher credentials than my own. I will focus on the two themes that resonate with me the most: honouring our commitments, and questioning our assumptions.
King Dasharatha was confronted with fulfilling a promise that he made to his wife Kaushayla. He did not want to exile Ram and he had the power to refuse her request. Instead, he swallowed his broken heart and acquiesced. He made this choice for the greater good of his kingdom. If he could not keep a promise to wife, what would his allies think? How would breaking his word change his reputation among the court? How could he expect anyone to value his word if were to break a promise because fulfilling it was distasteful? We all have commitments to live up to and not all of them are easy. Going out on that date we promised, or taking our turn to wash the dishes are things we all expect to do. The quality of our commitments is put to the test when we encounter complications such as financial problems, severe illness, or a nasty argument. How committed are we to fixing the problem for the greater good and not just for ourselves? Can we honour our obligations even when it hurts? Who will we hurt by breaking our word? There are always consequences for keeping or breaking our promises that stretch beyond the relationship between the parties directly involved. Being an honourable person is eschewing selfishness and considering the impression our actions will leave on the world around us when we make hard decisions.
This story also teaches us a valuable lesson about making assumptions, even when we strive for righteousness. Upon seeing his wife, Ram’s heart explodes with happiness as Seetha finally breathes free air. Then, Ram says something that shocks his wife, his comrades in arms, and the reader:
“You, with a suspicion arisen on your character, standing in front of me, are extremely disagreeable to me, even as a light to one, who is suffering from a poor eye-sight.
O Seetha! That is why, I am permitting you now. Go wherever you like. All these ten directions are open to you, my dear lady! There is no work to be done to me, by you.
Which noble man, born in an illustrious race, will take back a woman who lived in another’s abode, with an eager mind?”
-The Ramayana, Book VI Chapter 116 v. 17 – 19
Despite having crossed the sea to fight a bloody war to secure her freedom, Ram rejected Seetha. He believed that while Ravana held her captive she dishonoured herself by letting Ravana touch her (yes, that kind of touch). In a misguided attempt at preserving his honour, Ram offers to release Seetha from her vows and end their marriage. Seetha, however, remained faithful and was left unmolested by her captor. She requested a sign from the gods to prove her quality, it was granted. Ram was shamed by his assumption. Instead of inquiring as to his wife’s condition, he assumed that she was unfaithful to him. He begged forgiveness for his words in the hopes that Seetha would return with him.
Far too often in our quest to be righteous we find ourselves playing the ultracrepidarian. We don’t take the time to ask questions, especially when we are wrapped in the emotion of the moment. We don’t investigate a situation, and seeking the validation that comes with being in the right, we act. Ram’s assumptions resulted in his embarrassment before his wife, comrades, and the gods. His display of contrition was accepted by Seetha and they were again at peace. In our lives, there is not always a “happily ever after”. Sometimes the people we hurt never come back, irrespective how much we beg. If we meddle in a friend’s relationship and falsely accusing his or her partner of cheating, it is likely that friendship will never be the same, if it survives. Even if our intentions were wholly noble, the damage has been done. A line has been crossed there is no going back. Before we act we should ask ourselves: Is it true? What proof do I have? What could happen if I am wrong? We must always endeavour too look deeper when we can.
The Ramayana is a seemingly endless well of knowledge. It grapples with a multitude of challenges endemic to the human condition. It shows us that being honourable is not only about the deeds of the individual according to a prescribed code of conduct. Whether or not an action is honourable is often determined by its effects on the world around us. We have to be willing to fulfill our promises, even when it is difficult to do so. We must also question our assumptions about the right course of action before we make mistakes that cannot be undone. That being said, the capacity to become an honourable person is not beyond any of us. We all have the capacity to contribute to greater human flourishing. Whether or not that potential becomes a reality rests on the decisions we make and why we choose to make them.
Until next time, be good to yourselves and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
The Ramayana on film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAM9x_GF9VY
Image Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/234398355578518874/