The Great Forest Exile: More than just a symbolism ?

The Great Forest Exile: More than just a symbolism ?

In the Ramayan, Ram is asked to string a bow – a feat that will win him the hand of Sita in marriage. Ram, however, bends the bow with such force that it breaks. Since no one until then had even been able to pick up this bow, Sita’s father is so impressed with Ram that he is more than happy to accept him as his son-in-law.

ram breaking shiva dhanushOne cannot help but wonder:  Why did Ram, known for his obedience, break a bow that was supposed to be strung? The bow is an ancient symbol of kingship. It represents poise and balance, useful only if the string is neither too loose or too tight. That Ram, the ideal king, breaking a bow in his youth is surely an act of some significance. No ordinary bow this: but the bow of Shiva, the great ascetic.

With a wife by his side, Ram’s father feels he is now old enough to be king and so declares his decision to retire. Unfortunately the planned coronation does not take place. Palace intrigues force Ram to go into forest exile instead. Is there a correlation between the breaking of the bow and the denial of his kingship? The epic does not say so explicitly. Nor has any scholar commented on it. But the question is an interesting one. After all everything in Hindu narratives is symbolic and there is surely here a meaning that is waiting to be decoded.

Ram’s breaking of Shiva’s bow probably suggests an act of passion and attachment, for Shiva is the god of renunciation and detachment.

pandavasIs that why he is considered unfit to be king? Is that why he must go into the forest for 14 years, and return only when he has cultivated adequate detachment? Observe the almost inhuman lack of passion displayed by Ram, fourteen years later, when he finally kills Ravan and rescue his wife Sita. He tells her that he killed Ravan not to rescue her but to uphold dharma and clear his family’s honor. It is almost as if showing feelings for one’s spouse is unacceptable for one who seeks to be king. He had shown his passion once, when he broke the bow. He shall not do so again.

The ancient seers demanded such detachment from kings. Kingship had to be more important than family. That is why Ram is put on the highest pedestal. One may not quite agree with this philosophy today, but it is clear that the epic considers the years in the wilderness not as a tragedy but as a period to mature until one is ready to truly wear the crown.

This theme of ‘growing up’ in the wilderness is repeated in the Mahabharata. Krishna helps the Pandavas establish the kingdom of Indraprastha. But the five brothers foolishly gamble away their kingdom in Krishna’s absence, a crime for which they have to suffer thirteen years of exile. When Yudhishtira moans his fate, the sages tell him the story of Ram who suffered fourteen years of exile, one year more than them, and that too for no fault of his. They tell the Pandavas to stop whining and use the period in the forest to learn. And they learn: Arjuna learns humility when he is defeated by a common hunter (Shiva in disguise) in battle, Bhima learns humility when he is unable to lift the tail of an old monkey (Hanuman in disguise) and all the brothers learn humility when they are forced to live as servants in the final year of exile. Only then does Krishna lead them to a triumphant battle against their enemies.

~ Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik


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  • Sir, you have really underlined an important part in our old and ancient epics which has been more or less overlooked by most scholars. It is true to the statement that adversity makes a man and Ram and pandavas were no exception. It was only though the period of exile, they inculcated extreme virtues which made them subjects for reverence throughout ages.
    But I would like to differ on one of the views which has always been upheld highly as an exemplary conduct of giving priority to kingship rather than ones spouse. Although its entirely my personal opinion but one has to perform his duty even towards his spouse. Sita accompanied Ram as she felt her moral duty to accompany her husband through all ordeals but after spending a long time as a hostage in Ravans reign, Ram left her when she needed him the most. Now where the hell is Rams dharma?Would you call it a Dharma to abandon your spouse in distress just for the sake of social criticism. Same goes with Mahabahrata too. Who the hell gave Yudishthir the right to bet her wife in the gamble?
    Of course , Ram and Pandava would be venerated throughout ages for their obedience, perseverance and other virtues but still, I can never agree with their conduct towards their spouses.

    • Dear deepak, I understand your pain and confusion. But when you seek answers, be ready for them as they would not be something easy to understand. And it would have been better if you did not use the word hell , it does not good for your knowledge. Listen with being bias to your thoughts and you will get the answer.

  • Thats totally not the case and I dont agree. When Rama was sent to exile he followed the orders of Dashratha only. Now, dashratha gave such orders to fulfill the desire of his wife and show affection towards again. So, as per your analogy Dashratha also should have gone to forest to uphold his dharma and family’s honour as he was himself a king that time and he shown passion towards his own wife by sending rama to exile to satisfy kaikeyi? Your explanation is totally stupid and preposterous.

  • Sadhuvad.
    Most of our indian literature have such hidden meaning.
    If we takes things literally then it looks absurd sometime, even layman jokes on that.
    Need to go in detail philosophically as you deed here.
    Refreshing article.

  • Very deep analysis, authority, leadership, power without wisdom of humility is force! Oh how our world would benefit from these contemplations. The life of Rajput was always about the people’s wellbeing first, personal second, whenever one indulges, no matter how small, there was a price to pay. Maturity does require conditioning. Please continue the thoughtful reviews. Thanks.

  • The bow was the symbol of pride and ego…He broke it to declare that the next avataar had arrived….He broke the bow to make people realise that it’s just a bow for him and he is the supreme god.
    He went to exile to honour his father’s word. He displayed obedience and faith towards his father’s decision. He being the avataar realised that it is just a part of the cosmic plan to get him near to ravana. ….it was this series of events which would eventually lead to the destruction of adharma.
    Through out history everything was done in a proper logical and sequential way which was planned by the supreme leaders to ensure that dharma prevails and we miniscule beings don’t deter from our path.
    This is my opinion. ….others r welcome to express theirs….

  • King Janakamaharaj father of Sita came to know that Sita is very strong among all ladies when he saw that Sita pushed the table on which the biggest bow was placed with single hand. Then he decided the person to marry her should be stronger than her, then only she will be safe. This is the main reason to test Rama during swayamvaram. The facts of Ramayana are good, but how we are understanding is differs from man to man.