This year, we will be studying the great work of Saint Tulsidas - Shri Ramacharitamaanas !
Some important points about this great composition.
By some accounts, Rishi Valmiki is considered the Adikavi (first poet) who composed the Valmiki Ramayana, considered a work from an intellectual and dharmic standpoint.
Very similar to Bhagwaan Veda Vyaasa, who was coaxed into writing the Mahapurana Srimad Bhagavatham, after composing so many great texts, Rishi Valmiki felt the absence of the 'Bhakti' aspect and is said to have incarnated as Sage Tulsidas.
Tulsi Ramayana is considered to be filled with Bhakti, where Shri Rama is considered as Bhagwaan. Even seemingly sad and painful episodes are conveyed in a very beautiful & sweet way in Tulsi Ramayana.
The original and first narration of the Ramayana was from Bhagwaan Shiva Himself, to Mata Parvati.
Symbolism of Ramayana
Many consider the Ramayana as a 'simple story', involving the journey of a prince and his quest to get back his wife from a foreign land, with the assistance of a few friends.
However, the Ramayana is replete with numerous beautiful symbolic pointers for all of us, which remind us of the many challenges we face as spiritual seekers. Here is a high-level breakdown of some of the episodes with their symbolism:
Father, Mother & Place of Birth: "Dasharatha" is the one who has conquered all the 10 *indriyas (5 Jnana Indriyas & 5 Karma Indriyas) or organs of perception and organs of action. "Kaushalya" is the one who is supremely efficient. With such a King & Queen as caretakers, it is no wonder that the place is known as "Ayodhya" - the place where there is no conflict. In such a pious environment is born "RAMA" - the one who delights all !
Union of Sita & Rama: The marriage of Mother Sita & Shri Rama represents the union of Prakriti (Matter) & Purusha (Spirit). This is who we all are - the Jiva, the individual.
Life in the Jungle: Mother Sita was not the least upset or depressed that she was in the forest. She was completely focused on Shri Rama, indicating that so long as the Jiva is focused on the divinity inside, external circumstances do not matter at all. In this serene situation enters the Lord of Lanka - Dashanan (Ravana) - the one with 10 heads, indicating the 10 indriyas which are turned sinfully outside. Desirous, lustful, adharmic - Ravana symbolizes everything unvirtuous.
Even excuses need Dharma: Ravana comes in the guise of a Sage asking for food. This shows how great Dharma is. A perpetrator cloaks & covers his ill-intentions with intellectual rationalizations. When the mind gets distracted for a second, it gets attached to the Golden Deer of blinding external bling.
Effects of Ravana: The ill-effects of this extrovertedness and distraction is such that Sita loses her intellectual balance and yells, abuses and scolds a loyal servant like Shri Lakshmana.
Travel to Lanka: If Ayodhya represents the land of no conflict, Lanka is the exact opposite. It is the land of materialistic excesses and comforts, a land of surplus possessions, power, position and pleasure. This represents "Samsaara" and this is where a spiritual seeker is stuck.
How to reach Shri Rama ?: Once fallen, the Jiva should ideally immediately arrest further fall or descent or devolvement. This is exactly what Mother Sita does. She sits under the 'Ashoka' tree - a place where there is sadness around, but NO identification with them. She repents, regrets, reflects & remembers Shri Rama with single focus. An individual or Jiva's tears manage to wipe out the Vasanas. When the devotee is yearning for Bhagwaan, how can the almighty compassionate one not pay attention. Shri Rama throbs and wiggles in pain like a worm in Bharat, sensing that Sita Devi is thinking of Him.
Enter HanumanJi: HanumanJi's personality before and after He meets Bhagwaan is like night & day. This is the transformation of proficiency into efficiency. When we are in touch with Bhagwaan, all our skills, traits and qualities get divinized and acquire a special state.
Vali & Sugreeva: Vali represents materialistic desires and vulgarity or desires and greed. The moment the Vanaras come under the rule of Sugreeva (well-reined), they become a potent force - united, powerful, virtuous and determined.
Rishyamukha = Satsanga: Sugreeva seeks refuge in the Rishyamukha mountains, which is full of rishis and sages engaged in Satsanga, knowing very well that Vali has a curse which spells death for him when he enters the vicinity of Rishyamukha. For us, the Rishyamukha mountain represents Satsang - the company of good people & the study of our scriptures. The Vali in our life (desires, greed, anger, etc.) will not touch us, as long as we are in our 'Rishyamukha' mountain.
HanumanJi meets Sita Devi: When the Jiva yearns sincerely & tearfully for Bhagwaan, He invariably sends a Guru to guide us. The all-powerful HanumanJi appears as the Guru for Mother Sita and provides solace along with a message from Bhagwaan.
In essence, the Ramayana is the journey of a spiritual seeker - from Ayodhya to Lanka and back !
5 Organs of Perception (Jnana Indriyas) = Eyes, Nose, Ears, Tongue, Skin
5 Organs of Action (Karma Indriyas) = Hands, Legs, Tongue, Organs of reproduction & excretion
Resources to Reflect
This link provides some handy resources for Tulsi Ramayana.