What The Ramayana Teaches Us About Geopolitics
Updated: Apr 1
From Ayodhya to Dandaka and from Kishkindha to Lanka
“Wise men say that the root of victory is consultation and discussion with learned and wise men.” Ramayana (Ravana to Ministers)
Image Credits Team Geostrata
The ancient Indian epic Ramayana, which is believed to have been written by Maharshi Valmiki, has had a profound impact on the cultural and spiritual life of the Indian subcontinent and beyond. However, the story of the Ramayana is not just a tale of the victory of good over evil; it also reflects the political and geopolitical realities of ancient India.
India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr Jaishankar, during one interview, highlighted diplomacy in the Mahabharata and Ramayana. He said, "Lord Rama was able to bring Vanar Sena together.” In today's world, it will be “called coalition building.” In this article, we shall examine the geopolitics of the Ramayana and how it reflects the power dynamics of the time.
The story of the Ramayana centres around prince Rama, who is known as “the Maryada Purushottam, the ideal man.” Rama is the son of King Dasharatha of Ayodhya, a kingdom located in modern-day Uttar Pradesh in India. Rama is forced to go into exile with his wife Sita and younger brother Lakshmana after his stepmother Kaikeyi plots against him. During the exile, demon king Ravana kidnaps Ma Sita and takes her to his kingdom of Lanka, located on the island of present-day Sri Lanka, thus marking the beginning of the greater end.
In a way, Rama is “the ideal” that every country aspires to be. Mahatma Gandhi wanted India to be a “Ramarajya”, a state that is the torchbearer of global peace amid the age of chaos with the aim to achieve the common goal of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”—the world is one family. On the contrary, Ravana, despite having immense knowledge of the Vedas (the supreme text in Hinduism), politics, and statecraft, was doomed to fail because of his arrogance, adharma (unjust actions) and ill-chosen decisions. One might draw corollaries of Ravana from some of the modern states that have become self-proclaimed guardians of democracy around the globe. Only time will confirm whether such a comparison is valid or not.
Coming back to the Ramayana, one significant aspect of the story is the role of geography and terrain. The story takes place on the Indian subcontinent, with a primary focus on the kingdoms of Ayodhya, Lanka, and the Dandaka forest. The geography of these places plays a crucial role in the epic, as Rama and his allies must manoeuvre through difficult terrain and face various challenges posed by the landscape to defeat Ravana and rescue Ma Sita.
Lanka, the kingdom ruled by Ravana, is depicted as a rich and prosperous land, but it is also isolated and difficult to reach due to its location on a far island. This isolation helps to protect Ravana and his kingdom from external threats, But it also makes it harder for Rama and his allies to mount a successful attack. In contrast, the Dandaka forest is delineated as a wild and dangerous place. Still, it also provides Rama with a safe place and an initial base of operations from which he can launch his attacks against Ravana.
Another important geopolitical theme in the Ramayana is the concept of power and dominance. James Madison once famously said, “The essence of government is power, and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” This was true in the case of Ravana and his kingdom as well. Ravana held immense political and economical power compared to his counterpart Rama and his allies; however, the stewardship of Rama on the battlefield helped him win the war in Lanka.
Another diplomatic lesson from the Ramayana is coalition building, which was also highlighted by Dr Jaishankar as mentioned earlier. Rama and Lakshmana seek the help of the monkey king Sugriva and his army of monkeys to rescue Ma Sita and defeat Raavana. Not only Sugriva, but Rama was able to garner support from a large and diverse group of allies, including bears and humans, to help him in his quest to rescue Ma Sita. These allies provided Rama with valuable resources and support, and their loyalty was essential to his ultimate victory.
Ravana, on the other hand, has been portrayed as a tyrannical ruler who alienates and mistreats his subjects, which eventually leads to a lack of loyalty and support among his people, including his own brother Vibhishana. Vibhishana tried to persuade Ravana to take the right path; however, drunk with power, Ravana forced his brother to leave his kingdom. Vibhishana, together with four of his companions, reached Rama’s place. Rama eventually gave him refuge, considering his adequacy in the battle against his brother. It turns out Rama was right, in the final battle; it was Vibhishana who pointed out the weakness of Ravana, using which Rama was able to kill the demon king.
Earlier Vibhishana also saved Hanuman when he came to the court of Ravana. Ravana decided to execute Hanuman; however, Vibhishana stopped him, citing diplomatic immunity given to a messenger or a duta. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 grants certain immunities to diplomats in this modern world. However, in India, traces of this diplomatic tradition have been widely found since ancient times. In the Ramayana, there is a range of discussions on this matter. Perhaps Goswami Tulsidas in his “Ramcharitmanas” explains this beautifully: Vibhishan says “Nai sisa kari binaya bahuta, Niti birodha na maria duta”: It is against all statecraft: an envoy must not be killed”.
Making allies might be easy, but making them stick around for a significant amount of time requires potent diplomatic and negotiating capability, which Rama possessed, unlike Ravana, whose unilateral actions even drove his own brother away.
Apart from these geopolitical angles, there are also some spiritual dimensions attached to the Ramayana that have political implications, as religion can be a powerful force for mobilizing people and shaping their worldviews. Rama's status as, a divine figure and a symbol of righteousness, gives him a moral authority that helps to rally support for his cause and legitimize his actions. Conversely, Ravana's status, as a demon and a symbol of evil, helps to delegitimize him in the eyes of many and makes it easier for Rama to justify his efforts to defeat him.
Overall, the geopolitics of the Ramayana can be seen as reflecting the complex and dynamic nature of international relations and power dynamics in the ancient Indian Subcontinent. The story highlights the importance of geography, alliances, and diplomacy apart from the generalized view of religion and spirituality.
French historian Jules Michelet once said, "He who reads the Ramayana is absolved of all his sins." The expression is not a delusion of fancy. This great epic teaches us many lessons, not only for an individual but also for the globe. If implemented properly, it will pave the way for the establishment of a global Ramayana, similar to what Mahatma Gandhi envisaged.
BY DARSHAN GAJJAR