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The Ramayana is an epic poem written about Rama, the avatar of Vishnu, and his adventures as he lives in exile. Rama draws upon the help of many different beings in his quest to rescue his wife, Sita, from the demon king Ravana. Many of the beings who help him are animals, including Sugreeva and Hanuman, who are monkeys, and Jatayu, an elderly eagle. Rama has also interacted with animals who did not help in his quest. Overall, Rama’s interactions with animals in The Ramayana is a model for how Hindus should treat other beings.
First of all, what is considered to be normal for Hindus? While they do not have to be vegetarian to practice Hinduism, many Hindus are at least vegetarian to practice the yama of ahimsa. Ahimsa is the ethical observance of nonviolence towards any living being, which extends to animals and insects. There is the concept of the sacred cow, so no cows are harmed for meat consumption. However, the milk that comes from cows is used to make ghee, a clarified butter that is used for cooking and Hindu rituals. Additionally, lower castes are given the task of being butchers since killing animals is not the work of a brahmin or a kshatriya.
The first animal that Rama encounters when he begins his fourteen-year exile is the eagle named Jatayu. Jatayu is an old friend of Rama’s father, King Dasaratha, who has the duty of protecting Lakshmana and Rama while they are exiled from Ayodhya. In The Ramayana, Jatayu becomes a foster parent to Rama and Lakshmana after they are exiled. Rama reveres and respects Jatayu, for Jatayu tells him that he and Dasaratha were so close that “Dasaratha had remarked, ‘You are the soul, I am the body. We are one.’” Jatayu is also revered for his wisdom and power, for he is a talking eagle, which is rather significant in the literature. Rama holds Jatayu at the same level of endearment and respect as he holds his own father and begs him to stay alive because Lakshmana and Rama need a father figure now that Dasaratha is dead. Rama follows Jatayu to Panchvati. Interaction between Rama and Jatayu is seen again after Jatayu fights Ravana in an effort to save Sita. As Jatayu is dying, Jatayu tells Rama about how Sita was kidnapped, but could not tell where Ravana took Sita before he dies. In the text, there is no more mention of of Jatayu until Rama and his party (now including Hanuman) encounter Sampati and tell him about Jatayu. Rama shows Sampati grace by restoring his wings and making him a majestic eagle once again.
While Rama was rather kind to the eagles, Rama is not so kind or graceful to the former monkey king Vali. At the beginning of the chapter “Vali”, Narayan writes that “Yet [Rama] once acted, as it seemed, out of partiality, half-knowledge, and haste, and shot and destroyed from hiding, a creature who had done him no hard, not even seen him”. In this tale, Rama takes the side of Vali’s brother, Sugreeva, and is asked to kill Vali while hiding out of plain sight. Rama goes ahead and makes the claim Vali possesses “enough intelligence to know right from wrong and to argue [his] case” and that Vali is no ordinary animal. If he were, then he would not be in the predicament he is currently in. Additionally, dharma and obligation to Sugreeva are points that further complicate the situation for Rama. While Rama could have easily decided to listen to both sides before making a decision, he falters and chooses to support one monkey over another. He kills Vali and proceeds to mourn the death of Vali with the other monkeys. While this interaction was not the most noble, it highlights the fact that Rama is a man who is not always impervious to faults and blunders. How Rama treats others later in the epic shows growth from this instance.
Rama’s relationship with Hanuman and Sugreeva is different, though, for they help him find Sita and recover her from Ravana. Sugreeva sends out his troops (after being prodded), and Hanuman accompanies Rama and Lakshmana all across India. Part of the reason why Rama treats Hanuman so well particularly is that Hanuman is an avatar of Shiva, one of the three major gods in Hinduism. Hanuman’s opinions are valued greatly by Rama, for when Rama asks Hanuman if Vibishana should be taken in by Rama’s party, he takes Hanuman’s word very seriously. Rama also considers the word of Sugreeva when asking about Vibishana, but Sugreeva has proven to be a rather questionable animal. Hanuman serves the role of being Rama’s right hand through the search for Sita, and an assailant in the war against Ravana. In the end, Narayan says that when Rama sat at his throne, “Hanuman knelt at his feet, looking up, with his palms pressed in worship, ready to spring into action at the slightest command”. While this might seem to be rather condescending in Western culture to just let Hanuman kneel rather than getting him to sit with Rama, it is Hanuman’s dharma to worship and serve Rama, so this is actually respectful and correct to allow.
After talking about the interactions that Rama had with animals within The Ramayana, the question of how it relates to Hinduism today still remains. Why would Hindus look at the interactions between Rama and a bunch of supernatural animals within the epic poem as a model of how to treat other animals? Most animals do not talk or have supernatural powers that help rid the world of asuras. However, how animals are treated by Hindus goes back to concepts of dharma and karma, where one has duties to fulfill and if they do not or if they are unkind to other beings (especially cows, tigers, elephants, and monkeys) they could risk being reincarnated into a lower varna for their next life cycle. Animals are often the vahanas of the different gods as well and should always be treated with respect even if they are not of the god that is venerated in bhakti worship.
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