From my Ramayana Series!
While reading the Ramayana to my daughter, the story of Rama’s Exile reminded me of a story from the Hebrew scriptures: The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter. What follows is my comparative analysis to show a deeply shared pattern between these two apparently very different religious traditions.
Biblical Human Sacrifice: Jephthat’s Daughter
In Judges 11:29-40 Jephthah made a vow to Yahweh saying, “If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the Lord the first thing coming out of my house to greet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Indeed Yahweh blessed Jephethat with glorious victory. But unfortunately, on returning from his triumph, the first thing to come out of Jephthat’s house was his dear daughter who ironically came out singing praises for her dear father’s victorious return.
So, under horrible obligation, and in great sorrow Jephthah kept his vow to Yahweh and sacrificed his beloved daughter. A vow is a vow.
Hindu Honor: The Exile of Rama
In the Ramayana’s Book of Ayodhya, Rama is the favorite son of Dasrath, the King of Ayodhya and destined to be the next king. Dasrath has several wives and one of the wives wants her son (Bharat) to be the next King instead of Rama. The plotting wife (Kaikeyi) recalls a vow the King once made to her many years ago at their wedding where he said, “I will grant you any two things you desire.” The Queen never asked her husband for anything since the wedding but her evil handmaid, convinced her into asking the King now to exile his favorite son, Rama, into the forest for 14 years and to place Kaikeyi’s son (Bharat) on the path to be King.
King Dasrath, in great sorrow, honorably fulfilled the sacred vow and sent his dearest son into exile and thus began the main plot for the Ramayana. Rama too did not resist the exile though all those around him encouraged him to ignore this silly request — for Rama was the most popular prince in the whole country. Instead, Rama agreed that a vow is a vow and must be honored.
The King’s sorrow for honoring his own promise quickly led to his own pathetic, withering death. And due to the honorably fulfilled vow, the exile of Rama led to death and suffering for many people.
How should we look at these two stories? Are they primarily about the nature of Yahweh (the god of the Hebrews) and about the character of Rama (an incarnation of the god of the Hindus)? Or is there another way to view these stories besides buying into a superficial look-at-my-god interpretation?
Many non-believers feel that the Hebrew story of Jephthat, like many other Tanakh stories, reveals the cruel, murderous nature of Yahweh. That cruelty is the take-home message. Many believers, on the other hand, try to protect their image of Yahweh and explain away the event with strategies like:
- Jephthat never killed his daughter, it was figurative language for her entry into a priestess role.
- Jephthat’s child sacrifice is not commended in this passage and indeed goes against many other passages that show the Yahweh would never condone such a practice.
But I don’t care to discuss the controversy here because I think this story is recorded not to discuss Yahweh’s nature or local practices, but to illustrate, in story-form, an important principle for the people at that time: The importance of the Vow and of Honor.
Sure, I assume that the Jews probably, like those around them, performed child sacrifice — but I will leave it to scholars to decide if that short passage supports that it was supported by Yahwehists at any time. But I don’t think the story has been preserved over all these centuries with the intention to discuss human sacrifice. Nor is it intended to discuss the low value put on human life back in that era. I think it was preserved because the story is pointing at the importance of honor over the importance of individual happiness. The same holds true for the Ramayana story of the exile of Rama.
To a modern reader, Rama’s exile by his father seems like nothing but pigheaded foolishness. The King could have just as easily dismissed the request of his wife to fulfill a vow whose intent was obviously not meant to cover such actions. Perhaps you are thinking: Everyone in the Kingdom would have been happy and have supported his rejection of his own vow and would have preferred that the evil Kaikeyi instead had been exiled. Or would they? Moderns can’t understand the role of “honor” and “vows” in those days. Honor and Duty played crucial roles in ancient societies that we can not imagine in ours. Perhaps these stories are pointing at the sacred value of vows.
“The Rule of Law” was not a developed concept in ancient times — heck, even in parts of today’s world, the same is true. Instead, where rule-of-law is absent, honor, loyalties, duties, vows and taboos often serve the critical function of stabilizing society. The two stories above are from very different traditions but from very similar times — times when honor and vows were crucially important. These stories are meant to reinforce the value of honor in fulfilling promises even if the outcome is reprehensible. These stories are meant to stabilize society by strengthening the value of honoring vows.
Looking at these stories using the perspective of Comparative Religion can help us to see deeply shared human traits and help us to see beyond the deceptive tribal interests that generate our particular gods and theologies. A comparative religious analysis helps us see how the human mind works and why we create stories. It was many insights similar to these that made Hinduism play a large role in the undoing of my Christianity. But such insights also allow me to read ancient literature without pure disgust. It is for this reason I highly recommend to theists and atheists alike to read outside the traditions with which they are familiar. Seek to understand the other in its own terms, and give your mind time to see if patterns emerge.