Vows: Comparing the Bible and the Ramayana

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.

Jephthat Sacrifices his Daughter

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.

Dasrath regretfully honors his vow to Kaikeyi and exiles Rama who loyally submits

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.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

9 responses to “Vows: Comparing the Bible and the Ramayana

  1. Syl

    Well said – thank you, Sabio.

  2. DaCheese

    In particular, the absence of modern contract law seems directly relevant. Many people weren’t even literate, so the sanctity of verbal agreements would have been crucial to conducting trade in those days.

  3. Excellent analysys Sabio

    DaCheese makes a great point as well. Honoring your word would have been extremely important from a “contractual” standpoint. In a sense, it seems that how well known you were for keeping your word would have been the ancient equivalent of our modern credit histories.

    On the subject of vows, as you probably know, Numbers 30:1-15 is where the Bible covered vows in the Law. In there, a man’s word was binding, but a woman’s word was subject to the approval of the main man in her life. Do you find any similar notion in Hindu scriptures, or are they more egalitarian?

  4. @ DaCheese :
    I agree. But there were written international treaties back in those days, so I wonder if there were also some local written contracts. I am not up on that stuff. But I doubt their was a secure rule-of-law where equal enforcement across all people by a powerful government which aimed at fairness was as secure enough to influence the code of loyalties and vows.

    @ TWF :
    Thanx for the Numbers reference — very helpful!
    No, the rights of women as in most lands in that time period were as dismal in India as in the Middle East.

  5. Chacham Ba'Layla

    I have been studying Vows in the Bible (Numbers 30:1-15) and later Jewish tradition. I was interested by your look at the story of Rama, of which I know very little.

    Vows do seem to have been popular & significant in ancient times.

    Reading the Bible & Mishnah, I think there is a distinction to be made between:
    an Oath which was a means of providing force to a verbal contract, treaty or promise, by invoking the sacred,
    and a Vow which was a form of gift to the deity – as sacred to the person making it as bringing a sacrifice to the Temple – and sometimes involved declaring something as forbidden to the person making the vow.

    The Oath has survived in modern times in Law Courts.
    However, serious adherents of both Judaism and Christianity will now often prefer to “Affirm” rather than “Swear an Oath” in court.

    The Vow seems to have survived rather more in Christianity where Marriage Vows and Monastic Vows still retain much of the original character of the Vow, than in Judaism where Vows and Oaths came to be seen as taking unnecessary risks with the sacred name of God, as well as with future unpredicted consequences.

    I don’t think a Vow in Biblical times was a substitute for contracts and law (though an Oath might well have been). I think it was an act of piety or like a prayer, something offered to God, when in fear and trouble, or alternatively out of gratitude.

    I am wondering what has replaced this ancient aspect of popular religion?
    I think that in the modern concept of boycotting goods out of a perception of moral action, there may be a trace of the Vow of ancient times, whereby people would desist from certain things for as a holy “gift”.

  6. @ Chacham Ba’Layla,
    That is a brilliant comment. I will have to take time, reread and think about it. Thank you for the helpful thoughts. Hope to see you again. Do you have a blog? I will be back to this comment later today. (In’shallah)

  7. Jephthah’s vow was to Yahweh, the Semitic god. Jews, of course know that given Yahweh’s track record, Thou shalt not meddle with thine God.
    Dasaratha’s word was to his wife. It was the question of his honour, the truth and meaningfulness of his words and promises. He was bound by the promise he had made to his wife, and was in a dilemma because it conflicted with his love for Rama.
    Rama undertook the exile so that his father’s words would not prove false. He went to the forest to vindicate the words of his father.There was no god involved in the matter at all, only one’s commitment to truth and righteousness.
    Perhaps this is another example of the difference between monotheistic faiths and dharmic ones.

  8. @ Vamanan,
    I imagine Jephthah’s vow was also before his community or neighbors and may have been more social that told in the story. But I think your point is interesting.

  9. Krystal Yeargin

    judaism is also a nice religion just like christianity. my grand dad is also a jewish.*

    Look over our very own blog too

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