The month of Chaitra (March-April) is the first month in Panchanga (Indian calendar) with a change in the moon's orbit. During this month many festivities observing the birth of great spiritual luminaries iare observed by different regions in India (Ramnavami, Hanuman, Mahavir, Swaminarayan Jayantis).
The month starts with Ugadi/ Yugadi/ Gudi Padwa or Gudhi Padwa which marks the first day of the new calendar ... (yuga "age" and ādi "beginning": the beginning of an age).
Ramnavami celebrates the birth of Ram and falls on the ninth day of the bright fortnight. Ram was born to King Dasharatha and Queen Kausalya of Ayodhya. The festival lasts nine days and is marked by recitals, Akhand Paath, of Ramacharitamanas (the ancient epic story of Ram), with bhajans, kirtans and feasting.
As I reflect, I see Ram and Sita, more than any other characters, are an integral part of the Indian psyche. Ramayan along with Mahabharata, the two great epics written thousands of years ago, have shaped and continue to shape and reshape the thinking of an entire culture. Ramayan has tremendous contemporary relevance as I documented in my earlier essay Sitayanam .
Ramayana pervades the moral and cultural consciousness of Hindus around the world. It has, for generations, served as a bedtime story for Indian and Hindu children, while at the same time engaging the interest of philosophers and theologians.
Valmiki opens his conversation with the sage Narada by expressing his eagerness to know who among his contemporaries was considered the embodiment of all virtues. The list of qualities was exhaustive, including valor, truthfulness, self-control, firm adherence to vows and a desire to secure the welfare of all creatures. In reply, Narada gives him an account of Ram. Valmiki with his yogic powers sees the life of Ram, Lakshman, Sita and others unfold before him.
The Ramayana tells the tragic and magical story of Rama, the prince of Ayodhya born to rid the earth of the terrible demon Ravana. Exiled for fourteen years because of his stepmother's fit of jealousy on the eve of his coronation, Rama enters the forests of Dandaka with his beautiful wife Sita and devoted brother Lakshmana. Sita is abducted from the forest by Ravana who takes her to his isolated kingdom on the far side of the southern ocean. The two brothers set out to rescue her and, along the way, make an alliance with a dispossessed monkey, king Sugriva. At the end of a bloody war Ravana is killed and Sita, reunited with her husband, and victorious Rama returns to Ayodhya to claim the throne that is rightfully his.
The Ramayana is an idealized heroic tale ending with the inevitable triumph of good over evil. It is also an intensely personal story of family relationships, love, loss and separation (divorce?), duty and honor, of palatial intrigue, petty jealousies and destructive ambitions. All this played out in a universe populated by larger-than-life humans, devas and celestial beings, wondrous animals and terrifying demons.
The epic is to be read with a view to benefit ourselves. It is an ideal! Throughout the story, Valmiki himself represents Ram as an avatar, a purushottam atma, an "Ideal Man" and Sita as the "Ideal Woman". The purpose of this epic is to provide insights on how to live, how to prepare our role in life. The main characters played their parts like human beings, in circumstances that assail and confront human beings at every turn. And, from an advaitic point of view, we are all seen as avatars trying to realize our true nature of Sat-Chit-Anand (Truth-Consciousness-Bliss)!
In reading Ramayan closely, we see Ram, as the primary hero, being educated by Vishwamitra, as a grown man who struggled, who was tempted, who suffered and had human emotions. His greatness was in overcoming and surpassing them. Ram's character portrayed the passion for righteousness, high honor (Maryada) and dharma. And, Sita is a central figure in the drama as the war is fought to rescue her. As I have explained in Sitayanam, she was a loved wife of Ram who went through hoops to rescue her. In the interest of maintaining democracy in which even the lowliest voice was heard, she was separated from him. She, an educated princess, understood the actions of the King and gracefully lived her life raising her children as a single mother. When Ram and Sita met again, she, an empowered woman, chose to not go back.
If Valmiki, an ascetic devoted to tapas (austerity) and swadhyaya (study of the self/Vedas), created this epic to help mankind understand human characteristics he must have used the Vedic philosophy as the basis. A close study of Ramayan reveals the advaitic message.
Indian and Hindu classical literature is full of symbolism. One view is that Sita portrayed as an 'Ideal Woman' reflects how jiva (individual soul) should pursue its spiritual path to realize the Supreme Truth. Ram means the one who revels in all beings and things, the atman, the Self of all. Ram is wedded to Sita, the Mind. Ram is born in the bosom where there is self-control and no conflict (Ayodhya). When Ram, the Self, is wedded to Sita, the Mind, there is expression of life and its activities. We do not know from where Sita (Mind) appears. From Mother Earth Sita came and into Mother Earth she disappeared. From where the Mind came and where it disappeared in samadhi, nobody can say. As long as Sita, the Mind, remains in perfect attunement with Ram, the Self (the higher nature) there is only joy and happiness, whether in Ayodhya or in exile in the forest.
It is unfortunate that certain aspects of a character have been understood or misunderstood to manage relationships and the political and societal norms of the day. Ramayan is a beautiful epic which needs to be studied in its entirety as it bring heroic characters to life through the many stories!
Also during this month of Chaitra, Hanuman Jayanti is celebrated to mark the birth of Hanuman. Hanuman, an ardent devotee of Rama, is recognized and honored for his total surrender to Ram. Hanuman is the symbol of strength and energy.
Mahavir Jayanti celebrates the birth of Mahavir, the last Tirthankara of the Jains on the 13th day of the bright fortnight of the Chaitra month. Mahavir was born around 600 B.C. Mahavir preached non-violence and prohibited any kind of killing. On his birth anniversary, every Jain resolves to follow his teachings.
Swaminarayan Jayanti is celebrated to mark the birth of Swaminarayan(1781-1830) in Chhapaiya, near Ayodhya. He travelled extensively and eventually settled in Gujarat. He was known as a social and moral reformer. At the age of 21, he founded the Swaminarayan Sampradaya. He promised to remain ever-present with his followers through an unbroken succession of enlightened gurus. He is worshipped by his followers.
In this spirit of devotion exemplified by the festivities to honor the luminaries born this month, many (like us at HASC) participate in community service. UtsavSeva (Festivals of Seva) is community service which augments the spirit of Hindu festivals through seva events organized during this time and connecting them with the cultural heritage. HASC's theme for April is BhaktiSeva which celebrates service to all. Details of "How to" of the seva are explained in this YouTube video.