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The very imperfect Rama - Celebrating Ram Navami

Rama was the seventh manifestation of Vishnu.  On Ram Navami, the birth of Rama is celebrated, and it is a time to reflect on the story of the Ramayana - the story of Rama's life.

One element of his life which is striking is his self-restraint.  Though a recurring theme, Rama repeatedly restrains himself from exercising his strength, or even defending himself, his family or his interests - when it is the duty of another to accomplish this defense.  This is echoed in how the characters about him also restrain themselves from performing the duty of another: notably, Hanuman does not rescue Sita, Rama's wife, (though Hanuman had desire, opportunity and ability to do so), Bharata refuses to rule in place of Rama during Rama's exile (to the extent of preferring installing Rama's shoes as King, rather than sit on the throne himself), Dasharatha fulfills the duty of his promise even when it is contrary to good sense to do so.  Rama tests his wife's loyalty by fire, not for any good reason, but because it is his duty to do so.

By perfectly accomplishing duty, many "wrong" things are done, resulting in numerous distresses which were avoidable. Self-restraint is by such examples, demonstrated to be a fault if taken in excess.  By so many examples, the question of when to restrain one's self from self-restraint is raised.

The answer does not lie in the Ramayana, but, when the Ramayana is taken as part of a larger story of Vishnu's several manifestations, the question's answer becomes apparent.  Vishnu subsequently manifested as Krishna.  That story, contained in the Mahabharata, echoes the several themes of the Ramayana to explore the several consequences of action, and discover that it is the intentions, means and methods by which duty is accomplished or not accomplished that matter most.  In the next subsequent manifestation, the implication of this expounded upon as Vishnu manifests the Buddha Gotama to teach the limits of duty can be discerned through reason - and logic.  By use of logic and reason, we may restore our world and our nature from the imperfections which define it so we might perform our duty perfectly.

The larger epic of Vishnu's many manifestations shows that, from beginning to end, Vishnu is playful, using play to discover and understand existence: Vishnu is unafraid to do something wrong to learn what is right, to interact with all aspects of reality to understand.  This method of learning and discovery can be contrasted with the explorations of Brahma, Shiva, Shakti, or the numerous other non-beings of non-existence, but ultimately is quite as effective as any other means of exploration.  A discovery is made of the friendship of Vishnu's "playmates," and insight made into our own role in this still uncomplete saga.

Through eight manifestations, Vishnu interacts, explores and understands, and what Vishnu discovers is eventually taught in a ninth manifestation (as the Buddha Gotama) - and acted upon by a tenth manifestation.  And though there are many reasons to find fault with Rama (even Rama finds reason to fault himself), by understanding that failure is necessary to discovering success, we may be more patient with Rama's failings - and our own.  Thus, we are encouraged to explore, discover and understand, and to play.