Ramayana is a quintessential epic of India, filled with yogic philosophical ideas, such as maya, the trimurthi, and some principles of the Yamas and Niyamas. The story is filled with family drama, symbolism of masculine and feminine forces of nature, and the battle within between good intentions and devious desires. Interestingly, there is a chapter on a Golden Stag. Here I will discuss the symbolism of the story in light of the mainstream Western yoga practice.
Sita, wife of Rama (protagonist), is considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the land. Not wanting another man to have the privilege of Sita’s companionship and to the avenge the disfigurement of his own wife Ravana, Raksha (demon, primary antagonist) King of Lanka commands that Mareecha (also demon and antagonist) lure Rama and Lakshmana away from their abode to enable the kidnap of Sita. Mareecha is successful in the effort of kidnapping Sita by turning himself into a golden stag. My thesis is regarding the symbolic attraction for the golden stag and its corollary in the modern day yoga practice in the West.
Tapas and Aparigraha, self-discipline and non-possessiveness, are a couple of foundational principles of yoga, and while Sita is the avatar of Lakshmi (Vishnu’s wife), her purpose in incarnation as mortal wife of Rama is to teach humans lessons that serve as the cornerstones along the paths of the eight limbs of yoga. The act of Sita being drawn to the golden stag followed by Rama and Lakshmana chasing the deer to please Sita serves as singular pivotal point in the Ramayana which leads to the understanding of the battle between good and evil between Rama and Raksha. The act of succumbing to the need of gratification gives rise to the internal struggle of good and evil.
Of the vast majority of humans, a small percentage is drawn to yoga. Many are drawn for the purpose of finding deeper meaning and liberation from the struggles of modern day life–a subtle calling of the Yamas.
For Rama, this included a subtle deviation from the path of fortune in crown and kingdom mixed with the curses of exile from a jealous step-mother. The modesty of exile leads to the start of Yamas and Niyamas – purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study and surrender. But along comes the golden deer!
The stag is a reminder of the glamour left behind in the palace of Ajodhya; a shortcut into the limelight, a break in the 14 years of sadhana through the trails of a forest. Sita is captivated by the glitter of the deer’s appearance and implores Rama to acquire it for her. Rama and Sita are well-aware of mystical characters that can deviate them from their “path” but they choose not to peel back the layers to find what’s underneath the golden skin, the monster that is the jealousy and revenge of Mareecha, and therein lies the message of the book.
In the realm of yoga in the West, some practitioners, who become good teachers, can get distracted from their path by the glamour and celebrity profile that the Western world of yoga promises. This comes in the form of cover-shots on Yoga Journal, center-stage at yoga festivals, and posters at Lululemon.
And, if for some reason that golden throne of limelight seems unattainable, one chases the golden deer of big-names and yoga personalities who claim to invent yoga or at least promise a slice of that which resembles Ajodhya if you follow them: the promise of nirvana without going through the arduous “14 years” of practicing eight limbs, but through a heightened experience in a single Power Vinyasa class is so much more appealing to the Western audience.
Worship and following of yoga personalities such as so many other self-named “gurus” provide a version and vision of nirvana that takes students away from the discipline of the mind. Why give up modern life with all its comforts and layers of clothing to sit and meditate in a secluded cave, when a golden layer of Lululemon can put you back on limelight?
A shortcut to spiritual success! Hence Power Vinyasa classes are more in demand than meditation classes. Big name operations are more populated than smaller boutique studios which offer richer, more in-depth classes, and 60-minute classes are more popular than 90-minute classes.
This demand indicates that the average practitioner is captivated by the potential of mastering the postures and the ideal yoga physique without understanding or investing too many resources into the basis of the practice.
What the Ramayana has to teach to the yoga teachers and practitioners of the modern world is to peel the layer of gold that presents itself as shortcut to mastering of yoga, and find the kleshas and their causes that lie hidden. Liberation from struggle does not lie between the covers of magazines, under the tents of festivals, nor are they sponsored by competitions of beauty and promises of good life. Moksha lies in the arduous yet blissfully necessary journey of remaining modest through mastery of the basics.