Rāma's Journey - the Avatāra in You

A dive into the ādhyātmika Rāmāyaṇa to detail a primal fractal in the maṇḍala.

Rāma's Journey - the Avatāra in You

In the previous Fractal Maṇḍala essay, we explored the idea of the ratha (chariot) as a flowering seed in the Dhārmika worldview. This worldview has at its core the Mind, or Consciousness. The affixation of -man to √bṛh and √at to make brahman and ātman respectively may be an uncanny phonetic coincidence, but brahman and ātman mean the ‘expansion of Mind’ and ‘descent of Mind’ just the same.

It is Mind that expands and pervades the universe, which we call brahmāṇḍa for this reason. And it is this pervading Mind that descends into matter, where it creates the experience of You. Self awareness. Consciousness.1

Mind therefore is the primal fractal of the maṇḍala. It is both where all things spring from and where all things are drawn into. It is what stares into the mirror, and also the mirror that reflects its own image. The ouroboros snake that eats its own tail. A multi-level coherence that led ṛṣi Pāṇini to equate √cit (or consciousness) with saṃjñā(or concordance). The pūrṇa and the śūnya. From one comes the other, but which from which…

The emergence of this worldview can be traced in identifiable markers of wordly timeline. We find in the Ṛgveda (RV) the notion of Indra, at the ādhyātmika level a metaphor for the yoking of senses, the control of Self- the triumphant God of the Ratha (physical body) who defeats Vṛtra- the Dragon of Doubt and Deviancy in our Minds. His is the Hero’s Journey that Ṛgvedic contemporaries like Divodāsa and his descendant Sudās seek to emulate, which is why their seemingly historical events are considered by some to be entirely yogika2 accounts.

Some time after this period arrive on the scene the Kuru-Bhāratas, and among them the Pāṇḍava Arjuna is the archetypal ‘Hero.’ Suitably, he is commemorated as a ‘son of Indra,’ and in this we see a milestone of emergence. To Arjuna’s predecessors it was Indra who was the Hero, and in the Mahābhārata the role is played by a metaphorical ‘Indraputra.’ At the same time the Hero becomes internal- Sudās’ daivika ideal is now Pārtha’s internal compass. And there is someone ‘alongside-in-the-chariot,’ a sā-rathī. The avatāra of Kṛṣṇa. We can discern here a fundamental shift between two states.

  1. The Ṛgvedic hero is inspired to higher triumphs by his Hero – Indra.
  2. The Mahābhārata’s figure is Hero himself, but surrendered to Viṣṇu.
What happened in between3?

Rāma. The Avātāra in You

Rāma – ram kartari ghañ ṇa vā (रम् कर्तरि घञ् ण वा), which is to say that the word ‘rāma’ derives from the root √ram meaning playing, sporting, delighting, or as Pāṇini put it- krīḍāyām. In yet another display of Dharma’s multi-level coherence, the meaning of one avatāra’s name is but what the consequent avatāra (Kṛṣṇa) is celebrated for- one who plays, sports, delights. Who brings pleasure and rejoices.

Our general inclination is to deify the avatāras such that they are exalted beyond laukika reach, much like an Abrahamic god- to be prayed to and kept separate from worldly considerations. But this belies the meaning of the term ‘avataraṇa,’ which is ‘to descend’ or ‘come down.’ Descend or come down where? Into the laukika realm, of course- where play out all of ṛta’s motions and rhythms. Where exist you and I- the Mind bound in matter. Where existed Arjuna and Sudās, eons ago.

We may concede it to be a semantic matter- whether the avataraṇa or descent happened into the personage of a ‘real’ human being named Rāma, or whether the notion is entirely transcendent and cannot be shaped into mortal articulation. But a descent happened nonetheless, and this particular descent was memorialized for eternity by our civilization. As a descent of Viṣṇu, the Supreme Being and Sustainer of Ṛta, it is certainly to be exalted and deified. But from the Vedāntika vantage it is also the descent of Brahman into Ātman, and the two are but the same. The avatāra of Rāma is thus also an avataraṇa into You. It is the core Vedic archetype playing itself out all over again, the same fractal at a different level. This forms the premise for an ādhyātmika interpretation of the Rāmāyaṇa.

The Ādhyātmika View

An unfortunate consequence of historical trajectory has been the atrophying of our civilizational mind-map against the expanse of the Anglicized and Judeo-Christian worldview. This is why while our ancestors conceived of a variety that included Bhagavān, Devatā, Īśvara to name a few, we equate all of them today to the singular ‘god.’ Similarly is soul/spirit equated to ‘ātmā,’ and spiritual to ādhyātmika. These may well be convenient placeholders for general discourse, but we must not forget the nuances that create a difference between our civilizational paradigm and the one prevalent today.

Adhyātma – adhi kṛt ātma – ‘the self placed in front’. Beyond just ‘spiritual,’ which implies no real agency per se, ‘ādhyātmika’ is to be understood as the taking of initiative, an adoption of the position of one’s own purohita- conductor of the yajña. An ādhyātmika approach is one where we take conscious control of our mind and actions, thus placing the self in lead. It is this approach under which Sri Aurobindo revealed a whole new model of the Ṛgveda to us, which turned hitherto obscure and out of reach mantras into a manual for personal psychology that can very tangibly elevate our consciousness, if but we take the conscious decision to pursue the route. And it is not an exclusive or supreme paradigm, it is but one among many that can be used to approach the ancient texts (others being adhibhautika and adhidaivika).

Using the ādhyātmika lens to approach our epics is what makes Arjuna the Hero archetype- his doubts and journey a metaphor for the doubts and travails that plague us all. And similarly does it render Rāma a metaphor for You. The avataraṇa of Brahman into the Ātman. It is Sudas’ endeavor realized, if we interpret his account in the RV as an account of yogika initiation. An interpretation that appears quite plausible when we consider that Sudās’ purohita is of the same lineage as Sūryavaṃśi purohitas- Vasiṣṭha.

In the laukika model there is much that lines up conveniently here. Bharata purohitas prior to Sudās have traditionally been Āṅgirasas, and we find evidence in the RV of Agastya Maitrāvaruṇi introducing his sibling Vasiṣṭha to Sudās. When considered in the light of other Paurāṇika synchronisms that seem to discomfort a “traditionalist” reading of the Vedas (which makes them entirely ahistorical), we know this to be not long after the era of Rāma, during which the Vasiṣṭhas of Kośala encounter the Agastyas beyond the Vindhyas.

In other words, the “ādhyātmika” or “yogika” initiation that Vasiṣṭha Maitravaruṇi conducts for Sudās is likely inherited from practices then prevalent in the Gangetic belt. And there is nothing controversial really in such a suggestion. Dharma is sanātana, but human activities follow temporally across the worldly realm and cannot be removed from laukika realities. What we call Dharma/Hinduism today is the gradual but sure synthesis of many subcontinental practices under a unifying umbrella and imperative. That umbrella is of the Brahman and Ātman, and the imperative is of transcending the limitations of the latter to (re)unify with the former. In the ādhyātmika model then, Rāma’ story is a manual for personal transcendence.

Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa

This interpretation of the tale comes to us, not surprisingly, from the same tradition where the Veda, Mahābhārata and Purāṇas spring from – Veda Vyāsa. It is found embedded in the Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇa and constitutes more than 1/3rd of the text. Here Rāma is represented as Brahman, and his tale is elevated to an instruction for us to view our own lives as the ātma’s Vedāntika journey back to the Brahman. As is to be expected of multi-level coherence, the model holds for each fractal in the maṇḍala. With the ‘avatarita Rāma,’ which is the Brahman descended into the Ātman, ‘Rāma’s Ayaṇa’ is the Ātman’s Journey. And in this journey the Ātman is taken from ignorance to light, from tamas to jyoti, by vanquishing the Asura within.

What is the Asura within? Ego, or ahaṃkāra – which is but the flaw we find in Rāvaṇa, otherwise a devout Śiva bhakta. Rāvaṇa’s arrogance is in this model a metaphor for the ego within us, which leads the Ātman not towards light but towards ignorance – further away from Brahman. And in this journey Rāma (or the Ātman) is accompanied by Sītā- the Mind, or Manas. It is the Mind that one must reclaim from arrogance and ego, in order to climb higher in the journey towards Brahman.

Where does the Mind come from? How does it originate? Such queries, fascinating as they appear to the curious intellect, are ultimately distractions along the journey. Sītā is found by Janaka upon the field, and there is no further explanation. The Adhi Kṛt Ātma must remain focussed on the objective, not on lesser curiosities. As long as the Mind and the Self are of one gaze, as long as they are in-step, there is no problem. It is when the Self turns away from the Mind, or when the latter is distracted – say by a golden deer – that troubles can begin.

And so the Self must be in constant application – or tapas. It is tapas that ensures the Self remains true to its mission, even when the Mind is in wrest of ego. This is but the vision of Lakṣmaṇa, the indispensable brother of Rāma without whom the tale is not complete. It is tapas that can reunite Ātman with Manas, or Rāma with Sītā. And immediately springs to our minds another name, does it not? As it should, for tapas alone is not sufficient. The Self in true application needs śakti – Hanumān, the son of Vāyu or Prāṇa – that which powers all life.

Infact, another definition of Ātman stems from the derivation ātm + an, or ‘one who breathes on his own.’ In the Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa, or ‘The Conscious Self’s Journey,’ Hanumān is the śakti that powers the forward movement of the Self-in-Application (Rāma + Lakṣmaṇa).

One may conduct such interpretation for any character in the Rāmāyaṇa, but the point is well made by the above names already. And it shows to us how Dharma is a civilizational consciousness with multi-level coherence. We conceive of it as a fractal maṇḍala because approach it from any angle and you are brought to the same core truths, the same core imperatives. No matter where we land in the Dhārmika schema, we find the same design principles operating. In this case the principle is of the Ātman seeking reunification with the Brahman, by moving from ignorance to knowledge, from darkness to light. A design principle expressed in a mahāvākya-

Asato mā sadgamaya, tamaso mā jyotirgamaya.

We see then why Rāma’s celebration is a celebration of Light. For Light in the Vedāntika model is a metaphor for consciousness. As light on its own is nirguṇa, without form, but takes the shape and form of whatever it falls on, thus is consciousness on its own nirguṇa, or Brahman. It takes the shape and form of whatever it descends into, which is but you- the Ātman. The avataraṇa, or descent, of the Mind that Expands into the Mind that is Bound.

We celebrate the return of Rāma with a Festival of Lights, for if his journey- Rāma’s Ayaṇa- is recreated within us, it generates within us the Supreme Light. His journey within us is the journey from untruth to truth. From Darkness to Light. It is the rising of Agni from earth to sky, the ultimate union, or Yoga. It is what the Veda is a secret into.


  1. By Pāṇini’s rules of grammar, brahman = √bṛh + manin and ātman = √at + maniṇ, where √bṛh and √at are dhātus, and manin/maniṇ is an affix (pratyaya). √bṛh is often replaced by √bṛṃh to mean still the same- grow, increase, outpour; and √at means continual, pervading, binding. In other words brahman is an outpouring, while ātman is continual outpouring bound. It is no surprise that some of our greatest grammarians were also perceptive Vedāntika ṛṣis.
  2. At the laukika level of Ṛgvedic interpretation for example, the dāśarājña mantras (Battle of Ten Kings) are a quasi-historical account of Sudās’ campaigns against enemy tribes. In the ādhyātmika interpretation of the same account, it is all part of purohita Vasiṣṭha Maitrāvaruṇi’s initiation of Sudās into the yogika practice.
  3. Dharma is sanātana, but civilizational emergence occurs along a historical and material trajectory. The temporal speculations made in this essay are not to be understood as hard claims on dating or chronology. Nor is speaking of Sudās and his purohita akin to saying that the knowledge contained in Veda is not apauruṣeya or anādi. It still takes a seer to “see,” and the seeing is done in this realm- the laukika. And while we need not insist/seek “historically plausible” explanations for an exegesis on Dharma, we inevitably must cover such terrain when the matter is of civilizational emergence. Whether in 6000BC, 3000BC or 9000BC- our ancestors deserve more than an implacable obstinacy that removes them from time and history.