The Ideal King and Ideal Man:
As one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon, there are many puranas or stories in honour of his love to the universe. In one story, the earth was drowning in a huge flood, so to save it Vishnu took on the body of a giant turtle and lifted the earth on his back out of the waters.
A tale found in the Vedas describes a demon who could not be conquered. Responding to the pleas of the gods, Vishnu appeared before the demon as a dwarf. The demon, in a classic instance of pride, underestimated this dwarf and granted him as much of the world as he could tread in three steps. Vishnu then assumed his universal form and in three strides spanned the entire universe and beyond, crushing the demon in the process.
The incarnation of Vishnu known to almost everyone in India is his life as Ram (Rama in Sanskrit), a prince from the ancient north Indian kingdom of Ayodhya, in the cycle of stories known as the Ramayana (The Travels of Ram).
On one level, this is a classic adventure story, as Ram is exiled from the kingdom and has to wander in the forests of southern India with his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal younger brother Lakshman.
After many adventures, during which Ram befriends the king of the monkey kingdom and joins forces with the great monkey hero Hanuman, the demon king Ravana kidnaps Sita and takes her to his fortress on the island of Lanka (modern Sri Lanka).
A huge war then ensues, as Ram with his animal allies attacks the demons, destroys them all, and returns in triumph to North India to occupy his lawful throne. Village storytellers, street theater players, the movies, and the national television network all have their versions of this story.
In many parts of the country, but especially in North India, the annual festival of Dussehra celebrates Ram’s adventures and his final triumph and includes the public burning of huge effigies of Ravana at the end of several days of parties.
Everyone knows that Ram is really Vishnu, who came down to rid the earth of the demons and set up an ideal kingdom of righteousness–Ram Raj–which stands as an ideal in contemporary India.
Sita is in reality his consort, the goddess Lakshmi, the ideal of feminine beauty and devotion to her husband. Lakshmi, also known as Shri, eventually became the goddess of fortune, surplus, and happiness.
Hanuman, as the faithful sidekick with great physical and magical powers, is one of the most beloved images in the Hindu pantheon with temples of his own throughout the country.
Lord Rama is one of the most commonly adored gods of Hindus and is known as an ideal man and hero of the epic Ramayana.
He is always holding a bow and arrow indicating his readiness to destroy evils. He is also called “Shri Rama”. More commonly he is pictured in a family style, (Ram Parivar) with his wife Sita, brother Lakshman and devotee Hanuman who is sitting near Lord Rama’s feet.
From a comparatively minor incarnation whose task was to kill a demon king who held his wife captive, the story of Rama has entered deeply into Indian life as a deity, a subject for literature, and an example of moral excellence.
As one of the chief protagonists in Indian epic poetry he has passed into the mythology of countries other than India whose cultures have been influenced by it or its regional variations.
In spite of this, his iconography in Indian bronzes is almost entirely restricted to the form shown standing, with two arms one of which holds a how although in cases where the bow has been cast separately it is sometimes missing.
This weapon connects him with his brother, the sixth incarnation, through the incident in which the Shaivite Parashurama, annoyed by Rama breaking Shiva’s bow in a contest, attempted to punish him in a fight.
It is likely that the bow, which became Rama’s distinguishing attribute, also symbolized masculine virtues through the technique of its use needing a subtle application of strength. It is, however, rather for his qualities of fidelity, gentleness and steadfastness that he has become in Indian society endowed with the ideal qualities of manhood.
In the same way his wife Sita is regarded as the embodiment of all that is most admired in Indian womanhood, faithfulness and affectionate compliance. As each was the other’s only partner they are also looked upon as setting an example of constancy in marriage.
The ways in which these qualities were demonstrated by both Rama and Sita are described in the Mahabharata and, at greater length, in the Ramayana (‘The adventures of Rama’) both of which are too long to be summarized here, but are available in English translations.