Friday, November 26, 2010

Rama's Killing of Vaali

Ramayana is a work of fiction and I have no problem with people who admire it as a piece of literature. But I do have a problem with people who flaunt it as some sort of moral authority when all it has is primitive ethics.

Take the killing of Vaali for example. Here was this guy who was fighting Sugreeva in a fair manner, a.k.a face to face and Rama shoots him in the back and kills him.

Now hindu apologists will say that Vaali is an animal and Rama is a kshatriya and according to dharma, kshatriyas have the right to kill an animal in whatever manner they think is necessary. That may well have been how morals worked in time of Rama. But we no longer live in that primitive age. Moral philosophy has evolved a lot in the intervening years with the help of science.

Respecting Life

Today we know that humans are not that different than animals. Life on Earth is beautifully interconnected in a way that the authors of Ramayana couldn’t even have dreamt of. They didn’t know about how microbes shape life. While they were chasing an imaginary entity called Brahman, they were blissfully unaware of the omnipresent bacteria. Bacteria are also omnipotent in the sense that they are capable of living off of a variety of energy sources. In fact plants can digest sunlight and animals can digest food because they entered into a symbiotic relationship with bacteria a few billion years ago.

And then there are the viruses. They have managed to embed themselves quite extensively in our genome and some of the traits we posses were given to us by viruses.

There are still a lot of things we don’t understand about life like why there is sentience and consciousness. But we do know that consciousness isn’t the sole privilege of humans. Our cousins from the hominid family - chimps, gorillas and orangutans are self aware and are also quite intelligent. So are elephants, dolphins and some birds.

When to comes to ethics, the question we have to ask is, where do we draw the line between killing a life form and letting it live? Traditionally speaking, the answer is easy. The line is between humans and non-humans as humans obviously are special in that we are intelligent and and animals are stupid. Scriptural moralities like the ones based on Ramayana are based on such arguments.

To be human is to recognize humanity in whatever form it exists. Many animals share the same characteristics as we do. They feel love and pain. They know about sacrifice. They care for each other. Science has taught us that much. So in order to call ourselves human and civilized, it is just not enough that we apply our morals to humans, but also to animals who are capable of displaying some human characteristics.

Dharma of the Ramayana fails in this respect. It does not understand life on Earth. But this transgression is minor when compared to the case where a human like intelligence is involved.

Respecting Intelligence

Today, when the hope of creating artificial intelligence in the future is very much alive, we understand the importance of intelligence well. It is the main aspect that separates us from other animals. So if we find another life form that is just as intelligent as us, feels the same emotions, it is only logical that we extend our morality to it.

The vanaras of the Ramayana satisfy that requirement. They were intelligent and most importantly they were able to use language, a distinctly human feature. In real life if such an intelligence exists, it will be the biggest thing since... well... anything. And yet Ramayana thinks just because vanaras were like monkeys, humans are justified in killing them. It fails to recognize intelligence and glosses over it.

This line of reasoning will seem stupid, given that Ramayana is work of fiction and it was written a long time ago. But if people are hell bent on using it as a moral guide in today’s world, it is only fair that it be judged against current moral standards. According to those standards, the killing of Vaali can be described as thus:
Rama knew full well that vanaras were intelligent and conscious beings like us. Yet he killed Vaali like a coward and justified it by calling Vaali an animal, someone who is inferior to humans. Rama also practised what could be called a form of racism. He discriminated against vanaras, just because they looked different than humans.
It is sad that millions of people consider a morally primitive book like the Ramayana as a definitive guide on morality.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rama also practised what could be called a form of racism. He discriminated against vanaras, just because they looked different than humans
wen he considers them to not even be humans, where does the question of racism arise?

Lije said...

@Anonymous

I did not categorically say "racism". I said "what could be called a form of racism". But if you want to split semantic hairs, perhaps we could start at what differentiates humans from other animals.

Anonymous said...

my dear fellow, its not just splitting hairs...the implication is that, by that logic, it would just suffice to say that the whole of ramayana justifies "a form of racism"
where wud be the need for such a long argument..

it only helps to be accurate...

Lije said...

I also said this:

But if people are hell bent on using it as a moral guide in today’s world, it is only fair that it be judged against current moral standards.

So I made my racism statement in that context. Because according to current moral standards that I subscribe to, if there exists a life form that is intelligent and capable of language, I would treat them like I would a fellow human.

Anonymous said...

Lije,

You gave facts only 50%. Raama killed Vaali but you didn't tell WHY?

You went on immediately explaining respect life and all sorts of things.

Wait buddy, until somebody explains facts to you.

Well AHIMSA and HIMSA for DHARMA is an old debate. Let me give scenarios. If you follow AHIMSA completely, won't you kill somebody who comes to end your life or kills ur family or your country. Now think broadly won't you condemn terrorism, no matter which part of world it is happening. And are you with rich and powerful countries who take lead in crusading another country when they find sort of terrorism is going on even while other countries won't agree. If AHIMSA is best virtue we don't need military. And HIMSA for DHARMA is okay then those rich and powerful countries are doing the right thing. BTW Are you vegetarian?

So here is the answer. Same was asked to Swami Vivekananda and he said, for those who renounced world should follow AHIMSA, and those who have not, should do all things to protect their families and country. He did not say that to become rich you go on crusade another country. Well I accepted his thoughts as they are based on situation you are in and not just idealism.

Vaali was Monkey King. He did tapasya to praise Lord Brahma and got boon that those who will fight with him face to face will loose the battle. Sugriva was Vaali's younger brother. One fine day, when Vaali went on to chase a Rakshasa in cave and did not return for long. Sugriva was waiting outside and became frightened. He thought his brother got killed and he put large stone at entry of the cave and returned to kingdom. Later it proved that this was his misunderstanding. He vowed as a new King of Monkey kingdom. Few days after, Vaali removing the stone returned back just to find his beloved brother became King. But he became angry, thought that it was his brother's plot and he drove Sugriva outside of his kingdom. Sugriva tried to explain but failed. Vaali didn't stop and did something which is taboo. He forcefully married to Sugriva's wife. Sugriva could not fight because Vaali got a boon. So finally as he became ADHARMI, Raama helped Sugriva to kill Vaali. He followed path of Adharma to kill Adharmi.

So it depends on what your thinking is, and your experiences in life. But at least tell all facts to world when you write something.

-Ram

Lije said...

@Ram,

I was talking about the argument people use to justify Rama's killing of Vaali - that a kshatriya is justified in killing an animal even when the animal is sentient like us humans. My point was to judge that moral according to today's moral standards.

I understand your rabid need to defend your beloved dharma where a single person can decide the law and capital punishment is justified, but I was talking only about a very specific point. I wasn't commenting on the dharmic views on himsa/ahimsa vis-a-vis present day moral and ethical systems nor was I advocating absolute absolute pacifism nor I was talking about "facts" of what really happened in Ramayana.

You seem to be quite articulate at formulating straw man arguments.

Anonymous said...

@Ram: I perfectly agree with you. If Vaali was a good man, Rama would have stood in front of him and fought with him. But he was a bad guy, and needed to be killed, that was why Rama used that strategy of fighting. It is no use being brave and strong unless you are smart enough to use your virtues.

@Lije: You are too narrow minded to see what is what and what is not. I pity you. If you think humans did not respect animals in those times, how do you think we ended up with so many Gods who have animal forms ??
I know what you described as being unkind to animals. These ethical attitudes are always changing. Ramayana is during the period of living by hunting. Not agriculture. Man is the only ape who eats by hunting unlike other apes.

Lije said...

@Anonymous,

Can you pray tell me which India you live in? The one I live in has a bit of logical contradiction. Women are worshiped as goddesses but at the same time are treated like shit. Your India seems to go by the logic, if they are worshiped, they must be respected. Can you tell me where your India is? Pretty please?

Also in my world other apes hunt meat. Your alternate reality must be high on something.

Anonymous said...

While this may be a bit on a tangent, I'm curious.

"There are still a lot of things we don’t understand about life like why there is sentience and consciousness."

But do we not know that consciousness evolved as an evolutionary strategy to better understand other's feelings and thoughts, since the best way to do that is by studying one's own mind - looking inwards and being aware of oneself. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Lije said...

@Anonymous,

Yes, you are right in that we know that consciousness is a product of evolution or more broadly it has a naturalistic origin. What I meant to say was that we do not fully understand the underlying mechanisms.

And yes looking inward is the only way to understand the mind, but with the caveat that the tool used to "look" should be science, not the sort of "i'll-just-sit-and-reason-out" techniques used by religion/spirituality.

Rohit O.'s blog... said...

hey dude. I just want to ask you one thing Lije, what point do you want to make in this article?? That it was wrong that Ram killed Vali?
or how is it good??

And where the point of animal and human being came here??

Now if you want to compare Khratriya in today's life it would be Army or military etc and animals are still animals. So if any animal is doing wrong thing like attacking humans or anything which isn't good then they (army, police etc) can kill that animal. So where comes the point of life and intelligence?

The reason why Ram killed Vali is given in above comment by someone.
And I know that women are not treated better but nowadays the equation is changing.

Lije said...

Rohit,

The point of the article is stated in the very first paragraph of it.

You also missed point about killing an animal without sapience and killing one with sapience. Humans are sapient animals. So will be vanaras if they were real.

Vaali wasn't attacking anyone. He was fighting a fair fight. Rama wouldn't dare kill Vaali from the back if Vaali was human. Since the primitive ethics of dharma fail to recognize sapience, such acts can be justified.

Rohit O.'s blog... said...

Ya, I got your point.
No, as a hindu I will not justify this killing as kshatriya are superior and they have right to kill animals. But there was no option other than killing him from back. Because Vali had the power that if anyone fights against him will lose his half of power and Vali will get that power.
And as you have said Vali was animal, Sugriva was also animal and Ram was fighting for him.
Did you get my point now??

Lije said...

This article addresses the justification that a kshatriya is entitled to kill an animal. If you add in Vaali's power, it becomes an entirely different issue, but it still demonstrates the primitive nature of dharma.

Two cases:

i) Rama was being opportunistic. He needed Sugreeva, so he helped him. or

ii) if he wasn't being opportunistic, he took it upon himself to be the sole judge of whether Vaali should live or not. Current ethical systems use courts to decide such matters. Also in some societies, capital punishment is frowned upon.

Either way, Ramayana is not a book which is relevant to present day ethics.

Rohit O.'s blog... said...

see, do you know the whole story??
Sugriv tried to talk to Vali but he did not listen to him.
It is not the case that he directly attacked Vali.
One more thing, you said courts.
What will be the judgement of court if a person is not ready to listen the judgment?? What if the judge is wrong? At that point Vali was king so what else was the option with Vali. And is Americas decision correct to kill laden because he plot 9/11 attack?? Answer is yes because it was wrong. So Vali, marrying Sugriva's wife was wrong.

And I never heard from anyone that it was justified (Ram killing Vali) because he was kshatirya and Vali was animal and kshatriya had right to kill animals.

Lije said...

I've linked to why capital punishment is frowned upon. Looks like you haven't read it. Nor are you familiar with moral underpinnings of current day justice systems (you can learn some it of it here).

Also, if you hadn't heard of something doesn't mean it hasn't been said. Looks like it is you who don't know the whole story.

Rohit O.'s blog... said...

I read some more things on the internet about this topic and ya it was justified to kill animals by kshatriya because it was kind of hunting.
Then you say that he was not like normal animal and he is intelligent like human. Yes, you are right.
So, I read this,
"Vali was not a normal animal. He was different and he also had dharma, in which it was not allowed to take someones wife forcefully. Doing this act means it is act of animals i.e. normal animals and not the what you say intelligent animals. It was adharma.
So it was justified."

I read it, I'm just putting it in my own words.

Rohit O.'s blog... said...

And it is in your given link
that Rama said to Vali
"Realize this reason by which I have eliminated you… you misbehaved with your brother's wife, forsaking the perpetual tradition."

Rohit O.'s blog... said...

http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:Qio_Wdu9Vi4J:gyanasampat.in/prameya-ratna/10-prameya-ratna-no-1+rama+killing+vali+ramayana+meaning&cd=4&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=in&lr=lang_en%7Clang_hi

This is also a good link on this topic. Do read it completely. And I have a advice for you, "Don't try to prove everyone wrong who is writing against your views on any topic." I saw that you are doing it on every post you have written.

Lije said...

Rohit,

You still don't get the point. Forget Vaali. Rama (or any king) could have killed any vanara as primitive dharma does not recognize sapience. And that was my point. Now if you want to add in extra justifications for killing Vaali, fine. I linked to some resources which say why those justifications too are primitive moral reasoning. For me it is quite clear that you know nothing about moral philosophy outside of what an average Hindu knows (like I was a few years ago). Watch all the Justice series lectures to see what I mean.

Also, that advice of yours is silly given your ignorance of the topics at hand. Religious apologists have a tough time when their cherished beliefs are questioned. It is natural that such questioning elicits gratuitous, but unneeded advice of your kind.

Rohit O.'s blog... said...

I will watch those lecture series when i will get time. And I will try to get your point.

See, the topics which you wrote in other posts like related to Astrology and all I totally agree with you.


Anyway, I don't want to argue anymore right now. Will you do one thing?? I'm just asking you to do it because I think your writing is quite good and you do a lot of research on the topic. Will you also write some good points which are given in Vedas and other books and in our Culture so that people will not think that Vedas are totally wrong??

Anyway this is the blog on which I have spend most time in my life than any other blog. :-)

Lije said...

I try not to give the impression that everything about the Vedas is wrong. I qualify what I'm criticizing. An example is, "The Garbha Upanishad has some valid observations about the human body. I’m not contesting that. What I’m interested in is the things it gets wrong." Also it depends on what you mean by "good". I see very little of the Vedas that is relevant to today's world as they've been superseded by better stuff. I see them as relevant only in a historical context (like here).

Rohit O.'s blog... said...

Ok. Thanks for replying. :)

Milind R said...

Good lord, do people actually want to use mythological justice systems today? I haven't seen any, and hope not to.

This is more indicative of the kind of hard decisions one may have to take in one's life.

I think the Mahabharatha has greater moral/judicial content. Maybe its a better sample?