The Ramayana is one of the two great epics of Hinduism. It consists of 24,000 verses in seven books and 500 chants, and tells the story of Rama, who is considered an Avatar or Incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu.
Thematically, the Ramayana explores human values and the concept of Dharma.
In the Kingdom of Ayodhya, King Dashratha had three wives: Kaushalya, who gave him his first son Rama; Kaikeyi, who gave him his second son Bharata; and Sumitra, who gave him his twin sons Lakshmana and Shatrugna.
These boys all married the daughters of King Janaka of Mithila.
In his youth, King Dashratha had been asked by the gods for help to fight the demons in an ongoing war between them. During a battle Dashratha was seriously wounded and Kaikeyi, been his charioteer, pulled him out of the battlefield and cured him, thus saving his life. As a token of gratitude Dashratha granted her two boons. There was nothing she wished for at that moment, but she accepted to take them some other time. Dashratha gave his solemn promise to satisfy her two wishes at any time of her choosing.
When Rama had been married to princess Sita for twelve years, King Dashratha considered retiring from the duties of kingship and taking renunciation so as to seek Enlightenment. He assembled the court and announced that Rama was to be crown King and rule after him.
Upon hearing this Kaykeyi's old maiden-servant Manthara was terribly upset, as she always kept a grudge over everybody loving Rama more than her queen's son Bharata.
Manthara poisoned Kaikeyi's mind with lies and suspicions of intrigues and schemes. She got her to believe that Rama and Kaushalya were conspiring against her and would relegate her to a position of a servant. Thus she proposed that Kaikeyi took her two boons: That Bharata be crowned King and that Rama be exiled to the jungle for fourteen years. And that, Kaikeyi did.
The heartbroken King Dashratha had no option but to yield, as he was bound by his word and the tradition of Dharma of his Raghu clan.
Rama took this very lightly. He didn't think it was such a big deal and was rather surprised by all the fuss.
His wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana followed him to his jungle exile.
King Dashratha died of sorrow in a few days.
Meanwhile Bharata and Shatrugna were visiting their uncle and were not aware of what was going on in Ayodhya.
Upon returning and learning of the tragic events, Bharata was desolated. He blamed his mother of killing his father the King, of cursing him as a traitor to his brother Rama, of risking the integrity of the kingdom, of undermining the welfare of the people and worst of all, she had separated him from his beloved brother Rama for fourteen year, which was worse than death to him.
Kaikeyi repented and cried rivers of tears, but it was of no avail; Bharata hated her now and forever.
Bharata talked to Sage Vashistha and gathered the assembly and proposed that everybody; queens, ministers, lords, generals, the whole army and all the citizens, go to the jungle with him; crown Rama king right there and then; and bring him back to Ayodhya. And that, they did.
But Rama would not have any of that. His father wished it that way and he was not about to betray his father and dishonour him, only because he happened to be dead. Nothing doing. He would stay in the jungle fourteen years and Bharata was to be the king. Bharata insisted, pleaded and begged him in the name of love, but Rama wouldn't yield.
Sage Vashistha failed to find a solution, but then he was suddenly informed that King Janaka of Mithila had arrived.
King Janaka, having heard that so many people had gather in the jungle, went there to see his daughter Sita and find out what that was all about.
Sage Vashistha found this very auspicious and declared that King Janaka was the right person to take a decision on the matter, since he became the head of both families, King Dashratha being dead and all.
King Janaka was informed and here is what followed:
King Janaka -
"... if Bharata is the ultimate limit of love, then Rama is the final definition of righteousness. Wars have been fought and will be fought for kingdoms, but this unique battle between love and sacrifice symbolizes the greatness of mankind. Even the gods must behold it in wonder.
In the assembly tomorrow it is to be seen how Lord Shiva reconciles duty and love, and shows the way for the welfare of all."
The next day the assembly meets, everybody being present:
Sage Vashistha -
"King Janaka, as you have already been informed, the house of Ayodhya is caught in a moral dilemma. In every way your arrival is auspicious augury. It fills us with courage that your sagacity will show us the way.
Rama's rectitude weighs against Bharata's love. Who will win this battle?
You are the honorable elder of both families now. That is why we have unanimously decided that all shall obey whatever be your decision.”
“My Lord, you alone are like our father now. You are a true master of Dharma. That is why I believe that you will protect my Dharma. As your servant I will fulfill any command of yours."
"Oh honoured father, my sole faith is in you now, that as a father you will protect me from wrongdoing. You are a king and also a seer. So you will impartially know the truth of my love and do me justice.
I have brought all that is needed for Rama's coronation. If justice is on my side, brother Rama must be crowned king in the presence of all here. With this hope I surrender myself to your decision."
King Janaka -
"Lord Rama, Lord Bharata, who is greater among you two even Brahma Himself can not decide. As it is, I am merely a mortal. In one side is the apotheosis of Dharma. On the other is the ultimate embodiment of love. When such great souls contend, to dare judge them is an impossible task.
But under the circumstances, I regard it my duty. I bow to Lord Shiva for guidance. May He inspire me to do what is right."
King Janaka sinks deep in meditation and prayer for some time. And then proceeds:
King Janaka -
"Rama, your resolute adherence to Dharma is such that even the gods must bow before you. Dharma is the greatest force that keeps the world stable.
Scriptures say: "Nothing greater than Dharma exists in the three worlds. We are all bound by it."
But love is the only divine ethic that no Dharma can subdue or be under its compulsion. Love steadfast, unselfish love is above all Dharma. When that love reaches its pinnacle in the form of true devotion, then God Himself must need break his own laws. Breaking all rules of creation He stands hands folded before His devotee. He is bound to protect His devotee's honour. That is why the scale tilts heavily in Bharata's favour.
Rama, Bharata's love is steadfast and selfless. His devotion to you is peerless."
Then turning to Bharata:
"Bharata, your love wins.
But remember, love has its own laws to abide by. It makes its own rules. Love's true power lies in it being selfless. And when love is selfless, it asks for nothing and only wants to give to the beloved. For the loved one's happiness and pleasure, he wants to give everything.
And so, you must now decide what you can give your Rama."
"Nothing is greater than life, Sire. I can give my life for Rama."
King Janaka -
"It is easy to die. But it is often hard to live for your loved one. If you are a true devotee, sit at Shri Rama's feet and ask him what would please him. And perform as an act of worship whatever be his wish."
"Sire, you have lifted the veil of selfishness from my eyes. Tills now I only thought of my love and glory; and thought that was love. Even then you made me win and granted me true devotion. I am eternally indebted to you for this kindness."
Kneeling in front of Rama:
"Brother, command me to perform your will."
Taking Bharata gently up on his feet:
"A victor does not sit on the ground.
My brother, your love has vanquished me today. I accept the kingdom you have come to give me, but so as not to break father's vow, I pray to you; administer the kingdom in my place for fourteen years. And I will reclaim the throne when I return."
"You are so detached, brother. You did not ask for anything in return for your love."
"Real love does not hope for anything in return."