Writ Divine

Rama And The Bow Of Shiva

Part of the series Ramayaṇa

L. Rhodes

An image:

In one swinging motion Rāma raises the bow,

bends the ends of infinity,

and cracks the waiting silence.

And again in prose:

While Rāma gazed at the immense and ancient bow, Lakshmaṇa, filled with excitement, pounded the ground with his foot and roared, "Earth be stable! Waters be stable! Directions be stable! Hold on to your breath, for Rāma will break the ends of infinity!"

He would have continued, to the amazement of all, except an amused glance from Rāma told him that was enough.

Rāma humbly bowed to the bow and then to Vishvāmitra. He said, "O revered one, with your permission I would like to life this bow and string it."

Vishvāmitra nodded. Powerful as an elephant, Rāma stepped close to the sacred weapon. Then in one fluid motion, Rāma lifted the bow and strung it, bending the ends together with such force that it broke in two with a clap of thunder.

The earth shook, and the people fell to the ground in terror. Only King Janaka, Vishvāmitra, Rāma, and Lakshmaṇa remained standing, calmly waiting in silence while the forces of nature churned around them. — The Ramayana: A New Retelling, Egenes and Reddy

An evocative phrase, "the ends of infinity," but elusive. I'm not sure precisely where it comes from. There's nothing like it in the online translations I've checked for comparison. Here, Egenes and Reddy have departed from Valmiki, drawing in elements (like Lakshmaṇa's fulmination) from Ramcharitmanas, a 16th century rendering of the poem into Hindi. It's possible "ends of infinity" packs in a theological gloss on the Hindi text. Lakshmaṇa refers to the bow of Sankara, a manifestation of Shiva. "Sankara" may imply some significance that it would be reasonable to render for non-Hindu readers with "ends of infinity" as a kind of shorthand.

Egenes and Reddy may also be extrapolating from the bow's significance as a cosmological object. Here, too, there are options:

  1. In the myth of Sati's death, Shiva (as Rudra) uses the boy to retaliate against Daksha, the deva whose insult drove her to self-immolation.
  2. In the Ramayaṇa itself (though Egenes and Reddy omit the scene) Shiva's bow is depicted as having a counterpart, Vishnu's bow, which the two devas use in competition against one another.
  3. Elsewhere, the bow seems to play some part in the periodic destruction of the world.

In that last association, the breaking of the bow could be read as demonstrating Rama's power, as an avatar of Vishnu, over the cycle of universal destruction.

In any case, the episode reads as having active, religious significance. The scene is not a static representation of a religious idea, but rather the development of religious ideas (from the puranas or vedas) into something new. By breaking the bow, Rāma is doing something that changes the prior theological landscape. But what?

(Generically, Valmiki is also doing something in the bow of Shiva episode. The surrounding narrative bears a strong resemblance to traditional stories from other cultures, like that of Hippomenes and Atalanta: King Janaka poses a challenge to test the worthiness of would-be grooms for his daughter. Only the suitor who can string the bow of Shiva may marry Sītā. That Rāma not only surmounts the challenge but obliterates its focal point may seem like poetic hyperbole, an innovation on the conventions of the tradition. Assessing it rather as a religious assertion inverts that view. The courtship challenge becomes the background for the breaking of the bow, along with its theological implications.)

Consider the mechanics of the image. A bow works by keeping the string in constant tension between two points. Rāma breaks the bow by stringing it — that is, by drawing those points so forcefully together that the limbs separating them must finally snap. The symbolic act, then, is one of ratcheting the tension between two religiously significant concepts so tight that the distinction between them collapses.

Which distinction? One possibility springs to mind. Throughout the Ramayaṇa, Rāma is depicted as embodying two potentially contradictory social functions. He is, on the one hand, rightful king of Ayodhyā; he lives, on the other, as a ṛishi, a Vedic sage. The breaking of the bow of Shiva could thus be understood to symbolize the way in which Rāma collapses the antithesis posed by those two social functions — the sovereign and the ascetic, the political and the devotional — not only as a matter of vocation, but also as pillars of the cosmological order previously described by Vedic religion.