If you dismiss the Ramayana as a myth or as a poet's fancy, you are throwing a treasure away. On the other hand, if you regard it as a scripture, to be devoutly worshipped and read, you are blind to the treasure.
That the Ramayana - at least the original Valmiki's version of it - is a simple historical document, need not be doubted. There may be exaggerations in it. There is a lot of exaggeration in the morning newspaper. But, when it is studied as history, it does not yield its benefits either. In spite of the fact that the narrative effectively veils the tribal identities of the heroes, you tend to take sides, identify yourself with one or the other, indulge in judgements, all of which inevitably generate violence in your own heart.
As a historical document, it is a simple record of events. However, the narrator cannot help rationalising the actions of the hero and the villain, and insinuating motives to them. The modern psychologist does this all the time. Such analysis exists only in the analyst's mind, and it may have no basis at all. "Why did Rama do so, or Ravana do so?" And the only answer is, "Rama did so; Ravana did so." You and I may now find a new rationalisation, by declaring that Rama's were spontaneous actions arising from choiceless awareness of each situation; that Rama's were consistent actions in as much as they were appropriate actions. But these ideas are your own projection. In all this, the Ramayana is still away from you, and you are treating Rama, Ravana, and others as objects of your psycho-analytic study. Instead, wisdom lies in studying the text so that it is assimilated, so that it becomes you, and then the treasure is yours.
You will then immediately realise the nature, the origin, the course, and the climax of violence.
The earth has been inhabited by humanity. Successive generations have branded the previous ones as devils, demons, etc., and given vent to aggressive feelings and actions. If you believe in a soul and reincarnation, you may even see in all this no change, except the external change of form and fashion. The question is not of history nor pre-history - legend, but the present - is all this hostility, hate, and killing necessary or meaningful?
People often condemn war; but no one traces it to its cause. What causes create the climate for war? Poverty or the unequal distribution of the earth's natural resources. A big gap in living standards created by the exploitation of man by man. Creation of vested interests, and the suggestion of superiority and inferiority to protect those vested interests. Often these are the very things that are called signs of culture and civilisation.
The conflict between self-interests builds up, and with all the best forces of light in this world, the climax - war - is inevitable. But then there is a subtle and extremely vicious element in war. Even if you consider that it is human for the oppressed to fight the oppressor, how does it lead to war between two communities? Real self-defence is individualistic; and one who does not consider that the other man is vicious, and that he is directly responsible for one's own suffering, does not fight in self defence. Yet, clever people flourish in the world, who are able to introduce concepts of nation, community and such other myths, thus persuading a man to kill another man who is totally unknown to him, and who may have nothing whatsoever to do with his own suffering, both of them being equally unfortunate victims of clever propaganda.
When thus two communities are contaminated with hate and hostility, it seems as though God, who is common to all, says: "Well, where there is hate, fighting is inevitable; but I shall not take sides and fight." Lord Krishna said so. In the battle, all the wicked ones are destroyed. A new civilisation comes into being.
Somehow such wholesale extermination of peoples rights itself, in the long run. Somehow, also, an evil force is balanced - often, alas, by another which soon becomes the powerful evil factor.
Undoubtedly, many innocent people are also killed in wars. It may sound callous and cruel to say so, but I feel that these innocent victims of genocide are the ones who have reached the acme of spiritual perfection, and freed from even the instinct of self-defence and the impulse to resist evil, have realised that their time has come for Moksha or final liberation. But, war and violence do not solve any problem. In every war or violent revolution there is always a victor and a victim. Immediately after the event the victor has the last word, and very often in justifying his own acts of violence, he tries to prove that he was the real victim and that somehow - by God's Grace - he survived. He never admits his contribution to the original problem. However, in course of time, the victor, on account of power and prosperity which invariably corrupt his moral strength, becomes weak and vicious. His descendants - who may in all probability be the re-incarnations of his own former victims - overpower him.
Violence and its rationalisation can be abolished if one adopts the following attitude. If it is my duty to protect my culture, religion, family, tradition, etc., and if in that attempt to protect I have to resort to violent actions, which involve harming others - which is obviously contrary to my culture, religion, etc., I should punish myself in order to protect the dharma that I have thus violated, and not rationalise my violence, and assume that I have a divine right to rule the world. If, honestly, it is dharma you wish to protect, then you are as guilty as the other person. And if the victim and the victor simultaneously exit from the world, it is possible that dharma will survive.
The theory that God Himself incarnates to protect the good, and to destroy the evil, is a double-edged sword, and has to be handled with care, if you do not wish to leave it alone! If it tempts you to feel that you are the good that the Lord wants to protect - oftentimes through your own might, then you have destroyed yourself. This theory has only one meaning: it points out to you that, if you believe in it, you have a very heavy responsibility 'to be good and to do good'.
It is possible that Rama was non-violent, and that even Ravana was non-violent. In support of this, let me give a couple of quotations:
The following is from the theory of celestial influence by R. Collins: "... having fully understood that all men are responsible for war, it is next necessary to understand that no one is responsible. From another point of view, war can be seen as a purely cosmic phenomenon, produced by celestial influence on a scale where men's reasons and men's feelings have no significance whatsoever. A certain planet, at a certain stage in its cycle, creates a general tension on the surface of the Earth, as a result of which men - in the ordinary state of being - have no choice but to fight. This does not mean that the influence itself implies war, any more than turning on an electric current implies that light-bulbs shall fuse. If men enjoyed a different level of being, that is, if they could use a sudden increase in inner tension to produce changes in themselves, instead of automatically relieving it against others, then the martial cycle would have quite a different significance."
Here is a quotation from the Mahabharata: "No person in this world can support life without injuring other creatures. The very ascetic leading a solitary life in the depths of the forest is no exception. The irresistible course of time affects all mortals. All earthly things, ripened by time, suffer destruction. Some, O king, slay some men. The slayers, again, are slain by others. This is the language of the world. In reality, however, no one slays and no one is slain. Some one thinks men slay their fellow men. Another thinks men do not slay. The truth is that the birth and destruction of all creatures have been ordained to happen in consequence of their very nature."
Can you read the Ramayana without judging, without condemning or without condoning? All division creates and feeds violence. 'Yes' and 'No' are equally violent. 'Is that so' is the only non-violence. As you are reading this, look within yourself. You agree with some statements and you disagree with others - that is violence. If you can observe this whole phenomenon, that intelligence observing this total phenomenon is beyond violence.
"Will violence ever completely disappear from the earth?", is a popular question! The question is violence and the answer is violence, too, since they divide mankind into those who answer "Yes" and those who say "No".
Study the Ramayana without all this; and then you will be able to assimilate it. And, the Ramayana itself will act, and such action, being free from self-interest and self-will, will be non-violent. Enthrone Rama in your own heart, without judging him - either as God or otherwise; then Rama himself will act from within you. This, I feel is the only way to study this text.
May God bless you.