Like all religions, Hinduism has regional variations. There are certain Hindu gods like Muruga (Karthikeya) who resonate deeply in South India but are virtually unknown in parts of the North. Similarly, Goddess Kali is hugely popular in West Bengal but is simply yet another goddess in the South.

Among all the Hindu gods and goddesses, Lord Rama is one god who cuts across these regional barriers and is universally worshipped. And Sri Rama Navami, which celebrates Lord Rama's birthday, is one of the most popular Hindu festivals in India. It falls on the ninth day in the month of Chitra (April 17 this year), hence the word Navami (meaning nine).

What is it about Lord Rama that has made him an enduring symbol of Hinduism across North and South, East and West? On the face of it, he appears too good to be true. As a child growing up, I had trouble relating to him, although my grandmother told us stories from the Ramayana, his epic, every night before bed.

Rama seemed too perfect. He was the obedient son, willing to forgo his kingdom to preserve his father's word. When his stepmother, Kaikeyi, banished him to the forest for 14 years, he had only kind words for her. Although he was a superlative archer and swordsman, he wasn't slave to the passions of a warrior. Indeed, he had words of praise for the demon-king Ravan's musical abilities even though Ravan had abducted Rama's wife, Sita. Rama was a just king, loyal husband, dutiful son, kind brother, generous friend I mean, the man could do no wrong.

Recently, I picked up the Ramayana yet again, as I usually do in the days leading up to Sri Rama Navami. But this time, as I read it, Ii began to understand why Lord Rama struck a chord with so many people. I learned his flaws, I could identify with his humanity. For instance, on more than one occasion, Rama bows to public pressure and feels compelled to question his wife's chastity. After rescuing his wife, Sita, from Lanka, where she is being kept captive, Rama questions her chastity on the battlefield before his monkey-army. Sita had lived in the clutches of a lustful demon-king for so long, says Rama. Was she still pure of thought and deed? Stung by the accusation, Sita jumps into the fire as answer. The fire-god Agni returns Sita to Rama, saying that she was so pure that nobody, not even fire, could touch her. Rama later apologizes to Sita, saying that he had never doubted her chastity but felt compelled to demonstrate it to the world.

On a second occasion, after Rama's return from the forest and coronation as king of Ayodhya, Rama overhears one of his subjects questioning Sita's virtue, given that she was held captive by a demon-king. Bowing once again to public opinion, Rama banishes Sita from his kingdom. A pained Sita goes to live in the ashram of sage Valmiki (author of the Ramayana) and gives birth to twin sons, Luv and Kush. It is only later, after the twins grow up, that the family is reunited.

Upon reading and re-reading the Ramayana, I realized that Rama too was balancing many constituencies his subjects, his family, his conscience. His moral struggles mirrored the conflicts that many of us face today choosing between duty and obligation, between people's perceptions and reality, between being a good husband and a good king.

The festival of Sri Rama Navami, however, doesn't dwell on Rama's conflicts or struggles. It is, like most Indian holidays, a joyous occasion for celebration and the culmination of nine days of festivals and fasts.

Nine is a very auspicious number in Hindu mythology and astrology. There are nine planets, and Hari-kathas (discourses set to music) frequently list the nine qualities that set Rama apart from other gods and for that matter, other kings. The list of Rama's nine qualities varies from one storyteller to another, but include most of the following:
Obedient: Rama was a dutiful son, obeying his father and stepmother's order that he spend 14 years in the forest.

Kind: Rama was kind and compassionate to all, even to his evil stepmother Kaikeyi, who banished him. He had sweet words to say to her as he said goodbye.

Just: Rama was a just king and friend. When the monkey-king Sugreeva approached him saying that he had been unjustly deprived of his kingdom and wife, Rama swiftly killed Vali, the usurper, and returned Sugreeva his kingdom. Brave: He fought and killed legions of asuras (demons) including Ravana, Kumbakarna, and Indrajit.

Generous: Rama was a generous and faithful brother. He did not flinch while handing over a kingdom that was rightfully his to his younger brother, Bharata.

Empathetic: When Rama left Ayodhya for the forest, legions of his subjects wept and pleaded for him to stay, because they felt that he was one of them. His ability to empathize with their problems endeared him to them.

Intelligent: Within a short time, Rama learned all that there was to learn about the martial arts and fought and vanquished demons twice his size. He learned all the Hindu scriptures and was an intelligent student.

Moral: Rama followed Hindu dharma till the very end, doing what was right even though it wasn't easy. The meaning of dharma is vast and indeed encompasses all of the Hinduism, but in Rama's context, it means doing one's duty in a righteous way.

Steadfast: Rama is a symbol of enduring love, enduring justice, and enduring popularity.

For these nine reasons, the Rama Navami festival is celebrated with great pomp and circumstance, particularly in the war-torn city of Ayodhya in North India. Thousands of devotees gather at temples for rath-yatras, chariot processions with four people dressed as Rama, his brother Lakshmana, Sita, and Rama's devotee, the monkey Hanuman. Each chariot almost a float really is bedecked with flowers, paintings, and festoons.

The processions are joyful affairs with devotees standing in line for a glimpse of Rama and shouting his name. With characteristic generosity, Rama shares the stage with his wife, brother, and faithful servant. They are each revered for their contribute to the Ramayana.

Sita is venerated by Indian women for her unswerving loyalty to her husband, particularly poignant in an era when divorces are becoming common in India. Sita is also revered as the chaste wife, who scorned the advances of Lanka's demon-king, Ravana, in spite of his offer to make her his queen and his gifts of wealth and jewels.

Lakshmana is revered for being a faithful younger brother, following Rama from kingdom to forest and back again.

Hanuman is among the most popular and revered figures in India. People want their sons to be as strong, brave, and devoted as Hanuman. A popular image in Hindu iconography portrays him standing with his chest ripped apart; inside are the images of Rama and Sita, as if to show that they reside permanently in Hanuman's heart. When my daughter cannot go to sleep because she is afraid of the dark, I tell her to repeat the words, "Rama Rama Rama," because chanting the Rama-mantra will attract Hanuman, who will protect her.

Celebrations for Rama Navami typically begin a week before the actual date. Many temples organize satsangs (gatherings of devotees) in which the Ramayana is read and bhajans (songs in praise of God) on Lord Rama are sung late into the night. Many devotees fast or subsist on fruits and milk during that week. They greet each other on the street by saying, "Ram Ram," a custom that persists in North India to this day.

The morning of Sri Rama Navami dawns with a prayer to the sun. Rama's dynasty is said to have descended from the sun-god and was therefore called the Raghu-vamsa. It is interesting that the prefix "Ra" denotes the sun in many civilizations including the ancient Egyptians, leading Indian historians and spiritualists to speculate that the Sri Rama Navami festival predates Lord Rama and was in fact a celebration to honor the sun. According to this theory, Lord Rama was tagged on to the festival when he was deified.

Thankfully for the cooks, Rama Navami, unlike other Indian holidays and festivals, is a rather Spartan festival when it comes to food. Because Rama spent 14 years of his life as an ascetic, he was not known to be a gourmand (unlike, for example, Ganesha). Rama Navami doesn't require the preparation of gargantuan feasts. Instead, a simple drink called panagam is prepared and served in large quantities. It is a sweet yet austere drink, healthy and beneficial, somewhat like Rama himself.

Recipe for panagam

6 tablespoon gur, jaggery, or brown sugar.
2 pinches cardamom (elaiche) powder
1 small piece dried ginger
1 teaspoon lime or lemon juice
pinch of salt
2 cups water

Powder the gur and the dried ginger well. Take water and add the above powders and the cardamom powder. Add salt, and the lime or lemon juice. Stir well and serve.

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