In the great epic Ramayana, the mighty Rakshasa (a savage kind of demi-human, with magical powers) named Ravana has done great harm to the protagonist Ram, who is the supreme god Vishnu in human avatar-form. He has kidnapped Ram’s wife Sita, and stolen her away to his distant island kingdom of Lanka, filled with his Rakshasa subjects and seemingly inaccessible to aid from human kingdoms of any kind, let alone aid from Ram, already in exile from his own human kingdom.Read More
And yet, a mindful reading makes it clear that this story does not feature Ram treating Ravana as his enemy, so much as an opponent who must be overcome in order to restore the world from a state of adharma to a state of dharma. Ram even seeks out the Brahmanic wealth of multiple expertises at the feet of his dying adversary, honoring both the societal imperative to preserve knowledge and also to acknowledge the sacredness of the soul he was forced to wrench from Ravana’s body in combat. Ram even does penance for the crime of killing a Brahmin (priest), which Ravana was, despite his own corruption and abuses by entering into the political realm as a conquerer and self-made king.
What’s the difference? How is any of this abbreviated story above an example of the difference in enmity and adversarial conflict?
Ram never invested anger or hatred against Ravana. He never set his heart on revenge, or even justice, so much as rescuing his wife Sita and restoring the honor of his royal clan. He didn’t even judge Ravana morally, even while resolving that he must be slain for order to be restored.
In other words, Ram never made it personal; despite Ravana’s motivations for his many crimes and corruptions being completely and totally personal.
We tend to use “enemy” rather loosely when referring to one-on-one conflicts, without giving much thought to how it may change our attitudes and worldview about our conflicts. An impersonal, unrecognized member of an opposing army can be formally called “the enemy” if not as often “my enemy”. But how often is one of those random, unrecognized individuals ever actually YOUR enemy? They stand on the other line of an aggregate boundary, but rarely your boundary specifically, in a personal way.
There are times when, like Ram, we would be better served to treat our opposite within a struggle as merely an adversary or opponent, to be sure our own feelings (and thus, our discernment and objectivity) do not tempt us to act wrongly; to miss the mark in simply achieving a need we have which may be in conflict to the need of another. We do not dehumanize our opponent. We do not ascribe to them all the qualities of bad, evil, shadow-reflections of our own perceived goodness. We simply act to achieve victory where we must.
Ram, in his story, managed to humanize an enemy we as the readers have every reason to regard as an inhuman beast even as he is a vastly intelligent adversary in the narrative. He and his people live within a fabulous city gained by conquest, but within the city, act more according to the law of the jungle than the laws of humane civilization.
And yet, even in dispatching his adversary, Ram imbues Ravana with sacredness and recognition rather than merely a slain enemy. In doing so, even the act of killing Ravana has transcendent substance, as the dying Ravana has his consciousness expanded in the process; he finally sees his former adversary (and thus, the universe) in ways he was not capable of seeing before, when the whole world for Ravana was formerly split into “me” and “not me”, or “mine” and “not mine”.
It is inevitable that we will gain adversaries, in a world where needs come into conflict, and some dimension of competition to satisfy those needs is required. It is not inevitable, nor perhaps even desirable, that we gain enemies in the proces; for the sake of our own soul-substances and clarity, and even perhaps that of our adversaries. Choose your adversaries carefully, when it is indeed your choice to make; and choose your feelings about the adversarial pairing even more carefully.