“Like a proud elephant meeting a rabbit in the forest, Rama is like the elephant and you, O vile one, are like the rabbit.” (Sita Devi, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 22.16)
yathā dṛptaśca mātaṅgaḥ śaśaśca sahitau vane |
tathā dviradavadrāmastvaṃ nīca śaśavat smṛtaḥ ||
A warrior takes pride in their ability to fight. Fighting isn’t easy, as going in you understand there is the chance of defeat. Defeat is the result of one or many blows offered by the enemy. A blow to the body hurts, so the warrior understands going in that there is a chance of feeling a lot of pain. Often times this understanding acts as motivation. “Let me attack as swiftly and strategically as I can, so as to avoid a beating.” To call a warrior a coward, therefore, is a great insult. It means that they are too afraid of the potential attack to come their way. It also insults their manhood, from which they take great pride. Sita knew this vulnerability in warriors, so she strategically attacked a famous fiend with the proper insult at the proper time.
Consider the enforcer in the National Hockey League. The objective for a team in hockey is to score more goals than the opposing team. Seems simple enough. There is an issue when one team has more skill than the other, however. The team deficient in skill to score goals will have to employ a different strategy. Rather than get beaten outright, their objective will be to limit the offensive performance of the other team. One way to do that is to act more physical. Throw more body checks on the opposing team, especially to the skill players. Get them off their game. Make them worried about being hit. If they are worried, they won’t play as well offensively.
The team with skill has a way to counter this, though. Enter the enforcer. Their job is to take on the other team’s physical players. The mindset is as follows: “Don’t think you can hit my guy. You’re going to have to deal with me then. I’m not skilled at puck handling and shooting, but I’m big. I can also fight. More importantly, I’m not afraid to fight. If you take cheap shots at my teammates, you will have to deal with me. I don’t care how big you are, either. I’m not afraid to drop the gloves against anyone.”
If the opposing enforcer flees from the challenge, he is considered a coward. He loses the respect of his own teammates. The job of the enforcer is not easy. Going into games they know that they will likely fight against the other team’s toughest player. They can’t back down. There is more respect in a loss than in a retreat. To shy away from battle means to lose your stature as an enforcer.
Sita Devi here compares the king of Lanka to a coward on the battlefield. She says he will run away like the rabbit facing the elephant in the forest. For the rabbit to challenge the elephant is stupid. There is no chance for victory, as with a single, accidental step the elephant can crush the rabbit. The rabbit’s only choice is to run, and run fast. Even then there is little chance for hope, as the elephant can destroy an entire forest very quickly.
The elephant’s ability in this area is so popularly known that it is referenced to describe behavior that quickly destroys something. Sort of like the comparison to demolishing a building, the mad elephant running through a garden is referenced when describing how one can quickly lose something. In Vaishnava etiquette, one is told to avoid offending other Vaishnavas. A Vaishnava is a devotee of Vishnu, who is the personal aspect of the Supreme Lord. To be a devotee of Vishnu is a rare thing; it means earnestly casting aside desires for material opulence. It requires steady determination in difficult practice to remain in the devotional consciousness. And yet the purity of the devotee can be destroyed very quickly when there is an offense made against another devotee. The offense and resulting destruction are compared to the mad elephant running through a garden that was carefully tended to for so long.
“One should be very careful not to commit offenses at the lotus feet of Vaishnavas, of whom Lord Shiva is the best. While instructing Shrila Rupa Gosvami, Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu described an offense at the lotus feet of a Vaishnava as hati mata, a mad elephant. When a mad elephant enters a nice garden, it spoils the entire garden. Similarly, if one becomes like a mad elephant and commits offenses at the lotus feet of a Vaishnava, his entire spiritual career is halted. One should therefore be very careful not to commit offenses at the lotus feet of a Vaishnava.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 6.17.15 Purport)
The elephant in this battle scenario would be Rama, who is Sita’s husband. Sita is Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi and Rama is Vishnu Himself. They appear differently on earth at different times for specific purposes. In the Treta Yuga, the world was terrorized by Ravana, who was very powerful but also quite evil. Here he is described as nicha, which means low. This didn’t necessarily refer to his species. We know that certain people grow up without culture, so they aren’t very civilized in adulthood. This can happen to anyone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or income level. Similarly, though Ravana was born in the race of man-eaters, he still had a chance to be pure. Unfortunately, he was the lowest among even his own race, so he took to wicked deeds which earned him a world of hurt soon to arrive.
For survival, the only choice for the nicha Ravana would be running away, like the rabbit in the forest matched up against the elephant. This would be very shameful for Ravana, who was so proud of his fighting prowess. He had defeated many of the world’s greatest kings at the time. And yet to bring Sita back to his home in Lanka he resorted to trickery. He didn’t fight Rama face to face, though Rama was a warrior too.
While Ravana had already shown no shame in running away from battle, Rama wouldn’t let him go so easily. Rama wasn’t about ready to quit. Though He had every right to attack in whatever manner He desired, Rama would arrive on the scene and challenge the king to a battle. With no other option left, Ravana would actually fight valiantly, but since he was indeed like a rabbit in comparison to the elephant-like Rama, there was no chance for his survival.
Since chance for victory there is none,
Rabbit away from mad elephant to run.
This for man of warrior class not good,
That they should fight bravely understood.
This part of Sita Devi’s disparagement,
To create in Ravana discouragement.
Rama like a mad elephant in a fight,
To squash rabbit like Ravana with terrific might.