Most Hindus probably learned the numerous stories in Ramayana from Amar Chitra Katha comics. If you’ve been a reasonably voracious reader in your youth, you might have also read C. Rajagopalcharya’s version which gets into Ramayana in a fair bit of detail.
Recently, the controversial lawyer Ram Jethmalani and Rajya Sabha MP (suspended) observed that “Lord Ram was a bad husband.” It’s a view that’s shared by many Hindus. An even larger number of Hindus (myself included) have been genuinely puzzled by this aberration in what could otherwise have been a perfect life as king, protector, and man. Why oh why?
During a recent perusal of The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, I came across a speech he gave in 1900 in Pasadena, California where he summarized Ramayana. His recounting of Sita’s chastity tests (there were multiple clamors for them, not one) cast fresh light on the subject for me.
Here’s that first extract after Rama and his army had vanquished Ravana and installed Vibheeshana as the King of Lanka.
Then Rama with Sita and his followers left Lanka. But there ran a murmur among the followers. “The test! The test!” they cried, “Sita has not given the test that she was perfectly pure in Ravana’s household.” “Pure! she is chastity itself” exclaimed Rama. “Never mind! We want the test,” persisted the people.
Subsequently, a huge sacrificial fire was made ready, into which Sita had to plunge herself. Rama was in agony, thinking that Sita was lost; but in a moment, the God of fire himself appeared with a throne upon his head, and upon the throne was Sita. Then, there was universal rejoicing, and everybody was satisfied.
Who are these “followers” I wonder.. they couldn’t be part of Rama’s army since that was largely the Vanara sena, were never part of Dasharatha’s (or Rama’s) kingdom. They “left Lanka” but didn’t reach Ayodhya yet.. an advance party from Ayodhya?
Anyway, after Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya, the second clamor for the “test” begins..
After Rama regained his kingdom, he took the necessary vows which in olden times the king had to take for the benefit of his people. The king was the slave of his people, and had to bow to public opinion, as we shall see later on. Rama passed a few years in happiness with Sita, when the people again began to murmur that Sita had been stolen by a demon and carried across the ocean. They were not satisfied with the former test and clamoured for another test, otherwise she must be banished.
In order to satisfy the demands of the people, Sita was banished, and left to live in the forest, where was the hermitage of the sage and poet Valmiki. The sage found poor Sita weeping and forlorn, and hearing her sad story, sheltered her in his Âshrama. Sita was expecting soon to become a mother, and she gave birth to twin boys. The poet never told the children who they were. He brought them up together in the Brahmachârin life. He then composed the poem known as Ramayana, set it to music, and dramatised it.
Then came the time to perform the Ashwamedha sacrifice. It marks the first time that Rama goes “against the wishes” of his people (the subjects) – read below.
There came a time when Rama was going to perform a huge sacrifice, or Yajna, such as the old kings used to celebrate. But no ceremony in India can be performed by a married man without his wife: he must have the wife with him, the Sahadharmini, the “co-religionist” — that is the expression for a wife. The Hindu householder has to perform hundreds of ceremonies, but not one can be duly performed according to the Shâstras, if he has not a wife to complement it with her part in it.
Now Rama’s wife was not with him then, as she had been banished. So, the people asked him to marry again. But at this request Rama for the first time in his life stood against the people. He said, “This cannot be. My life is Sita’s.” So, as a substitute, a golden statue of Sita was made, in order that the; ceremony could be accomplished.
The third clamor for the “test” begins..
They arranged even a dramatic entertainment, to enhance the religious feeling in this great festival. Valmiki, the great sage-poet, came with his pupils, Lava and Kusha, the unknown sons of Rama. A stage had been erected and everything was ready for the performance. Rama and his brothers attended with all his nobles and his people — a vast audience. Under the direction of Valmiki, the life of Rama was sung by Lava and Kusha, who fascinated the whole assembly by their charming voice and appearance. Poor Rama was nearly maddened, and when in the drama, the scene of Sita’s exile came about, he did not know what to do. Then the sage said to him, “Do not be grieved, for I will show you Sita.” Then Sita was brought upon the stage and Rama delighted to see his wife. All of a sudden, the old murmur arose: “The test! The test!” Poor Sita was so terribly overcome by the repeated cruel slight on her reputation that it was more than she could bear. She appealed to the gods to testify to her innocence, when the Earth opened and Sita exclaimed, “Here is the test”, and vanished into the bosom of the Earth. The people were taken aback at this tragic end. And Rama was overwhelmed with grief.
The ‘message from the gods’ and Rama joining Sita in the other world…
A few days after Sita’s disappearance, a messenger came to Rama from the gods, who intimated to him that his mission on earth was finished and he was to return to heaven. These tidings brought to him the recognition of his own real Self. He plunged into the waters of Sarayu, the mighty river that laved his capital, and joined Sita in the other world.
Several fresh takeaways for me personally..
- While I knew that Rama lived the life of a normal mortal (a Prince -> exiled Prince -> King but a mortal all through), I had always assumed that he ‘knew’ he was a God (avatar of Vishnu). Apparently not.
- In Rama (the King’s) operating philosophy, what the ‘subjects wanted’ from their king was higher than his own personal wants (as a man/husband/King). Depending on your perspective, this could come across as “democracy at work” (where the King rules on “behalf of the people”) or a mobocracy “gone wild”.
- Rama genuinely seemed to be in love with Sita. Besides expressions of remorse, his ultimate act of love was his ‘plunging into the waters of Sarayu’ moment.
- If you buy into Rama’s operating philosophy and his strong sense of ‘duty’ (you don’t have to agree with it), then one can’t help but respect him and feel sympathetic for doing things that went against his ‘personal’ interest.