I had written this post for my blog on Speaking Tree (published in December 2013. Sounds like long back. But the topic is not dated at all :-))
Ramayana had caught my fantasy even as a toddler. The anecdote that introduced me to the epic was about the infant Rama crying for the moon. When nothing else could appease or divert him, his doting step mother, Kaikeyi calmed him by showing him the image of the moon in a mirror. As a child of three or four, I could connect to the cuddly toddler Rama who cried for unattainable things.
As I grew up, I wondered about the importance of this anecdote especially when it had no tellable influence on the plot of Ramayana. In my teens, the narratives of Sri Rama failed to impress me. The episodes of Agni Pariksha and the subsequent abandonment of Sita had started to give me a feeling that we as a culture have only inherited a legacy that punished a chaste woman for no mistake of hers. The philosophical explanations did not help much either. All the anger aside, I used to wonder what kind of a hypocrisy could make us extol Sita as well as sing glories of the one who abandoned her for no sin of hers.
It was a later flash which struck me about the symbolism of Rama yearning for the moon that is unattainable and hence had to be content with the image of moon. It was much like he had to be content with the statue of Sita during the Ashwamedha Yajna which as a climactic end, brings him closer to his sons.
It was then that I started to re-read the agni pariksha episode with more curiosity than anger. A couple of words chosen by Valmiki in the episode intrigued me even more. We all know that the Ramayana was narrated by Lava and Kusha in the court of Rama. In the first chapter, Ramayana is described as the great story of Sita and that of the destruction of Ravana. When Lava and Kusha get ready to narrate the story, Rama is seen as instructing his brothers to listen carefully as the work contains intriguing words.
The first intriguing word I encountered while reading the Agnipariksha episode was the one Rama uses to address Sita before declaring his detachment. ‘Bhadre‘. The meanings of the root word Bhadra are many. Auspicious, fortunate, fair, beautiful, blessed, happy and similar meanings. If Rama had actually doubted her chastity and was planning to abandon her, the usage of this word with any of the above meanings would only highlight the irony of the context. One can wonder if the irony was intended. As I read further, another metaphor caught my attention. Rama says to sita, “With a doubt arising on your character, you are as unaccepatable to me as lamp is to the one whose sight is defective.” The metaphor further highlighted the irony as it is clear that the short sight is the inability to appreciate the light from the lamp is of the eye sight and not of the lamp. Rama is seen as referring to himself as the short-sighted one and Sita as the lamp.
There is also the part where he says that the war was fought in a bid to reclaim Rama’s honour and not for Sita. If we read the earlier scenes, there is one (at the beginning of the war) where Rama describes to Lakshmana about how much he misses Sita (while she is in the captivity). He goes ahead to appeal to the wind to pass by Sita and come to him so that he could feel her presence. He agains says that he is content with touching the earth because he knows that his Sita lives on the very same earth. Would the same Rama who at a point of time seems like he lives for Sita be able to utter as harsh a sentence like “I have nothing to do with you”? If the intended irony of Valmiki is not observed, one can very well take Rama as a split personality. It also makes a laughable case when he says that no man with honour would accept a woman who is sullied by another’s company and hence Sita can be free of him and set her mind on Lakshmana, Bharata or Shatrughna or even Sugriva (like they don’t have any honour or he does not care for that?)
The study made me wonder if the conversation really took place. Or if it was scripted by Valmiki deliberately as he knew that it was going to be sung in the presence of the citizens of Ayodhya who had subsequently cast a doubt on Sita’s Chastity. Did Valmiki take an opportunity to portray the ‘short sightedness’ of Ayodhya citizens in being unable to recognize the lamp that was sita? (Even as he used Rama’s character to depict the same). The combination of words, the deviation from Rama’s usual character in this one episode convinces me of such a possibility. The experiences of hearing a slander on one’s chastity is a fire ordeal in itself, much more to a woman like Sita.
The consistency of Rama’s character can be seen when he installs Sita’s statue by his side for the Ashwamedha showing in his own subtle way to every one that it was not he who ever doubted her. One might argue if he loved Sita so much why did he not abdicate the throne and go with her. In my understanding, such an act would not only have disturbed the social balance in the city, but would also have condemned Rama’s children to the same slander. Instead of running away from the city, he stayed on to ultimately give his sons, their much deserved inheritence before giving up the throne to follow Sita. Yes, it now appeals to me that Rama is the true embodiment of Dharma not because he gave up his wife for a ‘larger good’ (else one can question the very truth of the larger good), but because he persisted to not let the slander affect Sita’s children and did not let them fade into obscurity.