Sita - Part 24

மரபு விக்கி இருந்து

தாவிச் செல்ல: வழிசெலுத்தல், தேடுக


Who needs that shield!

The next and the last allegation against Sita is divided into three parts. The first part speaks of her yielding herself to shock, sorrow and sobs. Included in the first part is her quick conclusion that Rama was in trouble. And asking Lakshmana to rush to his help. ‘One can understand this’ intervenes the critic, extending a graceful concession, ‘for she did so in her womanliness. It is natural for women to fall a prey to sorrow too soon, and come to unfounded conclusions.’
I am not able to understand this reasoning. As we have been stressing time and again, emotions – even qualities for that matter – are not gender-specific. There of course are a few qualities where gender has a say to an extent. A man is no match to a woman when it comes to mothering a child, for instance. But even here, a man is no match only as far as the biological functions are concerned. We see in our lives where men in difficult circumstances playing the role of a mother as well. That’s why we have the celebrated deity ‘thaayumAnavan.’ He who came as the mother too. If even motherliness can be shown and to a large extent substituted by men and is not specific to a gender, there is no reason why one should attribute susceptibility of the intellect to sorrow to women alone.
Man or woman, emotions have their say over the intellect. Intellect does not function at all when sorrow and worries fill the mind. Even Rama is no exception to the general rule and there are several instances in the epic that underline this fact. One has to see, for instance, how he reacted on seeing Jatayu, in a pool of blood, holding his last breath and fighting hard to live until he is able to convey the message of abduction to Rama.
Rama and Lakshmana reach the spot in their search of Sita. Rama was lamenting. He was so filled with shock and agony that he was cursing his ‘disciplined and compassionate outlook,’ that has driven them into this difficult strait. The worry that was nagging uppermost in his mind at that moment was, ‘She must have been taken away by some ogre, who would have devoured her by this time.’
Then, when they came across Jatayu, Rama’s agonised mind did not let him see as to who is lying there in a pool of blood. He came to the immediate conclusion, worried as he was with the above dreadful thought, that this is the ogre which must have gobbled Sita alive and is lying immersed in her blood. He quickly fitted an arrow to his bow and rushed to him saying, “Sita, a princess of the Videha territory, has been devoured by this bird; there is no doubt about it. Evidently it is an ogre ranging the forest in the guise of a vulture. Having eaten up the large-eyed Sita, it is lying at ease. I shall make short work of it by means of straight-going dread arrows with fiery heads.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kanda, Canto 67, Sloka 11 and 12)
And then it takes some time for Rama to realise that it is Jatayu who is lying on the ground, grievously hurt and so the scene develops. Now, I would not be doing justice to the grandest of characters, Rama, if I leave this point here. Let’s take it up in our study of Rama. I mentioned this incident only to show that – man or woman – the intellect takes a back seat when emotions drive the way. If Rama could not recognise Jatayu, who was known to them so closely, whom he respected as Dasaratha himself, since he was so anxious about the safety of Sita, can one not understand how she would have felt about his safety, when Märïca’s piteous wails wafted across them, on that day? The circumstances differ somewhat, but the anxiety due to the perceived danger to the life of a darling is the same. The question of the concern for the safety of the spouse remains the very same.
Sita, therefore, does not need the ‘shield’ so gracefully extended to her by her critics that ‘it was understandable that she succumbed to anxiety, because it was natural for a woman to do so.’ She is a stoic. Much greater stoic than any single one of us, having gone through the most trying circumstances and fought her battle against the very Ravana himself, single-handedly, in the battlefield of the mind, and displayed such courage and tenacity and stood her ground. Let us not colour her emotions with considerations of gender. Let’s look at it as a human situation. Let’s take a look at what wracked her that day, when they heard Märïca call their names. This scene was discussed from the angles of Lakshmana and that of Sita earlier. Please take a look at those pages and see what impelled her to tell Lakshmana to go in pursuit of Rama, to help him. (See: The urgent and the immediate Part I and Part II and “The boy stood the burning deck”)
Now arises the second part of the allegation of not listening to Lakshmana when he explained to her the invincible nature of Rama, who does not need the help of anyone, who can handle any situation, who needs no help from him and therefore, it was his duty stay put, as he was ordered by Rama, and remain guarding her. It might even be argued now that Rama at least recovered quickly (in the above instance) whereas she did not. She did not let her intellect to work at all.
And then there is the other part of the allegation, ‘She was cruel. She used unpardonably harsh language. The Lord can bear an ‘apachara’ done against him; but not the one done to his devotee.’ (This is restricted to Valmiki’s version.) It’s all fine for us to think that way. But who are we to sit in judgement about what is pardonable and not pardonable, when it is the job of Rama? What I fail to understand is, why don’t we see what the ‘Lord’ actually felt about her words, what was his reaction and whom he held responsible, when he heard those words through Lakshmana?
Let’s examine.

Unless it happens to you

‘To think that Rama, who killed Tätakä, broke Shiva’s bow, quelled Parasurama, killed Kara-Dusana could be endangered by a ‘mere deer’ (kEvalam oru maan) is in itself a ‘big mistake’ (perum thavaru)’ contends the critic.
Now, there is a story about the great Telugu poet, Potanna – Bammera Potanna – who composed the very famous ‘Gajendra Mokshamu’. On completion of the legend, he read it out to one of his close relatives, another poet, may be, Tikkana, I am not sure. These are anecdotes, interesting but not verifiable. The relative, who heard the legend commented, ‘Sounds good. But I notice that the descriptive part of the appearance of Maha Vishnu, who comes to save the elephant from the crocodile, is lacking in details. If Maha Vishnu appears on a scene, would He be alone? Would He not be well-dressed, accompanied by His consorts, and be seated on His Garuda? Your poetry does not say anything of that sort. It shows Him in poor light, and He appears as though He were not well-adorned.’
Potanna could not see a way to convince his poet-relative. Then, when the relative was taking his oil-bath, with a towel wrapped around his waist and oil dripping from his head, he walked to the well across the road and pushed a huge rock into it. ‘Tikkana, it was your son who fell,’ he cried. Tikkana was alarmed and he rushed across the road, towel around the waist and oil still dripping. Potanna smiled at him and explained that it was only a rock that was pushed into the well. And he continued, ‘Is this the way you appear on the road? Would you ever dream of walking across the street wrapped in a towel? Why did you not wait till you could finish your bath, get dressed and come to this spot afterwards?’
‘Was there any time left!’ pleaded Tikkana. ‘It was my son, whom you cried, that fell in the well. How could I tarry a second more!’ Potanna continued with a smile. ‘If you are so concerned about the safety of your child and if you cannot wait till you complete your bath, do you think that the Lord would be able wait when His devotee was in distress?’ Tikkana nodded. He understood what Potanna intended to tell him, now. ‘You won’t realise,’ smiled Potanna, ‘unless it happens to you.’
Well, it’s all very well to argue that Sita should have realised the ‘invincibility’ of Rama, when Lakshmana explained that to her. In fact, she needed no arguments. She did not need any explanation to that effect, for she had herself witnessed several events. She was there by his side, when this slip of a boy, Rama returning from Mithila, slighted the pride of Parasurama, the terror of the Kshatriya race, of whom even Dasaratha had not the temerity look straight in his face. She knew that he handled the Shiva’s bow and broke it. That was how they got married. Again, she was the reason behind the killing of Virädha. (See: Virädha and Five and five peaceful years) For the first time in her life, she encountered a demon, who grabbed her away, and for the first time in her life, she witnessed the playful way in which Rama handled the situation. Again, the killing of the 14000 strong battalion of Kara and Dusana took place before her eyes. She has seen things for herself and needed no arguments.
But one has to think of the situation. Right Hon’ble Srinivasa Sastriyar captures that moment beautifully, when he says, “You know how Lakshmana resists the request for a time. He says, ‘Rama is a strong man and nobody in the world can ever stand before him. No danger can ever occur to him without his being able to ward it off. Don’t be alarmed. I cannot leave you alone.’ But Sita reproaches him, and finding that he was unwilling to go, she was so full of fear for Rama that she lost her self-control. She did not know what she was saying. You must put yourselves in Sita’s position for a time. Sita, married to the noblest man on earth, left the kingdom to follow him into the forest, and there she herself sent him on a mortal errand. Danger has occurred to him, so at least she fancies. Is it or is it not natural for her in that extremity to forget everything?”
Though the situation was the same for her and Lakshmana, the perception is dissimilar. One has to remember that Lakshmana could not have been agitated on hearing the voice of Märïca. Because it was he who suspected, he who foretold and he who forewarned. And he knew Rama was capable of coming out of it unscathed.
Turning to Sita, what do we see? Here was she who believed – as did Rama – that it was a deer that she was asking for. Rama goes and does not return for a considerable time. And now you hear that dreadful voice. There seems to be something right in what Lakshmana foresaw. The deer is no more – as the critic says – a ‘mere deer’. It has turned into an ogre now. Added to that is the natural guilt feelings that would overpower anyone in such a situation. ‘Ah! It was I who sent him behind that deer! I who was responsible for this!’ We know that this is only partially true and that Rama took the decision, while she only expressed a desire. Even then, in the heat of the moment, anyone would immediately get alarmed and succumb to persecution complex. That was a natural thing that happened.
As Sastriyar says, “You must put yourselves in Sita’s position for a time.” We do not realise unless it happens to us. As it happened in the case of Tikkana. That should suffice for a better understanding. Think only of that moment. You will understand. Think of the moment that followed, you will understand her still better, where she evidences what she actually thinks about Lakshmana.
This is not to justify her words spoken to Lakshmana. (See: The urgent and the immediate III and Motivated, you are for details) But the fact that she did not intended it comes out within half-an-hour (of Lakshmana’s departure) when Ravana Sanyasi appears on the scene and inquires about them. She narrates their story to the ‘sadhu’ when she fondly refers to Lakshmana. “Such O Brahmana, is the unsurpassed vow held fast by Sri Rama. A powerful half-brother of his, Lakshmana by name, a tiger among men and the slayer of his foes on the battlefield, is the companion of Sri Rama. The aforesaid (half-) brother, Lakshmana by name, who is firm of vows and is practising continence (dharmacārī drdhavratah), followed, bow in hand, Sri Rama, who was going into exile with me.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kanda, Canto 47, Sloka 18-20)
If she really meant her remark about Lakshmana’s intentions on her, why would she say that he was ‘firm of vows and one who practises continence,’ within such a short time, when speaking of him? Clearly, she found that she could not move this fellow an inch from this place unless she brought pressure on him by some means. It was the closest that she could hit him with, so that he somehow goes to the ‘aid’ of her husband.
Am I trying to justify her? Listen to Rama, who has a better understanding of her than all of us put together.

What you should have done

‘I expected to see her with you,’ remarks Rama, when the brothers meet and return from killing Märïca to their hermitage, only to find it empty. Valmiki says,

athāsramād    upāvrttam   antarā    raghunandanah |
paripapraccha saumitrim rāmo duhkhārditah punah ||
tam  uvāca kimartham tvam āgato 'pāsya maithilīm |
yadā    sā    tava    visvāsād     vane  viharitā mayā ||
drstvaivābhyāgatam  tvām  me  maithilīm tyajya laksmana |
sankamānam mahat pāpam yat satyam vyathitam manah ||
sphurate nayanam savyam bāhus ca hrdayam ca me |
drstvā  laksmana    dūre    tvām    sītāvirahitam  pathi ||
       (Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kanda, Canto 59, Sloka 1 – 4)

Let’s take a look at how Ralph T H Griffith translates this portion:

But Rama ceased not to upbraid.
His brother for untimely aid,
And thus, while anguish wrung his breast,
The chief with eager question pressed:
'Why, Lakshman, didst thou hurry hence
And leave my wife without defence?
I left her in the wood with thee.
And deemed her safe from jeopardy.
When first thy form appeared in view,
I marked that Sita come not too.
With woe my troubled soul was rent,
Prophetic of the dire event.
Thy coming steps afar I spied,
I saw no Sita by thy side.
And felt a sudden throbbing dart
Through my left eye, and arm, and heart.'

‘Why did you leave her behind?’ asks Rama. ‘When I left her behind in your custody, my heart was at ease because I was satisfied that she stands protected by you. Why did you come alone? Actually, when I saw you coming in search of me, I was expecting to see her by your side. I looked for her; but could not find her with you. It was at that moment that my left eye and left arm twitched, and my heart started pounding.’
In fact, Rama starts his speech with a disapproving note. “Ah, Lakshmana, a reproachful act has been done by you in that you came away here leaving alone Sita, who deserved protection, O gentle brother! Can she (be expected to) be doing well? No doubt lurks in my mind, O heroic brother, but that the daughter of Janaka has at all events been removed out of sight or even devoured by ogres reigning in the forest, as (is evident from the fact) that evil portents alone appear before me in abundance. Shall we actually (be able to) find, O Lakshmana, the entire being of Sita, daughter of Janaka, continuing to live, O tiger among men?” (Ibid, Canto 57, Sloka 14 – 20)
It may be noted at this point, Lakshmana had not yet informed Rama of the situation in which he had to leave her behind, why he had to move out against his will, what were the unbearably harsh words that she spoke to him, etc. But it is not that difficult for Rama to guess that something unpleasant has happened and that is why this strong-willed fellow has moved away from the hermitage, looking for him. He understands that there must have been some pressure of an extreme nature that pushed him into this move. There is sufficient clue in his speech about what he ‘feels’ though it is not to be found explicitly in the text. The tone says that all.
Given that reading, one can easily see what Rama means. ‘You are not supposed to move away from the post of duty. You were under my orders. You cannot violate my words. However, if it was such a difficult situation that you had to leave the hermitage, you should have brought her along with you.’ That’s why he says, ‘drstvā laksmana dūre tvām sītāvirahitam pathi’ On seeing you at a distance, coming without Sita (my left hand and eye started twitching and heart started pounding). ‘You should not have left. If you had to, you should have brought her along with you.’
Lakshmana remains silent. This is a difficult moment for him. This is not to demean or underestimate this valiant, intelligent and stoic of a man. He was left with no alternative, or so did he think. Now, Rama points out to that alternative which was open to him. Lakshmana is not able to say a thing. It is only after a two-canto long prodding and repeated questioning by Rama, left with no choice, Lakshmana tells Rama what actually happened. He intended not to let Rama know what took place. But he had to speak out now. ‘I did not come here on my own accord,’ he says. “I have sought your presence here only when urged by her in pungent words.” (Ibid, Canto 59, Sloka 6) And then he quotes her words to Rama.
“Reassured in these words (by me), Sita (a princess of the Videha territory) for her part, whose judgement was utterly clouded, addressed the following poignant words, shedding tears (all the time): ‘The grossly sinful intention of winning me when your (eldest half-) brother has been slain has definitely been cherished by you with regard to me; but you shall never secure me. You are closely following Sri Rama in pursuance of a pact entered into (by you) with Bharata in that you do not actually run to the side of Sri Rama, who is crying (for your help) at the top of his voice! An enemy (of Sri Rama) in disguise, you have been following him for my sake (only), seeking an opportunity to harm him. Hence you do not run to his succour.’” (Ibid, Sloka 16 – 19)

Rama heard every word of it. Now, what did he say? What did he tell Lakshmana? Did he say that she was harsh? Did he find fault with her at that time? It is natural for people at such times to say few words in disapproval of such remarks and then continue with their criticism. In other words, Rama could  have remarked, ‘Yes. She was wrong. But still your act is not justified.’ Instead, what did he say?

It is his words, his feeling and his perception that we are to take cognisance of when we come to conclusions about the ‘apachara’ that she committed, for which we tend to think that she deserved punishment in the shape of the Agni Pravesa. What we are seeking to spot is the ‘actual intention’ of Rama when he uttered those words that led to Agni Pravesa. Instead, we should not be imputing motives to him – not supported by the text – in putting up a brave fight in his defence


‘It is unbecoming of you,’ says Rama on hearing the report of Lakshmana, ‘to have left her behind.’ ‘I agree she might have said so many things in anger. But you know that I am capable of handling this. Yet, you got annoyed by her words. I am not pleased.’ “Distracted with agony, Sri Rama replied (as follows) to Lakshmana (son of Sumitra) when he was speaking as aforesaid. ‘An unbecoming act has been done by you in that you came hither without her.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kanda, Canto 59, Sloka 21)

jānann api samartham mām raksasām vinivārane |
anena  krodhavākyena   maithilyā nihsrto bhavān ||
na   hi te paritushyāmi  tyaktvā   yad   yāsi  maithilīm |
kruddhāyāh parusham srutvā striyā yat tvam ihāgatah ||      
                                                    (Ibid, Sloka 22, 23)

“Though knowing me to be capable of repulsing the ogres, you came away annoyed by this angry rebuke from Sita (a princess of Mithila)! Surely I am not much pleased (na hi te paritusyāmi) with you for the fact that you came hither leaving Sita (a princess of Mithila and that (too) on hearing a harsh word uttered by an angry woman.”
Therefore, the question of bhgavata-apachara and its consequent punishment in the shape of repudiation in public does not arise, inasmuch as Rama was displeased not with her, but with Lakshmana for moving away from the post of duty. ‘You are not justified,’ he says. “It was wholly unjustifiable on your part that falling a prey to anger when goaded by Sita (to leave her) you did not carry out my behest.” (Ibid, Sloka 24) Like the One Minute Manager, Rama keeps his criticism sharp and short and leaves it at that. He doest not speak about it at all even once, later.
We have discussed Kamban’s handling of this situation earlier. (See: The urgent and the immediate IV) Even there, we see Rama not showing displeasure at the way in which Lakshmana was pressurised to move out. He was neither unhappy with Lakshmana, nor with Sita. He finds fault with himself.
More over, this incident of Sita’s unkind words was something that took place in the jungle, where just the two of them were present. A public repudiation for something spoken in private does not show Rama in better light. When such a criticism is advanced against Sita, one should remember that we are depicting Rama as a person whose sense of proportion was off-balance. If at all Rama wanted to pull her up for that fault, he would have told her in private, ‘I hear that you spoke these words to Lakshmana. It is not right. I am not happy with what you said.’ That would be a simpler and more honest way of doing it. Rama did not do this as well. That only shows that he did not take these words too seriously. Therefore, even this last and supposed-to-be-strong criticism also fails. It does not hold water.
We have examined all the possible causes advanced in this respect and have strong evidence to prove that not a single one of them is supported by the poets. As can be seen, offence is not the best form of defence. Any defence should have solid proof, supported by the text. Or even offence for that matter.
And then, there remains only one, and more valid reason for the way in which Rama repudiated her on that day.

Public Opinion I

I am afraid I will not be able to dwell in detail on this point that remains – after eliminating all possible causes adduced in respect of the reason behind Rama’s sudden change of stance and the public repudiation of Sita that led to Agni Pravesa – for the present. As I have been stressing a convincing picture can be evolved only after we take up Rama for study and arrive at this point on a later day. But, let me give a quick sketch now, however weak it may sound because of the sequence in which the evidence surfaces at this point of our discussion.
I have mentioned earlier when describing the events that led to the event under study, that Valmiki gives a quick, three-sloka long description of the couple, when Rama completes the first part of his speech preceding the repudiation. (See: Get lost and be prosperous?) There, before the commencement of all those scalding remarks, Valmiki states what troubled Rama’s heart at that time.

pashyathasthAm tu ramasya samipe hrudayapriyAm |
janavada   bayadha   rajnyo   babuva hrudayam dvida ||
                        (Valmiki Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, Canto 115, Sloka 11)

“The heart of King Rama (even) as he beheld Sita (the beloved of his heart) near him, was torn (within him) for fear of public scandal.”
‘janavada bayadha’. He was afraid of public opinion. Now, what could that opinion be? Obviously, undesirable and unfavourable public opinion that would scandalise the incarceration of Sita in the palace of Lanka for a long time. The public mind in yonder Ayodhya may or may not be able to perceive the truth of the matter that took place across the ocean in the other end of the continent. Now, that becomes very important in view of the fact that Rama’s role is not limited to that of a loving husband but extended to that of a responsible king. A king was – and any ruler is – expected to be a role model to the public that he governs. He is supposed to be an epitome of virtues. And Rama measured himself against that scale.
This continues to be true. Times have changed. The present day world is not blessed with many leaders who demand the highest measure of rectitude from themselves. Such a breed is a rarity now. However, it continues to be true that the society expects their leaders, the persons who occupy the portals of power to be clean, transparent and virtuous. We may not expect a Rama from every single one of our leaders. But we still do expect that. At least to an extent. If this is not so, every other weakness of the person in power would not be a matter of public debate; would not hit the headlines; would not be discussed again and again in social gatherings.
This sloka, rolled out as an observation from the poet, before Rama commences his virulent attack gives out an ample and justifiable cause for the changes that were coming over in the stance of Rama, from the moment he sends Hanuman to Sita (See: The message and its mood) till the time the palanquin carrying Sita reaches his presence. (See: To bear or not to bear and The point of the palanquin) All the evidence that we have collected in 23 instalments commencing from In interregnum to The moon and the moon, showing the moods of Rama, his facial expressions, the Freudian slips et al, point to the fact that he was getting prepared for the most difficult performance of his life. This ‘performance’ was the one that we spoke about in Proud, was he not? that Rama adopted in eliciting information; ascertaining that his gut feeling is right; and establishing beyond doubt to himself and to the world that what he was so certain in his mind was true indeed. Verified and found correct.
But there is one difficulty in adopting this sloka as the basis of or as a pointer to our conclusion. As has been mentioned earlier, the authenticity of the three Slokas – including the one above – which come out as the voice of the poet who intervenes when Rama concludes the first part of his speech – is considered doubtful by many scholars. Only a few editions contain these three Slokas. Others simply omit them.
If so, where do we stand now?

Public Opinion 2

This particular Sloka that we are discussing now – may or may not be authentic, may be an interpolation, may be an insertion by some later and skilful hand – occurs in a most crucial juncture. Because of the importance of the moment, the relevance to the context, the critical nature of the issue, it sets the very tone of the second part of Rama’s speech of repudiation. (See: Light on diseased eye, Touch… and go and The derider’s alternative) It gives a foretaste of the intention of the speaker, namely Rama, and prepares the mind of the reader to go through the thunderstorm that he delivers, having been enabled to see his words in the particular light of the clue that he was highly disturbed by what he foresees in his mind about the possible ways in which Sita’s incarceration would be interpreted by public mind.
In the absence of this sloka, the later statement of Rama, after the appearance of Brahma and his narration of the past events and the Supreme nature of Rama and after Agni brings her up and testifies to her purity, sounds rather weak. “Sri Rama, the foremost of the eloquent, whose mind was set on virtue, felt rejoiced in mind to hear the aforesaid speech,” says Valmiki when Agni emerges with Sita from the flames, and speaks about the untainted and sinless nature of Sita, and continues, “and reflected for a while, his eyes blinded by tears of joy.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, Canto 118, Sloka 11) He was rejoiced. His vision was bedimmed by tears. Tears of joy. And then Rama comes out for the first time what he had in mind, at this point.

avasyam   trisu   lokesu sītā pāvanam arhati |
dīrghakālositā ceyam rāvanāntahpure subhā ||
bālisah khalu kāmātmā rāmo dasarathātmajah |
iti   vaksyanti mām santo jānakīm avisodhya hi ||
                                         (Ibid, Sloka 13 and 14)

“Sita undoubtedly needed this purificatory ordeal in the eyes of the people inasmuch as this blessed lady had lived for a long time in the gynaecium of Ravana. The world would murmur against me saying that Rama, son of Dasaratha, was really foolish and that his mind was dominated by lust, if I actually accepted the daughter of Janaka without proving her chastity.”
‘I know Ravana could not have violated her,’ affirms Rama. ‘Yet, I had to speak those words in order to establish what she really is in the eyes of the world.’ “Ravana could not violate this large-eyed lady either, protected as she was by her own moral power, any more than a sea would transgress its bounds. In order, however, to convince (the denizens of) the three worlds I, whose sheet-anchor is truth, ignored Sita (a princess of the Videha territory) even while she was entering fire,” he explains. (Ibid, Sloka 16 and 17)
Read without the words of the poet, who intervenes at the right place to give us a foretaste of the above words of Rama, the above statement of Rama that he makes in all truthfulness, gets somewhat coloured. Many scholars look at this statement as an ‘afterthought.’ ‘He did have the suspicion in his heart; but when all ended well, he is trying to retrace his steps, to stand up on his feet firm, to get reconciled to the fact of the matter,’ is how many scholars feel about the above statement. True. It sounds that way, especially in the absence of the particular Sloka that is so thoughtfully dropped in at the right place and at the right time by the poet. But. There is the question of authenticity, of interpolation, which is a curse on all our classics. This happens with all our ancient literature. When one is able to see the play of ‘pada bEdham’ or ‘pradhi bEdham’ in the works of giants as recent as Subramania Bharati, it is not surprising to see such a question of ‘authenticity’ and ‘interpolation’ playing its role in a text that is thousands of years old.
“How much of this is post facto rationalization?” asks David Shulman (<a href="”> Fire and Flood: The Testing of Sita in Kampan's Iramavataram</a> and continues, “The text gives no clear indication, although the language is, once again, eloquent: Rama's kirti is precisely what is in question, both here and in his later decision to send Sita away. It is easy for the tradition to take at face value the hero's assertion that he was only staging a dramatic public vindication by ordeal.” Obviously, the text that David Shulman refers to lacks the Sloka in question, the thoughtful observation of the poet that we are discussing.
It is not David Shulman alone. Even Right Hon’ble Srinivasa Sastriyar, who has been one of our guiding stars in our efforts, feels that way. Here we are. Let’s hear him.

Public opinion 3

What Rt. Hon’ble Srinivasa Sastriyar concludes is based on the perception of a pure human drama, which does not take cognisance of the ‘fear of public opinion’ element, underlined in the disputed sloka. Clearly, the edition that the stalwart had did not include this particular sloka, which we shall call Sloka 11 from hereon. Rama appears to him to have been nursing an element of suspicion in him, for a moment. Like a flash in the oven. Like a sudden gust of passing wind that whips up dust for a while and settles down soon. It’s all due to the fact that the mind is not tuned to this particular – and important – angle, emphasised by Sloka 11 before Rama’s verbal whiplash commences. And, when one comes across the real reason spelt out by Rama after Sita emerges from fire, it either goes unnoticed or wears the appearance of ‘just another excuse.’ That’s how even Sastriyar – with all his taste for the drama and his uncanny ability to look straight into the heart of the character – looks at it.
“Later on,” he says, “when after the fire ordeal was over and in the presence of the great gods Agni himself handed over to him saying, ‘Here take back your wife. She is pure, pure in every sense of the word. She has not sinned; she has done nothing which could be called infidelity to you. Take her, Rama,’ and he takes her, then amongst other things he says, ‘I didn’t suspect her. I never had a doubt about her conduct. Do I not know that by the fire of her own conduct she could have burnt that chap if he had attempted violence? Do I not know that Ravana would have risked his very life if he had attempted to do wrong to her?’ He says all these brave things afterwards when she has been handed back to him on the highest possible authority. If you give hundred per cent value to these subsequent protestations, you must convict him of some insincerity and pretended harshness in his speech when he actually repudiated her. The two things are certainly inconsistent, that is to say, on first appearance.”
Agreed. The later statement

imām api visālāksīm raksitām svena tejasā |
rāvano nātivarteta velām iva mahodadhih ||
                         (Valmiki Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, Canto 118, Sloka 16)

‘It is not possible for Ravana to violate Janaki the large-eyed, for she stands protected by her own moral power. It is like the sea not able to cross its limits.’
is not consistent with the earlier accusation

na hi tvām rāvano drstvā divyarūpām manoramām |
marsayate ciram sīte svagrhe parivartinīm ||
                       (Valmiki Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, Canto 115, Sloka 24)

“Seeing you, who are endowed with a charming exterior and are (so) soul-ravishing, detained in his abode, Ravana could not have endured your separation for long, O Sita!” (See: The missile of mistrust)
One does not agree with the other. They are diametrically opposite. As Sastriyar observes if one has to go by the later statement of Rama, one has to reckon that he was not sincere when he repudiated her. That he was not true when he lashed out the charges. That his harshness was a matter of pretence. ‘Therefore, both the situations are true,’ he concludes. “He swayed between these two feelings and at first the worse feeling prevailed. He lent himself entirely to these sinister thoughts and under their influence insulted Sita beyond endurance and repudiated her in the presence of the world. That repudiation was sincere. There is no doubt about it,” he says and adds, “The subsequent repentance was also sincere.”
To augment this stand he cites what we do in similar circumstances. “When you have been wronged and are in doubt, when subsequently everything turns out well and all people smile round about you and you are inclined to pat yourself on the back for having been a fine fellow, would you not say, ‘I know this from the beginning, didn’t I? There was something in me that told me that she was all right and that I had no business to suspect her.”
That sounds good. But, with all my respects to you sir, if I am to accept this premise and say that his harshness was not born of pretence and that he was sincere at that time too, would I not be, by the very same acceptance, convicting him of insincerity in his trust? Trust is the very basis of love. And Rama’s love for Sita is unquestionable. Despite all that happened in the Yuddha Kanda that led to Agni Pravesa, despite all that would happen in the Uttara Kanda and the second repudiation, Rama’s love for her remains unwavering; unswerving. If she suffered his separation in the Uttara Kanda, it is also true that he suffered her separation. In a way, if it was a punishment on Sita, it is nonetheless true that it was a punishment that he inflicted on himself and went through the pangs of separation. Otherwise, why did he remain spouseless for the rest of his life? Would I rather not call his harshness a pretence, a feigned, put-on show, than tarring his love? And look for evidence for this standpoint?
That is where the missing Sloka 11 comes to our aid, in looking for more evidence on the question of ‘public opinion’ and its impact on not Rama alone, but on the family of Ikswäku. One has to see why Asamanja and Danda, two delinquent princes of Ikswäku race, were ostracised, driven away from the palace to the forest. (See: The story of Dandaka) Even the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Mahapurana offer several stories to this effect, including the story of King Vena, and the several instances where even Dhritarashtra and Duryodhana are concerned on the issue of ‘public opinion,’ if one has to see what it meant to the rulers of men.
One has to go to the fag-end of Uttara Kanda to see what Rama felt about Sita and how he pleads for a second oath, and what he says at that time, in order to see this theme of ‘public opinion’ repeated again and again. And, this issue does not rest there with Indian classics. It finds its place elsewhere too.

The wife of Caesar…

The incident is known as the Bona Dea scandal in history. Bona Dea – or ‘Good Goddess’ – also known as Fauna (daughter of Faunus), is the Roman fertility goddess, who presides over virginity and fertility in women. The Roman matrons conducted secret rites every year to Bona Dea. The rites, by tradition, were conducted not in her temple in Aventine Hill, but in the house of the Pontifex Maximus, which office was held by Julius Caesar at that time and that is how Pompeia, his wife, happened to organize it that year.
These secret rites were performed by a select group of patrician ladies, and demanded the exclusion of all men – even male beasts – who were prohibited from participation. Therefore, Caesar himself did not attend. It so turned out that one of the participants, though dressed as a woman, came to be suspected for a man and was ordered to be watched by Caesar’s mother, Aurelia. But the suspect escaped before his identity could be ascertained. Soon, rumours spread that it was Publius Claudius Pulcher who was the culprit and that Pompeia, who might have had a secret affair with him, must have arranged for his participation in the rites. The Pompeia – Claudius legend is not for us to go into now.
It was in that situation that Caesar sought to divorce Pompeia, though her innocence or otherwise could not be verified. The famous line, ‘The wife of Caesar must be above suspicion’ was spoken by Caesar during the course of the divorce proceedings. Opinion has it that as far as Caesar was concerned, this was more a political move than moral, because that was an easy way for him to get rid of a wife whom he married for political reasons.
Now, Caesar came out of a bad situation by disowning Pompeia. But what did he do to her name? Public suspicion, debate and speculation continues down the centuries as to her innocence or otherwise. The opinion is divided.
Caesar, can by no scale be compared with Rama; nor can Pompeia be with Sita. But the situation is. The dread of ‘public opinion’ and the consequent action is. Be it the first situation in Yuddha Kanda, namely, Agni Pravesa, or be it the second repudiation in the Uttara Kanda, it remains clear that Rama had to take the action that he did; but it still remains that he did not disown her. It is – if not largely, to an extent – due to this fact that while Rama comes in for sharp and strong criticism down the years for his action, Sita’s fair name glows as it deserves to glow, bright and unblemished. We write poetry to the effect that what Dasaratha did not suffer with sixty thousand wives, ailed Rama with just one wife. Fine. But, it goes to his credit that Rama takes all the brunt and has let the world see her unquestionable purity.
When we criticize Rama so very readily and happily, we forget his predicament. Sita was pregnant when the news of public criticism reached Rama. By the way, the popular opinion that he went by the opinion of a washerman is not correct. That is another hearsay; another myth. It was from a group of wise-men – Vijaya, Madhumatta, Kasyapa, Mangala, Kula, Suraji, Kaliya, Bhadra, Dantavaktra and Sumägadha – that he came to know about it. In particular, it was Bhadra from the group, who reported it to him. Who could have been more pained than Rama to take that decision! When Lakshmana reports back to Rama on her being left near Valmiki Ashrama, poet Ottakutthar says, ‘naatuLOr sol pazi kEttu vEdhanai utra andrinum mikka vEdhanai utranan vIran.’ ‘He was more pained (on hearing the report of Lakshmana) than he was when the news of public criticism reached him.’ One should see every sequence before coming to any conclusion about Rama’s suspicion.
Later, children were born in the jungle, in the Valmiki Ashrama. Rama was not aware of it. It is Satrughna who, on his way in his mission to kill Lavana, comes to know of the birth of Kusa and Lava and visits them. How pained was he to see the princes of Ayodhya, bundled up in rags and lying on the floor of the hermitage! These scenes would melt even the hearts that are made of steel. And then, Satrughna does not have time to come back and report the birth of children to Rama. He proceeds on his mission and comes back only after twelve years, which coincides with Rama’s performance of Aswamedha, by which time Kusa and Lava come to the presence of Rama, singing his own story to him.
And then when Valmiki appears on the scene along with Sita, this theme of ‘public scandal’ is emphasized again. “O son of Dasaratha, this pious Sita of righteous conduct was left by you near my hermitage out of fear of censure by folks,” he says. (Valmiki Ramayana, Uttara Kanda, Canto 96, Sloka 16) Rama stands up with folded hands before Valmiki and pleads, “The censure by people is great, due to which Maithili (Sita) was forsaken. This Sita, O Brahmana, was forsaken by me due to fear of censure, <i><u>although knowing that she was sinless</i></u>, so please forgive me.” (Ibid, Canto 97, Sloka 4) ‘bhavān ksantum arhati’ he pleads. Please bear with me; forgive me. Real greatness never hesitates nor is ever ashamed of bending down.
And lastly, pardon me for raising this sacrilegious question. If there was even an iota of suspicion ever resided in his heart, had he ever disowned her, would he have accepted the children as his own? Listen to him. “I know these two are my sons, the twins, Kusa and Lava and yet let her chastity be acknowledged by the world and be my love in her reinstated.” (Ibid, Sloka 5) These are matters that deserve our attention and serious pursuit, later.
With this, we shall return to our main course of discussion. We had, of necessity, to go into the question of Rama’s intentions, though it is Sita who deserves our attention now. Please do not get the impression that I have completed the study on this aspect. It stands incomplete and not well-developed. I return to the study of Sita now with the assurance that the questions that we have raised for ourselves will be answered and the loose ends that we have left untied will be taken up later when we study Rama.

What remains – a glimpse

The Agni Pravesa episode is so vast and has been discussed and interpreted in various ways that though the study we undertook thus far seems to wear the appearance of an elaborate attempt, it still is not exhaustive. There are so many points of interest, of debate still remain to be covered, to be gone into. We have not yet taken up for instance, the question of the implications of the metaphor ‘the body and the soul’ that Kamban employs and what does he suggest by his repetitive likening of Rama to the soul and Sita to the body. (See: The body and the soul – Part 1 and Part 2 and The soul-mate, the sole-mate)
What we have studied is only the dramatic element of the episode and the way the drama has been handled by Valmiki and Kamban and the conclusions that they point to – the conclusion has not yet been substantiated fully – from the sequence of events. We have restricted ourselves only to the elements of human drama that we have been witnessing, deferring the metaphysical and philosophical aspects for a later day.
Even as far as the drama is concerned, though we have covered a major portion and its implications, we have not discussed several questions that we have raised for ourselves, since they can be taken up with Rama. There is one question, for instance, that we put to ourselves when we took the detour from narration to discussion of the episode. “Why was it that Lakshmana was chosen for preparing the pyre, when the very king of Lanka, who had all the resources at his command, was standing close by?” (See: A word spoken by the eye)
This question is raised by Prof. A. S. Gnanasambandan (‘a. sa. gnaa’ as he is known) and is handled beautifully well in his book ‘iraaman – panmuga nOkkil or ‘Rama from the angles of different characters.’ The stalwart splits Rama’s character as depicted by the poets into ‘Dasaratha Rama’ meaning the Rama who walked the earth like any of us, and ‘mUla Rama’ or Rama the Supreme, whose divinity though perceived by several characters in the epic, remained unrecognised by himself, till the end. This is an aspect in the construction of the character that challenges the intellect.
‘If you eliminate the Bala Kanda and the Uttara Kanda in the Valmiki Ramayana,’ argue some of the Indian and most of the Western critics, ‘there is no evidence in the text that points to the fact that Valmiki intended his Rama to be an avatar.’ According to them, both the Bala Kanda and the Uttara Kanda were later additions. Of the two, it is the Uttara Kanda that comes in for greater criticism as to its authenticity. We will go into that aspect a little later, after we complete the study of Sita. We have to see the major arguments against Uttara Kanda and the reason why it still remains an essential part of the epic.
The premise that it was Kamban, who cast his Rama in his divine role whereas Valmiki – with the exception of the questionable Bala Kanda and the Uttara Kanda – portrayed him as a mortal alone, is once again arrived at, without taking into consideration the several instances where Rama’s divinity is spoken of to him in the remaining five Kandas. Many, including sage Sarabhanga, Sutiksana, Indra, Garuda, hint at his divinity throughout the Book. But Rama doesn’t seem to take cognisance of any of their words. Even Lakshmana tells him that he is the Supreme in the Yuddha Kanda when the news of the killing of the illusory Sita reaches them and Rama is perturbed. “Get up O tiger among men,” he goads Rama, “Why don’t you recognise yourself to be the Supreme Spirit, endowed with vast intelligence, O long-armed prince, who have kept your vows?” (Valmiki Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, Canto 83, Sloka 43)
Therefore, there is plenty of evidence on the contrary to the claim that Valmiki did not construct his Rama on the lines of divinity, which we will take up for discussion on completion of this study on Sita.
Coming back to the interpretation of Prof. A. S. Gnanasambandan (ASG), who subscribes to the view that Rama’s stance prior to Agni Pravesa, was only a drama, a drama in which he was the director and actor and which included Sita in the cast, whereas what happened was real to all the other characters standing witness to the event. Prof ASG feels that when this drama was enacted, Sita understood what Rama intended at the subconscious level and submitted to it with the knowledge that it was the manner in which Rama wanted her to tender her apology to Lakshmana. ‘That is why,’ Prof ASG contends, ‘when Vibishana, who is the king, and who has all the resources at his command was there, she asks Lakshmana to prepare and light the pyre.’ This is an aspect of the drama which we have left unstudied since this can be taken up with Rama.
With these few points – among others – remaining for analysis, we can now return to Sita, whom we left circumambulating the fire.

The role of Fire

The drama transcends human limits and human experience from this point, till the end of the scene. Fire has been playing a major role in the epic, from the beginning. It was from fire that Rama and his three brothers emerged. The payasa that Dasaratha divided among his wives came out of this fire. If Rama accompanied Viswamitra, it was to protect this fire that he tended during his Yaga, from being put out by the demons. It was before this fire that he took the hand of Sita in his. We are going to listen to Agni shortly about his role in wedding and the reason why he is the fittest authority for bearing testimony.
Again, it was this fire that witnessed the concluding of friendship between Rama and Sugriva. This however, is limited to Valmiki Ramayana. Kamban has not brought in this element of fire to witness the pact of friendship between the two, for his depiction of the relationship is quite different. Rama was the protector and Sugriva was the protected. Once again, it was this fire that – after so many years of servitude to Ravana – blazed from the tail of Hanuman and turned the city of Lanka to nothing more than ashes and embers. Ravana’s unbridled control over the elements that the poets enthusiastically describe was humbled for the first time by the setting up of fire. Reality strikes across the face of Ravana who had absolute control over the elements when Agni rose up to consume Lanka, heralding the liberation of elements from under his control.
And now, here, it is this fire which is going to rise up once again – in the words of Kamban – in anguish and agony to speak about the way she burnt him. The play of divine elements come to the fore in the scene as she circumambulates the leaping flames and pronounces her directive to the Lord of Fire for the second time, setting up conditions and asking him to act on her words, on the strength of her purity, her moral power.
When the news of Hanuman’s tail was set on fire reached her, she called up on the Lord of Fire – Agni – and sought his protection, asked him to remain cool to Hanuman, for the first time in the epic, demonstrating the fire that She is, exercising her Will on the elements, true to her words that she uttered to Hanuman ‘allal mAkkaL ilangayadhu aagumO? ellai nIttha ulagangaL yaavum en sollinaal suduvEn,’ I will turn the limitless Universe into embers with a single word of mine. What of this tiny island infested by amoral perpetrators? ‘Remain cool to him,’ she prayed then,

yady   asti  patisusrūsā yady asti caritam tapah |
yadi cāsty  ekapatnitvam sito bhava hanūmatah ||
yadi kascid  anukrosas tasya mayyasti dhimatah |
yadi vā bhāgyasesham me sito bhava hanūmatah ||
yadi mām vrttasampannām tatsamāgamalālasām |
sa   vijānāti      dharmātmā sito bhava hanūmatah ||
yadi mām tārayaty āryah   sugrivah satyasamgarah |
asmād duhkhān mahābāhuh  sito bhava hanūmatah ||
               (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kanda, Canto 53, Sloka 27 – 30)

“If service rendered to one’s husband has any value, if austerities have (ever) been practised (by me) of if there is exclusive devotion (in me) to my husband (please) prove cool to Hanuman (O fire)! If there is any compassion for me in the heart of that sagacious prince, or if any residue of good luck (still) exists in me, prove cool to Hanuman. <i>If Sri Rama, whose mind is set on piety, fully knows me to be richly endowed with morality and ardently keen on being (re-)united with him, (please) prove cool to Hanuman.</i> If the noble Sugriva, who is true to his promise, should (be able to) take me across this ocean of agony, (please) prove cool to Hanuman.”
‘sito bhava’ Remain cool to Hanuman, if my husband Rama fully knows my morality and purity, and if he is keen on our re-union. Agni listened to her prayers then, testifying to the truth that Rama did know her morality and her purity and was serious about their re-union.
‘nIyE ulagakku oru saandru,’ she would say in Kamban. You are the only witness to all that is good and bad in the world. ‘nirkkE theriyum.’ Only you know all that takes place around the world and the nature of beings. ‘karpu adhanil thUyEn enin, thozugindrEn eriyE, avanaich chudal,’ If you are the witness to the whole world, then you know what I am. If I am pure, if I am chaste, I pray thee, do not burn him. Remain cool.
‘Do not burn him,’ was her order to Agni in the name of Rama; in the name of her purity; in the name of Rama’s knowledge and understanding of her immaculate nature and his true intentions of a re-union. ‘Burn me,’ she says now. In the same name of Rama and in the same name of her purity. ‘Take me, burn me,’ says Kamban’s Sita. ‘Protect me,’ says Valmiki’s Sita.

That which could not touch a tail

Before she went round the flames leaping high in the air, Sita went round Rama as a mark of respect. Valmiki once again slips in a piece of information on the stance of Rama when she did so.

adhomukham tato rāmam sanaih krtvā pradakshinam |
upāsarpata    vaidehi    dīpyamānam        hutāsanam ||
                                                     (Valmiki Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, Canto 116, Sloka 23)

“Walking clockwise (as a mark of respect) about Sri Rama standing with his head bent low, Sita (a princess of the Videha territory) approached the blazing fire.”
She pressed on in the execution of her decision with determination and head held high. Sri Rama was casting his glance on the ground. It may be remembered that when this scene started he was found in the same posture. (See: Valmiki’s clue) There we saw him –

dīrgham usnam ca nisvasya  medinīm avalokayan |
uvāca  meghasamkāsam  vibhīsanam upasthitam ||
                                                    (Ibid, Canto 114, Sloka 6)

"Drawing a deep audible breath, and casting his eyes on the ground, he spoke (as follows) to Vibishana who closely resembled a cloud (in hue), standing near."

He was unable to deliver his order to Vibishana at that time and could not look straight when he uttered his command to bring her there. And now, he is unable to see what is going on. There can be no other reason for this ‘adhomukham tato rāmam’ that Valmiki draws our attention to. The scene began with him standing with his eyes gazing the ground and it ends with the same stance. He stands with his head bent low, avoiding eye-contact, when she goes around him. That is another piece of evidence that we collect now for our discussions later.
‘Let me stand protected,’ Sita prays as she completes the walk around the flames, before she leaps into them. “Inasmuch as I have never been unfaithful in act, thought and speech to Sri Rama (a scion of Raghu) who knows (the secret of) all virtues, let the god of fire in that case afford protection to me,” is one of her oaths taken before the fire. (Ibid, Canto 116, Sloka 27)
Kamban – unlike him – translates this portion almost fully, with a twist. ‘ganatthinaal kadandha pUN mulaya, kaivaLai,’ She of the bejewelled breasts and hands (adorned with) bangles, (said) ‘manatthinaal, vaakkinaal maru utrEn ennin,’ ‘If at all I am blemished of mind, of word (or deed), ‘sinatthinaal sududhiyaal thIch chelvaa,’ may you burn me; consume me O Lord of Fire.’ ‘punath thuzhaai kaNavarkkum vaNakkam pOkkinaaL.’ So saying she bowed to her husband, one who wears the garland of Tulasi (sacred basil). The last line emphasises the fact that Rama is none other than Vishnu himself. And what follows would emphasise that she is none other than Mahalakshmi herself, turning the leaping flames into the lotus bloomed sheets of cool water, her abode.
At this moment, I am reminded of the words of Hanuman, who after dipping his burning tail in the ocean and putting the flames off, witnessing the dance of flames on the city of Lanka, realising suddenly that it was there that she resides in the Asoka grove and is worried about her safety. At that time, after a moment of anxiety, he calms down, muttering to himself

yad   vā   dahanakarmāyam  sarvatra prabhuravyayah |
na me dahati lāṅgūlam katham AryAm pradhakshyati ||
                                 (Ibid, Sundara Kanda, Canto 55, Sloka 26)

“Or how should this fire, whose natural function it is to burn (whatever comes into contact with it) and has power over all, yet which could not burn (even) my tail, consume the noble lady (because of whom this miracle has happened?”
It is more than evident that the Fire is powerless before her. When it could not burn my tail even, there is no reason why to think that she could be harmed by this inferno that I have made of Lanka.
Yes. When the whole country of Lanka was in blazes, the small patch of the Asoka Vana remained safe, untouched by the angry long tongues of flame. What can this pyre do to her! Instead, it was Agni who was scorched.

Like a stream of ghee

The depictions of the poets – Valmiki and Kamban – and the sequences they follow in giving an account of what follows the Agni Pravesa vary. Kamban varies the sequence of events in that the appearance of Brahma on the scene, who appraises Rama of His divine nature, follows immediately after Sita’s entering fire, but before Agni emerges with her from the pyre. Kamban, not without significance, has altered the sequence. The appearance of Brahma on the scene follows the emergence of Agni, carrying her in his hands. Moreover, the very manner in which Sita enters fire is handled differently by the two poets.
“All the women (present on the occasion) screamed on perceiving her, adorned as she was, falling into the fire like an unbroken stream of ghee, (duly) consecrated by the recitation of Mantras, falling into a sacrificial fire,” says Valmiki. (Valmiki Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, Canto 116, Sloka 34) When she fell in, she fell like ‘an unbroken stream of ghee,’ into the sacrificial fire, which should obviously kindle the flames ever so high up. At that time a strange and loud cry rose from the ogres and monkeys alike. Rama stood there with tears blinding his vision. “Hearing the cries of those who were wailing as aforesaid, Sri Rama for his part, whose mind was set on virtue, thereupon became thoughtful for a while, afflicted as he was in mind, his eyes blinded by tears.” (Ibid, Canto 117, Sloka 1)
It is at this time, before the emergence of Agni from the pyre, carrying Sita unscathed, that the celestials, Kubera, Yama, the Pitrs (the eternal manes), Indra, Varuna, Shiva and Brahma, appear on the scene and address him. “The Maker of the entire cosmos, the foremost of those well-versed in the spiritual lore, and the suzerain lord (of the cosmos), how do You ignore Sita falling into the fire (the bearer of sacrificial offerings)? How do You not recognise Yourself to be the foremost of the hosts of Gods?” (Ibid, Sloka 6)
Rama says, ‘I do not know anything. I am just a human being, the son of Dasaratha.’

ātmānam mānusham manye rāmam daśarathātmajam |
yo 'ham yasya yatascāham bhagavāms tad bravitu mE ||
(Ibid, Sloka 11)

“I account myself a human being, Rama (by name), sprung from the loins of (Emperor) Dasaratha. And (yet) let the glorious lord (Brahma) tell me that which I as such (really) am and when I have come.”
Sita is yet to emerge from fire. Brahma gives a vivid account of the divine nature of Rama and adds, “For the destruction of Ravana You entered a human semblance on this earth. This aforesaid purpose of ours has been accomplished by You, O prince of those upholding the cause of virtue!” (Ibid, Sloka 28) On hearing the “excellent panegyric addressed by Brahma (the creator) the god of fire presently emerged from the burning pyre taking Sita (a princess of the Videha territory) in his arms,” says Valmiki. (Ibid, Canto 118, Sloka 1)
From the sequence of events (as given above from Valmiki), it is more than obvious that the episode of Agni Pravesa serves to bring the divinity of Rama to the fore, than otherwise. David Shulman <a href=>(Fire and Flood: The Testing of Sita in Kampan's Iramavataram)</a> beautifully captures the spirit of the scene when he says, “Note the course of development through this passage: Rama sends for Sita and addresses her harshly; she responds by denying his insinuations and protesting his repudiation, and jumps into the fire; the world clamours in outrage, and Rama is led to reflect upon matters and to inquire as to his "true" identity; Brahma then reveals the mythic and metaphysical components of his nature and the cause of his human incarnation. The sequence is carefully worked out and saturated with meaning. If one feels, as I do, that the issue of Rama's self-awareness is basic here (as it is in related episodes, such as the scene in the Uttara Kanda when Sita at last returns to Rama, only to disappear forever), then one discovers that Sita's trial by fire is actually more a testing of Rama than of her.”
When she fell into the flames, she fell like an unbroken stream ghee, consecrated by the chanting of Mantras, as an oblation, an offering. The perception changes completely in Kamban’s vision.

Scorcher of Fire

If she fell in the fire as an unbroken stream of ghee in Valmiki, Kamban looks at the event as the return of the Mahalakshmi to Her abode. Brahma has not yet appeared on the scene as it happened in Valmiki. She jumped into the pyre. But the fire was no fire for her. ‘nIndha arum punalidai nivandha thAmarai Eyndha than kOyilE eydhuvAL ena,’ he sings. ‘As if she returned to Her abode in the deep waters full of lotuses,’ ‘pAyndhanaL,’ she leapt in. It was not into fire that she fell. It was to her own temple, her abode, that she returned. For what she experienced was not Fire, the scorcher, the consumer of the universe. When the flames could not dry even the drops of sweat that had appeared on her out of anger moments back, how then is one to call this a platform of inferno! No. It was a sheet of cool, clear waters, so deep that one cannot swim across (nIndha arum punal’). The leaping tongues of flames were nothing but the lustrous petals of lotuses in the pond (‘nivandha thAmarai’). And she appeared as if she, the Lakshmi that She is, was returning to her abode on Her seat of lotus.
The element of divinity starts playing its part right from moment one. For Kamban emphasises in the third and fourth lines of the quartet the strange aspect in the drama. ‘pAydhalum,’ As she leapt in, ‘pAlin panju enath thIyndhadhu av eri,’ it was that fire which was burnt as simply and as easily as a bundle of milky white cotton wool, ‘avaL kaRpin thIynAl,’ by the Fire of her purity, of her chastity.
One is not able to but stand in amazement at the consistency of the metaphor that the poet maintains, thousands of verses across. If one remembers it, it was almost a similar situation way back in the Aranya Kanda, when she lit a fire in the forest and threatened an unmovable Lakshmana that she would jump into it unless he goes in search of Rama, to his aid. Take a look at the metaphor that the poet employed then. ‘thAmarai vanathidaith thAvum annam pOl,’ Like a swan that swiftly moves into a forest of lotuses, ‘thUma vengAttu eri thodargindraaL,’ she rushed into the forest fire that she kindled. The fire was a sheet of water and the flames were nothing more than petals of lotuses even at that time. (See: The other fire ordeal) Only, the fire was lit by her at that time. And it was Lakshmana, who moved away in order to stop her from falling into the flames, set them ablaze for her now.
Apart from the irony of that so subtly and poignantly emphasised, the poet underlines the divine aspect when he makes the deliverer of divine oblations, the witness of all the joys and sorrows of the world, he who is present on every holy event, who stands witnesses to the happy unions in wedlock, who diffuses this biological frame of a body when the soul departs, back to the elements, to be burnt by the fire of her purity.
If Agni emerged with her, after the appearance of Brahma in Valmiki and after his appraisal of His divinity to Rama, he emerges now from amidst the flames, carrying her in his hands, unable to bear Her a second longer. ‘azundhinaL nangayai angayAl sumandhu ezundhanan angi,’ sings the poet. The reader may remember our observation of Kamban’s natural joy that wells up whenever he sings of Sita. He goes almost always either high or low with her emotions. When he sings of her, his ‘viewless wings of poesy’ scales ever so new heights. ‘Unable to bear her, who fell in, the Lord of Fire emerged,’ ‘vendhu eriyum mEniyAn,’ His body boiled and burnt. ‘thozum karath thuNayinAn,’ His hands joined in reverence (to Rama). ‘surudhi gnAnathin kozundhinaip pUsalittu aratrum koLgayAn.’ His voice loudly seeking the protection of Rama, who is The Wisdom, the quintessence, the summum bonum of the Vedas.

Being a human…

The way in which Agni appeals to Rama reminds one, of the initial reaction of the slain Vali, lying on the ground, on seeing Rama. ‘irakkam engu ugutthaai?’ Where did you shed your mercy? ‘en pAl enna pizai kaNdaai, appA?’ Where did I go wrong? What was my fault?
‘What did I do to you? Why were you angered at me, as well?’ pleads Agni, to Rama. ‘kanindhu uyar karpu enum kadavuL, thIyinaal – ninaindhilai – en vali nIkkinaai.’ Rama, you did not realise that she is the very Goddess of purity. What did you do to her, and what did you do to me! You made me powerless. You made me lose my quality. More than that, you made me suffer, being burnt by the fire that She is. ‘ena, anindhanai il angi, nI ayarvu il ennayum munindhanai aam? ena murayittaan.’ So pleading, the Lord of Fire said, ‘You were angered with me too.’ Rama, you did not realise her nature and was angry with her. You had one reason or the other to find fault with your wife. Let that be so. But, what did I do to you? You made me undergo this ordeal of bearing her, rendered so totally powerless, and devoid of my very quality! I got burnt, instead of burning!
The interesting point to observe here is that Rama’s stance does not relent immediately on sighting Agni emerging with Sita in his hands, as it happens in Valmiki Ramayana. Rama continues to play the drama a little longer. He does not recognise the Lord of Fire at all. Whereas in the version Valmiki, he instantaneously identifies Agni and speaks to him, when addressed by him, vouching for the purity of Sita, Kamban’s Rama does not show any sign either of relaxing his attitude or of showing any knowledge of the person who emerges from the flames. ‘Who are you?’ he asks, instead, making Agni to reveal his identity by his own words. That is to say, he continues to remain a plain and simple human being unlike the Rama of Valmiki at this point. There are several reasons behind this significant modification brought about by Kamban. Though we may not be able to see all, let us see one, and an important, reason behind this.
The main element that has gone into the casting of Rama is that he should not be aware of his true nature, until Ravana is killed. Ravana’s boons did not afford him protection against humans and monkeys, because he did not seek that. Therefore, it was essential for the avatar to remain in complete ignorance of his nature in all respects. There are instances in the Valmiki – and of course in Kamban – where the celestials avoid Rama’s presence, in order to maintain the avatara-rahasya.
Something very interesting happens when Rama visits sage Sarabhanga in the Aranya Kanda. Indra was there with the sage, when Rama, Lakshman and Sita reach the precincts of the hermitage and Rama sees the aerial car of Indra there. Leaving Lakshmana and Sita aside, he walks to the hermitage, curious about the car and concluding that it must be that of Indra’s. Indra sees Rama from a distance. And he tells Sarabhanga,

ihopayātyasau rāmo yāvanmām         nābhibhāsate |
nishthām nayata tāvat tu tato mām drashtum arhati ||
jitavantam    krtārtham   ca   drastāham   acirād  imam |
karma hyanEna kartavyam mahadanyaih sudushkaram ||
                      (Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kanda, Canto V, Sloka 22 and 23)

“Here comes this Rama, before he speaks to me, make a move, let him not see me. Shortly, when he has conquered Ravana and achieved his purpose, then I shall see him. For, he has to do a great deed which is very difficult to be done by others.”
‘Let me go away before he sees me. I will speak to him after the purpose of the avatar is achieved.’ There are a few more instances to this effect, more or less similar, which includes the address of Garuda who appears on the battlefield when they are bound by the serpent noose of Indrajit.
Therefore, strictly speaking, Rama is an ordinary human being – as far as his own personal knowledge of his ‘self’ is concerned – and continues to be so from the dramatic and the philosophical points of view, at this moment, his true nature having not been revealed to him as yet. The logic with which Valmiki has handled his drama and the effect of the modifications brought about by Kamban are not for us to discuss now. They will be taken up later when studying Rama.
And therefore, as a very simple man, Rama puts the question, ‘yArai nI? ennai nI iyambiyadhu, eriyuL thOndri?’ Who are you and what are you saying, appearing from the pyre?’ You appeared from nowhere from the pyre and you are uttering something to me! ‘ip punmai saal orutthiyai, sudAdhu pOtrianaai!’ Instead of burning this woman who deserves no respect, you are praising her! ‘annadhu aar solla?’ How does this happen? On whose words, or orders, that it is happening this way? ‘Idhu aRaidhiyAl.’ Tell me. Let me know everything.
Agni then explains his role and how he qualifies to vouch for Sita. That is, Rama makes Agni to say in his own words that he is the fittest person to testify.

A witness to the Witness

‘I am Agni,’ begins the Lord of Fire, though we are able to see through the design that remains seemingly hidden but is cleverly wrought in a way as to be amenable to question and reason, that Rama wants to let the world hear the fact as to who has emerged from the pyre. This drama significantly differs from the five-sloka long speech of Agni in Valmiki Ramayana, where he does not say anything about his identity. Emerging from fire with Sita in hands, he says,

“Here is your (spouse) Sita, (a princess from the Videha territory)! No sin exists in her. The blessed lady, whose conduct has been excellent, has never been unfaithful to you – who are endowed with strength of character – either by word or mind or again by conception or even by glance,” goes the speech of Agni in Valmiki Ramayana. (Valmiki Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda, Canto 118, Sloka 5 – 6) The rest of the speech goes about how Ravana took her away and how she remained in Lanka and how her mind is always set on Rama. That it is Agni who is speaking is assumed or is understood. This is true as far as the audience who stood witness to the event on that day. Valmiki, however, tells us, the readers, about the identity of the speaker, before the commencement of the speech. ‘abravic ca tadā rāmam sāksī lokasya pāvakah,’ he introduces the speaker to us. ‘The god of fire, the witness of the (whole world), for his part then spoke (as follows) to Sri Rama,’ says Valmiki. That is, the reader gets the clear information; while the lookers on were left with their own resources to either assume or understand on the question of identity of the speaker.
‘He who is the witness of the world,’ – ‘sāksī lokasya pāvakah’ – says Valmiki to us. Now, take a look at Kamban. ‘Who are you?’ questions Rama. ‘You are blabbering something which I don’t understand. You emerged from the flames with this woman who does not deserve to be respected and are praising her, instead of burning her.’ ‘sudAdhu pOtrinAi,’ says Rama. ‘You should have burnt her; but did not do so. Instead, you are praising her.’ What could it possibly mean! If Rama was not really aware that it was the Lord of Fire, he could not have said ‘Why did you not burn her? And why do you praise her, instead?’ Look at the little phrase again. ‘sudAdhu pOtrinAi,’ You are praising her instead of burning her.
The purpose gets more obvious as Agni starts speaking. ‘angi yaan,’ he says. I am the Lord of Fire. (‘angi’ is the other way in which Agni is known.) ‘ennai, iv annai kaRpu enum pongu vem thI suda, porukkilaamayaal ingu aNaindhEn.’ I came here because I was burnt by the fire of purity of this Mother (of universe) and could not bear it any more. ‘urum iyarkkai nOkkiyum sangiyaa nitriyO,’ Are you still in doubt even after seeing all that is happening before your very eyes, ‘evarkkum sAndru uLaai,’ when you ARE the witness to the whole world.
‘He who is the witness to the world,’ introduces Valmiki. Agni’s self-introduction in Kamban opens with the remark, ‘You stand witness to all.’ The phrase ‘sangiyaa nitriyO evarkkum sAndru uLaai,’ read in isolation asks, ‘Do you still entertain a doubt, (about my identity on the one hand and about Sita on the other, when evidence is available to you in abundance) and need a proof, while you ARE the proof, THE witness to all that IS.’ The phrase yields itself to ever so many joyful ways of interpretation, true to the magic that Kamban is known to work with his pen.

‘So, you need an evidence, when you remain evidencing the world?’ Agni asks and continues to testify. ‘If that is so, let me make this very clear,’ he seems to suggest. ‘vEtpadhum,’ it is before me marriages are consummated. No marriage is complete without my presence. ‘mangayar vilanginaar enil kEtpadhum,’ it is I who stand in answer to the question of women swerving the path of wedlock, ‘pal porutkku aiyaam kEdu ura mItpadhum envayin,’ and it is within my purview to clear the doubts on any matter. And it is not I who claim the right, ‘maraigaL sollumaaL,’ the Scriptures say so Raghava! It is the Vedas that seek you and lead to you say that I do all this.
‘I am the authority in whose keeping is the sacred trust and I say this by the authority of the Scriptures, who owe their sanctity to YOUR authority.’
Quite a point indeed. Agni has something more to say.

Hari Krishnan


Dev மற்றும் Hariki

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