Bhagwan Rama's stance of supposedly abandoning Sita is often questioned due to a perspective which is blinkered and one which does not understand the nature of upholding Dharma.
One of the often debated topics regarding Ramayana is the exile of Sita by Rama based on the gossip of the Dhobhi. This is used as an example of patriarchal oppression by those who wish to depict Hindu Dharma as a regressive religion, that which should be discarded by the Bharathi. And it definitely does confuse many Dharmic Hindus, who worship Rama and Sita. I was asked this question and my answer explores why I hold Rama as an exemplary person – Maryada Purushottam. I hope this will give a new perspective for people to consider.
Why should we regard Lord Rama as Maryada Purushottama, when he failed to stand up for his own wife?
It is generally not advisable to answer for others, for such things should come from one’s own explorations. So I will not answer for “we” but will answer for myself with the hope that my exploration will give people some perspective in their own understanding.
Maryada, Uttama are relative measures. What is worthy for one person, may not be for the other. With all the gender-bending happening nowadays – Cis and Trans, even ‘Purusha’ is supposedly a relative attribute. Today, even standing up for one’s own wife or sisters, might be considered patriarchal by ‘progressive feminists’, hence the protests against Raksha Bandhan. But in truth, Raksha Bandhan signifies the Raksha provided by the sisters, by their prayers and will, as much as it is by the physical protection provided by the brothers.
It is always difficult to judge something and someone without knowing the context, particularly if it is a legend separated by millennia. It is more advisable to apply the teachings of the past to life today than apply today’s moral standards to them. Morality is relative to the context. For example, in an age where death during childbirth was high, infant mortality was high, the marriage of girls at a young age was the moral requirement to ensure the survival of the family. But today that context does not exist, and it would be immoral to follow such a practice.
Still the above are non-answers and do not address the question, so to delve further. Most of the discussions around this subject seem to be only on Rama’s actions and not on his motivations or inclination. What was the benefit to Rama, by thus separating from Sita?
• Was he in love with someone else?
While polygamy was the norm in those times and even after her separation, the Uttara Kanda does not speak of any dalliances or marriages. It only speaks of his sorrow. So no he was not in love with anyone else.
• Was he worried about the threat to his rule because of such gossip?
Given that he had earlier repeatedly refused the throne and had the prowess to win kingdoms by himself as well as quell any protesting rebellions, this also was not the reason.
Now, we can look at the nature of the person,
All through the epic, was there any case where Rama wanted anything for himself overriding the desires of his family, friends or allies? Did he at any point, place his desires above that of others? At the least, Sita had a liking for fancy pets – golden deers. But in every point in Rama’s life, he put the desires of his parents, his spouse, his people over his own. So, he had no personal motivation nor was it in his nature to cause this separation from Sita. Most critics don’t look at this aspect at all.
Then comes the question of Dharma, very subtle and pretty much impossible in its complexity to understand. Our legends can be seen at many levels – philosophical, metaphorical, theological, political, social, domestic and personal etc. So here are some points which make me admire and revere Kaushaalya,
(1) Assume you are an heir of a business house, groomed from childhood by your mentor to take over the top job. On the very verge of your ascension, someone overnight emotionally blackmails your mentor and makes you quit. How would you react? What are the other cases of such acts in history or legend? Parricides, regicide, hostile takeovers, nasty disputes in the court, public spats, isn’t that what we see? In recent memory, this is what happened with Cyrus Mistry and the Tatas.
But Rama was different, he could give it all up so easily and without any lingering bitterness, isn’t that worthy of respect?
(2) In a cultural context, where it was normal and even expected of royalty to have many wives, he and his brothers did not. In that sense, he was a social rebel but unlike others, his act did not hurt anyone, which is rare. Nowadays, rebels are more intent on destruction rather than providing an alternative.
So isn’t such an attitude worthy of respect?
(3) Our preconceptions regarding the ‘others’, not belonging to ‘our’ group are ever present, we constantly judge/evaluate/label people and are guarded in our every interaction. Class, nationality, regionality, caste, profession, there are a million ways by which we ‘other’ each other. But be it with Guha, Sabari, Vibhishana, Hanuman – all are as different as possible to the Royal Prince of Ikshvaaku, coming from different backgrounds, different regions etc. Rama never once exhibited such inhibitions.
That level of confidence in himself and his path, isn’t that worthy of honour?
(4) In the first part of his life, he gave up the kingdom easily for the interests of his family, but in the later part of his life he gave up his family in the interests of the kingdom. If there is a contradiction, then what are the chances it lies in our understanding?
(5) And was Sita just a wife? Assume you and another partner are co-owners of a concern which has gone public, but your partner was previously employed with a vicious rival who tried to cause your concern the most harm. Now, if your management is doubting the commitment of your partner and that is debilitating your concern, would it not be better for your partner to step away? Did Rama exile his wife or the Mahishi (Queen) of Kosala?
Majority of the activities in Hindu Dharma of a Grihastha are meaningless without the participation of the wife – Ardhaangini. Sita had as much responsibility as Rama to manage the perceptions of the citizens.
(6) Is Sita an unwitting witness in all this? A princess in her own right, she who persisted with conviction through great calamities in her life, now is it her husband who wants to be separated or is it her king who demands it? She could have gone back to her parents in Videha, as Damayanti did. She could have even gone Ayodhya and demanded an audience like Shakuntala did. She did neither, so she was still upholding her dharma as the Queen of Kosala.
In the movie, ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’, at one point the wife refuses to rejoin her husband, even though she herself is ok with the compromised solution because she realizes that she has come to represent all women, in that particular cause.
That is a sign of greatness, to realize that one stands for a particular cause and not compromise on personal grounds, that is the lesson Sita and Rama teach. For when they were merely individuals, they went away from Ayodhya for a personal family reason and chose not to be separated. But when they were the King and Queen of Ayodhya, they chose to be separated and not for any personal reason. That is the growth of an individual from focusing only on his/her own needs, to that of the family, to that of the society and to that of the civilization across times.
Not many of us can think beyond the needs of ourselves or at most the families.
(7) I am an employee in a family concern but it is not in good shape. The caretakers tell me that we have a great boss except that for 14 long years there has been no sign of him. Then he returns, seems things are good. But his wife has a huge part to play as well and is from a place called Videha which is not a sophisticated as Kosala. Worse, there is news that they had some trouble back in the past and were separated with her having come under the wrong influence.
Is society not capable of making such allegations? And had she continued, how long would it take for society to question the paternity of Lava and Kusha? But thanks to the events of Uttara Kanda, there was no such thing.
(8) There is this kingdom, which has not had a proper ruler for 14 years, a reluctant caretaker, a sorrowful house and a missing prince. People lacking in confidence and entirely dependent on the new king. But a twist of fate, they do not accept the person he loves. If he prioritizes his love over the welfare of the kingdom, what would have happened to the kingdom again, another period of uncertainty and collapse? Should he continue to put the family before the country? He could do it when he was a prince, but now, knowing the evils that exist in the world, which of his duties should he prioritize?
Edward VIII of England chose the love of Wallis Simpson and went away, he is not considered a role model by anyone. In movies, Amarendra Baahubali gave up the kingship and then his post as the General, and left the kingdom to the mercy of Ballala Deva, all for protecting his word and love towards Devasena. Sure he stood by his wife, but the kingdom suffered for it for many years.
(9) And looking at Sita’s life till that point, she probably was more familiar with Rishis and Ashrams than cities and palaces, if she had to live in exile, that would be a homecoming to her. I also wonder about the details of the exile, was it only from the presence of Rama- Ayodhya, or from the Kosala country itself? It appears only from the vicinity of Rama.
Anyway, all this is not a defense of Rama’s actions, just that these show the challenges he (and she) faced and evokes admiration for their handling of such great tribulations of life. Itihasa isn’t Dharma Shastra, hence it can’t be considered as instructions. But rather they tell a story of how exceptional personalities handled the conflicting contexts of Dharma.
–What do you do if your duty as a son conflicts with your career?
– What do you do when your duty as a husband conflicts with your survival instincts?
– What do you do when your commitment to a friend requires you to test the limits of ethics?
– What do you do when your role as a guardian to a society is encumbered by the love of your life?
– What do you do when the legitimacy of your children is threatened by slander?
Avataras and Itihasas – they are not there to provide easy situations or answers. They are for the cases of Dharma-Sankata, where the ever subtle and ever-changing Dharma is under stress?
Supposing you are in love with someone, but circumstances of your job, say a frontline soldier, causes a situation where your delay might cause you to lose the love, What would you do?
The answers to such quandaries depend upon the individual and the context. It is not easy for others to judge, even in the present day. So why are we judging someone from the legends? To have an opinion on anything, we should have either the experience or the expertise. Otherwise, there has to be empathy but we seem to show antipathy more.
Every one of us, depending on our own life experience will manage these situations differently. Rama and Sita – they have been venerated for their choices for ages. We should indeed consider their life and come to our own conclusion as to how it would help us. If it does so, then indeed hold Rama and Sita as inspirations, celebrate and venerate them. If not, then no issue, yet there is no need to abuse them or other people arriving at a different conclusion.
Note: There is a theory that the events of Uttra Ramanaya were not a part of Valmiki’s version and is a later addition. That should also be considered.