Rama, the absolute king, carried a heavy mantle as His feelings for His wife, brothers and sons were crushed under the crown He never sought.
The relationship between Rama and Sita has been an object of both adoration and condemnation, depending on where one stands. It depends also on whether one has actually put any effort to read the Ramayana or has just read articles about it. By solely modernistic values of equality (by which we mean sameness), Rama treated Sita as His equal — irrespective of what critics say. It’s another matter that they usually haven’t taken pains to read, much less reflect, to begin with.
Rama repeatedly proved Himself to be a worthy husband both publicly and in a private capacity. Publicly during the swayamvara and by invading Lanka when he heard of her abduction by Ravana. In the individual capacity, in episodes of Viradha-vadha, as well as by spurning Shurpanakha, He showed clearly how much Sita mattered to Him. When He was facing 14,000 rakshasas of Khara and Dushana, who had come to avenge Shurpanakha’s disfiguring, He sent away His only aide Lakshmana with Sita because he knew Sita didn’t like bloodshed of even the maneater rakshasas, and he did not want to make her witness it. He was so madly in love with Her that He first lost consciousness on seeing Her gone after the killing of Mareecha. Then, enraged, He decided to destroy the entire universe because the plants and animals around Him refused to tell Him where She was.*
(*It’s believed that Sri Rama was capable of communicating with trees and animals in their own language but, on this occasion, they stayed silent because they were too afraid of Ravana finding out that they had divulged the rakshasa king’s secret.)
There is also a story in Aranya Kānda, where Indra’s son Jayanta took the form of a crow and pecked Sita — on the foot according to some versions or on the breasts according to some others. Sri Rama instantly recognised him and angrily released a Brahmastra aimed at him. Jayanta tried to seek refuge everywhere, but from his own father to the greater devatas, nobody sheltered him. He ultimately had to return to Sri Rama, who forgave him only after blinding him in one eye.
Sita had voluntarily decided to follow Sri Rama into His exile, and then have a trial by fire after Ravana’s death. If one bothered to actually check the story, Rama did not ask her to do that. She asked for it Herself. And being of supreme political acumen, Sri Rama did not ask her to desist. Sita did it to prove to the vānara allies of Sri Rama that She was well worth the bloodshed and other hardships that they had to suffer at the hands of their mortal enemy tribes.
A lot of vānaras had laid down their lives in the effort to rescue Sita. So it was not a private action on the part of Rama. It was the action of a king, even if in exile, against another, in response to an act of aggression. Sita’s rescue was not so much in question as much as the honour of a king. Sita had Herself said that to Anjaneya (Hanuman) in so many words when He offered to rescue Her. She said it would be more prudent for Sri Rama to come and defeat Ravana first and regain His honour as a king. Rama repeated the same thing after Ravana was killed. Sita’s response to Rama was of a queen to her king. It highlighted an important social norm. In today’s era where a raped woman is said to have lost her honour, Sita made it clear that it was not so because the women in such cases are in a subdued condition. Rama was not Ravana, who would get all of His men, His friends, His devotees killed for the sake of a private indulgence. In fact, through Sita’s trial, He actually got gods to revive His dead army — when Sita emerged successfully from the fire, all the gods came to the couple. At that time, Sri Rama asked Indra for a boon that his soldiers be resuscitated.
But Sri Rama, unlike today’s politicians, wasn’t a servant to public opinion either. He was the king who was both the servant as well as the guardian and father of His subjects. The duties of the father include the use of the stick (or sceptre, the rājādandā in His case) when the subjects err. He did not hesitate to use that either. He banished Sita to the forests, caving in before public opinion. But since His subjects were not justified in trying to question Sita’s legitimacy, He punished the populace of His kingdom as well by never marrying again. When He did not replace Sita as queen, it meant the end of most of the royal yajnas in the kingdom as well. For most of the Vedic rites prescribed for the monarch, even if done for public welfare, uncompromisingly require the presence of the queen. He punished His people by depriving them of the punya they would have earned if Sita had not been exiled.
Rama had asked for a trial of Sita only once. This was after He had sent Her to the forest. This was perhaps the only time Sri Rama acted partially from a place of self-interest, personal, selfish motive, rather than what was the dharma of husband, king, son, etc. Perhaps, the person who wanted Her back was not just the father of Lava and Kusha, not just the avowedly-monogamous king in the need of a queen or a husband in the physical need of a wife. Perhaps this was the first and last time the forever-suffering, never-complaining hopeless romantic inside Him was begging the universe for something for Himself — His Sita. Rama was requesting His love to come back to him, without making Him lose face in front of His people, by accepting Her without a public agniparikshā.
Rama also publicly confessed before all of Ayodhya that He had sent Sita to the forest for the sake of His subjects. He added that Sita’s character was never in doubt, and asked forgiveness for it.
Sita refused that, however. Rather than suffering the humiliation, She chose to give up Her body and sought refuge back into the earth where she had surfaced from — and rightly so. She did not owe any proof to the citizens of Ayodhya unlike to the vānaras who had put their lives at stake in a war for Her.
Sita’s ‘death’ proved what Her life, and Her husband’s sufferings of separation along with Hers could not. She had asked the earth to reclaim her only if She had remained chaste and loved only Rama all along. In engulfing her, putting an end to Her body, and any hopes of any happy ending to this saga of ever-tormented lovers, the Mother of all life proved the strength of character of Her most illustrious gem of a daughter. Sita was such that the first name given by Rishi Valmiki to the tragic love story of the last great king of Raghukula was SitaCharitra.
Rama, being the man and king that He was, gracefully accepted it and continued with His duties as a king until He breathed His last at River Sarayu a few years later, remaining devoted to Sita in His heart and in His monogamy all along.
Pragmatic and patriot king
A mere cursory glance at the Ramayana — any version, any edition — is enough to decipher that Sri Rama was a deeply passionate, emotional, dharma-driven man. But He never let His temperament or disposition affect His judgment by acting impulsively. He was forever a pragmatist.
When he was returning to Ayodhya after winning over Sita in the swayamvara, Bhagavan Parashurama tracked Him down and stopped Him in His tracks. Parashurama had already acquired notoriety back then for killing 21 generations of Kshatriyas, and was beyond himself in anger. The bow that belonged to his guru and ishta deva Shiva had been broken by this seeming upstart of a prince. He threatened to kill Sri Rama, but the latter simply kept his calm and did not react in a disrespectful way towards the former. This despite the fact that it was almost certain that Rama would not be able to escape from Parashurama who was known to never forgive the transgressions of Kshatriyas. Rama, however, seemed unperturbed by it.
The Bhargava Rama, as Parashurama was also known as, soon started threatening Ayodhya as well. Sri Rama, not ready to accept this threat, angrily took out His own weapons and threatened to kill Parashurama in return if He threatened Ayodhya. Notice the difference?
On the one hand, Sri Rama was ready to die without even defending Himself even when He was justified in His actions. On the other, when the opponent was of the stature of Parashurama — not only a harbinger of death for Kshatriyas but also a great Rishi, a living god, an avatar of Vishnu, after whom Sri Rama was named — Rama refused to take it lying down as His kingdom and subjects had been threatened.
This is also the same concern that led Him to kill Shambhuka (refer to our previous instalment of ‘Raja Rama’ series) as well. Be it a small-time tantrika trying to use His people (Brahmin or no Brahmin) as disposable sacrificial animals or Vishnu Himself threatening the entire kingdom, Rama would fight them all.
He showed the same sensitivity to the duties of a king during His fight with Ravana. He had defeated Ravana in the very first skirmish the two had had, as Ravana was under-prepared and over-confident. Sri Rama could have easily either killed him or captured him and forced his people to exchange Sita for his life and safe return. He let Ravana go back, however, and the next time Ravana came to fight him, the rakshasa lord wrecked all hell and slaughtered thousands of vānaras alone. The king of Lanka was enraged because in between their two battles, Rama had wiped out his family. Rama had Himself killed Ravana’s brother Kumbhakarna while Lakshmana had killed his son Meghanada or Indrajit and Hanuman had killed his cousins Ahiravana and Mahiravana. Not just this, Indrajit’s wife Sulochana was rumoured to have received Rama’s ‘assistance’ in killing herself. She had reportedly demanded of Rama that He relieve her of her body when He had her husband killed. Since Sulochana was a devout, dharmic woman, Sri Rama had granted her wish, killing her instantly. A vengeful Ravana was so fierce in the battle, wishing to similarly wipe out the entire invading party down to the last man, that the battle is said to be comparable only to itself.
So why did Sri Rama show mercy to Ravana? It looked kinder for both the sides to either finish him off or trade his life for Sita’s freedom, end the war sooner, and be reunited with His wife.
But Sri Rama took the more difficult path — one where even the ultimate success looked impossible half the time. He did that because He had to discharge the duties of a king to their fullest, which included trying and seeing if the rakshasa menace could be completely done away with, alongside winning Sita back. Getting rid of rakshasa aggression for once and all, however, was not possible as long as Indrajit lived. Meghanada was a greater warrior than his father, equipped with the potent mix of the genetic mixture of nearly all the celestial tribes. His progeny, with the further addition of remaining celestial tribes from the ancestry of Sulochana, would have been an even bigger headache. He or she would have been undefeatable by probably even Vishnu or Mahadeva unless they destroyed the world as well in collateral damage. Thus, killing Indrajit, and preventing him from passing on his genes to a progeny to be brought up in an evil household, was necessary before killing Ravana.
Sri Rama waited for that to happen, risking the life of His brother, as well as His own in the meantime. Moreover, He had given a word to Vibhishana that Ravana’s youngest brother would be the next king of Lanka — the dharmic leader who would lead rakshasas to a lifestyle where they would go on to produce (at least) semi-dharmic heroes like Hidimbaa, her son Ghatotkacha, and his son Barbarika in the Dvapara Yuga. This promise, and the greater intention behind it, would also have remained unfulfilled if the timing of Ravana’s death was not correct.
Respect for authority and hierarchy
Kayasthas are a caste in India, who believe that they are the descendants of Chitragupta, the god who keeps track of every person’s sins and virtues, and presents them before Yama when the person reaches the abode of death for judgment. They have a curious tradition of not writing down anything on the day next to Diwali, and the lore connects it to Sri Rama.
It’s said that when Sri Rama returned to Ayodhya and was coronated, Guru Vasishtha was in charge of the preparations. He or one of his disciples forgot to add Chitragupta to the list of invited gods. An enraged Chitragupta kept aside his pen and did not record the deeds of people for a whole day, nor did he read out the records to Yama. This caused chaos in the universe as Yama did not know what to do with people who had died on the day next to Diwali and had gathered in his court for being judged. It is to honour their ancestors’ decision on that day that Kayasthas don’t read or write on that day even to this day, and resume it only the next day after invoking the blessings of the divine record-keeper.
Then Sri Rama, despite being an avatar of Vishnu, worshipped Chitragupta along with Guru Vasishtha and begged for his forgiveness. This shows how much He appreciated and respected the established hierarchy and authority, even though He clearly possessed His own authority (as the avatar) to challenge it. He did show His superiority over gods in His clash with Samudra before the Lanka war. He did not do it with Chitragupta because the former occasion was of war, where whatever was appropriate and expedient was the dharma of the moment. In the peacetime conditions, however, hierarchy and dharmic procedures were clearly laid out. Today’s politicians, who act out the cynical ‘never apologize — especially when you’re wrong’ aphorism can certainly learn from Him.
This brings the ‘Raja Rama’ series to an end, touching as many aspects of Sri Rama’s polity as He let us. It ought to make the reader revisit the epic and look at its stories and themes afresh.
It is said that the Ramayana is the heart of India (much like its sister epic Mahabharata is India’s mind), and its religion. This is an understatement of the cosmic scale. This essentially tragic love story of ‘star-crossed’ couple Rama and Sita is many more things than what one writer can hope to unpack in a lifetime. It is a song of separation and longing, of the war between Apamaryada and Maryada, of struggles in families, of enmities between tribes, and reconciliations forged in bloodshed, of grace under just not pressure, but a lifetime of pain and tribulations with no reprieve.
It offers no ‘redemption’ — Rama, the complete king, finds His mantle so heavy that everything He loved, from His father to the love of His life, is crushed under His crown which He never sought.
Rama, the brother, is weighed down by the guilt of being the reason two of His brothers were sitting outside the royal capital and imitating His hardships, and one is following Him into the fires of his life. At the end of it, He ends up having to choose between killing his brother or exiling him for good.
Rama, the father, sees His children for the very first time only when they are full-scale warriors already. He never gets to see their infancy, never gets to play with them, to see the wonder of “my father is the best” in their eyes even though, of all people, for Him it would have been literally true. Just a few days after meeting them, in front of their eyes, He becomes the reason their mother died — and then has to live with them.
Rama, the husband, the lover, the one burning forever in his yearning for Sita… It’s impossible to try and capture the essentially existential pain and suffering of that aspect in words. Suffice to say that maybe that’s one Rama who never died — the Sarayu could not kill that Rama; Vishnu perhaps did not take that part of Rama back into Him. Even the cataclysms at the end of yugas did not end Him — or His suffering.
Like the heroes of those Chinese and South American lore, maybe Rama the lover is still around — maybe He haunts us all, maybe it’s He who cries bitterly over His helplessness and His godliness every time we read how Rama could not prevent Sita from going back into the earth, or how He fainted on hearing that his father was dead…
Ramayana offers no redemption, only tragedy. And yoga. The karma yoga of doing what needs to be done when you are in some situation or position, no matter how much suffering it causes, with no reprieve. That is what gives Rama the strength to be what He was, is, and will always be — India’s Hindu Hriday Samrat, India’s Raja Rama, the king who stood head and shoulders above His contemporaries, Sita’s Rama, the SitaRama… He moistens our eyes and fills aching hearts as much as He grandly adorns our cry, “Jai Sri Rama”.