|Courtesy - http://en.wikipedia.org/ - a Raja Ravi Varma|
Almost all my life, I’ve grown up listening to stories from Ramayana. Not a Dussera would pass without the reciting of Sundarakanda and Pattabhishekam (by my parents). You could say I inherited the devotion. But more than the spiritual aspect, as a story-teller, I see Ramayana as an enduring, engrossing, engaging, action-packed, tragic love-story.
When Rama was banished to the forest, he never expected Sita (or Lakshmana for that matter) to join him. Sita did not accompany her Rama because of a sense of duty, but because of something even simpler – she utterly loved him, as he did in return (something lost on the good judge who chose to lecture a lady seeking a divorce). Sure, Sita would have had her misgivings, her anger, her fear – but none of these was able to override the fact that she loved Rama, and living apart was out of question.
I came across jocular opinions where people say Rama took his time in finding Sita. I think of Rama’s plight when he discovers that his wife has gone missing. Where would you search for your beautiful, gentle, trusting wife in a brooding, dense forest? Has she been attacked by an animal? Is she lying wounded somewhere? Did she go this way...or that? Is that her voice? Is that her footstep? Is that her cry?
Every waking moment must have been a torture for Rama. Who has Sita? Where is she? Is she being tortured? Is she alive? Is she calling out his name? And here he is – just a man with just a bow and a quiver full of arrows. A man who is absolutely helpless – who has to walk in a directionless way – simply because staying still is not an option; knowing every passing minute, the distance between him and Sita is widening; knowing that the possibility that he may never see his wife is increasing. A man who has no army to speak of, save a devoted brother.
Imagine Bharatavarsha of those days – a land of soaring mountains, fierce rivers and impenetrable forests. What would you do to go in search of a missing one? You have no transport to speak of, no communication system to aid you. You do the only thing possible – walk, walk, walk. Beg, plead, cajole information out of every living being you encounter. You finally get information that is reliable. There is a rumour that Sita could be held captive in a remote island down south. And here you are – stuck in the north. You cannot do this on your own – you need manpower, you need transportation, you need weapons. This is now a political strategy – you can recruit an army only by rendering your kshatriya services. This is time consuming, but you have no choice.
Sita is nothing but a pawn in a man’s game. Ravana is known to be a man of charm and charisma, a very gifted musician and a great scholar. His abduction of Sita was more of an act of vendetta, than an act of dumb lust. His sister was disfigured by those two brothers – now they had to pay the price. What better way to punish a man than to rip his honour to shreds? What better humiliation can be delivered to a man than by seducing his wife? Indeed Ravana had no doubts that Sita would succumb to his charms – what was lacking in him after all?
His mistake was he that he underestimated his quarry. He initially thought torture of rakshasis in Ashoka vanam would break Sita’s spirit – but it only strengthened her. He thought his pestering visits, now entreating, now threatening would weaken her resolve. But her faith and love in Rama only increased.
Sita did have a chance to escape with the help of Hanuman. Ramayana would have been over in a jiffy. But she chose to walk out to freedom with her head held high, rather than sneak out on a strange creature’s shoulders in the middle of the night. No, freedom without dignity is no freedom at all. Besides, the evil in Lanka could be annihilated only by one man – her Rama. She had to wait. It would mean more days of torture. It would mean Rama could be killed in the battlefield. It could mean she herself could be killed. All that was acceptable – what was not acceptable was surrendering in spirit in front of Ravana. What a cold reserve! What an icy determination! What an unshakeable faith!
I think of her second banishment and I dwell on the tragedy of being Rama. In those days, one did not just clamber on to a throne. Becoming a king and a ruler was not a whimsy. It was considered a duty bestowed upon one’s head by gods no less – and the subjects’ wishes was the king’s command (not the way it is today). Indeed one could sit on a golden throne, wearing golden crowns – but if credibility was lost, you were no longer a king; you would have failed miserably in your duty – a matter of great shame. So when that confounded whisper started, what options did Rama have?
He could have punished the rumour-monger – that would only strengthen the rumour and harm Sita even more.
He could have given up the throne and gone away with Sita. But once again, that would validate the rumours – and besides, what kind of a warrior King and Queen would sneak away with lowered heads?
He could ignore the rumour – but that would only spread like forest fire.
The only option left was too hideous, too cruel. Should he fail in his duty as a king? Or should he fail in his duty as a husband? He was a ruler first, husband later – his dharma asked him to choose the latter. Knowing Sita – she would have left him either way.
I imagine Sita – and despite what is usually depicted (a weeping, helpless Sita )– I imagine her assessing the situation with her characteristic calm, surgical determination. She could protest and stay on. That would only mean listening to rumours about her character day after day. It would mean seeing Rama’s credibility being erased. It would mean her children would grow up in ignominy. No – she had too much of pride to grovel and protest and stick on in a place where her dignity was not honoured. She had too much of pride to be with a man, who despite his undying love, was bound by his duties and was destined to fail her.
I bet as she walked out head held high, she did not shed a drop of tear much to the disappointment of the gawking crowd.
It amuses me when ‘learned’ people today ask women to be like ‘Sita’ in a flippant way – they view Sita as an ever-suffering wife who followed her husband like a tethered cow. But yes, I want to be like Sita. I want to have her cold reserve, her calculated determination, her absolute hold on her right to dignity, and her pride even in the face of adversity. Indeed, I wish more and more women were like Sita – there would be fewer burning houses.
And Rama...oh Rama! Despite being a king, his personal life was always in tatters – he had but a fleeting period of companionship. His crown was his curse and he was never able to give Sita a life she deserved – a guilt that must have eaten him away. When he took that decision – he knew he was condemning himself for life too. What greater pain is there than the pain of having failed an innocent loved one? What a curse to be devoid of the joys of fatherhood – to never see your children born, never hold them in your hands, never hear their first words? Rama is more than a symbol of monogamy. He is the lonely warrior, the dutiful king, a cursed lover.
To me, he will always be the man who bore his suffering with dignity, he will always be Maryada Purushotam.