Sita can also be seen having to solve ethical puzzles that impact her life as a consequence of Rama’s banishment from Ayodhya. As an ideal woman, she likewise decides on the most dharmically sound course of action for a woman facing a situation like hers; what is more notable, however, is that Sita is able to successfully arrive at how best to preserve dharma when Rama cannot. I refer specifically to the episode in which Rama informs Sita that he is leaving for the forest and asks her to stay in Ayodhya, as the forest is an unsuitable place for a princess. It is surprising that Rama has just finished convincing his mother that she must not try to follow him into the forest, as Kaushalya’s place is in the palace with her husband (21). He, in fact, states a wife remaining with her husband to be the eternal dharma. By the same principle, it should be clear that any course of action which would see Sita living apart from Rama after his departure would be adharma for her and would potentially bring disgrace upon her. We might be willing to allow that Rama is only suggesting out of concern for her that Sita stay in the palace apart from him for fourteen years, but it nevertheless does not explain his inconsistency regarding what he has already declared to be the eternal dharma for wives. Sita, however, is fully aware of this inconsistency and does not hesitate to confront Rama about it: “Your advice that I should stay here in the palace while you go to live in the forest is unworthy of a heroic prince like you, Lord…I am your half: and because of this, again I cannot live without you. In fact, you have often declared that a righteous wife will not be able to live separated from her husband” (22-23). The debate between Rama and Sita actually amounts to something more than an argument between a concerned husband and his wife. Rama is convinced and stubbornly adheres to the belief that what is most fitting for Sita considering her personal dharma, is that she “should stay behind and serve my people here” in light of her upbringing and her unfitness for the forest (23). All this, while ignoring the clear dictates of the eternal dharma for wives to always serve their husbands. This suggestion pains Sita to the point that she threatens suicide. As it turns out, however, it is her case which is more dharmically sound, and Rama must accede to her wish to follow him into exile. Just as Rama seems to suggest that following the principle of obeying one’s father somehow absolves him of the sin (if not the pain) of not staying in the palace to care for his mother, Sita similarly states: “Serving you, I shall not incur the sin of leaving your parents: thus have I heard….that a devoted wife remains united with her husband even after they leave this earth-plane” (23-24). Her argument is as logically airtight as any put forth by Rama in the epic, and indeed, he seems to finally realize he has met his match when he makes the remarkable statement, “Sita, I could not fathom your mind…” (24). At the argument’s close, we see Sita just as devoted to dharma, and just as capable of choosing her own proper dharmic course, as Rama.
Also worthy of consideration are the points at which Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, or all three, get dharma completely wrong or are duplicitous about it. Such is the case with the cruel disfiguration of Shurpanakha. After the demoness falls hopelessly in love with both Rama and Lakshmana. Rama toys with her by suggesting that she marry his brother, who is single. Lakshmana takes the joke too far when he retorts that, if Sita is gotten rid of, then Shurpanakha can marry Rama. When Sita is nearly eaten by the demoness, Rama rebukes Lakshmana, “What are you doing, Lakshmana? It is not right to jest with cruel and unworthy people” (27). Is this not precisely what Rama had been doing by making the unrealistic (not to mention adharmic) suggestion that the smitten demoness marry Lakshmana and by addressing her as “charming lady”? He did, after all, start the jest to begin with. While Shurpanakha is a violent creature by nature, her initial appearance in this episode is harmless enough–she is completely captivated by the beautiful princes. If she is at fault for threatening Sita, the princes themselves are equally at fault for toying with Shurpanakha even after a blatant verbal threat to Sita’s life has been made. The consequence of Rama not living by his own rules in this episode is indeed disastrous, as it is this episode which sends Shurpanakha to the refuge of her brother Ravana, eventually precipitating Sita’s abduction and the war to follow.
Similarly disastrous are the consequences when Rama and Sita, bewitched by Maricha disguised as the magical jeweled deer, refuse to listen to Lakshmana’s perspicacious good counsel. Sita brushes aside Lakshmana’s clear warnings regarding the deer with a brusqueness that seems to foreshadow her cold words to him when he refuses to go to Rama’s aid later in the same episode. Rama, on the other hand, is similarly bewitched by the animal, but gives a dharmic excuse for not heeding Lakshmana’s warnings: “[P]rinces do hunt animals and cherish their skins. By sporting and hunting, kings acquire great wealth! People say that that is real wealth which one pursues without premeditation…If, as you say, it is a demon in disguise, then surely it ought to be killed by me…” (31). Rama’s excuse is that there is no harm in hunting the animal, as it is in princely/Kshatriya nature to hunt for sport, and if the animal turns out to be a demon in disguise, so much the better for having hunted and killed it! Here, it is Rama who misuses dharma in coming up with an excuse for not being duly on his guard even when Lakshmana spells out in the most exact of terms the threat at hand. The results are, of course, devastating. Rama and Sita fall right into the demon’s trap. This is immediately followed by the troubling scene in which, after Rama has gone off in pursuit of the deer, Lakshmana refuses to leave Sita unprotected, only to be falsely accused by her in the harshest way. Whether we sympathize with Lakshmana or not, he chooses wrongly in not abiding by his older brother’s instructions and succumbing to Sita’s sharp words.