The story of Rama cannot be ignored, not because of its hero’s implied perfection, but precisely because of its opposite, his inexplicable and apparently remorseless transgressions from the code that he was born to uphold. Arshia Sattar explains
The story of Rama cannot be ignored, not because of its hero’s implied perfection, but precisely because of its opposite, his inexplicable and apparently remorseless transgressions from the code that he was born to uphold. After Valmiki, many of the mainstream Rama stories that have been composed elevate Rama out of the realm of blame, they seal the debate on his actions by simply asserting (if not actually intervening with) the idea that Rama is blameless, his actions unfathomable to the human mind, because he is god. Rama’s acts and deeds on earth are the consequence of his being an avatara of Visnu, sent to earth to restore dharma. With this assertion of divinity, it is indubitably established that Rama acts always for the good not only of his adversary/victim, but also for the good of human kind. Vali and Sambhuka’s deaths (like Viradha’s and Kabandha’s) become their individual liberation (moksa). Rama’s rejection of Sita at the end of the war is parleyed as illusory rather than real, a way to ensure that she remains entirely chaste as well as to ensure that the male and female divine powers can be united without hindrance. The humiliation of Surpanakha is justified by her base nature and is an attempt to rid the world of impropriety.
Suppose we were to put aside the claim that Rama is god because it is a narrative dead-end that closes all speculation about what might have led to these actions and what Rama might have been thinking when he performed these questionable deeds. As god, Rama is always right and always righteous. But if we approach him as a literary character struggling to come to terms with the hand that fate has dealt him, we can try and enter his mind, try and see the events of his life as he might have seen them, and attempt to plumb the depths of his heart as he kills without (apparent) justification and twice abandons the woman he loves most. This essay will stay firmly located within Valmiki’s composition which is the Rama-story furthest from the all-encompassing bhakti universe that renders Rama’s deeds beyond reproach.
Rama’s adult life can hardly have been easy despite his inner fortitude. The transition from crown prince to beloved king was not smooth and he had to wait 14 long and trying years before he could take his place on the throne. Fate intervenes in Rama’s perfect young life in the form of Dasaratha’s favourite wife who allows herself to be persuaded that it is her son who should be king. Rama’s immediate future is undermined by Kaikeyi’s wilfulness, but it is his father’s past and his father’s fate that turns the queen’s outrageous demands into a reality. Not only had Dasaratha promised Kaikeyi two boons when she had saved his life in a battle long ago, he was also carrying the curse of an old couple whose young son he had mistakenly killed. The old couple’s curse ensures that, like them, Dasaratha, too, would be deprived of his beloved son in his old age and would die without him by his side. In this analysis, Rama’s destiny is being determined entirely by his father’s past and not by his own actions — curses and boons given to and by Dasaratha are what allow Kaikeyi’s wishes to be fulfilled. Dasaratha is bound by more than one karmic fetter that forces him to give in to Kaikeyi and exile his son. Rama, on the other hand, is a victim of circumstance, paying an extremely high price for his father’s follies.
The bulk of Valmiki’s Ramayana makes us aware that Rama obeyed his father’s wishes with remarkable grace and dignity. Not only did he redeem his father’s pledge, he even forswore any hostility towards Kaikeyi and her son Bharata. His preternatural calm and serene acceptance of this sudden catastrophe in his life is brought into relief by the reactions of those around him: by his mother Kausalya’s grief, his brother Laksmana’s rage and the bewilderment of the palace retainers and courtiers. Kausalya rails against the unfairness of it all and Laksmana rants against his father’s senility. He urges Rama to take the law and dharma into his own hands and overthrow the aged monarch who is surely no longer fit to rule the great kingdom. Rama admonishes them both and finds solace in his wife Sita, who does not question the king’s command even as she begs to accompany her exiled husband into the forest.
But although Rama accepts his father’s decree with apparent equanimity, there are moments where he breaks down and confesses to confusion and a sense of betrayal. On their first night away from the city, “Rama, who deserved the best of beds, lay down on the bare earth and continued talking sadly… ‘when I think of the disaster that has befallen me as a result of the king’s infatuation, I feel that the pursuit of pleasure must be even more compelling than the pursuit of wealth or dharma. Even an ignorant man would not renounce his son for the sake of a beautiful woman. But our father has abandoned me, his most obedient son! Ah! Bharata is so fortunate! He is happy with his wife by his side, enjoying the pleasures of ruling over the kingdom of Kosala. He alone enjoys the pleasures, since my father is too old and I am stuck in the forest! He who abandons dharma and chases wealth and pleasure will surely destroy himself like Dasaratha did’… Rama wept in sorrow and then spent the rest of the night in silence in that lonely forest. When his tears had spent themselves like a forest fire that dies down or an ocean calms itself after a storm, Laksmana consoled his brother.” (Sattar, p 167-68)
Rama speaks of his unexpected exile as a “disaster,” suggesting that for all of his public equanimity, he has been shaken by this sudden turn of events. Even before this moment of despair in the forest, there are earlier indications about what Rama really feels when he hears the news of his banishment. “Though Rama had renounced the kingdom and decided to live in the forest, his mind was calm, as though he had transcended the world. Collecting himself, he suppressed his grief as he went into his own apartments to tell his mother the unhappy news. He entered the palace where everyone was celebrating, but he disguised his emotions so that the ones that he loved most would suspect nothing.” (Sattar, p 127) It is only in front of Sita that his face shows how hard the news of his banishment has hit him. He goes to tell her and “…he seemed sad and careworn, his face beaded with sweat”. (Sattar, p 137)
Though Rama does surround his personal discomfiture with references to the effect that his absence will have on others, it is quite clear that Rama is shocked and hurt by what has happened to him. He speaks of the king’s infatuation and is sarcastic about the pursuit of pleasure (kama), implying that his father, who was known as an upholder of dharma, had lost his head, succumbing to the pleasures that his young and lovely wife could promise him. Even an ignorant man would not forsake his own son for the love of a woman, but the mighty Dasaratha has done even that in his dotage.
It is reassuring to know that Rama is troubled by his change of fortune. Thus far, he has swallowed his grief and hidden his turmoil in front of his father and Kaikeyi, as well his own mother, Laksmana and Sita. He has taken refuge in dharma as he tries to sort out his feelings. Over and over again Rama says that he will obey his father’s wishes and that it is without sadness that he goes to the forest. Rama says to Kaikeyi: “You know that I do not crave wealth or material things, that I am like a rsi in my devotion to dharma. I would do anything to please my father. There is no greater dharma than service to one’s father and obedience to his wishes.’” (Sattar, p 126) Rama’s assertion that he does not cling to wealth is repeated often in the forest years and it develops slowly into a hierarchy of value where wealth and pleasure are placed below the pursuit of dharma. Even more so, the pursuit of comfort and pleasure become the basis of Rama’s criticism of his father, the wellspring of his anger at the fact that even a great monarch, in the twilight of his good life, could choose creature comforts and bodily pleasures over the right and the good.
When Rama tells Laksmana what has transpired, Laksmana loses his temper and urges Rama to overthrow the king. “As Kausalya wept, Laksmana spoke, his words appropriate to the situation. ‘I, too, do not like that Rama has to give up the kingdom and go to the forest because of a woman’s whim! The king is old and senile and succumbs to his lust. Who knows what he might say in the throes of passion… I shall kill my father who is impotent and infatuated with Kaikeyi! His dotage beckons but he frolics like a youth!’” (Sattar, p 130-31) Rama’s response to Laksmana’s bitter rage is righteous. “…‘obeying a father’s command is the highest dharma of them all… I cannot disobey my father simply because Kaikeyi, our mother, asked him to command me thus. Give up your ignoble ideas inspired by the duties of a ksatriya! Follow my example and take refuge in dharma and not in violence!’” (Sattar, p 132)
In the forest, however, Rama echoes Laksmana’s words and harsh judgment, admitting that his father had succumbed to infatuation and had done wrong by his eldest and most obedient son. Away from his role as the crown prince, Rama is able to shed his public posture and allow himself a moment of anguish. He also allows himself a moment of envy about Bharata enjoying the pleasures of the kingdom while he himself is ‘stuck in the forest’. It is Rama’s tears at this point that are so moving. One could expect anger at the injustice, perhaps even at the simple twist of fate that turned him from a man who was to be king to a homeless wanderer in the forest. But Rama in tears, not enraged but hurt, is our first invitation to think of him as a man with an inner life of personal hopes and aspirations rather than as a paragon of public virtue.
Rama is also deeply embarrassed by what has happened. He is aware that Dasaratha’s magnificent reputation as a good and just king, an upholder of dharma, built painstakingly over sixty thousand years, has been destroyed by this single act of choosing to grant his young queen’s ambitions for her own son. Rama knows that Dasaratha will no longer be remembered for the righteousness of his reign, but for the one irredeemable act of injustice against his son. Dasaratha’s fall from public grace because of his love for his wife will haunt Rama through his years in the forest, and will, ultimately, affect his relationship with Sita. Thus, Rama adds another burden to his own conduct — he decides that under no circumstances whatsoever would anyone be able to say that he acted like his father, that when faced with a choice which involved dharma and public righteousness he, too, had failed to do the right thing because of his love for a woman.
This terrible decision is fore-grounded with shocking clarity after the war with the raksasas. Sita hears the news of her husband’s victory from Hanuman in the asoka vana where she has been imprisoned for this interminable period of separation from her beloved. She is anxious to see him and tells Hanuman so. Hanuman takes this message back to Rama who is still on the battlefield. Contrary to all expectations, Rama does not rush to meet her. “Rama was silent for a moment and his eyes filled with tears. He sighed and looked down at the ground and then said to Hanuman: ‘Let Sita bathe and wash her hair. Let her adorn herself with jewels and anoint herself with rare unguents. Then bring her here as soon as you can’.” (Sattar, p 631)
When Rama sees Sita, “joy, depression and anger flooded over him” in contrast with Sita, whose “face lit up with love, pleasure and wonder.” But a moment later, Sita cannot believe what is happening to her or what she is hearing when Rama declares that he had fought the war to avenge the insult to himself. “Sita’s doe-like eyes filled with tears as Rama spoke. The more he looked at her, the angrier Rama became, blazing like a fire when ghee in poured upon it. He frowned and glared at Sita, speaking to her cruelly in front of all the raksasas and the monkeys. ‘I have done my duty by rescuing you from the enemy and avenging the insult to myself. You should know that this war… was not fought for your sake… I have terrible suspicions about your character and conduct. The sight of you is as painful to me as a lamp to a man with diseased eyes! You are free to go wherever you want. The world is open to you. I have no more use for you, Sita! How can a man born into a noble family lovingly take back a woman who has lived in the house of a strange man? I am proud of my noble lineage. How can I take you back when Ravana has touched you and you have lived under his lustful gaze? … I do not want you any more. You can go where you like… go to Laksmana or Bharata or anyone else that pleases you. To Sugriva, the king of the monkeys. Or to Vibhisana, the king of the raksasas. Go wherever you want. Ravana was aware of your beauty and your good looks. He cannot have kept you in the house for so long without touching you!’” (Sattar, p 633-34)
The scathing harshness of his words is apparent to all that are present. Their horrifying inappropriateness (to a wife who has been faithful and who has been languishing in captivity), when he tells Sita to go to another man — any other man, including her brothers-in-law — is laced with an unexpected cruelty. Nothing that we know of Rama thus far prepares us for this kind of emotional brutality and we have to look for reasons why Rama, usually so controlled in his responses to the most difficult situations, might speak and act like this. One reason could well lie in the legacy of shame that Rama has chosen to carry from his father’s last, befuddled decree. Somewhere along the way, Rama has resolved never to be accused of the same weakness, the love for a woman that clouds judgment. At this critical juncture, when he has to reclaim the woman who will be his consort as he returns in triumph to his kingdom, he cannot be seen to have given up propriety for the sake of love. In fact, when the gods gather to watch Sita step into the fire and she is restored to Rama by Agni, Rama says to them: “‘Sita had to be vindicated in the eyes of the world because this beautiful woman had lived inside Ravana’s palace for such a long time. If I had not subjected her to such a test, good people would have said Rama, the son of Dasaratha, is blinded by his love for a woman!’.” (Sattar, p 638)
But the Uttara Kanda places Sita once again in the realm of doubt when town gossip about the time she spent in captivity reaches Rama’s ears. She is pregnant, ready to bear Rama an heir to the throne. This time, Rama treats the calumny against Sita as a criticism of himself, a criticism that he can neither afford nor abide. Rama calls for all his brothers and sadly tells them of the decision that he has made. “‘Commoners and even prominent citizens hold me in contempt. I find that very painful. I was born into the great and noble family of the Iksvakus… in the presence of the gods and the gandharvas in Lanka, she was given back to me after she had been declared pure. I knew in my heart that the virtuous woman was innocent and so I accepted her and brought her back to Ayodhya. But now, the terrible things that people are saying make me unhappy. An infamous man who is the subject of common discourse goes to the hells of the unrighteous and stays there as along as the story of his disgrace is told. The gods do not love the notorious and even the world loves a man who is well-spoken of. Good men’s deeds are motivated by a desire for fame. I would give up my life, even renounce all of you, for fear of a scandal. How can I hesitate or do anything less in Sita’s case?’.” (Sattar, p 664) With that, Rama commands Laksmana to take Sita into the forest and leave her there to fend for herself as best she can.
On both occasions when Rama has to reject Sita, he mentions his family and its nobility. After the war, he says: “How can a man born into a noble family lovingly take back a woman who has lived in the house of a strange man? I am proud of my noble lineage.” And in Ayodhya, Rama reminds his brothers that he was “…born into the great and noble family of the Iksvakus”. Further, when the gods return Sita to him in Lanka, he says that he had allowed the public test of chastity because otherwise people would have said that “…Rama, son of Dasaratha, was blinded by his love for a woman”. Rama is clearly worried about what people will think and say about his beloved wife and, by extension about him, whatever he might feel about her innocence. And because he chooses to mention his lineage (which must include his father) both times, we can be persuaded that Rama carries the burden of his father’s folly and also that he is determined to compensate for it at any cost. This decision is personal as well as political: he, Rama, will not be tarred with the same brush as his father in terms of his personal reputation, but he will also not allow the name of his noble house to be further sullied by his actions.
But the second rejection of Sita, however, brings Rama back into the realm of his private life and personal loss. Rama’s sons, Lava and Kusa, are sent by Valmiki to recite the story of Rama at their father’s great sacrifice. The boys sing the marvellous tale to public acclaim and are eventually taken before their father. When Rama realises that he is listening to his own story, and from his sons, he asks that Sita be brought back from the forest where he had sent her. She returns and the sage Valmiki vouches for her virtue, accusing Rama of being afraid of a little gossip. Again, Rama says that he has never doubted Sita and that she “‘…has already declared her innocence before the gods. And I abandoned her, even though I knew she was innocent because I feared a scandal. You must forgive me for that. And I know that these twin boys are my sons. When Sita proves her innocence before the world, I shall be able to love her again!’.” (Sattar, p 677)
The years of separation from Sita appear to have taken their toll as Rama seems to have forgotten how to love her. Besieged first by fear for her safety and her love for him when she was abducted by Ravana, and then beset by longing and the pressures of righteous kingship when he sends her away into the forest, Rama has sacrificed his private self for his public monarchy. The dharma of obedience that had driven him into the forest, that had cast and sealed his actions as a warrior has also denied him his beloved. The dharma of the warrior and the king has overcome the personal dharma that Rama was looking for, one that might have allowed him to live more fully in the world that owned him.
Arshia Sattar is a translator and writer. Her published works include translations of the Valmiki Ramayana and Sanskrit tales from the Kathasaritasagara, as well as a book of essays, Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish. This essay first appeared in Little Magazine (Volume 8, Issue 5 and 6)