Sri Rama sat on his throne eagerly awaiting the news of his kingdom and citizens that his spies were bringing him from all parts of the country. Five of the six spies reported only good news. It seemed everyone was prospering, the harvest had been bountiful, there were no major illnesses breaking out and generally all was well in Bharatvarsha. The sixth spy stood fidgeting uncomfortably. He was looking down at his feet as he too parroted the words spoken by his comrades, that all was indeed well, while his peers glared challengingly at him. Sri Rama understood at once that the spy wasn’t being entirely truthful.
‘Speak freely’, he encouraged the man, do not worry about your colleagues, you will come to no harm’.
‘Its nothing my lord, the man said, shifting uneasily, just a domestic quarrel that I was witness to…’
‘Please tell me’, Sri Rama encouraged, ‘I wish to hear everything, small, big and the seemingly inconsequential’.
‘It’s just that a washerman was not allowing his to wife re-enter her marital home, because she had lived a few days in another man’s house. The washerman’s mother was arguing on behalf of the wife that she was innocent and pure and she should be allowed to return home. But the washerman wasn’t having any..I’m not Sri Rama, he said, that I will allow my wife back into my house after she has cohabited with another…’
‘Forgive me my Lord, beseeched the spy, as he looked up to see his King’s stricken face. It was a look that would haunt him the rest of his life. Sri Rama waved his hand dismissing the spies as he sat slumped on the throne of his illustrious ancestors. The silence in the court was deafening.
That night in his chambers with the peerless Bharata, Sri Rama paced up and down, ‘Execute me, dear Bharata, Sri Rama pleaded, I have failed in my duties, I have brought shame to the Raghuvamsa name. Either execute me or send me into exile. What am I to do, what do I do, Bharata?’ Bharata knew better than to offer his distraught brother meaningless platitudes. He knew that his brother would eventually act only according to Dharma. The two brothers hugged each other wordlessly.
The next morning Sri Rama sent for Lakshmana. Lakshmana came into Sri Rama’s chambers, with a challenging, belligerent look in his eyes, for the goings on in the court had reached his ears. ‘Lakshmana , I need you to escort Sita into the forest and leave her at the ashram of Rishi Valmiki…’
‘I knew it! I knew you would suggest this madness’ yelled Lakshmana, not blessed with either the forbearance of Bharata or his faith. ‘One ignorant washerman’s words were all it took for you to doubt Sita’s purity. You have already subjected her to the Agnipariksha, you know there is none purer than her in the entire universe. And she is pregnant for heaven’s sake, had you forgotten…’ Lakshman halted mid-breath. The steely glint in his brother’s eyes, the face wiped clean of any emotion were all too familiar to Lakshmana. He had seen it many times in their many years of exile. Sri Rama never ever quailed even at the most insurmountable odds. His back straightened, his shoulders squared, nothing but nothing would come in the way, once his target had been set. This then was not his beloved brother he was railing at. This was his monarch. Lakshmana sighed defeatedly and dragged himself to his sister-in-law’s chambers.
Unsurprisingly, the look on Sita’s face was near identical to the one he’d seen on his brother’s. Only her face was softer, writ with sadness and sympathy for him at his difficult task.
A few hours later dressed in simple homespun garments, shorn of all her finery, her jewellery, her handmaidens, Sita walked alone, silently, alongside the weeping Lakshmana as he escorted her to the court. There in the presence of all the elders, Sita and Sri Rama bowed to each other formally and she turned away and walked out of the courtroom, unquestioningly, without a backward glance, one hand protectively covering her burgeoning belly, while the entire court erupted in wails.
This incomprehensible act of banishing his pregnant wife by Sri Rama whom we address as God has severely challenged the faith of many a Hindu and even broken it. As a student of mythology , as a storyteller and as a feminist, this question is regularly thrown at me. And it pains me that we as a nation have not had teachers who could address this primal wound of a beloved god treating his faithful wife as he did.
I would like to begin my attempt at an explanation, that growing up in a Sri Vaishnav home, our Ramayana ( and there are many) ended on Deepavali, when Sri Rama and Sita returned home and Sri Rama was crowned- Sri Rama Pattabhishekam. The End.
This story of the washerman appears in the Uttara Kanda and Sri Vaishnavs consider it an interpolation to the original text. When I read it and asked my parents, they dismissed it as, would the Sri Rama we know and love, who had been fair and respectful to every woman he had come across, his three mothers, Ahalya, Shabari, Tara, Mandodari, ever be capable of such a thing? It is said that as per traditions prevailing in those days, Sita left for Mithila for the latter part of her pregnancy and when her twin sons came of age they were sent to Rishi Valmiki’s ashram for their higher studies and military training. So we could end it here couldn’t we, that none of this ever happened. But I have much more to say on this subject, as you suspect rightly.
The eponymous story of Sri Rama who is the 7th avatara of Vishnu takes place in the Treta yuga, about 18 million years ago. Sri Rama was Dharma incarnate. It is really hard to explain Dharma in the limited vocabulary of English. But essentially it is a socio-politico-religio-spiritual code of conduct for each of the many roles we as humans play. It is easier to understand if we think of Dharma as sets of venn diagrams. Lets consider a human male banker who is also a husband, a father, a citizen of India. Each of these roles are sets of a venn diagram of dharma and mostly they sit comfortable as nesting dolls within each other. Sometimes his dharma as a banker takes him away from his dharma as a husband and father. Which is when it gets challenging. Then suppose as a banker he finds that his bank is involved in a fraud. Is he duty bound as a citizen of this country to report the fraud as opposed to the Dharma to his employer the bank, which helps him in his role as a provider, husband, father etc?
We are very familiar with the phrase Dharma Sankat, a testing time when we are not sure what is the right path for us to take. It was this period of Dharma Sankat when Arjuna went crying to Sri Krishna that he would not fight his kinsmen. And Parthasarathi sings his sweet song, the Bhagwad Gita, to straighten out Partha, that what he called Dharma Sankat was actually adharma, to his duty as a warrior. Who is a warrior, but someone who fights the good fight against injustice, protecting and supporting those who cannot fight for themselves. The beauty of Dharma is that there is no Dharma Sankat, there is no ambiguity there. Dharma is Absolute. The righteous will always know that and will always walk the walk. As Sri Rama did. His primary job was that of an able ruler to the citizens of the country. And oh the irony, his wife, the queen, had lived for nearly a year in the house of the sworn enemy of his people, nay, the whole of mankind.
To give a modern day context to this, when the UPA alliance won the general elections in 2004, Sonia Gandhi was a front runner to the post of the PM. Sonia Gandhi an Italian by birth had become an Indian citizen upon marriage with Rajiv Gandhi. Yet, it was unpalatable for most of the opposition and most of the nation that an ‘Italian’, and ‘outsider’ would be the leader of the country, while legally there was nothing preventing her. Even though all of us Hindu women, upon marriage not only lose our family, we lose our gotra, our caste (in case of inter-caste marriages), our names, and I mean first name, not just the surname, the second the mangalsutra goes around our neck. Heck, we even lose the the right to mourn the death of our parents. When my mother passed away my official mourning time was only 3 days, as my mother was no longer my family. But if even a distant cousin from my husband’s side were to move on, our mourning period would be a whole year! And yet we couldn’t accept Sonia, our country’s daughter-in-law as our PM, could we.
Look at the fracas over Sania Mirza’s marriage to Shoaib Malik. They can’t live in India, because that would mean offending all Pakistanis for all time and she couldn’t move to Pakistan, because of course Hyderabad would go up in flames. The poor things are living in Dubai, for heaven’s sakes.
Now in the light of this, imagine Sri Rama’s plight over his wife having ‘cohabited’ with Ravana. He’d hoped that the Agnipariksha, offensive as it was, would have sorted it out, but it didn’t. And yet, had he not exiled Sita when he did , would we not have spoken of him as a lesser king, would we have cast aspersions on her character perhaps? We who are so quick to judge and take sides when we hear of divorces of film stars or of their doomed affairs. In exiling the virtuous Sita, in suffering the agony of knowing how wrong it was, Sri Rama took on the entire blame, protecting Sita’s virtue to the end. So today and for all eternity, we think of Sri Rama as a cold, uncaring husband, but we never ever think of Sita as impure or characterless.
And it wasn’t as though Sri Rama partied wildly after regaining his single status. He had taken on the eka patni vrata, that he would be ever faithful to just one woman, his only wife, at a time when taking more than one wife was the norm. After the exile of Sita, he lived a monastic life, pining for his lost love. And even managed to make sneaky, subversive declarations of his undying love to show to the world that he hadn’t forgotten Sita. At the time Ashwamedha yagna, he officially needed a wife and his gurus and priests would have encouraged him to take on one. Sri Rama had a statue of gold made in the likeness of Sita and seated it next to him while to performing the rituals., Announcing to the world that his wife, banished though she was, was in his eyes, good as gold.
Having said that, the fates didn’t exactly condone this crime in the name of duty. When Sri Rama performed the Ashwamedha yagna, to establish his supremacy as a monarch, the sacrificial horse was captured by two young boys and his entire, mighty army led by his able brothers and later by him defeated by the upstarts. In fact, his yagna was deemed a failure. The two boys were Sri Rama’s sons, Lava and Kusha and unknowingly they had avenged their mother. Karma is democratic that way, it’s the same for kings and paupers.
Back to my pet venn diagram theory, Sri Rama and Sita had intersecting venn diagrams , in which they played multiple roles, of lovers, of husband-wife and above all King and Queen. I read this lovely article among all the click-bait variety that FB keeps throwing up; apparently the reason we never catch Prince William and Princess Kate indulging in hand-holding or PDAs while out in public is because they are always on official duty as representatives of the crown, the second they step out of their official quarters. This is their job and it comes before their duty to each other as spouses or lovers. Isn’t that the standard we hold our leaders upto?
Prince William and Princess Kate probably have a whole retinue of people instructing them on the code of conduct as second in line to the throne. But Sri Rama was the embodiment of that code of conduct. He set the bar, or rather he is that bar. As a boy of 15 he left with the fearsome Vishwamitra to protect his ashram and the forests from marauding demons, and set up peaceful places for study and worship; in his prime, as he was about to ascend the throne, he acquiesced to set off on a 14 year long exile only to honour his father’s promise, when he could have easily and forgivably refused. Again and again, in the course of the exile he cemented ties of friendship with the hermits who lived in the forests, the powerful Va-nar clan of Kishkinda and finally, when he could have razed Lanka to the ground after the great war, he established a long standing alliance with Vibhishana and the Rakshashas of Lanka. The ten thousand years of rule which followed, that we now know as Ram-Rajya, was a time of such peace and prosperity that we are still talking about it 18 million years later. All this at a personal cost that cannot be imagined. And that is why we know and worship him as Maryada Purushottam.