Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XXI: Hanūmān’s Search of Sītā in Laṅkā
October 19, 2017
The most admirable and the most creative contribution of Vālmīki in Rāmāyaṇa is the character of Hanumān. Hanuman is a vānara, not a fully developed human being. A vānara is described as a creature with human like intelligence and intuition. Most likely, the poet wanted to endow an instinct of super dutifulness and utter diligence that he thought not to be easily available in human beings. The humans are ego-driven; the most dutiful can flicker when his or her self-interest could be in danger. He knew that the ego in human beings can cause inhibition to action. Vālmīki’s Hanumān is a model of total dedication to a cause that he is asked to handle. Vālmīki creates him as an icon of pure dutifulness and complete dedication.
In the Indian concept of evolution, vānara was a pre-human creature that had a fully developed speech apparatus. As we have discussed before, Vālmīki lived in an animated world where every object had feelings and a capacity to reflect. The animated universe is a concept whose origin goes back to pre-historic times in India. The vānara in Vālmīki is equipped with language communication. Particularly, Hanumān was exceptional that he could converse in multiple languages. Being closer to a monkey, a vānara could hop long stretches and could jump among the trees by holding on to the branches. Hanumān was an articulate, thoughtful, intelligent, capable and dutiful vānara who was dedicated to the cause of Rāma. He had developed a personal loyalty to Rāma.
After crossing the long stretch of sea, Hanumān was stunned to witness the grandeur and opulence of Laṅkā. Realizing his different appearance, he decided to enter the island in the night. He enjoyed the evening moonshine and proceeded in his mission in the dead of the night. He overcame the guard and moved through the streets and houses looking for Sita. Then he saw the massive well-maintained grounds of Rāvaṇa’s palace. He entered it crossing the wide security moat. There he saw the majestic aerial vehicle Puṣpaka that we discussed in the previous article. He checked through all the compartments and the nooks and corners in the craft. The craft was empty, he found no one there. With increased suspense, he became anxious.
“Looking for a needle in a haystack” is a metaphor popularly used when we look for a missing small object in a pile of other objects where the distinction would not be easy to detect. Searching for food is common for the living beings but they have a reasonable estimation what could be accepted as food. One food object can be swapped for another food object unless there is obsessive desire for a specific food. Too much specificity can lead to danger. The case of searching for kidnapped human beings brings another level of complexity. A human being hostage might be forced to adopt to the whims of the kidnappers; he/she could risk death if the orders are disobeyed. It gets more difficult when the victim has not been viewed before and one has the only recourse to estimate the physical features of the person through the abstract description of the qualities and virtues.
One needs be extremely diligent in the process of search. While one must not skip a clue, one must carefully evaluate all viewings before zeroing in. In Vālmīki’s style, Hanumān’s search is high drama; it is a solo detective work in an isolated island where the social norms are different. After examining the interior of the vehicle, Hanumān passed through a long passage way and entered a cavernous hall. Entering the hall, he saw young ladies lying on the floor in deep sleep. They were intoxicated with scant regard for their dresses or conditions. They looked utterly tired. With hundreds scattered, Hanumān was confused. “Had Sītā succumbed to her fate to be in such a hapless condition!”
A person of righteous thoughts thinks positive and believes that he or she has a worthwhile purpose. Hanumān withdrew himself from the earlier stray thoughts and convinced himself that Sītā, as he knew, would not allow herself to be in such a miserable condition. Proceeding further, he saw more women lying around. He was transfixed with such profusion of half-exposed female bodies. While feeling shy and somewhat guilty that he was intruding into others’ privacy, Hanumān remained focused and continued the search. Then he happened to see the dignified Mandodarī, whom he had reason to misidentify as Sītā. He tried to reflect if Sītā would be in such state while being bereaved from Rāma. He convinced himself that Sītā, though good looking, was likely to appear dejected and deprived. He concluded that Sītā would have no place in that massive pleasure assembly!
All objective views make life difficult, and Hanumān’s was no exception. He happened to see the massive body of Rāvaṇa lying on a platform. He tried to make sense of the whole operation. There were odors of strong intoxication everywhere. The odors were mixed up with the fragrance of incense creating a strange mix of pungency. Soft glowing dim lamps illuminated various pots displaying meat portions of various kinds. The scene was raw and vulgar. Negative thoughts dawned in Hanumān - “Is Sītā dead? Is this a dead end? What would be my message on return?” He was confused. He took courage and searched further in the lower floors. He saw more women, but none resembled Sītā as he had imagined. Frustrated, he had to get out to the open space.
The most capable persons can feel lonesome in utter despair. The path forward could look daunting. Hanumān composed himself and pondered. He panned the nature. He saw the vistas of forests and mountains. He saw the distant sea. “Has Sītā perished? Is she no more?” As a messenger, he wanted to define the message. A negative message is no message. Conflicts came in his mind. “Should I return or just stay back and perish? Or, should I kill Rāvaṇa and offer his head to Rāma as a revenge?” Then the reverse: “What would be the repercussions in Rama? What happens if Rāma gets upset and destroys the whole clan of vānara?” Hanumān admonished himself for the negative thoughts. “Let me stay disciplined. Let me explore more. I must stay positive!” - he reflected.
Negative thoughts to positive thoughts is a transition. A righteous person lives on hope: “The future would turn to be positive as a celebration of righteousness.” Righteousness manifests in utter faith in one’s purpose and one’s conviction of nobility in the purpose. The purpose must be unselfish and worthy of one’s dedication. No dedicated service would go waste and hence no dedicated effort would be left unrewarded. One may not know the path or one may feel broken down, but righteous person recomposes and moves forward. Hanumān recalled Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa, Sītā and everyone else whom he admired and sought their blessings internally. In Indian thinking, the universe knows what we do not know. Hence the prayer: “Bless me, my path is unknown!” Hanumān humbly prayed to seek the blessings from the remote powers that are believed to run the universe. Hanumān tried to gain courage and stay positive in the mission.
A well-intentioned explorer is a poet. If the mind is clean, one enjoys the sights and appreciates the glory of nature. Leaving the palace Hanumān saw at some distance a large garden like enclosure. It was Spring time and the poet in Hanuman was enthralled with the glory of nature. Colorful leaves, multi-colored blossoms of flowers, and fragrance of new growth took him back to his nativity. It was the aśoka (a medium height tree of red streaming flowers) forest in the island. The recreated forest was used by Rāvaṇa as a pleasure garden. As he drew nearer, he saw excellent structures, neatly cared for water ponds, beautiful swimming areas – all done with precision and opulence. Though the light was dim because of the dusk, he saw glitter all around. Hanumān wanted to take a break to enjoy the sight. He positioned himself on a branch of a śiṁśapā “sheesham” tree and viewed the garden.
An explorer’s success depends on wishful thinking. It is not clear if there are righteous wishes and hurtful wishes. Scriptures have been written and literature is developed to warn against arbitrary wishes. An arbitrary wish operates as greed and is made for local ado. A wish to serve others can come as true if one has the strength and ability to serve. A wish is not determined by the outcome. All have a right to wish when the going is tough, or when the life is in danger. A wish that turns out to be a final surrender is empirically known to come out as true. Rarely the human beings realize the depth of surrender but assume that they could tide over the world by their own means. Possibly a concept of surrender dawns when one reaches the final moments in life. Rare are those who surrender themselves while in life. Hanumān belonged in this latter group, possibly the foremost in the traditional legends of India.
“It is getting into the evening time. Sītā should be roaming in this forest! She loved the forest! She must be coming to these waters for her evening ablutions! These flowering trees have the right canopy for that divine lady! She could be emaciated and her gait could be slow! If Sita is alive, she must brighten up this space with her radiant face!” - Hanumān wished in his own righteous manner!
Let Sai bless all.