Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XXII: Sītā in Laṅkā
December 11, 2017
Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa weaves around the character of Sītā. It is possible that the story was popular as the legend of Rāma, but Vālmīki appears to recognize the influence of female characters in running life. While he asks Nārada to name him that exquisite virtuous man with a long list of masculine characteristics, he possibly realizes that each of the masculine virtues would pale against the appeal by the opposite sex. A woman can shine untarnished as pure and eternal. While men can make errors, the women are the winners. In Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa, Sītā is an unparalleled winner. Vālmīki creates an ideal of a woman through the character of Sītā.
Sītā was an abandoned child, who was discovered by Janaka lying on the ground. She was adopted and did develop to be a charming young lady. Like all belles, she longed for a bright man in marriage. She happened to exchange a glance at Rāma in one of her outings and made up her mind to marry him. Obstacles came in terms of tests which had been the social custom in older communities. She prayed hard for Rāma to succeed in the test which he did. They got married in pomp and grandeur and Sītā came as a daughter-in-law to Daśaratha household. Ten years passed by, both Rāma and Sītā matured as young individuals ready to start their independent life. Sītā was eighteen and Rāma was twenty-seven.
Rāma fell to Kaikeyī’s manipulation and agreed to leave for the forest in exile. He did not bother to ask Sītā while he made his decision. Sītā’s decision to follow him to the forest was instantaneous and stunning. Sītā did not complain to Rāma on his “unilateral” decision, neither she would bend to Rāma’s request to change her mind. Sītā’s departure from the palace became a larger spectacle than Rāma’s departure. Later she admitted that she never felt safe at the palace without her husband. Like all women, she realized that her dignity and security rested only with her husband. Women are vulnerable in a male world!
Sītā drove the story. She went on praying for Rāma’s safe return at every opportunity she had. Most likely she yearned to be a mother, a biological call for a woman. She found the life in exile monotonous and tiresome. She tried to understand Rāma’s characterization on his call to duty, but internally did reconcile that he had a duty towards her. She admonished him on his indiscriminate killings in the name of protecting the forest dwellers against the miscreants. She counseled Rāma on the sanctity of life. She seriously felt internally that her distress was a product of Rāma’s masculine bravado.
Sita was kidnapped by Rāvaṇa through a silly mistake of hers. While flying in Rāvaṇa’s craft over the peninsula, she realized her loneliness and possible demise. She threw away all her ornaments in a bundle which eventually became a tracer to discover her. Sītā was lucky that Rāvaṇa would not make a sexual advance without the woman’s permission. Hundreds of women had compromised to Rāvaṇa’s advance, but not Sītā. She wanted to stay hopeful amidst a totally unfriendly surrounding. A year was completing. Rāvaṇa had threatened to behead her if she did not accede before the end of the year. Sītā was praying hard for a possible rescue!
I summarized the possible mental reflections as Sītā was passing time alone in that artificial pleasure garden called Aśoka in Rāvaṇa’s Laṅkā. A natural outgrowth of Aśoka flowering trees was re-engineered and was expanded with artificial pools, walking paths, sitting areas and pleasure buildings. Sītā was discovered by Hanūmān while she was returning from her evening ablution. It was difficult for Hanūmān to ascertain if she was indeed Sītā that he had been looking for. Hanūmān hid himself in a tree and kept a gaze at the woman through the night. In the early next morning, Rāvaṇa approached with his consorts in a mood of sexual orgy. Hanūmān observed the scene from his hideout.
Hanūmān did identify Rāvaṇa as the person he had seen the night before in the drinking hall. The woman was frightened by seeing the advancing Rāvaṇa. Shivering and scared to death, she covered her lower part by closing in her thighs and she covered her upper part with her arms. She sat down on the ground helpless and sobbed hard. Disheveled and dirty, she was in deep introspection for divine intervention. Vālmīki suggests that Sītā was in deep prayerful concentration for her husband’s arrival. Hanūmān convinced himself with Sītā’s person. He kept watching.
“Why do you avoid me, O’ sweet lady!” Rāvaṇa begged. “You are safe here, my dear! Though my clan discipline allows me to assault your privacy by force, I would refrain from attempting until you permit me! Secure me as your lover and gain all the riches in the world! I will shower riches on all your kinsmen if you just give me consent!” “You are youthful and most charming. It is not right for you to waste away your youthfulness!” “Nobody in the world would equal me in strength! Do forget about that “wretched” Rāma! It is doubtful if Rāma is even alive!” Solicitation by men is always hyperbolic!
Valmiki paints Rāvaṇa as a representative of the sex-starved lecherous human beings who assume power to abuse women. Such scenes are probably played out in all cultures as a vulgar display of wealth and disrespect to the weaker sex. Many women fall prey. Some women resist, but are eventually forced to obey. Very few stand their ground, they remain determined to end their life before their dignity is assaulted. Sītā wanted to stay alive for the sake of Rāma to give him a chance to exhibit his strength. Sītā was in a difficult fix of isolation and terror.
Sītā’s response to Rāvaṇa is a woman’s call for ethics in this unbalanced display of power. “Do refrain from thinking of me! Remain satisfied with your own wives!” yelled she. “I am married and am committed to my husband! Consider virtue in your conduct and do listen to the wise. This golden Lanka would perish before long if you do not get disciplined in your conduct!” she admonished. “Do release me immediately and unite me with my husband, O’ Rāvaṇa!” she ordered full blast. Then the counsel: “For the good of you, seek friendship with Rāma! Rāma would protect you! He would help protect your land!” And the wish: “You would be destroyed if you enrage him! Very soon there would be torrents of arrows showering on this land!” Finally, the taunt: “You are like a dog in front of two tigers in the form of Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa! You would have no place to hide! Assume you are finished!”
Indian cosmology believes that human speech is an endowment of human defense. We can escape aggression by shouting our way out. A shout sends a message, alerts the surrounding and can scare an intruder. Indian scriptures recognize speech as one of the weapons of S’akti. Sītā employs this weapon to the best of her ability to let Rāvaṇa reflect on his motive and misconduct. It is possible that Sītā had toughened herself by long exile and the year-long stay in Laṅkā. One can feel the pitch of her voice and conviction in her tone through Vālmīki’s use of words and his genius in description.
Rāvaṇa allowed two months for Sītā to make up her mind. These two months were the part of the year that Rāvaṇa had originally given to himself in negotiation. “My cooks will cut you into pieces to prepare my breakfast if you remain disagreeable after two months!” Rāvaṇa thundered. Vālmīki’s Sītā remained undeterred to this threat! Vālmīki probably had daughters and he knew how vulnerable they could be in the male-dominated world. He teaches defiance to all women in the world through the character of Sītā, who was caged in a remote island with no support! Sītā wins. Vālmīki is the teacher!
“I could destroy you myself but I refrain to waste away my ascetic power. I leave your destruction to Rāma! My abduction by you is only a means by which you would face your demise at the hands of my lord, Rāma. Wait for that elephant to come and pounce you down as a hare!” Sītā chastised. Rāvaṇa was enraged. He shouted at his Rākṣasī guards to coerce Sītā in to submission.
Rāvaṇa’s wife Mandodarī finally intervened – “Play with me, O’ my lord! Please leave Sītā alone! She is not blessed to have the exquisite riches that you possess! Soliciting an unwilling partner causes suffering, while pleasure develops in consent! Come with me, my Lord!” - a soft-voice appeal! Rāvaṇa listened and left the place with a roaring laughter. Sexual desire is a primitive impulse! There always exist Mandodarī’s in the world to protect the innocent!
Let Sai bless all.