Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – XXIII: Mental Agony of the Imprisoned Sītā
March 8, 2018
(International Women’s Day)
Vālmīki is a scholar of the mind. In his time, society may have had active public discourses on mental anguish, as part of the common social exchange. Also, it is possible that internal analyses may have been encouraged, to appreciate life. Valmiki lived at a time in India’s civilization when it was believed that the world as perceived might have had many underlying layers of evolution. Fundamentally, there was an understanding that each event had a cause, and that we must contemplate the event to find the cause and take steps to remedy it. This belief forms the basis of current Indian philosophical thinking: namely, events that have a larger domain of origin can nevertheless be vanquished through faith.
While philosophical thought does not actually remove the reason for an individual’s grief, such thought might empower them to come up with a coping strategy for the grief, and with a rescue path. This path would be a function of degree of difficulty the individual is experiencing. The rescue is not always successful, but a strong determination on the part of the individual helps. In such analyses, nothing is an absolute blunder, but an accident is considered only a test! We possess the strength to succeed in the test, but it is all in our mind. And then, along comes Vālmīki, with his story plots in which purposeful determination is repeatedly reaffirmed. Discovery of such purposeful determination has been called “righteousness”, or dharma.
Vālmīki’s Rāma volunteered to go the forest to help uphold his father’s word. Sītā followed him as a dutiful wife, and especially to find security for herself with her husband. As a recently married woman, she was apprehensive about living without her parents, and about the prolonged absence of her husband. In the forest, she tries her best to adjust to her exiled life, and counts the days to the end of the exile. Toward the end of the fourteen years, she happened to have a moment of weakness, and falls into the trap of the “golden deer”. Rāvaṇa, who had devised the trap, manipulated and then abducted her, flying her a thousand miles to the island of Laṅkā. He kept her imprisoned there, and enticed her in various ways to marry him, threatening her with death when she refused. Here we explore Sītā’s mental state under these conditions.
A hostage in Sita’s situation faces a serious mental dilemma. Rarely would women give in to the demand of an abductor, but the reverse might not be uncommon. The constant enticements and threats test one’s determination and one’s faith in oneself. When family and friends hear about the abduction, they work to rescue her, including payment of a possible ransom. But in Sītā’s case, no ransom is involved, and there was little hope in looking back. Rāvaṇa knows that his island was secluded and out of the reach of other humans. As with all arrogant men who wield power, he imagined that he could win the known beauties in the world as his consorts; Valmiki’s narration tells us about his latest attempt.
What are Sītā ’s options? This is where Valmiki excels in his poetic imagination, displaying his deep analytic ingenuity. Sītā is a married woman, which gives her additional accountability in Vālmīki ’s analysis. Like all women in crisis, she blamed herself for her unfortunate situation, and alternated between hope and despair. She had faith in her husband, but quickly realized that he had to face the challenge of being able to reach her. Vālmīki has built up the narrative to depict her as being pleasantly surprised when she witnessed her husband’s valor during earlier events, but she did realize that getting to Laṅkā could be extremely challenging. Should she give in to Rāvaṇa ’s advances and save her own life? Sītā decides against this, making herself among the exceptional women in the world history.
Vālmīki characterizes women in various ways throughout the story. We witness the mothers in the story: the religious Kauśalyā , the confident Sumitrā, and the protective Kaikeyī. Rāma had accepted all of them as his mothers, as did Sītā. Most people think about their own mothers at the time of a crisis, and so did Sītā, who adored her own mother and had made a commitment never to let her down. This commitment gave her the strength to go on living, but as a prisoner, her life was strewn with threats and insinuations. And while her mother’s ethics taught her to be devoted to a single husband, she was tortured by doubts about whether her husband would remain committed to a single wife. One’s beliefs are tested during such predicaments!
Valmiki’s narration of Sītā ’s mental conflicts in confinement is a brilliant achievement. He himself is believed to have referred to this segment as sundara, “the beautiful.” Perhaps he knew that this description captured the mental agony of myriads of distressed women who are caged in various social conditions. Vālmīki’s characterization of Sītā is a call to all women to struggle against despair. Woman has a duty, and in particular, her desire for motherhood makes her vulnerable. Motherhood maintains the universe, and women create strategies to protect themselves such that they can bear children. Vālmīki’s Sītā yearns to be a mother, which makes her strive to work on her own faith and hope. She has no other option!
Vālmīki also writes about many uncouth women, called rākṣasīs or “ogres”. As a group, rākṣasīs are loyal, work as commanded, and cater to the whims of their master. We saw one such characterin Mantharā. But the ogres can kill, and they drink blood. And while the rākṣasīs do live by a code of ethics, and even may be compassionate, they love to engage themselves in manipulating others through crooked maneuvers and empty threats. Interestingly, none of Vālmīki ‘s male characters have such a subtle, manipulative style. Men may be equally crooked, but they do not act as agents like women do; at the same time, his men get killed, while his women survive. Vālmīki ’s men are either villains or heroes. The theme of manipulation by men needs to be examined further.
Listening to taunts from her guards, Sītā exploded: “A married woman of virtue does not become a wife to a rākṣasa! Feel free to eat me up if you like!” Then she wailed: “What have I done in my past life to deserve this fate?” She lamented: “I am not fortunate enough to be in the company of my dear husband. Others are, they are so lucky!” As though speaking to her husband, she cries aloud, childlike: “Look, I was overpowered and abducted by Rāvaṇa, who appeared in disguise. Here I am threatened every minute by these wild creatures.” As though seeking permission from Rama, she speaks to herself “I have no interest in keeping my life any longer! This is sinful existence. I must cease to exist!”
She cursed: “I would not touch the rākṣasa with my left foot! This fellow does not seem to understand my refusal! He wants to solicit me with threats!” She laments: “What tragedy has befallen on me! Why is Rāma not rescuing me? Does he think that I have become sinful by being abducted?” Then, she consoles herself: “I understand that it is hard to get here. This place is strongly protected! But my Rāma is a hero, he killed fourteen thousand rākṣasa all by himself! He just might not know that I am stuck here. If he knew, he would destroy this Laṅkā in no time!” In utter desperation, she becomes wishful: “Laṅkā will burn, widows will be wailing everywhere! Rāvaṇa will be annihilated!”
Then reflecting, Sītā wonders: “Have the brothers been killed by Rāvaṇa? Did he trick them to death? Are they no more?” Imagining her bereavement and her own imminent death, she wails, sobs, reflects and rolls on the ground. The poet describes her alarm as that of “a baby female elephant confronted by a massive lion.” She cries “Is it true that death might not come until one’s time is up? How is that for an “unrighteous” person like me, who suffers abuse? How is it that my heart has not cracked up into pieces, when I am immersed in so much distress? Look, I am a prisoner here, it is not my fault if I die! But I am unable to offer affection to anyone else besides my own husband!”
Then she takes a breath and admonishes herself for thinking negatively. She is restless: “Before my husband Rāma ever gets here, the cruel Rāvaṇa will slaughter me to pieces. I will be cut up, like an aborted child that is extracted from its mother’s womb! Two more months will pass, just like for a thief who is waiting to be executed! Ha Rāma, Ha Lakṣmaṇa, Ha Kauśalyā, Ha Sumitrā , Ha my mother! Unlucky I am. I have fallen into deep trouble. I am like a boat caught in a hurricane in the deep ocean! It was kāla “death” that appeared in the shape of a deer to allure me, that I requested the two brothers to fetch it!” She is resigned to a state of grief: “O’ my sweet Rāma, all my faith and my devotion to you seem as useless as is a service rendered to ungrateful men! Look - I am sick and tired, and am losing all hope of ever getting back to you!”
The hostage becomes delirious and has mood swings, representing all such innocent caged prisoners who are taunted to change their beliefs and their opinions. As a married woman, she also eventually expresses jealousy: “O’ Rāma, it is likely that you will have many other women available to you after you return home from exile! And here I am, having fixed myself on you - I will lose my life with all my discipline and austerities! I wish there was someone here to give me poison, so that I can kill myself! Or a sharp instrument that I can use to cut myself to pieces. Oh, perhaps I can find the tool in Rāvaṇa’s palace! I am resigned, I wish to give up my life as soon as I can!”
Let Sai bless all!