Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – VI, Devī Sumitrā
January 7, 2015
While we are not clear to state whether the Ramayana story is a fiction, we can certainly say that Vālmīki is the most successful author in creating his characters who live realistic life and are loved for their role in the story. After presenting the aspirations and tribulations of a mother in Kauśalyā, the poet proceeds to paint the femininity in Sumitra, a person of supreme confidence and extreme resilience. She is a woman par excellence, a queen, a wife, a mother; but above all, a friend. Sumitra’s story is that of a Devī, if a Devī ever took a human birth. In Indian tradition, all women are supposed to be a part of the Universal Mother that nurtures the universe. In Sumitra’s case the Universal Mother resided within her as her spirit.
Sumitrā is a storehouse of positive energy, steadfastness and calm. She does not know how to complain. She accepts everything that comes her way. Internally she knows that she cannot lose and so meets every challenge with cheer and dutifulness. Kauśalyā may think Rāma was her son, Sumitrā sees Rāma’s special qualities. She encourages her son to be with Rāma as a company and play-mate. At the same time, she does not cause any problem when her other son S’atrughna inclines towards Bharata. She is a mother, she watches children to develop good character; she does not guide their aptitude. She knows all would be well if we do not incur misconduct. All we do is to keep doing our tasks in spite of seemingly difficult situations. It is wrong to disrespect others. Sumitrā is convinced!
Like his style with Kauśalyā, Vālmīki does not go into the ancestry of Sumitrā. She is introduced as the second wife to King Daśaratha, possibly coming into the King’s life since Kauśalyā did not produce a male issue. Sumitrā does not succeed in producing any child prompting the King to procure his third wife Kaikeyī. Unlike Kauśalyā, Sumitrā gets along with Kaikeyī, though possibly disturbed by her taunts and extravagant life. Since the King spends most of his time with Kaikeyī, Sumitrā gradually gravitates to Kauśalyā and finds an elder sister in her. Though herself not into the ritualistic exercises, she appreciates Kauśalyā’s worshipful attitude, righteousness and simplicity. She is confident to herself, but spends most of her time in the company of the elder Kauśalyā.
After King Daśaratha does the fire sacrifice in the hope of having a male issue, he gets the ritual porridge from the sacrificial pyre. He makes the decision to give half of the porridge to Kauśalyā, and gives a quarter to Sumitrā. Then he divides the last quarter into two parts and gives one part to Kaikeyī, and finishes off by giving the last part to Sumitrā again. In his poetic style, Vālmīki keeps silent about the intent of the King in the distribution he makes. As we see the story, King Daśaratha, as perceptive he was, had a possible projection on his own wishful thinking as he understood the nature and characteristics of each of his three wives.
It is rare for women to know what is expected of them in their in-laws’ house. Some try to adjust, some adopt, some accommodate with difficulty. Rarely anyone understands the values that the in-laws’ family cherished. Sumitrā studies the family values in Raghu clan and had convinced herself to uphold such values in her new role. She helps train her children to be a part of the tradition. Through legends or through her personal reflection, she had determined that the clan of Raghu always respected the hierarchy of age. She instructs her children to be disciplined enough such that they follow the tradition. The younger people learn in the company of the elders, the elder brother is to be looked up for guidance and values. Lakṣmaṇa looks up to Rāma through Sumitrā’s encouragement. Sumitrās proximity to Kauśalyā allowed Lakṣmaṇa’s proximity to Rāma.
When the Sage Viśvāmitra comes and requests the King to part with Rāma, Lakṣmaṇa also departs as a company. The King does not restrain him as he did to Rāma. The King possibly knew Sumitrā’s mind and her view that the best interest for Lakṣmaṇa was to be always with his elder brother Rāma. Sage Viśvāmitra adopts Lakṣmaṇa as his ward during his voluntary coaching to the brothers. Sumitrā knows the power of good company and helps prepare her son for the use of weapons to be received as a free gift from the sage.
Like all powers of positive spirit, Sumitrā is a silent observer of the events. While Kauśalyā breaks down in learning Rāma’s exile to the forest, Sumitrā is calm. She is the only one who possibly knows that something good was expected to come out of the event and wants to beat the storm. She is not one of those who would throw in her own opinion on an event to create further tension. She would let the event be experienced in calm with the hopeful thought that a better period might await later. She believes internally that the difficulties come to people who do wrong. For sinless people the apparent difficulties are only tasks for betterment of the society. She is confident of her views and maintains that to perform a duty at any stage of life is the greatest virtue an individual may cherish.
Sumitrā does not restrain Lakṣmaṇa when the latter goes in a rage and advises Rāma to wage a war against their father for his perceived misconduct. She believes in Rāma and trusts his decision-making ability. She comprehends that Rāma’s decision to go in exile was possibly made with judicious reasoning and she does not wish to question the rationale behind it. Actually her trust in Rāma takes a higher superlative, when Lakṣmaṇa suddenly requests Rāma to take him along. Lakṣmaṇa does not bother to ask his mother for permission, apparently convinced that his mother would always agree if he is in the company of Rāma.
It is not clear if Lakṣmaṇa was so eager to be with Rāma that he would not even ask his wife Urmilā about his decision. It is possible that Urmilā was molded by Sumitrā’s conduct of quiet acceptance. Sītā gave hard time to Rāma insisting that she must accompany him and she did. No such conflict apparently existed with Urmilā. If Rāma’s character has been idolized lifting him to be an incarnation of God, Sumitrā would be considered as his first devotee. She accepted Rāma’s righteousness and noble character and did everything possible to support Rāma’s decisions and judgment.
Sumitrā shows her contrast when Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa seek the blessings of the mothers before they proceed on their exile to the forest. Sumitrā’s internal grief does express itself in tears when Lakṣmaṇa falls down at her feet to bid farewell. Not losing composure Sumitrā continues to advise Lakṣmaṇa as she had done all along: “You are permitted to go, but do not forget your duties towards your older brother Rāma! He is your refuge in sorrow or in happiness! Younger brother to follow the elder is the rule in the world!” Sumitrā’s conviction is the message of Ramāyaṇa!
The self-assured Sumitrā is the only one who does not get emotional when Rama, Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa finally depart for the forest. Daśaratha and Kauśalyā are there to get a last view of the chariot. Kaikeyī is there possibly to flatter out the King to gain some more advantages. Sumitrā is aware of the King’s misjudgment and does not want to be a part of the turmoil. She quietly keeps away to let the tempest calm down. When Kauśalyā comes inside and continues to wail in an uncontrolled manner, we see Sumitrā at her best. Sumitrā advises: “Dear sister, you should not cry. Your son is the brightest; he is the most righteous and the most talented.” With motherly pride in her voice she continues: “And (know this); your son is privileged to be with my son Lakṣmaṇa , who is sinless and is compassionate to all!”
One observes the eloquence and the confidence of Sumitrā through these lines. All mothers think high of their sons; only a mother with the Devī qualities can vouch that her son would be the eventual winner. She knows that sin is caused by disrespecting others. She has taught her son compassion and has coached him to share his talents for the benefit of others. The climax comes when Kauśalyā in a mood of sympathizing tells Sumitrā near the Mandākinī River that Lakṣmaṇa could be engaged in menial tasks that that he might not have dreamt of. Kauśalyā continues to reflect in a spirit of consolation that Lakṣmaṇa would be freed from such tasks since Bharata had gone there to bring Rāma back. In her spirit of detachment, Sumitrā has no reaction. She probably knows Rāma better. Indeed Rāma does not yield!
The quiet wisdom and the conviction of the positive lift the character of Sumitrā as a Devī in human form! All mothers have Devī in them such that they can sustain the universe. Few mothers appear convinced of their inner strength. Vālmīki’s Sumitrā is one of them!
Let Sai bless all.