[This was written in the year 2012. I revisited this week and have posted it here with a few grammatical edits]
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I am somewhat certain that this subject is likely to attract the fancy of Indians and Indophiles and therefore, will not annoy my primary audience by detailing the story of a particular event in the last volume of the Ramayana that is my focus – the Agnipareeksha or the trial by fire of Seetha. However, for those unfamiliar with the story, here is a link to a synopsis of the epic since reading from hereon will necessitate knowing the story.
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The Agnipareeksha is a much contested event in the Ramayana. Women of my grandmother’s generation were possibly the first to publicly question the reasons for Rama’s implausible and inexcusable behavior with the virtuous Seetha in the chapters that detail her reunion with Rama. Each time this subject comes up in public or private conversation amongst Hindus; the womenfolk lead the discussion with righteous indignation and men of all ages cower in uncomfortable silence. In such moments, the many private griefs nurtured by the women entrain with Seetha’s own and find a collective target in Rama. The men who join ranks with the women are usually given withering glances for their unwelcome support and they too subside into the silence borne by their genderized guilt. I have contributed lung power to this debate for the most part of my life, graduating from annoyed arguments with my grandmother and boisterous parlays with my bemused father (“but I am in complete agreement with you, kutta”) to nurturing a simmering outrage and disappointment with men and and their deified ilk.
Thankfully, with the maturing of years, the revolving doors occupied by nuance and dogma lock; and in respective in and out positions. Given that I evolved to the sanguine temperaments of my mother and grandmother, I imagined this to be a common process until a vitriolic exchange between two strangers on Twitter, alerted me to an alternate view that continued to vilify Gods and men. It therefore seemed necessary to write a counterpoint.
I am not being contrarian even if the title might suggest otherwise. This is also not a third wave feminist’s attempt to right the imbalance of the narrative. It is instead written as an exercise in humility with its starting points as lacunae in knowledge on two fronts: on matters concerning our culture, its literature, philosophy and religion and, more specifically, on the uneasy paradox of a rich cultural tradition that despite revering and worshiping womankind was accepting of these chapters which detail the most noble Rama’s flawed treatment of Seetha; herself deified.
The analysis of Rama’s actions in the Agnipareeksha is binary. There is the orthodoxy that avers that he is Rama and therefore beyond reproach. This quarter answers a determined questioner with vague assertions of Dharmic principles and a chiding on deficient spirituality. On the other and decidedly worse side, is the lazy reductionism of the ‘modernist, the scientist and the feminist’. For this group, the Agnipareeksha tells the story of a man who did a good woman a grave wrong and this interpretation is endlessly repeated in every discussion of patriarchy and women’s rights. Why I believe this to be the worse of the two is because, for the adherents of this belief, the ‘wrong’ doesn’t stop with Rama. It widens the embrace of its unfair cloak to include culture, religion, race and gender.
In any case, neither explanation satisfies any of my – woman, feminist, ethicist, Indian, animist, Hindu (by birth and by choice), scientist, learner – souls. Some part of my dissatisfaction might stem from an argumentative disposition. It is also true that our stories and histories, replete with poor detail and lax analysis, are excellent mordants for doubt. By trying to posit a reasoning of and with Rama’s position, I am aware I enjoin the warriors of the orthodoxy in their defense of Rama. But I have neither a fundamentalist faith nor the orthodoxies of belief. I write this because, to my mind, the mainstream discourse reads our Valmiki and Rama wrong. This is not an essay on the Ramayana; it is an elaboration of facets of the scripture that at first seem disparate but when read together meld into a whole. With that in mind, I am addressing some of these facets itemized and individually.
1. Rama, as the epic goes, was the ideal man. He was an avataram taken by God to remind us, by example, that we are not limited by the scope of our abilities; that the human limits of nobility and virtue are elastic and can ever be extended in the striving for a good life. He was born to lead; by example. Throughout its narration, the Ramayana keeps this human dimension of Rama in the center. It ascribes few supra-human anecdotes to him, unlike other avatarams in the Mahabharata and Puranas. The core message of the Ramayana is that boundless virtue can exist in the human condition. God does not need to be a higher ‘other’. God can be you; a mortal, a human.
2. Oppression of women is a much flogged narrative of our mythological history. But the Ramayana is a shining beacon of evidence to the contrary. This popular epic has Seetha choose her husband in a Swayamvaram – a unique and empowering right owned by women of the period. A man was put through an obstacle course to win a woman’s heart. It was perhaps a useful exercise to teach men to earn the hand of the woman; to learn that a wife was not an entitled right or possession. Anecdotes of mutual respect between the genders abound in the Ramayana. Furthermore, it is not just in the Swayamvaram that we see Seetha exercising her will. She makes her own, unobstructed decisions in many instances – she accompanies Rama to his exile, she enacts a protest in Lanka and writes her own codes for its conduct, she decides, on her own volition, to leave Rama for Valmiki’s Ashram and, in a final act, she chooses to enjoin with eternity over a material existence with Rama. Her character is that of a virtuous and powerful woman imbued with the strengths of mind, virtue and choice. The misreading of Seetha as oppressed victim of a hegemonic patriarchy is a case of owning a solution and searching for a problem to fit its shape. Contrarily, her example of being both a devoted wife while holding steadfast to the calling of the righteousness of her own mind and thought, ought to be aspirational values that we instill in our children.
3. As a husband, Rama was exemplary. Few are the narratives in real life or mythology, classical or recent, where a man goes to war for a wife. He had no army in exile and had to commandeer one from scratch, in his and Seetha’s defense. The Trojan War might seem like a historical correspondent but it has many versions (Sappho’s perhaps is the most popular) that tell the story as Helen falling in love with Paris and eloping with him to Troy of her own accord. The Ramayana has versions too. But these are versions that differ in language, tone and formality. Not one of them differ in their telling of the inglorious abduction of Seetha and her outraged disdain for Ravana’s pleas, temptations or exhortations. In this, and in the detailing of the reasons for the Lankan war, there is no discord amongst any of the versions of the Ramayana. This epic is history’s greatest literary record of the dedicated love and commitment of a man, king and God to his wife and marriage.
4. The Agnipareeksha: The story ends with the war won by Rama coinciding with the end of the exile and Rama is now no longer just a husband and a prince-in-exile. He is soon to become king. His responsibilities and behavior expand to include those expected of a king and his actions determine the moral and social fate of his people. The soon-to-be queen has spent most of the fourteen years away from the king and in the palace of the enemy. Tongues will wag and minds will judge. A dissolute monarchy loses the moral authority to govern. Rama and Seetha’s royal and administrative responsibility as king and queen does not allow either one of them to become the subject of malicious rumor and so, enters the Agnipareeksha – a trial by fire.
Detailed in four chapters (115-118) of the last volume of the Ramayana, the Agnipareeksha is a challenge thrown down by Seetha herself to Rama and to the world to counter Rama’s harsh words of what was in public hearts and minds. In response to his voiced doubt of her character, Seetha says she will walk into fire and is confident that the burning intensity of her integrity will outmatch the flames. Rama does not dissuade her. The savagery of his words and his lack of protest are the objectionable parts of Rama’s behavior that have consumed the Hindu heart.
Yet, to my mind, Rama accepted her challenge only because he was as aware as she was of its outcome. Now, you could say this is my subjective interpretation and you are of course right. But it is no less subjective than the vituperative alternate readings of his mind. More importantly, if we must choose to interpret what truly cannot be (considering that we are evaluating the behavior of men and women from different Yugas, not just millennia); it is best to take recourse in Occam’s Razor and choose the simplest possible explanation that considers both human nature and the contextual circumstance of the time. And that is – that as Seetha’s own eternal half, husband, and partner, Rama himself had no doubt in his mind. He however had a duty to quell the doubts of his people. Some verses in chapter 115 describe his conflicting anguish. His public repudiation of Seetha’s honor and his acceptance of her challenge was the decision of a king. Not that of a husband who yearned for his wife and went to war for her. It was the decision of a leader. Not that of a man who did not entertain even the thought of doubt in his mind. And it was not his decision alone. She had an equal part in it and they acted together with a conjoined, but unspoken, mind. How do we blame Rama for his acknowledgment of our human fallibility with judgment and his preemptive protection of Seetha? How would we have judged Seetha if she had not stood in Rama’s shoes and taken the decision for and away from him? If they had acted in any other way; they would have been human. But instead they transformed into exemplars of the divine. They both knew that this was their duty and he accordingly spoke the unspoken and she threw down a challenge which he accepted. Both knew that they had to go through this one last ordeal and both knew well, in their hearts and minds, the outcome of the ordeal.
If we now consider our own time from this lens, is it not true that despite the aeons between the Ramayana and our own time, human nature has changed little either in its fundamental moralities or in that we expect our leaders to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard. In democracies, the flag-bearers of office represent the collective conscience and are held to trial for lapses of rectitude. In the circumstance of an ethical misconduct, we expect our leaders to step down from office; or we make them do so. These expectations of behavior from those in public office are hardwired into the human condition and have held strong through the transition from monarchies to republics. A Petraeus resigns, a Clinton is impeached, a Dominque Strauss Kahn is jailed and fired and all these men were made answerable by a judgmental and judging public. Do not so many of us, our mothers and our fathers, so many men and women who fought to ensure women were given the same privileges in the home and workplace as men; do we not wish that Mrs Clinton had taken a stance more in-keeping with our sense of feminism; with our sense of being wronged than her own? Do we not hold it against Mrs Clinton that she abetted the ostracizing and shaming of the ‘other woman’. Despite the respect I have for her many achievements; this is a deep seated grudge I have been unable to shake.
If this is the constancy of human expectation; how then do we objurgate Rama? The Agnipareeksha was a conjoined spousal exercise in love, commitment, trust, faith and leadership. It is through the iteration of righteous character in wrongful circumstance that the Ramayana elevates the mundane to the momentous and the human to the empyrean.
5. The question is also asked: why did Rama not abdicate? Would it not have been a more honorable thing to do? To sacrifice country for love. To my mind, he would have abdicated if he had an iota of doubt that she would pass the test. He had none. Abdication and resignation are nothing more than an escape from censure and an acceptance of an omission. That Rama did not abdicate is clear evidence of his lack of doubt and should be enough to conclude that simple interpretations are indeed the best.
What then does Rama teach us through the Agnipareeksha?
- That Dharma is contextual. That the life of the householder (Grihastha) incorporates many roles. That context and circumstance determine which role takes precedence.
- To not succumb to public opinion but to be consciously aware of it and conduct oneself in a moral and ethical fashion in keeping with one’s own values.
- To have the wisdom to confront public opinion only when in possession of the high moral ground.
- To keep the personal separate and divorced from the professional. Rama adhered to the highest standard of professional conduct by not allowing his personal belief interfere with public perception. When he and Seetha put themselves through the most severe ordeal of fire, in full and open public glare, they raised the bar of integrity to the high skies and beyond.
In a poem titled ‘Gerontion, by the twentieth century’s most venerated poet, TS Eliot, history is described as having contrived corridors. A millennium of mostly malefic colonization has interrupted the hoary history of the Hindu culture and much knowledge has been lost in the open-mouthed yawning chasms of time. As its descendants in the resurgence of a new and independent dawn, we man the edges of these voids like the proverbial crow trying to raise credulity and form to the surface by flinging interpretations and revisions into the abyss.
Alongside and insouciant to these intellectual calisthenics are the incantations of the Ramayana that have continuously echoed through these same voids in an unbroken oral tradition. That the Ramayana still endures, and actively survives amongst us as the keeper of India’s cultural history, is a true testament to its literary and spiritual merit. Its tale is immortal. To the annals of world literature it is not only the oldest epic, but the grandest marital love story ever told. To the Hindu heart, it is heritage and belonging. It brings, in its song, a belonging no different from that provoked by land, geography and earth.
The Hindus belong to the Ramayana and it belongs with us. In its countless daily recitations across the land, there is a reaffirmation of culture and tradition. Of Rama and Seetha. Of Ayodhya and Lanka. Of faith and love. Of conduct and commitment. Of Dharma and duty. Of man and God.
And of man as God.