We already have observed that Rama’s character is blemishless and filled with every virtue in Understanding Rama – Agnipariksha 1. We dived deeper into his fathomless love for Sita in Rama’s love for Sita – Agnipariksha 2. In this final portion, we will analyse Agnipariksha in finer detail.
One of the biggest accusations the non devotee makes, especially in a derogatory tone, is Rama asked Sita to jump into fire, as he suspected her character. Ignoring the fact that how Rama’s opponents (Read more in How opponents saw Rama, How female opponents saw Rama), even the most tamasic minds had much better understanding of Rama than the half baked accusers. How? Association with Rama, even in a negative connotation can still purify their mind and eventually sprout some sattva to get better understanding. So if people who parrot standard accusations do not get any better, what could be the reason? They have not even cracked open the original Valmiki rendition. Let us not let this fault trip our constant misunderstanding.
First let us walk through the Agnipariksha incident and then proceed with an analysis.
After the fall of Ravana, Rama instructs Lakshmana to consecrate Vibhishana as the ruler of Lanka. Having done so, Rama asks Hanuman to seek the request of the new ruler to meet Sita and inform her of the well being. One must note the only person besides Rama and Lakshmana, Sita had grown to trust was Hanuman. Having brought the wondrous victory news to Sita, Hanuman eagerly awaits her message. Sita is overwhelmed with extreme joy. Hanuman seeks as a boon to quash all the rakshasis who were abusing Sita until then. Sita not only rejects it outright, but also educates Hanuman on why such a thought itself was wrong.
Hanuman immediately conveys the desire of Sita to meet Rama. A thoughtful teary Rama instructs Vibhishana to inform Sita to take a bath and be adorned with jewels and bring her immediately. Sita cares not for the instructions on how to meet as she wanted to see Rama right away. Vibhishana cajoles her to follow Rama’s direction and brings her in a palanquin. Vibhishana, who is eager to make the rendezvous quicker instructs the eager onlookers to make space, gets rebuked by Rama. In a stern voice, Rama informs Vibhishana to bring Sita by foot, so all the vanaras and others assembled can look at Sita. Seeing displeasure on the face of Rama brought anxiety to Lakshmana, Hanuman, Sugreeva and others.
As Sita approached nearer, Rama talks to her in an unusual tone. He tells that he had fulfilled his duty and honor to release her from her captivity. He acknowledges the role of Hanuman, Sugreeva and Vibhishana as if Sita was not even a reason. He reiterated that it was for the honor of himself and his dynasty and not due to Sita, this war had to be fought.
Rama states just like light may not be appreciated by a person with poor eyesight, he was unable to resolve the suspicion in her character. This is a critical sloka which we will return to solve the misunderstanding.
Rama tells Sita she is free to go in any direction and there is no work that remains pending with her. Another point we will revisit, Rama addresses her as Bhadre, meaning dear lady. There is no need for words of endearment, if his mood was suspicion. He wondered which noble man will take back a lady who has spent time in another man’s house. He declared he didn’t have any intense attachment for her and she was free to choose any person as her husband – Lakshmana or Bharata or Shatrugna or Sugreeva or Vibhishana. The harsh words and attitude of Rama sliced Sita’s heart. She gives Rama a befitting taunting reply, but understands Rama’s intent. Sita registers all her arguments with tears. She asks Lakshmana to prepare a pyre and put an end to the fire of false blames. Seeing Rama’s consent, Lakshmana merely obliges.
After doing pradakshina to Rama, she prayed to agni, if her heart never wavered from Rama, the she may be protected. Note she knew, just as Rama did that it was not suicide. From Sundarakanda we know it was her grace that shielded Hanuman from fire. Even in the gravest moment, she calls Rama as Sarvadharmajna (Knower of all Virtues). As she entered the fire, the entire world appeared to be at a standstill.
Rama is not only thoughtful but descends into deep melancholy with eyes filled with tears. If it was based on doubt, jealousy or any other silly allegation given by the half baked, there is no need for the tears. Rama is not imagining all the fun he will be missing without Sita like a normal sense ridden human. These tears from Raghava have only one meaning. The script he had signed up for was too strong for even him to handle.
This brings all the Devas, Brahma and Shiva along with the departed ancestors of Rama. Brahma’s worshipful declaration is followed by Agni restoring Sita and highlighting the glory of her character. Shiva advises Rama to seek Dasaratha’s blessing who gives the trio some words from his heart and Indra follows suit by restoring all the dead vanaras and healing the wounded.
It is now our turn to do some pariksha on ourselves, our understanding, our level of sattva. As one gets immersed in the emotional lamentations and outbursts of Rama, it is hard not to give some attention to the pain Rama has to bear.
The wildest I have heard was Rama sends the message through Vibhishana to have a bath and adorn nice dress and jewelry. His secret understanding was Sita will not take the advice literally and come immediately in the same state. Seeing Sita follow the instructions literally made him angry within, he behaves wildly.
There is no evidence or credence to such a ridiculous interpretation.
Sita during the Mareecha’s golden deer episode heaps abuses on Lakshmana who was bent on following his brother’s instructions. The feigned Rama voice thoroughly shook Sita to the core and she wanted Lakshmana to rush to the rescue. A stubborn Lakshmana was made to listen to serious allegations of his attraction to Sita and as the one who was awaiting Rama’s demise. Though he tried to make sense, brushing aside all her rants and cruel abuses, Sita was bent on sending him on a rescue mission. Though Sita has always been a motherly figure and this is exemplified when Rama wants Lakshmana’s opinion about the iewelry thrown by a lady in the sky. Lakshmana’s attitude is captured as
न अहम् जानामि केयूरे न अहम् जानामि कुण्डले ||
नूपुरे तु अभिजनामि नित्यम् पाद अभिवंदनात् | (4-6-22)
I know not the bracelets or the earrings, but the anklets I am sure, as I worship her feet.
It is important to note that Sita’s words of suspicion were a cheap ploy on her part from her lips and not her heart. As one reads her abduction episode minutes apart, she repeatedly wails for Lakshmana to come and protect her, as much as she screams for Rama.
Sita’s repeated accusation that Lakshmana was after her was perhaps in same measure outrageous as Rama’s demand to prove Sita’s character. Sita knows that her abduction and suffering were the result of her own past wrong deeds. We do not find a single taint, except this role she played to the script.
Some say if this was not resolved it would have resulted in deeper dark reactions from Lakshmana on return to Ayodhya. This line of thinking is worse than Sita’s false allegations on him. Even at the height of Sita’s tirade he keeps calm as he venerates her and tries to reason even her odd behavior. Lakshmana doesn’t harbor any grudge or ill feeling for her actions and Ramayana doesn’t record it. Only the deluded who want to act like his spokesman imagine such ideas.
It is very obvious to understand that even the divine couple is subject to the Laws of Karma, as long as they are in the mortal frame. Sita’s misplaced desire for the golden deer was the seed that grew into Rama’s pursuit. The deep love for Rama morphs into strong words for Lakshmana, whom Sita loves like a son. (Read more on Desire – a genealogical approach). Sita’s words yields its fruits as Agnipariksha. We get a glimpse of this golden standard Sita is being held to in Bhagavad Gita (3-21), where Krishna insists that the actions of great men (includes women) set standards for the common man to follow - yad yad ācarati śreṣṭhas tat tad evetaro janaḥ. How do we get the clue – Sita’s first words of response to Rama’s barbs was to question why Rama is behaving like an uncivilized person treating another uncivilized person (prakritah prakritam iva – 6-116-5) By the end of her response, it is almost like Sita wants to apologize to Lakshmana for her fiery words. She asks Lakshmana himself to create the pyre.
Then why Agnipariksha
It is very evident that Rama seems to be using Agnipariksha as an entry point to achieve more than proving Sita’s chastity. There is a subtle hint of Ravana physically manhandling Sita during her abduction. Sita gives a clear response stating that her contact with the evil minded Ravana was due to daivam (fate/predestined/divine). She informs that her limbs once under the control of Ravana, she became more helpless to resist from his firm grip. Yet her heart which was completely in her control was abiding in Rama.
Proving Sita’s chastity to others and Rama’s words as some sort of karmic debt repayment for her caustic words to Lakshmana seems to be akin to Shiva swallowing halahala poison. Actions of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana appear to be like a sad script they are subjecting themselves to. Rama uses a simile to express his predicament - दीपो नेत्रातुरस्येव प्रतिकूलासि मे दृढम्. Just like a person having eye problem has issues with the brightness of the lamp. Rama clearly articulates that Sita is as unacceptable as the lamp’s light. If there is a problem with the eyesight, how can the lamp be faulted. In the same way, Rama hints that he is unable to express Sita’s chastity to the world (and needs her help to make the case).
Paramatma is the sole refuge, Sita demonstrates this by willingly jumping into the fire. When Paramatma himself abandons us (impossible scenario, except when our ego puts a huge wall to part us from him), there is no alternative.
To understand the real reason let us employ another verse from Bhagavad Gita (4-8), where Krishna assures that to protect the good, destroy the one with terrible deeds and to re-establish the roots of dharma he will appear again and again in different yugas.
परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् । धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे ॥
Ravana was the bad guy, Rama came to protect others from. The Rishis were the good for whom this avatara was for. Then what is the dharma, Rama is trying to protect. Rama was offered the throne by Bharata, even Kaikeyi who said she will retract her boon, yet Rama chose to abide by the last words that bound Dasaratha.
यः ते मन्त्र क्ऱ्तः पाणिर् अग्नौ पापे मया ध्ऱ्तः | तम् त्यजामि स्वजम् चैव तव पुत्रम् सह त्वया || (2-14-18)
The Real reason for Agnipariksha
Dasaratha abandons Kaikeyi and Bharata, owing to extreme heartbreak caused by the cashing of boons by Kaikeyi and his extreme attachment to Rama. Rama loves Kaikeyi just as he does Kausalya, despite her one instance of causing grief to all. Rama avatara will be incomplete if he failed to restore this impossible predicament as Dasaratha is no more to retract his words. Yet without protecting the good ones, Rama’s very purpose of coming down will be questionable. A lot of dharma will be compromised, including extreme injustice towards Bharata, who is still living like an ashramite, remaining at a krosha distance from Ayodhya, to establish Rama’s rule through his sandals. Also, Dasaratha’s desire to have seen Rama in his death bed remained unfulfilled, who is also the only person that can certify if the exile terms were completed per his terms.
Rama never likes to be indebted. We see the extremes he goes to gratify Jatayu’s sacrifice by doing obsequies and treated the bird as his own father. This aspect is also evident in many other cases. At the end of the war with Ravana, Rama is saddled with the burden of all the injured and dead vanaras’ extreme sacrifice. Rama has no way to resolve this in a human form.
Rama is sitting on a veritable time bomb. He has to reach Nandigrama in person in the next couple of days. Obviously he doesn’t have time to do penance to please the Devas and make his superhuman tasks into a reality. He deploys another technique. When dharma gets shocked like Tataka crossing the line of feminity and motherhood, an avatara appears to set the imbalance right. Naturally when an avatara gives even the appearance of transgressing dharma, the shock brings all the lokapalas and devas to plead their case.
Rama, it appears, seems to be using the entire episode of casting aspersions on Sita to divert our attention from the superhuman events happening. On one hand, Sita seems to be getting some sort of retribution for her caustic words towards Lakshmana, on the other the entire drama is lopsided. Rama seems to still be brutish in his treatment towards Sita. While in the end, it is Rama who is held holding the blame of mistreating Sita, the average reader misses the entire backdrop of Agnipariksha. Mired under the tamasic veil, one finds it hard to rise above the face value of the episode.
Just as Shiva resorted to consuming Halahala poison for the welfare of others, Rama uses the pretext of others who can potentially question Sita’s virtues, even if it be baseless. Rama’s words shock Sita who feels Agnipariksha is the only way to prove her virtues. Rama assumes a very stern posture that scares everyone to even make an utterance.
न हि रामं तदा कश्चित्कालान्तकयमोपमम् | अनुनेतुमथो वक्तुं द्रष्टुं वा प्यशकत्सुहृत् || (6-116-22)
During Narasimha avatara, Bhagwan assumes not only a fearsome form, but also remained in fury seeing the troubles his devout bhakta, Prahlada, had to endure. (Read more in Follow this child – Part 3 on Prahlada). The Devas unable to handle the fury deployed Prahlada to calm him. In Ramayana, unable to see the inexplicable anger (we later see it was feigned), the Devas lead by Brahma and Shiva appear on the scene, along with the departed ancestors of Rama.
Brahma tries to get a clue by approaching Rama with a question that how Rama, the all knower and the maker of the cosmos, chose to ignore Sita falling into the fire? Rama gives not only a clear hint, but also the solution he desires from the assembled illustrious audience. He declares he is a human being, son of Dasaratha and desires to listen about his real nature from Brahma himself. Since the Devas were not bound like Bhagwan in human form, he also indirectly communicates his desires that need to happen.
आत्मानं मानुषं मन्ये रामं दशरथात्मजम् || सोऽहं यस्य यतश्चाहं भगवंस्तद्ब्रवीतु मे | (6-117-11)
As soon as Brahma sings glory about Rama’s true nature, Agni bhagwan raises Sita in her full glory, comes to her defense and instructs Rama not to even harbor a negative doubt on Sita’s character or virtues. We know from Sundarakanda that it was Sita who protects Hanuman’s tail that was set on fire and that the fire could not enter Ashokavana due to Sita’s piety.
Rama gives a lengthy response only from a human point of view that he did not doubt Sita, but it was done for establishing her purity to the three worlds.
अनन्यहृदयां भक्तां मचत्तपरिवर्तिनीम् | अहमप्यवगच्छामि मैथिलीं जनकात्मजाम् || (6-118-15)
He affirms strongly that there is no difference between Sita and himself, just as there is no difference between the Sun and Sunlight. अनन्या हि मया सीता भास्करेण प्रभा यथा || (6-118-19). We can quickly recall despite the stern feigned face of Rama, his head drops in deep sorrow with teary eyes, when Sita jumps into the pyre and his choice of word Bhadre to address Sita. He thanks the Devas as a human would for their salutary advice given and promises to oblige.
Shiva who seems to have understood Rama’s heart, points Rama to Dasaratha and seek his blessings. Dasratha’s pain on having sent Rama to exile is still afresh, despite the joy of having seen him again. Dasaratha expresses his desire to see Rama as the next King and reunite with the virtuous Bharata. Rama’s first words were a request to be gracious to Kaikeyi and Bharata. कुरु प्रसादं धर्मज्ञ कैकेय्या भरतस्य च || (6-119-25) He pleads Dasaratha to retract his words of disowning Kaikeyi and Bharata, to which Dasaratha obliges. If Rama did not shock the Universe of disowning Sita, even though it was a cruel drama enacted, Rama could have never fulfilled Dasaratha’s desire to see Rama or to revoke the curse of Dasaratha’s words at Kaikeyi and Bharata. Dasaratha’s latest words also give his approval that the exile was completed to his promise and that Rama was no longer bound by those stipulations. Dasaratha clarifies to Sita that Rama’s repudiation was to put the spotlight on her virtuosity and her feat of using fire to demonstrate has only added to her purity. He requests Sita not to have bitterness in this regard.
Indra comes forward to personally thank Rama’s blessing of eradicating Ravana and his cohorts, asks Rama to seek a blessing in return. Rama seeks the lives of all Vanaras to be restored to their former selves for their wondrous deeds of sacrifice. मम हेतोः पराक्रान्ता ये गता यमसादनम् | ते सर्वे जीवितं प्राप्य समुत्तिष्ठन्तु वानराः || (6-120-5) He also wanted the injured to heal and all of them to have संपन्नबलपौरुषान् - augmented vigor. It is interesting to note that this may be very unnatural, so he keeps repeating this request with the hint that “NO” is not an acceptable response. Indra is delighted to thank Rama by fulfilling his desire.
To put the Devas, who can carry out his desires that need superhuman powers to fulfill, Rama along with Sita willingly place themselves into a bind that is so terrible for the world to watch. The lesson we can learn is for ultimate noble cause, an ultimate sacrifice may be necessary. To this day, we are bogged in a debate if Rama was misogynistic or patriarchal in his behavior, in a classic display of our extreme foolishness and ignorance about the subtlety of Rama’s footsteps, firmly rooted in dharma. If we are still mired about the merit of Agnipariksha, then we have not understood the level of sacrifice both Rama and Sita have done to protect dharma and the good.
May our hearts be purified by the fire of Sattva that emerges by the constant thinking of the lotus feet of Rama.
Om Tat Sat