Lost Loves: Arshia Sattar
EXPLORING RAMA’S ANGUISH IN THE VALMIKI RAMAYANA
My abridged translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana was published at the very end of 1996. When I got the first copies, I was awed by the gravitas the work had acquired by being transformed into a heavy, black-jacketed hardback book. I put it away in my book shelf and never really opened it until seven years later in 2003, when I had to teach Ramayana as a part of a classical Indian literatures course. Since then, in some way or another, I’ve been teaching from the text and around it on several occasions each year. And I’ve had to confront what I translated: what I put in and what I left out, what I chose to say and how I chose to say it. I have also had to consider what I might have done differently were I to do the same translation now.
In many ways, my own ‘denial’ of the Ramayana for all those years, between 1997 and 2003, was a reflection of what happened to many of us across the country and the world who love and work with Ramayana materials. Those were the years when then Hindu right was firmly entrenched in the national consciousness, as well as in political power. This constellation of political parties, scholars, local politicians and men-on-the-street had appropriated Rama and his story, making it the basis of their antagonism to those they perceived as hostile to Hinduism and to the ‘Indian’ nation. What were we, those of us who worked with the Rama story and were of a liberal (if not always and entirely secular) bent of mind, to make of this? Was the story the Hindu right had taken as their own the same story that we were telling? Was there something in the Rama story that lent itself to this kind of exclusionary cultural and nationalistic politics? Was our hero, the righteous but troubled prince of Ayodhya, really a vengeful warrior god? These confusions made us back off from the Ramayana, to collect our thoughts and reconsider our own relationship to the text and to the story. Many of us retreated from the public sphere and the aggression of its Rama-related discourse.
Those years of silence seem to have ended and the Ramayana has returned to the public sphere in all its pluralistic glory. Robust classical and folk performances, some mainstream and others subversive, continued uninterrupted through these years but now there are contemporary additions to this space making it even richer and more diverse, like the new television version made by Ramanand Sagar’s sons, Ashok Banker’s remarkable multi-volume recreation of the Rama story and contemporary puppet performances that examine Rama’s actions and thoughts.
Because of teaching from it and reading it over and over again in the past few years, I have developed a new intimacy with the text, one entirely different from the closeness that I had to it when I was translating. To my surprise in this rapprochement, I find my thoughts going more and more to Rama. As a card-carrying feminist, I am shocked that it is he who draws me to him, compels me to try and understand his cruelty towards Sita and what it means for him to be king, perhaps even against his innermost wishes. I find myself more and more involved with Rama and am convinced that the way to a more complete understanding of the Ramayana, especially for contemporary women, has to be through an inclusion rather than a rejection of Rama and his questionable behavior.
Look at the Rama that loses Sita in the forest:
Rama looked all over the settlement. Without Sita, the trees seemed to weep, the birds and animals appeared downcast… But though he searched high and low, Rama could not find his beloved in the forest. His eyes red from weeping, he seemed like a madman as he ran from tree to tree, from the mountains to the river, weeping more and more as he plunged deeper and deeper into an ocean of grief.
‘O kadamba tree, have you seen my beloved, who loved your fruit so? Tell me, if you know where that lovely woman is! Bilva tree, where is she, the woman whose breasts are like your fruit, who is as delicate as your new shoots in her yellow silks? O palm tree, take pity on me and tell me if you have seen that beautiful woman! Rose-apple tree, my beloved’s complexion has the hues of your fruit – you must have seen her. Tell me where she is!
Little deer, you must know where the doe-eyed Sita is! Is she with you in the forest? O best of elephants, Sita had thighs like your trunk, you must know where she is! O Laksmana, have you seen my bellowed anywhere? O Sita! My darling Sita! Where have you gone?’ he cried over and over again.
Rama called out as he ran hither and thither in the forest. He leapt and jumped and spun around as if he was crazy. He could not stand still for a moment, so he ran through the forest, over the mountains and down to the streams and rivers. But though he searched everywhere in that forest, he found no trace of his beloved. (Sattar, pp. 292-93)
When Rama realizes that he may have lost Sita forever, his grief turns to anger:
‘I shall fill the sky with arrows and missiles, making it impassable for all those how travel through the three worlds. I shall stop the planets in their orbit, obstruct the course of the moon, destroy the fire and the wind, eclipse the radiance of the sun! I shall smash the mountain peaks, dry up the lakes, uproot trees and creepers and bushes and stir up the waters of the ocean!
If the gods do not deliver Sita to me unharmed, they will see the kind of destruction I can wreak in a single hour! There shall not be a single god, danava, daitya, pisaca or raksasa left when I have finished destroying the three worlds in my anger!’ (Sattar, pp. 294-95)
This is the same man who utters words of such astounding cruelty to Sita when he meets her at the end of the war. This is what he says:
‘I have killed the enemy my dear, and I have won you back. I have displayed the courage that was expected of me. I have avenged the insult and it no longer bothers me. I have destroyed the enemy and the disgrace together. I have displayed my prowess and I have achieved my goals. I have kept my promises. Now I am free.
You were carried off by a restless raksasa when you were alone and had no one to protect you. I, a mere mortal, have redressed that wrong decreed by fate… I have done my duty by rescuing you from the enemy and avenging the insult to myself. You should know that this war, won by the heroic efforts of my friends, was not fought for your sake. I did it to vindicate my honor and save my noble family from disgrace. I have terrible suspicions about your character and conduct. The sight of you is as painful to me as a lamp to a man with diseased eyes!
You are free to go wherever you want. The world is open to you. I have no more use for you, Sita! How can a man born into a noble family lovingly take back a woman who has lived in the house of a strange man? I am proud of my noble lineage. How can I take you back when Ravana has touched you and you have lived under his lustful gaze? I have regained my reputation. That was the sole motivation for rescuing you! I do not want you any more! You can go where you like! Go to Laksmana or Bharata or to anyone else who pleases you! To Sugriva, the king of the monkeys. Or to Vibhisana, the king of the raksasas! Go wherever you want!’ (Sattar, pp. 633-34)
But before he spoke these harsh words, Rama was distraught. When he asks for Sita to be brought to him on the battlefield of Lanka this is what happens:
Rama was silent for a moment and his eyes filled with tears. He sighed and looked down at the ground and then said to Hanuman, ‘Let Sita bathe and wash her hair. Let her adorn herself with jewels and anoint her body with rare unguents. Then bring her here as soon as you can. (Sattar, p. 630)
Clearly, Rama is not happy with what he has to say and do next. And it is this emotional moment that we have to examine. The idea is not to justify Rama’s actions (the more conservative tradition has done that for centuries resulting in enormous damage to women and marginalized groups) but to examine these acts in a more existential light – what is the self that Rama is creating as he reacts to his numerous trials and tribulations? And to what end is he creating that self?
What I am exploring now is how Rama moved from being an exiled prince to becoming a righteous king – the physical and the emotional journey that he makes between these two points holds, I believe, the key to Rama’s transformation from besotted husband to mighty consort. It is the internal battles that Rama has to fight that interest me now, and there are many. Sadly, he loses the most important battle of all, the battle to be the person that he wants to be, irrespective of what his cosmic and public destinies have in store for him. It is this terrible dislocation of the self that gives rise to his anxieties about Sita and his treatment of her. And it is precisely this same dislocation of the self that provides us with the space(s) wherein we can examine the well-springs of Rama’s actions.
As my idea of Rama changes, so, too, must my idea of Sita. She seems less and less a victim and more and more a woman of remarkable strength and fortitude. The larger classical tradition of the Ramayana has glorified Sita for her good-wifeliness, i.e., her submission and her chastity, but as contemporary women, we see a host of other much more interesting reasons to celebrate the challenges that Sita presents to the male universe by which she is bound. As her beloved husband battles his internal demons and the external raksasas to find himself, Sita too, has internal conflicts that she must resolve.
When Sita sees him at the end of the war and hears what he has to say to her, she is appalled. Behind the hardened warrior that stands before her, resolute in his harsh words and deeds, she searches for her gentle husband, the man who taught her the names of the birds and trees in the forest, the tender lover who gathered flowers for her hair. That Rama is no longer visible, swallowed up by the years of separation, remade in the mould of the king that he must be. As much as Rama may regret all that he has to say and do at this point and as much as his heart breaks (as we see from his tears and discomfort before he sees Sita at the end of the battle), it is Sita who has lost her love. She cannot recognize the man she faces, the man who has asked her to appear in public for the moment of their reunion, the man who has just told her that he has no use for her any more.
After their reconciliation which is facilitated by the gods, Sita returns to Ayodhya with Rama and their life together resumes, albeit under the shadow of their separation and within Rama’s new role as king. When Sita is banished and goes into the forest for the second time, she weeps piteously when she is abandoned by Laksmana. She laments her situation and questions what she could possibly have done to deserve this treatment, and then she says to Laksmana, “Tell the king, ‘Always treat your subjects as you would your own brothers. That is the highest dharma and it will earn you incomparable fame and glory. I care nothing for this corporeal body of mine. You should do whatever it takes to prevent people from gossiping!’” (Sattar, p.668) It would be easy to read this message to the king as the words of a good wife who places her husband and his dilemmas before everything else. But it’s also possible to detect a trace of sarcasm in the last sentence and hear these words as Sita’s resigned acceptance of the fact that Rama is now irrevocably and forever the king, a public person with a public life and public demands, choices that he has made for himself. The loving husband, prince Rama of the forest, she searched for on the battlefield has disappeared forever. In his place is Ramachandra, the king of Ayodhya.
This message to the king is when Sita conclusively renounces her love for Rama. From that moment at the end of the war, when she saw Rama, the full-blooded ksatriya, before her, she knew that he had changed. After the return to Ayodhya, she realizes that the man who had been the object of her great love, the love that had sustained her through the terrible loneliness and uncertainty of captivity, no longer existed. Once Sita relinquishes her love for Rama, she is able to make the momentous decision to leave him forever. She lives her life in the forest with her sons under the protection of Valmiki, reconciled to the fact that while her sons might be reunited with their father, she will never be with Rama again. When Rama recognizes his sons at the sacrifice through listening to his own story, he asks for Sita to be brought before him for one last public trial that will prove her chastity. Sita comes to the sacrificial enclosure for another moment of reconciliation and reunion that is played out in public. Without a word to Rama or even a glance in his direction, she calls upon the earth to bear witness to her fidelity. Her invocation is loaded “If I have never thought about any other man but Rama, let the goddess Madhavi create a chasm for me!” (Sattar, p.677) The condition is quite simple – she is not asking to be proven innocent so that she can stay with Rama, rather, she asks that the consequence of her chastity be that she be taken away – taken away from him and from any possibility of a life as his queen.
Sita finds it in herself to leave Rama because she has ceased to love him. More accurately, she cannot love the man that Rama has chosen to become, whether it is because he has embraced the violence she begged him to reject when they were in the forest or because he has placed his public honor before his personal truth or because his honor and his truth have become one and the same thing. Perhaps the love he had for her has itself changed – it has become the love a king has for his consort rather than the transformative love that two human beings can have for each other. Sita sustained herself through her captivity by keeping her mind on Rama, holding close the idea of the man she loved and who loved her, a love that fed on separation as much as it was nourished by togetherness. Sita had to remain constant, but Rama’s experiences demanded that he cast aside his new ideas and hopes and forge a self that would be up to the challenges before him. The Rama that Sita meets at the end of the war is not the man that she had stored in her heart. Her idea of Rama, so carefully nurtured and cherished during their first separation, did not match the reality she was now faced with. She makes the choice to leave him, a choice made somewhat easier by the fact that she is leaving not the man she loved, but the king of Kosala, the ruler of Ayodhya.
We are used to thinking of Sita as someone who deserves our pity and sympathy, a woman buffeted by the storms of circumstance – first, the innocent object of Ravana’s desire, then, the equally innocent victim of her royal husband’s honor and ultimately, the abandoned wife. What we fail to see is Sita’s courage and defiance in her final act on earth when she refuses to live with a continuing falsehood. It could be that she held her dreams too closely, that she did not grow into the life that lay ahead of her as she proved unwilling to bow to the dictates of being Rama’s queen. Perhaps she could have done more to understand the man she had loved so wholeheartedly who surely deserved more than that final disdainful dismissal. But the Ramayana is a story about love – how it can sustain us, how it must live in the shadow of public lives and commitments, and how it can become the basis of personal truths that need to be lived out. While Rama chooses to place his love in the penumbra of his luminous public life, Sita chooses to place her love squarely in the glare of Rama’s shining glory. As it turns out, neither the shadowed love nor the illuminated one was able to survive.
The tragedy of the Ramayana is not simply that there is no happy ending with Rama and Sita finally reunited. Sita disappears into the earth and Rama is left to his private grief in the company of his young sons. The greater tragedy is the death of their love for each other, which cannot renew itself in the changed (albeit for the better) circumstances of their lives. For all that Rama may still feel for his gentle wife, he cannot or will not express it after the war and their return to Ayodhya. For all that Sita has loved her husband during the trials and tribulations of the exile, that love could not sustain itself when Rama banished her to the forest for a second time.
Sita’s heart-broken departure can be seen as a rejection of a life made less by the absence of love, as an act of personal truth and public courage. Rama is left with a public truth and little else. “When the sacrifice was over, Rama was very depressed that Sita was no longer with him. The entire world seemed empty to him and overcome by his grief, he knew no peace of mind. He rewarded the brahmins suitably and sent them away along with the kings, the raksasas and the monkeys. When they had all left, he went back to Ayodhya, carrying Sita in his heart. He did not marry again and for every sacrifice after that, he placed a golden statue of Sita by his side.” (Sattar, p.679) Rama is left to live with his loss, boldly represented by the golden statue, a constant reminder to himself and his people of what he has sacrificed for the public good. (Sattar, Untitled, Forthcoming, Penguin, 2010)
Rama and Sita’s final separation, after she is asked to prove herself again (this time for the people of Ayodhya) is at Sita’s initiative. She disappears into the earth without even a glance at the man she has loved and it is Rama who is alone, abandoned to his public life and duties. At the very end of the story, we are left with the man – hero, husband, king, divine reflection – and his emptiness. Glorious Rama, destined for greatness and success from birth, ends up alone and lonely – that should be enough reason for us to read the text anew. For our sake, and not his.
Parts of this article appear in In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology, eds. Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal (Penguin India, 2009)
Valmiki: The Ramayana. Translated by Arshia Sattar (Penguin India, 1996)
Sattar, Arshia. Untitled, Forthcoming, Penguin India, 2010 (not to be quoted).
 It would be interesting, also, to view Sita’s evocation of the imagery of sati when she asks Laksmana to build a fire for her test of chastity. The resonance with widowhood is strong if we think about the death of her beloved husband, the gentle, tender man of the forest.