The Agni Pariksha episode or testing of Sita in fire occurs in Valmiki Ramayana in Yuddha Kanda sarga (chapters) 115 to 118 In Chapter 118 verse Rama says to Agni (after the Pariksha)
अनन्यहृदयां भक्तां मचत्तपरिवर्तिनीम् |
अहमप्यवगच्छामि मैथिलीं जनकात्मजाम् || ६–११८–१५
“I also know that Seetha, the daughter of Janaka, who ever revolves in my mind, is undivided in her affection to me.”
The words used by Rama is Maithili, the daughter of Janaka. How does Sita describe herself while scolding Rama in front of assembled Vanara and Asura warriors? She says that she is born of earth and proclaims that Janaka indicating a high birth.
मम वृत्तं च वृत्तज्ञ बहु ते न पुरस्कृतम् || ६–११६–१५
“O knower of virtuous conduct! My birth was from Janaka in disguise; but was actually from the earth. My sacred birth of such a high degree, was not honoured by you.”
Didn’t Rama know of her high birth? Janaka was a Jnani par-excellence. She, Sita, coming from such a and illustrious family would not be devoid of good qualities.
The punishment prescribed for even adultery (not rape) by Manu krichchra vrtam (that decreasing the quantity of food taken in accordance with the phases of moon) and not Agni Pariksha. Sita even says to Rama if you had doubted me, you could have sent the word though Hanuman and I would have given up my life. Why this waste of effort in mounting an invasion? Why did Rama then behave in the fashion of as Sita said “प्राकृतः प्राकृताम् इव” – like a common man speaking to a common woman, indirectly saying that she being of a noble birth should be treated as such.
किं मामसदृशं वाक्यमीदृशं श्रोत्रदारुणम् |
रूक्षं श्रावयसे वीर प्राकृतः प्राकृताम् इव || ६–११६–५
“O valiant Rama! Why are you speaking such harsh words, which are violent to hear for me, like a common man speaking to a common woman?”
The reason for Rama’s conduct, is explained by Rama himself in
अवश्यं चापि लोकेषु सीता पावनमर्हति |
दीर्घकालोषिता हीयं रावणान्तःपुरे शुभा || ६–११८–१३
“Seetha certainly deserves this pure factory ordeal in the eyes of the people in as much as this blessed woman had resided for a long time indeed in the harem of Ravana”.
Rama like a good leader anticipates his people’s objections and tried to avoid a scandal which may destroy his dynasty. Rama says:
बालिशो बत कामात्म रामो दशरथात्मजः |
इति वक्ष्यति मां लोको जानकीमविशोध्य हि || ६–११८–१४
“The world would chatter against me, saying that Rama, the son of Dasaratha, was really foolish and that his mind was dominated by lust, if I accept Seetha without examining her with regard to her chastity.”
प्रत्ययार्थं तु लोकानां त्रयाणाम् सत्यसंश्रयः
उपेक्षे चापि वैदेहीं प्रविशन्तीं हुताशनम् || ६–११८–१७
“In order to convince the three worlds, I, whose refugee is truth, ignored Seetha while she was entering the fire.”
Playboys & Playgirls of the world don’t command respect of this world – no matter how rich and how powerful they may seem. They are treated as frivolous people unable to govern themselves and their passions. Those who cannot govern themselves will not be followed without coercion if they assume leadership positions. Rama’s leadership trait was persuasion. Rama believed that his subjects would accept this Agni Pariksha of Sita and that all rumors will cease therewith. Civil wars have taken place in kingdoms where there a suspicion of legitimacy of heirs of royal persona. Until very recently (till about early 60-70s) the Home Secretary (equivalent to our Home Minister) was required to attend all royal births in England. Luxembourg has a rule that only virgins can become queens and a doctor’s certificate.
Ramakrishna once said that Sannyasis are accountable for higher standards than the rest of people. Theirs lives and houses must be an open book – subject to scrutiny by all and sundry. Hence Sannyasis are forbidden from locking their doors or windows. They are forbidden from meeting their wives or daughters nor they may beg from their own homes. Raja Rama upholds the same standards for himself and his wife. Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion they say. The ruler sets the standards. The tragedy is that despite this, some sections of his subjects in Ayodhya didn’t see things Rama’s way.
There is a personal element in this yet to be discussed. That of wife and husband relations. Sita exclaims, perhaps one of the most touching & beautiful verses in Ramayana – (मम) अप्रीतेन गुणैर्भर्त्रा त्यक्ता – (my) traits (he) does not like …… जनसंसदि (in midst where men have assembled). Sita and Rama both belong to illustrious lineage that for them death is preferable to dishonor. Sita says;
अप्रीतेन गुणैर्भर्त्रा त्यक्ता या जनसंसदि |
या क्षमा मे गतिर्गन्तुं प्रवेक्ष्ये हव्यवाहनम् || ६–११६–१९
“I will enter a fire, to obtain the only course appropriate for me, who has been abandoned amidst an assembly of men, by my husband who was not satisfied with my traits.”
Sita expects that a husband must also know his wife and understand her qualities, her nature having lived with her for sometime. A marriage is not just physical relationship between a wife and husband. It is an emotional living bond. She also expects that a husband respect his wife in midst of an assembly (जनसंसदि). This is the larger message to people.
However, Sita also says that one should not live without honor in midst of people – be it her husband or be it society at large. Death is better than a life without honour. This is precisely what Krishna says to Arjuna during war when Yudhisthira asks Arjuna to give up his bow. Arjuna then goes to kill Yudhisthira as Arjuna had sworn that he will kill anyone who asks him to give up his bow. Krishna then says don’t kill him (physically), but humiliate him and that is a living death to people of honor. This is precisely what prompted Sita to order Lakshmana to prepare a funeral pyre. Ancient Indian Kings in ancient past when defeated have known to die rather than face humiliation. Many civilizations have regarded that death with honor is worth living rather living without honor.
What is the larger message from Agni Pariksha episode:?
(1) Kings and Queens who are the trend setters have a higher dharma. Their lives must be above suspicion at all times. Transparency and accountability to public is must when you are in public life.
(2) A wife expects that she be loved for her traits not just her body. A marital relationship is not mere physical relationship, but emotional and spiritual bond. Spouses must be respected.
(3) It is better to die with dignity than live with dishonor.
Sanskrit quotations of Ramayana & English translation has been taken from http://valmikiramayan.net/