Tag Archive | Dharma

Agni Pariksha of Sita

Agni Pariksha of Sita

Agni Pariksha of Sita

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 || ११८१५

“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.

अपदेशेन जनकान्नोत्पत्तिर्वसुधातलात्

मम वृत्तं च वृत्तज्ञ बहु ते न पुरस्कृतम् || ११६१५

“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 || ११६

“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 || ११८१३

“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 || ११८१४

“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 || ११८१७

“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 || ११६१९

“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/


Dharma sankatam – or Ethical Dilemmas

A Ravi Varma's painting of Sita

Ekakini Sita – Lonely Sita 

Today in a discussion on Dharma – a query was posed by an 8 year old boy through the uncle , on dharma. Question on dharma related to what should one do when there is a conflict in dharma. The inquirer posed the question: would Raja Rama have upheld both Dharma – as a Raja & as a pati (husband) had be abdicated as an Raja and then accompanied Sita as a husband. In his stead, the greater objective of welfare of subjects could have been achieved by Raja Rama by handing over reigns to his brothers. Thus both the dharma could have been achieved without conflict.

What a delight it is to attempt an answer to this question by a darling 8 year old and how wise beyond his years is he. This reminds me of Yama’s joy at Nachiketas questions to which Yama himself exclaimed:

यां त्वमापः सत्यधृतिर्वतासि त्वादृङ् नो भूयान्नचिकेत प्रष्टा

May I have an inquirer, Nachiketas, like you who is established in truth.

1.9 kathopanishad

Such is the rarity of persons who query on Dharma as even Yama himself experiences even though all humans are his guests. Among the arguments that was put forth was Rama could have abdicated. Rama’s Rajadharma was to ensure the welfare of his subjects either through his own direct rule or through that of his brothers. An example was cited of Bharata ruling on Rama’s behalf during his 14 years of exile. Bharata. This is an excellent argument too.

Hinduism has always welcomed exploration into nuances of Dharma and explored alternatives. Duryodhana while lying with his legs shattered had rebuked Yudhisthira saying that during his reign people were happy & contended and that in annexing Yudhisthira’s kingdom he was only pursuing Rajadharma in that he was not allowing his enemies to grow. Duryodhana’s arguments are put forth with greater vigor in Bhasa’s play Urubhangam.

Let us now come to the question proper: Here there is an ethical dilemma – which is – what action when pursued would result in most appropriate dharma. Dharma has been defined as Dharayati iti dharmah i.e., that which supports is Dharma. Actions, attitudes and modes of life which support either the station/stage in life or society as a whole. Rama’s banishment of Sita was a result of fear by the subjects – as expressed through the mouth of a Rajaka – a washerman. The subjects feared that since Rama had accepted his wife who had stayed in someone else’s place – they too would be forced to accept their wives after having stayed in in a non-marital home or parents house. The unstated fear was that marital fidelity which is the basis for sound relationship between husband and wife and society as whole would now be compromised. The subjects feared that this would give fillip to infidelity and that nothing could be done if the spouses chose to return after philandering. Although these thoughts are not specifically expressed in Uttara Ramayana, Rama correctly deducted from the absolute silence of witness in the drama in public place and that none of the public had sided with the ‘straying’ wife of a washer-woman that society as a whole did endorse the Rajaka’s arguments. In Malayalam there is a saying that if 4 people speak ill about a person, then that person should relocate from the village. Hence, as a responsive monarch to the sentiments of the subjects, he banished Sita.

However, there is an unanimity in dharma shastras that wife and other dependents may not be abandoned. During the the sapta-padi (saat phera in Hindi) a groom promises will cherish and protect his wife. This he does in front of a witness – Agni – which is every where in the form of sun, the stars and the moon and the fire. Hence Agni is a eternal witness to this marital promise. The question then arises did Rama break this promise made in front of Agni, the eternal witness to cherish his (pregnant) and (innocent) wife.

The situation before Rama was complex – Raja dharma on one side and pati dharma on other hand. Rama does not suspect his wife of infidelity but his subjects do. In fact his subjects fear that Rama’s action would become the norm and that they would be forced to put-up with philandering spouses. If he does nothing then the Rama’s actions would become the norm – Yatha raja thatha praja; Raja Rama being the trend setter would usher moral decline in the society.

Rama had courses of action before him. (1) He could refuse to accept his wife Sita and send her back to her family – this would mean giving credence to society’s rumors indeed she had been unfaithful. (2) Rama could keep Sita with her and the subjects/judges would point him as their matrka purusha model to be emulated and started giving judgments thereby inaugurating a decline in dharma. (3) An innovative solution wherein he banishes her – does not send her to her father thereby confirming rumors nor he does he remarry thereby rebuking the subjects by indirectly saying that I have no reason to suspect her fidelity in any way. It is for you that I have forsaken my wife.

Rama’s course of action now seems obvious. However, herein lies the twist in the tale as pointed out by our young, perspicacious querant. Could not Rama have gone with Sita to the forests and abdicated his kingship. Rama’s duty of praja palanam could have been done his brothers such as Bharata or Lakshmana Shatrughna who were equally competent and solicitous of welfare of the subjects. Would his brothers Bharata & Shatrughna have accepted this situation? Bharata declined to accept this kingship when offered to him and said only Rama is eligible for rulership and that during 14 years he would function as his regent only. Ayodhya’s subjects wanted to accompany him during his first banishment. It is moot whether they would have accepted Rama going to forests a second time. In an era when kings had untrammelled powers to do as they liked, Rama acts more like a democrat and listens to his subjects. Rama also acts like a matrika purusha (a model man) and doesn’t break dharma’s codes and remarries.

Even if Rama could have done these instead of being a matrika purusha (a model man), the world would have castigated him for being besotted with sensual pleasures. A reference may be made here to King Edward the VIII who abdicated his throne to marry a divorcee Wallis Simpson. Readers may also recall the Nanavati case where monogamous relationships were fashionable ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KM_Nanavati_v_State_of_Maharashtra) His refusal to remarry on being advised by sages such as Vashishtha during Ashvamedha Yaga or upon Sita going back to mother earth send strong signal for monogamous marriages and for eka patni/pati vrtam. (one spouse vow). This strong moral impact that influenced Indian culture and society to a very great extent.

Rama Rajyam concept included not only the concept that the king and the subjects were in mutual interdependence and should be responsive to each but it also included as to how a man should conduct as a father, son, husband, wife, brother and a king. This Rama could shown had be abdicated his throne.