I am somewhat certain that this subject will interest Indians and Indophiles more and will therefore not annoy my primary audience by detailing the story of the Ramayana and the particular event in it that is my focus – the trial by fire (Agnipareeksha) of Seeta. However, for those not in the know of the details, here is the link to a synopsis of the epic since, further reading, from hereon, will necessitate knowing the story.
The Agnipareeksha is a much contested event in the Ramayana. Women of my mother’s generation were possibly, the first to publicly question the reasons for Rama’s implausible and inexcusable behavior with the virtuous Seeta. Every time this subject comes up in conversation; women lead the discussion with righteous indignation and men of all ages cower in uncomfortable silence. Those men that join ranks with the women are usually given withering glances for their unwelcome support and they too subside in collective silence. I too have been a stereotypical participant for the most part of my life; graduating from annoyed arguments with my grandmother, to hurt and disappointment with men and their deified ilk.
More recently, I have begun to wonder if our behaviour is more automatism and less reasoned synthetic thought. A vitriolic exchange between two strangers on Twitter, that floated into my inbox in the collateral exchange of information that social media excels at, jolted me out of my self-absorption with Rama to write the counterpoint to the popular telling of the tale. I am not being contrarian, though the title suggests otherwise. This is also not a third wave feminist attempt to right the imbalance of the narrative. I can best describe it as an exercise in humility from two starting points. One, our collective ignorance on matters concerning our culture, its literature, philosophy and religion (I am not interested in the politics of the why. To my mind, it is more important to accept that there is ignorance and to make every attempt to plug the gap with the advantages that post-modern and post-colonial thought has given us to command); and two, the uneasy paradox of a rich cultural tradition that revered, indeed worshiped, woman-kind and yet was accepting of its most noble Ram’s flawed treatment of Seeta; herself, a deified woman. The analysis of his actions in the Agnipareeksha is binary. It is either that he is Rama, beyond reproach and that our disquiet only reveals our deficient spirituality (a determined questioner is at best answered with a vague reference to Dharmic principle). Or, it reeks of a lazy reductionism. A telling of a man who did a good woman a grave wrong; an interpretation that is endlessly repeated in any and every discussion of women’s rights. Neither explanation satisfies any of my souls. Not the woman, the feminist, the ethicist, the Indian, the Hindu (by birth and by choice) and/or the spiritual seeker. While some part of my dissatisfaction might stem from my own arrogance; it can’t be denied that our history is replete with poor reasoning and lax analysis that cement doubt. By positing an interpretation that might serve as explanation; I join the old worthy warriors of our traditions in their defense of Rama. Because, I think, we have read our Rama wrong.
1. Rama, as the epic goes, was the ideal man. He was an avatar, taken in order to serve as example to mankind that we were not limited by the scope of our abilities. That, the human limits of nobility and virtue were elastic and could ever be extended in the striving for a good life. He was born to lead. By example. The Ramayana largely keeps his human dimension in the centre with fewer supra-human anecdotes than say, of Krishna in the Mahabharata. The point 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 human.
2. Oppression of the Indian woman is a much flogged narrative of our history. The Ramayana is a shining beacon of evidence to the contrary. This popular epic has Seeta choose her husband in a Swayamvara. A unique and elevating right given to women of the period. A man was put through an obstacle course to win over a woman’s heart; a useful exercise that taught men to earn the hand of the woman they sought in marriage. That, a wife was not an entitled right or a possession. (Both progressives and conservatives will agree that recent generations callously disregard these fundamental codes of gender conduct). Anecdotes of mutual respect abound in the Ramayana. It is not just in the Swayamvara episode that we see Seeta exercising her will. She makes her own (and unobstructed) decision in many instances – to accompany Rama in exile, to cross the Laxmana Rekha, her conduct of protest in Lanka, her decision to leave the palace for Valmiki’s Ashram and her final act of choosing to enjoin with the Earth over a material existence. Her character is that of a strong and powerful woman imbued with the power of mind, virtue and choice. The misinterpretation of Seeta as oppressed victim of a hegemonic patriarchy might well be a case of finding a problem to fit the solution.
3. As a husband, Rama was exemplary. Few are the narratives in real life or mythology, classical or recent, when a man takes himself to war for a wife. He did not have a ready at hand army and had to commandeer one in his defense. The Trojan War might seem like a historical correspondent; but it has many versions (Sappho’s probably, the most popular) that narrate Helen as falling in love with Paris and eloping with him to Troy on her own accord. The Ramayana has versions too. Yet, not one of them differ in their telling of the inglorious abduction of Sita and her haughty disdain for Ravana’s exhortations and/or temptations. In that, and in the detailing of the reasons for the Lankan War, there is no discord amongst any of its versions. This then is history’s greatest tale of the dedicated love and commitment of a man to a wife and to a marriage.
4. The Agnipareeksha: And so, the war is won coinciding with the end of the exile and Rama is now no longer just a husband. His responsibility extends to that of King and his actions determine the moral and social fate of his people. It is in the human condition to gossip about the personal lives of others. It is equally in our nature to judge. A dissolute monarchy loses the moral authority to govern. Their royal and administrative responsibility as King and Queen would not allow either one of them to become the subject of malicious rumour (in the story it is Seeta who falls prey to slander) and so, enter the Agnipareeksha. A solution of the times to put wagging tongues to rest. A solution Rama would not have accepted unless he was aware of its outcome. A solution Seeta would also not have agreed to, without integrity at her command. Is this my subjective interpretation? Perhaps, but, it is no less subjective than the more common and critical ones. 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 millenia); it is best to take recourse in Occam’s Razor and choose the simplest possible explanation that takes into consideration both human nature and the contextual circumstances of the time. Even though Rama himself had no doubt in his mind; his duty to quell the doubts of his people needed to be discharged. It was a decision of leadership.
Cut to modern times. Despite how far we have journeyed from that era, do we still not expect our leaders to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard? In the circumstance of a misconduct; our leaders step down from Office. Are expected to or are made to. In true democracies, at least, the flag-bearers of Office are the representatives of the collective conscience and are accordingly held to trial for lapses of rectitude. Our modern age has not yet diverged from these customary expectations; much of which is hardwired in the human condition. Thus, a Petraeus resigns, a Clinton is impeached and a Dominque Strauss Kahn is jailed and fired. All these men were made answerable to a judgmental and judging public. Do not so many of us (despite our great admiration and respect for her), wish that Mrs Clinton had taken a stance more in-keeping with ‘our’ sense of being wronged than her own?
The question is also asked as to why Rama did not abdicate? Would it not have been a more honourable thing to do? To sacrifice country for love. To my mind, he would have abdicated; ‘if’ he doubted she would pass the test. Abdication and resignation are not a route to anything but an escape from censure in the face of omission. That he did not abdicate is evidence of his lack of doubt and should be enough conclusion that the simplest interpretation is indeed the best.
What then does Rama teach us through the Agnipareeksha?
- To honour, respect and believe (not doubt) your spouse.
- 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.
- That Dharma is contextual. That the life of the householder (Grihastha) incorporates many roles. That context and circumstance determine which role takes precedence.
- 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 Seeta put themselves through the most severe investigation of the time; they raised the integrity bar.
TS Eliot, in ‘Gerontion’, describes history as having contrived corridors. Our hoary history has yawning gaps in continuity and information with much lost in the telling and the retelling of a tale. As its descendants, we are left struggling to fill the void with explanations, interpretations and revisions; most of which are replete with bias that serves our own agendas. Despite these intellectual calisthenics; it is a testament to the literary and spiritual merit of the Ramayana that it still actively survives amongst us. In its countless daily recitations across the country, there is a reaffirmation of faith and love. Of the story, its characters, the land, and yes, of God.