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Musing's on sita's agni-pravEsam#9

From: sudarshan (
Date: Sat Dec 05 1998 - 07:06:08 PST

Dear Sri.S.H.Krishnan & other members (like Sri.Sadagopan, Sri.Mani,
Sri.Srinivasan, Sri.Srikantha, Sri.Bharath, Smt.Radhika) who are following
this thread,

If you are a serious student of the Ramayana and if you happen to pause for
a moment to reflect deeply upon the experiences and impressions it produces
in your mind as you navigate along its gently narrative route, you are
almost certain to gradually begin feeling, until such feeling soon turns
into conviction, that the study of the epic in itself, is truly and
essentially, "a pilgrim's journey".

>From its point of departure in the "Bala-kAndam", as it winds its way
through the deep "aranya-s" of Dandaka, and through the verdant valleys and
gorges of "Kishkinda", and until it nears its grand terminal in the
climactic battle-fields of the "yuddha-kAndam", the reading of the Ramayana
is unmistakably one long "virtual" pilgrimage for the reader.

It is a pilgrimage dotted with so many shrines. The "shrines" are the
exploits and adventures of the central hero, Lord Rama... the events in His
life revealing His high moral prowess, His exploits, valour, chivalry,
charity, truthfulness, daring and utter humaneness.... each and everyone of
them, indeed, serve as so many solemn, sacred "shrines" along the way. 

At each of these "shrines", which appear along the way at every turn of the
"itihAsic" page, we stop to pray, paying earnest homage, gazing long and
in marvel of the sheer grandeur of the "objects and places of worship"....
And when we have finished we move on then with eager expectation to the
next "shrine" in another "sarga" on the pathway across succeeding legs of
our journey! 

At one such "shrine", for example, we stand awe-struck by the selflessness
Rama displays in the "ayodhya-kanda" when He forsakes a kingdom, without
blinking as much as an eye-lid and as if it were but trifle.... all for the
sake of a father's word!

At another "shrine" we are moved to near-tears by the melting emotion of
the moment when Bharatha renounces away a crown ---- again for the sake of
Rama, a brother's affection.

At yet another "shrine" we witness the extreme pathos of the scene where
Lord Rama, unmindful of  personal pain, suffering and privation caused by
the loss of a spouse, makes it a point to perform last rites for a mere
bird... Jatayu. As good "pilgrim-readers" we witness that particular
"shrine" of a scene with especial reverence and awe .... the scene where as
He lights the funeral pyre, Rama too experiences that unbearable and
oppressive anguish felt by every son who has failed to turn up at a
father's death-bed .... or arrives, if at all, far too late to bid him
eternal adieu ......

As we continue to read "sarga" after "sarga" of the Ramayana, such episodic
"shrines" we "visit" in the course of our "narrative pilgrimage" slowly
begin to imprint on our minds the outlines.... at first hazy but then
increasingly sharp and soon indelibly .... the "shrines" begin to imprint
on our minds indeed the impression of Rama as a Being so vastly
extraordinary that He can no longer be regarded as mere human but more as
the veritable
"avatara" of some infinitely and mysteriously superior Entity.   

At the end of every successive "sarga" which we conclude reading,
our faith grows firmer in Sri.Rama, in His essential goodness, His
immaculateness and in His divinity.....   

When we reach the "shrine" of "Sita's agni-pravEsam" nothing has
really forewarned or forearmed us for the rude shock the incident
administers to us with resounding violence! 

The narrative "pilgrimage" arranged by Valmiki for our benefit, and on
which we have until then been smoothly progressing, suddenly swerves out of
control and careens to a screeching halt ! We are jolted out of our
worshipful seats, as it were! We gasp, we are  startled! And we abruptly
find ourselves teetering on the edge of what is a dark, yawning and
perilous chasm of drama appearing out of nowhere and lying right across the
middle of the narrative path of the "yuddha-kAndam"!

It is then we watch ourselves reacting in sheer horror, horripilation and
helplessness to the ghastly scene of Sri.Rama's repudiation of Sita!!
Listening to Him heap distressing abuse on Sita we cannot help the feeling
that the "Valmiki pilgrimage" on which we set out so eagerly has been
rudely aborted by a calamitous Act of God! 

"Why did Lord Rama act so much out of character?", we ask ourselves. 
"What drove Him to such harshness of speech? How did One so refined and
self-restrained as the Prince of Ayodhya suddenly yield to the low passions
of lesser men? How could One so compassionate and gentle in His dealings
with subjects be so coarse and unkind to His own Spouse?"! 

The poetess extraordinaire Sri.Andal, in her "tiruppAvai", used an
exquisite expression to describe Rama as "manatukk~ini~yAn". It is
difficult to translate her Tamil term; if the English idiom, "apple of the
eye", could be said to have a variant in something like, say, "apple of the
mind", then AndAl's endearing term for Lord Rama would certainly be it.

Now, how could such a "manatukk~ini~yAn", the "apple of everyone's mind",
we ask ourselves, how could such a One have spoken such unspeakable things
to His beloved Sita?  

A single encounter such as the "agni-pravEsam" deeply and disturbingly
weakens, indeed, our faith in the purpose of our "pilgrimage". Serious
doubt begins to assail us.... whether we have, after all, arrived at where
we'd hoped to end our long "journey of faith":

     "Was the experienced knowledge and faith
        Of years to be cast aside
      By a morbid moment's upsurge
        Of distrust and unreason ?             
 ("sitAyana" of Prof.K.R.Srinivasa Iyengar) 
*********     *************   ****************   *********** 

Whatever may be our own misgivings about Rama's behaviour in the scenes
leading to "Sita's agni-pravEsam" we must bear in mind that to the poet
Valmiki himself what the Lord of Ayodhya said or did was NOT IN THE LEAST
out of character ! 

Why ?

The answer lies in III.10.19. It is again the key to our understanding of
the Vedic underscore of "Sita's agni-pravEsam" :

"apyaham jivitam jahyAm vA seethE salakshNAm I
  na tu pratig~nyAm samsrutya brAhmanEBhyO vishEshata-ha II" 
"Hear this, O Sita ! There is no sacrifice, however great or sacred, I will
not make to make good my word of honour.... especially my word given to
brahmins... there is no sacrifice too painful for me if it will help me
keep my word....To that end I will not hesitate to sacrifice Lakshmana, nor
you...nor myself even!"   

We will continue in the next post.

adiyEn dAsAnu-dAsan,