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Re: Introduction from Anonymous

From: Vidyasankar Sundaresan (vidya_at_cco.caltech.edu)
Date: Fri Jan 12 1996 - 21:02:07 PST

Anonymous wrote:

>       It is known that Vishnu took the form of Rama provide the
> world a model of conduct.  Why then was it the proper mode of
> conduct for him in the end of the Ramayana to dessert Sita in the 
> forest when she was pregnant, just because a commoner spoke falsely 
> about her?  Why didn't Rama owe Sita a greater obligation to care 
> for her, and his children, than caring for what an outsider said?  
> This has been really bothering me because I know that God does not 
> act without meaning.  Yet, what is todays society suppossed to
> learn from this?

Here are some of my own thoughts on this question. Rama is the  
epitome of good conduct, as a son, as a husband and as a ruler.  
Before he composed the Ramayana, Valmiki asked Narada,

ko-nv-asmin sAmpratam loke guNavAn kaSca vIryavAn |
vidvAn ka: kas-samarthaSca satyavAkyo dr.Dhavrata: ||

The Ramayana was composed after Narada told him that the one answer  
to this question was Rama, the king of Ayodhya.

Rama's qualities as a man are described by the words guNavAn,  
vIryavAn, vidvAn, and samartha: - all very praiseworthy, no doubt.  
However, Rama's actions as a ruler are to be understood specially  
from his characteristics as satyavAkya: and dr.Dhavrata:. Rama's  
actions are deliberately shown to be those of an ideal man, not  
those of God. The powers that are available to Krishna in the  
Mahabharata are not available to Rama. Rama relies solely on his  
skill in archery to kill Ravana, unlike Krishna who kills Sisupala  
with his cakra.

No issue is ever straightforward in our epics. Both the Ramayana  
and Mahabharata present complex situations where it is difficult to  
understand what is dharma and what is not. The Mahabharata is even  
richer in such moral complexities than the Ramayana.

I view Rama's abandonment of a pregnant Sita as one such complex  
issue. Rama is an ideal monarch and at the same time, an ideal  
husband. In classical representations of a monarch, his  
responsibilities to his subjects are paramount. Rama shows how to be  
an ideal monarch, by example, whereas in the Mahabharata, Bhishma  
teaches Yudhisthira by precept.

Rama, as the ideal monarch, is completely unlike a feudal monarch,  
who views his "divine right to rule" as licence to do whatever he  
wants. Rama is presented as ever responsive to the concerns of his  
subjects. As a husband, he had a duty towards Sita. But as a ruler,  
he also had to protect her reputation as the queen. That is why he  
asked her to go through the agni-parIkshA, so that Sita's fidelity  
was proved before a large audience. Even after that, years later,  
there was one subject who doubted her. At this juncture, Rama's duty  
as a king responsible for his subjects took precedence over his  
duty as a husband responsible for his wife. The subject who  
criticized Rama and Sita was not really an outsider to Rama, because  
of Rama's duty to him as his king. Thus, the only way to protect  
the ideal queen Sita is by sacrificing the wife Sita.

It is important to remember that even after sending her away to the  
forest, Rama remained true to Sita. He did not marry another woman,  
even though polygamy was very much allowed. When performing the  
aSwamedha sacrifice, he had a golden image of Sita stand in for her.  
All these actions pointed to his subjects, that in his eyes, Sita  
was his only wife, and that his physical abandonment of her was only  
in keeping with his dharma as a rAjA.

Earlier in the Ramayana, there is an episode in which Rama's duty  
as a son takes precedence over his duties as a prospective monarch -  
when he was told to go the forest. It is tempting, in the modern  
context, to analyze these two episodes to mean that in a  
patriarchical system, a man's duty to his wife was the least  
important. But that is not really the case. At the time he was told  
to go the forest, Rama was not yet the king. At this point of time,  
Rama's duty to the subjects was more indirect, and in a sense he  
himself was a subject of the king, his father. So, his duty to be  
true to Dasaratha was more important. Even though Dasaratha himself,  
in his heart of hearts, did not want to exile Rama. In all  
occassions where personal life and public responsibilites conflict,  
Rama is a satyavAkya and a dr.Dhavrata. Nothing could cause him to  
abandon a course of action once he had decided upon it. Thus, he did  
not cut short his stay in the forest even after Bharata and Kaikeyi  
themselves requested him to do so.

Rama, Lakshmana and Bharata are all depicted as such uncommon men  
that they are somehow superhuman. It is very easy for human beings  
to be tempted to a compromise. Even so, the sense of duty that  
Lakshmana and Bharata exhibit, is to some extent driven by emotion  
rather than reason. Lakshmana's emotional attachment to Rama is  
legendary. Even Bharata's refusal to take advantage of the situation  
and become king, is driven more by emotion than by reason. However,  
emotion can be a double-edged sword, and neither Lakshmana nor  
Bharata can reconcile themselves with Rama's decision to send Sita  
away. Rama is the one person who does not let emotion ruin his  
reason, so much so that he may even be criticized for being cold and  
unfeeling. On the other hand, he shows in real life what the Gita  
teaches -

sukhe du:khe same kr.tvA lAbhAlAbhau jayAjayau tato yuddhAya yujyasva

In happiness and in sorrow, in victory and in defeat, Rama's  
actions are always reflective of his equanimity and a complete  
absence of personal desire.

In modern society, what does all this mean for us? Nothing  
directly, as there are no real monarchies any more. However, it does  
mean several things indirectly. Putting an elected representative  
like a president or a prime minister, in place of the king, the  
immediate lesson is that such a functionary has to be himself  
completely above reproach. He need not be called upon to separate  
from his wife for some reason, because modern society is structured  
very differently from the ancient, monarchical setup. But a ruler  
has many other relationships too - with his stockbrokers, his  
accountants, his lawyers, his various advisers, his relatives, and a  
whole host of other people. It goes without saying that all these  
relationships must also be beyond reproach. He must put his public  
duties and responsibilities above his personal likes and dislikes,  
and he must be prepared to even sacrifice his personal life and  
loves for the sake of his public life. It is needless to emphasize  
how important this is, in the context of Watergate, Iran-Contra,  
Whitewater, the Bofors scandal in India, and the recurrent financial  
scandals in Japan.


Regards

S. Vidyasankar