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Sita's "agni-pravEsam"- #2

From: sudarshan (lucasfie_at_md2.vsnl.net.in)
Date: Sat Nov 07 1998 - 10:38:24 PST

Dear Sri.S.H.Krishnan,

In the last post we had remarked that the Ramayana --- and especially
scenes in it like the "agni-pravEsam" in the "yuddha-kAndam" ---- serves
not merely to stir up raw human emotions in us but also, and more
importantly, it elevates and expands our moral awareness to the realms of
eternal truth known generically in the Vedic faith as: "sanAtana-dharma". 

In the long and lonely journey of life, most of us start out truly
believing that we know exactly where we are headed and why. But sooner or
later, individual experiences we gather along the way --- both good and
bad, common and unique, enriching and impoverishing --- all cumulate, at
some point of time or other, to make us deeply unsure of our directions,
moorings and purpose. The pathways we pursue suddenly seem to lead us
nowhere.We are beset with profound doubt as to whether the ways of living
we have grown accustomed to over the years will truly advance our journey
forward and will ever, if at all, help us realize the promise of a fuller,
richer life hereafter. Like the poet Robert Graves, we too then hear within
ourselves the inward resonances of a nameless spiritual anxiety, a gnawing
restlessness:

          The woods are lovely, dark and deep....
             I have promises to keep,
          And miles to go before I sleep,
             Miles to go before I sleep.....

It is at such moments in life when we are overwhelmed and terrified by the
many uncharted "miles" lying stretched before us, as in a vast, barren
desert, that we wish for the aid of a contrivance, like a compass, by which
we may be enabled to secure for ourselves our spiritual bearings. We long
to possess then a sort of "road-map" which will tell us exactly "where we
are and where we have been", tell us about "the empty expanses we have thus
far traversed" and about "the daunting landscape of the journey that still
lies ahead". We earnestly wish too then that we had some objective,
definitive means of knowing what is "right conduct" for us .... rules of
"conduct in life" which, like a compass or road-map in the hands of a
lonely wayfarer, will promote and progress the long journey forward even if
it is only yard by yard rather than by leaps and bounds.      

Now, the ancient "rshi-s" tell us that the Vedas -- the cornerstone of
religious faith of all India -- the Vedas are nothing if not handy
"road-maps of life" which show and lead us the way up the "journey of life"
every spirit, human or otherwise, must needs undertake. The Vedas thus tell
us nothing but how to "conduct" ourselves in our earthly sojourn --- which
"inter-state" to take and which "intersection" to avoid --- so as to ensure
our ultimate destination and purpose.

In the Vedic idiom the rules of such "right conduct" are collectively
called: "sanAtana-dharmA". 

The ancient Masters thus solemnly proclaim: "vEdo'khilO dharma-mulam" ie.
the Vedas are the root of all "dharma". And "dharma" verily is "right
conduct" .... or conduct which purifies and promotes the inner well-being
of all beings in the journey through life on earth and beyond.

There are 3 ways in which, it is said, the "rules of conduct" ---- or the
directions of the "road-map of life" --- are enjoined on man. 

The first way is the way of what we may call "vedic" fiat. Here the Vedas
regulate the life of man through "sAstrA-ic" injunction ie. by laying down
rules of "right conduct" or "right living".This is called "prabhu-sammita".
"prabhu" means Lord or Master and "sammita" means commandment. A powerful
employer orders us who are his servants to perform a task and we better
obey "or else....".

Now the same task can be required to be perfomed by someone whom we regard
as a friend well disposed towards us; we will gladly carry out his wish
willingly, isn't it? This way of enforcing "rules of conduct" is called
"suhrd-sammita" where "suhrd" means a "dear friend". 

Now when the same task is required of us to be performed for the sake of
our beloved wife we do not feel it to be any sort of burden at all, do we?
We take it lightly and indeed cheerfully set about the task with a spring
in our heart and a song on our lips! This sort of enjoinment of "dharma",
the "rules of right conduct", the ancient Masters point out, is called
"kAntA-sammita".

Now the "rshi-s" say that in the Vedic faith, the "sAstrA-s" are
"prabhu-sammita"; the "purAnA-s"/"itihAsA-s" -- like the Ramayana or
Vishnu-purAna -- are "suhrd-sammita"; and the works of poets (inspired by
the Vedas) --- say, for instance, the magnificent "stOtra-s" of our Swami
Desikan or the "pAsuram-s" of the AzhwArs or any other venerable
"AchAryA-s" in the Vedic tradition --- their poetic works are
"kAntA-sammita".

The "sAstrA-s" severely enjoin you to do this or to eschew that. They do
not brook questions or scepticism; they demand implicit obedience. They are
like our "Lord Employer" ie. "prabhu".

The "itihAsA", on the other hand, is like a "suhrd". If it does command us,
it does so in a gentle, friendly and roundabout manner. It will tell us a
charming little story or narrate a real humdinger of an anecdote and then
in the course of its narrative flow it will also make us sit up and
think,"If I do this, as the "itihAsa" says, I will benefit in such and such
manner. And if I demur I too may suffer in such and such way as this
character in this story does....".

The friend or "suhrd" is quite unlike the wife, the "kAntA", who will use a
mixture of her artful beauty, seductiveness, charm and guile to wean her
husband to her way of doing things. She will appeal to his amorous senses,
his sense of conjugal priorities and his deep-seated craving for marital
bliss and thereby get him to do the "right thing"! In the end she will
succeed in making him willingly "dance to her tunes"! Now this is pretty
much the same way in which too the great poets like the 'AzhwArs', the
'nAyanmArs', the "AchAryA-s" like Ramanuja, Sankara and MadhwA and the
other great ones who followed them, all enforced the severe injunctions of
the Vedas through the magic and allurement of their unique brand of rich,
picturesque, imagination-filled, exaggerated, fanciful but nevertheless
intensely Vedic poetry! Their poetry robs us of our will and heart and bids
us do their bidding like an ever willing slave...... we indirectly thus
become truly Vedic slaves too!

So, we have poetry in the place of a loving but rather domineering "wife";
magisterial "sAstrA" in the form of superior authority; and in between we
have the friendly "itihAsA-purAnA"!

These are the 3 ways in which, the wise men of our land have said, that we
may teach ourselves "sanAtana-dharma".

Of particular relevance to us now in our present discussions, dear
Sri.S.H.Krishnan, is the "suhrd-sammita" of a glorious "itihAsA" like the
epic Srimad Ramayana. This is because many a severe and harsh injunction of
Vedic fiat ---- ie. "dharma-sAstrA" --- is conveyed by the Ramayana to us
in an utterly gentle, disarming and un-intimidating manner through the
"friendly" vehicle of several wonderful episodes that fill its dramatic
pages.

The episode of Sita's "agni-pravEsam" is also one such "suhrdsammita".

We will discuss it further in the next and ensuing posts.

adiyEn dAsAnu-dAsan,
sudarshan