Fire and Flood: The Testing of Sita in Kampan's Iramavataram
Even perfection has its problems. Especially vulnerable are those unfortunates who have to live beside or in relation to some paragon. No doubt Rama, exemplary hero that he is in the major classical versions of the story from Valmiki onward, attracts the love and utter loyalty of nearly everyone with whom he comes in contact, especially the members of his immediate family. As Kampan, the twelfth-century author of the Tamil Ramayana , puts it:
Just as Rama is filled with love
of many kinds
for all the living beings of this world,
so, in so many ways, do they
And it is, of course, no ordinary love: elsewhere we are told—this is Sita speaking to Laksmana—that "those who have known him for even a single day would give their lives for him" (III.8.13). Still, statements such as these by no means exhaust the range of emotions generated by Rama's presence. Moreover, in at least two contexts this idealized model of humanity is explicitly problematized by the Ramayana tradition: first, in the painful case of his cowardly and unfair slaying of the monkey-king Valin; and second, in his relations with Sita after the war and her restoration to him. The latter context is even, in a sense, doubled. Rama initially rejects Sita in Lanka, requiring her to undergo a test of fire (agnipariksa ), which she passes. Only later, in the seventh book, the Uttarakanda , does Rama take the more drastic and apparently final step of exiling his wife in response to continuing slanderous rumors about her faithfulness to him during her stay at Ravana's court. The Indian literary tradition has explored the tragic dimension of Rama's action and has offered various solutions to the problems it raises—since there is no
doubt that Sita's punishment is entirely unmerited, as Rama himself clearly knows.
Modern Indological scholarship has, since Jacobi, tended to attack the problem by a characteristic act of stratigraphy: the Uttarakanda is declared later than the "central core" of books 2 through 6, so Rama's final repudiation of Sita is reduced to the status of an accretion. For reasons that I cannot develop here, I feel that this "solution" is unacceptable. In any case, our present concern is with the earlier trial, in Lanka, primarily as it appears in Kampan's Tamil version. In Kampan this is the only such moment of overt hostility on the part of Rama toward Sita, for the Tamil work concludes with Rama's happy return to Ayodhya; there is no Uttarakanda . The Tamil poem thus achieves an outwardly pacific closure—which should not, however, mask the inherent turbulence of its emotional universe. Reading Kampan, one should never be wholly taken in by surface idealizations. Still, the relationship between Rama and his wife is generally idealized in the Tamil text; thus Sita's ordeal by fire, with its bitter overtones, acquires an intriguing singularity. In many ways, this is a critical and culminating moment in the narrative.
We will study this episode as a particularly revealing illustration of certain basic themes and tensions embedded within Kampan's poem, and also as a striking condensation of the cultural distinctiveness of this Tamil Ramayana , especially vis-aà-vis the earlier text of Valmiki. By way of introduction, let me say merely that, however we may seek to understand Rama's status in the Sanskrit text, there is no question that for Kampan he is God in visible and earthly form. Kampan rarely lets us forget this identification—though, as we shall see, its implications for the hero's own consciousness are rather different than in the case of Valmiki's presentation of the avatar. The Tamil Ramayana is a devotional kavya , replete with the poses and values of Tamil bhakli religion and marked by the general cultural orientations of the Kaveri delta during the Chola period, when it was composed. This means, among other things, that it has the power of subtlety as well as the volatile movement of internal complexity; and that it builds, in sometimes surprising ways, on the earlier foundations of Tamil poetry with its inherited modes of classifying the world and its typical understandings of human identity and experience.
The Cost of Self-Knowledge:Valmiki's Vision
We begin with an overview of the episode in Valmiki's text. The great war is over, and Ravana slain. Vibhisana, Ravana's righteous brother, has been crowned king of Lanka and, at Rama's magnanimous insistence, has performed the funeral rites for his dead brother. Now Sita, who has heard from Hanuman the happy news of her deliverance, is brought into Rama's presence by Vibhisana. This is the beginning of the trial. Even before any direct
contact can be made between the two separated lovers, an unseemly and somewhat inauspicious commotion breaks out. Clearing a way for Sita, Vibhisana's servants violently push aside the curious crowd of bears, monkeys, and demons—these are, after all, the constant witnesses of Rama's career—at which they clamor indignantly. Rama, too, is indignant: these are his , Rama's, people now, he informs Vibhisana; they should not be injured. Moreover, there is absolutely no harm in their seeing Sita directly, for women can be seen in the context of disasters, wars, a bridegroom choice, sacrifices, and weddings. There is therefore no need to protect Sita— especially, he notes, "in my presence" (VI.117.28). Hanuman, Laksmana, and Sugriva quite rightly detect a sinister note in this speech. They are disturbed, afraid that Rama is somehow unhappy with Sita; and indeed the poet-narrator has already indicated to us that Rama is filled with conflicting emotions at this point, specifically joy, misery, and anger (harso dainyam ca rosas ca , 117.16).
Sita now stands before him, her eyes raised hopefully to his face. She is a little embarrassed and hides her face with the edge of her sari. She is weeping, repeating over and over, "My lord" (aryaputra ). It should be a moment of joyful reunion, but to everyone's shock Rama proceeds to speak his "innermost thought" (hrdayantargatam bhavam , 118.1), articulated in a speech that is horribly cold, formal, and aloof. "So I have won you back by defeating my enemy; I have acted as a man should, wiped out the insult to my honor, revealed my prowess. Today I have fulfilled my promise and can control my life. Your misfortune in being carried off by that fickle demon, as fate (daiva ) decreed, has been overcome by me, a mere mortal" (118.2-5). As an afterthought, he adds that the heroic feats performed by Hanuman and Sugriva, as well as Vibhisana's decision to abandon his wicked brother, have also been vindicated by this success.
Sita appropriately bursts into tears at this unexpected welcome. Looking at her, Rama becomes still angrier, like a fire fed by oblations of butter. (Some manuscripts add that he is afraid of public opinion, and that his heart is split in two.) He launches into an outright attack on his wife: she should know that he fought not for her sake but simply in order to remove the insult to himself and his famous family. Now there is some doubt as to her conduct (caritra ) during this period, and as a result she is repugnant to him, like a lamp to a person whose eyes are diseased. "Go, then, with my permission, wherever you may wish. The world is open before you; but I will have nothing to do with you, nor have I any attachment to you any more. How could I take you back, straight from Ravana's lap?"
It is a brutal outburst, perhaps calculatedly so, if we adopt the perspective that the Ramayana tradition often proposes, and that Valmiki himself may finally hint at. In any case, the listener, no doubt like Sita herself, reels under the impact of the simile Rama chooses for himself: he is like a man half-blind
in the presence of a lamp. Certainly, Rama does appear at this point quite unable to perceive the truth. So Sita replies, choked and weeping, in words of protest that are, at least at first, strikingly restrained: "Why are you speaking to me so harshly and inappropriately, like a common man to a common woman? I am not as you imagine me; you must believe me, I swear to you. Because of the conduct of some lowly women, you cast doubt on the entire sex. Put aside this doubt; I have been tested! I could not help it if my body was touched by another, but there was no desire involved; fate is to blame. That part of me that is wholly under my control—my heart—is always focused on you. Can I help it if the limbs of my body are ruled by others? If, after our long intimacy, you still do not know me, then I am truly cursed forever." She marshals a trenchant argument: If Rama were determined to repudiate her, why did he bother sending Hanuman to find her when she was a prisoner? Had he so much as hinted at his intention, she would have killed herself at once, in Hanuman's presence. This would surely have saved everyone a good deal of trouble and risk! Sarcasm is creeping into her speech; it seems she is getting angry after all, to the point where she allows herself one truly biting line: "By giving in to anger like a little man, you, my lord, have made being a woman altogether preferable" (tvaya. . . laghuneva manusyena stritvam evam puraskrtam , 119.14).
Rama reacts to all this with silence, and Sita takes command. Turning to Laksmana, she demands that he light a pyre for her. Entering the fire is, she says, the only medicine for this illness; she will not go on living if her husband is dissatisfied with her virtue. Deeply distressed, Laksmana looks to Rama for a sign and gets the equivalent of a nod. So the fire is lit; Sita quietly circumambulates her husband—who will not even raise his head to look at her—bows to the gods and Brahmins, and, calling on the fire, the witness of all that happens in the world, to protect her, leaps into the flames. The whole world, including all the gods, is watching; the monkeys and demons scream.
The moment of terror contains its own redemption. Rama, the embodiment of dharma (dharmatma ), is thinking (dadhyau ), his eyes clouded with tears. He must, in fact, have rather a lot to consider: has his life, with its unwavering commitment to dharmic ideals, inevitably brought him to this painful point? Such moments of reflection in the context of disaster are often points of transformation in the Sanskrit epics: one thinks of Yudhisthira's final act of bewildered reconsideration (vimarsa ) in hell, where he has just discovered his brothers and his wife. And Valmiki does indeed seize upon this juncture to effect a powerful and integrative transition, which brings us back to the frame of the Ramayana as a whole and to one of the central issues of the text. For, as Rama meditates on the situation, the gods swoop down upon Lanka, crying out to him in sentences that must strike him as wholly surrealistic and confused: "How can you, who are the creator of the entire world and the most enlightened being, ignore Sita as she is falling into the
fire? Don't you know yourself, best of all the gods?" At this, Rama, clearly unsettled, turns to the gods with an impassioned plea: "I know myself as a human being, Rama, son of Dasaratha. Who am I really? To whom do I belong? Whence have I come? Let the Lord [Brahma] tell me!"
The questions are by no means trivial or accidental, nor does it help to see them as the interpolations of a later generation interested in Rama only as avatar. "Who am I really?" In a way, this latent cry has pursued Rama through the whole of his story. The Ramayana is the portrait of a consciousness hidden from itself; or, one might say, of an identity obscured and only occasionally, in brilliant and poignant flashes, revealed to its owner. The problem is one of forgetting and recovery, of anamnesis: the divine hero who fails to remember that he is god comes to know himself, at least for brief moments, through hearing (always from others) his story. This is what happens now: responding to his cry, Brahma tells him the "facts" of his existence. He is none other than Narayana, who is the imperishable Absolute; he is supreme dharma, Krsna, the Purusa, Purusottama, the world's creator, the sacrifice, and so forth. As to the more immediate circumstances, Sita is Laksmi and Rama is Visnu, who has entered into human form for the purpose of killing Ravana. Now that this has been accomplished, Rama can return to heaven.
Note the course of development through this passage: Rama sends for Sita and addresses her harshly; she responds by denying his insinuations and protesting his repudiation, and jumps into the fire; the world clamors in outrage, and Rama is led to reflect upon matters and to inquire as to his "true" identity; Brahma then reveals the mythic and metaphysical components of his nature and the cause of his human incarnation. The sequence is carefully worked out and saturated with meaning. If one feels, as I do, that the issue of Rama's self-awareness is basic here (as it is in related episodes, such as the scene in the Uttarakanda when Sita at last returns to Rama, only to disappear forever), then one discovers that Sita's trial by fire is actually more a testing of Rama than of her. By undergoing this ordeal, she precipitates the momentary switch in levels that presents the hero with his own divinity. His anamnesis proceeds directly from her suffering, the cost of his obsession with dharma as defined, rather narrowly, in wholly normative and human terms. Of course, this is only a temporary recovery of knowledge on his part—if not on ours (the listeners outside the text) or on the part of other participants in the story (within it). For now Agni, who has heard Brahma's hymn to Rama as Visnu, can appear in visible, embodied form, holding in his hands the radiant, golden Sita, unsinged and unscarred, even her garlands and ornaments as fresh as before. He speaks the obvious moral of this passage: Sita is pure, totally devoted in word, thought, and sight to Rama; she maintained this purity throughout her time in Lanka, as Ravana's prisoner, despite all threats and temptations; Rama should take her back. He does so readily, and
now he, too, breaking his silence for the first time since the revelation by Brahma, can offer an excuse. People would have blamed him as foolish and ruled by desire (kamatma ) had he taken Sita back without purifying her (avisodhya ); it was all meant simply to establish her faithfulness before the eyes of the world (pratyayartham tu lokanam trayanam , 121.16); he, Rama, could no more abandon her than he could abandon his own fame (kirti ), for he knows that she remained true, protected by her innate radiance (tejas ). Ravana could not touch her.
How much of this is post facto rationalization? The text gives no clear indication, although the language is, once again, eloquent: Rama's kirti is precisely what is in question, both here and in his later decision to send Sita away. It is easy for the tradition to take at face value the hero's assertion that he was only staging a dramatic public vindication by ordeal. But however we might see this, it is clear that a reintegration has taken place—first, of the two separated lovers; then, on another plane, of their mythic counterparts, Visnu and Laksmi, and, internally, of Rama with his divine self. The spectators and listeners witness this as well. The whole epic drama has reached a point of (still temporary) closure, which is reinforced by the immediate aftermath to Sita's trial. Dasaratha, Rama's father, descends from heaven and is reunited with his sons. He expresses this sense of happy closure: "Those words uttered by Kaikeyi, which meant exile for you, have remained in my heart until now when, seeing you well and embracing you together with Laksmana, I have been freed from sorrow, like the sun emerging from fog." Dasaratha restates the conclusion proffered earlier by Brahma as to Rama's mythic identity; he reminds both Laksmana and Sita that Rama is the highest god and begs Sita not to be angry because of the ordeal she has been put through, which was for her own purification. This scene of family reunion not only heals one of the bitterest wounds opened up by Rama's story—that of Dasaratha's grief and premature death—but sets the pattern for yet another closing of the circle. When Indra, before returning to heaven, offers Rama a boon, Rama asks that all the monkey warriors who died for his sake in the battle of Lanka be revived. They immediately arise, as if from sleep. The Ramayana , true to its ideal vision and in cogent contrast to the Mahabharata , reverses death itself and leaves behind a living, restored, reintegrated world—even if the shattering tragedies of the Uttarakanda still lie ahead.
Let us sum up the main lessons of this passage, so beautifully and carefully articulated by the Sanskrit poet. At the center lies the revelation to Rama by the gods, with the consequent transformation of his consciousness through the momentary recovery of a lost, other self. Sita's trial produces doubt and confusion in Rama and outrage on the part of the world, whereupon the gods intervene with the shocking message of Rama's mythic identity. Sita's restoration can follow only upon this epistemic intervention. This theme relates directly to the Ramayana frame story, where we find Rama listening intently to his own story as sung by his as yet unrecognized sons, Kusa and Lava.
We, the listeners, know Rama as god, but he clearly lacks this knowledge, which comes to the surface only in exceptional moments of crisis and breakthrough. The basic Ramayana disjunction between the text's internal and external audiences sustains this play with levels of self-awareness. Sita's trial is one such critical moment, and thus, as we noted, the test is really more Rama's than hers. It remains unclear just how calculated and premeditated his initial statements are; the issue of "testing" in this sense—Rama's wish to demonstrate Sita's faithfulness publicly and also, apparently, to purify her by passing her body through fire—is expressed but never fully resolved. Her own response to his angry words is relatively restrained, though there are flashes of sarcasm and irony as well as one impassioned assertion of women's superiority. The passage concludes with a generalized reintegration and healing: Rama is at peace with Sita, Dasaratha is reunited with his sons, the slain monkeys are revived. The tensions that produced the avatar and generated conflict within the cosmos have been eased, and, on this metaphysical level at least, and for the moment, harmony is restored. On all these counts, Kampan's Tamil version presents us with radical contrasts.
Kampan: The Metaphysics of Reunion
"Can good fortune give rise to lunacy?" (pakkiyam perum pittum payakkumo , VI.37.26). This, according to Kampan, is Sita's response to Hanuman when he brings her the news of her deliverance. At first she is too moved to speak, and he is forced to ask why she is silent: is it because of an excess of joy, or does she doubt the messenger? She answers with the above question, followed by a beautiful set of verses in which she speaks of her inability to reward this messenger in any commensurate way. Note the important theme of silence because of a sensed inadequacy of language in the face of strong emotion. But Sita's first, rhetorical question might almost serve as a motto for the entire highly charged episode to come. Pillu , "lunacy," is not too strong a word for the confrontational experience awaiting her, especially after the hundreds of earlier verses in which the idyllic relations between the two figures of Rama and Sita have been set forth. It is almost as if the orderly progression of this story, so closely linked in Kampan to the examination and enactment of orthodox social ideals, had to proceed through a zone of "crazy" inversion before the end. We might also remember Kampan's own proclaimed identification with this same notion of lunacy in one of the introductory verses (avaiyatakkam ) to the Iramavataram , where, as is customary, he apologizes to the connoisseurs and great Tamil poets for his supposedly flawed or inferior work:
I would say something to those superior poets
who have properly studied the ways of Tamil:
who would study closely
the utterances of madmen, fools,
or of devotees?
The poet, by implication, has something of all three: he is, in his own eyes, a madman and an idiot and, above all, explaining all, a devotee. His devotion breaks out of any sane limit; moreover, much of Kampan's text will be devoted to exploring the operation and limitations of this same unruly, "mad" quality, based on flooding feeling, in the terrestrial career of his god.
Sita's question sounds a note that will continue to echo through the description of her ordeal. Let us see how Kampan chooses to present her situation. Here the setting, if not quite lunatic, is at least suitably lurid. Sita is brought before her husband as he stands, still, on the battlefield—so beloved of Tamil poets—where he has generously arranged a feast of corpses to assuage the hunger of the kites, vultures, and demons (paruntotu kalukum peyum , 55). Against this stark backdrop Sita gets her first glimpse, after so many months of separation, of her husband, with his dark body, mouth red as coral, his bow in his hand. The poet reminds us first of her earlier feelings, during the period of loss and captivity: this is the same flawless woman who had thought, "My body is polluted; my life's breath has gone; there is nothing I want any more" (57). These were suicidal thoughts, born of despair; yet now, as Sita stands before Rama, they are strangely echoed by the metaphor the poet summons to describe her state, a metaphor grounded in the notion that the physical body alone is always potentially impure and subject to the inherent confusions of sensory experience:
As when the false body
that has lost the breath of life
sees it, and reaches out
to steal it back again,
she touched the ground
as she unveiled her face.
By seeing Rama, she is reclaiming, "stealing back," the life that she lost. She expresses her feeling in a single verse:
Even if I must be born again,
or if I leave forever
the great suffering of being born;
if I forget,
or if I fall and die
in some other way,
still all is well
now that I have worshiped
She still has reason to be afraid—not only of rebirth and dying, but also, we might note, of forgetting—but at least this moment of reunion promises to relieve the cumulative burden of anxious anticipation and potential despair. The sight of her husband induces in Sita an illusion of closure and containment. Meanwhile, he sees her too, pregnantly described as "that queen of chastity" and also "like merciful dharma that had been separated from him" (60). This is essentially all we are given before Rama's tirade: having caught sight of her, he at once begins to abuse her, "like a snake raising its hood." Before we pursue this speech, though, let us notice the way Kampan has introduced the major metaphysical and psychological themes of this section in these three simple, hard-hitting verses.
Most salient is the image of life separated from and rejoining the body. Indeed, this image may be said to condense the entire issue of union and separation, so basic to Kampan's poem (as to all Tamil bhakti ). It is not by chance that Kampan opens the episode with just this simile: this moment that ends the period of separation also recalls, perhaps deliberately, the very instant of its beginning, its first intrusion into the hero's consciousness. When Rama races back to the hut in the forest where Laksmana has so reluctantly left Sita alone and finds it empty—for Ravana has meanwhile abducted her, as the audience well knows—he is compared to "the breath of life that has been separated from its containing body (kutu ) and has come in search of it, but cannot find it" (III.8.158). If we apply the metaphor literally, in both cases Rama is compared to the breath of life (uyir ), while Sita is like the body; in the forest, the uyir panics at the loss of its corporeal container, while in Lanka the body reaches out to recover its lost vital force (as Sita glimpses Rama). The separation that informs so large a part of the epic story is thus, metaphorically and also metaphysically, the shattering of a longed-for and necessary symbiosis on the level of the composition of the human individual. This symbiosis is not that of body and soul, inert matter and spiritual substance (and thus the temptation to allegoresis is easily resisted for the Iramavataram ); indeed, it is not truly dualistic at all. Rather, it reflects the interlocking relationship between two dynamic, equally living and substantial entities that together create a unity of perceived experience.
This unity of body and life-force has, in Kampan, several associated characteristics and implications that are invoked at points throughout the lramavataram when this recurrent metaphor breaks through the text. It is, first of all, a unity based on flux, resistant to stasis and stable definition. The fluid quality that pervades the relation of life to body is nowhere clearer than in the introductory canto to the poem as a whole, the Arruppatalam or "Chapter on the River." This opening replaces the entire Ramayana frame story as given in Valmiki; in its stead, we have a striking description of water flooding own from the Himalayas, violently jumbling together the elements of hitherto distinct landscapes:
Turning forest into slope,
field into wilderness,
seashore into fertile land,
the reckless waters
roared on like the pasts
that hurry close on the heels
The rushing water is translated into the register of rushing lives (with their burdens of past deeds and memories), a metaphoric conjunction that becomes even more powerful as the description reaches its climax:
Like a life filling
a variety of bodies,
the river flowed on.
Uyir again, the vital breath that moves endlessly through one body after another, always seeks but then separates from these partial vessels. The life-force clearly enjoys an ontological superiority of sorts—it is the "false body" that reclaims its lost uyir in the verse describing Sita's glimpse of Rama—yet this animating power can never dispense with embodiment, even as it can never be entirely contained by it. This is the second characteristic to be stressed, one directly relevant to Sita's situation in Lanka: the unity of life and body is always unfinished. No final integration is called for; the restless flux has no teleology beyond its own process. The body that reclaims its uyii , as we are told Sita wishes to do, will doubtless lose it again. Sita's emerging confrontation with Rama thus fits naturally into the underlying metaphysics of flux, in which separation is no less necessary than union. A jarring narrative episode inherited from Valmiki is integrated into a conceptual constellation specific to the Tamil literary and philosophical universe. The prevalent Tamil bhakti characterization of the relation between god and his human devotee as troubled, even tormented, also fits this pattern, and it is thus not surprising that in Kampan, too, one "regains" Rama only to be immediately rejected by him.
But the potential for union is also crucial to this set of images, especially insofar as it includes the dimension of loving emotion. Thus when Rama and Sita first catch sight of one another in Mithila, before they are married, they become
one breath of life
in two different bodies.
When the two lovers separated
from their bed on the dark sea
found each other again,
was there need for words?
Uyir is unitary, even as it flows in and out of an endlessly fragmented series of distinct bodies; when two embodied beings feel love for one another, they experience this underlying unity of the life-force. In the case of Rama and Sita, there is also a mythic dimension, evident in this passage, hovering somewhere in the background of awareness—for the two lovers are Visnu and Laksmi, who have become separated from one another and from their proper cosmic setting, the serpent-couch floating upon the "dark sea" of milk. They find one another again, in moving silence, when Rama and Sita fall in love.
And having found one another, they then proceed to lose each other, to experience at great length the impatient longings and confusions inherent in separation, ultimately to confront one another again, in our scene at Lanka. We begin to see why this meeting must have something of the quality of the uyir's unstable meeting with the body. Dynamic flux, instability, emotional excess and imbalance, the flooding of memory, the mingling of past and present, an inner experience of potential unity, the hesitations of language— this is the range of associations that Kampan calls up at the outset of Sita's ordeal. Schematically stated, this episode is made to embrace three forms of movement along a thematic continuum: an oscillation between separation and union, on the most fundamental experiential and metaphysical level; an interplay of speech and eloquent silence, on the external linguistic level; and an unfolding tension between forgetting or lack of feeling and memory or intuitive understanding, on the cognitive and epistemic level. The opening verses already bring these issues to the fore.
Now comes Rama's speech, which is even more cruel to Sita, and more outspoken, than in Valmiki's text:
You took pleasure in food,
you didn't die
for all your disgrace
in the great palace of the devious demon.
You stayed there, submissive,
wholly without fear.
What thought has brought you here?
Did you imagine that I
could want you ?
Kampan's male heroes have the somewhat unpleasant habit, at difficult moments, of blaming their women for not dying (thus Dasaratha to Kaikeyi, II.3.222). Rama will return to this theme, as he does to the oral obsession with which the whole diatribe begins:
You abandoned us.
All this while, you have been relishing
the flesh of living beings,
sweeter than ambrosia,
and happily drinking strong liquor.
So you tell me: what proper feasts
are in store for me now?
A nice inversion: Sita is held responsible for having "abandoned us." The kidnapping has become irrelevant, and the focus is on her hedonistic delight in the carnivorous cuisine of Lanka. Can a wife so corrupted ever serve the fastidious Rama another meal? (South Indian vegetarian values have by this point superseded any dim memories of Rama's habitual Ksatriya diet of game!) To make things crystal clear, Rama also informs her, as he does in Valmiki's version, of the real reason for his campaign:
It was not to save you
that I dammed the sea,
cut off at the root
these demons with their gleaming weapons,
and overcame their enmity:
it was to redeem myself from error
that I came here, to Lanka.
Pilai , "error," is also a lack or deficiency, or some more serious mistake, even a crime. Rama speaks with the hero's egoistic concern for his own honor, and without intentionally implying that he is now enacting a mistake of greater magnitude than any previously connected with his story. His attack gathers force, becoming more and more personal and unfair: Sita was, after all, born not in a family distinguished by goodness but, like a worm (kitam pol ), from the soil (65; here Kampan has lifted a theme from Sita's speech in Valmiki, intensified it, and placed it in Rama's mouth). It is no wonder, then, that
high birth, the power
known as chastity,
clarity and splendor
all have perished by the mere birth
of a single creature such as you,
like the fame of a king
who gives no gifts.
Sita has become the total antithesis to the exemplary figure Rama had always recognized in her. Her survival alone is enough to impeach her: wellborn women in her situation would have embarked on a regimen of rigorous
austerities; and if disgrace (pali ) came, they would wipe it out by wiping out their lives (67). (Again, the male complaint at his wife's refusal to disappear.) Now Rama can conclude (again rendering Valmiki's formulation more extreme):
What is the point of talking?
Your conduct has destroyed forever
The thing to do
is to die—
or, if you won't do that,
then go somewhere,
The demand for death is Kampan's innovation, to be seized upon at once by Sita. But this verse also introduces, for the first time in this episode, the important concept of unarvu, the intuitive, felt understanding that is the normal medium of connection between individuals and, across existential levels, between human beings and the god. It is this form of communicative understanding that Rama claims Sita has destroyed through her conduct; her survival is beyond his unarvu , and she should therefore die or disappear. We shall soon see how Sita takes up this important statement and develops it in crucial and suggestive ways.
So far we notice an impressive exacerbation of the bitterness inherent in Rama's speech as set out in Valmiki. Rama lashes out at Sita with horrific accusations, ridicules her miraculous birth, and even tells her she should die. This extreme heightening of tone continues into Sita's reply, as we shall see. But before she begins to speak, her inner state is summed up in another graphic metaphor:
Like a deer
on the point of death,
tortured by terrible thirst
in the middle of a desert
thick with kites,
who sees a lake
just beyond reach,
she grieved at the barrier
that rose before her.
Perhaps most striking here is Kampan's use of imagery drawn from classical Tamil love poetry, the akam or "inner" division structured around conventionalized landscapes with their associated emotional states. A Tamil reader immediately identifies this verse as a palai or wilderness poem caring up a sense of traumatic separation. The image of the predatory kite, which helps to specify the landscape, also points to something in the dramatic situation—
no doubt something in Rama's menacing attitude and conduct. Sita's inner reality is indeed a palai experience at this moment: she has entered a wilderness zone of rejection and loss. This suggestive use of the classical conventions is a constant element in Kampan's art. Seen in relation to the central story of Rama and Sita's common fate, the entire lramavataram might well appear as an extended love poem in the bhakli mode. Like earlier Tamil bhakti poets, Kampan conflates heroic or panegyric themes (puram ) with akam or "interior" elements, largely subordinating the former to the latter in nonexplicit ways. But in Kampan the narrative follows the prescribed structure of the Sanskrit epic, with the result that the classical love situations of Tamil poetry—premarital courtship and stolen union, the several forms of separation and longing, as well as later quarreling and conflict—are now scattered somewhat unpredictably, without orderly sequence, throughout the text. They emerge from time to time, usually with very powerful implications: thus Rama's crossing of the wilderness as a young man recalls palai themes; premarital passion, kalavu , is suggested in Mithila; Sita, pining in Lanka, appears as the impatient heroine of the neytal coastal landscape; and here the palai atmosphere is again present at the moment of reunion. In itself, this is instructive, for palai , the landscape of separation at its most severe, embodies that aspect of the love experience felt to inhere in all others, including union. Love, even in union, is largely predicated on the sense of separateness and separation. We can see how appropriate this classical element is to the underlying metaphysics of Sita's encounter with Rama—an encounter structured around rejection—and we observe the delicate and calculated artistry of the poet who, following Nammalvar and other Vaisnava bhakli poets in Tamil, turns the ancient conventions to his devotional purpose.
Tirade and Trial
Sita's response is of a different order altogether than in Valmiki. It resumes and extends themes that have already been broached by the Tamil text, and it does so in the context of a complaint aimed directly at Rama, both as husband and, implicitly, as god. Irony is the least of Sita's weapons. More than in any other passage of the Iramavataram , she blasts Rama directly and with literal intent. To those familiar with the Tamil tradition, she calls up the image of the bereaved Kannaki from the classical kavya Cilappatikaram (especially cantos 18 and 19)—a woman crying out bitterly against an unjust fate. But, closer to home, there are also affinities between her outburst and Kampan's major formulation of the problem of theodicy in the outraged speech by the dying Valin, shot by Rama from an ambush. Like Valin, Sita is both angry and bewildered; she feels betrayed, and wholly justified in her own prior actions, which have nonetheless led to this unacceptable conclusion; her anger is entirely focused on Rama, its compelling, proper target.
One feels from the fury and precision of her words that the poet is largely speaking for himself through her mouth.
It is not a long speech. She begins by mentioning Hanuman, who came to Lanka, saw her, and promised her that Rama would soon arrive. Did he not then inform Rama of her dreadful suffering? Next she addresses Rama's preposterous claim that she, Sita, had ruined the world's finest ideals, especially those relating to womanhood, simply by being born:
All that I suffered,
all the care
with which I kept my chastity,
and at what cost,
and for so long a time—
all this seems crazy now,
a futile waste,
since you, O best of beings,
don't understand it in your heart.
Pittu , lunacy, again: her earlier, unwitting prophecy, couched as a rhetorical question, has come true. Tidings of good fortune have led unexpectedly to this taste of madness. She preserved her precious chastity, karpu , with such scrupulous, even ferocious, care, but it was all for nothing, a futile waste (avam ), a kind of mistake (pilailtatu , echoing Rama's term, pilai , above). As impressive as this conclusion is the logic behind it: the true failure is Rama's, on the level of feeling and understanding (unarvu , again echoing Rama's earlier statement). Lacking unarvu , he—the god—can make only aberrant and inhuman claims; and the effect is to translate human notions of right or goodness into lunacy.
This question of knowledge or understanding becomes more and more central:
The whole world knows
that I'm a faithful wife (pattini ):
not even Brahma on his lotus
could change my foolish mind.
But if my lord, who is like the eye
that sees for everyone,
should deny this,
what god could teach him otherwise?
Everyone knows the truth except Rama, who should be able to see it outright, for he is the universal eye, kannavan —punning, perhaps, on kanavan , husband, as well as on Kannan, or Krsna. The pun takes up Rama's simile—the diseased eye squinting in the light of a lamp—in the Sanskrit text. The god sees without really seeing, and surely Sita is right: there is no
god above him to teach him otherwise. Her own stubborn mind, intent on faithfulness as an act of inner autonomy, is thus truly foolish (petaiyen; petai can also mean simply "woman")—the second quality, after lunacy, that Kampan seems to claim for himself in the introductory verse we examined. The coordinates laid out in that verse are uncannily retraced in this one; only devotion, bhakti , is still missing.
Having laid the blame where it belongs, Sita can conclude with an arnbiguous eulogy of womanhood (again following Valmiki's Sita). The trimurti , Brahma, Siva, and Visnu—called, no doubt sardonically, dharmamaurti , the incarnation of dharma—might be able to see the whole universe "like a myrobalan in the palm of the hand," but "can they know the state of a woman's heart?" Obviously not, judging by her own husband's conduct— and he is that Dharmamurti himself. All that is left is for her to execute Rama's command: there is nothing better now, she says, than dying.
She asks Laksmana to light the fire; he does so "as if he had lost his own life" (79), after receiving a sign from Rama's eyes. As Sita approaches the pyre, the world goes into crisis: not only the gods, all other living beings, and the cosmic elements, but also the four Vedas and Dharma cry out in horror. She worships her husband and demands that Fire burn her if she has erred in thought or word. Then
as if she were going home
to her palace on the lotus
that rises up from the flooding waters,
she jumped in;
and as she entered, that fire was scorched
by her burning faithfulness (karpu ),
as milk-white cotton
goes up in flame.
She is, after all, the goddess Laksmi/Padma, who reigns in state upon the lotus. For her, the experience inside the pyre is drenched in watery associations, as if she had plunged not into fire but into a flood. But for the unfortunate god of fire, Agni, who has to receive her, the moment is one of excruciating, fiery torment. This is yet another innovation in Kampan: Fire is burned by Sita's fire. Karpu —chastity, self-control, faithfulness—is no abstract ethical virtue but a substantial and dynamic reality that suffuses the woman's inner being. The effect of the trial is thus even more dramatic than in Valmiki. Not only does Sita emerge unsinged, but she actually scorches the god of fire himself, who screams out in pain and protest (pucal itt' ararrum , 86) to Rama. Lifting Sita in his hands, Agni points out that the beads of perspiration, formed on her body by her anger at her husband (utiya cirrattal , 87), were not dried up by his flames, while the flowers she wears in her hair still drip honey and are filled with bees, "as if they had been steeped in water." Sita's ordeal has been something akin to a refreshing bath, but
Agni's eye detects the still evident traces of the rage that drove her to undergo this test. In terms of Tamil poetics, the confrontation has become an instance of utal , the lovers' quarrel, heightened to an almost lethal degree.
Now Agni is angry at Rama: "You did not think about this divine flame of karpu , and so you have destroyed my power; were you furious with me, too?" This prompts another cutting statement from Rama, for whom the test is still, clearly, not over: "Who are you, appearing in this fire, and what are you saying? Instead of burning this vile woman (punmai cal orutti ), you praise her!" (90) He insists on Sita's mean and lowly character, even at this late stage. Agni must therefore spell out the truth for him, first presenting his credentials: "I am Agni; I came here because I could not bear the blazing fire of faithfulness in this woman. People get married before me, resolve their doubts before me." And, at last, a verse no less biting than Rama's:
Didn't you hear
when the gods and sages
and all that moves and is still
in the three worlds
screamed, as they struck their eyes?
Have you abandoned dharma
and resorted to misery instead?
Rama accused Sita of "abandoning us"; Agni throws the expression back at Rama and, in a manner that goes far beyond anything in Valmiki, illuminates the real import of Rama's attitude. This god incarnate has "abandoned dharma" and, in the gloss of one modern commentator, resorted to adharma. The consequences are, according to Agni, potentially disastrous:
Will rain fall,
will the earth still bear its burden
without splitting in two,
will dharma go the right way,
or can this universe survive
if she becomes enraged?
If she utters a curse,
even Brahma on his lotus
To the moral issue is now added an overriding argument from identity. Sita is the great goddess herself—though Rama hardly seems to know this. He does, however, bow to Agni's verdict and accept Sita back, welcoming her with a surprisingly laconic, almost grudging acknowledgment:
You [Agni] are the imperishable witness
for this whole world.
You spoke words I can't condemn.
You said she is wholly
Blameless, she must not
be sent away.
That is all: Rama does not address Sita directly. Still, Kampan gives Rama an epithet here: he is karunaiy ullattan , a man whose heart is compassion. Has a transformation taken place? Or has the underlying compassion of the god been released, at last, back into the world? Or is the poet simply enjoying the irony he has built into this context?
Let us briefly take stock before we turn to the final section of the narrative. There is no doubt that this couple's reunion is far more embittered, in the Tamil text, than in its Sanskrit prototype. They speak to one another with shocking verbal abandon. Rama's doubts and suspicion have turned into a violent denunciation, an a priori pronouncement of guilt that focuses on Sita's alleged hedonism and lowly birth. Her reply incriminates him: he stands condemned, in her eyes, for a terrible failure of understanding that has led to blatant injustice. The ordeal itself assumes a watery rather than fiery character for Sita, while Agni, tortured by her superior power, becomes her advocate. As such, he still has to argue with Rama about Sita's purity of character; somewhat reluctantly, or at any rate uneffusively, Rama gives in. There is as yet no hint at all that the entire scene is only a trial to persuade an external audience (the world, or Rama's subjects) of something Rama already knows. On the contrary, his lack of unarvu—the knowledge that is a form of feeling, of empathetic understanding—is a major issue, still unresolved, and one which has implications on tile divine level, where Rama as god is implicitly accused of acting against dharma. Finally, and perhaps most conspicuously, the logical sequence of the Sanskrit narrative has been disturbed. There, Agni appears with Sita in his hands only after the revelation by Brahma of Rama's divine identity. It is the revelation, with its dramatic epistemic consequences for the hero, that breaks through the calculations and anxieties that have constrained him and paves the way for Sita's restoration. Here, however, Sita is restored, on Agni's pleading, before Brahma speaks. Why this reversal? How does it fit into the overall transformation that Kampan has worked on this passage?
The Silence of a God
In the Tamil text, it is not Rama who provokes the revelation with agonized questions about his identity, but the gods who decide to do so for their own inscrutable reasons: "The time has come to tell Rama the truth" (98). Brahma speaks, addressing Rama—as have many others, at various points throughout the text—by a clear epithet of Visnu's, netiyoy ("Long One"
= Trivikrama). He utters fourteen verses of the familiar stotra type—a short hymn of praise, again like others scattered through the poem. Perhaps most remarkable, in comparison with the epiphany described in Valmiki, is the largely impersonal content of these verses: they are an exercise in the application of orthodox cosmological and philosophical categories, drawn especially from Sankhya, to the bhakti context of worship. The type is familiar from other South Indian bhakti narratives, especially the Bhagavata Purana and its vernacular descendants. Thus the incarnate god, Rama in this case, is repeatedly identified with the Vedantic absolute. "Do not think of yourself," Brahma— says, "as a man born into an ancient royal family; you are no other than the truth spoken as the conclusion of the Vedas" (i.e., Vedanta, 99). Similarly, Rama is told that he is the primeval Purusa, the twenty-sixth tattva , higher than all the evolutes of matter (pakuti=prakrti ), the supreme truth (paramartha , 101); he cannot be measured by the usual criteria of knowledge, and sensual perception is no use, but the Upanisads proclaim his existence (105-6); those who are sunk in the illusion of having parents, who do not know their own selves, suffer endlessly, but those who know Rama as father achieve release (103). It is Rama's illusion, mayai , that produces the world, though he himself, like others, does not fully understand this state (99); he also preserves the world with his own form (as Visnu) and destroys it (as Siva). A single verse introduces the avatar concept: he comes to destroy pride, to rout the demons, and to make the gods take refuge with him. All this leads up to the practical conclusion, which is something of a non sequitur: "This being the case," Brahma says, "do not hate our mother (Sita), who gave birth to us and to the triple world and who has demonstrated the glory of married life" (112).
Perhaps the argument is wholly based on this affirmation of identity: as the goddess, Sita is hardly to be judged by human social standards, and Rama must in any case take her back. But the hymn does not quite suffice, for now Siva also puts in an appearance (though there is no precedent for this in Valmiki) in order to present the message more forcefully and more simply. "It seems," he says, "that you do not know yourself (unnai niy onrum unarntilai ); you are the primordial deity (murtti ), and this Sita, mother of the three worlds, resides upon your breast" (113). Siva's intervention thus confirms the mythic identity of Rama as Visnu and reiterates the notion of his ignorance. For good measure, Siva adds that if one errs with respect to the goddess who gave birth to the worlds, many living beings will die; Rama should thus forget the aversion or scorn (ikalcci ) he has felt for her. On this note of recommended forgetfulness, the divine revelation abruptly ends.
And Rama is silent. He makes no acknowledgment whatsoever of all that has just been said. Indeed, he will have nothing more to say until, somewhat later, Dasaratha asks him to name his boon. Here, in fact, it is Dasaratha alone who makes the important statement—to Sita—that the ordeal was
meant only to demonstrate publicly her chaste character, "as one passes gold through fire to reveal its purity" (123). Rama utters nothing to this effect. Silence has engulfed him, despite the tremendous announcement he has just heard. In Valmiki's version, we may recall, the revelation is followed by Agni's restoration of Sita and then, immediately, by a voluble, self-justifying outburst by Rama, who wants to make clear to everyone that he acted only pratyayartham tu lokanam —to establish Sita's innocence in the eyes of the world. But in the Tamil text, where a dialogic loquaciousness is something of the rule, the hero who has just been told he is God offers no response at all.
It is a pregnant silence, well suited to the subtleties and tensions of the moment, as Kampan sees it. In a reunion that proceeds via rejection and renewed separation, speech easily issues into silence. Clearly, the fundamental theme of loss and recovery has taken a new form in Kampan's poem. Anamnesis—the hero's regaining of memory through perceiving his divine identity—is not, for Kampan, the essential point. In fact, it is in a sense quite beside the point: the embodied god's consciousness of himself as god is never what is at stake in the Tamil text. When Siva tells Rama that he does not know himself, he is pointing to a very different content of unknowing than that intended by Valmiki in this same context. On closer inspection, we find this pattern—Rama recognized as God and praised as such in a stotra like that sung by Brahma, which elicits nothing but silence from its divine object—recurring frequently in the Iramavataram . Each time it happens, Rama ignores the eulogies showered upon him. It is always as if the text shifts levels, for a passing moment, opening up the dimension of discovery and celebration of explicitly recognized divinity before reverting, after the hymn, to the ongoing narration. Or as if, once the intimation of Rama's divinity is externalized, once it is articulated in language (usually by one of his victims), Rama's own task is finished. One wonders if he even hears the stotra that others offer to him. This aspect of his awareness—the god-hero's own recognition of his "true" identity, apparently veiled by his humanity— is not presented to us by Kampan and seems not to constitute one of this poet's concerns.
We might formulate this observation somewhat differently. What we see in Kampan is a shift away from the psychology of recovery and the play of memory to a different thematic, which seeks to map out in detail the actual human experience of the god in the world. This works both ways: many passages in Kampan explore the god's own experience of human limitations, and above all of human emotions, generally those of loss, shame, helplessness, but also occasionally of wonder and joy. If he forgets, it is not so much his identity that becomes hidden as some much more immediate and interpersonal concern—Sita's sufferings, for example, although at times the problem is quite the opposite, when Rama evinces a very human inability to
forget some troubling anxiety or hurt. (Thus, as we saw, Siva begs him to learn forgetfulness, 114.) But in the episode of Sita's trial, as so often in this poem, the real center lies in our response—in the experience that we, as devotees, as listeners, have of Rama's nearness. The god acts or speaks, and the world around him somehow assimilates his presence. It is, almost by definition, a frustrating and often enigmatic presence, marked by strong tendencies on the part of the god to withdraw into silence, to block connection, to toy capriciously with those around him, to hide.
And the result can be angry protest. In our episode, Sita speaks like any of Rama's other victims. She has reason to be angry: his conduct seems perverse to the point of cruelty, even if he is axiomatically a hero of compassion, as the text so often states. She protests a real failing on the level of unarvu , the god-man's capacity to feel and understand what she, or any other human being, must know or undergo. She says that Rama does not truly know what she has suffered and is suffering now, and that without this knowledge on his part her endurance becomes an exercise in futility. Since Rama is no ordinary husband—since Sita knows, on some level, his cosmic and mythic identity —she is expressing a frustrated demand that the god share fully our essential perceptions and our sorrows. But in contrast to the Valin episode, where the revelation of Rama's own broken heart turns the tide of Valin's bitterness (IV.7.118), here he unfortunately fails to comply with this all-too-human expectation. Again a transformation has taken place, from the notion of a clouded and temporarily forgotten self-knowledge, in Valmiki, to the god's actual unfeeling ignorance, in Kampan. The content of the missing knowledge is quite different in each case. In Kampan, Sita speaks of a failure of the divine imagination, a failure that informs, at this moment, her own experience of Rama. (It is also striking that, from this point onward, Sita has very little to say in Kampan's text.) On another level, by not expressing Sita's truth publicly, by allowing the ordeal to proceed out of an apparent lack of feeling, Rama demonstrates again the inherent asymmetry in the relations between the divine and the human. This imbalance in the intensity and content of unarvu is surely part of what Siva is referring to when, in the Tamil text, he tells Rama that he does not know himself. The process of discovery has also been, in a sense, reversed: whereas Valmiki's hero is a man who finds himself to be god by hearing and living out his story, and is graced by moments of anamnesis, Kampan's protagonist is a god who discovers repeatedly, often to his own amazement, the painful cognitive and emotional consequences of being human.
Silence, separation, and the failure to feel or to understand: these are the undercurrents surging through the story of Sita's trial in Kampan's text. Like other points in this great love poem, this episode highlights the conflicts rather than the serenities or certainties of passionate feeling. In this way, the
final meeting of Rama and Sita follows the more general paradigm of the lovers' thorny career in Tamil poetry and its extensions into the sphere of bhakti devotionalism. Lovers, like devotees, are not meant to be at peace.
But this is by no means the only conclusion to be drawn from Kampan's treatment of this passage, for the two versions we have examined reveal outstanding contrasts in theme and structure. In addition to Kampan's careful exploitation of the conventionalized language of Tamil love poetry (especially as reformulated by Nammalvar), there are four major points of divergence and transformation:
1. In Valmiki, the real test is Rama's, while Sita's ordeal is proclaimed a show for the benefit of a skeptical world. In Kampan, her trial seems altogether real: her love and commitment to Rama, despite his verbal hostility, and her readiness to die for her truth, are put to the test—and Sita wins, like the devotee who so often triumphs over the god.
2. Her rejection is thus equally real in tile Tamil text, which offers no space for the notion of a public demonstration or trial until Dasaratha's late commentary on the events. Rama himself never mentions this possibility. More important still, his repudiation of Sita has metaphysical implications: union, whether of lovers or of a devotee with god, presupposes separation.
3. Valmiki's sequence is overturned in Kampan: Agni restores Sita before Rama hears Brahma's revelation of his, Rama's, divinity (which thus serves no pressing function as far as Sita's status is concerned; she has already been reintegrated into Rama's life, and no great upheaval in consciousness is required to facilitate the move). The sense of this change in sequence, as of Rama's subsequent silence in the face of the gods' impressive news, becomes clear from the contrasting axiology and problematics of Kampan's text. The central thematic concern of the episode in Sanskrit—the transition in Rama's self-awareness in the face of Sita's suffering and his own responsibility—is almost irrelevant to Kampan's discourse. There is no point at which Rama has to ask himself, "Who am I?" Instead, the Rama of the Iramavataram , who is clearly god for the Tamil poet, for his audience, and probably for himself, is caught up in the emotional complexities of human experience: this is what he must come thoroughly and intimately to know, as others come to perceive him through their responses to his embodied presence and puzzling deeds. Sita's ordeal is yet another richly articulated opportunity for this course of asymmetrical mutual exploration.
4. Finally, Valmiki's description of the ordeal returns us, together with the epic hero, to the frame of the work, in which the themes of the hero's self-awareness and self-forgetfulness are so subtly and powerfully embedded. The glimpses he gets of his divine nature develop logically out of the structure of that frame. But this frame is wholly absent from Kampan's work, which opens instead with vivid images of flux—of rushing water, and of lives.
Significantly, the Tamil poet reverts to these images as he begins to narrate the episode of the ordeal, and they spring to mind again with the oxymoronic depiction of Sita's fire as a cool, liquid bath. Kampan's poem has traced a course from the initial deluge to a culminating fire that is itself another kind of flood. These metaphors are imbued with meaning. If in Valmiki, Sita's trial by fire sparks the flash of recovered memory in Rama, in Kampan it re-presents the experience of the divine river of life flowing mysteriously through and out of bodies, playing with awareness, infusing and transcending these fragile vessels. The god both propels this movement onward— perhaps through the elements of his unknowing (98)—and overflows with it himself into and beyond human form. He also remains paradoxically subject to the concomitant law of continuous separation, with the inevitable ensuing sensation of recurrent, indeed continuous, loss. Perfection is a process, magical, unfinished, flawed.