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.