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?