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.