Fire test for Sītā

Bijoy Misra

June 11, 2023

Vālmīki’s Sītā is a characterization of the ideal woman in the world of the time. She is simple, righteous, loving and delicate, but as such she is also vulnerable to the cruelties and misconduct of society. As she herself confided to Rāma, her intent to leave their palace home was based on her perceived insecurity in living there without her husband. Through her own folly, she was kidnapped by Rāvaṇa. Being alone in Laṅkā, she could only protect herself through prayer and sheer strong will. Having spent fourteen years in the forest, she was keen to return home safely. Her world revolved around Rāma, and she depended on him for love and shelter.

Rāma was a principled man who believed in social order that had been created for the protection of society. His training was directed to maintain social institutions. A father must be respected. Personal happiness must be sacrificed for the sake of family dignity. The protection of social order and social values was necessary for maintaining righteousness in the world. Righteousness was eternal and men had to conform to this tradition. A king’s duty was to protect the society by maintaining social order. This was ordained through family and was reinforced through education. The law was more important than the individual. The king had to uphold the law all the time. Rāma envisioned himself and his activities in terms of being the enforcer of the law!

Having witnessed the demise of his elder brother, Vibhīṣaṇa was badly grief-stricken. He yelled out “O my valiant brother, skillful and powerful! Why are you not sleeping on your royal bed? Why are you lying on this ground?” Then he turned poetic “With majestic size, flowers as his power, valor as his root, the tree named Rāvaṇa has been vanquished by the draft of Rāma in the battlefield! The elephant called Rāvaṇa, who had power in his tusks, whose ancestry formed his backbone, and whose trunk was always busy picking up objects, is lying on the ground having been eliminated by the lion Rāma!”

Rāma consoled Vibhīṣaṇa: “Fighters who die in war need not be mourned! Rāvaṇa was brilliant, undaunted and ambitious. All in the three worlds were afraid of him, everyone was frightened! The śāstra teaches: ‘A hero kills the enemy or dies in battle!’ This is not a time to lament! Please think of the next steps clearly! Be righteous! Enmity ends with death! Please perform the last rites for Rāvaṇa dutifully. He is as important to you as to me!”

Vibhīṣaṇa arranged the cremation pyre. He prepared his brother’s body and placed it on the altar. He loaded sandalwood over it and lit the pyre. A relaxed Rāma witnessed the event. Evil was finally reducing to ashes! Then Rāma thought about Vibhīṣaṇa’s consecration to the throne of Lanka. He asked his brother Lakṣmaṇa to prepare for the ritual. Lakṣmaṇa dispatched monkey assistants to fetch sea water. Everyone took turns to sprinkle ritual water on Vibhīṣaṇa. Vibhīṣaṇa was installed as the new King.

Once Vibhīṣaṇa was coronated, the next task was to locate Sita and send a message to her. Rāma ordered Hanūmān: “Get permission from Vibhīṣaṇa and enter Laṅkā. Inform Sītā that all are well and tell her that Rāvaṇa was killed in battle. Please return with her message!” Hanūmān was able to easliy enter Laṅkā. He saw the familiar figure of the emaciated Sītā sitting under a tree. She was surrounded by the rākṣasī guards.

Seeing Hanūmān brought a smile onto Sītā’s face. Hanūmān approached her near the tree. He gracefully prefaced: “Through your blessings, Rāvaṇa has been killed.Rāma has been victorious.” Then he relayed Rāma’s message: “To accomplish the mission, we have been working hard for several months. We had to construct a bridge over the open sea. Do not be scared any more: Vibhīṣaṇa is the new King and he will come to greet you. You can feel at home in Laṅkā !”

Sītā’s eyes danced in joy, she was speechless. Hanūmān spoke up: “Why don’t you respond? Should I wipe out these evil guards who have been taunting you with abuse and disrespect?” Sītā dissuaded Hanūmān: “Servants will follow the order of the King! My pain is due to my own fate! Something I did wrong has come back on me. Please don’t think differently. In life, destiny is supreme! We must forgive the servants!” She added “Please tell Rāma that I want to see him!”

Hanūmān returned and conveyed the message to Rāma. He took a long breath, his eyes filled in tears. He requested Vibhīṣaṇa: “Please go and fetch Sītā. Let her wash her head and be dressed up. Let her prepare properly!” Vibhīṣaṇa left quickly and spoke to Sītā. The anxious Sītā broke up: “Can we go now?” She wanted to leave immediately. Vibhīṣaṇa objected. “It is right to do as Rāma has instructed!”.

Sītā washed herself and dressed elegantly. She rode in an enclosed cabin. She was carried over to Rāma. Vibhīṣaṇa went forward and announced Sita’s arrival. Strangely, Rāma was reserved and stared indifferent. While the monkeys and bears were rushing to get a glimpse of Sītā, Rāma angrily shouted: “It is not a woman’s dress, housing or royalty that defines a her, only her character does! Let Sītā walk, so all can see her!”

Rāma’s indignation stunned everyone. Sita was delighted to see her husband after such a long time. She was shrinking in modesty, her face brightened. Rāma was behaving as a king would towards his subject. He harbored suspicion about Sītā ’s character. He made a long speech as though adjudicating justice based on his perceived information.

“O, Sītā, you have been rescued by defeating the enemy. The suffering and indignity caused by the enemy has now been cleared up. Today I am self-assured, my efforts have been successful. I have fulfilled my vow. I have responded to the fateful calamity caused to you through your unfortunate kidnapping. What good is a man’s strength if it is not used to avenge an insult? Hanūmān’s magnificent work of leaping across the sea has culminated in destroying the city of Lanka. Sugrīva’s excellent counsel in the battlefield, and his spectacular organization of the monkey army led to today’s success. Vibhīṣaṇa’s courage in rejecting his brother and seeking me instead has brought us victory!” Sītā heard every word of this success gleefully. She had tears of joy.

Rāma was ambivalent. He was apprehensive of the public scandal that could ensue if he accepted Sītā. Sītā in principle had been living in somebody else’s home. In the open assembly, Rāma stunned all with his judgment. “I have killed Rāvaṇa to avenge an insult. I rescued you in the process. But I want to declare that the war against Rāvaṇa was not for your sake, rather it was to vindicate my own dignity. It was to uphold the dignity of my illustrious family.”

Taunting Sītā he continued: “Even though you are standing in front of me, suspicions have risen regarding your character. Your lovely appearance is like a poke to an injured eye! What man of conscience would accept a woman who has lived in another man’s house? Given my noble family heritage, how do I accept a woman who was been through the lustful eyes and arms of Rāvaṇa?”

Rāma further expressed his perceived suspicion: “Given your exceptional looks, Rāvaṇa would not have controlled himself being separated from you for long!” Then he was stern: “I have nothing to do with you anymore. You can go wherever you like!” The cruel taunt continued “Feel free to go with Lakṣmaṇa, or Bharata, or S’atrughna, or Sugrīva - or even Vibhīṣaṇa.” Rāma delivered the royal order: “Make up your mind!”

Sītā was devastated. Rāma was acting in accordance with his royal training, but he had confused Sītā with a generic person. She was embarrassed. Tears were flowing from her eyes. She was ashamed that her husband was berating her in public. It took a while for her to settle down. She wiped her tears and spoke slowly: “How can you speak unkind words to me? How do speak like an ordinary man? I am not the one you have characterized. I totally swear by my own character! Please do not generalize all women based on the character of a vulgar woman. I have been tested! I was helpless when Rāvaṇa got hold of me. I had little to do with him. If you fail to understand me after our long years of living together, there is no need for me to live anymore!”

Then Sītā had her counter argument! “You should have gotten rid of me when Hanūmān came to see me. All these efforts of crossing the ocean and waging war could have been avoided!” She teased: “You are getting angry like a small man who judges a woman based just on her gender. I am the daughter of King Janaka. I originated from the ground. I am not as ordinary that you suggest. You have ignored our long years of relationship. You ignore my devotion to you. You ignore my chastity!”

Sītā requested Lakṣmaṇa to prepare a sacrificial pyre: “I do not want to live any more with these false allegations!” Lakṣmaṇa looked at Rāma to be sure that he approved. Rāma was stoic. He looked like Death personified. With her head bent low, Sītā walked clockwise around Rāma and entered the pyre. She prayed: “O god of fire! You are witness to my conduct. Protect me from this ordeal. The gods have witnessed my principled conduct through my activities. They know me through my speech and my mind. They know me as being endowed with a noble character. Please protect me.”

The cries of sympathy heard all around broke Rāma ’s heart. They brought home the fallacy of his thinking. Tears came on his eyes. It appeared to him that all the gods around were felicitating Sītā. He saw Sītā walking out of the pyre, radiant, attired in red silk and adorned in gold. He felt as though the fire-God was talking to him about the strength of Sītā’s character. He loved every sound of it! He realized his error!

Rāma spoke: “Sītā needed this ordeal because of her long residence in Rāvaṇa’s house. Else people might have said that I was more for my wife than for the rule of law. I knew Sītā had an undivided affection for me and that she was loyal to me. Her own moral power protected her against Rāvaṇa ’s advances. But for the sake of the popular perception in the world, I had to let her undergo the test!”

He declared: “Sītā is nondifferent than me, just as the sunshine is not different than the sun. Sītā ’s character is absolutely pure in all three worlds!”

Rāma was united with Sītā, and there was happiness all around!

Let Sai bless all!