Of the many twists and turns in the Ramayana, the most troubling one is that of Rama abandoning Sita based on the public perception of her character.
The difficult period of vanavasa (forest stay) was over. The trauma of losing his beloved and all the troubles to recover her from the clutches of the demon king, Ravana, were behind him. The stress of great activity and the pressures of war were all relegated to memory. His friends and allies were comfortably placed in their respective kingdoms. His brothers were with him. His mother and step mothers were peaceful without any worries. The subjects of Ayodhya had got back their beloved prince. Peace and prosperity reigned in his kingdom. He and his wife, Sita, were happy and contented. To add to all this, was the news that every Indian king (nay every person) looked forward to in great anticipation. His marriage with Sita was bearing fruit. Sita was pregnant and he was to be a father soon. This is a picture that is complete in its sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, contentment, and happiness.
In such a seemingly perfect picture, there was hidden a discontentment among the populace about the purity of their queen. It is widely believed that a single washerman abusing his wife led to Rama abandoning his wife. However, it is clear that the discontentment was widespread and found expression in instances such as that of the washerman. Having sensed this discontent, Rama decides to abandon his beloved wife. There are some points to be noted, relevant to this situation:
The discontent was widespread. People of Ayodhya by-and-large believed that their queen was impure.
Rama truly loved his wife. He had recovered her from an almost impossible situation with extraordinary effort. The feeling of love would also be all the more heightened by the fact that she was pregnant and carrying his offspring.
Having got the feedback about the feelings of his subjects, he took a unilateral decision to abandon Sita. He did not consult his brothers (who were fully behind him supporting his rule). He did not ask his ministers or tell his mother or stepmothers. All the more, he did not even talk to Sita about it.
The method of abandonment was most brutal. He didn’t bid goodbye to her. He didn’t send her off. He didn’t warn her. He just instructed his brother, Lakshmana, to leave her in the forest.
Having abandoned her, he didn’t marry anyone else nor did he engage in the company of other women. He remained true to his vow of having only one wife (ekapatnivratastha). In her absence, later, when he had to perform certain rites that needed his wife besides him, he had a golden statue of Sita sitting besides him.
This particular action of abandonment is most curious considering his relationship with Sita in the past; his commitment to her memory in future and the full life being led at the present. This subject needs analysis and here I venture into this in spite of this subject being discussed, written, talked about ever since the Ramayana has existed in the popular mindscape.
For purposes of this analysis, the following must be taken as facts.
That Rama himself was convinced of Sita’s purity. Even if not, he had accepted her fully.
That Sita was pure – if not at the banal physical level (Ravana had kidnapped her by physical force), for sure in the mental and emotional levels. Through her period of captivity she had pined for Rama.
Both Rama and Sita loved one another deeply, were happy with each other, and looked forward to a happy married life ever after.
Now comes the perception of the populace. In an age and place when the local morality required a married woman to be meant only for her husband, their queen had been kidnapped by a villain and was away for close to a year. Since they were not witness to either her sorrow in captivity nor her test by the fire subsequently, it is possible that a feeling of doubt may have persisted in them that Sita may have been violated by Ravana during her year long captivity. Though she was so important to Rama, the subjects may not have the same regard for her given that she was an outsider who married into the kingdom. Whether it was her mistake or not, the people were uncomfortable with her position as the throne queen. In an age when it was common for a king to have many wives (Dasharatha is said to have had 350 wives, not just the popular three – Kausalya, Sumitra, and Kaikeyi; see Ayodhyakanda 34.12-14), they may have expected Rama to take another wife. They may not have paid much heed to Rama’s personal vow (not a declared one but a practiced one) of having none but Sita for a wife. The net result was that the short-sighted people with short memory forgot all about Sita’s sacrifice and love that made her insist and follow Rama to the forest, about her travails, sufferings and trauma of being kidnapped, about her devotion to her husband.
Now when Rama got to know the feelings of his subjects for his wife, what would his thoughts have been? He had gone to great lengths for her which is a clear proof of his care for her. The continuation of his lineage was in the Sita’s womb. It may have been a time of intense suffering for him. What were his options?
Go on a public relations drive and try convince his people of Sita’s purity and character
Try to change the mindset of his people
Suppress the subjects by force
Renounce his kingdom and go somewhere else with his wife
Remain unaffected by the affectation of his subjects
In such matters it is impossible to convince the general population. Their doubts would only have got intensified in the face of propaganda. It would have stoked more air to the fire and the worst thing that could happen was Sita’s character being a subject of public debate. Hence the first option was not feasible. The morality of people is not easily changed. The social mores of a population does not change be preaching or propaganda.
In the age of no mass communication media, the concept of molding the public opinion, let alone their mindset, in a short period of time is not possible. It has to happen largely by word of mouth. It needs lot of time and space and revolutionary social changes and hence the second option would not be possible. He could not use brute force on his people. It is known that from his childhood, Rama was very sensitive towards his people and they loved him in no small measure as seen by their emptying the town and going behind him when he left for his forest stay. In the true meaning and spirit of the relationship between the king (raja) and his subjects (praja), Rama treated his people as his children. Forced suppression was hence not an option. For the same reason (his love towards his people and their reciprocation of the same), he could not remain unaffected by their discontent. Like an infected wound, it would have festered and the discontent would only grow to unmanageable proportions.
That rules out all but options 4 and 5. Could he have walked away from it all with his wife by his side? He could have handed over charge to one of his brothers. Some thought to this option makes it clear that this also would not have been possible. For one, there are not too many places an emperor can go off to and live. Had he gone off to the forest with Sita, it would have meant that he had abdicated his duties – that would be indicative of weakness, cowardice, and escapism. He could not walk away from his kingdom. Whether he liked the power or not was immaterial. He had to continue. While he may have forced his brother once earlier to take on the mantle of king, he couldn’t hope to do it again. In the first instance, he could convince Bharata only by the reason that his forest stay was required to save his father’s word and honor. Given their nature of their characters and relationships, Lakshmana would again have followed Rama to the forest and Bharata or Shatrughna would have declined to take on the responsibility. Most importantly, it would be totally against his concept of raja dharma (appropriate behavior for a king) to abandon his people for the sake of his wife. Whenever there is a conflict amongst dharmas (duties and responsibilities towards one in conflict with those towards others, i.e. dharma sankata), he was bound to follow the path that was for the good of many as against the good of a few (specially when the interested parties were him and his wife vis-à-vis the subjects of his kingdom).
In this background we see that Rama, though saddened to the core, unwillingly chose to continue with his role as the king and renounce his dear wife. He chose to be there for his people as against his wife.
Having understood his decision, let us consider the method in which he executed his decision. He did not treat this as a judicial matter of dealing with a crime or a criminal. Even in the worst of crimes, the accused is given a chance to speak for himself/herself. Here Rama did not give Sita that chance. He didn’t pass an order in the manner of normal judicial matters. He was clear that there was no crime committed and that Sita was sinless. There was no way a punishment could be imposed when there was no crime committed. He had to renounce her. What were his options?
She could continue to live in Ayodhya, but not as queen
She could go to Mithila, her father’s place.
She could be sent to the forest
Staying in Ayodhya with any dignity would have been impossible for Sita. The queen of a kingdom couldn’t live in the kingdom as anything but a queen. Such is the high cost of rising to the very top of the power structure that there is no way down. There is no dignity in living a lowly life in a kingdom one ruled. Going to Mithila too was not an option. A dishonored woman, renounced by her husband would have been a thorn in the flesh for her father too. She could not command the respect of the people of Mithila or lived a life of dignity. The people of Mithila would be no different than those of Ayodhya in their sense of morality and their insensitivity. Living in cities would not have been possible.
That leaves the third option of sending her to the forest. By forest, we don’t have to imagine a cruel and frightening world of wild animals and demons. The rshis (sages) dwelt in the forest in ashramas. People of the forest were simple people without the prejudices of the city people. Sita was well-acquainted with forest life and had in fact expressed a desire to again visit the ashrams that they had earlier visited during their forest stay. To the people of the ashrams Rama’s renouncing her would not matter. She could lead a simple and comfortable life (albeit without the luxuries of the palace). Most importantly she could lead a life of dignity.
We must note that whatever be the destination upon renouncement, her immediate suffering would not have reduced. The best place to recover fro the grief of abandonment would have been the forest. Hence the forest was the most appropriate destination.
Method of abandonment
Now that we have covered the decision to renounce and the destination, we come to the most seemingly brutal part of this situation. That of the method of abandonment. Rama orders Lakshmana to take Sita and leave her in the forest. He did not show the courtesy of explaining to her his decision. Come to that he did not even tell her about it personally. Why did he do that? How should he have handled it? What should he have done? Again as usual, we list out the options and analyze:
He could have explained to her and convinced her of his decision
He could have just told her about his decision
He could have conveyed his decision through a trusted person (maybe Lakshmana)
He just executes his decision through a trusted person (Lakshmana)
A little thought makes it clear that he could not convince her about a decision that has no basis in justice. As seen earlier, he was convinced that she was sinless. She was not an accused person in any crime. How could he convince her of a blatantly unfair decision (from her perspective). Could he have just told her about it without explaining – as an order from the king or husband. If he had tried this, she would definitely have questioned the unfairness. She had to be answered and he had no answers. We have seen that there was no way he could have convinced her. Hence talking to her personally and convincing her was not possible. On being challenged by her, he may have got into a position of not being able to execute his decision. Could he have a trusted person or an officer of the court explain the same to convey the decision to her. Maybe so. However, what he could not personally do, he couldn’t hope that an officer would be able to do. The question was always there that she might question the decision, challenge him and seek answers. Hence, unfair and brutal as it seems, the last option of simply executing his decision of taking her out and leaving her in the forest seems the only unfortunate option left for him.
This leaves some serious questions. For people who consider Rama as a perfect person with the highest character, what was the precedence he was setting? That one could abandon a wife on frivolous reasons (doubts by all and sundry about her character). We must realize that Rama’s situation is different than that of normal people. Normal people do not have the conflict of dharma since they are not responsible for others. They have recourse to the justice system for resolution of such issues. Either the husband or the wife in a situation could go to the king and seek justice. The king has no such recourse. By siding with his wife against his people, he would have set a wrong example for kings of all times to come. It was one evil vs. the other. He chose the option that was harmful to the least.
To the readers interested in Ramayana and its characters, this action of Rama troubles the most. How much would it have troubled him? The first time he lost her, he had the luxury of openly expressing his anguish – of crying out loud. This time, he had to grit and bear it. His option was only to silently suffer for the rest of his life. To live with the burden of his decision. To leisurely reap the great sorrow he inflicted on his wife.
Rama didn’t ask to be in this situation. He was put into it. Stuck in the maze of dharma, he had to inevitably take these steps. If there was a chance of rewriting the portions of his abandonment, the only natural way the story progresses may have been this same way. Any other path the story takes would be unnatural and would spoil the beauty of the epic. Such is the power of the epic that given the nature of the characters, the situations lead from one to the inevitable other as if by fate and destiny. Play the game again and the dice would roll the same way. The seeming helplessness of people over fate and their suffering for no fault of theirs is brought out in many memorable stories such as Damayanti’s who was abandoned in the forest half-naked by her husband Nala, apparently for her own good – so that she could go to her father’s palace.
The greatness of epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata is that they still intrigue the minds. The characters still live in their richness and fullness and exercise the intellects and emotions of millions. Given the sensitivity of this situation in Ramayana, the emotional mind of a sensitive people naturally bends towards Sita, sinless and helpless, enduring enormous suffering for no fault of hers. It is again natural that Rama is pitted against her in this comparison – the King, all powerful, taking such a brutal action on one so helpless causing great grief to one who had already grieved so much. It seems a hopeless case against Rama.
This analysis is a humble effort to look at the situation from Rama’s perspective. To see how it looks from the other side. To show that he was as helpless as his abandoned wife. The intent is not to pass judgment on the decision or the action. The correctness or incorrectness is as perceived in the minds of the readers. Also, this is not to defend Rama and his actions. Rama, because of his high character is already established in the popular mindscape as a god. He needs no defense. All the efforts to besmirch his character have come to naught. After all who am I to defend him. This is just an exercise in intellectual and logical analysis. For me and other like-minded people, it is a compulsion to indulge in such discussions and ruminate on these and such.