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The Banishment of Sita[1]


Keshavram N. Iengar

Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 7, No. 2. (Spring 1973) © World Wisdom, Inc.

THE Hindu Faith has often been blamed for not providing an ascetic order for women, like Buddhism and Christianity, wherein they could dedicate themselves to the service of fellow human beings and earn the favour of Heaven—salvation through service. But Hindu Dharma goes to the source of the problem by providing the most suitable inauguration for a soul on its journey through life, by being born of women who are assured the highest honour and protection in society. This society prescribed regulations for the utmost biological and moral purity of its women, by the exaltation of motherhood and by the impeccable standards of chastity. By taking care in advance of the ethico-biological background of the family, many problems of health and psychological imbalances are avoided.

There are opportunities enough within a Hindu family for women to practise all modes of sacrifice and dedication. It is often equal in its rigour to an ascetic life, without being exposed to its dangers. The authors of the Dharmasastras were clearly aware of all the subtle weaknesses which the flesh was heir to and of the differences in the constitutions of men and women.

The merit that a Brahmana earns by poverty and scholarship, a Kshatriya from death in battle, a Vaishya from charity and the care of cows, and a Shudra by devotion and labour for his master, a Hindu woman earns by love and ministration to her husband and nurture of her family. This is the spiritual means (sadhana) and sacrifice (yagna) supreme for every Hindu woman.

Man's extremity is God's opportunity. For imputing motives to Lakshmana, Sita had to suffer the ordeal of ten months at Lanka. For casting aspersions on the spotless character of Bharata, a true devotee (bhagavata apachâra), she had to court the severest chastisement for a woman,—banishment from her husband's hearth. With these trials, the single faltering in Sita's conduct (anu-charana), namely her harsh words to Lakshmana spoken on an alien impulse, was set aright. That small dent of human failing, inevitable for being cast in a mortal coil, was repaired and she was made perfect, even as her incorruptible Divine Essence.

Just as the supreme sacrifice of Jesus Christ, His Crucifixion, redeems and opens to Salvation all the souls that lived before His nativity and all the souls that shall come after Him, to the end of the World, this supreme sacrifice of Sita, her Banishment from a society that had already begun to show signs of a growing corruption, redeems and purifies all the women that lived before her advent, and all the women that are born after her. Through woman the holy vessel, the progeny that shall be born of her are likewise purified.

There is no word of complaint against Rama, no hysterical wailing and swearing unto Heaven, but the silent tears that were shed by Sita at her exile, traverse our land to this day and cleanse the hearts of all faithful women. We could no more wish her Banishment not to have been, than Christians could wish there was no Crucifixion of their Saviour.

Sri Rama's reign was to demonstrate the application (ācharana) of Dharma in a man's life and not to insist on his rights as a son, king or husband. If the standards of Rama's conduct were super­lative, those for Sita were even greater. It was to proclaim the glory of Sita that all the events in the Ramayana seem to be ordained. The rightness or otherwise of Rama's action in sending away Sita, become merely incidental in the light of the Greater Truth that is Sita's life. Sitayascharitam mahat. But for the ideal of Sita's life which Hindu women have cherished all these centuries, Hindu Dharma could never have been sustained in our country till now.

The first prayer of a Hindu on rising from bed is to beg forgiveness for treading on the body of Mother Earth. And men in this country had for long known to walk gently on the Earth. It is from the boundless forbearance and innocence of the Earth that Sita is born and it is to the Earth that she returns when her purity is vindicates But man, proud man, product of the Earth yet divorced from his parent by pursuing the promptings of his runaway reason, continues to debate the subject of Sita's Banishment, not seeing that it is he who banishes Sita, not Rama. It is this "everyman" in us that must hang his head in shame for his feeble faith in himself.

The issue was not that Sita's chastity was suspect,—she is always and everywhere the embodiment of purity—but that her suffering was once more necessary to point out that man with his doubting mind, that delights in defamations, will not be convinced "even if one rose from the dead"! The Fire-ordeal at Lanka had convinced all the gods and animals.

Sita is the power and wealth of the Earth. She belongs by virtue (dharma) to the Sungod Rama, with whom she is ever united. Ravana who represents our tenfold egotism, tried to arrogate that power and wealth to himself and met his doom. Hanuman stands for the unsullied human mind, as swift and expansive as the wind. He does not know his own power, but when he is dedicated "in service" to the Lord (Shiva), uniting Him with the Divine Mother (Shakti), he attains immortality.

Sadharmacharini me tvam pranebhyopi gariyasi.

"By pursuing the path of Dharma, you are dearer to me than life itself", declares Rama to Sita when she questions Him about His severity towards the Rakshasas. Rama does not go back on His word. Not even in jest or hyperbole does Rama make a promise which He does not keep.

Apyaham jivitam jahyam tvam va Site salakshmanam.

"I may yield up my life or even thee, O Sita, as well as Lakshmana ..."

Events so turn out that He has to banish both Sita and Lakshmana, in each case, at the call of a higher Duty and for the redemption of His word. It is the same Dharma in a severer form that separates the Divine Pair in the Uttarakanda. Indeed, the spirit of Rama has departed with Sita on her banishment. But He holds on to life, as it were, in order to let that glorious lady fulfil her charge as the mother of His illustrious sons and depart as a Sumangali, what every Hindu woman prays for.

We are born in another's pain and die in our own. The story of Sri Rama which was born from the pain of Valmiki at seeing one of a pair of birds separated from its loved one, ends likewise on a note of pain and sadness, of the amalgamating pain that we share with Sri Rama on Sita's exit from this mortal world. But it is that necessary and joyous pain from which we die to this world to be reborn into the Life Eternal, in the kingdom of Sita-Rama.


[1] Reprinted by kind permission of Kamakoti Vani, a monthly journal devoted to Indian Culture, Literature and Philosophy, from Madras.