Sita in the fire ordeal
Artist unknown, ca 1600
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Rama the King
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“Well, Rama had an unfair advantage,” Justus Fowler said. “So there is no special honor in his actions or reason to extol his successes.”
“How so?” Gus Altmann asked.
“He was a god. Presumably he could just ‘snap his fingers,’ or ‘wave his hand,’ say some magic incantation, and get what he wanted.”
“Actually, Just, that is part of the difference between a god and a demon. When he is acting for himself, a god incarnate as a human being normally acts as a human being. He relies on the skill he has developed, the knowledge he has learned, and his own hard-won wisdom. He can fail, as I said earlier, just as any human can. A demon, by contrast, does whatever it takes to achieve his ends.”
“So why did Rama win?”
“Because Ravana was in the wrong.”
“I don’t understand that at all.”
“Rama and Ravana were both highly skilled in all sorts of arts, physical and arcane. When Ravana tried using magic, he was properly countered by magic. The two were pretty evenly matched in many ways, except that Ravana was in the wrong. When all else is equal, what is wrong fails. It does this because it is wrong.”
“So the right always wins,” Justus said sarcastically.
“All else being equal, which it often is not.”
“And Rama won because he was right.”
“Yes, but winning did not end the troubles Ravana caused him. The evil results of Sita’s kidnapping unfolded for years. In fact, some still remain, unresolved, today.”
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Rama rescued Sita with the help of multitudes. And they returned to Ayodhya. They were welcomed by Bharata, Rama’s brother, who had ruled for fourteen years as his regent.
Rama and Sita were crowned king and queen. They sat enthroned, and all things in the country rejoiced, just as they once had, when the couple had lived there in earlier times. Once again, Ayodhya felt like a magical kingdom.
Despite the prosperity and happiness of nearly all of the people, there were those who wished to stir trouble. They whispered and spoke, sowing discontent. They fomented against Sita, pretending to be righteous and questioning her innocence. They professed that they did not believe she could have been faithful to Rama, while she lived for a year in the household of Ravana.
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“They wanted to avenge the death of Ravana,” Dora said. “They were demons, too.”
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Very quickly, the people of the land began to act discontented. Hearing of this, Rama decided to go out among them himself. He took on the appearance of a worker, the sort of man who would go from place to place looking for whatever employment he could find.
As he walked through the streets, he could hear whisperings. They spoke of the faithlessness of Sita. They seemed to come not just from the windows of buildings or people passing by, but from the breezes and the leaves they rustled. Their sound seemed to come from a brook and from the grain in the fields. It was as though all nature was trying to express one truthless idea, and the one idea was a lie about the woman he loved.
He called Rudra, a god of wind and storm, to find what was behind the lies. That god told him, indeed, it was demons. They kept themselves invisible, and their voices expressed in words that sounded as the sounds of nature. They imitated nature to spread deception.
Rudra told Rama to go to the river Sarayu, which ran through the city, to learn the truth. There, Rama heard a laundry man rejecting the entreaties of his weeping wife. “King Rama may not have the courage to reject a cheating woman, but I will have nothing to do with you!” The woman protested her innocence, but in a day ruled by division and hate, she was cast off.
So it is, Rudra said, everywhere the wind blows. And so, he said, it shall be, until the voices are stopped and the minds of the people were put to rest.
Rama called Bharata, the brother who had been his faithful regent, for advice. Bharata said he had never seen such discontent in Ayodhya, and he did not know how to counter it. He suggested that if perhaps Sita could convince the people of her innocence, the rumors could be silenced.
Rama called Lakshmana, his brother who had lived so long with him and Sita, for advice. Lakshmana said that Sita was both strong and wise. She was the object of the slander, and she should be consulted. She would know what she could do.
When Rama told Sita about the problem, her reaction was decisive. Outraged at the falsehood and the cruel cowardice of the attack, she told Rama at once that she would undergo the fire ordeal.
Rama was horrified. The fire ordeal, Agni Pariksha, came in different forms. One had a person mount a funeral pyre while mantras asked Agni, the god of fire, to protect the innocent. The fire was lit, and if the person survived, innocence was considered proven.
Sita chose a form of the fire ordeal in which a ring of fire like the walls of a tunnel was formed around a path big enough for a person to walk through. In this way, she would prove her innocence. Rama was not satisfied, but very reluctantly agreed to allow this because Sita was absolutely, indignantly adamant.
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“I thought Rama insisted on the ordeal,” Justus said.
Grace MacDougal answered him. “Rama was really upset about the whole idea,” she said. “He believed that by allowing the practice, he would be giving it a sort of sanction in the eyes of the people. He knew that Sita would be able to go through it without harm, because he knew her strength and innocence. But he knew that other people would die in such an ordeal if it were used much.”
“The truth is, he trusted Sita.” August was speaking. “He knew her innocence, as Grace said, and he knew her wisdom. He allowed the ordeal to proceed, because he trusted her judgment. But he was not happy about it.”
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The fire tunnel was set up. The smoky fire was lighted, before a large crowd of people. Prayers were said, and all looked at its exit.
Sita’s emergence from the fire had a magical effect on the people. And even those who had been most disparaging of her broke into cheers and applause when she appeared. She was wearing a jeweled blue gown trimmed with gold, and she stepped out of the fire unhurt, unsoiled, and immaculate. She was stunningly beautiful, and all rejoiced. Peace and order returned to Ayodhya.
But peace and order did not last. The voices were stopped for a while, but it was only for a few short months. And this put Rama into a dilemma.
When he was married, Rama had promised Sita that he would be the best husband he could be, and that was a promise he meant to keep. But he had also promised the people of Ayodhya, when he was crowned, that he would be the best king he could be. Knowing that the people were likely to go into rebellion if he kept Sita, he had to act. Weighing his options, he decided to send Sita away, back to the ashrams where they lived in the time of their exile.
Sita was not happy about this. It was not that she minded going to the ashrams, forgoing the pleasures of royal life in a cultured city. She did not want be separated from Rama again, and the fact that the separation was of his doing made her feel abandoned. Nevertheless, she went to the forest to live.
Immediately, the demons felt that they had won. There was no need to keep working on this particular evil, and so most of them went away. The voices of dissent fell silent. The people were no longer dissatisfied. The kingdom returned to peace. But there was no peace for Rama.
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“No peace?” It was Annie Altmann, who had come out to find out what Gus was doing. “That’s putting it a little mildly. He cracked his gourd!”
“Hi Annie. Get a beer and join us. I’m telling Justus here the story of Rama.”
“Ah! I was wondering when you would get around to that. All these years!”
Annie was the daughter of a Scottish Presbyterian minister who she had not seen since she was very small. He had gone on a missionary trip when she was five years old, and died within months. His absence was contrasted by the care of her Pawnee mother, who raised her. She spoke as she thought. She also never got over feeling abandoned by her father.
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Rama was faced with the dilemma of whether to be true to his wedding vows or his royal vows. In his view, he could not do both.
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“He was a god, but he could not make up his mind.” Justus was again being sarcastic.
“He could not see the right and wrong of the situation, Just. And he could not make sense of its complexities. It was monumentally important to him, and he failed to find a solution. It is possible that no solution existed.”
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It was clear to Rama that the people would not allow Sita to return. If she came back, so would the voices against her. Eventually, that would have led to rebellion. People would die, the peace would be destroyed, and only the demons would think themselves happy.
The people pressed Rama to take another wife, but he could not do that. He had promised Sita that she would be the only woman in his life, and he was true to his word. It was not just that he had made a promise. He really loved only her. When the people pointed out that he needed a queen consort for an important religious ceremony, he had a statue made of Sita, covered with gold leaf, and had that image sit in for Sita’s part.
He was the avatar of the great god Vishnu, the god for whom, some people said, this world was made. But he had taken on being human, and in that capacity, he fell prey to a very human problem. In the end, it was clear to everyone that he was gradually losing his mind.
He had been alone for sixteen years. During those years, his advisers tried one thing after another to raise his spirits. Their last attempt came when they decided some exercise would do him good, and they took him hunting. In the woods, not far from the ashram Sita had been living in, Rama found a boy who looked very like her.
Rama wanted to find out who the boy was, and so they talked. But before he could learn anything, another boy joined them. That boy looked exactly like Rama did when he was young. The first boy said the second was his twin brother.
Rama asked who their mother was. When the boys said, “She is called Sita,” he felt faint.
At just that moment, Sita herself appeared. When she saw Rama, she started to weep. “Take me back with you!” she pleaded. When Rama said he could not, Sita, overwhelmed by grief, fell to the earth and died.
An extremely sad Rama took his sons back to Ayodhya. He made arrangements for succession, passing the government to the next king. And having done that, a job taking about two weeks, he died also. He felt, as he died, a sense that he had been utterly defeated.
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“So he failed,” Justus said.
“Certainly, he failed to do what he had come to do, which was to stop a plague of little wars that had been going on for centuries.”
“Even though he was a god – he failed despite the fact that he was a god.”
“He was human. He felt as a human and thought as a human. He had to deal with the human condition, and so he had to be subject to human failures.”
“Perhaps,” Annie said as she sat down on the porch, “You should tell Justus what the difference is between gods and demons.”
“Yes. A god tries to act for the good of all. Sometimes he fails. A demon, by contrast, acts for his own good, which means that he always fails in the end, because he has to live with the results of his own misdeeds.”
Justus asked, “And Rama failed because he was unable to deal with the voices of invisible demons who spread lies?”
“No, Rama failed because by sending Sita away, he was not the best husband he could be, and by allowing himself to be overcome by grief, he was not being the best king he could be.”
“So what should he have done?”
“With Rama in the misery he was in, Bharata would have been a much better king. Perhaps he should have abdicated and gone to live with Sita in the ashram.”
August went on, “No hero can exist without the possibility of failure. And so all heroes fail, sooner or later, because they can. For Rama, some failure was part of the job. The truth is, fate had placed him in a situation where success at all things was not even possible.”
Justus looked at August and asked, “So what good is there in being a god?”
“Patience,” Annie said. “I think we will get to that.”