Why did Rama abandon Sita?
Rama’s forsaking Sita is the Ramayana’s most challenged and most challenging incident. A man’s abandoning his pregnant wife because of an unproven accusation seems troublingly wrong.
Why did Rama do such a thing? Was he excessively reputation-conscious? Did he abandon Sita just because he didn’t want his good name sullied by having a wife suspected to be impure? But if he had been so obsessed with his reputation, then why did he not remarry after sending Sita away? A king overly concerned about appearances would want a trophy queen by his side; being a queen-less king was hardly a reputation-enhancer.
As a wealthy, powerful emperor, Rama could have married anyone of his choice. He refused to remarry because he wanted to honor his word to Sita. Soon after their marriage, Rama had promised Sita that she would be his only wife. By keeping that pledge lifelong, Rama showed his respect for Sita, thereby rebutting her accusers.
If Rama had wanted to remarry, he could have justified giving up that pledge on the grounds of religious duty. As a king, he was expected to perform sacrifices meant for his state’s welfare. And tradition mandated that the sponsor perform such sacrifices with his wife. When priests pointed out this requirement and exhorted Rama to remarry, he respectfully but firmly refused. He honored the traditional requirement by making a golden image of Sita and seating it besides him during the sacrifices. By according this honor to her through her image, he proclaimed that he still considered her his wife. And that he still considered her pure, so pure in fact that her image could sit next to him in rituals that often required exacting standards of purity.
If Rama considered Sita pure, why did he abandon her? Because the ethical dilemma confronting him didn’t seem amenable to any other solution.
We need to see the actions of characters in the epics in the light of the prevailing culture and its cherished values. The Ramayana depicts a deeply spiritual culture. Therein, people saw success not just in terms of prosperity in this world, but also in terms of the spirituality cultivated during one’s journey through this world. Cultivating spirituality, in its highest sense, meant developing devotion to the source of everything, God, and harmonizing one’s whole life accordingly. In such a culture, all relations and positions were seen as opportunities for sacred service, service to God and to others in relationship with him. One service was the service of exemplifying detachment, especially from things that came in the way of one’s spiritual growth.
Most people are attached materially to their relations and positions. Such attachments can keep them alienated from God, who is the ultimate provider of everything including family members and who is the ultimate shelter after death, when all family members are left behind. Materially attached people are naturally attracted to those with lavish material assets. The person with the most impressive material assets is usually the king. If the king demonstrates detachment by not letting material things come in the way of spiritual cultivation, then the king’s example forcefully edifies citizens about the importance of life’s spiritual side. So, integral to the king’s duty was the duty of demonstrating to his citizens that worldly attachments couldn’t sway him from his spiritual dharma. This duty conflicted with Rama’s duty as a husband.
When Rama heard the accusation leveled against Sita, he was faced with an ethical dilemma. Whereas a moral dilemma confronts us with two choices, one moral and the other immoral, an ethical dilemma confronts us with two choices, both moral. For resolving an ethical dilemma, we need to discern the higher moral principle and harmonize the lower moral principle as much as possible. Rama’s dilemma was ethical because his duty as a king conflicted with his duty as a husband.
As a husband, he was dutybound to protect his wife. But as the king, he was dutybound to exemplify and teach detachment to his citizens. If his citizens felt that he was so attached to Sita as to keep her despite her impurity, then they would, consciously or subconsciously, use Rama’s alleged attachment to rationalize their own attachments to unworthy things. Of course, Sita was not impure. She had not left Rama and gone to Ravana; Ravana had abducted her against her will. Because Ravana had been cursed to die if he ever violated a woman against her will, he had tried to gain Sita’s consent by alternately tempting and threatening her. She had heroically preserved her purity by spurning his temptations and braving his threats for an endlessly long year. Rama himself had no doubts about Sita’s purity. But anticipating people’s objections, he had prepared to address them. After the fall of Ravana in Lanka, when Sita was brought into his presence, he had her purity dramatically demonstrated through the test of fire. Moreover, after that test, the gods led by Brahma had certified Sita’s spotless character.
If despite all this, people were still questioning Sita’s purity, Rama felt that nothing would ever convince them. If he neglected such people and continued to live with Sita, he would appear attached. If he silenced them, he would come off as so blinded by attachment as to be vindictive. He felt that his duty as a king required him to show his detachment from Sita.
Exhibiting a stoic spirit of sacrifice, Rama deemed his duty as king more important than his duty as husband, and so sent Sita away to the forest. But he didn’t entirely neglect his duty as a husband; he did that duty too because the forsaken Sita was still in his kingdom and thus indirectly in his protection.
When the distraught Lakshmana informed Sita of Rama’s decision, she was devastated. But soon she regained her composure, understood her Lord’s heart and gracefully accepted her part in the heart-wrenching sacrifice that both of them had to be part of. She didn’t resent Rama and didn’t poison her sons against their father. She raised them lovingly, accepting with fortitude the role of a single mother that had been thrust on her.
Of course, she was not a single mother in the modern sense; she didn’t have to single-handedly earn a living and care for her children. After being forsaken, she lived in Valmiki’s hermitage, where the matronly female hermits took care of her and helped her to take care of her children.
It’s worth noting that banishment may not be the best word for describing Sita’s abandonment. Banishment implied being evicted from the kingdom into the forest – as had happened to Rama earlier in the Ramayana. Though Sita lived in the forest, she was still in Rama’s kingdom. She did not have to scour for food, clothing, shelter; these were arranged for in Valmiki’s hermitage.
Sacrificers, not victims
The whole Ramayana is permeated with the spirit of sacrifice – a spirit that attains its summit in the separation of Rama and Sita. The mood throughout the epic is not of demanding one’s rights, but of sacrificing one’s rights for a higher cause.
When Rama was exiled because of the promise of his father Dasharatha, Rama didn’t demand his rights as the rightful heir. He could have argued: “I am utterly blameless, yet I am being not only disinherited but also exiled, as if I were the worst of criminals. And all this just for honoring some undocumented promise made by my father to my stepmother. How unfair!” Far from arguing thus, Rama immediately agreed to sacrifice his right for the higher cause of honoring his father’s words. He even calmed those who wanted to rebel against the king.
On hearing about Rama’s exile, Sita too didn’t fight for her rights. She didn’t claim that she as a princess deserved to live in royal comforts. She willingly, even insistently, sacrificed those comforts for accompanying her husband to the forest.
This spirit of sacrifice is illustrated by Lakshmana too when he accompanied Rama to the forest. Sita being Rama’s wife was expected to stick by his side through thick and thin. But nothing of that magnitude was expected from Rama’s brother. Yet Lakshmana didn’t demand his right to royal comfort; instead, he sacrificed that comfort for the cause of serving Rama.
Bharata too demonstrated this spirit of sacrifice. He could have ascended the throne, justifying that it had come of its own accord; he himself had done nothing wrong to get it. Yet, he didn’t. Even when Rama entrusted the kingdom to him, he didn’t consider royal luxury as his right. Though he discharged the responsibilities of a ruler, he placed Rama’s sandals on the throne and sat at their feet. Emulating his brother’s hermit lifestyle, he lived in a cottage outside Ayodhya and eating austere fare.
Importantly, none of these characters saw themselves as helpless victims deprived of their rights; they saw themselves as conscious agents who chose to sacrifice their rights for a higher cause. In that same spirit, Sita, on being forsaken, didn’t see herself as a victim of a judgmental husband. Recognizing that she had been called to bear a particularly heavy cross, she gracefully, even gallantly, accepted the necessary sacrifice. Those who portray her as a victim do grave injustice to her awesome strength of character.
Such people err even more if they portray Rama as a victimizer. In this incident, his position is similar to that of Sita – both are partners in an excruciating sacrifice. Perhaps the best parallel to appreciate Rama’s agony in sending Sita away is Dasharatha’s agony in sending Rama away.
Just as Dasharatha wanted with all his heart to offer the best of everything to his son, Rama too wanted to do everything he could for his wife. After all, she had endured, for his sake, thirteen years of austere life as a hermit and one year of agonizing life as an abductee. Just as Dasharatha was bound by duty to do something that broke his heart, so too was Rama bound by duty. At least, Dasharatha could point the finger at Kaikeyi and could vent his anger at her machinations. Rama couldn’t do even that, for people would have thought him vindictive. So, he had to not only give the wrenching order of exiling Sita, but also keep the storm of his anger and agony contained within himself.
Just as Dasharatha was not punishing Rama, Rama too was not punishing Sita. Just as father and son had to make a painful sacrifice for a higher cause, husband and wife too had to make an anguishing sacrifice for a higher cause.
For those seeking explanations based on past-life causes, the Valmiki Ramayana offers one and the broader Rama tradition offers many. The epic (6.51.15) mentions an ancient curse that ordained the separation of Vishnu and Lakshmi. Once, when the demons were fleeing from the gods led by Indra, they took shelter of the sage Bhrugu’s wife, Khyati. When the gods asked that the demons be handed over to them so that they could be duly punished, Khyati became incited by a misguided sense of compassion. Summoning her mystic powers, she started attacking the gods, who beseeched Vishnu for help. A hard-earned win against deadly demons was being undone because of Khyati’s misplaced protectiveness. To prevent such a catastrophe, Vishnu was constrained to use his own mystical disc Sudarshan Chakra for slaying her. When Bhrugu came to know about this, he became enraged. He cursed Vishnu to take multiple births in the material world and, in one such birth, to be separated from his wife – just as Bhrugu was now separated from his.
Of course, Rama as the Supreme Being is not subject to anyone’s curse. Still, he accepted it out of deference to the sage and for furthering his own pastimes. The enactment of that curse comprised the chain of events that led to the separation of Rama and Sita, who were Vishnu and Lakshmi incarnated on earth.
The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition explains that the separation of the divine couple facilitates viraha-bhakti, devotion in separation. Separation intensifies the devotee’s remembrance of the Lord. And as the Lord is not a finite person, but is the Supreme Person, he is always present in the devotee’s heart. When the devotee remembers him intensely, he reciprocates by increasingly manifesting himself in the devotee’s heart, thereby intensifying the devotional trance. Externally such separation seems like agony, but internally it is the summit of spiritual ecstasy. Separation does to love what wind does to fire – spreads it more and more. When separated from Rama, Sita relished such intense devotion.
Injustice towards women?
Some people see this incident as representing Indian culture’s repressive attitude towards women. But is Rama’s forsaking Sita meant to be a benchmark for judging all women based on unfounded suspicions? Not at all. The pastime is meant primarily to illustrate the mood of sacrifice. Its specific details aren’t meant to be universalized, as is evident from Rama’s conduct in other situations.
That very Ramayana which describes Rama’s abandoning Sita also describes Rama’s mercifulness towards everyone, including women, even women looked down upon by mainstream society. The sage Gautama’s wife had been literally petrified, turned into stone, because of a curse triggered by her accidental unchastity. Rama, far from being judgmental towards her, mercifully released her from that curse and reinstated her in the respectable position of the sage’s wife. The female hermit Shabari was treated as an outcaste, but Rama graced her by accepting the berries she offered. Tara had become widowed after the demise of her husband Vali, but Rama ensured that she was given a place of dignity in the Kishkinda palace. Considering the cultural conservatism of those times, Rama’s actions were exceptionally inclusive and magnanimous.
The bhakti tradition explains that the same Absolute Truth who manifested as Rama manifested later as Krishna. And Krishna demonstrated an even more inclusive attitude towards women deemed fallen by society. Once, when he killed the demon named Bhaumasura, he came across the many princesses who had been abducted by that demon. In the prevailing conservative society, these princesses had become permanently stigmatized, even though the demon hadn’t violated them. Driven by a peculiar idea of gaining religious merit, he had been waiting for an auspicious day to take the princesses for himself. Still, because these princesses had lived in the demon’s captivity, society considered them defiled.
They thanked Krishna for having rescued them from the demon and begged him to rescue them from their destitute condition too. When he asked them what exactly they wanted, they requested that he accept them as his maidservants. He more than consented, making them not his maidservants, but his queens. He not only reinstated them, but also elevated them to the status of royalty in a phenomenally powerful kingdom.
Consider the contrast between the Lord’s dealing with Sita and these princesses.
- He asked Sita to pass a test by fire, but he didn’t ask these princesses to undergo any such test.
- Sita was already his queen, yet he sent her away. These princesses were unrelated to him, yet he made them his queens.
- Sita was already pregnant with his children, so he had a major obligation to her. He had no such obligation to the princesses, yet he accepted an obligation to them and reinstated them to respectability.
The point of this contrast is to illustrate that the Lord is too great to be reducible to any mundane characterization based on any one incident. The Lord’s activities, known as lila or pastimes, are enacted to serve varying purposes. Accordingly, different pastimes demonstrate different qualities. As Rama, his pastime primarily demonstrated the principle of sacrifice. As Krishna, his pastime primarily demonstrated the principle of compassion.
Inspiration for selflessness
The Ramayana’s extreme examples of sacrifice can inspire us to infuse a healthy dose of selflessness into our relationships. Significantly, Indian society that has drawn enduring inspiration from the Ramayana is characterized by robust family relationships. In many parts of the world, families are falling apart. But in India, the family structure is still strong. Much of this strength comes from the readiness of family members to sacrifice for each other.
Appreciating Rama’s forsaking Sita as an act of supreme sacrifice harmonizes with the Ramayana’s seminal starting question: whowas the ideal person? The eponymous epic declares Rama the ideal person. A person who abandons his pregnant wife can hardly be considered ideal. But a person who consistently demonstrates the signal virtue of sacrifice, no matter what it costs him, even if it costs him separation from his pregnant wife – that person is indeed extraordinary. And when both husband and wife demonstrate such sacrificing spirit, meditating on those exalted exemplars can offer immortal inspiration.