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Chapter 14

Sītā’s Ordeal

After witnessing Rāvaṇa’s destruction, the gods and ṛṣis departed joyfully for their various heavenly abodes. Mātali bowed before Rāma and received permission to return with his chariot to Indra. Rāma watched as the celestial vehicle rose high into the sky and disappeared. His fury with the Rākṣasas had completely subsided. He now thought of Vibhishana’s installation as the new king of Lanka. As the city was upon the earth, it was within the jurisdiction of the earth’s emperors, although inhabited by the Rākṣasas. Thus Rāma desired to install the pious Vibhishana as its righteous ruler so as to quickly reestablish order in the devastated city.

Rāma asked Lakṣman to perform the ceremony of consecrating Vibhishana on Lanka’s throne. Lakṣman immediately had the monkeys fetch seawater in large golden jars. With that water He duly consecrated Vibhishana, carefully following the directions given in the Vedas. Vibhishana sat upon the throne and blazed with regal splendor. The Rākṣasas were joyful to see Rāvaṇa’s brother assume the rulership of Lanka, and they brought him many gifts and offerings. Vibhishana offered all of these to Rāma, who accepted them out of His love for the Rākṣasa.

When the ceremony was complete, Rāma asked Hanumān to go quickly to Sītā. He was aching to see Her again and He said to Hanumān, “Please inform the princess of the good news. I long to see Her. Tell Her to make Herself ready so that very soon I may meet with Her.”

Hanumān at once left for the gardens. As he made his way through Lanka he was honored by the Rākṣasas, who folded their palms as he passed by. Quickly reaching the ashoka grove, he saw Sītā still lying at the foot of the simshapa tree. She was unaware of Rāma’s victory and appeared mournful. Upon seeing Hanumān, however, She quickly stood up in hope. Surely the monkey must be bearing good news. The princess listened expectantly as Hanumān told her all that had happened.

“O godly lady, Your husband has come out victorious. The demon Rāvaṇa is no more and the virtuous Vibhishana is now the ruler of Lanka. Dear mother, Your woes are ended. Please prepare Yourself to see Your Lord Rāma.”

Sītā was stunned with joy. She could not make any reply and simply stood for some time gazing at Hanumān with tears flowing from Her eyes. At last She said in a choked voice, “O good monkey, I cannot think of anything I can offer you in return for this news. Not gold nor silver nor gems nor even the sovereignty of all the worlds is equal to the value of this message.”

Hanumān replied that hearing Her joyful reply was itself more valuable than any gift. And, having seen Rāma emerge victorious and happy, Hanumān desired nothing more.

Sītā praised Hanumān again and again as the monkey stood with his head bowed and palms joined together. When the princess stopped speaking he said to her, “If you permit me, I shall punish these wicked Rākṣasīs who have made Your life so miserable. I would like to give them a good thrashing. They surely deserve death for their evil conduct against You, O divine lady.”

Sītā pondered for some moments within Herself. She looked at the Rākṣasīs who sat at a distance, no longer concerned with Her now that Rāvaṇa was dead. Turning to Hanumān, Sītā replied, “These Rākṣasīs were simply carrying out Rāvaṇa’s order. No blame should be attached to them. Furthermore, any suffering I felt was surely the result of My own past misdeeds, for such is the universal law. Indeed, there is an ancient maxim which is always the code of the virtuous: ‘A righteous man does not consider the offenses of others against him. At all costs he always observes the vow of not returning evil for evil, for the virtuous consider good conduct their ornament.’” Sītā said that compassion should always be shown toward sinners, for no one was ever found to be free of sin.

Admonished in this way, Hanumān bowed to Her and made no argument. Sītā had spoken well, quite in accord with Her noble character. After reflecting on Her words for some moments the monkey then asked, “I wish to return now to Rāma. Please give me a message for Him.”

Sītā replied that She only wished to see Him. Hanumān assured Her that She would very soon see Rāma. Bowing once again he left and made his way back to Vibhishana’s palace, where Rāma was waiting.

Hearing of Sītā’s condition, Rāma asked Vibhishana to arrange that She be given celestial clothes and ornaments. “O king of the Rākṣasas, please have that princess bathed with heavenly unguents and dressed in the finest silks. Then have Her brought here. My heart is burning with desire to see Her again.”

Vibhishana personally went to Sītā with Rāma’s instruction, but Sītā, anxious to see Rāma said, “I wish to see My husband immediately, without having bathed and dressed.”

Sītā had suffered through almost a year of torture. She had never stopped thinking of the day She would be reunited with Rāma. Here it was at last. How could She possibly wait another moment?

Vibhishana replied gently that it was Rāma’s desire that She prepare Herself. Sītā, accepting Rāma’s word as Her order, acquiesced, and Vibhishana immediately arranged for Her bath and clothing. In a short while the princess was adorned in costly robes and jewels worthy of the consorts of the gods. She mounted a golden palanquin bedecked with celestial gems and was borne into Rāma’s presence.

Crowds of Rākṣasas and monkeys filled the streets, all anxious for a glimpse of the princess. Seated on the palanquin behind a silk veil, Sītā shone like the sun shrouded by a cloud. Rākṣasas wearing dark jackets and turbans and carrying staffs fitted with bells cleared a path for Her. The crowds of onlookers, who were roaring like the ocean, parted as the palanquin made its way slowly along the main highway.

Vibhishana went ahead and informed Rāma that His wife was on Her way. Hearing that She was on a palanquin, Rāma said to Vibhishana, “The princess should be asked to dismount and proceed on foot. The people desire to see Her and that is not condemned by scripture. A house, a veil or a costume are never the protection of a chaste woman. Her character alone is her shield.”

Lakṣman, Sugrīva and Hanumān looked at Rāma with surprise. He appeared to be displeased with Sītā. His expression was stern and thoughtful. As Vibhishana conducted Sītā into His presence Rāma looked at Her without smiling.

Sītā was overjoyed to see Rāma again and Her face shone like the moon, but She felt abashed when She saw His grave expression. Her limbs trembled and She stood before Him with Her head bowed and hands folded.

Rāma’s heart was torn. He deeply wanted to show His love for Sītā and to take Her back at once, but He feared public censure. As a king He wanted to set the highest example for the people. Sītā had been in the house of another man for almost a year. Whatever the circumstances, that would surely be criticized by some of the people. Questions about Her chastity might be raised. That would never be acceptable for the wife of an emperor.

Looking at Sītā, whose face was bathed in tears, Rāma said, “O blessed one, I have won You back today. After conquering My enemies in battle, I have avenged the insult given Me through Your abduction. You, too, are fully avenged, O princess. The evil Rāvaṇa is no more.”

Rāma stopped speaking, His heart balking at what He had to say next. Steadying His mind He continued to address the tremulous Sītā. “Now that I have wiped off the stain of insult on My noble house and established My truthfulness and resolve, no further purpose remains for Me in this matter. O gentle lady, I have not undergone this endeavor out of a desire to again have You as My wife. You have long dwelt in the house of another. How then can I take You back into My house? Your good character has become suspect. Rāvaṇa clasped You in his arms and looked upon You with a lustful eye. Therefore, My attachment for You has ended. Please go wherever You may desire. Perhaps You may now find shelter with Lakṣman or Bharata or Shatrughna, or even Vibhishana. As beautiful as You are, O Sītā, how could Rāvaṇa have left You alone?”

Sītā was shocked. She wept loudly and shook like a sapling caught in a storm. Greatly shamed by Her husband’s words, She shrank into Herself. Rāma’s speech had pierced Her like poisoned arrows and She cried in pain for a long time. Gradually gathering Her senses She replied to Rāma in faltering tones.

“Why do You address Me with such unkind words, O hero, like a common man addressing some vulgar woman? You are judging all women by the standards of a degraded few. Give up Your doubts in Me for I am without blame. When Rāvaṇa snatched Me I was helpless and dragged against My will. Although I could not control My limbs, My heart remained under My control and did not deviate from You even slightly. If, in spite of Our living together in love for so long, You still do not trust Me, then I am surely undone for good.”

Angry, Sītā admonished and taunted Rāma. Why had He gone to such great endeavors? He could have sent a message with Hanumān telling Her that He was rejecting Her. Then She would have immediately given up Her life and saved Him all the effort of war. It seemed He had given way to anger alone, just like an ordinary man. Like a mean man, He had not considered Her devotion and chastity toward Him. He had forgotten Her divine origins and taken Her to be an ordinary woman.

Sītā, still weeping, turned to Lakṣman. “O prince, please raise for Me a pyre. This is My only recourse now. I no longer desire to live, being smitten with false reproaches. As My husband has renounced Me in a public gathering, I shall enter fire and give up My life.”

Lakṣman was indignant. How could Rāma act in this way? He looked at His brother, but Rāma remained impassive. He returned Lakṣman’s glance with a slight nod. Lakṣman understood His desire and, feeling deeply pained and perplexed, constructed a pyre.

Rāma stood like Yamarāja, the god of justice. No one dared approach Him or say anything. Only Sītā came near Him. She walked around Him in respect and approached the blazing fire. The princess then prayed with folded hands. “If I have never been unfaithful to Rāma either in mind, words or body, may the fire-god protect Me on all sides. As My heart ever abides in Rāma, so may the fire-god save Me now. As all the gods are witness to My chastity, let the fire-god protect Me.”

After uttering this prayer Sītā walked around the fire and then fearlessly entered it before the vast assembly. Sītā seemed like a golden altar with its sacred fire. Gods, ṛṣis, Gandharvas, Siddhas and other divine beings observed Sītā walking deep into the fire and all the women in the assembly sent up a great cry as they watched Her ascend the pyre, like a goddess fallen from heaven and entering hell. A gasp of amazement and shock came from the crowd as She disappeared into the flames.

Rāma was blinded by tears. He was afflicted to hear the cries of the people. With His mind set on virtue and His heart wracked with grief, He watched Sītā walk into the fire. From the sky the gods, headed by Brahmā, addressed Rāma. “How are You allowing this divine lady to enter fire? Do You not recall Your actual identity? What is this play of Yours, O Lord?”

Rāma looked at the gods and folded His palms. He replied, “I take Myself to be a human. My name is Rāma, the son of Daśaratha. Let Brahmā tell Me who I was in My former lives.”

From the sky the four-headed Brahmā, seated upon his swan carrier, replied, “O Rāma, I know You as the original creator of the cosmos. You are Viṣṇu and Nārāyaṇa, the one supreme person who is known by many names. All the gods come from You and the worlds rest upon Your energy. You exist within and without all things and reside in the heart of every being. Your existence and actions are inconceivable. You have appeared as Rāma for the destruction of Rāvaṇa and the deliverance of Your devoted servants. Now that You have accomplished Your purposes You should return to Your own abode.”

Rāma bowed His head and said nothing. At that moment the fire-god emerged from the fire holding Sītā in his arms. The princess was dressed in a red robe and She shone brightly like the rising sun. She wore a garland of celestial flowers and She was adorned with brilliant gems. Her dark, curly hair framed Her face, which glowed with transcendent beauty.

Agni placed Sītā before Rāma and spoke in a voice that boomed out like thunder. “Here is Your wife Sītā. No sin exists in Her. Neither by word, deed nor thought, not even by glance has She ever been unfaithful to You. Rāvaṇa forcefully snatched Her away while She was helpless and forlorn. Although kept captive by him, Her mind and heart remained focused on You at every moment. She did not give a single thought to Rāvaṇa despite being tempted and threatened by him in many ways. Therefore, O Rāma, accept Her back with an open heart.”

Rāma experienced great joy upon hearing Agni’s speech. His eyes flooded with tears as He replied to the fire-god: “Sītā needed this purificatory ordeal. Otherwise the world would have condemned Me as foolish and controlled by lust. She dwelt in Rāvaṇa’s house for a long time and Her chastity had to be proven to the world, although I know of Her undivided love for Me. Indeed, guarded as She is by Her own moral power, Rāvaṇa could not have violated Sītā any more than the sea could transgress its bounds.”

Rāma declared Sītā to be as inseparable from Him as sunlight from the sun. He could no more renounce Her than a virtuous man could renounce righteousness.

Sītā bloomed with happiness. She sat next to Rāma on a golden throne. The gods and ṛṣis appeared in the assembly offering praises to Rāma. Śiva personally came before Rāma and said, “You have killed the scourge and dread of the universe, O Rāma. You should now depart for Ayodhya and comfort Your relatives there. Then be pleased to rule over this world for a long time.”

Śiva told Rāma that His father Daśaratha was present, seated in a celestial chariot in the sky. Rāma looked up and saw the chariot descending slowly. His father, appearing in a body that shone with celestial splendor, gazed down at Him. Leaving the chariot, he came down to earth and embraced Rāma tightly. He sat next to his son and began to speak.

“Although I reside with Indra, I do not feel as much pleasure there as I do now upon seeing You again. The words uttered by Kaikeyi when sending You into exile are still impressed upon my heart, but today I am fully rid of my sorrow. I have been redeemed by You, dear Rāma. Fourteen years have passed and Your exile is ended. I long to see You return to Ayodhya and assume the throne, after pacifying Kaushalya and the mighty Bharata. O Rāma, I now understand Your identity. You are the Supreme Lord, born on earth for the good of the world.”

Rāma asked His father to retract the words He had uttered when he had disowned Kaikeyi and her son. They were both blameless in every respect. Daśaratha assented to Rāma’s request. He embraced Lakṣman and praised Him for His selfless service to Rāma, asking Him to continue that service when Rāma became the emperor.

Daśaratha then spoke to Sītā. “O daughter, do not think ill of Rāma for His repudiation of You. He only desired to prove Your absolute purity. Your entering the fire was an act which will forever overshadow the renown of all virtuous ladies.”

Sītā folded Her palms and bowed to Her father-in-law, who rose again to his aerial chariot and left for the heavens. The other gods paid their respects to Rāma and then left for their own abodes. Indra approached Rāma and said, “A sight of the gods can never go in vain. O Rāma, pray tell us what You desire and it shall be done at once.”

Smiling, Rāma asked Indra to return to life all the slain monkeys, even those whose bodies had been torn and devoured. He also asked that wherever the monkeys may live there should be abundant fruits and roots for their food.

Indra replied, “Although difficult to grant, Your desire shall be fulfilled. Let all the monkeys rise again, even those whose heads and limbs have been severed. Let them be reunited with their families and let trees full of fruits, even out of season, forever grow where they dwell.”

The powerful god sprinkled celestial nectar from the sky. The monkeys who were killed then rose from the ground, amazed to see themselves healed and restored to life. They looked at one another and asked, “What miracle is this?” They leapt and shouted for joy, coming together like a great roaring ocean.

Indra bid farewell to Rāma and departed along with all the other gods. As the gods’ blazing chariots disappeared into the sky Rāma ordered that the monkeys camp for the night, while He and Sītā rested in Vibhishana’s palace.