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An Excerpt From Maryada: Searching for Dharma in the Ramayana By Arshia Sattar

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In her new book Maryada: Searching for Dharma in the Ramayana Arshia Sattar writes with compassion, tenderness and understanding about dharma as a multiplicity of appropriate choices, showing us that when we choose one way of being and doing over another, we will be as often wrong as we are right. An excerpt from the chapter ‘Ayodhya’s Wives’ :

A quick look at Sita’s words and deeds while she is in Ayodhya will throw the actions and motivations of the other queens into perspective. In Valmiki’s text, the first time we really meet Sita is when Rama tells her of his cancelled coronation and his immediate exile. Sita is determined to follow him into the forest, and although she cites the dharma of a wife as the reason to go into exile with Rama, we must not forget that this is in contradiction to Rama’s own wish that she stay in Ayodhya, to take care of his mother. Also important is the way Sita speaks to her husband when he says that he cannot take her away.

Sita was a soft-spoken person who was worthy of affection and respect. But now she spoke to her husband with an anger that arose from her love for him. ‘Prince, a father, a mother, a brother, a son and a daughter-in-law face the consequences of their own actions and of what their fate has in store for them. Only a wife shares the fate of her husband. It is clear to me that I, too, must go into the forest. In this life, Rama, a woman follows neither her father nor her son, not her mother nor her friends, not even her own inclinations. She follows only her husband … My mother and father taught me how to behave in various situations. I need no advice on what I should do now.’

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Here, Sita claims to have cast aside all dharmas except that of a wife which is, in itself, sufficient reason to go with Rama to the forest. As she searches for more reasons for Rama to accept her as a companion, she tells him that her time in the forest has been predicted.

‘Apart from all this, there is something you should know. While I lived in my father’s house, I was told by brahmin seers that I would have to live in the forest. Ever since I heard this from those men who could read signs, I have been eager to go to the forest. That prophecy has to come true and its time has arrived. So, my dear, I can do nothing else but come with you.’

But later in the argument, Sita’s voice gets stronger and her words hit harder.

Despite Sita’s many pleas, Rama refused to change his mind … Slowly, though, Sita grew angry and said indignantly to Rama, ‘How did my father, the king of Mithila and the lord of the Videhas, get you, a woman disguised as a man, for a son-in-law! The world is wrong when they say that there is no one greater than Rama, who blazes like the sun! What could possibly have made you so depressed and frightened that you wish to leave me here, I, who have no other refuge! … I have never even thought about another man, unlike other women who bring shame on their families. Under no pressure at all, Rama, you have decided to leave your wife with others, the wife you married as a young virgin girl and who has lived with you for so long! You are like an actor playing a role. You cannot go to the forest without me. I will go with you wherever you go, whether to the forest, to perform austerities or to heaven!’

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By the end of their conversation, Sita has left all arguments based on the traditional dharma of a wife and fate behind as she taunts Rama, accusing him of being a coward and not worthy of the esteem the world showers upon him. Now, she speaks not as a wife but as his wife, calling upon the personal contract between the two of them, a contract between a man and a woman who love each other and who have known no other love. Dasharatha’s queens do not speak of a past or a present love between husbands and wives in their confrontations over Rama’s exile – Kaushalya speaks of duty and Kaikeyi’s words are filled with ambition and the desire for power, even if that power is her son’s. Kaushalya takes Dasharatha back because she sees his return to her as a final vindication of her own suffering. When Kaikeyi asks for her boons to be fulfilled, she does not mention that she had once loved the king enough to save his life. We could argue that Rama succumbs to Sita’s argument of love; it is this that persuades him to take his beloved and loving wife with him to the forest. It is certainly the last argument she makes before he agrees that she will come with him. However, being who he is, Rama speaks differently about his change of heart.

Sita let flow the tears she had held back for so long, like a tinder emitting sparks. Her bright tears fell from her eyes like water draining off the petals of a lotus. Rama took her in his arms and comforted her.

‘Darling, I would not want heaven itself if it were to make you sad!’ he whispered, reassuring her … ‘I know I can protect you, but I would never have taken you into the forest without knowing what you really felt. Since you are destined to live in the forest, I can no more be separated from you than a famous man from his celebrity! … Dharma demands that we obey our father and our mother. I could not bear to live for a moment ignoring my mother Kaikeyi’s wishes. I want to live in accordance with my father’s decree, for he stands firm in dharma and that dharma is eternal. Come with me and be my partner in the life I must lead!’

This is an odd speech, though not unexpected from Rama, who is increasingly associated with righteousness and dharma in this story. He is tender and loving towards his wife, but he claims that dharma is more important than anything else. He subsumes Sita’s desire to be with him (and his to be with her) into his own chosen dharma as a good son to Kaikeyi and to Dasharatha.But Rama does hint at love, however obliquely, when he speaks of obeying his father’s decree which came out of a promise made to a wife whom he loved beyond reason. Rama indicates that Dasharatha, too, has acted out of love for Kaikeyi, as Rama is about to do now for his wife Sita. Acts of love have to be the most subjective, individual choices that anyone can make, for surely, no two people love alike. And yet, Rama feels compelled to transform these acts of will, acts located deep within the sweetest and most expansive spaces of the human heart, into choices that lie within the framework of dharma such as the one that controls him and his father, both as kings and as husbands.

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Acting within the constraints of dharma, taking on the roles and walking the paths that have been circumscribed for an individual who is a man, a king, a husband, a son, a brother, minimizes the potential these personal choices have for subversion. Kaikeyi’s behaviour becomes determined by her past deeds (her karma) which give her the capacity to demand a dharmic act from the king; Kaushalya’s anger is understood as arising out of her dharma as a mother to Rama; Sita’s insistence on going to the forest with Rama is predicated on her dharma as a wife. Free will has been eliminated from the discourse of right and wrong, and once again, dharma has been instrumentalized as the basis not only of action, but also of choice.

Excerpt with permission from the chapter ‘Ayodhya’s Wives’ From Maryada: Searching for Dharma in the Ramayana By Arshia Sattar, published by HarperCollins Publishers India.