THE ORDEAL OF SITA

RaMA’S whole heart was filled with the longing to see Sita, and renew once more the life-sweetness which had been broken that morning when he left her to catch the golden deer. Yet he was no mere mortal, full of blind impulse, a prey to the chance-born desires of the passing moment. He foresaw that if their reunion was to be secure, it must take place in public and must be accompanied by some proof of his wife's honour and devotion which could never be shaken in the popular mind.

By: Diksha Sharma

Posted on: 21/12/2020 View : 281

THE ORDEAL OF SITA

RaMA’S whole heart was filled with the longing to see Sita, and renew once more the life-sweetness which had been broken that morning when he left her to catch the golden deer. Yet he was no mere mortal, full of blind impulse, a prey to the chance-born desires of the passing moment. He foresaw that if their reunion was to be secure, it must take place in public and must be accompanied by some proof of his wife's honour and devotion which could never be shaken in the popular mind. There could be no happiness for Sita if her subjects did not love her and trust her implicitly. There could be none for him if her name were not lifted high above the stain ofsuspicion or reproach. But the first duty that awaited him had nothing to do with these questions. He was at this moment at the head of a conquering army. His first responsibility lay in protecting the city, with its women, its children, and its treasures, from his own forces. He hastened, therefore, to crown and proclaim Vibhishana King of Lanka. This done, he called Hanuman secretly, and bidding him obtain the permission of the new King to enter the city, sent him to Sita to acquaint her privately with his victory. Publicly he professed a formal request to Vibhishana that he would personally escort the Queen of Koshala to his presence. She was to come, moreover, wearing the robes and jewels proper to occasions of state. The loving heart ofthe woman would have prompted her to fly to the shelter of her husband just as she was, in the mourning garments of her captivity. But Vibhishana reminded her gently of the sacredness of a husband's expressed wish, and she submitted immediately to the tiring which this imposed. Hard, verily, are the roads that princes walk! Treading at each step on her own heart, must Sita make her way to her husband's side. 

At last the Queen was ready and entered the closed palanquin, with its hangings of scarlet and gold, in which she would be borne into the presence of Rama, Vibhishana himself riding before her to announce her coming. At the city gates, however, came the request that she should alight and proceed through the open camp on foot. Scarcely understanding, and so absorbed in the thought of seeing the King that she had little care for any minor detail, Sita rose from her seat in the covered litter and stepped out on the broad road. Round her, to right and left, were the soldiery. In front was seated Rama, in full audience, with grave and solemn air. All eyes were on Sita, who had never, since her childhood to this hour, been seen in public. Instinctively the knightly Vibhishana realised the embarrassment this must cause to the shrinking and sensitive Queen, and he was in the act of ordering the dispersal of the crowds so as to leave the meeting of the royal pair unwitnessed, when Rama put up his hand and stopped him. "Let ail stay !" he commanded. "This is one of those occasions when the whole universe becomes the veil of woman, and she may be seen by all without sin!" Nearer and nearer came Sita meanwhile, with slow and regal step. Her eyes were drinking in every line, every movement of her husband's face. He rose to receive her; but all men saw that he looked not towards her, but stood with head bowed and downward-gazing eyes. How beautiful was the Queen ! How stately and full of grace she looked I And yet, decked as she was in royal ornaments, there was that about her which spoke more plainly still, assuring all who looked on her that here was a woman of true and noble heart, a humble and loving wife, fit to be, as she was, the crown and support of all the happy homes throughout her land. Every man in the hosts that day held his breath in awe and reverence, at the revelation seen in her of what great womanhood should be. At a sign from her husband, and a few paces away, the Queen stood still, and Rama looked up and addressed her in thick, constrained tones. "Ravana has been duly defeated and slain," he said.

"Thus has the honour of Ayodhya been vindicated to the utmost. It is for the Queen, whom he separated from her husband, to say in what guardianship, and with what establishment, she will now choose to live. Thy wishes, O gentle one!" he added, addressing her for a moment directly and swept away by his own tenderness, "shall be carried out in full. But it is not seemly or possible to restore to her old place one whose fair fame has been sullied by residence in the palace of Ravana." At these words the Queen stood, in her sudden astonishment and pain, like one who had been stabbed. Then she raised her proud head to its proudest height, and, though her lips quivered and the tears fell, without her will, her wonderful voice rang out untremulous. "My character," she said, "must indeed be misconceived. Even Rama, it seems, can mistake my greatness, and truly then am I undone! Yet if my lord had but told me, while yet I was imprisoned in Lanka, that it was for the honour of Ayodhya he would recover me, I would indeed have spared him all his labours. How easy had it been to me to die there, only I supposed that other motives moved him ! Go, Lakshmana, and make for me here a funeral pyre ! Methinks that is the only remedy for the disaster that has come upon me." This, then, was Sita's desire for guardians and establishment ! Lakshmana looked towards his brother in anger and surprise, but, receiving only a quiet gesture, hastened to have the funeral pyre prepared. The face of Rama was like that of Death himself in the hour of the final destruction of all things, and none present dared to speak to him. As for Sita, her tears were now raining down; but still she stood there, waiting patiently. When the wood had been piled and the fire set blazing, Sita walked three times round her husband, standing in his place with head bowed, and it was evident to all that her heart was full of sweetness. Then, coming forward to the fire, and standing before it with her hands folded as for prayer, she said, "Do thou, O Fire, the witness of the worlds ! protect me, whose heart has been ever true! Take me to yourselves, O ye pure flames ! for unto the Lord of Purity the pure fleeth." Saying this, and walking three times round the pyre, the Queen, having bidden farewell to the world with undaunted heart.

entered into it. Like gold being,, set upon a golden altar was the stepping of Sita into that flaming fire. And lamentations arose on all sides from amongst the lookers-on. But lo, as her foot touched the pyre, voices of angelic sweetness were heard from heaven chanting the glory of Rama, and the mystery of the ineffable union of the Divine Being with His own divine grace. And there advanced from the heart of the fire to meet Sita, Agni, the God of Fire, himself. Supporting her with his right arm. and stepping out from amongst the flames, the divinity bore her forward to Rama whose face had suddenly become radiant with joy, and gave her to him. Joining them together. "She is thine own, O Rama !" he said; "she is thine own —ever faithful and true to thee, in thought, word, and deed. Lo, at my command is it that thou takest her back unto thee. For I have spoken, and she is thine own !" And Rama said, receiving her, "Verily, my beloved, no doubt was in my mind concerning thee. Yet was thy vindication needful, in the presence of all our people. Truly art thou mine. Think not thou canst be divided from me. Thou art mine, and I could not renounce thee, even as the sun cannot be separated from his own rays." And as they stood thus, wedded once more—as in their youth by man, so now by the God of Fire himself—it seemed to all present as if the gates of heaven were suddenly swung backward above them, and they saw Dasharatha, seated in his car, blessing Sita as well as Rama, and hailing them- King and Queen of Ayodhya. It was true that the fourteen years of their exile were ended, and as Rama understood from this vision that the soul of his father would not be in peace till his coronation was finally accomplished, he did everything that was possible to hasten their departure. A day or two passed, distributing wealth and rewards amongst the soldiers, and then mounting with Sita into the royal car, drawn by white swans, they coursed swiftly through the sky, and arrived at Ayodhya.

It is told of the days that followed that, with Rama governing that kingdom, widows were not distressed, nor was there fear from wild beasts or from disease. The people were safe from robbers, and there was no other trouble. The old were not called upon to perform the funeral ceremonies of the young. All were happy together, nor did they envy one another. And the trees bore fruits and flowers perpetually. Showers fell whenever they were desired. And the winds blew pleasantly. And all men became pious and truthful under the rule of Rama, and his kingdom was blessed with all the marks of fortune. How happy would have been the story if it had ended thus ! So did the great poet Valmiki intend it. And so for hundreds of years must men have known it. But in some later age, by an unknown hand, a sequel was written, and this sequel is strangely sad. It tells how the terrible ordeal of Sita had not after all been enough, or perhaps had taken place too far away, to satisfy her people. The murmuring and suspicion that Rama had foreseen, did, after all, break out; and when he heard this, the King knew that it was use¬ less to fight against the inevitable, Sita and he must henceforth dwell apart. For the good of his subjects a king must be willing to make any sacrifices, and it could never, he felt, be for their well¬ being that their sovereign's conduct should be misunderstood. But though his will was thus heroic, Rama could not trust himself to see Sita and say his last goodbye to her, face to face. He sent her, therefore, in the care of Lakshmana, to make a long-desired pilgrimage to the hermitage of Valmiki, on the far side of the Ganges. There Lakshmana was to give his paning messages, and take farewell of her. Oh how terrible was the desolation of Sita on this occasion ! There was, indeed, the consolation that she understood her husband, and he her. The last words of each for the other made this separation of theirs like the plighting of a solemn troth.

Yet she knew that their parting was to be for ever. She would be always with him in spirit, but neither might hope to look upon the other's face again. Twenty years passed in this retirement, under the guardianship of the wise and fatherly Valmiki, whom the twin sons of Sita regarded as a kind and beloved grandfather. But when twenty years had gone by, there came to Valmiki's hermitage the news of a royal sacrifice at Ayodhya. Now the saint had already composed Ramayana, and taught it to Lava and Kusha, the sons ofRama. He determined, therefore, to take the boys to Ayodhya and let them 12 SPIRi rUAL STORIES OF INDIA sing the poem before their father, on the occasion of the sacrifice. Long before it was finished, Rama had realised that the lads before him must be his own. It took many days to chant the poem, but the King and his counsellors listened greedily to the end. Then, with a sigh, Rama turned to the great Valmiki and said, "Ah, if only Sita were here! But she could never consent to a second trial of her honour !" "Let me ask her !" answered Valmiki, who longed, above all things, to bring this husband and wife together once more, for the happiness of both. To the surprise of Rama, word was brought that Sita would consent next day to go through a second public trial, this time by oath instead of by the fiery ordeal. The morning came. The King and all his ministers and attendants were seated in state, and vast crowds, of all ranks and from all parts ofthe country, were admitted to see the trial of Sita. In came the Queen, following Valmiki. Closely veiled, with her head bent, hands folded and tears in her eyes, she walked; and it was easy to see that all her mind was meditating upon Rama. A murmur of praise and delight broke from all the spectators. Little did any one there dream of what they would shortly see happen ! As Valmiki presented the Queen to Rama and to the assembly, and as Rama turned to call upon her to swear to her own faithfulness and sincerity, before all their people, every one noticed that a cool and fragrant breeze began to blow, as if betokening the nearness of the gods. No one, however, was prepared for the effect of Rama's words on Sita. .

That proud, though gentle, soul had borne all that was possible for her. Perfect in sweetness and perfect in submission, she had endured twenty years of loneliness without murmuring. But all now had come to an end. "O divine Mother !" she cried, "thou great Earth-Goddess, if it be true that in my heart I have never thought of any other than Rama then for my wifely virtue take me to Thyself! If constantly, by thought, word, and deed, I have prayed for his welfare, then for this great virtue do Thou give me refuge !" And as the weary cry rang odt, a wonderful thing  happened. The earth opened and a great jewelled throne rose up, carried on the heads of Nagas, lords of the underworld. On the throne sat the Earth-Goddess, stretching out her arms to take to herself this child of hers, who had cried to her for refuge; and celestial flowers rained upon both, as the throne re-entered the earth. At the same time voices were heard from the heavens, saying, "Glory, glory unto Sita!" And as the Queen and the EarthMother passed out of sight of men, the whole universe passed, for one moment, it is said, into a state of holy calm. One heart, however, did not share this peace. The mind of Rama was torn with grief. And true as Sita had been to him, so true was he ever after untp her. For the performance of those ceremonies in which the help of a queen was necessary, he had a golden image made of his wife, and went through his official actions by its side. So passed all things, until that hour had struck, beyond which no man may delay, and when that came, Rama and his brothers bade farewell to the world, and going out of Ayodhya to the river-side, they entered into their divine bodies, and were seen no more in the world of men. And ages passed by, and the story of their days became a memory, for there were none left on the earth, of all those who had lived beneath their sway.

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