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
"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
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
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.
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.