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Recently Hindus all over the world celebrated Ram Navami, the birth of Lord Ram. In recognition of the festival a group of us had an insightful discussion on the Ramayana. This revered epic in Hinduism is, what most say, the moral compass of Hindu society. It also serves as a guidebook for relationships as it exemplifies the reverence children should show their parents and the sanctity of the bond between a husband and wife.
There are aspects of the Ramayana that are beyond my understanding. In this post I would like to open a dialogue on the ‘Agni Pariksha’ (Trial by Fire) chapter and welcome your take on it.
Background: Sita was abducted by demon king Ravana, taken to Lanka, where she spent a year before being rescued by her betrothed Ram, his valiant brother Lakshman and the ardent devotee Hanuman. When Ram and Sita were reunited, it was a joyous occasion for the entire kingdom. However, the celebrations were marred with mistrust. The subjects of Ram’s kingdom, Kosala, questioned Sita’s purity. Was Sita still a chaste woman, worthy of becoming Queen? Afterall, she had been with another man, one who is not her husband. Kosala’s citizens demanded that Sita walk through a burning pyre to prove she is unblemished. Ram obliges and Sita is set to do the Agni Pariksha. She passes the test; the fire doesn’t harm her. Everyone is pleased, Ram and Sita are reunited.
I have two profound issues with this chapter.
Problem #1: When these demands were made of Sita, why didn’t Ram step up for his wife’s dignity? Ram could’ve told his subjects that he trusts his wife and will not have her walk through a pyre just to tame wagging tongues. But tame those tongues he does.
The counterargument I’ve heard here is that Ram wanted to set an example for his kingdom by doing the right thing and hence asked Sita to walk through fire. I stand down. But this brings me to my next point – Just as Ram let his wife walk through fire for the sake of moral values, he too could have shown his subjects that he will prove the same. The chastity pact is a two-way street… in today’s terms equal pay for equal work, similar punishment for similar crime.
If we are to assume Sita digressed, why then are we also to assume Ram did not? A simple Agni Pariksha could uphold Ram’s character. But Ram doesn’t put himself through the ringer, a test we know he would’ve passed. I can’t come to terms with a devoted husband who fails to defend his soulmate, one who succumbs to the rumor mill, and as King doesn’t advocate for equality between a husband and wife.
Problem #2 is the definition of purity, chastity and virtue in this story. It is undisputed that Sita was abducted by Ravana. Abducted i.e. taken away by force or deception, both true in this case, Ravana deceived and used force to kidnap Sita. While in captivity, if Ravana had been physical with Sita, it would have been against her wishes*. Sita was wholly committed, in mind body and soul, to Rama. Whether or not Ravana touched her is secondary. She did not harbor feelings for Ravana, or any other man for that matter. Sita had no control over the physical turn of events that lead to her abduction, which even the mighty Ram and his army couldn’t avert. Why then does the abduction taint Sita’s honor? She was preyed upon by Ravana. In today’s context this is victim blaming, regardless of consent we are saying the woman is at fault/ is dishonorable. I have a hard time reconciling this.
I leave you with this, the beauty of Hinduism is that I can read a text and question it. I can have rich dialogue, garner popular support or disagree in minority and still be a practicing Hindu. My faith is not a proponent of blind following. I come to the table with an open mind, be certain I will challenge and question but with a shared goal of learning. Looking forward to comments, both in agreement of my moral dilemma and in opposition of my understanding of Agni Pariksha. Please be kind in your communications.
* It so happens that Ravana didn’t violate Sita even though he had access and opportunity. What does that tell us about the bad guy in this story?
Niyati Tamaskar is a breast cancer survivor, she was diagnosed at the age of 34 while she was breastfeeding her second child. As an engineer, she realized that she was a statistical outlier as this read more...
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