In an earlier article of mine, Retelling the Ramayana: How Padma Purana Does It, I had discussed how differently the author of Padma Purana tells the story of Rama from how Valmiki does it. Reading the Jaiminiya Ashwamedha Parva recently, I was fascinated by the changes its author makes when he tells the Uttara Ramayana story.
The context is of the narration of the Ashwamedha battle between Arjuna and his son Babhruvahana. While describing the battle to Janamejaya, the author-narrator Jaimini compares it to the similar battle between Rama and his son Kusha. This prompts Janamejaya to ask for the details of the battle between Rama and Kusha and Jaimini responds by narrating the story at length, devoting twelve of the total sixty-eight chapters of the book to it.
After returning from his fourteen year exile, says Jaimini, Rama begins ruling Ayodhya. Years pass and yet Sita does not conceive – the duration mentioned by Jaimini is ten thousand years, whatever he means by it. Eventually she conceives and completes four months of pregnancy. It is when she is in the fifth month that Rama has a terrible dream. In his dream Rama sees that Lakshmana has abandoned Sita on the banks of the Ganga and she is weeping there like an orphaned child. Next morning he informs Vasishtha of his dream and requests the sage to fix a date for the pumsavana ritual, so that the pregnancy is completed without any trouble. Vasishtha fixes a date in the next fortnight. Accordingly Rama gives orders to Lakshmana to invite Sita’s father Janaka and sages like Vishwamitra for the ceremony. They arrive and the pumsavana is royally performed. Following the ritual, Janaka hands over his kingdom to Rama and retires to the forest for devoting his whole life for spiritual practices.
It is one night following this while Rama and Sita are in bed that Rama asks his wife about her daurhrida [dohada – the pregnant woman’s wish]. Sita tells him that by his grace she has no desires, all her desires are fulfilled, but there is one thing she is keen to do: visit the ashrams of ascetics on the banks of the Ganga.
Rama spontaneously bursts out laughing at this – a thing we cannot imagine Valmiki’s Rama doing. Laughing aloud he asks her if fourteen years of life in the jungle hasn’t satisfied her. He then promises her that she shall visit the banks of the Ganga the very next morning.
We can see clearly here that Jaimini is already taking an independent road in telling the Uttara Katha of Rama. Things are quite different in the Valmiki Ramayana. In the older telling of the story by the Adikavi, the prophetic dream Rama sees about Sita being abandoned in the forest is missing, and so is the pumsavana ritual. Naturally, Janaka does not come to Ayodhya to attend it nor does he hand over Mithila to Rama to rule over and retire to the forest for tapas. Rama asks Sita about her dohada not when they are in bed together, but in entirely different circumstances.
In Valmiki’s version, following his return from the exile and coronation as king, we find Rama and Sita in each other’s company in an atmosphere of love in the Ashoka Gardens on the palace grounds, a place filled with all kinds of beautiful trees. There are ponds in the garden, filled with acquatic flowers and abounding in chakravakas, swans, cranes, storks and all other kinds of birds that flock around water. Seated on a couch in the Ashoka Vanika, Rama lovingly gives Sita with his own hand a beverage called madhu-maireyaka to drink, just as Indra gives Shachi drinks. Servants bring varieties of meat and fruits. Naga women, Kinnaris and Apsaras, all pretty, all adepts at dance, all well adorned, dance around Rama, very close to him. The dancing women are inebriated and Rama enjoys their dances thoroughly. Seated with Sita, Rama looks as though Vasishtha is sitting with Arundhati.
Valmiki then tells us that Rama used to spend the first half of his days attending to his religious and royal duties and the second half, in the company of Sita like this for a long time, until winter passes. [The commentator Govindaraja explains a statement of the Advikavi here to mean that two winters thus passed after the coronation.] It is then that one day he notices signs of pregnancy on Sita. He is delighted and asks her what her dohada is – a pregnant woman’s desires should be fulfilled; what desire of hers can he fulfill? Sita smiles and tells him of her desire to visit the sacred tapovanas of the great sages on the banks of the Ganga and to sit at their feet. She wants to spend at least one night in the holy groves where these ascetics practice tapas. Rama happily promises that her desire will be fulfilled the very next day.
It is interesting to take a look at some of the changes introduced by Jaimini in his narration. Both Valmiki and Jaimini are portraying Rama’s great love and care for Sita. Valmiki speaks of their evenings together when Rama gives her drinks, meat is served and beautiful inebriated women dance around the couple. This is characteristic of Valmiki who is not shy of speaking of such things. Speaking of the scene of Ravana’s antahpura, for instance, the sage-poet unabashedly paints the picture of a post-orgasmic scene there, where few things are left to the imagination. Similarly in the Aranya Kanda he speaks of Rama giving a piece of cooked meat to Sita and asking her to try it, telling her it is good to eat, it is tasty and it is well-roasted – idam medhyam, idam swadu, nish?aptam idam agnina. Sage Bharadwaj too offers the soldiers of Bharata passing through his ashram both meat and drinks, along with other kinds of food and drinks. However, by the time of Jaimini perhaps these things had become unacceptable in the case of holy men and women like Rama and Sita, and the poet omits these details. There is no meat eating mentioned in this context, no intoxicating drinks, and no dance. He chooses other incidents to portray their intimacy. For instance, Rama’s spontaneous laughter at Sita’s desire to visit the forest again. That is a very intimate action. Rama also has the precognitive dream of Sita being abandoned – the kind of dream a loving person deeply concerned with another is likely to have. His interpretation of it is that something evil is going to happen to her pregnancy and he does what he thinks is appropriate – conducting a Vedic ritual to safeguard the pregnancy and Sita.
Following the promise he makes to Sita that she shall visit the ashram the next day, later that night, Jaimini tells us, Rama receives his spies and listens to the reports of each separately. The reports are all good. When Rama presses them, though, one of them admits that he has heard something negative too. The wife of a washerman had left her husband and gone away to her father’s place where she stayed for four days. The father then realizes that it is wrong for him to keep his married daughter at home for such a long period and, accompanied by his brothers, he takes her back to her husband. The furious washerman shouts at them, “Do you think I am Rama? He can accept back Sita who stayed in the house of the Rakshasas, but I will not.”
Rama sends the spy away and starts reflecting on his words. He ponders over what he should do. How can he abandon Sita whose purity has been proved by fire? No, he cannot, just as an educated brahmana cannot give up good conduct. Or maybe he should give her up, like brahmanas in the Kali age who give up the Vedas. By the morning, he makes up his mind to abandon Sita.
Early next morning his brothers meet Rama. Rama tells him all that happened in the night and informs them of his decision to abandon Sita out of fear for the censure of the world - lokabhaya.
The brothers are shocked. It is Bharata who speaks first. He reminds Rama of Sita’s purity which she has proved by entering fire. He also reminds Rama of Dasharatha’s words on that occasion. Dasharatha had appeared in the skies and told Rama not only that Sit is pure but also that she is capable of purifying others by her presence. In fact, Dasharatha had said then, he should not have been admitted into heaven because he had died grieving for his son, but it was because of his daughter-in-law Sita’s purity that he was admitted into the heaven. Bharata reminds Rama that the gods too had vouched for Sita’s purity.
Rama admits that it is all true; Sita’s purity is beyond doubt. But what is he to do with this evil talk that is going on? How can he put an end to it? For a king, there is nothing worse than ill fame and nothing more desirable than kirti, yashas – righteous fame. One should give up those who cause ill fame – be it a son, a brother, or a wife.
Here Rama quotes a few examples from the past, of people who had made great sacrifices for the sake of righteous fame. One of them is the highly anachronistic example of Karna ‘long ago’ giving away his armour and ear rings to Indra.
tathaiva kavacam karno vasavaya dadau pura - Jaimini 27.23
Lakshmana has difficulty in controlling his anger now. Waving his arms in fury, he tells Rama that his action is like giving up one’s own mother, like saving a cow from mlecchas and then abandoning it saying it has been touched by mlecchas and has hence become impure.
Shatrughna is equally furious at what Rama has said. He tells Rama he should carry out what he says and kill himself – that will make him immortal. And Sita is such, and her love for Rama is such, that she will bring him back from death. But, he asks Rama, how will he bring a dead Sita back to life? He implies that Rama is not capable of doing that, his love for her is not so powerful.
Rama’s only response is to say that his fear for ill-fame is such that if necessary he will give up himself and them, his brothers, what to speak of Sita.
Finding Rama bent on giving up Sita, Bharata and Shatrugha do not wish to stay with him anymore and go to their own palaces. Lakshmana however is not able to do so, seeing Rama’s grief. Rama tells him either to chop off his, Rama’s, head or to carry out his order and abandon Sita in the jungle. “I touch your feet and beg you,” Rama tells Lakshmana. “Abandon Sita on the bank of the river in the jungle. That sin will come to me.”
These words of Rama shames Lakshmana. He remembers the injunction of the scriptures that one should always obey the orders of one’s elders. He remembers how Parashurama had cut off his mother’s head obeying the orders of his father Jamadagni. He orders his driver to get his chariot ready and goes by it to Sita’s house, his head hung heavy in pain.
Here Jaimini adds something beautiful: the horse collapses on the way and has to be brutally whipped to get up and proceed.
Seeing him bowing to her in her palace, Sita is delighted. He praises Rama’s generosity: he is fulfilling what she had asked for in the night, though she had said it in a light mood. She tells Lakshmana she will take gifts for the sages and their wives. Her words torment Lakshmana, but he remembers his duty to Rama and silently responds by saying all right, his head bent, tears flowing from his eyes.
Sita takes leave of Kausalya as well as Kaikeyi and Sumitra and happily boards the chariot. With a choked voice Lakshmana orders the charioteer to drive fast.
In Valmiki’s Ramayana, it is not from his spies that Rama hears of the evil talk about Sita, but from his friends. As usual he was sitting with his friends in his chamber that night listening to all kinds of humorous stories told by them. After a while he asks Bhadra, a friend, to tell him what the citizens are saying about him and his family. Initially Bhadra tells him of the wonderful things they say, but when Rama insists he tells him of what they are saying about Sita – or more precisely, about his continuing to keep Sita as his wife. “What joy can Rama’s heart have from enjoying Sita who was forcibly taken into his lap by Ravana? Ravana had taken her with him to Lanka and kept her there in his Ashoka Gardens. Why does he not reject her? Now we too will have to tolerate such behaviour from our wives.” Such is the talk going on in the towns and in all the villages, Bhadra tells Rama. Rama asks his other friends if this is true, and they all admit it is so.
So in Valmiki’s version, it is not just one washerman who talks maliciously of Sita, but there is wide talk of that nature in all towns and villages. As I point out in my article on the Padma Purana version of the Ramayana, there the author goes further and gives a reason for that washerman. In his previous lifetime, he was a parrot and Sita had separated him and his wife, and caged her. The female parrot had killed herself in the cage when Sita refused to release her, and the male parrot had jumped into the Ganga and killed himself, cursing Sita that she too will later be separated from her husband. Thus to the Padma Purana it is Sita’s past karma haunting her now. We all have to pay the price of what we do, whoever we are. Karma is inviolable.
To continue the story as Valmiki tells it, after dismissing his friends, Rama sends for his brothers in the night itself. When they come, he talks to them about how nothing is more important than one’s good name and how nothing in the world is worse than ill fame. He asks Lakshmana to take Sita and leave her in the jungle beyond the Ganga near the ashrams and tells his brothers if anyone spoke against his decision, he would treat him as his enemy forever.
Valmiki’s Rama does not allow his brothers to speak a word against him. He gives them no choice. Jaimini’s Rama is equally determined about abandoning Sita, but he at least listens to his brothers’ angry talk. Jaimini’s Rama shames Lakshmana into obedience by saying that he is requesting his younger brother by touching his feet. The emotional force used by Jaimini’s Rama is different too – he asks Lakshmana to chop his head off, if he will not obey him. Valmiki’s Rama appears more hard-hearted when he says whoever speaks a word against his decision will become his enemy forever.
Valmiki’s Lakshmana goes to Sita the next morning with his chariot to take her and abandon her. But he lies to Sita – he specifically tells her he is taking her to the hermitages of the ascetics on the orders of Rama, as desired by her. She picks up gifts for the sages and happily starts her journey.
Let’s now go back to Jaimini.
As the chariot proceeds, Sita sees evil omens everywhere. A female jackal comes before Sita and begins howling piteously. Flocks of deer are seen running helter-skelter in large numbers. And Sita’s right eye begins to flutter continuously. Sita suspects bad things – but not for herself. She prays for the good of Rama, so that no harm comes to him.
When the chariot reaches the Ganga, the river that destroys sins is in a spate. Lakshmana gets down from the chariot and takes her across the river by a ferry. On the other side, both Sita and Lakshmana take a bath in the Ganga and then proceed on foot into deeper jungles. Jaimini paints a dark picture of the terrifying jungle here – there are sharp thorns everywhere, there are ancient trees on which are perched crows which are being eaten by snakes that hiss constantly. The place is filled with cheetahs, bison, wild boars and black scorpions with raised tails. Tigers wait still looking for opportunities to pounce upon does. Wild cats are digging mice out of their holes.
Fear makes Sita’s hairs stand on their ends. “I do not see any ashrams here, Lakshmana; nor do I see any sages or their wives,” she tells her devar. “There are no ashram children running about either. I do not see smoke rising up from agnihotras. What I see instead is smoke rising from wild fires burning forest grass and trees. Instead of the sound of Vedic mantras, I hear the wild cries of forest birds.”
Such is Sita’s innocence that she puts the blame for it all on herself. Perhaps this is her punishment for turning away from Rama by desiring to visit the ashrams. She is indeed an ugly woman who does not deserve to see the sacred ashrams. The auspicious ashram sounds and sights are not for her.
Tears streaming down from his eyes, Lakshmana tells Sita that the ashrams are still far away. He then informs her how she has been abandoned by Rama out of fear for the censure of the world – loka-apavada-bhaya.
Sita hears those words and collapses on the ground like a star falling from the skies. It was as though she has been bitten by a deadly snake. Lakshmana fans her with the end of his cloth and she comes to and sitting up, asks Lakshmana, “Once you had left me alone in Janasthana and went away. How will you again leave me in this terrible forest and go away?”
She tells Lakshmana how he is the dearest of her devars, brothers-in-law, and recalls one by one his acts of love and devotion to her. She does not blame Rama for abandoning her for no fault of hers – it must be her karma from a past life time. She asks Lakshmana to hurry back, or else Rama might get angry with him for being late. As for her, the god who protected her in the womb and protected her in Lanka will protect her in the forest too. She gives messages of love and devotion to her mothers-in-law to Lakshmana.
Sita has only one complaint against Rama – he should not have entrusted the tender hearted Lakshmana with the work of abandoning her in the jungle. He should have asked someone like the hard hearted Sugriva, slayer of his own brother, or Vibhishana who turned against his own brother, to do that job. She gives her blessings to Lakshmana and asks him to leave her and go back. Lakshmana goes round her in reverence and praying to the forest gods and goddesses to protect her, begins walking away and finds his legs are refusing to carry him away from Sita. Sita looks on at the disappearing Lakshmana and hopes perhaps he would return. When she finds that he does not, she swoons again.
The Jaiminiya Ashwamedha Parva turns eloquent here in describing the sympathy of the forest for Sita. It describes how swans give up lotus stalks and start wailing in their harsh voices. The does and their babies give up feeding on grass and raising their heads stall still watching Sita lying in a swoon. Peacocks give up their dances and run towards her. Birds stop searching for food and instead spread their wings and protect Sita lying on the forest floor. Water fowls sprinkle water on her with their wings. The chamaris fan her with their chamara-like hairy tails. The wind takes a dip in the Ganga and then gathering the flowers lying around, showers them on Sita in an act of worship.
Sita wakes up taking Rama’s name. Because of contorting in pain as she lay in swoon, her hair is open now and like the rest of her body, it is covered in dust. Her first impulse is to end her life, but that would be the great sin of bhroonahatya – killing an embryo in the womb. Not knowing what else to do, she runs first in one direction, then in another, falling every now and then in her agony and loneliness. Her feet start to bleed from running in the thorn-filled and rough forest floor and from falling down repeatedly.
It is in this state that Sage Valmiki finds her in the jungle while he is roaming there along with his disciples looking for wood appropriate for a sacrificial pillar.
Jaimini differs from Valmiki in where Sita is left. In Valmiki Ramayana, Rama’s instructions are to leave Sita at some lonely place near Valmiki Ashram and that is precisely what Lakshmana does. In fact it is possible that from where Sita was left the ashram was visible and Sita was visible from the ashram too. For, Lakshmana says to Sita when they reach there:
asramante?u ca maya tyaktavya tvam bhavi?yasi
rajnah sasanam ajnaya tava evam kila daurh?dam
tadetajjahnavi tire brahma??i?am tapovanam
pu?yam ca rama?iyam ca ma vi?adam k?thah subhe
“Obeying the order of the king and as per your pregnancy wish, I am to abandon you near the ashram. Here is the sacred and beautiful tapovana of the brahmarshis on the banks of the Ganga. Do not grieve.”
Jaimini changes this and there is no indication that it is near the ashram that she is left. In fact, there are all kinds of contrary indications. Sita complains that she does not see any ashrams there, nor any sages nor their wives. She speaks of seeing no ashram children running about, seeing no smoke rising up from agnihotras. All she sees is smoke rising from wild fires burning forest grass and trees. Instead of Vedic mantras, she points out, all she hears is the wild cries of forest birds.
Jaimini’s forest is also not the gentle forest near ashrams – what we find everywhere is sharp thorns, ancient trees on which are perched crows who are being hunted by hissing snakes, and the forest floor filled with cheetahs, bison, wild boars, black scorpions with raised tails, tigers waiting to pounce upon does, cats digging mice out of their holes.
In Valmiki she is so close to the ashram the young ashram children see and hear her cries and inform the sage of her. Sita here has no consolation of being anywhere near ashrams. And she runs about madly in intolerable agony, first running in one direction and then in another. It is in this state that Valmiki who is looking for wood for making a sacrificial post finds her in Jaimini.
Also, in Jaimini, it is the fear of bhroonahatya – the sin of killing the children in her womb – that prevents Sita from killing herself. In Valmiki it is the fear that with it Rama’s ancient royal line will come to an end.
Summing up the differences so far, Jaimini in spite of being a lover of Rama, is quite critical of his action of abandoning Sita. He makes Rama himself compare his action to that of the brahmanas of Kaliyuga giving up the Vedas – when the brahmanas who are supposed to live for protecting the Vedas give them up, it is always for unholy purposes, for selfish ends. Jaimini does not see Rama’s fear of lokapavada – the censure of the world – as anything noble. Like so many of us today, he perhaps feels Rama took the easy way out. Instead of standing by Sita and fighting for her like a hero and making the people of Ayodhya realize their error, he chose to get rid of her so that he can be in their good books. He definitely was not setting up a good example before the world, just as a brahmana who gives up the Vedas is not, whatever his reason.
Jaimini makes Sita say that the god who protected her in the womb and in Lanka will protect her in the forest too.
yo garbhe rak?ita devo yo vai lankadhivasinim
mam sa vai rak?ita cadya na duhkham kartumarhasi.
These are the words of a woman who has been given up by the very man who is supposed to protect her. In fact, it is he who has thrown her into the middle of dangers. These words remind us of Draupadi, wagered and lost by Yudhishthira and thus made a slave, turning to God in the form of Krishna for protection, when they fail her.
In one of the most eloquent expressions of kindness and compassion the world has seen, Jesus from the cross asks God to forgive his tormentors and crucifiers. Valmiki’s Sita does the same, a few thousand years before Jesus. And Sita does not ask Rama just to forgive those who have been cruel to her, but going beyond it, to actively love them.
yatha bhrat??u vartethas tatha paure?u nityada
Valmiki’s Sita thus asks Rama to love the people of Ayodhya who have sent her to the jungle; and not love them with the common love of a king for his subjects, but as Rama loves his brothers – he loves no one more than he loves his brothers, not even her. This is loving your enemies in the truest sense of the term. She asks Rama to love her tormentors, her crucifiers with all his heart.
And when she does not kill herself by jumping into the Ganga, it is because she does not want Rama’s line to come to an end with her.
Valmiki’s Sita is almost superhuman in her compassion and kindness. But Jaimini brings her down to the earth, without reducing her in any way. She is so tormented by her fear and agony – it is not near the ashram that she has been abandoned, but in a terrifying jungle with scorpions and snakes and cheetahs and wild boars all around her – that she has no thoughts for the citizens of Ayodhya. And we can understand Sita if she refuses to kill herself out of the fear for bhroonahatya rather than out of the fear of loss that it will cause Rama. She is just being human there. Perhaps the thought that when she kills herself Rama will lose something does not occur to her at that moment.
Continued to Part II