[For people who don't know The Ramayana at all, here is a short version of the story you can look at to gain some familiarity.]
I’ve been following the discussion of an episode of The Ramayana at Locana. The discussion concerns an event near the end of the saga, after Sita has already undergone the trial by fire (Agni Pariksha), proving her fidelity to Rama during the time she was abducted by Ravana. In some versions of The Ramayana, the trial by fire is essentially the end of the story for Sita. A couple of more things happen, but then Rama rules for 10,000 years.
But in the Malayalam version Anand’s father grew up with (the post is actually the text of an article by Anand’s father, N.V.P. Unithiri), the Agni Pariksha isn’t enough to clear Sita’s honor, and persistent rumors force Rama to abandon Sita once again. Here is the passage quoted:
“What the society thinks is important. The Gods too look down upon ill fame, and fame brings respect everywhere. Does not every noble man yearn for it? I fear dishonour, oh, learned men, I’ll even renounce your company and my own life, if needed, for the sake of honour. Sita has to be deserted. Understand my state of mind, I wasn’t sadder on anyday before. Lakshmana, tomorrow you take Sita in Sumantra’s chariot and leave her at our border. Abandon her near the holy Ashram of Sage Valmiki on the banks of the Tamasa river, and get back here soon.”
This episode is known as Sita Parityaga. I’ll be referring to it in this post simply as the abandonment of Sita. With The Ramayana, there is no definitive version. The ‘first’ version, in Sanskrit, dates probably from about 200 B.C.E., but it’s by no means the ‘dominant’ version of the story. There are many written versions, as well as a nearly infinite number of oral variations to be found in India.
A helpful chart of the different written Ramayanas is here. Notably, the first vernacular version of the story was in Tamil. And according to the chart, in at least one version of the story (Tulsi Das’s 16th century version in Awadhi/’Old Hindi’), there is no banishment at all for Sita. And some versions listed have Sita banished, but then (and this seems dignified) she refuses to return.
The classic Griffith English translation (episode here; Table of Contents here) also doesn’t mention anything about Sita’s banishment. The Amar Chitra Katha version is the same — after Sita’s Agni Pariksha, it’s Ram and Sita, happily ever after.
A detailed but still brief English version of a version of The Ramayana that does include Sita’s abandonment can be found at this site at Syracuse (direct link here). In this version, as in the Malayalam version quoted/translated above, Rama instructs Lakshmana to abandon Sita in the forest (interestingly, Rama doesn’t tell her himself what he’s doing). Sita passes out, and is rescued by Valmiki, who takes her to his Ashram. There she gives birth to Rama’s twin sons, Lava and Kusa. As the children grow up, Valmiki composes The Ramayana to tell the sons the story of their father’s greatness. A number of years later, the sons recite the story to Rama, who recognizes it and reclaims them. Sita also returns finally, and is proven innocent through yet another divine test. This time, she asks the earth to swallow her up to prove her fidelity, and the earth opens and she disappears. And Rama’s 10,000 year rule is without her. (A little sad, is it not?)
In the comments of Anand’s post, several of the commentors question Rama’s definition of ‘honor’ in the abandonment of Sita. Dilip D’Souza, for instance, says that if people are casting aspersions on Rama’s wife’s fidelity, it’s his job to stand by her. (Especially since, in this case, she has already been vindicated via a trial by fire. In the passage quoted above, it seems pretty clear that Rama knows Sita was faithful, but is going ahead with the banishment as a matter of public “honor”)
The nice thing about an oral tradition is, you can choose for yourself the version you prefer in your own retellings. (In some oral versions of The Ramayana, for instance, it is Sita who kills Ravana with Rama’s bow in the great final battle in Lanka, not Rama.) Speaking for myself alone, if I were to tell this story to a child, I would probably take out both episodes — the trial by fire and the final abandonment of Sita — and find some other way to introduce the role of Valmiki and the twins (that part I like; interesting self-reflexivity). I don’t see why Rama can’t simply trust Sita when she says she rejected Ravana’s advances.
We do have to acknowledge the many trials of Sita in the early written versions of The Ramayana, as a matter of academic accuracy and respect for the history. And The Ramayana is, like The Odyssey, a great and important epic saga that is an important part of the heritage of world literature. (And I hope nothing in this post comes across as disrespectful of either the story or the broader Hindu tradition in which it plays an important part.)
But in terms of using The Ramayana to transmit values to young people today, specifically the value of trust, I might take a different route. Is that political correctness, or is it simply being responsible?
Another question for readers: what other variants of the story have you heard?