Sita’s trial by fire, and the birth of poetry

by Jahnabi Barooah

My first semester of graduate school is over. It wasn’t an easy one, especially because I was away from academia for two years. I’m now glad to be at home after a brief sojourn in New York.

I began reading Bālakāṇḍa (Boyhood) — the first of the seven books that comprises Vālmiki’s epic poem Rāmāyaṇa — on the long plane journey from New York to Guwahati (via Amman and Delhi). I’m reading the series that has been edited and translated by Robert P. Goldman, Sheldon Pollock and their group of scholars; it’s a bilingual edition and contains the Sanskrit text in transliteration on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right-hand page. I’d heartily recommend to all aspiring scholars and lovers of the Rāmāyaṇa. (If you’re unfamiliar with the Rāmāyaṇa, I recommend reading the Wiki entry before reading the rest of the blog post.)

My own love affair with the Rāmāyaṇa began rather recently when I wrote a paper on it for a course on the Hindu worlds. In that paper I did a close reading of the scene of Sītā’s agniparīkṣā (trial by fire) in three influential Rāmāyaṇas — Vālmiki’s Rāmāyaṇa, Kampan’s Irāmāvatāram and Tulsīdās’ Rāmcaritmānas. I was familiar with the Rāmāyaṇa — the story of Rāma — from a very young age. You can say I grew up with it. Even so, researching for the paper was my first real exposure both to the world of Rāmāyaṇa scholarship (Many Rāmāyaṇas, Questioning Ramayanas) and the beautiful melody of Rāmāyaṇa poetry. Even though I was reading translations, I was spellbound both by the poet’s diction and the ability to evoke a variety of emotions. Just simple phrases like ‘Rama shed hot tears’ caught my attention. (By the way, did you ever notice that we actually shed hot tears?)

The Bālakāṇḍa begins with Nārada’s visitation to the sage Vālmiki, who asks him if there is indeed “a man in the world today who is truly virtuous?” and fulfills a whole host of other criterion (29). Nārada responds saying that, yes, there is such a man, and his name is Rāma. He then launches into the story of Rāma, and by certain criterion, this could be judged as the first Rāmāyaṇa. After Nārada’s departure, Brahma visits Vālmiki and exhorts him to write down the story of Rāma, promising him that all the words that will come out of his mouth are true. After Vālmiki finishes narrating the story, he teaches it to Kuṡa and Lava, Rāma’s sons and students in his aṡrama, who then go on to perform the Rāmāyaṇa in the wider world including Rāma’s court.

I’ve read four cantos of the Bālakāṇḍa thus far, and two things in particular stood out to me:

1. The absence of Sītā’s agniparīkṣā — As I mentioned earlier, Nārada’s narrative of Rāma is arguably the first Rāmāyaṇa. He starts with a description of Rāma’s moral virtues, and his physical attributes. Then he launches into the story of Rāma as it is popularly known. It includes all the arguably important incidents — Daṡaratha’s preparations for Rāma’s coronation, Rāma’s exile to the forest along with Sītā and Lakṡmaṇa on Kaikeyī’s command, his exploits in the forest including the disfigurement of Ṡūrpaṇakhā, the kidnapping of Sītā, the death of Jaṭāyu, his meeting with Ṡabarī and Hanumān, his killing of Vālin and alliance with Sugrīva, Hanumān’s foray into Laṅkā in search for Sītā, the death of Rāvaṇa, his recovery of Sītā and his kingdom, which he will rule for 11,000 years.

Sita's agnipariksha (trial by fire)

Sita’s agnipariksha (trial by fire)

However, Nārada’s tale passes over Sītā’s agniparīkṣā, Rāma’s ultimate abandonment of her, and her return to the earth whence she came. One possible reason that Nārada’s account skips over the latter two incidents is that they hadn’t yet occurred when Nārada launched into his tale. As Nārada was describing the exploits of Rāma when Rāma was still alive and had just regained his kingdom, it seems fair to assume this. But why does Nārada skip over Sītā’s agniparīkṣā, arguably one of the most important incidents in the Rāmāyaṇa? It happens in the battlefield just after Vibhīṣaṇa has been crowned king of Laṅkā, and before Rāma, Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa’s return to Ayodhya, when Rāma regains his kingdom, events recounted in Nārada’s tale. Both events are recounted by Nārada, so I don’t believe it could be because of ignorance. Another reason that occurred to me is the ethically problematic nature of the incident. But that’s not the only morally reprehensible act that Rāma’s tale presents us with. Rāma’s disfigurement of Ṡūrpaṇakhā and his killing of Vālin are also problematic from an ethical standpoint, and Nārada doesn’t hesitate to mention them. So why does he skip over Sītā’s agniparīkṣā? If you have any thoughts, feel free to raise them in the comments section.

index2. The creation of ṡloka, or poetry — After Vālmiki hears the story of Rāma from Nārada, he happens to see a hunter killing one of a pair of krauñcha birds. Filled with compassion and out of grief, these words came forth inadvertently from his mouth: “Since, Niṣāda, you killed one of this pair of krauñchas, distracted at the height of passion, you shall not live for very long.” (47) These words “were fixed in metrical quarters, each with a like number of syllables, and fit for the accompaniment of stringed and percussion instruments” (ibid). He himself was confused by the nature of the words he spoke, and pronounced it a ṡloka, (poetry) because it came from the depths of his own ṡoka, or grief. This, then, is how ṡloka came to be created. Upon Brahma’s exhortation, Vālmiki goes on to compose the entire Rāmāyaṇa in ṡlokas. I find it fascinating that poetry, the balm of the grieving human, itself is created in the depths of grief. Furthermore, how is it that something created out of grief is able to arouse myriad emotions — erotic love and humor and fear amongst others — in us?

I know that in many ways this blog is a failure because I haven’t been writing each week as I promised myself I would. Nevertheless, I hope to be diligent with my reading of Vālmiki’s Rāmāyaṇa this winter break and share insights, questions and interesting tidbits as they present themselves.

* All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from: Vālmiki. Rāmāyaṇa. Bālakāṇḍa. Trans. Robert P. Goldman. New York: New York University Press, 2005. Print. Clay Sanskrit Library.