Sita’s Agni Pariksha has always been a controversial issue. It makes up for a great dinner or coffee time conversations, surely, but post the discussions being steered into another direction, we forget about the ordeal that Sita went through. Surely, she was a ‘mythical creature’, or a ‘filament of imagination’ of Sage Valmiki, the author, who perhaps, tried to ‘spice up’ his bland life of a hermit, through writing the epic. It makes up for an excellent issue for the feminists or even feminazis- so that they can get one more chance at going around bashing the males. The point worth noting here is, have we tried going into the intricate details about Sita, and her ordeal, whatever she went through, in her marital life? At times, our knowledge tends to be limited to the anecdotes and tales told by our doting grandparents on a sunny, sweltering, and a sleepless noon. Few of us carry the thought forward, and try reading more.
Sita is known by various names, Siya, Vaidehi, Bhoomija, or Maithili. She was the ‘adopted’ daughter of King Janaka, the king of Janak region. Sita was found by the King, while he was tilling the land, and adopted her. Sita was an exceptional child- she was constantly intrigued, and was like a sponge; curious and willing to absorb the maximum knowledge that she could. She even accompanied her father from a very tender age to the religious discourses and conferences. She showed a keen interest in learning about the Vedas and Upanishads. King Janaka was very compassionate, so was his wife Sunaina. Both of them ensured that all the four daughters were compassionate and nurturing as well- Sita, Urmila, Mandavi, and Shrutakirti. Sita believed in expansion of mind- she was equally versed with the knowledge and kitchen, both. She firmly attested to the fact that a true Bramhin is the one who expands his mind.
Sita, when she had seen Ram the first time, was a young teen. Since then, she had made up her mind to marry no one, but Ram. Fast forward to the Swayamvara, where the bride chooses her own husband, given that he is able to accomplish the task set up. Sita was hoping, rather, she knew who her husband would be, Ram. It was all pre-destined.
It is quite evident, that how women were instrumental in bringing about a change in the situation and way of life. Kaikeyi’s mind and even heart had been poisoned by Manthra. She asked for the fulfillment of the three boons that had been granted to her by the King Dashratha himself. Kaikeyi did so in order to ‘secure a better future’ for her son, Bharata. Isn’t that all what mothers do? She demanded Ram to be banished and sent on a Vanvaas. An exile of 14 long, tiresome, weary years, awaited him, when he was at the peak of his youth. Sita and Lakshman also accompanied Ram in the Vanvaas.
The Ravana-Ram episode is quite famous, and known by everyone. A war ensued between Ram and Ravana, the King of Lanka. Ravana had abducted the wife of Ram, the Queen of Ayodhya. This perspective is important, as it is seen that Rama went on to rescue Sita, firstly because she was the Queen, and secondly, because she was his wife. This perspective has been presented in several articles and books.
Later on, after the war was waged, Ram went on to announce out loud, that Sita was master of her own free will. She was not under any obligation to return back to Ram- this happened right after Sita was rescued from Ashok Vaatika, where she was held captive. Ram had made it loud and clear- that she was going back to him, willingly, and she had to prove her chastity. Sita instructed Lakshman, to prepare a pyre, while the Vanar Sena, the soldiers, and citizens of Lanka, looked on in sheer horror and were perplexed.
Agni Pariksha- Trial by Fire
Sita, calmly, walked herself into the pyre of fire. Out of the fire, emerged the Agni Dev, along with Sita, who was untouched, unblemished from the scorching heat. In between this, the Gods summoned Ram, and tried pacifying him, and how his act was unjust and unfair. Out of the fire emerged the pure and pious Sita, the Queen of Ayodhya, and wife of Ram. She had proven her chastity. Only then, did Ram accept her as his wife.
There are various perspectives on this episode of Agni Pariksha. The famous one being, that Ram did what he had to- as a ruler and upholder of Dharma. He did so to establish the fact that he was no different from others. The rules are same for everyone who existed in the society, irrespective of the social hierarchy they identified themselves with.
It is also speculated that Ram did so, to condemn the act and in order to ban it. In certain versions of Ramayan, after the Agni Pariksha, Ram brands the act as an act of Adharma, and orders a ban on it. It is said that he took the onus upon him. He did this so that no other woman, ever, has to undergo this to prove the chastity and fidelity.
Several philosophers and scholars who have an in-depth understanding of the epic refuse to consider this episode as a part of the original Ramayan. According to them, the actual Ramayan has been adulterated to a great extent, and several episodes did not take place. Ram-Bhakts do not accept this, or either turn the tables on Sita. There is another theory that Ram did this in order to allow the ‘real’ Sita to emerge out of the flames. She was replaced by ‘Vedavati’ or ‘Maya-Sita’, the duplicate whom Ravan had abducted.
The concept of ‘trial by fire’ existed for centuries and was found in the epic Mahabharata as well. The concept is very closely associated with the purification passage. Unfortunately, or maybe it was destined, and since Sita was a no ordinary woman, she accepted it with sheer grace and dignity. But, it did not stop here. She was asked to go through it again, when asked to join Ram back at the palace. She preferred to descend below the Earth, than have her devotion questioned again.
Agni Pariksha in the Modern Times
Based on these episodes, and its relevance to the modern age, every woman has to go through Agni Pariksha, metaphorically and symbolically, by several people, under various circumstances. So the question is, that why exactly do the women have to prove their chastity and purity, when they have been raped, abducted, or molested? It is not as if they have brought it upon themselves. Then why should anyone have to go through this horrendous ordeal? Why should anyone have their sanctity of marriage questioned by outsiders?
Their fidelity, faith, devotion, emotions and even the lack of it, is misconstrued and misinterpreted. Is the reputation of a woman more significant and of prime importance, than her own body? Do we need a sacrifice of a chaste Goddess like Sita, a medicore Ram, and evil Ravan, to jolt us out of our own barriers, and misconceptions, and narrow-mindedness, again? And, how many times would we need it, before we change our mindset?