by Carole Losee © 2005-2020

ELIZABETH SEEGER'S

THE RAMAYANA


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

SITA'S ORDEAL

 

Hánuman entered Lanka by its principal gate, and all the citizens bowed down before him. He went through the great palace, filled with the wailing of women, to the grove where he had found Sita weeks before. She was still there, surrounded by guards, and she looked up joyfully as she saw him bowing before her, his joined hands touching his brow.

"O noble princess, Rama and Lákshmana are well and greet you," he said, "Rávana is dead and Vibíshana is King of Lanka. So you need have no more fear or anxiety, O virtuous one!" Sita's face became as radiant as the full moon, but she could find no words to express her joy. "What are you thinking, O goddess," asked Hánuman, "since you do not answer me?"

"For a moment I could not speak for joy," said Sita, her voice trembling. "O prince of monkeys, what can I offer you in return for this happy news. Gold or jewels or even a throne could not equal this message of yours. You have strength and courage, boldness and endurance, faithfulness and humility, O Hánuman, my son!"

"I ask a boon of you," said Hánuman. "Allow me to slay these evil women who have treated you so roughly and spoken such ugly words to you. I wish to beat them with my fists, tear them to pieces with my teeth, chew up their ears and noses, pull our their hair, and then kill them, dear Mother, because they have caused you pain."

Sita laughed at him and said, "Who can be angry with servants who merely obey their lord's command, O lion among apes? If Rávana is dead they can no longer torment me. There is an old and wise saying: listen to it, O Hánuman! We should never return evil for evil, but have compassion upon the wicked even while they are injuring us."

"You are worthy of Rama," said Hánuman humbly. "Now tell me what you desire, O lovely one, for he awaits your message."

"I wish to see my lord," answered Sita simply.

"You shall see him today, with Lákshmana and all his devoted friends," said Hánuman.

He returned directly to Rama, told him how Sita looked and gave him her message. Rama sighed deeply, then turned to Vibíshana and said, "Bring the daughter of Jánaka hither, I pray you, after she has bathed and dressed and adorned herself."

When Vibíshana gave her this message, bowing low before her, Sita, said, "I wish to see my lord at once, O King of Lanka, just as I am." But the newly crowned king, splendid in his royal robes, said gently, "A noble queen should do what her lord desires, O Sita."

He led her into the palace where his wife, Sita's good friend, and her ladies welcomed her. They took off the dusty garment she had worn so long, bathed her, and rubbed her body with perfumed ointments. They washed her beautiful hair, dried it over fragrant fires and brushed it until it was soft and shining again. Then they dressed her in a robe of finest silk and hung jewels about her neck, on her ears, about her ankles and wrists, and put a garland of fresh flowers on her hair. With her radiant face, she looked as beautiful as a goddess.

Vibíshana was waiting for her with a curtained litter borne on the shoulders of four attendants and followed by an escort of the palace guards. The citizens filled the streets, trying to see this woman for whom Rávana had been slain and their proud city conquered. When the litter passed through the gates and approached the camp, the monkeys and demons also crowded around it, peering through the curtains at this princess for whom so many had lost their lives. Vibíshana went ahead and said joyfully to Rama, who was standing absorbed in his own thoughts, "She is coming!"

When Rama heard that his beloved wife, who had lived so long in Rávana's palace, was coming to him, his heart was filled with joy and anger and sorrow. He said to Vibíshana, "Bring her nearer to me, my friend!" Vibíshana wished to clear the way for the litter and ordered the demons who escorted Sita to drive away all those who crowded around it trying to see her. The guards began to lay about them with their staves, and an uproar arose as the monkeys were pushed back. "Why do you drive them away?" said Rama angrily to Vibíshana. "Are they not my people? I look upon them all as if they were my own family; have they not a right to see their queen? In times of danger, at her bridal choice, and at her marriage a woman may be seen unveiled. Let Sita come hither on foot, so that all may see her!" Everyone was astonished at his voice and his face, which was clouded, his eyebrows drawn together in a frown.

Sita stepped from the litter and found herself in the midst of a great crowd of strangers who gazed at her, amazed at her grace and beauty. She had never faced so many people before and shrank within herself for a moment; then she saw her dearly loved husband and forgot everything else. Standing before him with tears of joy in her eyes, she could only say, "My lord!" Then, when he did not answer but stayed with downcast eyes, her joy was chilled by fear. This was not the meeting she had longed for during her year of suffering, and she did not understand. She controlled her tears, summoned all her courage, and stood, with the dignity of a pure conscience, awaiting her husband's pleasure.

Rama looked up at last and spoke. "I have regained you, O noble lady, and my enemy is dead; my wrath is quenched, for the evil deed and the doer of it have both been wiped out by my prowess. All my efforts have been crowned with success; I have fulfilled my vow and am free. Hánuman, too, plucks the fruit of his courage; Sugriva and Vibíshana reap the harvest of their labors and their valor."

While he spoke Sita looked at him, her beautiful eyes wide with surprise and filled with tears. Seeing her so close to him, Rama's anguish increased, but he spoke cruelly to her. "Do not think, O daughter of Jánaka, that this difficult war was won entirely for your sake. I cherish my honor and have slain Rávana in order to avenge the insult offered to my noble family. Now go where you please, for I can have nothing more to do with you. What man, what king, could take back a wife who had dwelt for a year in another's house? Rávana's wicked eyes have rested upon you and he has held you in his arms. Therefore go, O lovely one, wherever you desire! Lákshmana or Bhárata, Vibíshana or Sugriva will protect and care for you; you may choose between them!"

Sita had never before heard an unkind word from him. These cruel and insulting words, spoken before that multitude, pierced her heart as if they were sharp arrows. She hid her face and wept bitterly; then she raised her head, wiped her eyes and answered proudly.

"Why do you speak thus, my lord, as if I were a worthless woman? Am I still a stranger to you, despite all the years of our life together? If my body was touched by Rávana as he carried me away, it was against my will. What could I do? My heart has always been yours. When you sent Hánuman to find me, why did you not renounce me then? I should have yielded up my life in his presence, O mighty hero, and you need not have wearied yourself and your friends in battle or lost any lives for my sake. I am called the daughter of Jánaka though I am truly born of the goddess Earth; I am worthy of your respect, not of your scorn. How can you misjudge me so; how can you forget the joining of our hands in marriage and our vows? You have given way to anger and suspicion and acted ignobly, O lion among men!"

She turned to Lákshmana, who was overcome with sorrow, and said to him, "Build a pyre for me, O Lákshmana, my brother. There is only one way left for me to go, since I have been renounced here in this assembly by my husband. I cannot bear any more."

Lákshmana looked at his elder brother and saw by his expression that Rama did not forbid him. Therefore he ordered the monkeys to bring wood, and he built the pyre while all of Rama's friends and all who were present looked on, silent and stricken, none daring to appeal to him or even to look at him.

Lákshmana kindled the fire, and Sita, her hands joined, walked around Rama three times, keeping him on her right. Then she approached the blazing pile. She made obeisance to all the gods, with joined palms, and then spoke to Agni, God of Fire: "O you who live within the bodies of all living creatures and know their inmost being, if I have always been true to Rama, protect me! If I have been pure in thought and deed, O Agni, you who witness all things, save and protect me!"

With these words she walked fearlessly into the flames, and a terrible cry of fear and sorrow rose from all those who watched her. She was like gold cast into the crucible, like a sacrificial victim given to the fire.

Then all the gods hastened to that place in their chariots bright as the sun. Led by Indra of the thousand eyes they gathered around and above that multitude: Yama, king of the Dead, Varuna, God of the Waters, and Vayu, God of the Wind; Kúvera, the God of Wealth, the older brother of Rávana and Vibíshana, came back to the city that had once been his; and with them came the high gods: Shiva the Destroyer, the three-eyed one who rides the bull; and Brahma who created the worlds.

In their presence Agni, God of Fire, stilled the flames upon the pyre and came forth from it, leading Sita by the hand. She was more beautiful than when she entered the fire, for now her face was radiant with joy and she smiled; not a hair of her lovely head or a thread of her robes was singed, nor a jewel cracked.

Agni put her hand in Rama's and said, "Here is your noble wife, O Rama; there is no fault in her. She has never been unfaithful to you in thought, in deed, in speech, or even in the glance of an eye. Imprisoned, alone, threatened and tempted, she thought only of you. I see all that is visible and all that is hidden; her heart is known to me. Receive her and cherish her!"

Rama's face was as joyful as Sita's as he took her in his arms. "It was necessary for Sita to pass through this trial, for she had dwelt for a long time in Rávana's palace," he said. "Otherwise the people would have questioned her honor and mine. I have always known that she was true to me. Rávana could no more have come near to her, even in thought, than he could have put his hand into a flame. I could never renounce her, for she is to me as the light is to the sun, as his valor is to a warrior."

So at last, after all their suffering, they were united in great joy, while Lákshmana, Vibíshana, and all those who saw these wondrous things rejoiced and were comforted.

Then Indra spoke to Rama, saying, "It is well for all beings that you have accomplished this great feat, O best of men, and rid the three worlds of the dread of Rávana. Go now and rule over Ayodhya! Console your pure and devoted wife and seek out your brother Bhárata and bring joy to your mothers! We are all greatly pleased with you; therefore ask any boon that you desire, O scourge of your foes!"

"If you wish to please me, O chief of the gods," answered Rama, who held Sita close to his side, "Let all those brave monkeys who left their homes and died for my sake be brought back to life! May they rise up with no pain or wounds, in all their strength and joy, and be reunited with their families! And let there be flowers and fruits, honey and pure water wherever they may go!"

"This is hard to grant, O mighty hero, but I shall keep my word and do as you desire," said Indra.

And all those monkeys who lay dead, with severed heads and limbs, rose up, healed, as if they had been asleep, and looked at one another, asking, "Where are we?" "Where are all our enemies?" "Let us kill them!" Then they saw that the victory had been won and they embraced one another; they met all their friends and surrounded Rama, acclaiming him.

The gods themselves made obeisance to Rama and then returned joyfully to the celestial regions. Rama bade a grateful farewell to Mátali, the divine charioteer, who had helped him in the battle; and Mátali yoked the bay horses, which leaped into the sky and in a flash bore him out of sight. Then that great company of happy people rested in the joy of victory, sleeping blissfully in their encampment; for Rama still kept his hermit's vow and would not enter Lanka.

 

Seeger, The Ramayana, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 219-227.


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