How do we think about human love? Is it beyond time as we know it, is it sempiternal—not only everlasting but unchanging? Are we made better by knowing that love is fragile, a thing to be nurtured, protected, fed and watered? Or is it the idea of love as eternal, redemptive and salvific, that sustains us and allows us to live through unspeakable horrors, both individual and as a people?
The idea of love as the ultimate state of being is attractive—so much literature is about people, apparently just like us, who die for love. More accurately, we have a thousand stories about people who die before their love ends. Or changes. If we think of Romeo and Juliet, and Laila and Majnu, as being archetypal love stories, we need look no further than the subcontinent to find similar tales of tragic young love—Sohni and Mahiwal, Heer and Ranjha, from the folk tales of Punjab, and even Kannagi and Kovalan from the Tamil epic Silapathikaram. If film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali had had his untrammelled way, Padmavati and Ratan Singh/Alauddin Khilji would have been included in this list as well.
For reasons of provenance (language and period of composition, mainly), the stories mentioned, and others like them, are considered legends or folk literature. Our classics, the epics in particular, have a rather different view of love. Stories of ecstatic, romantic, all-consuming love don’t appear in our myths. There are many stories of unrequited love or difficult love, but very few people die for it or of it. In fact, we have the opposite story to enjoy, one of living for love, as Savitri does when she wrests her beloved Satyavan from Death himself. Kunti lives to protect Pandu’s legacy even as Madri (whom he loved better) dies with him on his funeral pyre. Draupadi lives with the fact that the husband she loves most, Arjun, does not reciprocate the intensity of her feelings for him. Nal and Damayanti are separated by fate but eventually come together to live happily ever after. Shakuntala and Dushyant triumph in love after they overcome the vagaries of a decidedly peculiar curse, Parvati wins Shiv after years of difficult penance. And so on.
But the most complex and poignant story of a love that does not survive the choices and circumstances of its protagonists is the story of Ram and Sita. I use the Valmiki Ramayana as the basis for this understanding of the story, an understanding that considers the possibility that even the most idealized love can end. In the Uttara Kanda, the last of the seven books that make up what we call the Valmiki Ramayana, Sita calls upon the earth to swallow her when she is asked to prove her chastity again, this time in front of the people of Ayodhya. She asks that if she has been chaste, she be taken away. How did she get to this point, the point where the validation of her innocence against all the gossip and innuendo will lead to her exit from, rather than her continuing participation in, Ram’s life. In order to understand this, we need to reconsider the story as we know it.
Ram and Sita left for the forest as young people. We can surmise from other things in the story that they were probably in their early 20s, still flushed with youth. It was there that they really got to know each other, away from the hustle and bustle of duties and commitments in the opulent court of Ayodhya. They spent their happiest time with the sages and their wives, where Ram experienced a life of quietude and reflection. Already, in the days and nights since his father’s decree, Ram has questioned kshatriya dharma and doubted the values he has been taught to uphold. The sages have made him even more aware that there is another way to live in the world. After they leave the sages and settle deeper in the forest, in Chitrakut, Ram is the sweet and tender husband who brings flowers for Sita’s hair, who shares her joy and wonder at the forest animals that she feeds and looks after, who accompanies her when she goes down to the river to bathe. Sita discusses with Ram her concerns about the weapons he carries. She tells him that in the forest, violence must be renounced, and reminds him that he can go back to the manners and morals of the warrior that he was born to be when they return to Ayodhya. Ram listens and assures her he will use his weapons only against the oppressed. But, as Sita had predicted, it is violence that shatters their idyllic life. Shurpanakha is brutally mutilated, an act which results in a terrifying and vengeful retaliation against Sita. A cycle of blood-lust has been unleashed that will only be quenched with the killing of Ravan.
Once his wife has been stolen, Ram realizes that he has to become a kshatriya again if he is to win her back. Sita sustains herself during their separation with memories of her beloved from their time in the forest. When she meets Hanuman, apart from giving him her hair ornament as a token of recognition, she sends him back with a message for Ram. The message is a story of sweet intimacy, when she and Ram were alone together, a story that no one but the two of them could have known. These are the memories of love that make it possible for Sita to hold her head high when Ravan cajoles and threatens her. She can be strong because she knows she has not been abandoned.
Ram, on the other hand, appears to increasingly put away memories of Sita after his heart-rending sorrow when he finds her missing. He berates Lakshman for leaving her alone, he begs the trees and the animals to tell him where she has gone. But after this, he hardens his heart—it’s as if he knows that because she has been taken by another man, he will have to reject her when he gets her back. He will vanquish Ravan because that is what Kshatriya dharma demands, but that does not mean that he will be reunited with his wife, whom he loves more than anything else, in a happily-ever-after scenario.
After Sita has been taken, Ram expresses his anguish more and more in terms of the loss of his kingdom and the fact that he might lose his brave and loyal brother Lakshman. Sita is absent from his conversations, perhaps even from his mind. He kills Ravan to avenge his honour as the prince of Ayodhya, acting as a kshatriya should. While Sita has thought of nothing but her love, Ram has been busy putting together an alliance and planning a war.
The man that Sita meets after the war with the rakshasas (demons) is not the man she knew and loved in the forest. She sees a battle-hardened warrior, a man who prefers to meet her in public rather than a husband who would wipe her tears of joy in private after such a long separation. This man tells her that he cannot take her back because she has lived in the house of another man. He has no use for her any more, she can go where she pleases. The war was fought not for her but for the honour of his family. Sita is horrified and asks Lakshman to build a fire—she will take a public trial to prove that she has been chaste. Of course, she is vindicated and, on the surface, there is a triumphal return to Ayodhya, with the happy ending of a restored kingdom and a restored marriage merely a breath away.
But that breath is never exhaled. When she is pregnant, Sita becomes the subject of town gossip about her time away from Ram. Ram, now king, chooses to bow to the dictates of his public position—he asks Lakshman to take Sita away, back to the forest where they had spent their happiest times together. At this point, Sita realizes that she will never be Ram’s beloved again, she will always be his wife, his queen, his consort.
Fourteen years later, when Ram hears the story of his own life from his sons, he summons Sita—she must prove her innocence once more, in front of his people, so that he can be with her again. This is when Sita decides that her innocence should be the reason for her departure. Ram has become a man she does not know, cannot love; her love for him has ended. Ram has become king and Sita has lost the tender lover of the days in the forest, the man she pined for in her captivity, the man she waited to embrace after their months of separation. She decides that she cannot, will not, live with a lesser love, a love that was compromised when it was sacrificed on the altar of public duty.
Sita’s love could not survive all that happened to her—her abduction, her captivity, the suspicions about her and her banishment. When she finally asserts herself, it is to take control of her destiny and leave Ram forever. Ram is distraught—his love has remained steadfast through all that he made his wife endure. After Sita has left, Ram creates a golden statue of his beloved wife. The statue is not only a substitute for the queen at all the royal rituals and ceremonies, it is a reminder to Ram himself of everything that he has lost as a king. For me, this is where the tragedy of the Ramayan lies—in the understanding that love can die, despite our best intentions, despite our efforts to keep it alive. For all that Ram is devastated when Sita leaves him, it’s hard to imagine that Sita did this with any sense of joy or liberation. Her heart, too, must have been heavy. For surely, the burden of a love that has ended is far greater than that of a love that has been lost. Perhaps it is only in our maturity that we see this as a possibility. And we smile through our tears for the young who are eternally in love.
Arshia Sattar has been working with the Valmiki Ramayana for 30 years. Her most recent book is Uttara: The Book Of Answers.