The Indian epic Ramayana is divided into seven chapters, each of which is given a descriptive title appropriate to the matter therein. Thus the first is called the ‘childhood section’ (bala-kanda), containing the exploits of Rama during his younger years. Similarly, another is entitled the ‘chapter of war’ (yuddha-kanda) describing the battle between the forces of good and evil.
One chapter however, stands out for its intriguing name, being entitled ‘the chapter of beauty,’ (sundara-kanda). Its subject matter is brief, and the narrative covers a maximum of two to three days. It describes the venerable monkey Hanuman’s search for the heroine of the epic Sita, who, kidnapped by the vicious demon Ravana, is confined to a small garden inside the villain’s palace. Since time immemorial, this chapter has retained a special position amongst the faithful, and the mere chanting of it is supposed to bring about a fulfillment of all wishes.
To call anything beautiful is always the highest form of aesthetic praise. Indeed, if ethics is an investigation into what constitutes goodness, then aesthetics is an enquiry into the nature of the beautiful. The most comprehensive lexicon of the Sanskrit Language, the ‘Shabda Kalpadrum,’ defines the word ‘sundara’ (beauty), as a perception which makes the heart melt (ardra). In this context, consider the portrait of Sita painted by the poet in the middle of the sundar-kanda, a poignant and moving picture of a helpless creature in trying and painful circumstances.
She sits desolate on the bare ground, pale, emaciated, her body soiled and her spirit worn down by grief, the very image of an inner beauty dimmed by outward circumstance. The poet is so moved at her monumental suffering that he lets forth a shower of similes and metaphors describing her condition, representing one of the finest aesthetic moments in the entire epic:
‘Sita seemed to scorch the nearby vegetation with her deep sighs. Her beauty, now only faintly discernible, resembled a fire clouded by smoke. She was clad in a single yellow garment, resembling a pond without lotuses. Abashed and disconsolate, she was like the doe cut off from her herd and surrounded by a pack of hounds. Her hair was formed into a single braid (ek-veni), falling like a black serpent on her back. Seated on the ground like a branch fallen from a tree, she resembled a blurred memory or a fortune lost, a faith betrayed or a hope dashed, like a reputation lost due to false rumor.’
‘Looking here and there like a delicate fawn, Sita was barely discernible, like a Vedic text once learned by heart but now nearly lost through the lack of recitation. It was only with great difficulty that Hanuman was able to recognize her, because she was like a word whose meaning has changed due to inapt usage. Even then, keeping her faith, the firm lady looked no more agitated than the river Ganga, which however heavy the rainfall, never floods.’
‘Weighed down by grief, Sita was like a ship at sea burdened by heavy cargo. She resembled a star, whose positive karma now exhausted, had fallen down from heaven to the earth. Lacking in all ornaments, she was adorned only by the love for her husband. In the absence of her lord, she was rendered mute like an untouched vina.’
‘Her body was covered with dirt, however, she was adorned with her own physical beauty, thus, like a tender lotus stalk covered with mud she both lacked beauty and possessed it. She seemed to be a wave risen from the ocean of grief. Like a command disobeyed, or the skies aflame at the time of a catastrophe, she was like a river run dry. She resembled a pond ruined by elephants, its lotus blossoms and leaves torn up and the birds frightened away. This was the condition of Sita, like a little girl abandoned in the midst of desolate wilderness.’
Thus we observe that the poet has poured out his heart’s content in describing Sita’s condition in her confinement. This is not surprising. In an earlier chapter, he dedicates the whole of Ramayana to her, naming it ‘The Great Saga of Sita’ (sitayas charitam mahat). (Ramayana, 1.4.7)
Many scholars feel the sundara-kanda to be an epic in its own right, and go even as far as to suggest that it was only to highlight it that Valmiki composed the remaining portions of the Ramayana. The central theme of sundara-kanda is the noble character of Sita, brightened all the more in adversity, even as gold when heated shines in even greater splendor.
Indeed, whose heart would not melt and flow in a stream of devotion towards this sensitive portrayal of one of the most venerated figures in Indian thought? It was Mahatma Gandhi who said "true beauty is that which consists of a purity of heart." In this respect perhaps, the character of Sita, as developed in the sundara-kanda, is unparalleled in the annals of world literature, portraying her as a woman chaste in both thought and deed, ever graceful in her sorrow.
This description however, puts focus only on the physical, and rightly so, for the physical sphere is the locus of the manifestation of internal qualities. Nevertheless, true beauty does not merely stimulate the aesthetic senses; it also kindles the imagination, presenting first to the view only the broad outline of a picture, which has to be then completed in all necessary details by the imaginative power of the aesthete. According to the Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta, aesthetic experience is not static, but dynamic. It has inexhaustible potentialities, which appear to be new at every moment to the onlooker.
This is one area where the Ramayana abounds in plenty. Thus even the small fact of Sita keeping a single serpentine braid is pregnant with meaning. Keeping her hair open makes a woman look all the more attractive and thus tying it up in a single strand was the only practical thing to do. The author himself has observed in his home, that women, when hard pressed for time, unable to do any makeup, just quickly tie up their tresses in a single strand, retaining both modesty and utility. Additionally, Sita’s braid is like a serpent, making it clear that it would be fatal for a man (except her husband) to touch her.
The imaginative streak of the reader runs further riot when Ravana comes to confront Sita in the garden, the whole episode being watched over by Hanuman. As the villain asks the virtuous lady to accept his indecent proposal, she answers him befittingly, but not before she has placed a blade of grass between herself and the demon. Ancient commentators have waxed eloquent on why Sita placed this straw:
a). The straw, acting as a symbolic purdah, highlighted the ideal of purity which deterred a woman from holding face-to-face conversation with a man other than her husband.
b). She pointed out to Ravana that she considered him to be of no more consequence than a blade of grass.
c). Sita said symbolically: "Since you are like a beast, here is some fodder for you."
d). Once during their exile in the forest, a crow had pestered Sita, targeting her with his beak. Angered at its arrogance, Rama had picked up a blade of grass and thrown it like a missile at the crow, blinding the bird. Sita is thus pointing out to Ravana that just as the lord punished the crow with a mere twig so will you be destroyed.
e). Ravana’s cowardly behavior in kidnapping Sita saturated his sins, and his destruction was but now inevitable, making it the last straw to break the camel’s back.
In the mansion of beauty, there are several layers, and what is outwardly apparent is the least important. The palpably beautiful exterior becomes worthy of notice only to the extent it serves as an appropriate medium for the inner beauty core, which constitutes the soul or essence of poetry. We have seen above that at the center of the chapter of beauty is situated Sita, however, Hanuman’s quest is suggestive of a much deeper symbolism than a mere search for the ‘physical’ Sita.
The ancient poet Valmiki, who first composed the Ramayana, is glorified as the archetypal poet (Adi-Kavi). It is believed that wanting to enrich his text further, Valmiki took birth again in the medieval ages, and then presented before the world a version of the Ramayana soaked in bhakti (devotion). In this second incarnation he was known as Tulsidas, who, in suggestive undertones, made explicit the deep-rooted symbolism inherent in the Ramayana, displaying in the process an almost divine poetic talent.
In an early chapter Tulsidas says on Sita:
Beauty beautiful does she make,
A lamp shining in charm’s wake.
(Ramacharitmanas of Tulsidas, 1.230.4)
Sita is thus the concentrated essence of all beauty in this world, and in his search, Hanuman is in fact looking for the essential spiritual core of all that is beautiful in the universe. In Tulsidas’ version, the chapter of beauty begins with Hanuman climbing up a high mountain, using it as a prop to leap across the mighty ocean to the city of Lanka where Sita is imprisoned:
A beautiful mountain on the seashore,
On to its peak did he playfully soar.
Here it must be stressed that this crass attempt at rendering Tulsidas’ sublime verses in English is nowhere near the original since ‘poetry is what gets lost in translation.’
In the symbolic world of Tulsidas, Sita is but the embodied form of bhakti, the essential characteristics of which are complete faith and total surrender, all of which find their culmination in her. Bhakti is not the mere waving of ornamental lamps in front of the image of a deity; rather, it is a way of life. The Narada Bhakti Sutras, an ancient text laying down the philosophical foundations of bhakti, says:
Bhakti is of the nature of a result (to be achieved). (Sutra 26).
Bhakti thus is not a path, but the goal of life, and the "beautiful" mountain represents the spiritual heights which have to be gained before making this mighty leap across the massive sea of ego before we find it.
In order to win over Sita’s faith, Hanuman has to first present his credentials as an authorized emissary of god. Before starting off, he had been given a ring by Rama, encrusted with the latter’s name, to be presented to Sita. Seeing an opportune moment, Hanuman drops it into her hands:
Then when she looked at the ring pleasing
Name of Rama, most beautiful engraving.
Here we find another instance of the word beautiful. The poet is pointing out to us that it is the divine name of god (and its chanting), which introduces us to bhakti, helping us to establish a fruitful relationship; and what indeed is the nature of this relationship? Tulsidas says:
Janaki, mother of world, Janak’s offspring.
Dearest to Rama of compassionate bearing.
Her two lotus feet i do propitiate,
A spotless intellect is her grace.
Here Sita, by virtue of being king Janak’s daughter, is referred to as Janaki.
When we identify ourselves merely with our "body," our kinship is limited only to our own immediate family. However, if we wish to identify ourselves with a universal family, and reach out to the one Maha Shakti who is the mother of all, we will need to cross over the restraining ocean of ego.
As a matter of fact, it is in the sundara-kanda that Sita first addresses Hanuman as her son; and what is the first thing he asks for from his mother? Food.
Hanuman knows very well that this is a sure shot way of kindling motherly affection. Truly, the supreme feminine emotion is to nourish her children, superseding all other feelings. It is mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana that the very thought of her adorable Krishna coming back home in the evening makes milk ooze out of mother Yashoda’s breasts. In the modern world, this is exemplified in the venerable institution called the ‘Jewish mother,’ much celebrated in humor. Indian women perhaps go even a step further. A gentleman had a measure of his mother’s affection when his doctor recommended physical exercise to contain his bulging midriff. The caring mother, when she came to know of the physician’s advise, immediately seconded the prescription saying: "To exercise you need energy, and therefore you must have a rich diet," producing before him, a bowl full of gulab jamun (a snack soaked in butter and sugar).
Rama’s mother Kaushalya too is equally "Jewish." She has just been informed that her son will be crowned as king tomorrow, and this is what she says to him:
Go fast my dear son a bath do take,
A sweet of your choice then partake.
A father is happy to see his son crowned. A mother gets all the happiness in the world when his belly is (over) full.
Sita, while giving permission to Hanuman to eat, is more philosophical about it:
"Go dear, and enjoy the soft and sweet fruits, dedicating your heart to the feet of Lord Rama." (Ramacharitmanas, 5.17)
Indeed, this but echoes the vision of the Bhagavad Gita where all fruits are rendered sweet when first offered to god.
In this metaphorical universe, no aspect is what it seems at the first sight. All that is presented to the view is suggestive of a deeper essence. Thus Sita imprisoned in the golden city of Lanka is our own essential core, always in connection with the supreme reality. The Isha Upanishad says:
‘The face of truth is covered with a golden vessel. Uncover it, O god, that I who am truth itself may see it.’ (Mantra 15)
The name Sita is derived from the root ‘sit,’ whose primary meaning is whiteness - an immaculate and stainless purity. Our Sita lies imprisoned in each of us, tormented by vicious ogresses representing our negative tendencies, much as the heroine of Ramayana is surrounded by wardresses.
The monkey Hanuman is none other our own restless mind, hopping from one desire (branch) to another. Further, a monkey is often the butt of ridicule, and calling someone as having a "monkey face," is perhaps an ultimate expression of ugliness. Yet, it is such a creature who discovers the truest manifestation of beauty, and in the process, becomes beautiful himself. This is subtle message of the sundara-kanda, that we have to find beauty amongst all the negativity of life, whether it be the rich golden city of Lanka standing on a foundation of deceit and lust, surrounded by ugly ogresses, and confined by our excessive attachment to physical beauty (Ravana).
The sundara-kanda is beautiful because it belongs to sundari Sita. Not only is she the essence of all that is truly beautiful in the world, she is the powerful medium to which even Rama has to take recourse to in order to express his own divine beauty.
In the Valmiki Ramayana Sita says:
"I am as inseparable from Rama as radiance is from the sun." (5.21.15)
The implication being that Rama is as dependent on Sita as she on him. He is but the formless supreme reality unable to make itself available to human perception. It is only the devoted shakti of bhakti which grants Nirguna both the motivation and the capability to express itself as Saguna.
(Wishing all our readers on the auspicious occasion of Rama Navami, the birthday of Lord Rama, falling this year on the 27th of March.)
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