My earliest exposure to Rama was when I was a child of four or five. I was taken to two Hindi films, repeat runs in Blue Mountain Talkies, Ooty, Vijay Bhatt’s “Bharat Milap” (1942) and “Ram Rajya” (1943) through which I got a general idea of the story. Till N.T. Rama Rao’s “Seetarama Kalyanam” (1961) almost two decades later, no Telugu film on this subject measured up to our yardstick.
Even earlier I was familiar with the songs sung by ladies who came to my mother’s bhajan sessions on Sundays. ‘Aa ramu sati daivamendugaana’ — ‘I can’t see a god equal to Rama,’ was my favourite. It had simple words, a catchy tune and in the middle, a changing gait. I recall Gouramma and her daughter Padma Pinni singing it 75 years ago. I found it both a lullaby and a matins. Musically soothing, it was a telling description of Rama’s beauty.
As I grew older, the stodgy lessons of tutors, a rare Harikatha made lively by the effervescence of the teller, put more information into my head. Then and now, I consider Rama a humdrum, previous avathar of Krishna. Krishna, whose antics at home, alfresco rasleela and coming to the succour of the afflicted Kuchela and Kubja, had me captivated. At that young age, a sage realisation dawned upon me. This was God, the only One.
In 1960, I settled in Madras. Exposed to the various nrithyanatakams at Kalakshetra on the Ramayana theme shaped by the best talents under Rukmini Devi’s watchful ear and eye, I got deeper into the doings of Kausalya’s darling. In this, Bhagavathula Seetharama Sarma with Kalakshetra then, an adept in Sanskrit, music and dance, was my sheet-anchor. His patience lit up my understanding. I was moved to tears when he explained the gist of ‘Na ham janaami keyure,’
Lakshmana telling Sitapati, about the ornaments in his hand, “I don’t know the arm-bands, or the ear-studs but I recognise the anklets familiar to me by my daily namaskaram to Sita Devi.”
Around this time, I came across a book by Challa Radhakrishna Sarma about various Ramayanas. He was amused at my half-baked questions but never belittled me, a mark of true education. I heard both of them out on various aspects about the epic and his character. I did not swallow their summations hook, line and angling-rod but applied my sense of logic and came to my own conclusions.
I discovered that some incidents lodged in the public’s mind did not exist in Valmiki’s account. Just one instance: Gowthama does not curse Ahalya to become a stone and she does not regain normalcy when Daasarathi’s foot touches her. “You’ll be invisible, surviving on air, lying in the dust of remorse and will regain your normal form when Dasaratha’s son enters this hermitage” (Balakanda, canto 48, 49) is his pronouncement.
This transgression of Ahalya’s is known to all but she is regarded as one of the virtuous Panchakanyas — five (worthy) maidens. Keep this in mind. When Indra turns up in Gowthama’s guise, Ahalya is not fooled. Post adultery, she asks Indra “Have I made you happy? I am thrilled! Scoot before my husband returns” (Bala kanda, 49).
Dasaratha tells Kausalya’s offspring “Now that Bharata is away with his maternal uncle, I have arranged your coronation.” Rama knows about the promise given to Kaikeyi’s father that her son will inherit the throne, as he clearly tells Bharata: “The throne is yours by the promise made by our father before marrying your mother” (Ayodhyakanda, 107, 111). Then why did he, being the personification of righteousness, not admonish his father? The virtue of being subservient to the father I suppose caused a lockjaw.
Primogeniture principle was the general rule. In exceptional cases, the ruler’s brother or younger son was given the scepter. Dasaratha did have the authority to enthrone any son of his choice but he had no right, moral or regal, to exile an innocent. Similarly Kaikeyi could ask for her son’s coronation but not to have Rama banished.
I was told when young that bereft at the separation from Sita, her husband gave up meat and liquor. I was aghast. But Sita herself tells Ravana that Rama enjoyed all kinds of luxuries including eating buffalo-meat — ‘mahishi priya’ (Aranya Kanda, 47).
Rama arrows down Vali, standing behind a tree, as Vali is in unarmed combat with Sugreeva. When Vali asks him why, Rama replies “Because you are an animal.” What wrong have I done?” Vali presses on. “You have cohabited with your brother’s wife” (Kishkindha Kanda, 17, 18). Animals held guilty of incest and murdered?
One other point. The relationship between Sugreeva and Rama is said to be ‘sakhyam,’ – friendship — one of the nine different kinds of devotion, Navavidha Bhakthi. Not at all. It was a pact, pure and distilled, “You kill my brother and I’ll have your wife located.”
The ideal friendship is when two people wish each other well, without expecting anything in return; Krishna and Kuchela; Krishna and Vidura.
In the heat of the battle with Ravana, both brothers are severely wounded. Rama revives first and presuming Lakshmana to be dead, wails, weeps, laments “Oh, why oh why did I wage this war for Sita! Wives like her can be found anywhere. Where will I get a brother like Lakshmana?” (Yuddha Kanda, 49)
It is presumed by many that Sita is asked after her release from Ashokavana to prove her chastity by Agnipareeksha, ordeal by fire. Nothing of the kind. When she comes to him after the war is over, Rama tells her “As per Kshatriya’s duty, I released you from captivity even though suspicion has arisen with regard to your character. You are extremely disagreeable to me like sunlight to a person with conjunctivitis. Choose to be with anyone you like, including the monkeys and the rakshasas” (Yuddha Kanda, 49).
That’s when Sita, utterly humiliated before thousands, orders Lakshmana to light a pyre and jumps into it. It’s another matter that the Fire God, Agnideva, brings her out saying “I can’t bear the heat of her chastity.”
Happily settled after the coronation, a pregnant Sita tells her husband that she wants to revisit the woods and hermitages she enjoyed 15 years ago. “By all means, have a pleasant picnic tomorrow!” her husband assures her. Later he hears from the spies that people of the city (not a washerman) are wondering about the chastity of their queen imprisoned by a rakshasa for long. Immediately Janakipati sends for his four brothers and orders Lakshmana to take Sita to the forest and abandon her near the hermitage of Valmiki (Uttara Kanda, 42-45), just like that.
None of these episodes detailed by Valmiki have been brought on to the silver screen or the dance stage. One episode not in any Ramayana, according to Challa Radhakrishna Sarma, was the one created by Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry for the Telugu film “Veeranjaneya” (1968), touching, beautiful, memorably locked into the characters’ soul.
Some years have passed after the Coronation. Anjaneya appears before Lakshmana and Urmila seated in a garden. Anjaneya asks Lakshmana, “How is everybody, Ayodhyapathi Rama, my mother Sita?” Seeing the tears welling up in the silent Lakshmana, a worried Anjaneya exclaims to Urmila, “Oh dear mother, tell me. Tell me what happened!” “What happened? Let me tell you. Heeding the slur of a cur, Rama had Sita abandoned in a forest. Under the shelter of Valmiki, our sister gave birth to twins and we are so unfortunate that we can’t share the happiness of coddling them,” Urmila replies.
Unable to believe what he heard, Anjaneya mumbles, “And Rama, where is he?” “In his chambers shedding tears through days and nights.” “Tears? After having my mother abandoned?” angrily questions Anjaneya. Lakshmana explains: “The one who abandoned Sita is Ayodhyapathi and the one who is weeping is Sitapathi”.
I’d like to end this on a happy note. Based on an Avadhi lyric by Tulsidas, Hemant Kumar and wife Bela Mukherji have sung a song in “Bandhan” (Hindi, 1956), ‘Doolah ram siya dulahiri, Dhan damin bar baran haran man, Sundarata nakh sikh nibaheeri.’
See the captivating pair, groom Rama and bride Sita. Exult in their over-flowing beauty, toenail to top locks. It is such songs by blessed devotees that make and keep him a god in the minds of millions. Tathasthu!
(Quotations are paraphrases of Gita Press’s English translation)
The author is a scholar, dancer and film historian