“Then Hanuman saw a woman wearing a soiled garment, who was surrounded by female Rakshasas. She was thin from fasting, extremely sad and sighing again and again. Hanuman saw that she was spotless like the streak of the moon at the beginning of the bright lunar fortnight [shukla paksha].” (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 15.18-19)
tato malina samvītām rākṣasībhiḥ samāvṛtām ||
upavāsa kṛśām dīnām nihśvasantīm punaḥ punaḥ |
dadarśa śukla pakṣa ādau candra rekhām iva amalām ||
Shri Hanuman here finally spots the person he was sent to find. All the hard work, all the trouble, all the doubts in the mind finally culminated in this wonderful moment. But as is the case so often in life, whatever we anticipate, whatever plans we make, the actual sequence to the events is not something we predicted. Hanuman used his knowledge of the qualities of his master to reach this auspicious end, but he thought that the initial spotting would take place in a different way. Nevertheless, despite the pitiable nature of the circumstances, the person he gazed upon was spotless.
How did Hanuman expect this meeting to happen? Why was he sent on the search? Lord Rama, the prince of Ayodhya, was looking for his beloved wife Sita. Rama had this amazing effect on people, that simply by meeting Him, a pious soul would be won over by His qualities. By won over, we mean dedicated to service to Rama for life. Not surprisingly, such a quick transformation can only take place when meeting God. Nowhere else in literature is such a bond described, as even in fictional works the devotion stops once the end is reached. With the Ramayana, though the events described touch on the extraordinary and the surreal, the characters are real-life figures who continue in their mood of devotion. Maharishi Valmiki only described what was going to take place in the future, so the events themselves had significance that stretched well beyond the bounds of literature.
So many people felt that tremendous love for Rama when meeting Him, but in Hanuman’s case the circumstances were a little different. This time Rama was in trouble, at least outwardly. This made the spontaneous devotion Hanuman felt more significant, as he was impelled to act on Rama’s behalf. As a faithful minister to the chief of Vanaras on Mount Rishyamukha, Hanuman brought key players together. Rama and the monkey-king Sugriva would have to meet in order for Hanuman to take up service properly. Through that meeting arranged by Hanuman, the two parties would align and Hanuman would get the help of the many Vanara warriors under Sugriva’s command.
The alliance formed very quickly due in no small part to Hanuman’s stature. He was trusted by Sugriva to go down to the forest to see what these approaching princes wanted. When Hanuman met them, the brothers Rama and Lakshmana immediately took a liking to him. Thus from Hanuman’s stature both sides developed trust, and the wheels were set in motion for Sita’s rescue. First, she had to be found, a task which was assigned to all the monkeys under Sugriva. They split up into groups, however, and Hanuman’s group was considered the frontrunners for success due to his presence.
Though he had so much help, destiny called for Hanuman to win this battle alone. He would have to make it to Lanka all by himself. It was learned that Sita had been taken there. After an exhaustive and extensive search, Hanuman finally made it into a grove of Ashoka trees. This area was amazingly beautiful, stunning in fact. Hanuman found a tree to climb on, wherefrom he could survey the entire park without anyone seeing him. It was from this perch that he set his eyes upon a beautiful temple not too far away. In that area he found Sita, though at first he wasn’t sure if it was her.
He had plenty of features to use in reaching a decision. The Vanaras in Kishkindha had briefly seen Sita from afar when Ravana first carried her off in his aerial car. But the majority of the information Hanuman relied upon was acquired through hearing. He heard about Sita’s history and her brilliant devotion to her husband. He knew of her affinity for the wilderness and of her unmatched beauty. Previously in his search, Hanuman thought that he may have found her. Inside of Ravana’s palace, Hanuman saw a beautiful woman. Hoping for success more than anything, the devoted servant started jumping up and down, pounding his chest and kissing his tail in happiness. But upon further review he remembered that Sita could never be in such a pleasant condition while separated from her husband. The ladies inside of Ravana’s palace were all passed out from a night of drinking. There was no way Sita would enjoy any such activity, whether back home in Ayodhya with Rama or any place away from Him.
In the above referenced verse from the Ramayana, we get a review of the initial image that Hanuman got of Sita. It is said that the woman Hanuman saw was wearing a soiled garment. This means that she did not have on a beautiful sari, which is an Indian dress worn by women. Indeed, there is no outfit more beautiful in all the world than the sari. The feminine features are revealed in all goodness on the woman who wears a nice sari; hence today it serves as the primary dress for formal functions such as marriages and religious observances. In times past the women would wear them all the time.
Though she was a daughter of a king and the wife of a royal prince, Sita at this time was not wearing an exquisite garment. Her clothing may have started off that way, but from crying relentlessly and refusing to take care of herself, Sita’s dress lost its luster. In one way this was done on purpose. A chaste wife lives to please her husband after all, so there is nothing to be gained by looking nice when separated from him. Thus in the Vedic tradition the religiously wedded wife typically doesn’t dress up unless she is in the company of her husband. Ravana wanted Sita regardless, but she still wasn’t going to give him any more reason to desire her.
It is also described that Sita was surrounded by female Rakshasas. A Rakshasa is a kind of ogre known for eating meat. They feast on human flesh as well, so Rakshasas are synonymous with man-eaters. These female ogres were ordered by Ravana to constantly harass Sita, as a sort of torture punishment for not giving in to his advances. We get annoyed if the cable television signal should go out or if someone misplaces the remote control, but for Sita the harassment was relentless, day and night.
Sita was thin from fasting. She did not want to eat anything there because she was not with her husband. Why should she enjoy while separated from the company of her dearly beloved? Rather, she thought it better to just starve until the final moments. If Rama didn’t come, then at least she could quit her body. From that austerity her mind would stay more focused on Rama as well. She was also sighing again and again. The sobbing of a woman is very difficult to bear for a man, and if that sobbing is intense and constant, the scene is even more pitiable. Thus from what Hanuman saw, we know that Sita was in great distress.
Yet despite these negative conditions, she still appeared pure. This is very important to note for a few reasons. For starters, nothing could soil Sita, not even fasting, excessive sighing, or a worn cloth. Her external conditions were inauspicious, but she herself was still a treasure house of divine qualities. Another reason the purity aspect is mentioned is because the Ramayana, though meant for the ears of devoted souls like Hanuman, would nonetheless some day spread to the masses, who would speculate on the meanings of the verses and conjure up theories about the events. The lowest among men would speculate that Sita indeed had given in to Ravana, but this verse kindly shatters to pieces that ridiculous line of thinking. Sita’s purity was like a streak of the moon during the bright lunar fortnight, the waxing period. Despite all the cloudiness around her, her purity shone forth. It was distinguishable and it stood out from everything else Hanuman had seen.
Sita’s purity was noticeable despite the otherwise impure surroundings. This is the nature of Rama’s beloved servants. Though they may be placed into uncomfortable settings from time to time, since their consciousness is focused on the Supreme Lord and loving devotion to Him, their sparkling character still shines forth. Though Hanuman was in the enemy territory of Lanka, which was populated by man-eaters, he too remained pure throughout, and because of that purity he would meet with that spotless queen of Rama. She was in an emaciated state wearing soiled clothing and he was in the form of a monkey, but they would recognize each other by the common bond of devotion to Rama. That light of purity always shines through for those who think about Rama constantly, chanting His holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
A woman from afar he could spot,
From his perch her vision caused eyes to stop.
Female ogres around her harassing,
Her body worn thin from fasting.
Soiled was her single garment,
Sighing from constant lament.
But still of brightness there was a streak,
Indicating she was the one he was to seek.
Devoted souls even in darkness shine bright,
Like Sita, of whom Hanuman got a wonderful sight.