“The form of this woman looks just like the form of that woman who was seen previously being carried away by that Rakshasa, who could take any form he likes.” (Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 15.27)
hriyamāṇā tadā tena rakṣasā kāma rūpiṇā ||
yathā rūpā hi dṛṣṭā vai tathā rūpā iyam angina |
In Sanskrit the word “rupa” can mean beauty or form. In this verse from the Ramayana it is referenced three times, with the form in question corresponding to a spotted individual. A Rakshasa of cruel deeds, who could actually take on any shape he desired, took away a beautiful princess on a prior occasion. She was seen from afar by Vanaras, monkey-like characters, as the aerial car of the kidnapper was flying away. All that could be made out was her form from a distance, which indicated tremendous beauty and auspicious markings as well.
That initial recognition was required to locate her later on. The monkeys at the time didn’t know that they would be chosen for the reconnaissance mission, but the incident was noteworthy enough to stay in memory. But not all of the monkeys would be there to make the final determination when it was necessary. Usually a loved one is there to identify someone that they know. If you see someone every day, or if you have at least spent time with a person after they have reached adulthood, you can recognize them later on if you have to. Many years can pass by, but with the adult their outward vision typically doesn’t change drastically as they age.
But these monkeys only saw that princess for a moment. And one of them would have to make the identification later on, the determination of whether there was a direct match. Couldn’t they have just asked her directly? “Hey, are you the same person I saw being carried away by a wicked ogre? If you are, where is that vile creature right now? Any chance you would be willing to come back with me to your husband, who has sent me here to find you?”
Such an approach wasn’t practical. The kidnapper hid her away where no one from the outside could find her. In addition, she was harassed day and night by attendants to that miscreant, who ruled over the city of Lanka at the time. The princess was in a distrustful mood. She wouldn’t want to openly speak with any person, especially a monkey. So with all of this in mind, Shri Hanuman had to go off of outward features to make the identification. He would have to approach Sita regardless of the circumstance, but in order to make that approach, he’d have to be sure that the woman he was looking at was indeed Sita.
If the wrong identification were made, the woman could tip off his presence to the leader of the town. You see Hanuman was not an invited guest in Lanka. Normally, this shouldn’t present a problem. The kind souls welcome guests to their home all the time. “Hey, come on over for dinner sometime. We’d love to have you. We’ll cook a nice meal for you.” This is a common practice in welcoming homes. The husband and wife pair enjoys entertaining guests, for the visitors give them a chance to be hospitable, to show their affection. Also, the husband and wife spend so much time together as it is. It’s nice to have a friend come over to break the monotony, to create a new dynamic.
But Ravana was known for being quite unwelcoming to guests. As a head of state, it is typical to greet ministers from other states from time to time. This is how diplomacy works after all. Even if the other king is your biggest enemy, if you send an emissary over, you can perhaps get a dialogue going, avoiding conflict in the process. There is a reason for the phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger.” The middleman really has no axe to grind, and they can’t be blamed for any offense their message may cause to the recipients.
But Ravana was a vile creature at heart, so many of the emissaries sent his way were not treated well at all. After giving their message, they were often killed and then eaten by Ravana and his brethren. What kind of a human being would eat other human beings? Well, the same kind that would take another man’s wife without offering a challenge to conflict. Ravana boasted of his fighting prowess, but when it came time to put up against Rama, the jewel of the Raghu clan, he remained a coward. He used his ability to change his shape at will to transform into an innocent looking mendicant. In that guise he approached Sita while she was temporarily alone in the Dandaka forest.
Not able to win her over, Ravana eventually revealed his true self and forcibly took her on his aerial car and flew back to his home. Sita protested vehemently, and several monkeys on Mount Rishyamukha saw her and heard her calls for help. Hanuman therefore knew that he wouldn’t be welcome in Lanka. He was assigned by Rama to look for Sita and report back on her location. There was a delicate balance to deal with, so Hanuman did everything he could to avoid being spotted.
He was finally on the precipice of meeting Sita. The problem was that this woman he was looking at was in a terrible condition. She was sighing uncontrollably, her single garment was not in a good state, and she was worn thin from fasting. Her gloriousness only slightly remained, but from that dint of transcendental light Hanuman could tell that she was no ordinary woman.
Hanuman was confident that she was Sita, and just to make sure he did a further review, of which the above referenced verse is part. Sita’s beautiful form is noteworthy. It is remembered by the mind, as such an enchanting vision uniquely belongs to Shri Rama’s eternal consort. Sita is forever with Rama because Rama never takes birth or dies. He remains with His body for all of eternity. We too never take birth or die, but we can accept and reject bodies through the course of reincarnation. For God there is no such defect, as His body and spirit are identical.
The transcendental features belonging to that body are unmatched in brilliance. Sita is practically one with Rama, as the two are always in each other’s company. Rama is the energetic, and Sita is the energy. Though the scene was pitiful, Hanuman could tell that Rama’s wife was in his line of sight, as he was perched on a tree in the Ashoka grove next to Ravana’s palace.
Despite the temporary changes due to the conditions of the time, Sita’s transcendental qualities were still evident. In the same way, God’s influence throughout the universe can never be totally absent. The distinction lies only with external vision. We think that God can’t be seen because we don’t know how to notice His presence. But as was seen with Sita, if that presence is noted just one time, it can be spotted again, despite peripheral obstructions. We see birth, death, old age, disease, calamity, loss, sadness, separation, and terrible misfortune and somehow think that God could never create this. But these are just outward distractions, aspects that puzzle the mind and baffle it into mistakenly believing that the divine influence doesn’t exist.
The divine vision is granted to the sinless souls only. Ravana also saw Sita but he didn’t get the true benefit of her association. He only saw a material body to be used for his personal enjoyment. To him Sita’s body was maya, or illusion, but to Hanuman it was real and divine. Ravana’s improper vision led to his eventual demise, while Hanuman’s proper vision brought him eternal fame and glory. More importantly, it brought him success in the mission at hand, in locating Rama’s beloved.
Rakshasas can change their shapes at will,
And thus attack innocent who stand still.
Ravana an iniquitous deed did perpetrate,
Brought another’s wife back to his state.
Hanuman this beautiful woman to find,
Seeing her beauty of old form it did remind.
Previously woman was seen while away carried,
This princess now a match to whom Rama was married.
Ravana with sin and Hanuman without,
One to die and other’s fame to spread throughout.