“Not seeing the people dear to her and looking at the many Rakshasis, she looked like a deer separated from her flock and then surrounded by a group of hounds.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 15.42)
priyam janam apaśyantīm paśyantīm rākṣasī gaṇam |
sva gaṇena mṛgīm hīnām śva gaṇa abhivṛtām iva ||
Sita’s situation in Lanka was so perilous that it took many comparisons to accurately describe it. To be separated from your loved one is one thing, as these sorts of things take place periodically throughout life. With the modern industrialized economies, the periods of separation can be quite lengthy as well. If you have to work in a specific place and are closed off from the rest of the world, it is very easy to continue on in isolation. If you only see your friends and family occasionally, what is the pressing need to stay connected with them? People who grew up in the same house can turn into strangers later on in life.
But in Sita’s case the separation was forced upon her. She did not desire to be away from her husband and His faithful younger brother. She was innocent in every way, a princess of delicate features who had never done anything bad to anyone. Her husband possessed great wealth as the eldest son of a king, but prior to their departure for the forest, the couple gave away all of their valuables to the priestly class. They left with only a few bare essentials.
This wasn’t a weekend trip to get in touch with nature either. Sita’s husband Rama was ordered to leave the kingdom by the king’s youngest wife, who wanted her son, Bharata, to ascend the throne. Lest Rama think of mounting a coup to take back the throne that rightfully belonged to Him, Kaikeyi sent Rama into exile for fourteen years. Sita and Lakshmana refused to allow Rama to go it alone, so they came along for the journey. The conditions were that Rama had to live in austerity, taking the ascetic’s garb. He could carry His weapons for His protection, but that was about it. The rest they’d have to figure out on their own.
Sita, the innocent princess who had done nothing wrong, went from living in royal opulence to squalor, but that didn’t matter to her. She was still with her loved ones. Rama was her life and soul, and since Lakshmana loved Rama just as much, naturally there was a familial bond between Sita and Lakshmana. From her behavior we see that true happiness comes not from the external conditions related to wealth and opulence, but rather from association. If you think back to a period of happiness from your past, you’ll notice that it likely included the association of friends and family. If you visit that same location again today, if that association is now absent, there won’t be any pleasure derived. It’s sort of like visiting the campus of the college you attended many years back, but this time the people are different. Thus it is not necessarily the location and the setting which determine pleasantness, but the quality of the association.
In Lanka, the situation was turned around for Sita. She was in a beautiful forest, one that was enchanting to the mind. We know of its beauty based on the descriptions provided in the Sundara-kanda of the Ramayana. This area was noteworthy because the rest of Lanka was like an opulent metropolis, with high buildings, exquisite palaces, and golden archways. The floors of the buildings were inlaid with crystal, giving a slight idea of the immense opulence that existed there. This was real wealth too, not a potential based on bank balance.
Though there was opulence in the city, the life was rooted in the modes of passion and ignorance. Drinking wine, eating animal flesh, and indulging in illicit sex were commonplace, so the area didn’t square well with the qualities of Rama’s wife. Shri Hanuman, the chief minister for the Vanara-king Sugriva, was sent there to look for Sita, who had been taken away from the forest by the king of Lanka, Ravana, who relied on a backhanded plot to carry out his horrible deed.
Sita wouldn’t give in to Ravana, of course, so he kept her in a grove filled with Ashoka trees and other nice plants and creepers. Seemed like she wouldn’t be so distressed, no? From the fact that she was no longer with her husband and His brother we can understand that she was in tremendous distress. If she preferred beautiful surroundings over good association, she would have remained in Ayodhya and waited for Rama’s fourteen year exile term to expire.
But the separation from Rama and Lakshmana was just one aspect to her distress. Hanuman, who finally spotted her from afar while perched on a tree, could see that Sita was surrounded by Rakshasis, or female man-eaters. Eating meat represents an initial break from piety, because to carry it out one has to rely on violence against innocent animals. In the Vedic tradition, animal sacrifices were sometimes carried out in ancient times, but it was done for a religious purpose and not to satisfy the taste buds. The animals don’t know any better, so their killing of other animals for food is not considered sinful.
With the human being, who can use discrimination in their behavior, enough food is provided by the plants and milk. Thus to purposefully take to eating meat represents a fall from grace. One falls down even further based on the type of flesh they are willing to consume. Even in modern times where cows and chickens are eaten regularly, if someone were to indulge in eating cats and dogs they would be considered outcastes. Indeed, a famous professional football player in recent years was vilified for having killed dogs after they participated in organized fighting matches. Ironically, if he had done the same thing with cows or chickens, the public outcry would have been less intense.
One can imagine, then, how low a man-eater is. This is the business of the Rakshasa, and they populated the land of Lanka many thousands of years ago. These female Rakshasas were ordered by Ravana to harass Sita day and night, so as to hopefully get her to change her mind. The situation was so terrifying for Sita that in the above referenced verse she is compared to a female deer who has been separated from her pack and then surrounded by a group of hounds. In modern terms, we can liken this to a wife being separated from her husband and family members on a shopping trip and then being surrounded by a pack of thieves, who are looking to take her wallet and jewelry.
Of course Sita’s situation was much worse, as these terrifying creatures would not leave her alone. Though picturing such a scene is painful to the mind, the descriptions are given in the Ramayana to show just how strong Rama’s wife was. Though she was sobbing uncontrollably, wearing a beautiful cloth that was now covered with dirt, and going thin from not eating, she still remained alive, hoping to one day see her husband again. There is really no way to understand what she was going through; we can just appreciate her fortitude and how she refused to stop thinking of her dearly beloved.
From verses like these from the Ramayana, one’s appreciation for Sita can grow exponentially. In addition, the person who saw this scene and then bravely continued on can also become dear to the heart. And through harboring affection for Sita and Hanuman, the favor of Shri Rama, the Supreme Lord, is won over as well. He is the grand coordinator, so He manipulates events in such a way that His devotees are honored more than He is. The chief will always hear the most complaints, as a disgruntled subordinate knows to take their grievances to the highest authority figure. God is atmarama, or self-satisfied, so no criticism can do Him harm, but the same complaining leveled against the sincerest servants is more troubling. Thus we see that Rama’s dearest companions have spotless reputations, and through approaching them one can learn how to please God.
Though separated from her flock and surrounded by rabid hounds, Sita did not stop thinking of her husband. Hanuman too, after the entire affair was over and Sita eventually rescued by Rama, never stopped thinking of the beloved couple. Thus to think of God is the simplest and most effective way to stay in the good graces of the people that matter. Defiance of God’s will, forgetfulness of His extraordinary features, and competition to try to best Him all lead to doom, whereas pleasant thoughts directed at Him in full affection lead to happiness in the immediate aftermath as well as the future. Through the mind, the Supreme Lord’s association can come instantly, and with that connection one can stay peacefully situated even in physical separation.
In Ashoka grove Rama’s wife incarcerated,
In loneliness, from dear husband separated.
Hanuman could see she looked like a deer,
Separated from herd now living in fear.
Surrounded by Rakshasis she was found,
Those vile creatures resembling hounds.
She kept thinking of Rama through it all,
Mark of devotion, steady in rise or fall.
Thus Sita’s glories continue to grow,
For her devotion, we continue to love her so.