“Dressed in a single yellow garment, made of the best cloth, but which was in a bad condition, covered with dirt and without any ornaments, she resembled a lotus pond devoid of lotuses.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 15.21)
pītena ekena samvītām kliṣṭena uttama vāsasā |
sapankām analamkārām vipadmām iva padminīm ||
Ordinarily, to roll around in the dirt is considered strange behavior, as unless you are a child and don’t know any better, what reason would you have for soiling your clothes and getting clay all over your hair and such? But for devotees swooning in the ecstasy of separation from their beloved, the practice is not out of the ordinary. For one woman in particular, the separation anxiety was too much to bear, so even though she had the most beautiful piece of clothing for a dress, at one time it was not spotless in its appearance. The comparison was made to a lotus pond that is devoid of lotuses. The setting seemed ideal for lotus flowers to bloom, but for some reason they were not there.
In this case, the lotuses were missing because the beloved daughter of King Janaka was without her husband, Lord Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Sita Devi is the very same Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune. In the Vedic tradition, the abstract figure known as God is defined with attributes and features, among which are His decorations in terms of eternal consorts. God has the most pleasure, and to receive that He enjoys the company of people who love Him more than anyone can possibly love another person. Unconditional love brings so much happiness and comfort in our own lives, so if you have that by your side all the time, would you not be in a perpetual state of pleasure?
Narayana is one of the visions of God; He has four hands and is opulently adorned. Narayana, which means the source of men, is always with Lakshmi, who is a devoted wife. Narayana is likened to a king-swan, which is known for swimming in a pond amidst lotus flowers. The lotus is the symbol of purity, and the swan is known for extracting goodness from a mixture filled with impurities. Thus it is not surprising that the swan would choose to be around lotus flowers and that devotees of Narayana would worship Him with profuse offerings of flowers on a daily basis.
Lakshmi is known as Padmini because she is seated on a lotus flower that floats on the same pond. She is with the king of swans in an ideal relationship, so she is always around purity. In the above referenced verse from the Ramayana, the comparison to a padmini is not accidental. The Sanskrit word can refer to a lotus flower, a lotus stalk, or a pond of lotuses. Padmini is used along with the word vipadmam, which means without lotus flowers. So in this case Sita’s vision that Hanuman saw was like looking at a lotus stalk or a lotus pond without any lotuses.
The cause of the missing lotuses was the absence of Lakshmi’s consort. The ogre-king Ravana had taken Sita away from Rama’s side through a backhanded plot. Sita and Rama are the same Narayana and Lakshmi. They come to earth in visible forms to enact the real-life play known as the Ramayana. From the thousands of verses in that sacred work we get not only a narration of events but also symbolism incorporated into the actions of the divine actors.
“How can that female swan who is accustomed to sporting with the king of swans amidst lotus flowers ever cast her eyes on a water-crow that stays amidst bunches of grass?” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.20)
Sita herself referenced her life amidst lotus flowers when Ravana first tried to win her over. She sternly rebuked him, noting that she was already accustomed to living with Rama, who was like the king of swans that swam in a lotus pond. How could she now go over to the side of the crows which rummage through weeds, grass and garbage? This meant that even if she didn’t detest Ravana and wasn’t religiously wedded to Rama, she still couldn’t accept Ravana and his life based on the fact that she would find it miserable. It is akin to growing up in luxury and comfort and then being forced to move to an area that lacks basic amenities. There is nothing against the new area per se; it’s just that the person has grown accustomed to finer living.
Now separated from Rama for such a long time, Sita made sure that she didn’t look overly presentable. She had the best clothing on, as she was a king’s daughter and a prince’s wife. Yet this one dress was now in a bad condition, covered with dirt and divested of ornaments. Women are known for having an affinity for beautiful jewelry, and so in the Vedic tradition the pious husband tries his best to provide his devoted wife with beautiful bangles, earrings and necklaces to wear. She is happy wearing these ornaments, and through enhancing her appearance she gives pleasure to her husband.
In Sita’s case there was no need for such ornaments because her husband was not with her. She would never give in to the vile creature Ravana, who didn’t have the courage to stand up and fight against Rama. Instead, he created a ruse which allowed him to steal Sita away when no one was looking. Now Sita refused to look at him, and she made sure to worsen her appearance as much as possible. That served the purpose of showing devotion to her husband, but it would also make matters difficult for one particular person.
Shri Hanuman, Rama’s faithful servant, was sent to find Sita, to let her know that Rama was intent on rescuing her. But Sita was covered with dirt and in an emaciated state, so how was Hanuman going to spot her? He had heard descriptions of her qualities, but it wasn’t as if her vision was burned into his mind. Instead, he had to go off of outward indications, features that would point to a woman married to Rama and separated from Him.
From his perch atop a tree in the Ashoka grove next to Ravana’s palace, Hanuman saw this woman up ahead around the area of a temple. He could tell that she was beautiful, but at the time her features were masked by a dress in a bad condition and a body worn thin from fasting. She was also sighing heavily. It was like looking at a lotus pond which had no lotuses. Thus Hanuman could tell that this was Sita, the person he fought so hard to find. He braved the elements along the aerial path to Lanka. He even conquered the mental demons of doubt and fear over failure. Now, at this critical moment, Rama’s wife didn’t appear in front of him in the way that he expected.
He thought that this grove would be to her liking due to its natural beauty. He figured she might walk by his tree on the way to the nearby pond of pure water. She was accustomed to roaming in the forests, so it wouldn’t be far fetched for her to walk around longing for her husband. This is how the devotees on the highest state of devotional ecstasy behave. Lord Chaitanya, the combined incarnation of Radha and Krishna, the same Lakshmi and Narayana, often fell to the ground and longed for the association of Shri Krishna. This spontaneous reaction borne of deep attachment is only natural, as the spirit soul is a lover of God at the core.
But Sita was seen in a more distressed condition, surrounded by female ogres ordered to harass her. Nevertheless, despite the unpleasantness enveloping her, Hanuman could tell that she was Rama’s wife. He knew that such spotless beauty, which was able to withstand the cloud of smoke surrounding it, could only exist in Rama’s beloved. Now it was time for Hanuman to meet her and give her the joyous news that Rama was indeed coming for her.
King of swans lives in the pond,
Of lotuses he is very fond.
Same goes for His wife,
Devotion to Him her life.
Sita this comparison did make,
When Ravana’s advances she wouldn’t take.
Now Hanuman could see her from afar,
Soiled cloth her beauty couldn’t tar.
Looked like lotus pond without the flowers,
Thanks to him, approaching was her rescue’s hour.