“As the faithful wife of another, I am not a suitable wife to you. You should well observe what is righteous. And you should follow well the manner of life of the virtuous.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 21.6-7)
vāhamaupayikī bhāryā parabhāryā satī tava ||
sādhu dharmamavekśasva sādhu sādhuvratam cara |
In a strictly amorous relationship, where there is no attention given to righteousness, religion, tradition, and so forth, the corresponding party is meant to be enjoyed. This is only logical. Why would you want to be with someone if you didn’t enjoy their association? In the amorous relationship, the enjoyment is enhanced by dedication. If you know that the other party feels happiest when they are in your company, then you will feel happier about being with them. On the flip side, if the other person loathes you, if their heart is dedicated to someone else, what is the use in being with them? A distressed princess tried to get this point across to a despicable king a long time ago, but he wouldn’t listen.
The princess referred to herself as a faithful wife, using the word “sati” for emphasis. The “Sati rite” is infamous in Hinduism, and it is commonly misunderstood. In ancient times, the wives were so faithful to the husband that if the husband passed from this earth before them, the wives would voluntarily ascend the funeral pyre. Seems like an unthinkable act today, but it actually supports the sentiment of “I would die without you.” We say such things when we are consumed by loving feelings for another, but most of us don’t really mean it in the way that it sounds. If the other person were gone, we would be tremendously sad, but we likely wouldn’t think of ending our life; nor should we.
In the Vedic tradition, the religiously wedded wife shares in the merits of her husband. Just as we go to school to earn an education, train at the jobsite to advance in the company, and eat right to improve our health, so the intelligent human being follows dharma, or virtue, to improve their situation both in the present and future life. Real dharma is not so short-sighted as to focus only on that which is visible in the immediate term. If the farmer digs up all the land because the crops haven’t grown after a week has passed since seeding, he isn’t very wise. He needs to see the bigger picture. He needs to visualize what he can’t see right now; that the crops will grow with time, in the proper season.
Similarly, just because we can’t see the afterlife doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Indeed, the current life is the post-term to a past life. The time and circumstance of our birth were determined by prior action, though we can’t remember that action. Only one person can. He is all-pervading, the Supersoul, the supreme witness. As He explains in the Bhagavad-gita, He and others pass through many, many births, but only He can remember them all.
“The Blessed Lord said: Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot, O subduer of the enemy!” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.5)
If the husband of the religiously wedded wife follows dharma and earns himself a place in the heavenly realm after death, she earns the same destination. The husband is also considered the protector. If he leaves this earth before the wife, and there are no sons to protect her, by ascending the funeral pyre she immediately enjoys the religious merits acquired by her husband. She won’t have to wait until later on. She also won’t be left unprotected in his absence. As times change, so do traditions, and thus the Sati rite is no longer observed, as the process degraded over time to the point that women were being forced to ascend the funeral pyre against their will.
The use of the word “sati” by the princess nevertheless distinguishes her from an ordinary wife. She was faithful to her husband, so this king who wanted her as a wife was wasting his time. Because she was faithfully engaged in the service of someone else, she would not serve this king. The faithful wife is one who serves. Every living entity serves; but they may not know it. The head of the company serves the customers and shareholders, while the entry level employees serve the senior level people. The head of state serves the citizens, the husband the community, the students the teacher, the soldier the nation, and so on. A person is faithful in their occupation when they are always engaged in that service. The faithful wife serves her husband and is thus ineligible to offer service to another man.
The princess advised the lusty king to well observe what was righteous. A righteous man does not covet another’s wife. Kings during this time period did keep more than one wife on occasion, but never did they purposefully go after wives of other kings. The kings were of the martial order, so they had a fighting spirit. Just as a general needs to have a mission to make his rank mean something, the king needs a kingdom to rule over to give his title meaning. The kshatriya king, who is a fighter, needs combat in order to stay sharp. They have a competitive fire, so they like to have competition from time to time. In those duels between kings, the victor would take the wives of the defeated king. Kshatriyas would also sometimes steal brides-to-be from marriage ceremonies and then defend them while fleeing from the scene.
None of this applied to the situation here, which involved a princess named Sita. She was already married to another man, who was named Rama. Indeed, so many kshatriyas had already competed for her at her marriage. Rama won the contest of the bow, so He was known to be the only worthy husband of Sita. The king Ravana was advised by Sita to follow dharma well, to strongly adhere to the code of righteousness.
She also told him to follow well the path of the virtuous. The word sadhuvratam breaks down to mean the vow or path of the sadhus. A sadhu is a saintly man, so he is by definition virtuous. The sadhu is commonly equated with a person in the renounced order who lives by himself in a remote area, but what actually determines a sadhu is consciousness, which then drives behavior. That behavior gives an indication of their internal purity.
It’s interesting to note that Sita advised a king who already had many wives to follow the path of the sadhus. She wasn’t saying to abandon the company of his wives. She asked that he simply give up his lust for another man's wife and enjoy fully with his own wives. This would have constituted the path of the sadhus, as virtue in Ravana’s case did not necessarily mean complete celibacy. The kings in those times would need progeny to keep their family lines going. Having multiple wives increased the chance of progeny, and it also allowed for sex life to remain virtuous. Any sex life outside of the purpose of begetting children and with someone other than the wife is considered illicit and thus the cause of so many negative reactions.
In the scope of conjugal relations the faithful wife of Shri Rama is meant for His enjoyment only. No one else is able to touch Sita, even if they are within close proximity. Ravana thought he could have her, but she rebuked him in no uncertain terms, providing good counsel in the process. Shri Hanuman had Sita’s association, but in the right way. Rama is the universal God, the detail behind the abstract picture painted by those who rely only on mental speculation. He is worshipable for everyone, as is Sita. Ravana couldn’t recognize this, and so he suffered. Hanuman is always a sadhu, and so he took great pleasure in just thinking of how much Sita loved Rama. That same pleasure is available to one and all through devotional service, bhakti-yoga.
If other’s mind on a different course,
Why to be with me I’ll force?
Better in happiness to let them live,
Than for needless pain to them to give.
Hearing of Sita, Ravana infatuated from the start,
But never could understand nature of her heart.
Shri Rama the only husband ever for her,
To path of virtuous better to defer.