“O ten-headed one, it is only because I do not have the permission of Rama and that I wish to preserve the power of my austerity that I do not reduce you to ashes with my own power, for that is suitable for you.” (Sita Devi, Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 22.20)
asandeśāttu rāmasya tapasaścāmapālanāt |
na tvāṃ kurmi daśagrīva bhasma bharmārha tejasā ||
Suffering from cruel and crooked eyes, Ravana could not see Sita properly. His first mistake was thinking that he could enjoy her as a wife. If he had accepted the information already gathered from the hearing process, he would have known without a doubt that the goddess of fortune is always by the side of her husband, the source of all men. This is her choice. No one can make her do anything. She utilizes her freedom in the best way possible, for pleasing the origin of matter and spirit. When the divine couple descends to earth, the behavior does not change. Sita showed the chastity unique to the goddess of fortune when roaming this earth, and since Ravana insisted on seeing for himself, his crooked eyes steered him in the wrong direction. Another mistake he made was thinking that Sita could not defend herself.
It is a common theme in television shows and movies: The prototypical beta male gets picked on by one or more alpha males. The bully against the nerd. The physically weaker male doesn’t want to fight. He just wants to be left alone. The aggressor, who is always insecure about his standing and abilities, feels the need to pick on the weaker in order to feel better about himself. In this typical storyline, a strong woman comes to the defense of the nerd. She takes on the bully, either beating him up totally or at least driving him away.
Normally, if someone stands up for us, we feel thankful. It’s nice to be supported. Going through life alone isn’t much fun. Even if we are avowed to serving God with thought, word and deed, it’s nice to be supported by fellows of a similar mentality. The support can be as basic as companionship or it can be as elaborate as collaboration on various projects.
With these storylines, however, the help from the female is not appreciated. The male feels embarrassed. “Why did you step in? I had things under control. I can solve my own problems. I don’t need my [fill in the blank] fighting my battles for me. I’ll be the laughing stock now. Everyone will say that I need my [fill in the blank] to fight my battles. How could you do this to me?”
Not that such sentiments would ever be uttered by the always appreciative sun of the solar dynasty, but the daughter of King Janaka was well aware of how things would be viewed if she intervened. Though she was a woman of delicate features, she did not lack tejas, or potency. Externally, she acquired this power through her austerity, or tapasya. When we see people fasting for a religious observance, we might be puzzled as to why they would punish themselves. “So you’re not going to eat today because some book written thousands of years ago tells you to? Why not enjoy life? Why are you so keen on make-believe?”
But actually, the concept of tapasya, or austerity, is not exclusive to religion. The runner loads up on carbohydrates the night before a race and gets the right amount of rest. The fitness buff stays away from cupcakes, cookies, and pizza while they are trying to get their body into shape. The student doesn’t go out to party when preparing for a big exam. And what is the real benefit to this restriction? So what if your body is lean and fit? How does that change who you are? So what if you win a race, does that suddenly make you a better person?
With religious austerities, the rewards are ideal. The consciousness is purified, whether today, tomorrow, or in a subsequent life. The reward goes into a vault that can be opened at any time. Sita was the most austere, as she abandoned a home in a kingdom to be by the side of her husband. She was not driven by lust. She was not driven by fear. She simply took her wedding vows for real. She did not utter them as a formality. She accepts those vows as lifelong, extending into successive lives as well. In fact, she is not even so concerned with the strengths she gains from her austerity. She serves her husband Rama, who is God, without motivation and without interruption.
Ravana couldn’t understand any of this. After he forcibly took Sita back to his kingdom using a ruse, he thought he could persuade her to come to his side by offering her riches and opulence. The more he pitched, the more he got rejected. In the above referenced verse from the Ramayana, Sita informs Ravana, who has ten heads, that the only reason he is still alive is because Rama didn’t give her permission to kill him. Being burned to ashes was his just reward and she was capable of delivering it. She refrained, however, also because she wanted to preserve her rewards from austerity. A similar reason was given by the sages in the Dandaka forest for not retaliating against attacking night-rangers.
“By the powers gained through our performance of religious austerities, we are certainly capable of killing these Rakshasa demons. But at the same time we don’t want to waste our ascetic merits, which took such a long time to achieve, on these demons. Oh Raghava [Rama], these demons are always putting obstacles in the way, making it impossible for us to concentrate on our performance of austerity and penance. Therefore, even though we are being eaten away by the Rakshasas, we do not curse them.” (Sages of Dandaka forest speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 10.13-14)
If Sita had burned Ravana to ashes, Rama’s reputation would have diminished a little. Others would have mocked Him for having His wife fight His battles for Him. Indeed, the lowest among men mock Him anyway for having employed forest-dwellers as an army, with the leading forest-dweller travelling to Lanka to first find out Sita’s whereabouts.
The brave work of Hanuman and the courageous restraint of Sita further glorify Rama. His closest friends are both capable and intelligent. They have so much love for Him that they will never intentionally do something that harms His stature in the world. Because of this attention, Rama’s stature further increases. Ravana’s crooked eyes fooled him into thinking that Sita was weak, and very soon he would find out just how powerful her husband was as well.
From separation pains looking meek,
Ravana mistakenly thought she was week.
With power from own austerities earned,
Easily Ravana she could have burned.
But permission from Rama there was not,
And also husband’s reputation would drop.
Wise Sita for husband to rescue waited,
Worst punishment for Ravana was slated.