Self immolation is a recurring theme in Hindu mythology.
A remorse; a regret; dishonour; deep anguish. Any of these can trigger a character to create a flame and walk into it, mostly to be saved at the nick of the moment by some news that negates their presumption to initiate the self immolation. Not always though.
Two such myths stand in contrast to each other, the only thing common between them being the fire.
First is that of Sati’s. I somehow can’t get Sati out of my mind. (Read my previous post here). I spent the last week thinking about her self immolation. She invokes her Yogic inner fire and bursts into flames when she learns that Daksha, her own father, does not respect her. He has ignored inviting her and Shiva to the grand Yagna he is conducting.
The more popular version of the story says that Sati killed herself because her husband was insulted by Daksha. (which inspired the practice of Sati in India, which required widows to climb into the funeral pyre of their husbands). The second lesser known version calls to attention Sati’s original resolution that she will leave this world if she is ever disrespected.
I was not entirely convinced with these two versions. Was it just the insult? “What about her devotion to Shiva?”, I asked myself. Was Sati willing to leave her soulmate because someone, clearly of lesser intellect, disgraced her?
Seems like Sati is interested in me as well. She revealed another part of her story to me last weekend. This version depicts Sati discussing going to Daksha’s yagna with Shiva. Shiva refuses. He doesn’t want to go uninvited and forbids Sati as well. Sati gets mad. Really really mad. She transforms into Kali, her fiercest form. Shiva tries to contain Kali, but he can’t. He gives up and finally surrenders and asks her, “Who are you? Where is my sweet Sati?” She explains to him that Kali is the original form of Sati and She maintains the sweet version of Sati as a reward to Shiva’s austerity.
Either which way, Sati’s self immolation arose from her anguish and her decision to disappear from a world that does not honour her. Her decision is independent and very individualistic.
On the other hand, we have the more famous legend of Ramayana. Rama is on exile and Ravana has kidnapped Sita. After waging a brave war with the help of Sugreeva’s monkey army, Rama and Lakshmana defeat and kill Ravana and destroy his army. It’s time for Rama to reclaim his beloved, Sita whom he has been missing all these days. Sita is decked up by her lady friends in Lanka and brought to meet Rama.
Instead of taking her in his arms, Rama looks disgusted. “You have been living in another man’s house”, he cries, “How can I take you back as my wife? What will people say?”
A woman, it seems, is punished twice every time she is abused; once by her abuser and then again by those who see/ hear the story and pronounce their judgement.
Sita managed to keep Ravana off until Rama could rescue her. But alas, the judgement of others was not so easy. She walks into a fire choosing to end her life as she finds no other way out. The Fire God jumps out carrying her to Rama, proclaiming that She is so chaste that his own flames are burning and he cannot stand it.
Sita comes out in one piece this time. But a stark difference. The self immolation here was to prove her chastity to the world, not so much to Rama himself, but to the wide world whose wagging tongues construct stories out of thin air.
Unlike Sati, Sita doesn’t show her rage. She decides that life without Rama is not worth it. And if Rama cannot have a wife who can give room for judgement then she will just cease to exist. And may be why the proverb – Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.
The story doesn’t end there. Years after Rama returns as the King to Ayodhya with Sita as his queen, he hears a local laundry man fight with his wife, during one of his inconspicuous visits to check the city life. The launderer is asking his wife to move out of their house because he suspects that she spent a night away, without his knowledge. “I am not Rama”, he says, “to take a wife back after she spends a night outside her husband’s abode”.
Hearing this Rama’s mind falters again. He sends Sita away, exiling her to the forest. At the end of this episode, Sita disappears into the Earth that splits open to swallow her on her request. Just like Sati did she disappears from the world that does not respect or appreciate her.
Sati chose her end in spite of Shiva. She will not stay in the world that would not have Her; even though it includes her beloved Shiva.
Sita chooses it when Rama wouldn’t have her. If Rama cannot have her, then the world does not matter. Although in the end, she leaves Rama to his world and leaves them both.
Myths and Legends are not false fictional stories. They represent the undercurrents of life. Sati and Sita (I did not notice that the two names are anagrams until this point!) do exist in real life. As recently as few weeks ago a young girl committed suicide because someone played a nasty prank posting her photoshopped pictures on Facebook. But most Satis and Sitas may not take such a drastic measure. When pushed to the edge, they just turn invisible. They go quiet. They stop talking. They stop being themselves. They disappear into their familial and social roles. The world is still not ready for them.