Canst thou, a high-born prince, dismiss
A hign-born dame with speech like this?
Such words befit the meanest hind,
Not princely birth and generous mind,
By all my virtuous life I swear
I am not what thy words declare.
If some are faithless, wilt thou find
No love and truth in womankind?
(The Ramayana, Canto CXVIII trans. By Ralph Griffith)
It struck me very recently that the
ancient Sanskrit texts of India have so much in common with the epic literature
of Western civilizations. Great battles that shaped kingdoms, an inexorable
warrior code, mortals pitted against- and in subordination to - the gods, and
an organic philosophy, recognising the instability and imperfection of both the
earthly and the divine.
There’s something very King Lear-like about the place of nature in these texts, and the essence of every ancient Hindu protagonist can be found in the history plays, and even in those many Roman and tragic plays that question the limits and functionality of politics, religion and honour. The allegorical Ramayana, from which Diwali and the preceding month’s Navratri (nine nights) take their inspiration, is just such a text, from around 500 BCE.
A great yet humble king is forced into exile with his wife, Sita, and loyal brother, Laxman (their father was tricked into promising the kingdom to their younger brother by another wife – typical family problems…)
One day, Sita was bewitched by a beautiful golden deer, and asked her husband to capture it, unaware that it was the demon king, Ravana in disguise. Beguiled by her beauty, Ravana had transformed himself into the creature to lure Sita away for himself. He seized her and carried her hence on his enchanted chariot, keeping her captive in his palace and making daily attempts to challenge her fidelity to Rama. For a year, she kept him at bay, insisting upon her love and loyalty to her husband, until she was visited by the monkey-man, Hanuman, through whom she sent a message to her beloved, Rama.
Rama waged war, together with Hanuman, against Ravana’s kingdom of Lanka, defeating and killing him, thereby releasing Sita from her captivity.
As is the way of all such tales, Sita’s fidelity comes into question – she had, after all, spent a year with another man - and Rama forced her to endure a (literal) trial by fire to test her loyalty. As she walked over the fire, it tuned into lotus flowers, and so proved her chastity. To welcome the couple back to their rightful kingdom, the people lit candles and celebrated their king’s return with his bride. However, the kingdom could not accept Rama’s belief in Sita’s fidelity, and insisted on her immediate exile.
Alone and banished to the forest, Sita gave birth to Rama’s twin sons, and chose to end her life upon reuniting the boys with their father, rather than returning to the kingdom with them.
The lighting of beautiful little candles at Diwali reminds us that there is hope in times of darkness. But it also cautions us of our own capacity for cruelty and pettiness. Sita’s story is one of courage and sacrifice in the face of abject injustice, and the candles are lit so that we never forget to temper judgement with forgiveness. I can’t think of a more Shakespearian sentiment.
Happy Diwali, all!