Thursday, March 19, 2009

Leadership and Integrity: A Lesson from the Mahabharata


(Developed from the author’s class lectures in Indian Philosophy for Leadership Excellence to senior Management students at XLRI School of Business and Human Resources, Jamshedpur.)


“Sheelam pradhanam purushe,” says the Mahabharata, meaning character, or integrity, is the most important thing in man. Vyasa’s Mahabharata, that amazing book that is five thousand years old in its original version, never ceases to astound us with its insights into life and into human nature. After an exposure to contemporary western ideas of management, where leadership per se forms the largest area of study, when one turns to this timeless Indian epic, we suddenly realize that what the book says about itself is as true about management wisdom as about everything else: yad ihasti tad anyatra, yannehasti na kutrachit – what is here could be found elsewhere, but what isn’t here will be found nowhere else.

After the Mahabharata war is over, while Bheeshma is lying on the bed of arrows waiting for an appropriate time to die, Krishna sends the victorious Yudhishthira to his grandsire to learn about life, about human nature and about leadership from the dying man who was a master of every major branch of knowledge known to man then. One of the questions that Yudhishthira asks Bheeshma is about the importance of sheela to a leader. Though sheela is commonly translated as character, integrity is a better translation. In any case, character at its heart means integrity.

In response to Yudhishthira’s answer, Bheeshma refers to a discussion between his cousin and rival Duryodhana, now dead, and his father Dhritarashtra that took place soon after Yudhishthira’s rajasuya.

Such was the glory of Yudhishthira when he performed the rajasuya sacrifice that it would have incited envy in anyone. During the sacrifice, eighty thousand Brahmin scholars were his guests throughout the sacrifice and arrangements had been made for the stay of each of these scholars in a lavish house, each of them provided with thirty beautiful slave girls. Ten thousand other Brahmins were royally fed every day in the palace, the food served in dishes of pure gold. Precious gifts had come from every corner of the known world, kings lining up before Yudhishthira’s palace in miles-long queues day after day with gifts in the form of jewels, diamonds and other precious stones, priceless clothes and furs, weapons and vehicles, and heaps and heaps of gold. One king had come with a gift of a thousand slender-waisted, beautiful young girls, of exquisite complexion, their skins without a blemish and shining, all highly talented in the arts of serving men, all decked in gold and jewels! It was acknowledged openly: no ruler on earth possessed wealth comparable to Yudhishthira’s. His wealth then exceeded the wealth of the Himalayas, of the oceans and of all the mines of gold and jewels in the world together, says the Mahabharata. And the person whom Yudhishthira had made in charge of receiving the gifts was none other than Duryodhana himself – Duryodhana who hated Yudhishthira’s very existence! Duryodhana’s jealousy knew no bounds and he confesses it openly to his father.

Dhritarashtra tells his intemperate son that if he wanted to attain wealth similar to Yudhishthira’s, he should first cultivate character, integrity. Shree, the goddess of wealth, stays only with men who have integrity. To illustrate his point, Dhritarashtra tells Duryodhana an ancient story about Narada and Prahlada.

Prahlada the Asura was then emperor of all the three worlds, conquered by the power of his integrity. As it always happens, Indra becomes jealous of Prahlada’s power and feels shaky – there is the threat of losing his throne to someone like the mighty Asura. For the throne of Indra belonged to the man who had the highest character, who performed the most difficult austerities.


Indra assumes the form of a Brahmin and goes to Prahlada and serves him as a disciple, with the desire to learn from him the secret of his success. Prahlada tells him his success comes from his following the noble teachings of wise men. However, Indra still continues to serve Prahlada and eventually the Asura emperor, pleased with the devotion shown and the service rendered, asks his disciple to ask for a boon, not knowing he is Indra.

Initially Indra refuses politely, saying that all his desires have been fulfilled. But when Prahlada insists, he asks: “If you are pleased with me, Emperor, please give me your character, your integrity.”

Prahlada is shaken by the request, but he grants the boon since he had offered it: after all, that is what a man of integrity does. Indra accepts the boon and goes away.

Soon Prahlada sees a dazzlingly lustrous being emerging from his body and leaving him. When Prahlada asks him who he is, the being tells him that he is Sheela [Hindi: Sheel. Integrity], and he is leaving him because Prahlada has given him away. “I shall now happily live,” Sheela adds, “in the Brahmin to whom you have given me away.”

Soon Prahlada sees another radiant being emerging from his body. Asked who he is, the being introduces himself as Dharma: virtue and righteousness. After Dharma too leaves him, telling him he is going to join Integrity to live in the body of the Brahmin since he, Dharma, lives only where Integrity is. Soon Prahlada finds another effulgent being emerging from him, this time Satya, Truth, and then another, Vritta, Uprightness, and then yet another Bala, Strength, all leaving him one by one to live in the Brahmin, following Integrity.

Following Bala, it is a splendorous goddess that emerges from Prahlada’s body and when asked she tells him she is Shree, the goddess of wealth, prosperity, good fortune and all else that is auspicious. Shree tells Prahlada that she had on her own come and begun living in his body, but now she had no choice but to leave him, because she always followed Integrity, Virtue, Truth, Uprightness and Strength.

Answering Prahlada’s question, she also tells him the Brahmin was none other than Indra, Indra has robbed him of his Integrity and where Integrity is not, there can be no Dharma, no Truth, no Morality, no Strength and no wealth, prosperity or good fortune.


“dharmah satyam tatha vrttam balam chaiva tathapyahamsheelabhoota mahaprajna sada nastyatra samshayah.” - Mahabharata 12.124.62

Concluding his story, Dhritarashtra tell his jealous son that even if a man without integrity achieves prosperity, it would soon leave him since Shree cannot stay where there is no Integrity.

“Learns from this story and practice what it says,” Bheeshma tells Yudhishthira concluding the story about the importance of integrity to a leader.

Yudhishthira sums up the lesson he has learnt from his grandsire: Sheelam pradhanam purushe. Integrity is the most important thing in man.

[On a personal note, in the church school in Kerala where I studied, we had quotes from Sanskrit displayed on each classroom door. In class VI, mine said: sheelam pradhanam purushe. Coming across these words for the first time in the Mahabharata was an especially thrilling experience to me because of this childhood association.]

~*~

The story of Prahlada and Indra is symbolic. Indra in Indian culture is a common symbol for the mind: by definition, indriyanam raja indrah – Indra is the name for the lord of the senses, that is, the mind. The mind is a tempter and when we are tempted by it, we lose our integrity. When temptation enters our hearts, the mightiest among us get corrupted, unless we are masters of ourselves. That is the reason why the Mahabharata repeatedly reminds us: atma jeyah sada rajna – a king, a leader of men, should always have mastery over himself. Indian culture accepts self-mastery as the first requirement of a leader. Without self-mastery, we become preys to every passing wind of passion, of lust and greed, of jealousy and anger, and a thousand other temptations and when that happens, the first thing that results is the loss of integrity.

In the organizational context, the integrity of the leader is of supreme importance. While a leader definitely has power arising from his position, his true power base is referent power: power that comes from the respect he commands from his followers by virtue of his integrity, from their admiring him, identifying with him and looking up to him, from their trust in him.


Where the followers do not see integrity in the leader, no respect is possible for him and consequently he will have no referent power over them. Integrity builds trust, builds reputation and is a powerful influence on all around the leader. Without integrity, the leader loses the power to command.

The greatest power in the world cannot bend a man of integrity. That is why it is said that when the gods want to destroy a man of power, they first destroy his integrity, exactly as Indra did with Prahlada.

In the case of Prahlada, Indra succeeds in destroying the Asura king’s integrity. And that invariably happens when a leader has a weakness [chhidra, in the language of the Mahabharata] in him, when he is not a master of himself, has no self-mastery. We do not know what Prahlada’s weakness was – the Mahabharata does not tell us that. May be it was pride, maybe it was one or more of the many passions that prey upon the mind of the powerful and successful, we do not know. But we would be safe in concluding he had one – or else he wouldn’t have lost his sheela, integrity.

The Mahabharata tells us another story in which Indra tries to destroy the integrity of yet another epic king, and fails: the story of Marutta, a king of incorruptible character, of unshakeable integrity. [For details, please see the author’s Marutta: A Lesson in Character for our Times]. Indra’s failure with Marutta tells us: if you are a master of yourself, no power in the world can corrupt you.

Integrity works and is absolutely essential in a leader in all contexts, including the organizational context. For, integrity builds a solid reputation and high credibility and without these, no leadership is possible. Integrity is a powerful influence all around. And integrity is like milk – a drop of impurity can spoil it all. It is for this reason that a leader should invariably act with integrity.

Fearlessness is an integral part of integrity. Speaking and acting on what you believe speaks of integrity. “Walking the talk,” as we put it these days, is important. So is standing up for what you believe is right, without being swayed by what others would like us to say, and freely admitting mistakes, rather than trying to cover them up. As Brian Davis et al put it, when you make a mistake and admit it, it “will encourage others to do the same, and the problems that stem from attempts to hide mistakes can be circumvented. Admitting your mistakes will also increase your credibility because it lets others know that they will not be severely punished for making mistakes. They will believe that you understand they are human, too.”

As Robert H. Rosen says in Leading People, people “want to be proud of their leaders. They want to be led by people who maintain the highest ethical standards, not someone who is likely to cheat or deceive them or others.”

Speaking of highly effective leaders, Rosen says such a leader develops “a deep moral and psychological integrity, a kind of wholeness as a person. He balances the traits of his head [problem solving, logic, initiative] with the traits of his heart [courage, generosity, fairness, idealism, compassion]. This wholeness allows him to rely on both parts of himself and confront head on any potential ethical problem by using a wide range of skills.”

Integrity works. But, more importantly, a world in which men are without integrity would not be a place worth living in.

~*~

The redoubtable Chanakya Kautilya, the mighty empire builder of ancient India and the world’s first management guru, places such importance on integrity that when he speaks of the qualities of the prime ministers, other ministers and senior officers, he places it among the most basic requirements. Not content with that, Chanakya goes on to prescribe tests for evaluating the integrity of these people. “Assisted by his prime ministers and his high priest, the king shall, by offering temptations, examine the character of ministers,” says Chanakya. He says that “a commander of the army dismissed from service for receiving condemnable things may…incite each minister to murder the king in view of acquiring immense wealth, each minister being asked "this attempt is to the liking of all of us; what dost thou think?"

The prime ministers themselves are not exempted from the integrity test, for so great is the importance of that virtue. “A woman spy under the guise of an ascetic and highly esteemed in the harem of the king” says Chanakya, “may allure the prime ministers one after another, saying "the queen is enamored of thee and has made arrangements for thy entrance into her chamber; besides this, there is also the certainty of large acquisitions of wealth." Of course, if the prime ministers, the ordinary ministers or other officers fall for these tricks, they prove their lack of integrity, and otherwise, their integrity.

~*~

Greek mythology tells us that "Prometheus, that potter who gave shape to our new generation, decided one day to sculpt the form of Veritas (Aletheia: Truth, Integrity), using all his skill so that she would be able to regulate people's behavior. As he was working, an unexpected summons from mighty Zeus called him away. Prometheus left cunning Dolus (Trickery) in charge of his workshop, Dolus had recently become one of the god's apprentices. Fired by ambition, Dolus used the time at his disposal to fashion with his sly fingers a figure of the same size and appearance as Veritas with identical features. When he had almost completed the piece, which was truly remarkable, he ran out of clay to use for her feet. The master returned, so Dolus quickly sat down in his seat, quaking with fear. Prometheus was amazed at the similarity of the two statues. Therefore, he put both statues in the kiln and when they had been thoroughly baked, he infused them both with life: sacred Veritas walked with measured steps, while her unfinished twin stood stuck in her tracks. That forgery, that product of subterfuge, thus acquired the name of Mendacium (Pseudologos: Falsehood), and I readily agree with people who say that she has no feet: every once in a while something that is false can start off successfully, but with time Veritas (Truth) is sure to prevail."

This is precisely what happens. Lack of integrity might appear to succeed. But that success is short-lived, especially in a leader. And that is what Dhritarashtra means when he tells Duryodhana at the end of his story about Indra and Prahlada that even if a man without integrity achieves prosperity, it would soon leave him since Shree cannot stay where there is no Integrity.

~*~

And that is integrity must be genuine integrity, not a faked one.

There is a beautiful story once told by Abraham Lincoln. A farmer had in his garden a huge tree that looked truly mighty. One day the farmer saw a squirrel running up the tree and disappearing into a hole. Curious, the farmer went near the tree and looked in and what he found sent shock waves through him. The tree that looked so towering and robust was all hollow inside and was on the point of collapsing any day!

Lincoln, one of the greatest leaders ever, used to say: It is not enough for you to look mighty, you should be mighty too. “To be a leader, you must have more than the image of integrity—you must also have substance.”

And what is what the Mahabharata says: Sheelam pradhanam purushe. The most important thing, the worthiest thing, in a man is integrity. With integrity, you have virtue, truth, uprightness, strength, wealth, prosperity and good fortune. And without integrity, you have none of these. To repeat what the Mahabharata says about it:

“dharmah satyam tatha vrttam balam chaiva tathapyahamsheelabhoota mahaprajna sada nastyatra samshayah.” - Mahabharata 12.124.62

“Virtue, Truth, Ethical Conduct, Strength and the Goddess of wealth, prosperity and good fortune, all for ever cling to Integrity. Have not the least doubt about this.”

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Retelling the Ramayana: Padma Purana




The voluminous Padma Purana, essentially a Vaishnavite text, makes fascinating variations in its retelling of the Ramayana story.

It is one of the largest Puranas, with around 55,000 verses, which is more than twice the size of Valmiki Ramayana, with only the Skanda Purana among the Puranas being bigger than it. The Padma Purana is thus the third largest book in Indian literature, after the Mahabharata, with 100,000 verses, and the Skanda Purana, with 84,000 verses. It consists of seven books, each called a khanda. These are the Srishti, Bhumi, Swarga, Brahma [also called Swargottara], Patala, Uttara and Kriya Khandas, in that order. The text is also divided into six khandas in some recensions, leaving out the Brahma Khanda, and into just five in others, leaving out the Kriya Khanda too.

The Srishti Khanda of the Purana has a small section dealing with Rama’s killing of Shambuka and a couple of other things. Uttara Khanda too deals with Rama’s story in a few chapters which tell the story of his birth, birth rites, the naming ceremony, etc. Here we are also told briefly of the birth of Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna as well as of Sita, Rama’s guarding Vishwamitra’s sacrifice, the weddings of the four brothers, Rama’s exile to the forest and life there, Sita’s abduction and Rama’s subsequent battle with Ravana, his return to Ayodhya, the crowning and his eventual departure from the world. The narration here is mostly the same as what is found in Valmiki Ramayana, with some variations. Rama’s story here ends with Sita entering the earth and later Rama and his brothers walking into the Sarayu accompanied by the citizens of Ayodhya, the Vanaras, the Rikshas and so on, to end their life on earth, as in the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki’s epic.

However, it is in the Patala Khanda that we have the detailed narration of Rama’s story. Though this Khanda also speaks of other things, most of the Khanda is essentially Rama’s story, named Rama Ashwamedha, which is the story of the last part of the Ramayana narrated against the background of the first Ashwamedha sacrifice that Rama conducts years after he abandons the pregnant Sita in the jungle. The story is not narrated in strict chronological order – for instance, the abandoning of Sita, an incident that takes place at the earlier part of the story, is narrated towards the end.

Let’s now take a look at how the story of Sita’s abandonment given here differs from that in the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana.

O0O

Rama Abandons Sita: the Uttara Kanda Story

In the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana, we meet Sita for the first time in Chapter 42, in the beautiful Ashoka Vanika gardens attached to her palace. This is a beautiful place, filled with all kinds of flowering and fruit trees, with hundreds of birds perched on the trees. A beautiful fragrance fills the whole place. There are several bowers there. There are pools and tanks with steps paved with gems, their water cool, in which stand lotuses and water lilies in bloom. In the middle of all this beauty, Rama is seated with Sita and is giving her a drink [madhu-maireyaka] with his own hands. The Ramayana compares Rama here to Indra who gives drinks with his own hands to his wife Shachi. Servants bring all kinds of delicious food. Apsaras and Naga and Kinnari women, all experts in dancing and singings, sing and dance near Rama. Several pretty women get drunk [pānavaśamgatāh] and in their intoxication, dance close to Rama.

The Uttara Kanda now tells us this is how Rama spends his all his days. He spends the first half of the day in his court, dealing with official matters, and the second half with Sita.

It is on one of these days that Rama discovers the signs of pregnancy in Sita. Rama is delighted and enquires her of her longing [the desires of a pregnant woman, which according to culture and tradition the husband should be fulfill without failure]. Sita, smiling, tells him she desires to spend at least one night in the ashram of holy ascetics living on the banks of the Ganga. Rama assures her that her desire will be fulfilled the very next day.

That night, as was his habit, Rama is with his friends, ten of them mentioned by name, sharing light moments of fun with them. In the middle of some story, Rama asks them what the people of the city are saying about him, about Sita, about Bharata, Lakshmana and Shatrughna and about Kaikeyi. One of the friends, Bhadra, tells him the people are all praise for him, but Rama insists on hearing their criticisms too. He assures Bhadra that he can speak freely about these, for he wants to know so that he can practice what people appreciate and avoid what they criticise.

Bhadra again assures him that the people have only the best of things to say about him. But he also tells him people are not happy about his having brought Sita with him. She was abducted by Ravana and kept in the pleasure gardens of his antahpura for long and it is amazing that Rama does not detest her. The men of the city say` they are afraid that now they will have to keep their own tainted women too with them [asmākam api dāreshu sahanīyam bhavishyati] – for what the king does is what the people follow. Bhardra tells Rama people are saying many such things all over in cities and all towns [evam bahuvidhā vāco vadanti puravāsinah nagareshu ca sarveshu rājañ janapadeshu ca].

Rama asks his other friends if this is true. They all agree it is so without a doubt, such talks are common among the people. Rama immediately sends away his friends from his chamber and asks one of the guards to go and fetch all his three brothers. They come to him immediately. Rama embraces them and asks them to be seated. Then he tells them how the people of the city are talking evil about Sita and him. He reminds Lakshmana he was present when Sita entered fire to prove her chastity. Agni, the god of fire, had appeared and testified to her purity. The gods in the heavens and the sages had appeared and declared her stainless. Indra himself had appeared and handed her over to him. He knew she was pure and that was why he had brought her to Ayodhya with him. But now things have changed. The people of Ayodhya do not approve of her, do not approve of his keeping her with him.

Rama then tells his brothers that there is nothing worse than ill fame. He says he would give up his very life out of fear of the censure of the world, he would give up them, his brothers, what to talk of Sita.

Having stated this, he asks Lakshmana to take Sita the next morning and leave her beyond the Ganga in the wild forest near the ashram of Sage Valmiki. He tells Lakshmana, “Obey my order. I do not want to hear anything more on this subject from any of you. If you do, it will cause my great displeasure. My curse shall be upon you if you try to dissuade me from my decision. Do what I ask you to do if you want to remain within my command. Take Sita away from here to the forest. She has asked me to take her to the great ashrams on the banks of the Ganga. This way her desire will be fulfilled.”

As Rama speaks these words, his eyes well up with tears.

The next morning Lakshmana takes Sita to the jungle in a chariot driven by Sumantra. Sita has no idea that she is being abandoned, though evil omens throughout upset her. She can see Lakshmana’s open grief. She asks him lovingly if it was because he will have to be away from Rama for two days. She tells him she too loves Rama more than her life itself, but she does not grieve as he does. She asks him not to behave so childishly. They will visit the ashramas, give gifts to the ascetics and after spending the night there, come back.

They spend the first night on the banks of the Gomati and continue travelling the next day. Lakshmana is silent throughout the journey. When they reach the Ganga, Lakshmana leaves the chariot with Sumantra on this side of the Ganga and crosses the river with Sita in a ferry.

On the other side of the river Lakshmana is no more able to control himself. Joining his palms he weeps uncontrollably and says he wants to die rather than do what he is doing, or if there something worse than death, even that is better. Unable to stand the heartlessness of what he is doing, he collapses on the ground. Sita is shaken and asks what is wrong. It is only then that he reveals the truth.

Sita faints on hearing what Lakshmana has to say. When she comes to, she asks Lakshmana what she would say when the sages ask her what the fault for which Rama has abandoned her is. She tells him she would have ended her life – she was not doing that only because she was pregnant and she did not want her husband’s royal lineage to come to its end. Through Lakshmana she sends her respects to all her mother-in-law and all her elders at Ayodhya and assures Rama that he should not grieve over abandoning her, he should do what will get him keerti – righteous fame, and that is his dharma.

When Lakshmana leaves, leaving her to the mercy of the jungle, she falls on the ground, weeping. She watches Lakshmana disappearing across the Ganga and on the other side, feeling fully the sense of being abandoned by her husband and being all alone in the world.

Later Valmiki hears of her wailing in the forest from ashram boys who happened to be near where she was and takes her to the shelter of his ashram.

O0O

The Padma Purana Retelling

In the Patala Khanda of the Padma Purana, the palace garden scene is altogether missing. There is no scene describing Sita and Rama sitting together in the gardens attached to their palace, no scene in which Rama tenderly offers Sita drinks with his own hands, no scene in which Apsara, Naga and Kinnari women, intoxicated from drinks, sing and dance near Rama.

The Padma Purana is specific about the fairly advanced stage of Sita’s pregnancy – we are told she is five months pregnant, while Valmiki tells us only that Rama observes on Sita the signs of pregnancy.

It is rahasi, in privacy, that Rama asks her about her dohada – the desire of a pregnant woman.

And whereas in Valmiki it is the ascetics that she wishes to visit in their ashrams on the banks of the Ganga, it is specifically female ascetics that she wishes to see in the Padma Purana: Lopāmudrādikā striyah…sundarīh – Lopamudra and other beautiful women [ascetics].

It is interesting to wonder why the author of the Padma Purana felt the need to make these changes – to avoid the scene of intimacy between Rama and Sita which includes his giving her a drink with his own hands, and the scenes of drink-intoxicated dances close to Rama by Apsara, Naga and Kinnari women, which he appreciates. It is also equally interesting to wonder why the Padma Purana felt the need to change the gender of the ascetics – the ascetics of the Ramayana become female ascetics here, with Lopamudra specifically mentioned. Also, the ascetics are mentioned as sundarīh, beautiful. No doubt the princess-turned ascetic Lopamudra was an extremely beautiful woman – but beautiful is not a very common word used to describe holy ascetics.

As in the Ramayana, Rama gladly promises her that her desire shall be fulfilled the next day.

As we saw, in the Ramayana he makes the promise in the evening and it is the same night that he hears about the displeasure of the people. And it is his close friends that tell Rama about what the people are saying. When Rama hears of the evil talk of the people from Bhadra, his friend, in the Ramayana, he has been joking and laughing with his friends for a while. When he asks his friends to tell him what people say about him, his brothers, his wife and about Kaikeyi, it is his past achievements that Bhadra mentions as what people are happy about: his commanding the obedience of the Vanaras and Rikshas, his building a bridge across the sea, his slaying the mighty Ravana, etc. There is no mention about how pleased people are with his rule [It is not implied that they are not – only that it is not what they mention]. And the whole conversation, including the report of the evil thing that people say about his keeping Sita with him, is very brief.

Whereas in the Padma Purana, it is all very different. Here it is not from his friends that Rama seeks and gets feedback, but from his spies. Unlike in the Ramayana where this takes place the night after Rama’s conversation with Sita, in the Padma Purana it is in the morning, and it is in the royal court where Rama is seated with his ministers, sages and advisers, his brothers attending on him, that his [six] spies approach him to report to him. They are apparently disguised as citizens. Seeing that they wish to speak to him, Rama takes them into a secret inner chamber. Alone with them, he asks them to report to him. The question Rama asks them here is strange. “What do people say about me, and what do they say about my wife? What do they say about the conduct of the ministers?”

Lokā bruvanti mām kīdrg bhāryāyām mama kīdrśam
Mantrinām kīdrśam lokā vadanti charitam katham. [Patala 56.8]

Rama instructs them to give him the facts exactly as they are – yathātathyam.

We can understand Rama asking feedback about himself and his ministers, but it is indeed strange that he should ask his spies about what people say about his wife, who, for all we know, has no public functions. [The word used by Rama is his ‘wife’ and not ‘the queen.’]

The spies had previously met during the night and decided among themselves that the words that the washerman spoke were evil, born of a wicked heart, and there was no need to report them to Rama. They are aware of Rama’s central preoccupation in life – his keerti, righteous fame. They report that his keerti is sanctifying everyone in the whole world. Rama is happy at this report but he notices that the face of one spy is rather dull, in disagreement with the general mood. Rama questions him closely and repeatedly and eventually lays on a curse on him unless he tells the truth and then he reports what he has overheard at the washerman’s house.

In the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki’s epic, what Bhadra reports is that there is widespread displeasure among the citizens about Rama still keeping Sita as his wife after her stay in Ravana’s pleasure gardens as his captive. They speak about it in cities and towns, everywhere where people assemble. In the Padma Purana, the sixth spy reports that while his kirti has spread everywhere, because of such things as his slaying of Ravana, this is not so about his wife who has lived in Ravana’s house. He reports what he has overheard the washerman telling his wife. The implication is that only one person – the washerman – is unhappy about his keeping Sita with him.

The Padma Purana not only says all people are happy about Rama, it gives us interesting details of the conversations among Rama’s subjects at night, reported to Rama by his spies [all collected from their homes and not from the streets]. For instance, in one home a mother, suckling her infant asks him to drink as much of her milk as possible – for he is not going to get it in his coming lifetimes. There will no future lifetimes for him – those who live in Rama’s city will have no future lifetimes, they will attain liberation in this life itself. In another home, a wife compares her husband to Rama and the pleased husband denies the comparison – where is Rama the sun in the sky and where is he a mere moth; where is Rama, the sacred Ganga and where is he, but a mere pool on the road? In yet another house, there is a game of dice going on between a love-intoxicated young husband and wife. The wife beats her husband quickly at the game and declares herself the winner, making her bangles dance as she speaks gesturing with her arms. The husband, laughing, refuses to take the beating and declares he is not yet beaten and is going to beat her in an instant, by remembering Rama, as the Devas in the past defeated the Daityas. And he does exactly that and the delighted man and woman give themselves into each others arms in a tight embrace.

Interestingly, while people are certainly proud of Rama’s past achievements, it is equally about his present rule that they are happy.

It is in yet another home that a spy overhears a washerman shouting at his wife asking her to get out of his home, kicking her brutally, his eyes red with rage. “You have spent the day in another man’s house and you can go back there now. I am not going to keep you in my house.” His mother interferes and tells the man his wife is innocent but he won’t listen to her. “I am not Rama,” he says repeatedly. “He can keep his wife who lived in the house of his enemy the Rakshasa, but not I. I won’t keep a wife who has lived in another man’s house.”

The spy’s words strike Rama like lightning. He faints and collapses on the floor and the spies fan him with the ends of their uttareeyas and soon he comes to.

In Valmiki, Rama remains in control of himself when he hears the criticism, though he is deeply upset.

He immediately sends for Bharata.

In the Ramayana, it is all three of his brothers he sends for on hearing of what people say about his keeping Sita, though Rama’s order to take Sita to the forest and abandon her there is given specifically to Lakshmana. In the Padma Purana, initially it is only Bharata that Rama calls to his chamber.

Rama, weeping, tells Bharata of how his kirti, otherwise spotless, has been tainted by the words spoken by a washerman. He asks him what he should do now: end his life, or give up Sita? Saying this Rama starts shivering all over and, weeping profusely, collapses on the floor.

Bharata tells him Sita’s purity has been proved through the fire – she is agniśuddhā. And her purity has been testified by Brahma himself, and also by their father Dasharatha. He tells him his kirti that is sanctifying all earth cannot be spoiled by a washerman’s words and asks him to continue ruling the kingdom along with Sita. Bharata also tells him that Sita would not be able to live one moment if he is separated from him.

Rama agrees what he says is in accordance with dharma, and Sita’s purity has been proved by fire. But Bharata should now do what he orders – because he, Rama, is afraid of ill fame. He is giving up Sita. “Take a sharp sword and cut off [my] head, or take my wife Sita and abandon her in the forest.” Hearing these words of Rama, Bharata starts shivering all over and tears flowing down from his eyes, he faints and falls down on the floor.

Rama now sends for Shatrughna. When he comes, Bharata is still lying unconscious on the floor. Rama tells Shatrughna of the washerman’s allegations and of his own decision to abandon Sita. Shatrughna argues against this, calling it wrong but Rama keeps repeating his decision to abandon his wife until eventually, unable to stand the pain of it, Shatrughna too falls down like a felled tree.

Bharata is still lying unconscious on the floor. Leaving them there, Rama in his single-mindedness now asks the guard to fetch Lakshmana from his palace. When he comes he sees his brothers lying in a swoon on the floor. He asks Rama what terrible thing has occurred to make all this happen and Rama tells him all that has happened right from the beginning. Rama then repeats his decision to abandon Sita, hearing which, Lakshmana is stunned. Rama then gives vent to his feelings by saying that he is going to end his life – there is no point in living on the earth with his name tainted, he does not want to live any more, he is going to kill himself. He despairs that until now his brothers have invariably obeyed him and now even they are contradicting him. He fears the other kings will now revile him as healthy people revile lepers. Rama rejects all the counter suggestions of the shocked Lakshmana and orders him to obey him without delay and take Sita and abandon her in the jungle – or, alternatively, kill him, Rama, with a sword: mām vā khadgena ghātaya.

Lakshmana now recalls Parashurama who had killed his mother on the orders of his father – perhaps the right thing to do is to obey the orders of your elders. He agrees eventually, expressly telling Rama he does not like what he is going to do. Rama is pleased with his acquiescence and repeatedly expresses his pleasure. Weeping profusely, Lakshmana takes leave of Rama and orders Sumantra to bring the chariot. He goes to Sita and tells her he has been sent by Rama to take her to the ashrams to visit the female ascetics there. A delighted Sita gets ready immediately.

As the Ramayana does, the Padma Purana too describes several evil omens on Sita’s way to the jungle, the first of which happens as she takes her first step out – she trips over the threshold.

Lakshmana takes her up to the Ganga by chariot [driven by Sumantra] and then across the river by a ferry. All along he is silent and weeping, puzzling Sita. The jungle that they reach is nothing like the area were ashrams are to be found – it is wild, filled with terrifying animals and scalded trees, and there is no sign of human habitation anywhere near. A shaken Sita now insists that Lakshmana should tell her the truth. It is only then he informs her that Rama has abandoned her. At those words, Sita collapses on the ground. Lakshmana brings her back by fanning her with the end of his uttariya.

When she comes to, Lakshmana consoles her by telling her Valmiki’s ashram is close by. He then circumambulates her in reverence and then walks away, eyes streaming with tears. Sita watches him with wide eyes, unable to believe what is happening.

The Padma Purana tells us here that Sita is still unable to fully believe what Lakshmana has just said, in spite of all she has spoken. After all, says the Purana, Lakshmana is her devar [and the relation between the devar and bhabhi is of joking] and perhaps he is joking with her: hasati ayam mahābhāgo lakshmano devaro mama. She keeps looking at Lakshmana who is walking away, with unblinking eyes – animeshanā. It is only after Lakshmana has crossed the Ganga and disappeared in the distance leaving her in the middle of the fearsome jungle that she finally accepts the reality and faints again – for ‘how could Rama abandon me: I am without sin and dearer to him than his life?’ [katham mām prānatah preshthām vipāpām raghavo’tyajat]

The very forest is moved by Sita’s grief. The air of the jungle changes and a breeze starts to blow, scented with the perfume of flowers. Swans dip their wings in water and coming to Sita, fan her with them. Elephants fill their trunks with water and sprinkle it on her, washing away the dust on her body as she lies on the ground. Wild deer stand in a circle around her, their eyes wide open as hers were a moment ago. The trees around her instantly put on flowers, though it is not the season of spring.

When she comes to again, she begins wailing aloud, calling out to Rama. Valmiki who happens to go to the jungle at this time hears her cries and sends his disciples to find out who is wailing in the middle of the forest. That is how Sita reaches the sage’s ashram.

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Many things here suggest that the author of the Padma Purana is trying to glorify Rama going beyond the Valmiki Ramayana, as most of the retellings of the Ramayana since Valmiki do. He drops both the light scenes in this episode – the one in which Rama sits with Sita, watching female dancers performing and giving Sita a drink with his own hands, and the one in which he is sitting and having fun with his close friends at night. It is perhaps beneath the dignity of the Rama of Padma Purana to do such things – he is not only a maryada-purushottama, but is God himself, the Supreme Lord of the Universe.

It is the need to justify him in the process of glorification that makes the Padma Purana tell us the past life story of the washerman. Through the story, the blame has been shifted quietly from Rama to Sita. It is Sita who is to blame for her abandonment, and not Rama. She is abandoned because of what she did long ago when she was a young girl – it is the curse of the birds to whom she had been cruel.

Very briefly, the washerman’s past life story says that he was a male parrot in that other life time and one day he and his wife parrot, both perched on a mountain cliff, were speaking about Rama and Sita – how Rama would wed Sita and how they would live a happy life as king and queen and so on. Sita asks her sakhis, her girl friends, to catch the birds and bring them to her so that she can get more details of her future from them. When they are brought to her, they answer all her questions, but she refuses to let them go, saying that she would let them go only after Rama comes to Mithila and weds her as they said, for they have created longing for Rama in her heart through their words. She tells them she would keep them in her palace with all love and care. The female parrot tells Sita this will not do, they will not be happy in the palace since they are birds of the wild. She also tells Sita she is pregnant [with eggs] and would go to the wild and after the chicks are born, would come back to her.

When Sita does not agree, the male parrot too speaks, promising to bring his wife and give her to Sita after the chicks are born. Sita tells him he can go wherever he likes, but she is not going to let the female parrot go. The bird requests her repeatedly to let his wife go, but Sita refuses. Eventually, the female bird give up her life after cursing Sita that she too would be separated from her husband Rama while she is pregnant. Seeing her dying, the male birds throws himself into the waters of the Ganga, vowing he would be reborn in Rama’s city and because of his words Rama would give her up. It is the male bird who dies with vengeance in his heart after cursing Sita that is reborn as the washerman.

In addition to shifting the blame for abandoning the pregnant Sita from Rama to Sita, the washerman’s past life story achieves another purpose. It says that none of his subjects is really unhappy with Rama. The only one who criticises him is the washerman – and his criticism is not valid because it is only an expression of the sorrow that Sita had caused him in his previous birth.

The Padma Purana intensifies Rama’s pain at the words of the washerman: such is his pain that he faints at the words of the spy and has to be brought back by all the spies together fanning him. It also intensifies Rama’s pain at what he is going to do to her, and through it, speaks of the intensified depth of his love for her.

True, the Padma Purana shifts the blame for Rama’s abandonment of Sita to Sita herself through the past life story of the washerman and thus exonerates Rama from the responsibility for an action which Indian culture has never been able to accept or digest. But apart from that, the Purana does not in anyway reduce Sita. She is purity itself, and her purity sanctifies the world. Such is the awe in which Bharata and Shatrughna hold her that as realization sinks in that Rama is bent on abandoning her, they both faint. So deeply are they shocked that when Lakshmana enters Rama’s chamber, they are still lying unconscious on the floor. No less is Lakshmana’s love and respect for Sita.

When evil omens are seen one after the other on her way to the forest, Sita’s first thoughts are that no evil should come to Rama or his brothers, nothing bad should happen to the people of Ayodhya. Subsequently she sees the omens as relating to herself – something bad is going to happen to her, but she deserves it, she concludes, for leaving Rama, albeit so briefly, and desiring to visit the female sages in the ashram.

The Padma Purana adds fine touches to Sita’s innocence and naivety. One example is that even after being told that Rama has abandoned her, even after she is left behind in the wild forest on the other bank of the Ganga, Sita does not believe it. As Lakshmana walks away, she keeps looking at her with incredulous eyes, suspecting perhaps he is playing a practical joke on her. After all, he is her devar, younger brother-in-law, and as a devar, he has a right to play such jokes on her.

A question that naturally arises is if the Purana’s attempt to exonerate Rama succeeds or not. The answer is in the negative. The story of the birds does in no way exonerate Rama from the responsibility for his action. Even if we take the story at its face value, it only gives a reason for the washerman to accuse Sita – it does not give a valid reason for Rama to abandon her. In fact, in the Padma Purana, Rama’s action becomes all the more glaringly disturbing. While in the Ramayana he has the reason, however invalid it is, that all of Ayodhya is speaking against his continuing to keep Sita as his wife after she has lived in Ravana’s ‘house’, here he has one only single man speaking against it – an intemperate man whose name itself, the Purana tells us, is Krodhana, Short Temper. Also, frightening is Rama’s determination to get rid of Sita the moment he hears the accusation. He calls Bharata, who faints at Rama’s order. While he is lying unconscious in the chamber, Rama calls Shatrughna and gives him the same order. He too faints and while both Bharata and Shatrughna are lying unconscious at his feet, he calls Lakshmana to him and gives him the order. The only choice Rama gives his brothers is between chopping off his, Rama’s, head and abandoning Sita in the jungle.

Both the Ramayana and the Padma Purana give us the same reason for Rama’s decision to abandon Sita: his boundless attachment to spotless keerti, untainted righteous fame, which Indian culture asked every king to strive for.

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[To be continuted.]