This post is also available in Marathi at http://agniveer.com/sita-agnipariksha-marathi/
One of the most controversial episodes of Ramayan is the Agnipariskha (Test by Fire) of Sita. As per the alleged episode, after Ram had defeated Ravan and rescued Sita, he refused to accept her doubting her chastity. Thus, Sita jumped into fire. The Fire God then rescued her and hence she came out unburnt. All gods came from heaven to convince Ram that Sita is pure. He then agreed and accepted Sita.
Various strong viewpoints exist on this issue. Traditionalists justify the action of Ram citing his overriding responsibility of setting right standards in society as a king. Feminists criticize the culture of that era and Hindu religion for being anti-woman. Anti-feminists use this story to explain why women should have limited freedom. Evangelists cite this episode (among many others) to convince Hindus to leave Hinduism and accept any other religion. It is a favorite of Dalit movement protagonists who showcase this as an example of Brahminical dogmatism. Miraclists (those who explain everything through some miracles) explain this as a grand strategy of divine. Some explain that the Sita which was kidnapped by Ravan was actually a shadow of Sita and actual Sita was hiding inside fire. So when shadow Sita went inside the fire, actual Sita came out.
What I always failed to understand was why Ram had to make such convoluted plans that would be known by none in any case. Could he not have implemented some less controversial and yet more efficient plans?
In general, I have always been confused by stories of miracles. The era before advent of videography and imagery seems to be full of miracles. Farther and remoter the place and event, more the probability of miracles explaining it. Whether it be Purans, Bible or Quran, the key events are explained by some miracle or the other. Whether it be splitting of Red Sea, or travel across seven skies in one night, or splitting of moon by simply pointing it, or churning of sea or Sita being fire-proof, its all a miracle happening everywhere which none of us has ever witnessed nor expect to witness in our lives. These miracles happen very inconsistently. For years someone would toil and then suddenly achieve something through miracle.
If one considers these stories as symbolic of certain deeper facets of life, it is indeed a very useful tool. We have so much to learn from such stories if we don’t take them literally. However, we are supposed to blindly believe in them verbatim in order to not be termed blasphemous. This is where these stories start separating religion from spiritualism.
The debates I often witness among religions – which religion is best – eventually boils down to who can prove the miracle of his religion to be more authentic!
And the atheists would laugh down such tales of miracles as a reason to hate religion. So they lose an opportunity to be purposeful in life, consider themselves as chemical reactions and become greatest victims!
Coming to the particular story of Sita’s asbestos test (asbestos is the material that is fully fire-proof), I could always see the flaws in it. The Ramayan era seemed to be very liberal from perspective of women rights. Women even took part in battles. Obviously participating in battle implies that there is a huge risk of getting imprisoned. Ram’s step-mother had accompanied Dashrath in one such war. So the family of Ram was quite liberal in these matters. Ram himself had been instrumental in uniting those women with their husbands who had been cheated by someone else. He made his friend Sugriva accept his wife again who was captured by his elder brother.
And if we trace the overall theme of Ramayan, there is no doubt that Ram was a role model par-excellence. Few people have inspired me as much as Maryadapurushottam Sri Ramchandra. (other two being Hanuman and Krishna). Its not out of nothing that he is the greatest icon of Hinduism for millenniums. Thus, this story as well as many others seemed to me like anomalies that contradicted the natural flow and other principles advocated in the same Ramayan.
Had it been a mythological story, we could have let go of this episode as imagination of the author or symbolic of something else. After all, there is no sensible way to explain what being fire-proof has to do with chastity of a woman. And if so, then all chaste woman should be fire-proof, which clearly is not the case. Because chastity does not convert your skin into asbestos. Further, what example is being set by such test in not clear. In fact by expecting such miracles to prove chastity of woman, generations have been misguided to denigrate women. Needless to say, this notion of chastity is blatantly against Vedas and Manu Smriti.
In case of Ramayan, the fact remains that it is a historical text, and not yet another tales of Aladin. Further it is a text associated deeply with not just Hindu psyche. Ram is a role model for entire India regardless of religion. He is a cultural icon. Thus these stories denigrate Hinduism, culture and nation – every thing. If these be true, if indeed Ram was anti-woman, then Ram cannot be role model.
So I decided to test out what the exact episode is in Ramayana. Now Ramayana is an epic text, and not a divine text in lines of Vedas. So, while Vedas have been preserved for ages through a variety of methods to protect from even minutest aberration, other texts have not enjoyed that protection. Ramayan and Mahabharat are thus replete with latter day adulterations. Same is the case with Manu Smriti.
Please note that for ages, there was no printing press and publication house to publish authentic versions of any text. They used to be written by hand and memorized and spread across various schools and among scholars. So adulteration was easier. While it would be impossible to decipher each adulteration, if one analyzes one can identify the obvious adulterations. Such adulterations can be identified by change in language style, change in story flow, being out of context, suddenly a miracle happening and then the story continuing again as normal and contradiction with rest of the text.
We have already analyzed how more than 50% verses of existing Manu Smriti can be purged out as adulterated through analysis.
In case of Ramayan, if we analyze the verses elaborating the Sita Fire-Proof test, startling truths emerge.
The story by and large goes on smoothly till 113th chapter of Yuddha Kand. In this chapter, Hanuman goes to Sita to inform her about victory of Ram.
In Chapter 114, Ram states that women are respected by the respect they get from nation and their own habits. Any kind of restriction on women – of home, dress code, boundary – in order to protect their respect is unwise. (27). This shloka sums up the Hindu view of woman.
The rest of the verses in Chapter 114 except the last verse do not take the story any further. They seem to be adulterated.
In the first 6 verses of Chapter 115, Ram emotionally elaborates how he destroyed the enemy who had committed a grave crime. In the next 4 verses, he acknowledges the efforts of Hanuman, Sugriva and Vibheeshan. Verses 11 and 12 seems to be a clear adulteration that act as a filler to redirect the story.
In Verses 13 and 14, Ram expresses his satisfaction of getting back Sita after winning over such grave challenges.
And then in Verse 15, he takes a surprise U turn and states that he did not do all this to get back Sita. Clearly this verse is an adulteration. Not only it suddenly gives a new direction to the story, it does not relate to rest of the Ramayan where Ram had been even weeping in separation of Sita. Even if Ram had to force Sita for Fire-test, he could have said this straight instead of lying here. In entire Ramayan, Ram has been a truth-seeker, so this sudden twist is an obvious adulteration.
And from there, all the remaining verses of Chapter 115 appear clear adulteration. For example, in verses 22 and 23 he advises her to live with Bharat, Lakshman, Sugriva, Shatrughna or Vibheeshan. The fake verses cover the entire 116th chapter where Sita answers Ram’s allegations and asks Lakshman to prepare a fireplace. Then she jumps into it. Suddenly, in this chapter, all Rishis, Gandharvas, Gods emerge, who were non-existent so far.
In Chapter 117, all the major Gods come to Ram to talk to him. This is perhaps the only instance in Ramayan where divinity suddenly overpowers the normal course of story. This is the first time that Ram is spoken of as the Ultimate God Himself. If Ram alone is Ultimate God, why the lesser Gods are coming to convince Him of his ‘mistake’ is unexplained. And why Ram asked so many Gods to come. In this Chapter, they praise divinity of Ram for all the 32 verses.
In Chapter 118, Fire God comes out with Sita in her lap and offers to Ram. Then Ram explains that he was playing a game to convince people about chastity of Sita. Finally the last verse 22 says:“Having said so, Ram met Sita with great happiness.”
If all verses from Chapter 115 verse 15 onwards upto Chapter 118 verse 21 are deleted, the story continues smoothly and this intermediate miracle drama has no relevance or impact whatsoever.
Recall that Chapter 115 verse 14 has Ram emotionally explaining how he got back Sita with great efforts. And then Chapter 118 verse 22 says: “Having said do, Ram met Sita with great happiness.” There is perfect continuity.
Now Chapters 119 and 120 are again pure adulterations where the Gods praise Ram even further, then Dashrath also comes with God Indra and they have very long discussions. Indra then makes dead soliders alive again through magic. Chapter 121 starts with: “Ram slept peacefully that night and spoke with Vibheeshan in morning.” With minor adulterations, story continues as normal about how Ram and Sita went back to Ayodhya on Pushpak plane. Now, till end of Ramayana, nowhere does any reference to miracles happening emerge.
So, if one undertakes a cursory glance of Ramayan, this episode clearly emerges as a latter day adulteration which may have fuelled many debates, groupism, anti-Hindu mindset, anti-woman mindset, conversions and insults thrown upon character of Ram. However, the fact remains that the very basis for all this is dubious.
To sum up:
Following verses are clear adulterations:
Chapter 114: Verse 28 onwards, except last verse
Chapter 115: Verse 15 onwards
Chapters 116 and 117
Chapter 118: Except last verse
Chapters 119 and 120
If you remove all these adulterations that bring discontinuity, the story moves very smoothly and logically.
Real Ramayan and Real Mahabharat
Some other frivolous myths from Ramayan and Mahabharat that are used to denigrate the noble culture of Hinduism but do not exist are as follows:
– Sita exile (entire Uttar Ramayan is fictitious and a latter day creation having no linkage with Valmiki)
– Killing of Shambuka , a shudra by Ram (again fiction from frivolous Uttar Ramayan)
– Hanuman, Bali, Sugriva etc being monkeys or apes. They were human beings, Hanuman was a great scholar, brilliant and impressive personality
– Ram, Lakshman, Sita being meat-eaters or alcohol consumers
– Draupadi being married to 5 brothers. Her name was Panchali because she was daughter of ruler of Panchal, and not because she married 5 brothers.
– Krishna married 16000 plus wives.
The reason why Ramayan and Mahabharat were so susceptible to adulterations is also obvious. After Vedas, these 2 texts have been the most respected texts of Hinduism for several centuries now. So, if you are able to manipulate these, it is easy to manipulate Hindus. Same is the case with Manu Smriti – the oldest law book.
You can review the original Ramayan and Mahabharat that eliminates many of these myths from these books:
For authentic Manu Smriti, review this:
The greatest benchmark, thus, to identify truth is that if it is as per Vedas or as per reason, accept it. Else reject it as an adulteration. Follow the overall theme and do not be bogged by minor details if they appear contrary to reason.
Jai Shri Ram
Vedas alone are true Dharma. Based on rock solid foundation of Vedas, Hinduism is a culture that should be proud of not only all Indians but entire humanity.
Ram is a role model for entire world. We should be proud that we are progeny of Ram. Whether we respect Ram as a God or God-driven is a personal belief. But character of Ram is as pure as diamond. Agniveer is committed to defence of glory of our role models.
Jai Shri Ram
Reference: Valmiki Ramayan published by Geeta Press Gorakhpur