Most BTG readers know that Ravana kidnapped Sita Devi. But did he really?
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
A mystical switch reveals many nuances in a well-known Ramayana story and demonstrates the principle of karma.
What goes around comes around. While this saying is common, seeing it demonstrated in real life is generally not. One reason is that the things that come around don’t always come in the same form.
The principle of karma, of which the above saying is a colloquial restatement, implies that we will be held accountable for our actions. How exactly we will be held to account for which action varies enormously according to time-place-circumstance. The Bhagavad-gita (4.16) cautions that the movements of karma are difficult to discern.
Yet scripture sometimes gives us the vision to see connections that might elude the uninformed eye. One such causal connection is revealed in the Ramayana tradition, explaining how Ravana had to pay for his lecherousness.
The Yogini’s Self-immolation
Ravana stood aloft on his airborne chariot. He was on a rampaging tour of the universe, establishing hegemony in all directions. As his chariot was racing over the Himalayan mountain range, he was looking for something titillating – all the scenic natural beauty around him was too sterile for his impassioned senses. He suddenly caught sight of what looked like a woman. She seemed to be lost in meditation while sitting in a yogic posture. Slowing and lowering his chariot, he peered closely. It was indeed a woman – and a remarkably beautiful woman at that.
His desire triggered, he started descending swiftly. For a woman to be alone in the mountainous wilderness was unusual. He looked around to see if she had any protector. If she had one, he would deal with that soon. If not, then she was his for the taking.
As he approached her, he used his mystic power to assume a respectable human form. She sensed his presence and gently opened her eyes. Excited on seeing that her eyes were just as beautiful as the rest of her, he introduced himself.
“O beautiful maiden, who are you? What are you doing here, alone in this wilderness? What man is fortunate enough to have you as his wife?”
Seeing him as a guest, the woman looked down shyly and replied, “I am Vedavati, the daughter of the celebrated sage Kushadhvaja. I aspire to have Vishnu as my Lord and husband. To become pure enough to attain Him, I am performing austerities in these sacred mountains.”
His desire fueled further by her sweet voice, Ravana replied, “I am Ravana, the king of the demons. Your beauty has conquered my heart. I want to make you my chief queen. Come with me to my golden kingdom, Lanka.”
Her eyes darkening on hearing his proposal, she replied, “I have decided to offer myself to Vishnu. I have no desire to be with any other man. O king of the demons, kindly depart the way you have come, for I cannot satisfy you.”
Ravana laughed at her brush-off. Obviously, she didn’t know his prowess; he didn’t need her consent. Once he took her to his palace, had his way with her, and gave her royal luxuries, she would soon give up her foolish fantasy of attaining Vishnu. That Supreme Lord, greater than any demigod, was his archenemy. Somehow, Vishnu had still eluded Ravana although he had traveled and conquered the whole universe. That Vedavati was meant for Vishnu would increase the pleasure of conquering her. If he couldn’t subordinate Vishnu, he could at least appropriate what was meant for Vishnu.
He stepped forward to grab Vedavati. Recognizing his evil intention, Vedavati stepped back in dismay. He lunged forward and grabbed her by her long hair. Just as he was dreamily planning to pull her toward him, he suddenly found himself left with a handful of hair. To his surprise, he realized that Vedavati had somehow used her hand as a mystic sword to cut off the hair he had been holding. Seeing her move away from him, he charged toward her again.
Glaring at him, she blazed in anger.
“Because this body has been defiled by your evil touch, it is no longer suited for Vishnu. I will give up this body. You, O wicked demon, will have to pay for your misdeeds. I will return to destroy you.”
After making that proclamation, she used her mystic powers to activate a fire around her. As the stunned Ravana looked on, she immolated her body.
Disappointed that his desire hadn’t been fulfilled, Ravana returned to his chariot, giving scant thought to her warning. Little did he know how much this attempted aggression would cost him.
Sometimes a wronged person gets a chance, by higher arrangement, to return and become an instrument for karmic justice. Vedavati got that chance when Ravana lusted for Sita and decided to abduct her.
The Secret Switch
During their forest exile, once Lakshmana had to leave Sita alone, being constrained by circumstances that were brought about largely by Ravana’s conspiracy. Being mindful of his duty to guard her, Lakshmana drew a protective circle around their hermitage, infused it with mystical power, and told Sita to stay within it.
Later, Ravana came there disguised as a mendicant asking for alms. When he tried to come into the hermitage by stepping over the protective line, it blazed with fire, stopping him in his tracks. Recognizing that he couldn’t cross the line, he requested Sita to come out instead. When Sita stepped near the line, a fire started again, but Sita kept walking and passed through it. Ravana felt his glee rising. Sita had willingly walked into his clutches. Little did he know that a mystical switch had happened – the person he was about to abduct had come forward just to destroy him.
When she had walked through the fire, it had served as a medium for the god of fire, Agni, to take Sita to his shelter. In her place emerged Vedavati reincarnated, with a form exactly like Sita’s. Earlier, when Vedavati had immolated herself, she had been taken by Agni to a sanctuary, where she continued her yogic austerities till she returned as Maya-sita, the illusory replacement of Sita. Now Agni replaced Sita with Vedavati. The switch served two main purposes: It protected the purity of Sita, the goddess of fortune who is meant only for Rama – she wouldn’t be contaminated by the touch of the evil Ravana. And the switch also provided Vedavati an opportunity to become the linchpin in the karmic plan to give Ravana his due.
Ravana had no inkling of the switch. While in Ravana’s captivity, Vedavati continued manifesting the immense feelings of separation from Vishnu, now present on the earth as Rama, that she had cultivated for so long. By higher arrangement, she was given the knowledge and the consciousness necessary to play the role of Sita to perfection.
Retribution Through Torment
Night had fallen on Lanka several hours ago. Still, Ravana tossed restlessly in his bed, longing for Sita. Though he had a beautiful devoted queen, Mandodari, she was no more than a duty for him now. Compared to Sita, she didn’t charm him at all. Even if he tried to sate himself with any of his queens or maidservants, he continued to ache for Sita.
Sita. Sita. Sita. He had her so close, and yet she was so far. So many sleepless nights he had spent, tormented with desire for her. Desire he couldn’t sate because she wouldn’t consent. None of his allurements or threats seemed to affect her in the least.
He couldn’t take her forcibly because of the curse he had incurred from the celestial Nalakuvara when he had taken Nalakuvara’s wife Rambha. Ravana cursed that curse. That celestial nymph had certainly not been worth this torment. She had been beautiful, no doubt. But his desire for her had been nothing more than just an impulsive reaction to her beauty. Acting on that desire, he had had his way with her and then had left her. It had all been over in just a few minutes. If he had only left her alone that day, he could have had his way with Sita the moment he had brought her to Lanka.
He wondered whether he could risk taking Sita forcibly. Maybe the curse wouldn’t work. Maybe he had been a fool to have kept himself from Sita in fear of that curse. He started up from his bed, his heart thudding with passion at the thought that he could have Sita. Though he could feel the blood rushing to his head, Brahma’s words came to his mind.
Ravana had initially snorted on hearing about Nalakuvara’s curse, but Brahma, the cosmic creator whose boons had given Ravana most of his power, had warned him, “My boons will provide you no immunity from this curse. Such curses derive their power from a source far greater than me.”
Remembering those words, Ravana shrank back to his bed in disappointment and disgust. He had no desire to make a fool of himself. If while trying desperately to take Sita he were felled by that curse, he would become a laughingstock of the world. No. Sita, beautiful as she was, was not worth risking such humiliation. He would have to find some other way to get her consent. How? Struggling to find some way, he kept tossing in bed, being scorched relentlessly by lust.
Little did Ravana know that he was reaping what he had sowed. The yogini Vedavati had returned and had lit within him a fire that was scalding him mercilessly. He had caused her to burn herself in a fire – that had lasted for just a few moments. But she was causing him to burn himself in a fire that burned for days, weeks, and months. And that fire was going to take a far bigger toll.
Retribution Through Bereavement
One by one, Ravana’s generals, sons, and even his giant brother, Kumbhakarna, died in the war against Rama and His army. They were all burnt in the karmic fire of the yogini’s wrath.
And then the fire took the worst toll: Indrajit, Ravana’s most heroic and cherished son.
When Indrajit came back to Ravana’s court as a corpse, Ravana fainted in shock. Returning to his senses, he cried in incredulity and agony, listing Indrajit’s attributes and accomplishments. As he recovered, his sorrow gave way to fury. Someone had to pay for this outrage. But who? He would go to the battlefield tomorrow and make Indrajit’s killers regret the day they were born – they would die a painful death. But right now, he needed to vent his anger at someone. Who? Sita. Yes, Sita. That witch was the cause of his son’s death. She was the cause of the death of his entire dynasty. She would die at his hands today. Ravana sprang from his throne. With a murderous rage in his eyes, he pulled out his fearsome sword.
Charging out of his palace, he roared, “Sita, you are the killer of my son. You will die today!”
Mandodari had collapsed to the floor, devastated at her son’s death. Hearing what her husband was about to do, she jumped up in alarm and caught him by the arm.
“O Lord, heroes never kill defenseless women. Don’t sully your good name and our son’s memory by performing such an atrocity to avenge him.”
Ravana took a deep breath. Mandodari’s words grated on him, but he couldn’t deny their truth. Retribution would have to wait till tomorrow.
Again, little did Ravana know that retribution was going on – and he was its target, not its source. And that retribution would go on till he himself would burn to death.
Retribution Through Death
Rama and Ravana were fighting fiercely. Though Ravana was using all his power, Rama’s skill and speed were clearly superior. Yet Rama couldn’t target the demon’s vulnerable spot: his heart. Why not? Because Sita was in Ravana’s heart.
Ravana was constantly thinking of her, his desire for her undiminished. For the devoted, the presence of the goddess of fortune and her Lord in the heart is the greatest blessing. But for Ravana, Sita’s presence in his heart turned out to be a curse. He desired her not as an object of spiritual devotion but as the object for sensual exploitation. Reciprocating with his dark desire, she manifested within him as an insatiable fire that burnt him relentlessly.
As long as Sita was in Ravana’s heart, Rama couldn’t bring himself to shoot there. Ravana fought with frenzied fury. He shot weapons that could kill even the king of the heavens, not to speak of a prince of an earthly kingdom. Yet, to his astonishment, Rama thwarted all his attacks. To Ravana’s anger, Rama even counterattacked and wounded him repeatedly. This human prince seemed to be living a charmed existence. How else could Rama and His motley army of apes have reduced the formidable Lanka army to the bedraggled handful that remained with him?
Ravana’s thoughts went to all those who had been killed in the war. As thoughts of Kumbhakarna and Indrajit filled his mind, the thought of Sita went away for just a moment.
That moment was enough for Rama to shoot at Ravana’s heart. Rama’s infallible arrow found its mark. The demon whose anger had made the earth tremble gave out one final scream of pain and fell to the earth, dead.
Retribution was complete. That personification of lust would lust no longer. The fire of retribution had burnt for long in his mind as lust; now, it would burn his body as the funeral fire, reducing it to a pile of ashes.
The yogini had returned to right the wrong. Mission accomplished, she knew that it was time for her to return.
The pure fire of her spiritual desire for Vishnu was burning brighter than ever before in her heart. By adopting Sita’s form and mood for nearly a year, she had experienced first-hand the unparalleled devotion to Rama of His eternal consort. Though humbled on experiencing Sita’s devotion, she was also inspired, determined to attain similar devotion one day. How she aspired for the Lord who inspired such devotion in the hearts of His devotees!
Tested by Fire, Switched by Fire
After the fall of Ravana, Sita was released and brought before Rama. To the shock of all observers, that virtuous prince asked that her purity be proven by a test of fire.
The yogini sighed. She knew that the test of fire was a guise for another switch through fire. Her union with Rama was not meant to be on this earth. This was her place of penance – in her previous life and in this life. Through the austerity of meditating in the Himalayas in her previous life and the agony of enduring Ravana’s lures and threats in this life, she had become increasingly purified. She would soon be united with Rama in His eternal spiritual abode, where He resides forever while also manifesting temporarily on the earth.
The fire had saved her from Ravana; the fire had saved her for Rama; the fire would pave her way to Rama. Praying to Agni to take her to her Lord, she closed her eyes and entered the fire. Unknown to most observers, a switch happened – once again. The yogini entered from one side of the fire, and Sita emerged from the other.