[An analysis of how Jaiminiya Ashwamedha Parva differs from Valmiki Ramayana in telling the Uttara Katha of Rama. Continued from the earlier part.]
As we proceed further, the changes Jaimini introduces become more fascinating.
When Valmiki sees Sita who is wailing aloud in the hair-raisingly terrible jungle filled with fearsome animals, Jaimini tells us, he approaches her and asks her who she is, whose daughter and whose wife she is and why she has come to the uninhabited jungle. She introduces herself as Janaka’s daughter, Dasharatha’s daughter-in-law and Rama’s wife. She also tells him she has been abandoned by Rama for reasons she does not know. Valmiki consoles her telling her not to worry and introduces himself. He then takes her with him to his ashram and Sita goes with him quietly.
In Valmiki Ramayana these scenes are different. While Jaimini’s Valmiki has to ask her who she is, in the Ramayana, Valmiki knows everything about her without asking. In fact, he consoles her by addressing her as Janaka’s daughter, Dasharatha’s daughter-in-law, and Rama’s wife and tells her not to worry, the ashram is like a home to her. He tells her he knows everything about her with the power of his asceticism, knows why she has been abandoned, and knows she is pure.
Later, Valmiki Ramayana tells us in what is perhaps a later interpolation that Sita gives birth to the twins the same night as Shatrughna reaches the Ashram on his way to slay Lavanasura. Hearing of the birth of Sita’s children, Shatrughna goes and meets Sita and speaks of the grace of God. Next morning he leaves the ashram. It is twelve years later that Shatrughna comes back to Ayodhya and this time again he pays a visit to the Ashram and listens to the Ramayana composed by Valmiki. We are not told who sings it, but we are told that both the text and the narration is so realistic and powerful that Shatrughna faints while listening to it because of the emotions it awakens in him. The soldiers with Shatrughna pass through the same emotions.
One surprising thing here is that Shatrughna does not enquire about Sita or her children – there is no mention of them. It is this that first makes us wonder if the chapter in which we are told that Sita gave birth to the twins on the night Shatrughna reaches Valmiki Ashram is not a later interpolation. Otherwise it is impossible that Shatrughna does not ask any question about Sita and her children. Also, there is another thing suggests this chapter might be an interpolation. In the chapter describing the birth of the twins and Shatrughna visiting Sita and them, we are told this happened around midnight – other ashramites come and tell Valmiki about the birth at midnight. But the next chapter begins by saying that as night appeared, Shatrughna asked Chyavana about Lavana. The narration here is chronological and it is impossible that after the midnight events of such importance are mentioned, you suddenly start talking about be beginning of the night and a conversation like this. It is also indicated that the conversation with Chyavana went on the whole morning. Shatrughna does not say a word to Rama when he meets him in Ayodhya about meeting Sita in the ashram, either on his way to Lavana or on his way back.
Soon Rama performs the ashwamedha in Naimisharanya. It is done so that Rama is freed from the sin of brahmahatya, which he had accrued by slaying Ravana, a brahmana. And it is from here that we find some of the most amazing changes Jaimini introduces in telling the Uttara Rama Katha. He adds some dramatically powerful scenes to the story and drops other equally, if not more, powerful scenes.
The Ashwamedha begins in Naimisharanya on the banks of the Gomati, with a golden statue of Sita taking the place of Sita. While the Ashwamedha is in progress, Valmiki arrives there accompanied by his disciples Kusha and Lava. Valmiki orders Kusha and Lava to go around the whole place, singing the Ramayana – at the hermitages of the rishis, the dwellings of the brahmanas, royal palaces, highways and byways, everywhere. If Rama asks them to sing the Ramayana in front of him, Valmiki tells his disciples, they must do so to the best of their ability. “If Rama asks you whose sons you are, tell him you are disciples of Valmiki,” the sage instructs them.
As expected, Rama hears their singing and is fascinated. He invites them into the assembly and asks them to sing it there. At the end of the day, by which time they have chanted twenty cantos, they are offered a reward and but they refuse it, as Valmiki had instructed them, saying that they do not need money since they live in the forest. To Rama’s enquiry about the author of the poem, they say it is composed by Valmiki and consists of twenty-four thousand verses. It is arranged that on subsequent days the singing of Ramayana will continue in between the Ashwamedha.
It is through the song [Ramayana] that they sing, that Rama learns Kusha and Lava are Sita’s sons. He sends messengers to Valmiki, telling him that if Sita is pure and if there is no sin in her, with the sage’s permission she should take an oath to that effect in the assembly the next morning. The messengers go to the sage and give Rama’s message to him and he tells them to inform the king that Sita will do as desired by Rama because to a woman, her husband is her God. A pleased Rama sends out messages to the sages, brahmanas, kings and all others to be present in the assembly in Naimisharanya the next morning.
The next morning Rama himself goes and invites the great sages present in Naimisharanya and everyone else available to the assembly to witness Sita taking the oath of purity.
What follows is one of the most powerful scenes in world literature, modern and ancient. Maybe there are other scenes equal to it in power and emotional intensity, but none surpasses it. And one of the most amazing things about it is that, it is achieved with a minimum use of words and devoting very little space
While the assembly and invited guests are waiting, Valmiki walks in, followed by Sita quietly walking behind him. Her eyes are overflowing with tears, her palms are joined as in prayer, and her heart is on Rama. The Ramayana sees it as the beautiful picture of Shruti following Brahma. Great sorrow rises up in the assembly at her sight and people give expression that their grief.
Addressing Rama, the great sage says, “Oh son of Dasharatha, here is Sita, pious and practicing religious vows. Because of censure, you had abandoned her near my ashram. To you who fear the censure of the world, she will give proof [of her purity]; permit her to do so. These two are Sita’s children, born twins. These are your children – I vouch for the truth of it.”
“I am the tenth son of Pracheta, of scion of the Raghus. I do not remember ever speaking a word of untruth and I tell you, these are your children. I have done ages of tapas, and if Sita is evil, let me know attain the results of that tapas. I have not once in my entire life committed a sin in thoughts, words or actions. And let good results of that not come to me only if Sita is sinless. Every element that forms Sita is pure and so is her mind. I meditated upon this and saw the truth of it before I accepted her on the banks of the river in the forest. She is pure in conduct; she is sinless; to her, her husband is God. And now she shall give the proof of it to you who fear the censure of the world.”
A sage does not take oaths lightly. The greatest sage of the age vouches for Sita’s purity in the name of everything sacred to him. He speaks words I am sure he has never uttered in the past, but for her sake he speaks them.
Rama assures the sage he knows Sita is pure – she has proved it before the gods themselves. And he knows the twins are his sons. But, says he, the censure of the world is powerful and for that reason he will accept her when she proves it again there, in the assembly. And he asks the sage’s forgiveness for saying this.
The Ramayana says all the gods in heaven appeared there to witness Sita taking the oath of purity.
All this while, Sita has been standing behind Rama silently, her hands folded, her face cast down. As a sacred breeze starts blowing through the assembly, Sita, dressed in ochre, steps forward. She does not look at Rama once, though she hasn’t seen him after that evening in Ashoka Vatika years ago. She does not look at the men in the assembly. She does not look at Valmiki. Her eyes remain on the ground at her feet.
And then her soft spoken words ring out in the silent assembly. “If I have not once thought of a man other than Rama in my mind, then, Mother Earth, open up for me. If I have always worshipped Rama by thoughts, words and actions, then, Mother Earth, open up for me. I know no man other than Rama – if these my words are true, Mother Earth, open up for me.”
There is no begging for acceptance here. There is no hesitation. There are no more any longings in her heart. She wants to rest now – rest in the lap of Mother Earth.
Her words stun the assembly. They stun the sages and brahmanas. They stun the ministers and common men. They stun Rama.
With unbelieving eyes they see the earth splits open before them. From the opening rises up a divine throne adorned with divine ornaments, borne on the head of powerful serpents. On the throne is seated Goddess Earth. The Goddess stretches out her arms and speaks words of welcome to her daughter. She seats Sita beside her and the throne descends into the earth.
The heavens and the gods shower flowers upon Sita. The sky and the earth are filled with the sounds of approval. And in the middle of all that, while a stunned audience watches, Sita disappears into the earth.
She gives proof of her purity in a way no one will ever again question.
Rama will no more have to worry about the censure of the world because of her.
That is how Sita’s story ends in Valmiki Ramayana.
In Jaimini’s story, there is no mention of Shatrughna reaching Valmiki Ashram on the night Kusha and Lava are born. The children are of course taught the Ramayana by Valmiki, but it is as warriors that they grow up in the ashram and it is as warriors that we see them in the story. Valmiki gives them two bows and his friend Rishi Raibhya gives them two quivers that never go empty. Other sages give them all kinds of weapons empowered by mantras.
In Valmiki Ramayana we do not hear about the wanderings of the sacrificial horse. But in Jaimini, this is described in great detail. The most significant part of the ashwamedha story begins when the sacrificial horse, guarded by an army headed by Shatrughna, reaches Valmiki Ashram.
The sage is away at Patala, invited there by Varuna for a sacrifice. It is Lava who sees the sacrificial horse and captures it. He is challenged by the note tied to its forehead, which says, among other things, that Rama is the only true hero in the world and his mother Kausalya, the sole mother of a true hero. This infuriates Lava who asks: “Is our mother barren then? Hasn’t she given birth to an unsurpassed hero?”
It is refreshing to note here that Jaimini uses highly colloquial language much of the time in his telling. Lava’s speech here is charmingly colloquial.
A fierce battle follows, in which Lava proves himself an amazingly skilled warrior who is no less than Shatrughna in the battlefield. Eventually Shatrughna uses a sacred, infallible arrow. Though Lava breaks the arrow in two, he is wounded by one half of the arrow and faints. Shatrughna had been feeling great compassion for Lava throughout for two reason – for one thing, he is no more than a child, and another, he resembles child Rama in every way. He gathers the wounded, fainted Lava in his arms and carries him to his chariot.
Sita hears from ashram children that Lava has been wounded in the battlefield by some great warrior and wails at the news. It is then that Kusha who was away in the forest returns. She sends him to the battlefield. in the battle that follows, Kusha kills Shatrughna’s commander-in-chief and his bother. Shatrughna faints at the fierceness of Kusha’s attack. The rest of the soldiers run away to Ayodhya to give Rama the news.
By the time Lakshmana, sent by Rama, reaches the battlefield with a fierce army, Lava regains consciousness and joins the battle. Together, the two boys rout Lakshmana’s army. Kusha kills Lakshmana’s commander-in-chief Kalajit and renders Lakshmana unconscious, in battles described in at length by Jaimini in passages that remind us of the Mahabharata battle scenes.
Rama cannot go to the battlefield, since he has taken diksha for the sacrifice. Bharata now volunteers to go. But before he does so, he has a few interesting words to say to Rama.
He tells Rama not to grieve about Lakshmana – what has happened to him is exactly what he wanted to happen. He had no desire to live ever since he took Sita and left her in the jungle. In fact, he did not want to come back to Ayodhya after that but did so only to give Rama the news. But in spite of all that, Rama showed no kindness either to Sita or to Lakshmana. He has ever since been courting death. Lakshmana has voluntarily chosen death along with his brother Shatrughna. Lakshmana has finally freed himself from sin and now it is his turn to do so – he too is a sinner. In fact, he says, he had thought of killing himself when Rama abandoned Sita, but he did not want to do it in Ayodhya. Today his desire to end his life will be fulfilled and Rama should permit him by letting him go to the battle.
The strong guilt the brothers feel about Rama’s abandoning Sita is an additional feature of Jaimini Bharata. They see Rama’s action totally unwarranted and unjustified and their guilt about it is so strong, all three of them want to kill themselves. Though Jaimini does not expressly say it, they feel they too are responsible since they did not stop Rama from doing it.
In the battle with Kusha that follows, Angada, Nala, Jambavan, and Bharata fall into deathlike unconsciousness, seeing which Hanuman attacks Kusha and he too is becomes unconscious in Kusha’s counter attack. When Rama in Ayodhya is informed of this, he too reaches the battlefield, accompanied by Sugriva. Initially Rama refuses to fight with Kusha and Lava, seeing they are mere children, but they force him and Sugriva and a fierce battle ensues between the two sides in which the children become victorious and Rama and Sugriva become unconscious, wounded by their arrows.
Kusha and Lava have an idea now. They will tie up Hanuman and Jambavan and present them to Sita, who, they believe, will be entertained by them. Hanuman and Jambavan come out of their swoon by then, but they pretend to be still unconscious. When Sita seem them, she asks her sons to take them back into the battlefield and release them, fearing their death if they saw her.
Having described the valour of Lava and Kusha and the battle scenes in great detail, Jaimini now, with almost shocking abruptness, ends Rama’s Uttara Katha, which he calls Kusha-Lava-Upakhyana.
As Sita and her sons are talking, Valmiki reaches back from Patala. The children tell their guru all that has happened. He straight away goes to the battlefield, sprinkles empowered water on all and brings back all from death and unconsciousness. “These are your children,” he tells Rama. “Please accept them. And if you consider Sita innocent, please take her too with you.”
An amazed Rama gets up and goes back to Ayodhya to continue his sacrifice. While the sacrifice is in progress, Valmiki reaches there with Sita and her sons. Rama completes the sacrifice with them beside him and they all live ‘happily ever after’, their lives filled with love.
As an afterword to his story, Jaimini adds that Valmiki did not describe the tale of the battle between the father and his sons because he did not want the world to drown in an ocean of sorrow.
Jaimini’s telling of the Kusha-Lava-Upakhyana caught the imagination of India. Ever since he told it, it became an integral part of the Uttara Ramayana story. I remember watching scenes of the battles of Kusha and Lava with their uncles and with Hanuman. I watched them holding my breath as a child in second and third rate reproductions of them in movies. Five decades later, I can still recall the scenes with vivid intensity, in spite of the movies being of very poor quality; such is the power of Jaimini’s narration.
It is interesting to consider why Jaimini gives so much importance to these battle scenes which do not exist in Valmiki Ramayana.
Perhaps Jaimini was writing for a different audience than Valmiki [and Vyasa] did. There are several strong indications that Jaimini’s is a much later composition than the Adi Kavi’s and Vyasa’s. For instance, in both Valmiki and Vyasa, all messages are sent verbally, suggesting the absence of writing at the time of the composition of their works. Whereas in Jaimini we clearly see that writing exists. The ashwamedha horse carries a written message, probably on a plaque, on its forehead, which people read. In the story of Chadrahasa, the girl Vishaya changes the word visha [poison] in a written message to vishaya [her name]. [A very interesting episode! Chandrahasa who was supposed to be given visha on arrival is given Vishaya instead.] The social milieu and the customs described are very different too. Perhaps Jaimini’s audience relished the details of the ashwamedha – both in the case of Rama Ashwamedha and Yudhishthira Ashwamedha – more than the audience of Valmiki and Vyasa did. Perhaps he was writing in, and for, a medieval India that was torn by constant wars.
Also, perhaps poetic and literary conventions had undergone great changes and people expected happy endings to stories. In the case of Jaimini, he very obviously had in mind a happy ending for the Ramayana, even if it forces him to drop one of the most powerful scenes in the Ramayana and in world literature. He therefore drops the dramatically awesome scene of Sita’s rejection of Rama and entering the earth. Instead, he makes Sita tamely go with Valmiki to Rama and live with him ‘happily ever after’.
I do not see the Uttara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana as a later composition than Jaiminiya Ashwamedha Parva. To me, it has to be that Jaimini chose to omit Sita’s entering the earth, a story he was familiar with.
But it must be said that while Jaimini’s ending of the story comes as a big disappointment, his war scenes in the Kusha-Lava-Upakhyana are thrilling. He transforms two young boys who are really just talented singers in the Valmiki Ramayana into awesome warriors who defeat between themselves such a mighty line of warriors as Shatrughna, Lakshmana, Bharata and Rama, apart from Hanuman, Jambavan, Sugriva, Angada, Nala and numerous others, each a legend in his own right as a warrior.
While in the earlier part of his telling of the Uttara Rama Katha, Jaimini focus on pathos and succeeds in moving us to great depths of karuna, in the later part of the story what he wants is to thrill us with veera rasa – with the valour of his heroes – and he succeeds admirably in it too.