For some people the episode of Rama exiling Sita to the forest, while she was five months pregnant, is one of the most disturbing and incomprehensible events in the Ramayana. It seriously tests their faith; and in some cases actually breaks it, leading some to even offend Lord Rama. They forget it is a divine lila and that the Lord has His own reasons for doing what He does, and that they are not always within the purview of our tiny understanding.
Most devotees realize that we cannot always enter into the Lord’s mysteries. That we have to accept Krsna on His terms, and that no matter how it may seem to us, that Krsna always has our best interests at heart. To them Krsna is their Lord no matter what, as exemplified in the last verse of Lord Caitanya’s Siksastaka.
“I know no one but Krsna as my Lord, and He shall remain so even if He handles me roughly in His embrace or makes me brokenhearted by not being present before me. He is completely free to do anything and everything, for He is always my worshipful Lord unconditionally.”
However the sastras are vast and in them many apparent contradictions and mysteries are resolved including the mystery of why Rama exiled pregnant Sita to the forest.
According to Madhvacarya’s Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya 2.3-4 the original Mula Ramayana was a massive work consisting of 100 crore slokas (1 billion) while the currently available Valmiki Ramayana consists of only 24,000 slokas. Thus we only have an insignificant fraction of the original Ramayana making for a lot of lacuna that need to be filled in. In this current Kali yuga that will not be possible but we do get some help from the Puranas most of which have parts dedicated to Rama-lila and often fill in some details not found in the Valmiki Ramayana. As an example Srimad Bhagavatam has three chapters (10-12) in canto nine, dedicated to Lord Rama.
The greatest repository of Ramalila in the puranas that I know of is the Padma Purana wherein much of the fifth canto is devoted to Lord Rama. It even includes a narration of the Ramayana that took place in a earlier kalpa and is different (kalpa bheda) in some resepects to the more recent Ramayana . This canto is entitled “Patalakhanda” in it the assemble sages ask Suta to give an account of Lord Rama’s activities. Suta in turn narrates a conversation between Vatsyayana Rsi and Ananta Sesanaga.
The 57th chapter in the 5th canto reveals the secret of why Rama exiled Sita to the forest but before getting to that chapter let me first succinctly describe what happened in the previous two chapters so that you understand the context.
The custom in Vedic civilization is that the king would have a vast espionage system in place to understand what was happening both inside and outside his kingdom. Lord Rama followed this practice and had His six main spies go out and listen to what the citizens of Ayodhya said about their king. Five of the spies heard the citizens glorifying Lord Rama with great love and affection. But the sixth spy going to the quarters of the artisans overheard the following conversation of a washer man:
“A washer man, with his eyes red due to anger and full of anger kicked his wife who had stayed at another’s house, and despised her: “From my house, go to the house of him where you stayed for a day. I shall not accept you who violate my commands.” Then his mother said to him: “Do not abandon her who has come (back) to (our) house, who has not committed any fault, and who is free from bad acts.” The angry washer man said to his mother: “I am not as great as Rama as to accept (my wife) who stayed in another’s house. Whatever that king does, might by lawful; (but) I will not accept my wife who has stayed in another’s house.” He again and again said these words: “I am not king Rama who protected Sita that had stayed in another’s house.”
~ Padma Purana 5.55.68-73
The spy was greatly angry to hear such defamation of Rama and Sita but did not kill the offender remembering Rama’s command not to kill any of His subjects. All the spies agreed that this negative report should not be given to Lord Rama. But in the morning when they met with Rama it became evident from his countenance that the spy was hiding something. But, despite continued commands from Rama he refused to divulge the popular scandal started by the washer man. Finally one of the other spies told him “you have to tell what was said by the artisans (sudras), even if it is not fit to be told.”
At that point the spy after being persistently asked by Rama very reluctantly retold what he had heard. The words fell on Rama like a thunderbolt and He fainted. On regaining His senses He asked for his brother Bharata and explained to Him that He (Rama) had now brought infamy to His lineage because of the insults of the washer man regarding Sita. He asked Bharata “should I abandon my (pregnant) wife or commit suicide?”
Bharat tried to dissuade Rama by reminding that even Lord Brahma declared Sita to be pure. But Rama replied that He knew that but was afraid of a public scandal and again ordered Bharata to either exile Sita or cut off His (Rama’s) head. On hearing such unpleasant words Bharata also fainted.
Up to now the narration is familiar to those acquainted with the Ramayana. The next chapter reveals the secret of why Sita was exiled by revealing the previous birth of Krodhana, the washer man – the only person in Ayodhya who criticized Sita, bringing infamy to Rama. At this point we turn to the Padma Purana canto 5, chapter 57.
The Dhobi (Washer Man’s) Former Birth
1-2. O you of a good vow, tell me how the Lord received the utterance of the censure of Janaki having pure, excellent fame in the world. O Sesa , do that by which my mind shall have very splendid happiness, so that I who drink the nectar coming out from your mouth, shall be satisfied, and by which my worldly existence will be cut off.
A version of the Ramayana is also popular in Thailand. A painted mural at the Emerald Buddha Temple in Bangkok, Thailand, shows the infant Sita sitting in a gold urn as she is discovered by a king ploughing his fields.
3-11. In Mithila, a great city, there lived a king by name Janaka. Pleasing his subjects, he ruled righteously. When that Siradhvaja (i.e. Janaka) was ploughing the field, an extremely beautiful girl came out from the long, first furrow. Then king Siraketu (i.e. Janaka) became extremely glad. He named her, the fascinating one, the glory of the world, Sita. When she, extremely charming, was playing in the grove of the garden, she saw a pair of a male and a female parrot that delighted her mind. The parrots were extremely delighted and lustful, and affectionately talking to each other in pleasant words.
That pair, enjoying (each other’s company), quickly flew in the sky, settled on the lap of a mountain, and spoke (to each other) : “On the earth, charming Rama will be the king. His wife will be (a woman ) by name Sita. The intelligent, powerful king, vanquishing (his enemies), will rule (over the earth) along with her for eleven thousand years. Blessed is that queen Janaki, and blessed is he, named Rama, who having approached each other, will gladly enjoy.”
12-16. When the couple of parrots was conversing in this way, Maithili, observing their words and realizing that this was a divine couple and thinking, “this couple of parrots is telling charming tales about me, ( so) I shall catch the couple, and will ask about all the words, the meaning of which is already expressed” she said to her friends : “Slowly catch this charming pair of the birds.” The friends just then went to the mountain, and caught the excellent pair of the birds, and with a desire to do what was dear to their friend (Sita), reported it to her. Seeing the pair uttering many words in various ways, she comforted them, and said to them these words.
17-18. Do not be scared. Who are you two, the charming ones? Where have you come from? Who is Rama, and who is Sita? Wherefrom did you have the information about them? Tell me all that quickly. Let your fear of me go away.
The pair of birds said1:
19-26. There is a very great sage Valmiki who is the best among those who know dharma. That sage made his disciples sing the future adventures of Rama. He, engrossed in the wellbeing of all beings, everyday remembered its words. All those future adventures of Rama, being sung repeatedly, were heard by both of us; they came to us (i.e. were mastered by us) due to repetition. Listen to them. In the end we shall tell who that Rama is and who that Janaki is and what will happen to her with Rama of a playful nature. Glorious Visnu, good stories about whom are sung by celestial women, will, having divided Himself into four, come up at the sacrifice performed by Rsyasrnga.
He, having a bow in his hand, will come along with Visvamitra and His own brothers to Mithila. Then there seeing a bow difficult to be taken (i.e. wielded) by other kings, He will break it , and will obtain the very charming daughter of Janaka. O excellent one, we have heard that with her He will rule over a large kingdom. O you of a beautiful body, we who had flown there, heard this and other (things) about you, told by those who lived there. Release us who desire to go.
27-40. Grasping (i.e. hearing) these words very pleasant to the ears, she again spoke (these) words to that pair of birds : “Where would that Rama be? Whose son (will he be)? In what way will He marry her? What form will the excellent man have? Tell me exactly all this that I have asked you. Later I will do all good things liked by you.” Hearing those ( words), the female parrot , seeing Janaki and realizing in her heart that she was oppressed by love, then said to her: “There will be an intelligent mighty king having a line of chariots, and the scion of the solar dynasty, having resorted to whom gods will be fully victorious. He will have three wives, having forms that will fascinate (even) Indra. On them (i. e. from them) four children (sons) lofty on account of might, will be born.
Rama will be the eldest of all. Bharata is said to be (born) after him. After him (i.e. Bharata) Laksmana (will be born), and after him (will be born) Satrughna, powerful everywhere. The large-minded one (i.e. Rama) will go by the name Raghunatha. They will have endless names; O friend, the face of the powerful Rama will be charming like the calyx of a lotus. His very long (i.e. large) eyes will have the beauty of lotuses. His nose will be raised, large and charming. His eyebrows will be lovely and charming due to their being harmonious. His lovely hands will be hanging up to his knees. His very small neck will be charming like a conch. His chest will be plain and expansive and charming. His chest will be pure and will have a mark.
Endowed with the beauty of charming thighs and waist, he will have a pair of knees, pure and naturally adored. His lotus-like feet will always be worshipped by all his (votaries). The very charming Raghupati (will be like this). Rama possesses a form like this. Who am I to describe Him? Even one having a hundred mouths cannot describe Him. Then what about birds like me? Seeing his form, (even) Laksmi, charming and having a beautiful body, was enticed. (Then) which (lady) is there on the earth that will not be enticed? He has great power, great valour, and has a very enticing form. What power do I have to describe Rama endowed with all glory and virtues?
41-53. Lucky is that queen Janaki (i.e. Sita), having a very attractive form, who will gladly enjoy with him for a myriad years. O beautiful lady, who are you? What is your name that you cleverly and respectfully ask me to narrate (the account) of Rama?” Hearing these words, Janaki, telling the couple of birds about the charming and enticing (story of) her birth, said to them: “I am that Janaki, the daughter of Janaka, whom you mentioned. I shall truly release you when that very charming Rama comes to me; not otherwise — being (just) allured by your words! I shall caress you. You, having (i.e. speaking) sweet words, stay happily (with me).”
Hearing these words they trembled and were frightened. They were mutually (i.e. both) afraid; (and) said this to Janaki: “O good lady, we are birds, living in forests and resorting to trees. We wander everywhere. We would not get happiness (merely by staying) at home. I am pregnant. Having gone to my place and having given birth to sons (i.e. young ones) I shall come (back). I have told you the truth.” (Though) thus addressed by the female parrot, Sita did not release her.
Then her husband (i.e. the male parrot), eager, and with his face hung down spoke to her : “Sita, release my wife. How do you keep this my beautiful wife? We shall go to the forest and shall happily move in the forest. My charming wife would be (i.e. is) pregnant. Having performed her (i.e. after her) delivery I shall come to you, O lovely one?” Thus, addressed, Sita said to him: “O you very intelligent one, you can gladly go. I shall keep this happy one, doing what is dear to me, near me.” Thus addressed, the bird was unhappy; and full of tenderness, he said to her: “Those words which are uttered by the meditating saints are true: (The words are:)
54-56. ‘One should not speak, one should not speak. One should remain by resorting to silence. Otherwise, due to the blemish in one’s utterance, the mad one would be fettered.’ Had we not talked (to each other) on this tree, how would we have been bound? Therefore, one should resort to silence.” Saying so, he spoke to her: “O beautiful lady, O Sita, I shall not live without this wife of mine. Therefore, O you charming one, leave her.”
Royal Thai dance troupe performing Ramayana
57-66. Though admonished with various words, Sita did not release her. The (parrot’s) wife, who was angry, and miserable, then cursed Janaka’s daughter: “As you are separating me from my husband, in the same way you will be, when pregnant, separated from Rama.”2 When she, the afflicted one, was repeatedly saying like this, her life departed due to misery, full of the distress of her husband. For her who was repeatedly remembering Rama and uttering (the name) Rama, a divine car properly arrived. The female parrot became luminous when she had gone to heaven.
When she died, her husband, that lord of birds, was extremely angry, and being distressed, fell into Ganga: “In Rama’s city, full of people, I will be born as (a sudra so) that due to my words she will be dejected, and extremely unhappy due to separation (from her husband).” Saying so, he who was distressed, angry, frightened and shaking due to separation from her, fell into the water of Ganga graced with eddies. Due to his being angry, due to his being distressed, and due to his having insulted Sita, he obtained very (mean) sudrahood (as he was born as) a washer man named Krodhana. That best bird (or best brahmana) who, doing ill to the great, abandons his life through anger, obtains sudrahood after he dies. That took place. Due to the words of the washer man she was censured and separated. On account of the curse of the washer man, she was separated (from Rama), and she went to the forest.
67. O brahmana, I have told you what you had asked about (Sita), born in Videha. Listen to the further account here (i.e. regarding Sita). I (shall) narrate it.
1. One may wonder how it is that parrots can have an intelligent conversation with a human. First of all it is stated that the parrots were divine suggesting capabilities beyond the ordinary. Second of all the Ramayana takes place during Treta yuga a period of time that ended about 869,000 years ago. During Treta yuga it is described that people lived an average of 10,000 years, were much more intelligent, possessed mystic powers and in many ways significantly more advanced than today. And, that with each successive yuga they deteriorate till they reach a nadir in the current Kali yuga that just started 5000 years ago. So if humans were more advanced and deteriorated then presumably the same happened to other life forms not just humans. A prominent element of the Ramayana is the existence of animals specifically monkeys and bears who can converse with humans and who also possess yogic powers.
2. It may be asked how is it that divine Sita (and Rama) can be affected by a mere curse? The answer is that in His lila Rama and His divine associates are perfectly playing the part of humans and as such allow Themselves to be subjected to such things as curses so that the lila can be performed.
~ Shyamasundara Dasa, Jyotish Cudamani, Vedic Astrologer
Vyasadeva (1990). Padma Purana (Deshpande, N.A., Trans. first edition, vol. 5). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. LTD.