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Sita's fire sacrifice

Tomorrow is Janaka Jayanti, and we should reflect that it is the insight of understanding in how we affect others, what role we have in their lives, which moves us beyond selfishness and isolation.

Most of us are familiar with the basics of the Ramayana, but still are unaware that Sita was the daughter of Ravana - the famous beloved devotee of Shiva, and founder of mysticism, who usually (despite the very best of intentions) tragically (and frequently humorously) misunderstood all the lessons Shiva tried to teach him. 

She was the daughter of Ravana's first wife Vidyadhara Maya, one of the attendants of Shiva who possessed special wisdom regarding Maya.  Sita was also the first born of Ravana, and was therefore the first in line to the throne.  But Ravana had been told that when Sita took her inheritance, it would be Ravana's ruin (in an economic sense) and the destruction (in the sacrificial sense) of his lineage.  Ravana was meant to understand that Sita would marry Rama, and Ravana would give in sacrifice all that was his to his daughter and son-in-law, and that Ravana's line would become something new with Rama's fatherhood.  But instead, Ravana acted with his usual degree of well intentioned ignorance and utilizing his arts of mysticism, especially astrology, he determined he needed to give up his first born and heir for adoption.

There was at the time a King, Janaka, who was undertaking a ritual by which he would finally give up all his attachments to possessions - the very ritual which, ironically, Ravana should have undertaken to prepare for the marriage gift required by his daughter. The ritual is not complex, nor is it the only means of detachment - but it requires understanding the illusionary nature (maya) of attachment: by this understanding, the wisdom of Vidyadhara Maya is possible, and frequently obtained. 

To complete the ritual, Janaka was symbolically plowing a fallow field: this is when and where Ravana left Sita for Janaka to find, in the freshly plowed furrow, in the arms of Agni (the furrow is like the flame in similar fire yajnas) and Bhumi (the earth itself).  And why Sita has always been associated with the benefits of established cultivation (both in the agricultural sense, and the spiritual sense) - and why Agni, her godfather, and Bhumi, her godmother, always protect her and her devotees. 

Janaka had been entrusted with the bow of Vishnu, and left it on a table.  Only Rama could lift the bow, and use it.  When Sita was young, she was playing with her adopted siblings, and lifted up the bow - and the table it was resting on.  Janaka knew then that Sita was Ramaa (the female component of Rama).

Of course, the matter of how her husband forced Ravana to give the dowry due to his first born, and the end of his lineage, is better known.  The matter of her two exiles, and her single motherhood at her Ashram, is of some interest - only because it may seem unjust, until it is understood in the context of more ancient stories incorporated by reference into the Ramayana: this is the consequence of the harm she (agricultural cultivation) caused to the wild and domestic plants and animals.  It is also because of her refusal to forgive Ravana, and assume the duties of his Kingdom - her submission to Rama, not as his equal or superior, but as a subordinate, because like her father, Ravana, she lets her lust blind her to her love, and falls victim to attachment.  The punishments she suffers echo the cycle of suffering required by both humanity's necessity to dominate each other through justice and law, as well as that necessity to dominate nature through agriculture.  And when at last she remembers her true nature, and undertakes a different sacrifice to gain that same understanding as Janaka obtained during her adoption, and discovers her true mother (Vidyadhara Maya), she perfects her skill in Karma Yoga to break free of the consequences of her wrongdoing. 

It is at this moment that it is discovered that Agni never abandoned his charge, and had protected her true self all the time: the realized (true) Sita emerges from the fire, as the illuionary Sita (the Sita formed through attachment and Maya) is burned away.  We see something similar during her second exile, when Bhumi has protected her (true) self, and Sita undertakes the agricultural process to "tame" or "civilize" that wildness in her, much as her adoptive father did. 

Of course, as long and complex as the Ramayana is, it is only one episode in a longer story of Vishnu's male and female components.  Though this is a story of unspeakable suffering, it should be said that before the end, Vishnu reunites its two halves, when it learns to love itself.  The self-conquest of Vishnu by Vishnu, involving the numerous major and minor avataras, is another longer story.  And is not resolved until the end: when we finally understand that we love ourselves, it takes another leap of understanding to understand how to love ourselves, and to actually love ourselves, and then get good at it.  When Gotama reflected upon his memories of Sita, and thought upon Yasodhara, he understood it is not enough to merely love ourselves, we must love ourselves skillfully.  We cannot be consumed by the fire, nor fail to kindle it hot enough to accept our sacrifices; we must not hesitate to break the fallow field, though it will cause harm and perpetuate a cycle of suffering, if that is our duty.  We cannot fear suffering if we are to overcome it.  Like Vishnu, we must immerse ourselves in life's joys and sorrows if we are to be strengthened by them.