Darbha in Bastar is the site of the deadliest-ever Maoist attack on a political party, which killed 27 people, including Chhattisgarh Congress president NK Patel and Mahendra Karma in May 2013. In the Valmiki Ramayana, the first sight that catches Rama’s eye as he enters the aranya (wilderness) of Dandaka with Sita and Lakshmana during his exile is a marvellous landscape covered with darbha, considered the most sacred grass in Vedic literature. The ‘Aranya Kanda’ begins with a vivid description of darbha and Dandakaranya, the seat of revered sages.
The transformation of Ramayana’s darbha into a treacherous battlefield between the Maoists and the security forces is a reflection on the civilisation that seems to have squandered the wisdom of its epics.
Spread across several states, with an area of over 92,000 sq km, Dandakaranya is bigger than states like West Bengal, Assam and Jharkhand. The land of pristine forests has been converted into a graveyard over the last four decades, as the sacred grass came to nourish the mightiest insurgency of independent India.
Sita, who rarely figures in the contemporary, aggressive discourse on Rama, had anticipated the turmoil in Dandakaranya: by noting that any violation of the jungle leads to destruction. It’s a chapter of the Ramayana that has rarely been heard. But it is a chapter that India needs to revisit today. Not just in Bastar, but elsewhere, too, as it confronts uprisings across its geography.
Soon after Rama enters the aranya, Sita delivers a lecture on Kshatriya dharma. A rare instance in the epic when Sita advises her husband to be cautious. He has decided to eliminate the demons living there, but Sita warns that his use of force may damage the forest and his own reputation. Of three grave evils, she notes, two — the “habit of telling specious words” and “vile desire for other’s women” — are absent in him. However, he should be particularly careful about the third, “cruelness without enmity”. “That third tendency to torture others’ lives without enmity, that which will usually be effectuated unwarily, has now suddenly chanced before you,” Sita says — a clear warning against collateral damage. She fears that in his fight against the demons, Rama may inflict injury on innocent humans and non-humans living in the forest.
“Oh, brave one, your going towards Dandaka forest is not delightful to me, I will tell the cause for that and listen to it as I tell,” she says, outlining the grave possibility that “seeing the forest ramblers there, won’t you deplete arrows on all of them?” Here, Sita is outlining the rules of war. If it’s not just, if it hurts innocents, it’s pure evil.
Sita doesn’t stop here, and goes on to elaborate how making weapons his constant companion may destroy a human. Questioning the prevailing tenets of Kshatriya dharma, she narrates to Rama the tale of a sage, who was once gifted a mighty sword by Indra to guard against animals. The sage carried the sword wherever he went, and soon came a time when “even to obtain tubers or fruits, he did not go without that sword”. The “constant association of the weapon” soon turned him into an “infuriated” human, and “smitten by vice, he went to hell”.
Warning Rama against such association with weapons, Sita says: “Improper is that thought of yours to wield your bow to kill the rakshasas (demons) dwelling in Dandaka without any enmity, oh, brave one, undesirable is the killing of the innocent.”
This is yet another incisive intervention that questions the Kshatriya and kingly duties Rama wants to perform. For, here she says that even Rakshasas have a right to a dignified life and he cannot harm them or intrude into their forests unless they commit an offence. Located in an ancient text, Sita articulates a wisdom that could be the foundational feature of any modern constitution.
Cautioning him of the doom that may befall him and noting that “there appears to be no beneficial good for you” in the entire endeavour, she says: “A mind that admires weapons becomes maligned with avarice” and advises him to “always tread along righteousness with a pure mind, oh, gentle one, and specially in these sagely forests.”
In effect, just when Rama is about to begin his greatest adventure that will define the epic, Sita questions the entire Dandakaranya campaign by listing the grave faults inherent in it. Rama, of course, goes ahead, arguing that he has already promised the sages to clear the forest: “I may forfeit my life, forgo Lakshmana, or even forsake you but not a promise, that too especially made to Brahmans, and having promised I can never go back.” A Kshatriya’s promise overruled sane advice, but, by then, Sita had already written the future of Dandakaranya.
In Sanskrit texts, Dandakaranya had a layered personality. It was a wilderness that offered asylum to kings in exile. It was the habitat of revered sages. Princes visited them here to receive wisdom. It was the abode of marvellous beings like yakshas and gandharvas, creatures like rakshasas, besides several communities and non-human beings.
By the late 19th century, a contemptuous hierarchy had emerged, where the city was considered more civilised than the forest. In independent India, Dandakaranya survives as a geographical entity full of minerals that have to be extracted at any cost. The forest is now considered to be inhabited by savages, who need to be tamed and, if need be, annihilated.
Even if he ignored Sita’s advice, Rama, nevertheless, lived by ethics and righteousness. For the contemporary market and the state, the forest is a space to be brought under domination. The collateral damage is infinitely more now. The Adivasis are now the unwitting combatants in the ongoing war between the state and the Maoists — some have donned the khaki uniform, others have joined the guerrilla brigade. Whoever survives in the end, the destruction will match that of the Mahabharata.
In another of his texts, Yog Vashishta, Valmiki wrote that “the world is like the impression left by the telling of a story”. The ongoing violence in Dandakaranya, perhaps, reflects the impressions of Sita’s tale about the sage who, having been given a deadly weapon, became addicted to it. The Adivasis have also been handed over weapons by both the sides. Teenage boys have grown addicted to the mighty AK-47 rifles and under-barrel grenade launchers.
Kshatriya dharma prevented Rama from paying heed to Sita; the state is driven by sheer greed to capture the forest. Is this nation paying the price for ignoring her, not just in Dandakaranya but elsewhere as well?
Before the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, a temple Sita Ki Rasoi stood near the disputed site. The 1908 Imperial Gazetteer of India lends great significance to the Rasoi. It notes “Ramkot” as the “holy spot where the hero was born”, and adds: “Close by is a larger temple in which is shown the cooking place of Sita.” The temple movement has completely eclipsed the Rasoi that is now in ruins, indicating yet another banishment of Sita.
In the aftermath of the mosque’s demolition, the philosopher Ramchandra Gandhi wrote Sita’s Kitchen: A Testimony of Faith and Inquiry (1992), terming the Rasoi “an ambience of domesticity and divinity…where Godhead-incarnate Sita cooked delicious and nutritious meals for the Raghava household.” It was also “the Divine Mother’s laboratory of manifestation and field of nourishment.” “The voluminous mosque-baiting propaganda of Hindu indignation,” Gandhi wrote, “was also devoid of any reference to Sita’s kitchen.”
I spent the Diwali of 2016 in Ayodhya on a reporting assignment. I was surprised to find that the festival was bereft of the lights one associates with it in other parts of northern India. Diwali in Ayodhya, locals said, has often been “fiki (flavourless)”. Compared to the other famous and vibrant temple cities like Mathura and Kashi, Ayodhya looked desolate and melancholic.
They called it Sita ka shraap (the curse of Sita). “When Sita was wrongfully accused and banished from Ayodhya on account of a washerman, the inhabitants of this city were cursed that they would never prosper. Ayodhya carries the burden of that curse,” said Shubhangie Mishra, one of the youngest members of Ayodhya’s erstwhile royal family. Mahant Satyendra Das, the head priest of the makeshift Rama temple, had agreed: “If you cause injustice to a true saint, even if she doesn’t say anything, you will inevitably be hit by her curse.”
“Rishiyon ki kshama shraap se bhaari (A sage’s forgiveness is heavier than her curse). Ayodhya has been in ruins since,” he had said, insisting that her curse is felt periodically. Is the violent temple movement yet another manifestation of it?
It, perhaps, began much earlier, with a warning against the use of force on innocents in Dandakaranya.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a writer and journalist