Vijayadashmi (Dussehra) is supposed to be a moment of empowerment, both literally and metaphorically. Ravana has been vanquished; Sita has been rescued; and the embodiment of perfect virtue, Ram, is about to end his exile. But we know from all Indian epics that the moment of triumph is just a smoke screen — the public celebration of a victory that is about to prove pyrrhic. This is usually recognised in the case of the Mahabharata, where the victory over the Kauravas is followed by carnage and suffering on an unprecedented scale; even the redeemers die ignominious deaths; and the human condition is fated to be like Ashwathama — an interminable walk through an existence that has neither hope nor redemption. There is a reason immortality is a curse.
But the Ramayana, even in the moment of its triumph, is no less melancholy. In the Mahabharata, the cumulative weight of resentments and past karma weighs down the future so much that you know any moments of respite will be more like paper boats, washed away by an over-determined past: Curse upon curse, sin upon sin. The Ramayana, and the moments of triumph in it feel even more melancholy precisely because Ram is the embodiment of full virtue. And yet, triumph turns into tragedy. The tragedy, of course, centres on the figure of Sita.
The Ram-Ravana conflict is given so much prominence, as that site of public hope, that moment of redemption and liberation. But, very frankly, it reads like a sideshow in the beating heart of the epic: The Ram-Sita love story, and a genuine love story it is. What happens after the victory, including Uttarakanda, is central to the meaning and sadness of the text. On this narrative, the Ramayana becomes exactly the opposite: Not the victory of good over evil, but the permanent triumph of injustice. Ram, that embodiment of virtue, encounters an immovable injustice that diminishes him.
Vijayadashmi is melancholic because the real and deep evil will surface only now, after the political triumph over Ravana has been achieved. An unspeakable injustice will be meted out against Sita, who as Ram knows, and everyone knows, has done nothing to deserve it. The psychological ordeal is probably even worse: Ravana had abducted Sita. But now she is repeatedly the accused. Her virtue does not get protected against being defamed; she can be, with impunity, meted out punishment by her defamers. Her treatment is the point at which every single virtue breaks down: He was supposed to redeem even “impure” women like Ahalya; here, even the embodiment of purity gets punished. The compassionate saviour who is supposed to rehabilitate everyone turns on the just. The punishment is cloaked in some high principle of kingship: Ram wants to retain the confidence of his subjects. He sacrifices everything for the sake of dharma. But this is rubbish. There is no dharma here. Ram went into exile against his subjects’ wishes, so popular acclaim is not the issue here. Sita has also already undergone an unjustified trial, but that equivalent of due process seems nothing in the face of innuendo and rumour.
She can be criminally defamed, while her accusers and those meting out punishment will not see justice. In Sita’s case, malicious gossip has more authoritative status than the public trial. If dharma can be held hostage to the vagaries of public opinion, it is not clear what that dharma is. Ram, the embodiment of virtue, becomes a full coward, who cannot even look Sita in the eye, and has to resort to subterfuge to banish her. Yes, his personal commitment to her, his absolute fidelity, his practising austerity himself to make amends, is never in doubt. But that amounts to roughly nothing. Rama suffers, but he does not do justice.
The act of Sita’s banishment is the reductio ad absurdum of the epic. The public, very easily visible political evil of the battle between Ram and Ravana is easy to resolve. It takes all our public energies. But the evil implicit in the accumulated weight of culture seems almost impossible to confront. Ram has no confidence in his own truth. At every moment he repudiates her, he does so by accusing her. When she is vindicated, he turns around to say that this was necessary so that she could be publicly seen to be vindicated. Ram has to hide behind her unjustified trial, and in the end, behind the testimony of Valmiki. Sita is guilty even if proven innocent; her accusers are believed even if they have not proved anything at all.
It was Valmiki’s greatness that he left these questions hanging. There is no sugar coating the outcome. There are no theological acrobatics (the distinction between Ram the avatar, and Ram the man). Many later writers, like the great Bhavabhuti and Dinganga, wanted more Bollywood endings: Ram and Sita are united; separation would be for love to admit its own defeat. But while the outcomes are happier in these plays, the ethical dilemmas are not really resolved. Ram is not quite absolved. Sita repeatedly calls Ram “merciless”. The threat in their works comes from the fact that it is not the rulers’ fault: It is the people who are without any restrictions (loko nirankush). The people here is not people understood in a democratic sense; it is the norms of the people. That Ram who can vanquish Ravana cannot vanquish cultural norms; for this he needs outside assistance, the help of poets and seers.
Ram is reduced to pathetic self-doubt over truth. Sita puts him out of his misery and constant vacillation, by settling the question of her truth, once and for all, by returning to her mother Earth. Of course, Ram is in a sense broken by this grief. Rescuing Sita from Ravana was easier; rescuing her truth from cultural norms, the weight of public opinion, almost impossible. In fact, there is something so merciless about those cultural norms that they invert everything: Due process becomes injustice, the accusers become the accused.
While Ram and Sita may be theologically incomplete without each other, the weight of gender norms makes their union impossible. It is almost as if Valmiki ends up saying: The battle that ends at Vijayadashmi was a cake walk. The battle that comes after is the one Sita will have to fight alone: There is no redeemer like Ram who will fight this battle. The conventional truth is not her ally. Sita will one day take the initiative. And then see all other truths fall by the wayside.