The sun that rose on Ayodhya that morning seemed less vibrant. Clouds obscured the first rays to fall on the paddy fields surrounding the city. Some farmers and farm workers already were working in the fields. Residents were putting out lanterns as visibility improved. In the distance stood the magnificent palace – the most revered real estate in the history of mankind.
The palace folk were up and about early – sweeping floors, watering plants and tying garlands. The kitchen was bustling with activity. Bhagwan Shri Raam was an early riser and needed his sumptuous breakfast before he headed out to the court. Attendants were hurrying in and out of rooms trying to get the day off to an energetic start.
Prince Lakshmana woke up, finished his ablutions and headed out towards elder brother Raam’s chamber. Before heading out into the city to listen to grievances he always took the blessings of his brother and sister-in-law. This morning was no different. But as he entered the chamber he could sense something was amiss. His brother had a broody disposition this morning. His sister-in-law was nowhere to be seen. He bent down to touch his brother’s feet and asked about the whereabouts of his second mother. Raam mumbled something about the garden and looked away. Lakshmana thought they probably had the first ever husband-wife tiff.
The garden was a vast land full of gorgeous pathways, marvelous stone sculptures, colorful yet fragrant flowers and provided a commanding view of the beautiful city of Ayodhya. There under a pavilion stood Sita staring at the sun struggling to rise above those ominous dark clouds. Lakshmana approached her and touched her feet. Startled, she looked down to see who it was. A few tears from her cheeks gushed down and fell on Lakshmana’s hand.
“Maata – what is the matter? You are not in your chamber this morning. You are staring into the oblivion and crying. Did anyone say anything to you? Did anyone insult my brother? Please tell me” said Lakshmana in a pleading tone, clearly concerned with the happenings of this strange morning.
She did not respond immediately. But when she spoke her voice was soft but confident. She gently placed her palm on Lakshmana’s head and said, “My dear Lakshmana. I am going to ask you to do something. You will not disapprove or protest. Do I have your word?”
Lakshmana sensed a storm brewing. But he never countered his sister-in-law and he vowed he never will. He nodded in agreement.
“I will explain to you why I am doing this. You are like a son to me – my first child. All these years in the forest you have protected me. You have fought battles and wars. You have put your life in danger to ensure my safety. You disagreed and protested against – of all the people – your brother when he asked me to prove my chastity on my return from Lanka. You probably cannot fathom the ignominy I suffered at that time. As a woman I felt outraged. I could have asked your brother to prove the same. But I let it go. But now, something has happened and I need to take action.”
A thousand thoughts spun in Lakshmana’s head. A full lifetime worth memories flashed in his mind. The scheduled coronation ceremony, the shocking promise being extracted, the terrible life in the forest, the war with Ravana and then finally the thunderbolt jolt of his brother asking her to prove her purity. What was going on? What happened? What was she going to ask him to do?
Sita carried on in a strangely unemotional monotone, “Last night your brother came back from one of his incognito jaunts very disturbed. I have seen him concerned about the affairs of the state before. But this was much more than that. He said that people were talking about me. He overheard a husband berate his wife saying he is not Bhagwan Raam to take her back after she spent an evening away from home. I understand your brother’s burden. But then he said something that broke it for me. He said, ‘how can I face my subjects now?’ I have nothing against your brother. He sees himself as the perfect king. He probably finds it disgraceful to rule a kingdom where the queen has lost respect. As king and emperor he is within his rights to feel that way. The entire population of this great land looks up to him and he needs to deliver. I have done within my power as a wife. But now it’s time for me to be a woman and exercise my rights. I want you to get the chariot ready. Wait for me at the front of the palace. You will be my charioteer and we will head east. I will be out there in a few minutes.”
Lakshmana did not have many words to respond. By the time he collected his wits his beloved sister-in-law had disappeared from sight. He did not know why she wanted him to ready the vehicle. He did not know where they were going. But just as ever, he did as told.
Wearing no jewelry and only in simple garbs of a saint the queen of Ayodhya arrived at the front gate. Nobody followed her, certainly not her king. She boarded the chariot and asked her driver to start moving. They rode for several hours. She did not speak a word during the time. As the sun began its reluctant descent into the western sky she asked Lakshmana to stop the chariot. As she alighted, she took one last look at her dear son.
“Saumitri, It is now time for you to go back to your brother. He needs you. Whatever I said this morning, it’s because future generations must learn that what I am doing is my decision. I want people to know I am not a weakling that took every insult, every abuse lying down. I have decided to live life on my terms, in the wild – among animals that treat me better. I would prefer to be a survivor among animals than among humans. Take care of your brother”
As she disappeared into the woods Lakshmana felt he was dying a thousand deaths. He was overcome with pain, anguish and shame. He fell to his knees, looked up at the darkening skies and let out a tormented cry. He did not know how long he cried. He got up, got on the chariot and rode lifelessly back to his capital.