The Arsonist

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Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

We acclaim the glorious story of Sri Rama as an epic par excellence. It is for us a guidebook to righteous conduct, a pre-eminent work on psychology depicting ideal human relationships, a compendium on military strategy and war craft and a manual of administration. All these and other aspects are portrayed by Sri Valmiki through appropriate characterisation.

If we consider the totality of the Epic, we find that but for the Divine Duo, the most complete character appears to be Sri Hanuman. His wondrous, amazing and astounding exploits fill us with astonishment?the crossing of the ocean to Lanka, his dealing summarily with the hurdles that crop up in the process, his dare-devilry in the opponent’s capital, his affording reassurance both to the beleagured Janaki Devi and the sorrowful Chakravartthi Tirumagan, his exploits on the battle field, his transportation of the
Sri Ram Darbar
Sanjeevi Parvatam for the rejuvenation of Lakshmana’all these fill us with a feeling of incredulity, chiefly because of our inability to imagine anyone being capable of doing all this and emerging totally unscathed.

After achieving his avowed mission of locating the whereabouts of Sri Mythily and instilling in Her fresh hope of imminent rescue by Sri Raghava, Sri Maruti decides to let the Rakshasas have a taste of his prowess. Instead of quietly returning to Kishkindha as he should have done, Sri Hanuman indulges himself by disposing of several hundred Rakshasas, including some distinguished ones like JambhumAli and seven other sons of Ravana’s ministers, five of his top military commanders, AkshakumAra (the youngest son of Ravana’s) et al. And again in sport, he lets himself be bound by the BrahmAstra, out of regard for Brahma and permits himself to be brought to Ravana’s court, availing the opportunity to insult Lankesvara and sing the glorious praises of Sri Rama.

Burning with rage, Ravana wants to kill Hanuman, but is deterred by Vibhishana’s quoting the scripture in support of not killing a messenger. Instead, Ravana deems it a fit punishment for the monkey, to set fire to its tail, which he considers to be the worst humiliation that can be inflicted on the creature. Enthusiastic underlings immediately tie a lot of old clothes to Maruti’s tail, pour gallons of oil over it and set fire to the tail. And thousands of them join to pull Hanuman all over the streets of Lanka, bursting with pride at having captured and humiliated the incredible intruder.

When news of this is carried by Her jailers to Sri Janaki, She immediately prays to Agni Bhagavan not to hurt Hanuman”SeethO bhava HanUmata’. At the other end, Sri Anjaneya is extremely surprised to find his tail burning furiously but generating little discomfort for him. He decides to teach the Rakshasas a lesson they wouldn’t forget in a hurry.

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With his burning tail, Maruti leaps over the houses of Ravana’s courtiers, choosing with care the magnificent residences of ministers and military commanders. With a mild swipe of his tail, Hanuman sets fire to these residences, which crumble to mere embers in a matter of minutes, due to the intensity of the heat. Paradoxically, Agni Bhagavan, who has no effect on the Monkey God, rages with all the fury at his command while burning down the Lankan houses. The list of victims reads like a Who’s Who of the Lankan high society – Prahasta, MahApArsva, Vajradamshtra, Suka, SAraNa, Indrajit, JambhumAli, SumAli, RashmikEtu, Suryashatru, HrisvakarNa, Damshtra, ROmasa, Vidyutjihva, KumbhakarNa and so on. Amidst all this spree of arson, Sri Maruti carefully spares the residence of Sri Vibhishana, venting his fury instead on the splendorous palace of Ravana.

From a glorious and teeming city filled with beautiful mansions with towers studded with gems, pearls and precious stones, roads and pathways full of rich adornments and valuable vehicles, Lanka is transformed within seconds into a blazing inferno, with huge tongues of fire leaping with facility from one beautiful building to another. The raging fire is fuelled by strong winds fanning the flames and fuelling their destructive potential. Hanuman’s act was akin to that of Rudra’s, in burning down the TripurAs. Unsatisfied with the havoc he has wreaked so far, Maruti leaps atop the TrikUta mountain and sets fire to its crest. Fanned by winds and due to the altitude, this fire spreads to all the hitherto unaffected parts of Lanka. It is as if Agni and Vayu, who had hitherto been held under tight leash by Ravana, had regained their freedom and were intent on wreaking vengeance on their tormentor. Viewed from the sky, Lanka resembles a huge burning ground, with most of its dastardly inhabitants forming live fuel for the raging fire. In the space of an hour, the entire city of magnificence and incredible beauty is reduced to glowing embers and burnt cinders.

The question now arises as to whether Sri Maruti exceeded his brief in burning down Lanka, when his principal mission was to find Vaidehi and report to Sri Rama accordingly.

After meeting Sri Mythily at Ashoka Vanam, Sri Hanuman lets himself be overpowered by Ravana’s minions and dragged to DasagrIvA’s presence, to deliver to him a message of goodwill and friendship from SugrIva and to convey his sincere request for setting Sita Devi free from captivity. Sri Hanuman’s speech at Ravana’s court is a model of diplomacy, containing not a single offensive word and aimed at achieving through tact and subtlety, what was possible normally only after a terrible war with lost lives and rivers of blood flowing freely. However, when Ravana turns a deaf ear to these pearls of wisdom and instead, turns firmer in his resolve to hold on to Sri Janaki and to inflict harm on Hanuman, the latter decides to teach the Lankans an object lesson, which would stay in their mind for long, if not forever. Through his fiery action, Sri Maruti was also conveying a message to Ravana about the shape of things to come, if he were to choose a path of confrontation with Sri Raghava.

The Ramayana Parayana sloka tells us that it was no ordinary fire that scorched Lanka, but one which had its origins in the sorrow of a PativratA, who was separated by force from Her beloved, incarcerated against Her wish and was being threatened to engage in adulterous affairs. The flames were stoked by no ordinary winds, but the deep distress of the LOkamAtA, who had sworn never to be separated from Her Consort, at being forced to be apart from Him for what appeared to be unending aeons. The tongues of fire were fuelled by the anger and fury of the chastest of women, at the Rakshasa’s attempts to force Her into adultery. It was thus the invisible but intense fire of sorrow and grief that was eating away the innards of Sri Mythily, almost driving Her to suicide, that transformed the lovely Lanka into a city of ashes and embers. All that Maruti did was to transfer the fire from the tormented mind of Janaki to the towering buildings of Lanka.

“ullanghya sindhO: salilam saleelam ya: shOka vahnim JanakAtmajAyA:
AdAya tEnaiva dadAha LankAm namAmi tam prAnjali: AnjanEyam”

That the fires of hell are nothing before the destructive potential of a chaste woman who is wronged, is also borne out by more recent occurrences as that of the burning down of Madurai by KaNnagi, narrated in SilappadhikAram.

Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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