First let us set the ground rules. Our epics clearly state that Rama was not aware of his divinity. So he should be treated as a human with human failings and the analysis should be only from the point of view of a person occupying the office of king. The second aspect to be kept in mind is the laws and social conventions of the time. I have my own theory of why such laws and conventions were natural steps in the evolution from the jungle ape to the current civilized urban man or woman. But I will keep that for another post. Also note I am referring to social conventions and laws in the same breath. This is because there was no detailed constitution and Indian Penal Code at that time. So laws and social conventions were kind of mutable. Given the conditions at that time, I would like to analyze whether Rama did the best he could have or not.
The two main accusations against Rama were his treatment of Sita and his use of deceit to defeat Vali. Both these instances involve questionable behavior on the part of Rama. But I want to plead that it was unavoidable. They were what one calls a situation of an ethical dilemma. Ethical dilemma is defined as a complex situation that often involves an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another. When everything is in black and white and the right choice is obvious, one needs no leaders. True leaders are needed in order to make an optimal choice between the devil and the deep sea. That is why one often finds a question about handling of ethical dilemmas in interviews for corporate leadership roles as well. Here I would like to present the choices Rama faced and how the decision he made was the best possible in my opinion.
First consider the case of Vali. The situation is this: Injustice had been done to Sugreeva the brother of Vali and Rama has promised to help him seek justice. After giving the promise, Rama discovers that Vali is aided by magic that makes him invincible in direct combat. So Rama is presented with three choices:-
a. Go back on his promise to Sugreeva and let the injustice remain.
b. Fight Vali in direct combat and be defeated and killed.
c. Defeat and kill Vali by deceit violating the laws of fair combat.
Promises were highly valued at that time and it was considered a grave sin to break a promise. Also it was against the code of a warrior to not fight against injustice. So the first choice was not an option. The second option was impractical and suicidal. It would just have served to maintain Rama’s honor but would have served none. Sugreeva would still have not got justice, Sita would continue to languish in Ravana’s captivity and the kingdom would have lost a prospective king. So there remained only the third option of breaking the laws of fair combat, the least of the three evils.
Now let us consider the more important accusation of injustice to Sita. At that time, the sacredness of marriage as an institution had to be upheld and the onus fell on the woman to do so by maintaining her chastity. So any unchaste act by a woman was frowned upon and considered to undermine the institution of marriage. This might be considered unfair in the current context. But let us accept that was how it was in the time of Rama. It was clearly not Rama who established this convention. So here Rama is faced with a situation where circumstantial evidence suggests Sita has been unchaste. As an individual he might have been willing to trust in her character or even willing to accept her even if she had indeed been violated. But as a king in the role of judge, he had to keep personal feelings aside and go objectively by evidence at hand. In the role of king as the role model for society, he had to lead the way in adherence to the law and social conventions.
Since no earthly evidence could be produced to say with certainty that through the entire one year, Ravana had not had an opportunity to violate Sita’s chastity, the divine test of the fire was invoked. But to a common man, who did not have direct interaction with God on a day today basis, imagine how this would have seemed. How does it seem to us when our politicians talk of taking the test of truth at a temple when accused of corruption? Wouldn't it seem like the ruler is resorting to some charlatanry to veil his chicanery. That is what Rama discovered from the conversation between the washer man and his wife. He found that the citizens were not entirely convinced by the test of fire and felt Rama was just using powers as king to protect his loved ones.
So now Rama had two choices:-
a. Set a precedent of the king misusing his powers to flout law and let the rule of law be undermined.
b. Let injustice be done to himself and his dear one
So clearly given the choice, Rama chose to put the interests of the state above his own. Clearly it is mentioned throughout Ramayana, how separation from Sita deeply hurt him. But still he chose to take this painful decision in the greater interest of the state. As a sensitive human with human emotions, he just could not bear to break this terrible news of his tough choice to his beloved. So he had Lakshmana lead her away to a jungle hamlet secretly.
So in my opinion what Rama represents is the ideal of putting one’s duty towards the society at large above personal interests. Rama is Plato’s ideal of the philosopher king, a person who reluctantly takes upon himself the painful duty of king. Kingship is not supposed to be something to be enjoyed. It is a sacrifice a person makes of his personal interests for the greater good of the society. All the rich accommodation, clothes and honor he receives are just frills of the job to lighten his heavy burden. This is probably difficult to understand in the current age where every little position of power is seen as a means to self-aggrandizement.
Picture Credit: http://www.hindugodwallpaper.com/zoom.php?id=15