Last night, during a family gathering, a younger cousin and I were exchanging views on Hindu mythology when he said, "Sita was a dutiful wife" and I reacted with "Sita was a loving wife. We must not mistake her love to be acts of duty." My cousin was not convinced. His take is that duty is also a form of love. While I appreciate his point of view and respect it, I have a slightly different definition of both duty and love.
In my world view, a duty is an obligation that is expected to be rendered. It can make the doer of the duty feel burdened, and guilty if she does not fulfill this expectation. At times the duty can become so onerous that it takes pleasure and joy out of all action. Then there is love. Any act done out of love, is voluntary; making even the most dire of situations possible to navigate. Because one wants to do something one finds ways and means. There is no burden of expectation but a strong desire of doing and attaining significant personal satisfaction. If unfulfilled, there is no guilt; a tinge of sadness maybe...
And this is my understanding of Devi Sita as well. As a daughter her duty was to obey her father and attend the "swayamvar", the platform provided to her to select her own groom. The catch was that any prospective groom must be able to use Lord Shiva's bow. She fell in love with Lord Rama when she saw him in the gardens of the palace before the Swayamvar. She acknowledged that the task suitors were expected to complete was tough and she wanted Lord Rama to win the challenge. She wanted to render her duty as a daughter and get her love; so she turned to the only way she knew and that was to seek the blessings of Goddess Parvati. Her first act of love came when in the course using Lord Shiva's bow Lord Rama broke it and incurred the wrath of sage Parshurama.
Sage Parshurama was a great Shiva follower and was enraged when he learnt that his Guru's bow had been broken. Scintillating with anger he entered the Swayamvar complex, where out of duty and respect Devi Sita bowed to him and he blessed her with eternal happiness. Then he shifted his attention to the reason of his arrival and on learning that it was Lord Rama who had broken the bow, challenged him to a duel. Not wanting to fight the revered sage, Lord Rama bowed in front of him when the sage picked up his axe to cut the Lord's neck. Devi Sita swiftly bowed between Rama and Parshurama - she would let no harm touch her beloved. The sage suddenly realised that if he harmed Lord Rama he would be taking away his own blessing of eternal happiness that he had bestowed on Devi Sita. And so love conquered anger and averted a duel.
As a daughter-in-law Devi Sita's duty was to take care of her mothers-in-law in the tragic turn of events that had dealt Lord Rama a fourteen year exile. Her love for her husband created a need to be with him, even if it meant that it would sans luxuries and comforts. And so she convinced her mothers-in-law that between her duty and her love, she wanted to pick love even if it meant giving up worldly pleasures. A princess who was brought up in opulence and married into a royal family, the life of a nomad without any paraphernalia of any sorts was a challenge unforeseen. Yet she undertook it, not because it was her wifely duty but because of her total and unconditional love for Lord Rama. Had she wanted, he duties as a wife could have been hidden behind her duties as a daughter-in-law and she could have stayed in the palace with all amenities at her disposal. Yet she decided to walk the uncharted waters because her love gave her the strength of conviction.
After Ravana was killed and Lord Rama and Devi Sita were reunited, she was asked to walk through fire. To the world this was to be a test of purity. Was it her duty to obey her husband that made her walk through fire or was it her love and faith in Lord Rama that got her to glide over the flames? If it was out of a sense of duty, her willingness and cheerful acceptance would not have been a part of her persona. It was love and the belief that the Lord had a reason he was putting the love of his life through this unthinkable task that got her to cross the fire with a smile, an open heart and no questions asked.
Was it her duty as a wife and a queen that got her to bear Lord Rama his children? In fact it was her undying love that she not only wanted to be the mother to his children, but bring them up in an environment that would prepare them for all eventualities of life. That is the sole reason that she asked the Lord that she get time to spend with the saints in the forest and the children be brought up in their care. It is this wish that led to her being sent to the forest by Lord Rama; a wish that gave them both the grave pain of separation from the beloved. So while Devi Sita had the children to be with, the Lord spent the years only thinking of them and in the calm of the knoweldge that he had fulfilled his beloved's wishes.
Devi Sita's duties as a queen were to render her responsibilities to the kingdom. Lord Rama as the king was duty bound to his subjects. So when a pregnant Devi Sita, as mentioned in Valmiki Ramayana, asked for her time with the great saints in the forest, the Lord did say that in face of our duties I am unable to grant your wish, however, my love will ensure that I don't let you down. And so, to keep the sanctity of duty and love, an incident in the kingdom instigated talks about how a woman who had spent a night at another man's house should not be accepted by the husband. This gave the Lord the excuse of saying that Devi Sita had spent many nights at Ashok Vatika, a garden in the palace of Ravana and so she would be sent away.
I could continue with my views on the difference between love and duty, on the life of Devi Sita and the great love that Lord Rama and Devi Sita harbour for one another. I could add to that my learnings of the life of Lord Shiva and Devi Parvati and how duty and love in their lives have been depicted and brought about union and disruptions. However, the idea of this post is simple - to bring forward my understanding of duty and love and to see if the more evolved readers agree or can show me another view point I may have missed out on. The reason for my writing today is to put forward an understanding of a couple we whole heartedly worship but at the same time blame the Lord for oppressing his better half. The purpose of my writing is to challenge my own self and to see if my own convictions are rational. On this last point, with my data points and learnings, I stand by my belief and faith - Duty is not love, love is far stronger a force than duty and the lives of Devi Sita and Lord Rama are symbols of how great love can be.