Suicide and Honor in the Ramayana

There is an intriguing distinction in the Ramayana between death of merit and honor and death of a convenient release from suffering. In Book Five, the Sundara, a captive Sītā reflects on her time away from her husband and finds herself miserable, pining for an escape from the misery she has endured. She considers taking her own life, debating with herself whether or not death at that present moment would be morally acceptable. She rationalizes that “untimely death is not attained here either by man or a woman,” coming to the conclusion that her suicide would be impure, as it was motivated by her missing her spouse. Still, she finds herself tying a noose and weighing her options and though her human heart screams for release, her knowledge of honor and expectations coupled with many “auspicious omens” dissuaded her from ending her life and her “despair abated.” This death would have been dishonorable and thus impure; Sītā resultantly refrains from suicide. This is in sharp contrast to her death (and subsequent rebirth) at the end of the tale. At the conclusion of the Ramayana, upon Rāma denouncing Sītā for her time with Rāvana (despite Rāvana having kidnapped her, making any form of relationship between them entirely non-consensual), Sītā walks into the fire, hoping that the flames that engulf her will “protect” her, self-immolation proving her purity to her husband. Yet soon after, Sītā is returned to Rāma by the gods, who claim there is “no fault” in her; though her time spent with Rāvana may have had corporeal transgressions, her thoughts were pure as her “heart was set on” her husband. This depiction again emphasizes the taking of one’s own life as a precautionary measure, an act done to safeguard one’s soul, love, honor, or purity. There seems to be a conscious distinction between suicide with purpose and suicide as selfishness. Sītā’s contemplated case presented in the epic was dishonorable and thus unfulfilled while her consummated act of self-destruction was a sacrifice of selflessness and liberation.