That Sita sat under an Ashoka tree (a- shoka : without sorrow) in the Ashoka grove during her stay in Lanka is commonly known episode of the Ramayana. Not so well known however, is an interesting myth from the Bhavishya Purana that adds a precursor to that tale. As it is seen with other Purana stories, it is plausible that this tale too was an attempt at acculturation and social synthesis.
Years before the abduction of Sita by Ravana, there lived a cannibal among the Bhil tribe named Sashoka. He roamed the forests of central India and lived by killing passers-by and consuming them as food.
Walking past the forest in search of prey one day, Sashoka chanced upon a little hut, outside which sat a hermit, deep in meditation. He had never seen another human being in that state before, serene, motionless and at peace. Watching the rishi who seemed to be in a trance, something stirred within Sashoka and he was drawn towards the sage.
“You are at such peace!” Sashoka blurted out when he found himself standing before the rishi. “Why am I not like you?”
“Who are you son?” asked the rishi, opening his eyes. “What do you want?”
“I am Sashoka, a cannibal” replied the Bhil. “I kill people and roast them for food. People fear me and I derive pleasure from that. But you…you are at such peace with the world. I want to be like you.”
The rishi smiled. “I am glad you feel repentance for your deeds. But you cannot have what you ask. At least not immediately.”
“What must I do to attain such peace? So that people may love me instead of running away from me in fear?”
“Live out your life in penance and prayer,” replied the rishi.
“I am ready to do whatever it takes!” Sashoka fell on his knees. “I do not want to live like this anymore,” he began to sob.
“Good man!” said the rishi lifting Sashoka up. “Your time will come. Live your life in penance and in your next life you will be born as a tree in Lanka where Sita, the abducted wife of Rama will take refuge under your shade.”
Sashoka’s eyes lit up as he wiped his tears.
“One day,” the rishi continued, “Hanuman, the monkey, will come in search of Sita. He will sit upon your branches as he conveys Rama’s message to his wife. Upon hearing his words, Sita’s suffering and sorrow will cease. At that moment, your sins will be washed away too and your grief will forever disappear.”
Sashoka bowed before the sage. “I eagerly await that day!” he said. And the rishi proclaimed, “you will be known as Asoka, the tree that takes away grief!” Hence it is that the Ashoka tree, under whose deep green foliage and lovely scarlet flowers, Sita took refuge, is associated with the absence of sorrow.[The Asoka tree, also called the Sita-Ashok, is a medium sized evergreen tree with large flame-like scarlet flowers that appear in clusters. Its deep green leaves are copper-coloured when young and hang placidly from the branches. It is considered sacred by Hindus and Buddhists and is a common motif in Indian iconography and literature. It also has medicinal uses. Its botanical name is Saraca indica.]
Story contributed by: Mallika Iyer
Location: Pan India
Source: Bhavishya Purana