[Paper presented by the author at the 2nd International Conference on Religions and Cultures in the Indic Civilization organised by The Indic Studies Network, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Manushi, and supported by Infinity Foundation, Indian Council for Cultural Relations and Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India. 17-20 December 2005, Indian Habitat Centre, New Delhi.]
Sita has been the symbol of the ideal Indian womanhood ever since the Ramayana. Even today the Indian woman readily identifies with her. Treating her as the role model engenders a certain self-image and a set of values, attitudes and characteristics in her, deeply colouring her self-perceptions and life expectations.
The popular image of Sita that so powerfully shapes the Indian womanhood is essentially that of a very docile person, someone who gives unbounded love but accepts injustice, cruelty, neglect, humiliation and banishment quietly, uncomplainingly. This ideal wife archetype is perceived as a martyr, willingly sacrificing herself for the purposes of her man, with no purposes of her own. Her decisions are taken for her by the men in her life – her father, husband, others. Her man is God himself to her, and her salvation is through service to him. She is his to command – in this world, in the worlds to come.
However, a careful look at the Ramayana, by which I mean the Valmiki Ramayana, shows us this popular image that has done such immense harm to the Indian womanhood by taking away her freedoms and her initiative, her independence and individuality, her right to be fully human, is completely wrong. Ramayana’s Sita is a woman with a mind of her own – a fiercely independent one. Despite being under immense pressure to conform to standards set by her deeply patriarchal society, she refuses to be humiliated for being a woman and rejects every attempt made to destroy her dignity and force her into servile subjection. Because of her boundless love she does not strike back; otherwise, in her independence, she becomes almost subversive.
At all crucial junctures of her life, it is she who takes her decisions. As Rama announces his decision to go to the jungle on his fourteen year exile and asks her to stay back and serve his parents, she tells him she knows her place is with him and she is going with him – nothing can stop her. Rejecting her after the war in Lanka, Rama asks her to go and live with whomever she likes – and she asks Lakshmana to prepare a chita, a funeral pyre and jumps into that. Banished by Rama in the ripeness of her pregnancy, she refuses to beg for pity and decides to live for the sake of her children and brings them up as a single mother. Called back by Rama after sixteen years, she does not look at him once, or speak to him. When he asks for proof of her chastity, she gives it – by refusing to breathe the air he breathes, by asking mother earth to receive her if her mind has not once swerved from him.
There are great lessons for the Indian woman to learn from this epic woman of substance – but they are of independence, assertiveness and the refusal to accept injustice and humiliation, as much as of love, commitment and devotion.
Sita comes to Ayodhya as a child bride. Unlike in the popular imagination, in which she is a fully grown woman when she weds Rama, she is very young when the wedding takes place. As she tells Ravana who comes to her in the guise of a monk in Panchavati, when they leave for the jungle she is eighteen and Rama, twenty-five and before that she has lived with Rama in Ayodhya for twelve years – the foiled consecration attempt is in the thirteenth year of their marriage .
We don’t really see Sita in the Ramayana during her wedding – we are only told of her. We first see her on that fateful day of Rama’s frustrated coronation as crown prince. And when we first meet her she proves beyond any doubt that she is a woman of substance and not the doormat that the Ramakatha tradition often paints her as.
On that Pushya day in the month of Chaitra when Rama is summoned early in the morning to Kaikeyi’s palace and told that Bharata would now be anointed in his place as the crown prince and Rama himself would have to go to the jungle for fourteen years, Rama is completely broken down. Though he puts on a mask of indifference, his reactions show that he is completely shattered by what he was told. He is able to show a strong face in front of Kaikeyi and Dasharatha and the others possibly present around, continues to show it in the presence of his mother to whom he goes from Kaikeyi’s palace, but is unable to control his sorrow anymore and breaks down completely when he reaches Sita. The Rama whom Sita sees is a frightening sight. He has lost control over his limbs, his face has lost all colour, he is covered in perspiration and he is in a vengeful fury.
What breaks Rama down completely, though, does not affect Sita at all. The news of the loss of the kingdom has no effect on her, nor the order that Rama has to go to the jungle. What affects her is what Rama has just told her – that she should stay back in Ayodhya and look after her parents-in-law. When these words are told, Sita tells Rama in unequivocal terms – she knows where her place is, when he goes to the jungle, it is with him. If Rama goes to the jungle, she goes with him and nothing in the world can stop her.
I would like to quote from the original Sanskrit here to show the power in Sita’s words and the firmness of her determination: “sāham tvayā gamishyāmi vanam adya na samśayah; nāham śakyā mahābhaga nivartayitum udyatā” – “Therefore I am coming with you to the jungle today – let there be no doubt about this. Noble Lord, once I have made up my mind, nothing can turn me back.” [Ayo 27.15]
Sita is not requesting Rama to take her with him to the jungle – she is informing him she is going with him. The decision is hers – not his. And then she adds – once she has made up her mind, nothing can change it.”
Nothing in the world can stop her – those are not the words of a docile woman. And she does not just say that but forces Rama to take her with him against his wishes.
Incidentally, when Sita says once she has made up her mind nothing can stop her, she is not speaking only of this occasion – she is making a general statement about her nature. Such is her will that once she makes up her mind, nothing can stop her. And we see this throughout the Ramayana – Sita takes decisions calmly and once she has taken a decision, nothing changes her.
Fortunately for her, her decisions are almost always exactly what a proud, self-respecting, independent, assertive woman should take. Only once was she wrong in her decision and for that she paid with one year’s captivity in Lanka.
I have at times wondered why exactly Sita chose to go with Rama and not stay back in Ayodhya as her patriarchal society expected her to. Definitely she wanted to be with Rama – with him, she says, even the fiercest jungle is more pleasing for her than a palace and without him heaven is no heaven. But there is also another possibility. Sita knew her Rama. In the Ramayana, Rama often appears as a strong-willed person, but this is only an appearance. Valmiki’s Rama easily breaks down under pressure and at least once speaks of suicide. And Sita has just seen how shattered he was by Kaikeyi’s decision. It is possible it is more for his sake that Sita insists on going with him to the jungle than for her own sake. Sita does not want to leave Rama to himself – particularly right then.
That Sita cared for Rama deeply, with almost a motherly concern, ignoring her personal comforts and even putting herself in great danger, is shown by other examples in the Ramayana.
Hanuman, who meets her in Lanka where she was Ravana’s captive, suggests at the end of his visit there that he shall take Sita back to Rama. Sita has been living a life of abject misery in Lanka for ten months by then, surrounded by Ravana’s monstrous Rakshasa guards and facing the constant threat of Ravana himself. A minute away from Rama is like an age to her and she has been away from him all these tem months. She does not know how long more Rama will take before he was able to rescue her from Lanka. But in spite of all this, Sita refuses to go with Hanuman. There are many reasons for this, as she herself tells Hanuman, reasons like her vow not to have physical contact with any man other than Rama willingly. But one of the reasons which she gives, which perhaps persuades Hanuman more than any other, is that if he, Hanuman, saved her from Lanka, that would affect Rama’s glory – “I know that you are enough to kill all the Rakshasas – but if you kill the Rakshasas, Rama’s glory will wane.”
Let her sufferings and loneliness continue for as long for so long as it takes for Rama to come and kill Ravana and save her by himself, let her misery and privations, her distress and dread, her woe and wretchedness continue – but Rama’s glory should not be affected in any way.
It is again this care for Rama we see in the Jayanta episode that Sita narrates to Hanuman in Lanka – a very personal and private incident, known only to Rama and to herself, that she tells him so that Hanuman can narrate it to Rama as a sign that he had really met her. We have one of the most beautiful scenes of love in the epic, a scene of deep intimacy between Sita and Rama, and a highly erotic scene at that. Rama and Sita are at Chitrakoota and we see alternately Rama relaxing in Sita’s lap and Sita relaxing in Rama’s lap. Perhaps meat is being dried nearby and Sita is keeping an eye on it too. It is then that a crow appears on the scene – and Sita wants to drive it away. She picks up stones and throws it at the crow – but it does not go away. An angry Sita gets up intending to throw more stones at the crow, tries to tighten the waist string of her dress and in the process the cloth slips down. Rama seeing her in this condition spontaneously laughs out. Sita is initially furious, and then blushes in embarrassment. It is perhaps a little while after this when Rama is asleep in Sita’s lap that the crow reappears and begins attacking Sita herself repeatedly, wounding her between her breasts. Blood starts flowing from the wounds and when a few drops fall on Rama, he wakes up and, now furious, attacks the crow.
Part of this scene reminds us of the episode when Parashurama is sleeping with his head on his disciple Karna’s lap and Karna is attacked by a small insect. It pierces the skin of his thigh, causing severe pain. Blood starts flowing from the wound. Karna endures the attack, so that he will not disturb his guru’s sleep. Eventually the guru wakes up when he feels the blood on his skin.
Exactly as Karna does out of reverence for his guru, out of love for Rama Sita endures the severe pain sitting motionless so that Rama is not disturbed. Once again we see here Sita suffering pain for Rama’s sake.
Sita would do that again and again for Rama’s sake, as, for instance, when Rama abandons her in the jungle. Sita’s words to Lakshmana as he takes leave of her after executing Rama’s orders are very significant. She tells him that he should not worry about her, but should focus on fulfilling his duties towards his subjects – that is his dharma and the way to attain glory – the one thing that Rama sought more than anything else in his life. She feels since she is responsible for the bad name that is spreading, it is her duty to help in any way possible to remove it. This time too, as when Rama renounced her in Lanka, she would have preferred death – she tells Lakshmana that she would have given up her life in the Ganga but for the fact that her death would have made Rama heirless. She would live the life of loneliness and rejection– for his sake.
The assertive, independent woman in Sita, though, does not allow her to accept her unjustified abandonment silently. Her last words to Lakshmana are to have a good look at her – she tells him she is pregnant. Her pregnancy is five months old – and is perhaps not known to the public. She wants Lakshmana as a witness to the fact that she is pregnant when Rama abandoned her – lest somebody accuses her again of being unfaithful to Rama and Rama has to abandon her a third time.
Coming back to her decision to go with Rama to the jungle, the first time when we see her in the Ramayana, Sita is the decision-maker in a crisis. She is strong as a rock and is unshaken by the calamity that has destroyed Rama’s strength. She takes over and takes the right decision – for herself and for him.
Incidentally, Sita who can deny herself the pleasures of a royal palace for Rama’s sake and go to the jungle with him, would refuse to look at him, refuse to utter a single word to him, when she meets him after sixteen years of separation. This woman had a need to be proud of her man and she would reject him when he ceased to be worthy of her. She had the inner strength to do so.
Folk traditions frequently see Sita not as an abala, the weak one, but as shakti, the embodiment of power. We see this in one of the folk variations of the Ramayana in which we see Sita effortlessly lifting with her left hand the bow of Shiva which even mighty kings fail to lift, while she cleans the ground underneath with her right hand. Janaka sees this and it prompts him to decide that only a man who can lift that bow and tie its string would be a fit husband for his daughter. There are variations of the Ramayana where Sita assumes awesome power – she is the mother of the universe and whatever strength Rama has, comes from her.
Leaving Ayodhya and Kosala behind, as Sita crosses the Ganga on her way to the jungle, she prays to the river goddess – for Rama’s safe return after fourteen years. There are no fears in her heart about her own safety – it is Rama’s safety she is worried about.
It is this focus on the man she loves that gives Sita the strength to point out a moral contradiction in Rama and advice him to give up arms since he has taken the vow to live like an ascetic in the jungle. The courage she shows in daring to teach Rama what he should do is admirable. A woman in a deeply patriarchal society does not assume the role of a mentor to her husband – but Sita does that.
Throughout the Ramayana we find Sita has a very healthy self-image. “There are no blemishes in me,” she tells him when she informs him he cannot keep her back in Ayodhya. It is this positive self image, this image of inner strength, that makes her tell Rama that she shall walk in front of him in the jungle, crushing the sharp grass and thorns on his path with her feet.
In the Ramayana there are many occasions when we see Sita helpless – as when Ravana carries her away by force, as when he keeps her a prisoner in Lanka, as when Rama abandons her in the jungle. But in spite of this helplessness, Sita’s self-image is still positive under all these circumstances. In fact, in the entire Ramayana there is only one occasion when we find her unsure of herself – that is immediately following Rama’s rejection of her at the end of the war with Ravana and her entering the funeral pyre.
Back in Ayodhya, Rama’s is crowned king. One of the most pathetic scenes in the Ramayana takes place at this time – though this is normally missed by most readers of the Ramayana because the Adikavi speaks about it in such quiet tones, in such unobtrusive, innocuous words.
Rama’s coronation has just taken place. Prompted by Indra, Vayu gives Rama a precious pearl necklace of great beauty and Rama, after giving gifts to Brahmins and to Sugreeva and Angada, gives that necklace to Sita. Sita, in her turn, wants to give that necklace to Hanuman – but she is not sure whether she should do it or not, or maybe, whether she could do it or not. She removes the necklace from her neck and, holding it in her hand, looks towards the Vanaras with whom Hanuman is standing, then looks at Rama and then looks at the Vanaras, and then again at Rama, silently seeking his permission. This goes on repeatedly and then Rama observes it and graciously gives his permission to gift it to anyone she wishes. Sita immediately gifts it to Hanuman.
This is the just crowned queen of Ayodhya – the wedded wife of Rama for more than twenty-six years. And it is to Hanuman that she wants to give that necklace – Hanuman who has been so close to Rama. But she needs his permission – and she does not even have the courage to ask for it openly.
Clearly, this is not the Sita we had seen earlier telling Rama as he was going to the jungle that she was going with him and nothing in the world could stop her from it. This is the Sita whom Rama had rejected at the end of the war in Lanka, the one whom he had publicly humiliated in the presence of hundreds of thousands of Vanara, Riksha and Rakshasa warriors, and Lakshmana, Sugreeva, Vibheeshana and Hanuman, telling her there are reasons to suspect her chastity and asking her to go and live with whomever she wished, Sugreeva, Vibheeshana, Bharata, Shatrughna or Lakshmana, whoever, he did not care so long as she just disappeared from his presence. This is a broken Sita, completely unsure of herself.
Fortunately, we will not see Sita weak ever again in her life.
Her agnipareeksha, ordeal by fire, is one of the most striking instances quoted for proving Sita’s complete lack of assertiveness and her total submission to the will of Rama – perhaps the most unforgettable image from the Ramayana: a woman entering fire to prove her chastity and single-minded devotion to her husband and coming out unscathed. However, a careful reading of the Ramayana shows that instead of being an example for Sita’s lack of independent will, this is a case of her asserting her independence. Sita’s entering the fire is not an act of surrender of will but is a case of defiance, of revolt, of rejection. To understand this properly, we have to look into the circumstances under which this happens. But before that I would like to clear a common misunderstanding – the agnipareeksha was not a test at all, and Rama did not ask Sita to undergo it.
After making Sita wait endlessly in Lanka even after the death of Ravana and the end of the war, Rama finally asks Vibheeshana to bring Sita to him. Rama himself does not go. And when Vibheeshana brings her in a palanquin, Rama forces her to get down from it and approach him on foot.
And then, shocking the huge audience watching, Rama tells her that he did not fight the war for her sake but for the glory of his family line. It is a matter of shame for an Ikshwaku that his wife is abducted by another man and that shame he has erased by killing the abductor. As for Sita, she is free now, the ten directions are open to her, she can go wherever she wishes, her sight is unpleasant to him as the sight of light is to one who has an eye disease, because there are reasons to suspect her chastity.
And then he suggests: Go and live with anyone she likes – Lakshmana, if she so wishes, or Bharata or Shatrughna, or Sugreeva or Vibheeshana if she so wishes. And Rama means ‘live with’ in its modern sense – the words Rama uses are ‘give your mind to’ whoever you wish.
Sita is totally humiliated, deeply hurt, mortally wounded. Yet it is not a broken Sita that answers Rama but a woman of strength, a woman of substance. She is not helpless here, but angry and defiant. After asserting her purity, she tells him he has spoken like a low, worthless man. And then she announces: “I do not plan to live humiliated by this false accusation. Lakshmana, prepare a chita for me.”
Chita means a funeral pyre - fire for burning a dead body. It is a chita Sita asks Lakshmana to prepare – not just fire. She refuses to live in indignity. She would either live in dignity or not live at all.
That is Valmiki’s Sita – a woman of tremendous inner strength. Her weakness is her total love for her man – there is no other weakness in her. Rejected by Rama, suspected by Rama, she does not want to live. The agnipravesha is an act of fiery protest – of defiance. The act of a woman of dignity refusing to be humiliated and forced to live her life on others’ terms, of a woman who refuses to be shamed for being a woman, a woman who refuses to see herself as just a female body – a female body that could be defiled by the mere touch of a man other than her husband.
It is important to note here that in spite of all her love for him, in spite of all her inability to live without him, Sita does not once beg Rama to take her back. She refuses to be humiliated by such begging – it would be beneath her dignity as a woman.
Also, Rama does not ask her to jump into fire and prove her purity – jumping into fire is a decision she takes for herself. Having decided to do that, she literally jumps into fire, while the warfield is filled with the cries of wailing women and men watching this horrid act.
I should mention here that while jumping into the fire Sita asks the fire to protect her if she has always been true to Rama – her words here are ambivalent.
But there is no such ambivalence in her story told by Narada to Valmiki given in the first chapter of the first bppk [Bala Kanda] of the Ramayana. Narada makes it absolutely clear that she entered fire because she was furious – amrshyamānā. “Tam uvāca tato ramah parusham janasamsadi, amrshyamānā sa sītā viveśa jvalanam satī.” “Rama told such cruel words to Sita in the presence of all those people and she, in fury, entered the burning fire,” Narada tells Valmiki.
I find it interesting that Narada chose to use the word “sati” for Sita here.
One of the most pathetic scenes in this book full of pathos is Rama betraying a pregnant Sita and abandoning her in the jungle.
The Uttara Kanda shows us Rama and Sita back from the exile leading a very contented family life – perhaps Sita’s boundless love has healed the wounds inflicted by the abduction, by her life as a prisoner in Lanka and by the ordeal she had to pass through when Rama rejected her – healed at least for the time being. In one scene they are in the garden attached to the antahpura and there dancers and musicians perform before them and Rama lovingly gives Sita a drink, madhu-maireyaka, holding the cup to her lips with his own hands. Rama asks his pregnant wife if she desires anything – and she says she desires to visit the ashrams of the sages and seek their blessings. Rama promises her desire will be fulfilled the next morning itself.
It is later that night that Rama hears of what people say of Rama taking back a wife who has spent time in another’s house – and Rama immediately decides to abandon her and commands Lakshmana to do so the next morning.
Sita does not realize she is being abandoned until she reaches the jungle. It is only after they cross the Ganga that Lakshmana tells her of Rama’s orders. Sita swoons at the news – but when she comes to, she has no harsh words to tell Rama. In her heart she knows there can be no reconciliation this time – she accepts the inevitable. She knows her Rama well, and he has never made it a secret that she is not the first for him, other things come before her: the glory of the Ikshwaku-Raghus, his duty as a king, his duty as a son, perhaps even Lakshmana. She wishes him well, sends messages to her mothers-in-law, none of them complaining, never requesting any of them to interfere on her behalf, never begging Rama to take her back. And then the woman of iron will watches with firm resolution as a weeping Lakshmana walks away unable to control himself.
She spends sixteen years in the ashram of Valmiki. According to some Ramakatha traditions, not once does she tell her children born to her there who their father is and Lava and Kusha grow up not knowing their father’s name. In Valmiki, though, this part is not clear, one way or the other. The Rama she loves lives in her heart but the Rama who rules in Ayodhya does not exist for her. In some traditions, when she has to refer to him, Sita calls him the king – just that, the king, never Rama, as she lovingly called him in the past. Her Rama has ceased to exist outside her heart.
And then the call comes – brought by Valmiki. Rama has heard the story of Ramayana composed by Valmiki from Lava and Kusha, has realized they are his sons. Now he wants Sita to come to him and take the vow of chastity in his temporary court in Naimisharanya where he has been staying conducting an ashwamedha sacrifice.
Rama has no idea how humiliating such a request could be to a self-respecting woman.
Sita comes, walking quietly behind Valmiki, her head bent. And there, standing in the middle of the crowded court, the sage, on the strength of all his austerities, takes a formal oath vouching for Sita’s purity. But that is not enough for Rama. He says he would take Sita back if she took a vow of chastity in the court.
Sita, realizing this is again a public performance as in Lanka, realizing this is King Rama speaking and not the man she loves, speaks not a word to him, does not look at him once.
The first time he had rejected her, she had argued back with him explaining her position before announcing the decision to end her life. The second time when he abandoned her, she had wished him well. This time she would not acknowledge him by so much as a glance.
In the name of her love for Rama, Sita refuses to breathe the same air that he breathes. In the name of what she holds most sacred in life, in the name of what is dearer to her than her life breath, in the name of her unswerving love for her Rama, she asks Mother Earth to receive her back.
That is the action of an authentic person who hates masks and believes wearing them, being forced to wear them, is a humiliating compromise. A person who believes that her innermost drives, her deepest urges, her innate wisdom, should guide her actions. A woman who happily gives up all the comforts of a rich palace to walk the harsh path of a danger-filled, fierce jungle as an equal to her man, as his companion, even as a slave to his love, but refuses to live as his chattel, as his to be given up and to be taken back as he pleases.
Sita would live in dignity or else she would not live at all.
The earth splits open and receives her.
If Sita appears consistently strong in her dealings with Rama, the man she loved as dearly as her life, she is no less resolute in her confrontations with her enemy, the man who abducted her and kept her captive for a year.
In Lanka, in spite of being a lonely prisoner in an alien land and facing a threat to her life itself, Ravana does not succeed in weakening her resolve. To her there is only one man, she tells him repeatedly, and rather than giving herself to another, she would kill herself. Ravana himself and Ravana’s monstrous female guards constantly put pressure on her to accept him – but she never relents.
Ravana’s constant, unbearable pressure applied on Sita and her lone battle with him, go on for almost a full year – eventually Ravana becomes so frustrated, that he goes running to her with a drawn sword in hand, ignoring his resolve to wait for a year for her to change her mind and his mind made up to put an end to her life. One of his ministers is able to persuade him at the last moment not to kill her, reminding him of his noble birth, his education in the Vedas, his performance of sacrifices and his other virtues.
Rama had Sugreeva and his army, including Hanuman, with him in his battle with Ravana. He had Lakshmana with him. But Sita had only herself – herself and her inner strength, and the hope and faith that Rama would come and save her. With that she fights with Ravana a battle that was no less fierce than the one Rama fought with him – and Sita proves she is no less a warrior than Rama.
Sita’s is the story of a woman of substance. Hers is also the story of a woman of substance in a man’s world.
There are great lessons for the modern Indian woman to learn from this epic woman of great courage – lessons in independence, in assertiveness and in the refusal to accept injustice and humiliation, besides lessons of love, commitment and devotion. Lessons in refusing to live except on one’s own terms, in spite of abandonment and rejection, being an object of lust, and repeated heartlessness.
As a role model for the new Indian woman, Sita comes to us with a warning too: that to live authentically is to live the hard way.
But then, authentic living is never easy living.
In the context of the Valmiki Ramayana, the advice we give our women to be like Sita can mean something entirely different from what we normally mean by it. To live like Sita is to live authentically, to live fearlessly, to live dangerously, to live guided by one’s innate wisdom rather than by society’s diktats, to live as a person in one’s own right and not as another’s shadow, to live as an individual and not as an object.
Note: All translations from the Ramayana are by the author. The verse and chapter numbers are as they appear in the popular Gita Press Sanskrit edition [Shrimad Valmikiya Ramayanam (Moolamatram), 2017 Vikram (1960-61) edition].