By Dr Soumita Roy
The Ramayana is one of the most significant and influential foundational narratives that have shaped Indian culture. The events and characters which contribute to its popularity have percolated into the very fabric of Indian life: be it patterns of behavior, language, metaphors, art and literature, politics, economics, scientific endeavor, customs and traditions, or ideas and ideals. The original version by Valmiki has found innumerable commentators and interpreters, while vernacular versions and folk renderings—both verbal and visual—also exist side by side.
The Ramayana may be read as a text depicting a model of human excellence and perfection in the title role—Rama—but his consort Sita, who combines the ideal of excellence with some endearingly human traits, has been the cynosure of interest and attention through the ages and continues to evoke a wide range of very contradictory opinions.
To quote Swami Vivekananda in this context: ‘You may exhaust the literature of the world that is past, and … future, before finding another Sita. Sita is unique; that character was depicted once and for all. There may have been several Ramas, perhaps, but never more than one Sita! She is the very type of the true Indian woman, for all the Indian ideals of a perfected woman have grown out of that one life of Sita.’
On the one hand, Sita is thus held up as a repository of traits worth emulating, while on the other hand, questions are sometimes raised about the efficacy of her role and attitudes. She is sometimes venerated as the noblest form of woman and in other versions considered as oppressed, enfeebled, and pitiful.
Examples of changing perceptions on Sita are noted in a seminal volume entitled Cultural Pasts, which lists the way various philosophical schools influenced the evolution of Sita as a character. The belief that Sita herself was not abducted by Ravana, but it was only her shadow which went with him, is ascribed to the preponderance of Advaita Vedanta philosophy and its doctrine of maya—in fact, Sita walking between Rama and Lakshmana in the days of exile in the forest is often compared to maya, which impedes the individual soul or jivatman, symbolized by Lakshmana, from perceiving the Paramatman, that is, Rama. There are also certain versions of her story influenced by the Shakti cult where Sita, with Rama as her charioteer, kills Ravana in single combat. In certain folk traditions, Sita has sometimes been depicted as the daughter of Ravana left in the field by Mandodari, discovered there, and reared by Janaka.
In the evolution of the position and roles of Indian womanhood, the phase to which Sita belongs spells the status of women in the domestic sphere of activity. In the words of Ramesh Chandra Majumdar: ‘The status of women suffered a considerable decline on account of the views and ideals preached in the later Smritis’, and through a readjustment, the role of wife became the ideal. He illustrates this by using the example of Sita: ‘Sītā, who is looked upon today as virtue incarnate and the ideal of Indian womanhood, shines principally as the obedient wife, sweetly administering to the needs of her husband in weal and woe, and bowing down to his will. … Such a sweet, loving and obedient wife has been held up as the ideal, and has produced a new type of woman in Hindu society’ .
Swami Vivekananda places her at unassailable heights of glory: ‘Sita, purer than purity itself, all patience, and all suffering. She who suffered … without a murmur, she the ever-chaste and ever-pure wife, she the ideal of the people, the ideal of the gods. … Sita has gone into the very veins of our race. She is there in the blood of every Indian man and woman; we are all the children of Sita. … The women of India must grow and develop in the footprints of Sita, and that is the only way.’ 
Some Recent Perspectives
One may now find attempts to deconstruct the text from Sita’s point of view, like Sitayana: Sita Sings the Blues. This is a new twist to the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective, by Nina Paley. Or, for instance, there is Madhu Kishwar’s article ‘Yes to Sita, No to Ram! The Continuing Popularity of Sita in India’, which clinches the point of subversion by saying: ‘Ram’s rejection of Sita is almost universally condemned while her rejection of him is held up as an example of supreme dignity.’
Another version reads thus: ‘In popular perception Sita’s agni pariksha is [seen] … as an act of supreme defiance on her part’ (25). Many similar sub-versions are to be found while analyzing the popular response to Sita’s experiences—they largely determine whether she is seen as a negative or a laudatory model.
The basic framework of the story by Valmiki brings Sita’s character into prominence: a child discovered in a field and reared by Janaka, choosing Rama as her husband in a swayamvara, following him to the forest during his exile, courting danger by coveting a golden deer, laying herself open to being abducted by Ravana, waiting to be rescued by Rama and then needing to prove her chastity by passing through fire, returning to Ayodhya with Rama and ruling as his consort before being banished again to Valmiki’s forest retreat—where, after giving birth to twin sons she is summoned to court again to stand a test—and finally making a choice to merge herself into the earth from which she took birth.
Sita is considered to be the incarnation of Sri or Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu, who comes to the transitory plane of existence in order to endure an arduous life that illustrates to humanity the finest of virtues—virtues that need to be inculcated and put into practice. Since the best method of instruction is not by word but by precept, she could do no better than undergo all the travails possible in order to show that the path to perfection is not through avoidance of suffering but in suffering willingly and subverting the ensuing pain with the right mental attitude. By choosing to suffer but not be weighed down by pain and anguish, the evil which engenders suffering is nullified—this is more purifying and elevating than any ordeal of fire.
The term Sita literally means ‘furrow’ and her modesty and humility seem to be an offshoot of this name. As Sri Ramakrishna was fond of saying, a raised ground—egoistic temperament—can never accumulate rainwater, but a small hole or furrow collects it easily. Similar is the case with this child found in a furrow: she is not weak in character, as we see in many instances. She is self-effacing and does not believe in putting herself forward unless there is a need; but she is not a silent sufferer by any stretch of the imagination. She has a clear idea of self-worth, but this does not lead her to downsize the worth of others. In crucial times, she makes her voice heard and attains any goal she sets out to win.
There are many instances in her story where she is vocal and holds an individual opinion, not subject to the will of her husband or any other authority. When Rama tries to dissuade her from accompanying him to the forest for an exile of fourteen long years, she puts forward a sufficient number of logical arguments to disarm him. When she presents the two brothers with weapons before they set out for the forest, she tells them a story whose moral is nonviolence: do not display your prowess unless it is justified. When Ravana comes in the guise of a brahmana, she argues with him and refutes his claim. In order to fulfill the cosmic design, however, she does cross the lakshmana-rekha, a protective line drawn by Lakshmana, and falls prey to Ravana’s evil design. When Hanuman finds her in captivity, she refuses to escape from Lanka secretly by sitting on his back. She would rather wait for Rama to come and rescue her by winning a legitimate battle. After the devastation of the war, when the women who tortured her are at the mercy of the victors, she stops them from being decimated by saying that they had not acted of their own will but had only followed the orders of their ruler. And the only instance where her words are harsh and hurtful is when she forces Lakshmana to go in search of Rama who left to pursue the golden deer. For this incident, she shows genuine remorse and lifelong repentence.
The one criterion, above others, that could be used to judge her character would be her interpersonal relationships—the impressions of those who interact with her. Here the attitudes of two persons, Rama and Mandodari, towards her may be cited as illustrations.
The fact that Sita is able to win the love, respect and lifetime loyalty of a person of the stature of Rama is a clear indication of her exceptionality. Often he praises her for her wisdom and never questions her chastity; it is only to set the standards of public behavior that he questions her fidelity or speaks unpleasant words after her rescue from Ravana, and again before she finally takes refuge in the womb of Mother Earth. From their first meeting, Rama is bowed down by the responsibility of proving himself equal to Sita’s immense purity. After their wedding, Lakshmana finds Rama sitting in a lonely thoughtful mood and questions him about his distancing himself from the festivities. Rama replies that his new role is much tougher than the lifting of the heavy bow which won him the hand of Sita. ‘Will our Ayodhya be able to sustain … such intense purity as Sita’s?’ he wonders.
In the public persona of the ideal king, he often subjects her to trials; but in doing so, the private person is always drenched in a vale of hidden tears. In the Ramayana, it is reiterated that for Rama there can only be one consort, one Sita, whois irreplaceable.
The other person whose attitude towards Sita is very significant is Mandodari, the favorite wife of Ravana, who possesses virtues and excellence to match even the best of women. Her feelings about Sita are ambivalent to start with—as, for instance, when she tells Ravana that ‘Sita is not my equal or superior, either in birth, beauty, or accomplishments’. However, her opinion becomes laudatory later as she laments the death of her husband by saying, 'Sita, who is greater than even Arundhati and Rohini, came down to earth for the destruction of Ravana'. Mandodari is never jealous of her husband’s frenzied passion for Sita, but warns him over and over to forego his evil designs on Sita and thus save himself and his people. Through her wisdom and long austerities, she comes to recognize the divine spirit in Sita and thus achieves a dignity and majesty of her own.
Personal opinions aside, another important way of viewing the various perspectives on a person is analyzing the many roles that person plays: Sita excels as a young girl in her role as the dutiful daughter of the saintly Janaka. As a bride, she is the custodian of the honor of her husband’s family, and this she upholds till the very last part of her life. When Lakshmana leaves her in the forest for her second exile, she has no complaints. Instead she believes that if her staying away from Rama is beneficial to the Raghuvamsha, Raghu’s lineage, she is willing to do so. It is not as though she is not frightened to be in the forest again, this time bereft of the company of her beloved Rama. But to her, duty to the clan is more important than personal prosperity. As a prisoner in the pleasure garden of Ravana, she shows the power of her personality by preventing seduction through a mere blade of grass. In a momentary lapse, she had crossed the line drawn by Lakshmana for her protection; but here her duty as a house-holder to give alms came in the way of her self-defense. But once she is in the grip of Ravana, she does not succumb to any such consideration, fortifying herself with the power of her personality. Sita as a mother is also a mature and impressive role -- single-parenting her twin sons who grow up to be artistic, intelligent, and valiant warriors.
Her portrayal does not suggest that she is infallible under all circumstances -- in many places she appears far from perfect. All the ills of her abduction arise from her coveting a golden deer, in spite of being assured that such a novelty is unnatural. Her haranguing Lakshmana and accusing him of doubting on her virtue do not accord well with her harmonious coexistence with all nature, especially in the long years of exile. But in the heat of the moment, her fear for the life of her beloved Rama, and Lakshmana’s intractable attitude to her requests seem to culminate in her callous behavior, leading to the catastrophe of her long separation from Rama.
Apart from scholarly analysis, the character of Sita is often expressed in creative and symbolic terms. One such description is Swami Vivekananda’s explication of the soul’s journey to salvation. In it, Sita represents the jivatman. According to him: ‘Rama was the Paramatman and Sita was the Jivatman, and each man’s or woman’s body was the Lanka. … The Jivatman which was enclosed in the body, or captured in the island of Lanka, always desired to be in affinity with the Paramatman, or Shri Rama. But the Rakshasas would not allow it, and Rakshasas represented certain traits of character.’
Elaborating this, he continues: ‘For instance, Vibhishana represented Sattva Guna; Ravana, Rajas; and Kumbhakarna, Tamas. … These Gunas keep back Sita, or Jivatman, which is in the body, or Lanka, from joining Paramatman or Rama. … [She] receives a visit from Hanuman, the Guru or divine teacher, who shows her the Lord’s ring, which is Brahma-Jnana, the supreme wisdom that destroys all illusions; and thus Sita finds the way to be at one with Shri Rama’ .
Before concluding, it would be relevant to see the currency of Sita in today’s world. To get an accurate and balanced perspective, the first step is to go beyond the rigid lines of either putting her on a pedestal as the ideal woman for all times and climes or denigrating her as a mere patriarchal tool for ensuring submissiveness in women. Those who advocate gender ‘equality’ are gradually coming to realize that oranges need never be equated with apples, because both have their own inviolable place in the natural scheme of things.
Without attempting this kind of unequal equality, it can be said that Sita in no way appears ‘inferior’ to any other character in the epic. She has the necessary confidence to live a life of dignity in the most trying of circumstances. Her confidence is not manifest through any form of aggressiveness. In fact, her self-control and silence are clearer indications of her faith in herself than what was possible through any overt fierce display of hostility.
The emotional response evoked by the character of Sita also determines many perceptions. Rarely does she appeal to the reader as an object of pity. Her travails bring forth admiration, her suffering is participated in. Her rite of passage through fire and her subsequent exile to stop criticism of her clan are more social critiques than any comment on the weakness or helplessness of women. Nowhere is she seen embittered by a life of torment—she infuses love for the absent father in her sons’ hearts, to cite just one instance. She does experience intense grief throughout her life, but this grief strengthens her rather than incapacitating her. Her emotional intelligence—her ability to recognize, respect, and regulate emotions—is a trait which needs to be given maximum currency in today's word, in which people seems to be quickly losing their emotional balance.
The concept of the shadow of Sita being kidnapped, being made to undergo the rite of purification by fire, and then being united with Rama when her real form was never far removed from him has had a hold on the popular imagination for long and has many ethical ramifications. As incarnations of the all-powerful divine, it is obvious that Rama and Sita had another purpose than the obvious one of being the overt and covert instruments for killing Ravana. The establishment of contextual ethics being one of their major tasks, the role of Sita takes on added significance. To begin with, she is the recipient of guidance about proper behavior in various stations of life: conformity as a child, adaptability as a daughter going to the house of her new husband, and so on. Later, in spite of his deep devotion to Sita, Rama makes her the instrument for communicating various ethical norms as a part of his efforts to establish ramarajya—the ideal, utopian state.
Even discounting the historical verifiability, a milieu which could creatively and imaginatively fashion a character such as Sita must have responded to women in a way vastly different from the presently popular conceptions that women are mere shadows with no individuality. Sita’s character thus reiterates the veneration accorded to women in Indian culture as well as their significant participation in all discourses of life, public and private, along with men. The effacement which women chose to adopt on many occasions was often by a free exercise of volition and not compulsion or coercion. All these aspects make the interpretation of Sita’s multifaceted character very complex. To say that she was the sole arbiter of her own life would be as much of a fallacy as to consider her the bonded slave of the men in her life and the prevalent patriarchal tradition.
- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 3.255.
- Romila Tapar, Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History (Delhi: Oxford, 1999), 1084.
- Great Women of India: The Holy Mother Birth Centenary Memorial, ed. Swami Madhavana and Ramesh Chandra Majumdar (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1993), 24.
- Great Women of India: The Holy Mother Birth Centenary Memorial, ed. Swami Madhavananda and Ramesh Chandra Majumdar (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1993), 24-25
- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 3.256.
- See http://www.ninapaley.com/Sitayana/epic.html accessed 10 August 2008.
- Madhu Kishwar, ‘Yes to Sita, No to Ram! The Continuing Popularity of Sita in India’, Manushi, 98 (Jan– Feb 1997), 22.
- Ramayan ke Patra (Hindi, from original Gujarati), trans. Kashinath Trivedi (New Delhi: Sasta Sahitya Mandal, 2005), 66.
- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda,5.415.
- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda,5.415.
- Originally published as "Valmiki's Sita: A Kaliedoscope of Perceptions" by Prabhuddha Bharata October 2008 edition. Reprinted with permission.