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Sita: Nature in its Feminine Form


I would try to understand the personality of Sita in this paper, as she lived and conducted herself in the remote past, on her own terms, by her own rules2. Sita appears in the Ramayana as the embodiment of nature: Sita is sprung from the earth and returns to the earth (most naturally, just like a plant) while a major part of her life is spent living the spontaneous life of the forest2. The symbolism of nature (prakriti) is unmistakable. I examine each of three major events in the life of Sita below and postulate how it related her to prakriti (resembling forest in symbolism). In fact, these events of Sita’s life form the central core of the Ramayana. It is notable that the central story of the Ramayana begins with Sit’s eventful appearance from earth (birth) and ends with her unusual disappearance as absorbed by the earth, although, not narrated in that order. Her life is out of the ordinary and unparalleled in comparison to a normal woman. The spontaneous nature of Sita, can be understood as the natural expression of prakriti (the nature), symbolized by the forest and female spontaneity in classical Indian literature, especially the Ramayana. It is this aspect of Sita I explore here in this paper: Sita as an expression of unexpected and unparalleled energy (Shakti) of nature (prakriti). It is very important to understand this aspect of Sita, as a female representative of women undergoing the civilizing trends of culture, similar to the nature, benefitting humanity in the process.

As such the Ramayana symbolically represents two themes: First, the cultural struggles between male and female for supremacy, and second the affinity of women to nature (prakriti), especially as it exists in an unspoiled forest setting. The plant symbolism in Sita’s personality, and the longing of Sita for life in the forest is indicative of not just the paradisiacal view of life in the forest, but it represents the urge of primeval feminine energy (Shakti) to experience the free spirited life. During the prehistoric golden age women were the foragers and keepers of food and supposedly had a superior position (Child 1929). In part, feminine frustration in the Ramayana comes with the move away from nature (plant nature or forest in this instance), which not only meant building a civilization with farming as the mainstay of life, but also depriving women of their primary work (that of foraging for food in the forest) and connectivity to nature, who definitely had better rights and status in a forest based hunter-gatherer life and society1. Men and women perceive nature differently: On the one hand women view nature/forest as “all giving” and something to be nurtured, based on their experiences of life as the “life givers” of sorts: they raised gardens (before the advent of large scale farming dominated by men) for the family table, they bear and raise children. On the other hand men view nature/forest as “wild” and something to be controlled and tamed, based on their experiences of life as the “lifetamers/takers” of sorts:  They hunt, they bring home the meat, they go to war. Both of these aspects are represented forcefully in the characters of Sita and Rama.

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Vigraha of Lord Rama, Lakshmana and Sita at the temple of Bhadrachalam. Source: Google Image Search

In this paper, I will explore these two aspects- that of the cultural struggles between the male and female, and the female affinity and longing for nature, and life in natural surroundings as opposed to their struggle to adjust with civilization, in other words the longing for women’s original status and life.

In fact, the Ramayana is a female oriented book although it may not appear as such at first glance (Goldman 2004). Sita is the lead female character of the Ramayana, but also depicts the struggles and trials of numerous other female characters. All the major events of the Ramayana are perpetrated by female characters: Mandhara, the female maid, incites Kaikeyi, which brings up the exile of Rama, the central theme of Ramayana. This inadvertently brings Sita into play, where Sita initiates the self-exile with Rama. From then on, it is the story of Sita. Her life in the Chitrakuta, Dandaka, Panchavati forests and finally the Ashoka forest (imprisoned by Ravana) are the major events of the Ramayana. The imprisonment of Sita and other drastic events are also brought about first by another female, by a sister of Ravana, the demoness Shurpanakha, who proposes to Rama and then Lakshmana for marriage.

The story of the Ramayana depicts the struggles of women with both polygamy and monogamy. Women faced the greatest reshaping forces of the civilizing mission, both in polygamy and monogamy while adapting to the patriarchal society. Unlike polygamy, monogamy demands unquestionable loyalty of a woman to her husband, and at the same time it also demands unflinching loyalty of a man to his wife, which might lead to excessive jealousy between the partners. In the case of polygamy the jealousy is not between wives and husband, but between the co-wives. One can also find examples of the jealousy in polygamy in the other stories of women in the Ramayana: Rama’s father, Dasaratha, the polygamous husband, does not promise his wives loyalty, but wealth and comforts. In the case of Kaikeyi, his third wife, he promised three special boons, which Kaikeyi later used to catapult her son, Bharatha, to the position of king, replacing Rama, who was to be exiled, thus overturning the superior position of the first wife, Kausalya, as the queen mother. While the monogamous husband Rama promised Sita, only loyalty (Pauwels 2004: 200; Brockington 1998: 433). The marriage of Rama and Sita differs from that of his father, because Rama is known as the devoted husband of Sita, thus following monogamy (ekapanivrata). While pativratya (loyalty of a wife to the husband) for women is an established quality of marriage (polygamy or monogamy), the Ramayana brings forward the ideal of ekapatnivrata for men as a cherished ideal. Rama represents this quality by conducting himself as ekapatnivrata (vow of monogamy) and holds on to his vow despite all the difficulties of his marriage to Sita.

Growing up with the Ramayana, all around me, I struggled to understand Sita. Living near Bhadrachalam, one of the major pilgrimage centers of Rama and Sita in Andhra Pradesh state in South India, I have attended numerous Ramanavami celebrations in Bhadrachalam and nearby towns1. I have heard numerous retellings of the Ramayana story in the Ramanavami celebrations and from my parents, and grandparents. For me the Ramayana had always depicted burdens placed on women. While teaching history at S.D.M. Siddhartha Mahila Kalasala (1992-93), I directed a short play staged by my students, where the ending of the Ramayana story in Lanka is reversed, and Sita refuses to perform the “agnipravesa,” and refuses to even go with Rama to Ayodhya. You might say that this epitomized my struggle to understand Sita’s depiction in the Ramayana. I later learned, I was not alone in this: the voices of dissent began as early as 7th Century C.E. including Dinnaga (Datta 1956) and Bhavabhuti (Nelaturu 1970), if not earlier, and became more frequent and fierce in the 21st century1 (Pauwels 2008; Kishwar 2000 Kumar 1992:57-67).

Apparently this trend continued with my generation of women in Andhra Pradesh as well concerning Sita resulting in the publication of a new version of Sita story in Andhra Jyothi, a popular Telugu weekly magazine during 2000, although abruptly stopped due to popular opposition (Velcheru 2004). Such adaptations do exist and continue to be imagined, not only because, as the Ramayana1 is singularly unique bardic tale, which lends itself easily to alternate projections, but also the struggles of Sita, strike a chord with each generation of young men and women of India.

An example of this empathy between Sita and young women is aptly depicted in the Bollywood film Lajja (Santhoshi 2001). In this film, actress Janaki (played by the Bollywod heroine Madhuri Dixit, explain the “play within a play‟ (more simply) who is acting as Sita on stage to project her own frustrations into the character of Sita of the Ramayana, which she was supposed to be playing on stage, much to the dismay of the audience and the director. Incidentally, all the female characters of the film Lajja are named after Sita and reflect an aspect of Sita (Santhoshi 2001).

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Photo from a Ramayana play in the US. Source: Google Image Search

Telling the Sita story is so multi-dimensional that it requires not one, but many women to represent her.

The real Sita of the Ramayana is depicted in myriad of ways in film and literature ranging from orthodox (Sagar 1983; Coburn 1995) to non-Hindu (Das 2006; Thapar 1978) to feminist (Kishwar 2000; Ruth 2004; Arora 2004; Karve 1995) to scholarly (Velcheru 2004: 226; Ramanujan 1991) interpretations, while modern critiques of Sita appear in every media ranging from print to television (Murphy and Sippy 2000; Lutgendorf 1990; Gudipati 1976). Sita acquires a unique position among her posterity ever inspiring new imaginations. In other words, the story of the Ramayana is flexible, yet unitary, but the personality of Sita is multi-dimensional, powerful and independent, projecting one’s views into her role would be possible, in only fragments. A complete story of Sita evokes frustration and deep sorrow at the injustices she faced and the courage with which she stood her ground. These new depictions and imaginings of Sita shows the efforts of each generation of young persons to own and understand Sita in their own way, even if only partially. Though the original creation of Valmiki, does not fail to intrigue and marvel endlessly; variations on the Sita tradition have become quite common and sometimes even fashionable in modern India (Richman 1991; Bose 2004; Iyengar 1983; Raghavan 1980; Thiel Horstman 1991).

However, in order to examine her life closely, Sita’s life can be roughly divided into three sections, as Sita before Rama, Sita with Rama, and Sita sans Rama. My examination of Sita in these three sections of her life below show, Sita as a strong, forgiving and nurturing woman.  Although she is fiercely devoted to Rama, she is never a meek, or docile woman, although that came to be associated with her in certain retellings of the Ramayana.

Sita Before Rama

In mythologizing an idea of a person, the birth of a hero is often shrouded in mystery (Rank 1964; Campbell 1956). It is also commonly noted in these heroic myths that the relationship of a hero towards his parents or family is troubled, and the hero is subjected to more envy, jealousy, and dilemma than others. All of these characteristics of the hero myth are true in the case of Sita, which inadvertently attribute primacy to Sita’s role in the Ramayana, although not apparent at the outset. As explained by Valmiki, in his preface to the Ramayana, the krauncavadha episode (Ramayana. 1. 2.14) truly sets the tone of the epic as that of the agony of the feminine due to no fault of her or her partner. Despite the amount of space given her role in the Ramayana Sita occupies a central place in the overall framework of the story1.

Birth and Early life

The symbolism of nature (flora) is inherent and unmistakably present in every major event of the story of the life of Sita beginning with her birth as described in the Ramayana, as emanating from the earth from a furrow of the field. Janaka says, once, “as I was plowing the field, a girl sprang up behind my plow,” (Ramayana.1.65.15).

The birth of Sita thus described as, “not born from a womb (ayonija),” by Janaka brings to mind a vision of spontaneous sprouting of plant life from earth in its most natural form, as in the wild. It is not necessary to plow and sow seeds for the plant life to emanate in the wild. It is the most natural and commonly occurring process of the wild.

Therefore the birth of Sita indicates two themes, her closeness to the spontaneous life and her affinity to nature (prakriti), which flows spontaneously and sustains life without much effort.

Janaka stated in the Ramayana (Ramayana. 1. 65.15-20) that Sita is:

A treasure and a pride for eye.
Once, as it chanced, I ploughed the ground,
When sudden, ‘neath the share was found
An infant springing from the earth,
Named Sitá from her secret birth.1

Sita also recounts the story of her birth and marriage to Anasuya, Atri’s wife that repeats the story described in this section once again (Ramayana.2.110.30-110.50). Sita narrated her birth story more realistically. She notes that “while Janaka was tilling the circle of fields,” she said, “I broke through the earth”. Then she adds that King Janaka was sowing the grain by the fistful, “when he caught sight of me, my body all caked up with dirt and he was amazed”. While Janaka’s version glosses the story slightly by saying that he was tilling the land for the purpose of a yagna, Sita’s version in fact notes that he was actually farming, by adding that first he tilled that land, and then sowed the seeds when he found Sita. Sita’s birth is also natural she mentions that she had “dirt caked up on her body”.

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Painting of Lord Rama breaking the bow of Shiva. Source: Google Image Search

Sita’s birth is sudden and spontaneous. Indeed this is a secret birth and never known to occur in the human world other than the plant world, and she is a treasure and pride. This in fact represents two factors here: one is the spontaneous birth, the second is the process of cultivation, an effort of civilization. Sita may have been born as naturally as nature springs forth its life, but she is found as an effort of civilization (the act of plowing is notable here as an effort of civilization1), her upbringing is a part of the known cultural process, but not an unknown spontaneous wild growth as the nature (or plant life) intends in its most natural circumstances. Therefore at the outset of the story of Sita itself, the symbolism of women and nature is closely tied, while the civilizing efforts of the culture (cultivation) form the undercurrent of the story. The story as it unfolds continues with this free spirited nature, associated with Sita (women in general) and the difficulties she faces due to the controlling forces of civilization/modifications.

Sita’s adoptive mother, wife of Janaka, is only mentioned passingly2, and any information about Sita‟s childhood until her marriage is scanty in the Ramayana. No interactions of Sita and her adoptive mother Sunayana find place in the Ramayana. However, one of the incidents of the childhood of Sita in the Telugu folk Ramayana, explained by her father Janaka, as the reason for arranging the competition of lifting and stringing the Shiva’s bow connects her to her playful childhood3 and also provides evidence of her immense strength. Janaka says that,

“Once while playing ball game with her friends, Sita lifted the bow very easily”.

Janaka, her father, was surprised at her strength, since Siva’s bow12 had not been lifted by anyone in his knowledge. Therefore, her father, Janaka, decided that anyone who wishes to marry his daughter should be able lift that bow and string it, so that there would be equality between the groom and bride.

The Telugu folk Ramayana rightly understood the significance of the test of stringing Shiva‟s bow as a test of strength. Janaka described in great detail how none of the other heroes could ever lift the bow and the Ramayana also includes the manner in which the bow was brought to the court for svayamvara (bridegroom choice). It was placed in a steel box, on an eight – wheeled cart, 5000 strong persons were required to pull it (Ramayana. 1. 66.5). Rama lifted it right away and the bow broke while he tried to string it (Ramayana.1.66.16-17).

“This heavenly bow, exceeding bright,
these youths shall see, O Anchorit.
Then if young Ráma’s hand can string
The bow that baffled lord and king,
To him I give, as I have sworn,
My Sitá, not of woman born.”

It can be noted that this strength later helps her to undertake numerous challenges of her later life, such as following Rama into the forest under self-exile; live through the imprisonment of Ravana; pass through the ordeal of fire; and wish for another forest exile, and as a result raise her children independently on her own in the forest.

Sita is as powerful and strong as the man she married, not a meek woman, although this image came to be associated with her. At the outset of the story these two events, Sita’s birth and marriage, the Ramayana establishes that Sita is spontaneous like nature as well as strong and independent woman. Therefore, Sita before joining Rama is an embodiment of nature, with its strength and natural abilities. Another point that needs to be noted here is the image of her adoptive mother, Sunayana. Although noted in name, her presence is only fleeting. Her role in the life of Sita is at the most absent. Therefore at the outset, the Ramayana sets this as a heroic tale of Sita, with Rama trying to match up to her in strength. With her decision to accompany Rama into exile Sita spent the prime of her life (16 years – 30 years) in the forest1. Sita and Rama extended the brahmacarya asrama of life for 14 years, while postponing the grihasta asrama for later2.

I will now consider her life with Rama after her marriage.

Sita With Rama

Her life with Rama spans fifteen years after her marriage, out of which fourteen years are spent in forest exile, while close to a year is spent in Ayodhya before she was sent on her second exile alone. These are the most crucial years in the life of Sita, and a test of her strength.

As soon as Sita learns of Rama’s exile in Ayodhya, she argues her case to follow him into the forest, as his lawful wedded wife15. In her speech she stresses two reasons that will make her at home in the forest: her love for Rama, and the abundance and idyllic nature of forest. While her love for Rama is obvious, her views of forest are only from her positivist understanding and indicate a feminine affinity with forest. Sita sees only the beauty and giving nature of forest as seen in her speech below, the forest is all-giving, nourishing and all-embracing (Ramayana.2.24.15)

Sita said that,

the earth will yield me roots, these will I eat, and woodland fruits, And as with thee I wander there, I will not bring thee grief or care. I long, when thou, wise lord, art nigh, all fearless, with delighted eyeTo gaze upon the rocky hill, the lake, the fountain, and the hill; To sport with thee, my limbs to cool, in some pure lily-covered pool, While the white swan’s and mallard’s wings, are splashing in the water-springs.

Her affinity with nature is clear. Her insistence about following Rama into the forest does not just seem as an urge of dutiful wife, but someone longing for a life in a forest filled with fruit bearing trees, lakes, and fountains, where she can splash the water and enjoy looking at the flowers and birds while sporting with Rama. However, this only shows her feminine urge to be part of the nature, despite the fact that she does not know the danger of the forest. Sita has not understood the change of life style that comes with living in the forest.

Rama, Lakshmana, Sita and Hanuman. Painting by Fridolin Froehlich. Source: Google Image Search

Sita also does know about the challenging ascetic life style until the bark clothing1 is brought for her by Kaikeyi, seeing which Sita bursts into tears. She had no experience with these clothes and Rama had to help her in putting them on (Ramayana.2.33.10-15).

Sítá, in her silks arrayed,
Threw glances, trembling and afraid,
On the bark coat she had to wear,
Like a shy doe that eyes the snare.
Ashamed and weeping for distress
From the queen’s hand she took the dress.
The fair one, by her husband’s side
Who matched heaven’s minstrel monarch, cried:
‘How bind they on their woodland dress,
Those hermits of the wilderness?’
There stood the pride of Janaka’s race
Perplexed, with sad appealing face.
One coat the lady’s fingers grasped,
One round her neck she feebly clasped,
But failed again, again, confused
By the wild garb she ne’er had used.
Then quickly hastening Ráma, pride
Of all who cherish virtue, tied
The rough bark mantle on her, o’er
The silken raiment that she wore.

Although not aware of the hard life of the forest, Sita’s readiness to undertake exile, give up wealth, comforts, and even silk clothing in order to proceed to the forest exemplify her readiness and liking for the forest and its natural spontaneous life. As Shakti, she longed to live as one with nature.

Nature of the Forest and Desires Misfired

Three of the most important events infringing on the personal privacy of Sita happen in the forest and are central to the narration of Ramayana. These were, first, Sita being dragged by off by Viradha (Ramayana.3.2.5-3.3.20), and second, the proposal of Shurpanakha, first to Rama and then to Lakshmana for marriage (Ramayana.316.2017.20)). The third, and last is Sita’s own desire to obtain the “golden deer”(Ramayana.3.40.25-43-25).

One day, while Rama, Sita and Lakshmana were going in the forest Viradha happened to pass by and noticed them. Without hesitation he attacked Rama and Lakshmana and took Sita by the arm and rode off while telling Rama and Lakshmana that she will be his wife, while advising them to run away to save their life. However, Rama and Lakshmana pursue him and rescue her immediately. Next appears Shurpanakha, who desires the good company of Rama in marriage, while he refuses, she tries to persuade Lakshmana to join her in marriage1. In order to escape Shurpanakha’s forceful seduction, Lakshmana mutilates her. Next is the desire of Sita, that of obtaining the “golden deer,” which turns out to be Marica and leads to Sita’s capture and imprisonment by Ravana.

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Ravana aducting Sita. Painting by Raja Ravi Verma.

All the three events described in the forest above represent the unfulfilled desires of the forest dwellers, Viradha, Shurpanakha and Sita. This is in conformity with the nature of the forest, where one can desire, anything that is likeable, spontaneously. In this instance all these three desires are impossible and result in loss for the three forest dwellers. Viradha, Shurpanakha and Sita are examples of impulsivity in forest where it seems natural to express one’s desires. Sita’s desire to obtain “golden deer,” again shows this natural will of forest, free for all- a simple attraction to a pretty object, for no particular reason or gain. She implores Rama to chase the animal, and then forces Lakshmana to go on this chase, due to her concern for her husband Rama’s safety. She is forceful and it is difficult to refuse her.

Although Sita is imprisoned by Ravana, it is only on her terms, and she remained true to her vow while following Rama into exile that Sita stayed in the Ashoka forest, but did not enter the palace of Ravana or enjoy herself with the fine facilities of Lanka, but lamented and repented at length1. She could not be forced into following anyone’s orders. While her life in Lanka is the most difficult part of her life, she has never lost her courage, or never submitted to any one’s requests2 barring Rama. After the war she goes through the ordeal of fire (agnipariksha) at Rama’s request to prove her chastity and emerges as a pure and strong woman. It was not in Sita’s nature to shy away from any challenge, even fire.

The fourteen years of the life Sita lived in the forest with Rama (excepting the number of days that she lived in Lanka) show her adamant nature, and will power to face any difficult circumstances. Her affinity to nature (prakriti) as personified Shakti is again expressed, in the way she felt completely at home in the forest. It also establishes that the life of the forest may have been hard, but the tests of civilization, that of the fire ordeal were more onerous, than her life in the forest. She remembers her life in the forest as that of spontaneous and paradisiacal. This makes her wish for the life of forest again within a year of leaving the forest while she was pregnant, and comfortable as queen in Ayodhya later (which Rama uses cleverly to trick her to abandon her in the forest).

Sita sans Rama

In the last part of Sita’s life where Sita is again separated from Rama, by deceit while pregnant. Sita accompanies Rama and Lakshmana and faces the challenges of forest knowing during the first exile. However, in this second exile, during the last stage of her life, she is the master of her own life. She takes her decisions and faces the consequences of her own decisions. Sita emerges as a strong individual from her life during this second exile. This second exile shows the true nature of Sita as the most courageous and strong willed woman. This is the reason this part of the story had attracted numerous renditions and modifications of feminist scholars.

The Second Exile: Life in Forest

This part of Sita’s life has drawn attention from poets and scholars equally. Sita emerges as the stronger person, while Rama in this last episode seems to be the meek person. Due to a rumor that Rama had heard from one of his spies, Rama without telling her sends Sita into the forest (Ramayana. Uttarakhandam. LIV:1719-20)1. Lakshmana was ordered by Rama to take her to the other side of the Ganga near the ashrama of Valmiki being careful to bar his brother from questioning his decision. Lakshmana does not inform Sita of the decision of Rama until she was left on the other bank of the Ganga (Ramayana. Uttarakandam. LVI-LVII:1723-26).

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Painting of Lord Hanuman in Ravana’s place by artist Vrndavana Das. Source: Google Image Search

The reason given by Rama1 thus sending her off was the pretext that Sita had expressed her desire to visit the forest as a craving during her pregnancy (Uttarakhandam.LII:1717). This shows two important aspects. First that Rama could not and did not wish to confront Sita and discuss with her the information from the spy or his consequent decision. Second, it is surprising that Rama decided to send her into the forest (to trick her into thinking of it as temporary visit), rather than her own home in Mithila. It is hard to understand what prompted Rama to take this decision. It seems gross negligence on the part of Rama, in regard to Sita and his children to be born. Did Rama somehow assume her liking for the forest, and guess that she would do well with her children in the forest? However, this last part of her life in the forest raising her children alone, again establishes the natural affinity of women with nature. Telugu women’s stories understood this aspect well1.

According to the Telugu folk stories, Sita did not give birth to twins. Sita gave birth to only Lava. One day while she went to the lake to fetch water leaving Lava in the ashrama, she noted how monkeys carried their young on their bodies, wherever they went. This reminded Sita that she had left her son alone in the ashrama. She immediately returned to the ashrama, and following the example of monkeys, she carried her son on her back, and went on her daily chores as usual. While Valmiki in the meanwhile returned to the ashrama had noticed the missing child, and an empty swing. As Valmiki understood that this might devastate her (for so great is her motherly instinct and loss) he created another child who looked and acted the same as Lava, out of the kusha grass (hence the name Kusha), instantly. However, he noted that Sita returned with the child, told her the whole fiasco of creating another child for her. However, Sita was more than happy to have another child and adopted this child of grass, named as Kusha, and raised him as her own son. Nurturing is Sita’s second nature.

Sita lived and behaved as part of the nature around her. This is clear from the way she learned to carry her child by seeing the monkeys. She wished to be sent to the forest while pregnant, but not to her mother as is usually the case. She is born from earth like grass, and her son Kusha, is fashioned by Valmiki from the grass. The aspects of nature and forest life are part of Sita’s existence in Ramayana. This part of Sita’s life shows her strong character and her willingness to face life without losing confidence. Sita does not bow to challenges and tribulations, while continuing to nurture and remain calm under all circumstances.

End of Life

The end of life for Sita is as natural as her birth. Sita had done what a courageous woman would do when faced with the same question twice. She had lived her life, raised her children perfectly by herself. So in the end when Rama asked her to perform another fire ordeal to prove her chastity, Sita found no reason to obey him, while proving her chastity in a different way, by entering the earth, not fire. She refused to answer or argue, but chose to disappear forever wounding the pride of Rama. She only said, “If I am truthful and pure, please absorb me Madhavi” (Ramayana.Uttarakandam. Section CX: 1910). The Earth did absorb her. Sita went back to the same place from which she was born. Although Rama remained an “ekapatnivrata,” it was of no consequence to Sita and remains a shallow claim. Ramayana represents the struggle of women to maintain their fair share in creating the culture- in fact it is the last struggle and ushers in gradual rise of society.

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Painting depcting Sita entering Agni. Source: Google Image Search

Sita is the last woman to bear testimony to this transitory struggle. Sita’s life is extraordinarily eventful. She had taken decisions that no woman would ever be able to take, and faced unforeseen consequences through her perseverance and courage. And remember that Sita only sleeps… Like a seed in the soil awaiting rejuvenation in the warmth of springtime.

To Reprise:

Sita is born by herself, lived her life in her own way, a very individualistic life. She grew up as a happy and energetic child, and her lifting the Shiva’s bow in child’s play is indicative of her strength, independence as well as fearless nature. After marriage to Rama, Sita wishes to follow Rama into the forest, which again indicates her independent and adamant nature. Her stay in Ashoka forest as a prisoner of Ravana, again indicate only her individuality and independent nature. No one can coerce Sita into doing anything that she does not want. Upon her return to Ayodhya, while pregnant, she may be happy, but still craves the independence and carefree life of the forest. Only to be left in the forest by deception, by Lakshmana, on the orders of Rama, since Rama knows that Sita cannot be coerced into doing anything she is not willing to do. Sita is found again by Rama, after meeting the twins, Lava and Kusha. At Rama’s request for another agnipravesa (ordeal of fire) to prove her pativratya again, she disappears in to the Earth, a symbol of her strength and independent thinking again. This event again shows the independence and quick decision of Sita.

Sita continues to intrigue and inspire scholars as well as young men and women. Sita outnumbers Rama completely in the number of productions on her (literary and other media) each year. This extraordinary attention to Sita is in itself an indication of the success of Sita as a prime feminine representation of India. Even though numerous caricatures of Sita are produced, Valmiki’s Sita endures as the strongest and best portrayal of a woman.

Sita showed that she can remain steadfast and be successful amidst difficulties. As noted in several of the recreated Ramayana stories, Sita may live a “happily ever after life,” she may refuse to take any fire ordeals and decide her own fate, or she may live in a female utopia. It is clear that Sita remains true to her nature and offers an ideal of non-compromise. Who knows what she may do in the imaginations of future interpreters. She may even fly into space (although she might cry while putting on the space suit), but she will definitely undertake the challenge and may likely complete it successfully.


Bibliography

Arora, Kulvinder. 2001. “The Mythology of Female Sexuality: Alternative Narratives of Belonging.” Women: A Cultural Review Vol. 17, No. 2: 220-250.

Brockington, John L. 1998. The Sanskrit Epics. Leiden: Brill.

Bose, Mandakrantha. 2004. The Ramayana Revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Joseph. 1956. The hero with a thousand faces. New York: Meridian Books. Child, Gordon V. 1929. What Happened in Pre-history? Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Coburn, Thomas B. 1995. “Sita fights while Rama Swoons.” Manushi 90: 5-16.

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References:

1This paper is published previously as “Sita: Feminine as Nature in the story of Ramayana,” Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Vol. 20 No. 1 Fall, 2011: 29-47.

2 I thank my friend R.L. Mohl, Interpretive Specialist in Prehistory at Serpent Mound, Peebles, Ohio, for reading an earlier version of this paper and for his valuable insights.

2 Even though noted fleetingly by Kumudini (Ranganayaki, Thatam), writing as Sita, her last sentence in the story “Lady Sita,” notes this point. “I have realized how excellent it would be if every woman went to live in the forest. The worries of life would be reduced by half,” although she noted this in relation to the dress code of a civilized woman, it is clear that the codes of civilization (consumerism) places an excessive burden on women “Mail From the Inner Palace,” in Chillaraic Cangatikal, Limittat, Tricchi: Natesan Books Limited, 1948. For translation and detailed examination of this story and others see, Paula Richman, “Sita’s Dilemmas through Mail,” in Paula Richman, ed. 2010. Notes from Mandala (Newark: University of Delaware Press): 216-229.

3 Although gender is an important aspect of society analysis of gender and gender roles in prehistoric societies is a neglected aspect of early archaeology. However, a number of archaeological sites, tools and artifacts are currently being reassessed and re-understood. One such recent study in Ohio at the site known as Miami fort has shown the important role played by women in water management and maintaining gardens. Based on personal communication with R.L. Mohl, Interpretive Specialist in Prehistory, Serpent Mound, Peebles, OH.

4 Ramanavami celebrations in and around Bhadrachalam incorporates a number of Koya tribal traditions. The temple of Rama in Bhadrachalam is built in 19th century by Kancherla Gopanna (known popularly as Bhakta Ramadasu). www.Bhadrachalam.org. However, according to the local legend of the ascetic Sabari, a tribal ascetic woman Rama met during his wanderings in the Dandakaranya, this temple was founded by Sabari on the banks of Godavari where she met Rama, although the Ramayana (Ramayana 3.703.70.27) places the occurrence of this event on the banks of river Pampa. Sabari after her death is said to have turned into the river Sabari, a tributary of Godavari, which joins Godavari at Kunavaram, near Bhadrachalam. In addition to Bhadrachalam, numerous villages and towns on the banks of these two rivers in this region include numerous temples of Rama, and a pilgrimage circle of Rama.

5 Although classified as epic along with Mahabharata in Western Scholarship, in India Ramayana is classified as a kavya, and Mahabharata is classified as itihasa, two different genres of literature. As a kavya, the Ramayana has a singular linear story, which lends itself to adaptations easily. Numerous retellings of the Ramayana are known from the beginning of the current era. Several Jain retellings of the story of the Ramayana under the name Paumacariyam, as well as several retellings of the Ramayana such as Adbhuta Ramayana, Ramacarita Manas of Tulsi Das are well known. Numerous retellings of the Ramayana exist in Hindu, Jain as well as Folk narratives. In fact, early South Indian translations of the Ramayana are based on Jain retellings.

6 Sita continues to provide a powerful symbol of strength for women. Numerous surveys conducted in modern India, over the years also indicate the popularity of Sita as a role model among young women of India. Sutherland further examines this claim in her examination of Sita and Draupadi. Sally J. Sutherland, 1989, “Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-Models in Sanskrit Epics,” Journal of the Americal Oriental Society, Vol. 109. No.1: 63-79.

7 Krauncavadha provides a troubled start to the Ramayana. For more details on this and Balakanda, see, Sally J. Sutherland Goldman, “Gendered Narratives: Gender, Space and Narrative Structures in Valmiki‟s Balakanda,” (Bose, 2004 : 47-87).

8 All the translations in this paper are to the translation of the Ramayana by Ralph Griffith. Ralph T.H. Griffith. Trans. 1970-74. The Ramayana of Valmiki. (London: Trubner and Co.)

9. Domestication of plants and animals is noted as leading to the first Neolithic villages, while the mainstay of Neolithic societies and the beginning of civilization is farming. Large farms created by burning the forest are located close to the village and are worked by men, while home-gardens in the village are managed by women along with basket making. Gordon, V. Child. 1936. Man Makes Himself. (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

10 On the contrary, Rama‟s mother, Kausalya, and his childhood are mentioned in detail in the Ramayana. Sunayana is mentioned as Janaka‟s wife in the Ramayana. In addition to Sita, they also have three other daughters, Urmila, Mandavi, Srutakirti. They are married to Lakshmana, Bharata and Satrugna in the order mentioned, while Sita is married to Rama. It is customary for a mother to inform her daughter of good wifely duties while rendering farewell to the daughter leaving for her husband’s house for the first time. This is absent in the Ramayana, while the speech about wifely duties is imparted by Anasuya, Atri’s wife to Sita, in the beginning of their exile in the opening of Aranyakanda of the Ramayana. Ramayana.2. 109.25-110.1.

11 This important incident is filmed quite nicely in Srirama Pattabhishekamu, a Telugu film produced and directed by N. T. Rama Rao.1978. (Hyderabad: Ramakrishna Studios) 12 The greatness of Shiva‟s bow is described repeatedly at length in Balakanda. It can be understood as making a strong point of the strength of hero. Ramayana. 1.65.7-27, Ramayana.1. 30, and again at Ramayana. 1.74.1-21; and Ramayana. 2. 110.

12 Although her age is not mentioned in the Ramayana, she may be of the same age as Rama. Rama is said to have been 15 years of age when he left for the forest with Vishwamitra. Therefore if we add a year for the time spent in the forest, subsequent marriage and planning and cancelation of coronation ceremony, and leaving for the forest, they both may have been 16 years of age when they left for exile.

13 Parkhill discusses the absence of sexuality noting the ascetic life style of Rama and Sita in detail in connection with their exile. Thomas Parkhill, The Forest Setting in Hindu Epics: Princess, Sages and Demons (Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: Mellen Press, 1994): 137 15 Ramayana.2.26.19-2.27.18. Her arguments with Rama, range from appeal to demands. Discussed in detail by Parkhill (Parkhill 1994: 130-167).

14 Bark clothing is rough clothing made from the bark of Jute plant, referred to as nara cira or also referred valkala in later works. It cannot be spun into fine yarn or dyed like cotton or silk. It is cheaper, durable and also suitable for life in the forest. It is called Jute and presently used only for making bags, sacks, and other packaging material. Other fabrics mentioned in the Ramayana are silk (kauseya– Sita is often describes as pitakauseyavasin); linen (ksauma). For more information on clothing, jewelry and culture of the Ramayana times, see John Brockington, The Sanskrit Epics, Leiden, Boston, Koln: Brill, 1998: 408-425.

15 Such proposals of marriage from rakshasa women/men are typical of life in the forest. The Mahabharata narrates one such instance where the proposal was accepted. During the exile of the Pandavas, Hidimba expressed her wish to marry Bhima, to which Kunthi gave her permission readily. Mahabharata. 1.142.15-35.

16 Sita blames herself for the imprisonment. Ramayana.5.23, 24, 26.

17 It is also noted that she did not take the easy way out of her imprisonment. She is strong enough to rescue herself, but that would belittle the image of her husband. She also refused the offer of Hanuman to ride on his back and escape the imprisonment. She waited for the ultimate victory for her husband and for herself.

18 Citations for this section of the paper are based on Uttarakanda of the Ramayana edited and published by Manmatha Nath Dutt. The Ramayana. (Calcutta: M.N. Dutt, 1893).

19 As for Rama, he is purest of the pure. His mere touch purified Ahalya and transformed her back into a woman from stone (turned into stone due to her sexual transgression with Indra). Would’nt Rama’s touch may have purified Sita. It seems in Sita’s case Rama is concerned more about what people said or thought rather than her actions or purity. She had once proved her purity by emerging through the fire ordeal. Considering the fact that Sita had already performed agnipariksha and proved her chastity and purity once, makes the rumor of the spy a trifle reason.

20 I heard this story from my mother Mandalapu Ramaseetha Devi. I thank her for sharing this and many, many other stories, which continue to enrich my life.

 

 

 


Lavanya Vemsani
Dr Vemsani is a Distinguished University Professor of History, Department of Social Sciences Shawnee State University.

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