More Than Just A Loyal Wife: Why Sita Should Be Remembered As A Woman Who Stood Up For Herself

Posted on September 4, 2014 in Culture-Vulture, Specials, Staff Picks

By Sohini Chatterjee:

Our epics haven’t been kind to the fate of their heroines. Sita is no exception. Her story is made up in extremes. Abandoned by her biological parents, Sita was found by a childless king who raised her as his own. We don’t know what Sita’s life would have been were she not found by King Janaka, who adopted her. She could have been brought up by farmers. She could have not lived at all. But as luck would have it, she became a princess. Sita’s episode confirms that accidents can determine one’s life chances. Sita’s birth into royalty would have been as much an accident as her being found and made into one was. She could have no control over either. Her life was, however, not entirely decided by the abruptness of accidents, something which hints at modernity that Ramayana had unwittingly complicated itself with. Sita’s identity was shaped by the upheaval caused by time and circumstances. She has revealed herself through the obligations veiled in the choices she made. But she still remains an enigma.

Agni pariksha of sita

Women have always been considered subjects of conquest. However, such conquests were performed in the pre-modern era. Sita could only marry a man who could string the bow of Lord Shiva. She had no choice in the matter. Just like she had no control over the family she was raised in, she would similarly have no control over the family she would marry into. She is to be given away as trophy to whoever made a successful display of strength. But Ram, who had to only string Shiva’s bow to win Sita, in a fit of unbound passion, breaks the bow into two pieces. Might is always privileged. Ram’s strength, coupled with his being the descendant of the famed Raghu clan, makes him so desirable a groom for Sita that rules are bent and royal arrogance of a young prince is conveniently ignored. Sita, on the other hand, in the midst of this chaotic display of power, seems powerless. She longs to marry Ram whom she takes an instant liking towards the moment she sees him. But, she does not have the privilege to assert herself. She waits in anticipation as Ram does the needful. Sita knows that being the daughter of King Janaka, she has to partake in the ways of royalty. She enacts the role of an obedient daughter and later this lesson in obedience would help her become a patient wife. Thus, from daughter to wife, Sita is initially known in relation to men.

Kaikeyi took word from Dashratha that their son Bharat would be King of Ayodhya, while Ram lived the life of an ascetic in the forest for fourteen long years. Ram, true to his regal lineage, was too polite to not give in. However, Sita’s resolve to go with him startled many. Sita had led a life of opulence. But she saw herself in relation to Ram–as his wife–and not in terms of power or wealth. Sita, for the first time in the epic, chose an identity for herself. She decides to live as a hermit with her husband in the forest. She is not afraid of letting go. She gives up a life of privilege for Ram. In this regard, she is like the heroine of any modern tale who follows her heart over logic and stringent standards of reason. Sita’s perception of the self evolves over the years. She was an obedient daughter who could never spell out her desire for a young man. She could not put to shame her proud heritage and hence waited for divine intervention when it came to marrying Ram. But, she chose to take matters into her own hands when separation from her husband became a threatening reality. She could not let fate decide the course of her life again. The epic often vacillates between a pre-modern narrative and a modern one in relation to Sita’s life. Sita’s independently giving primacy to one identity (that of a wife) over another (that of a princess) demonstrates how she gradually became more assertive about her life choices with the development of the epic. She chose her marriage over power in an empire coveted by many. Sita does not lust for power. Seen through critical lens, however, she could have been rendered morally suspect if she had not chosen hardship over affluence. She is the ideal wife. In order to earn the society’s reverence, she must wish upon herself the misfortune that had befallen Ram.

Sita longs to domesticate the golden deer she spots in the forest. She is no longer ashamed of voicing her desires, and is insistent on acquiring what she longs for. Even though Lakshman finds it completely unreasonable for her to succumb to such obsessive need for posession, Ram is more than willing to capture the deer. He goes after it and soon Lakshman follows suit when Ram does not return even after a substanital amount of time had elapsed. In the absence of those who were responsible for protecting her, she is abducted by Ravana, King of Lanka. She is taken captive in Lanka and it is there that she waits to be rescued. It is perhaps the weakest of Sita’s representations in all of Ramayana. It is said that Sita was able enough to free herself from the captivity of Ravana, but like a dutiful wife who would never hurt the ego of her husband, she trusts Ram to save her from the misery of her condition. She chooses to be liberated by Ram. This proves how power is rendered useless if it is not exercised to improve the condition of the subject. The subject must be in a position to exercise power without restrains. But if Sita had escaped Lanka by virtue of her own merit, the way she has been depicted in the Ramayana would be modified. Courage, strength and power, however, run the risk of becoming gender-neutral. It would have threatened structures which institutionalize male domination. Hence, Sita must inflict hardship upon herself to maintain stability in the patriarchal system. Thus, her power must remain invisible and become only the stuff of legends. She would instead be the immortal, indestructable, infinte proof of Ram’s bravery. Sita hence must be known as Ram’s wife who was waiting to be freed. But the question is this. Who does Ramayana make more powerful, even if covertly, Ram or Sita? Ram took the help of thousands to complete a task Sita could have singlehandedly carried out. The answer is to be found towards the end of the epic.

Ram successfuly rescues Sita as he should have. No surprises there. However, once she comes back into the palace, questions are raised on her chastity. After all, she had spent an extended amount of time in the company of a man who was not her husband. The obsession with purity mocks Sita’s sacrifice and her loyalty towards Ram. Ram himself laothes Sita’s tarnished image in the eye of the public. He is willing to let her go. Sita walks through fire to prove that she has always been loyal to Ram. But rumours are still ripe that she has been ruined for Ram by Ravana. She is like a re-used object which does not suit a king’s stature to accept. Ram is disturbed by the vapid conjectures by gossip-mongers. He sends Sita away to a dreaded forest and she is asked to not identify as Ram’s wife anymore. She is no more a wife, a queen. She has given birth to Ram’s twins who cannot claim his parentage. However, Sita never questions her lack of an identity. She still considers herself to be Ram’s wife. Her self-perception is autonomous from social norms. Call her slightly delusional or in love, the fact is Sita fails to assert herself–something that she had learnt when separation from Ram seemed unbearable. Abandonement comes back into Sita’s life this time, taking a more formidable shape. Luck was not to smile on her anymore.

After a considerable time had passed, Ram, compelled by circumstances, is willing to take Sita back but only on one condition – he wants her to walk through fire again, but this time in full public view. He wants to silence those who have questioned Sita’s chastity. It is important for him to have as queen someone whose image is unblemished. He wants to establish himself and Sita as infallible and supra human. Ram’s public morality supercedes his private morality. But Sita cannot distinguish between the two. Ram chose to be King when he needed to be husband first. Sita, who had always chosen to be Ram’s wife by avoiding being seduced by the hope of royal supremacy, cannot cope with Ram’s betrayal. She gives one last proof of her fidelity. She requests the earth beneath her feet to split and take her within if she had never been unfaithful to Ram. She is accepted with open arms and cannot be disgraced again.

What is remarkable about Sita is that she wants Ram, the husband, to know the truth but she does not want to prove anything to Ram, the King. Sita finds power unsavoury. She has no fascination for authority, she had given it up on several occassions in the past. Thus, she could have been repulsed by Ram’s hankering to acquire and retain unquestionable authority in Ayodhya. She also finds the non-chalance in husband Ram unsettling when King Ram is forcing her into public humiliation. Sita cannot relate to King Ram in whom husband Ram is lost. Hence, Sita decides to leave.

Sita hardly ever stayed within the lines, quite literally. Her ultimate defiance of social norms gives her more power than her crises-ridden journey of life could. Sita is not to be remembered alone as Ram’s fiercly loyal wife, but as a woman who stood up for herself. That would do justice to her saga. Her portrayal for most parts of Ramayana is weak and normative, but her ultimate defiance in the end lets Sita wins her lost selfhood. By refusing to succumb to the power-seeking, gossip mongering kind, Sita embraces liberation. But it is discomforting that such emancipation is likened to suicide in the epic. Is the only way a woman can liberate herself from social oblgations is by embracing death? What are the consequences of defiance that a woman must face? Sita raises important questions in this regard. Sita’s tale is a matter of subjective interpretation and re-interpretation. But she did set a precedent by chosing to disobey. It is in subversion that Sita has to be remembered.