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

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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, infinite 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 single-handedly carried out. The answer is to be found towards the end of the epic.

Ram successfully 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 loathes 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 reused object which does not suit a king’s stature to accept. Ram is disturbed by the vapid conjecture 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. Abandonment 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 super 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 occasions 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 nonchalance 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 fiercely 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 obligations 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 choosing to disobey. It is in subversion that Sita has to be remembered.

You must be to comment.
  1. atul mishra

    Excellent article. I find it quite shocking to see present days the grooms doing a background check of the girl especially with respect to her “purity” when they themselves had numerous flings and affairs. The sheer hypocrisy is amusing to say. Even parents and society takes pride in the girls virginity and boys sexual past. Our films even today show the “playboy” hero who constantly sleeps and make out with other woman, until and unless he finds that “homely” heroine, that virgin who would not even think about his past and accept him as THE MAN
    To me Sita represents a lesson that one should live the life in their own terms. Sita sacrificed everything but did she get happiness ever? In the end she was fed up of hypocrite people who doubted her purity forgetting that she was kidnapped by Ravan.
    As a society we need new role models for women. Someone who are not ideal women because they were ideal wife and daughter and mother but because they made this world a better place through exploiting their talent and using their brain, intellect and bravery
    We can start with Jhansi ki Rani

    1. charlie

      You are watching bad movies your mom is ideal women and plenty of good people around you but you are too busy watching media

  2. RichA

    Hi

    I loved this article.

    Could anyone or the author suggest books talking about Sita?

    1. Shalini

      Sita by Devdutt Pattanaik

    2. charlie

      If you really want to understand then real source is Valmik Ramayana rest are all interpertations

  3. Subhadra

    I have some problems with the article. The author here states that Sita had a chance to free herself while in the captivity of Ravana, yet chose to wait for Ram to redeem her. Could she cite her sources?
    Moreover the choices she makes are made such as accompanying Ram and waiting for him to free her show that she is operating within a patriarchal paradigm. In view of this did Sita really have a choice?

  4. Kartik

    Verbose

  5. Templetwins

    Sita fell in love with Ram and had to choose him only when he displays his mighty strength showed that she rejected many other men for being weak. It shows how women by nature would be attracted to power, strength and possession. Sita also showed herself to be a rebellious kind when she crosses the line that laxman drew and she also degraded Lakshmana by insinuating that he(Lakshmana) wanted Sita for himself. It shows how women were prone to falsely accuse men when it is not warranted. If Sita could free herself and she didn’t do so could be seen as a valid interpretation. Then we could also assume that Sita had succumbed to Ravans request and committed adultery, which is why she refused to come with Hanuman and she was killed in the fire because of her mishaps but our patriarchal society in a sad attempt to uphold the sanctity of Sita invented a rule that Ravan cannot touch her etc in order to keep Sitas moral fibre intact. If we assume that the story of Ram n Sita is a historical myth then it is a story of abduction, seduction, adultery and punishment in regards to Sita.

  6. Kulbhushan Singhal

    MY humble submission is that Hindus by and large are afraid to accept Shri Ram as human incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Once we accept Shri Ram as Avatar, who came on this earth for establishing Dharm, we then have to start looking at all important events in which he was involved differently and to find what the Dharm was, which HE tried to establish.

    We the mortals know that Shri Ram was an incarnation of Vishnu and Sita that of Goddess Lakshmi. They performed this Leela so that humanity may never have to suffer such dastardly acts in future. IT IS ALSO ABSOLUTELY CLEAR THAT SHRI RAM COULD NOT HAVE DISOWNED SITA WITHOUT REJECTING AGNI PARIKSHA.

    Read: AGNI PARIKSHA OF SITA ….FACTS
    URL : http://awara32.blogspot.com/2009/02/agni-pariksha-of-sita-facts.html

    1. charlie

      as Ramayana interpreted by the author in above lines shows very low intelligence of author on human nature and knowledge of epic.But I cant blame her who has atime to do research on all that but like author every body has write to open the mouth .Whole article is actually showing authors own wekness as woman and lack of knowledge about hinduism In VEDIC culture Sita was married by SAWAYMVAR meaning choosing your partner with choice and terms AND string the bow was onof the terms dictated by powerful Sita and the respect of women in vedic culture women lost respect in modern era than ever before with their nudity projected by media
      BIGGEST LIE OF AUTHOS AS BELOW i DO NOT KNOW WHAT THESE IDIOTS GET BY MISREPRESENTING HINDUISM

      Breaking of 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

    2. horatius

      You are an idiot who doesn’t know his assistant from his elbow. we don’t need your ignorant rants here. Pissue off.

  7. Ravi

    “Ram’s public morality supercedes his private morality.”
    “Ram chose to be King when he needed to be husband first.”
    “By refusing to succumb to the power-seeking, gossip mongering kind, Sita emraces liberation.”

    I will give you today’s example. Our last PM was very loyal to Madam and not to the Public, and you seen the damages done.

    1. udit baxi

      i don’t see any logic in this remark.

  8. Mayank

    Your interpretation of Sita in the epic is objective and intellectual. The article is a brilliant rendition of coherent thought and informed opinion. I am huge fan.

  9. Eccentric Seedy

    Excellent! Have you seen “Sita sings the blues?” If not, please watch this by clicking below link. Nina Paley made the movie to enlighten us.
    https://youtu.be/1QkYOqI3jSM

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