Her lifetime sufferings changed the way the world perceives woman’s strength
Whereas the country has celebrated Ram Navami, the birth anniversary of Ram in the first week of April, one region spread across India and Nepal—Mithilanchal—prefers to celebrate Sita Navami, the birth anniversary of Sita, which falls on May 2nd this year. Sita is the divine consort of Ram for the world, but for the people of Mithilanchal, she is their daughter, sister, and simply put, their girl. They call her Kishori, or a youthful girl. The people of Mithila, the Maithils, have on one hand, great pride over their ‘Kishori’, Sita or Janki, but on the other hand, they carry great pain in their hearts for all the sufferings that their ‘Kishori’ had to endure through Ayodhya to Lanka and back. So much so that although Sita belonged to Mithilanchal, they hesitate to name their girls after her, not necessarily out of any superstition, but out of a sentiment of Sita’s lifetime sufferings.
Unfortunately, it became the universal portrayal of not only Sita, but women in general in India. They are projected as ‘abala’—feeble, born to suffer. Sita epitomised those sufferings. This kind of portrayal of women as weak and destined for suffering and submission is of medieval origin. Several writings of the medieval period suffer from this anomalous portrayal of women as weak and needful of protection from men.
Medieval Europe had people running around offering lineage to Adam, God’s original human creation, for a price. Men continued to enjoy supremacy while women were being burnt alive as witches. There were ludicrous debates over whether women should be treated as humans or not. Not until the early 20th century did women in the West get voting rights. Even at the dawn of the 21st Century, several church denominations were undecided over whether to allow women at the pulpit or not. They cite St Paul’s dictum in 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man”) as a universal injunction to deny women the right to stand at the pulpit. The feminist movements of the West have been a product of this oppressive situation that prevailed in parts of the world.
But the history of India’s womanhood fascinates even the most modern feminists. Medieval distortions apart, Indian understanding of womanhood has been that of equality, divinity, self-respect and self-assertion. Sita epitomises not weakness or meekness, but these qualities. In fact, her very name Sita can be expanded to highlight her qualities—Strong, Intelligent, Transparent, Assertive.
To understand the personality of Sita, one has to turn to the original author of the epic Ramayana, Valmiki. Sita’s portrayal in Valmiki’s Ramayana was that of a woman of courage, wisdom and knowledge, self-esteem and astuteness. She was discarded by parents, and found by King Janak in an agrarian field. She was raised as a Kshatriya woman and married into a noble Kshatriya family of Dasarath. She was kidnapped by Raavan, rescued by her husband Ram, only to be rejected again. She was sheltered and nursed by the sage Valmiki in forests and rejoined Mother Earth.
To understand this journey of Sita the best source, other than the original Valmiki’s Ramayan, is the series of lectures delivered by acclaimed scholar-politician Rt Hon VS Srinivasa Sastri. His Lectures on the Ramayana is a fascinating read; more importantly, the three lectures on Sita.
Sita comes out as an extremely adorable and strong-willed woman in Srinivasa Sastri’s narration. Sita was in a way singularly responsible for the war between Ram and Raavan. “I had a dream,” she declares to Anasuya, that “I would lead my life in forests.” And she had decided that to be her destiny. When Ram persuades her to stay back in the palace during his 14-year sojourn to forests—the Vanvas—Sita fiercely resists the idea, almost castigating Ram of trying to get rid of her. “I am a Kshatriya girl. I won’t go under the control of other people, be it Kaikeyi or Bharat,” she declares firmly. Ram admits that Sita was a courageous woman. “You wonder why I said ‘no’ at first? I didn’t know what a courageous woman you really were. I thought you might be like ordinary women. Now I see who you are and what you are,” he says. Together, they leave for the Vanvas—with Lakshman following them.
This courage Sita didn’t lose throughout her life. Even in the face of unbearable hardships in Raavan’s court, Sita remained steadfast, not losing her courage and composure. Some narratives portray Sita as a disheartened and weeping creature in Ashoka Van—the pine forest in which Raavan had kept her. Ashoka Van was described by zealous writers as Shoka Van—garden of sorrow. But the original narrative goes differently. Sita did suffer, probably cried, but her courage didn’t diminish. She withstood all hardships. And when Raavan came to finally persuade her to accept his proposal for marriage, Sita refused to look at him; instead, she held up a blade of grass and addressed Raavan through that. “I have so much power in me that if only I care to direct it against you, you would be a mass of ash. But I refrain from doing so because I want to preserve my Tapas—divine power. Besides, I have not received an order from Ram to defend myself. The burden rests upon him, and he himself should come and save me,” she thundered.
Here, Sita was reminding Ram of his Dharma as a Kshatriya and also as a husband. There were occasions when Sita would engage in a discourse of Dharma with Ram. She even taunts Ram for his eagerness to go to the rescue of the sages who were suffering at the hands of the rakshasas. “When a Kshatriya, trained to fight, finds his weapons ready, or when agni—the fire—finds fuel near, then there is danger. It provokes him to an exhibition of strength,” she warns. It could as well be a universal lesson for all countries. This shows the knowledge and wisdom of Sita. When Hanuman wanted to punish the women guards at Ashoka Van after Raavan’s death, Sita prevented him saying they were not the cause of her misery as they were only obeying the orders of their master. Then come her jewels of wisdom on non-harming and non-retaliation. “The righteous man ought not to be turned from the right by the sin of the sinner. The rule of honour is inviolable. Good men have only one jewel, their unblemished conduct, and they must guard it, come what may. Be they good men or bad, be they deserving of death, still must they be pardoned and treated with mercy by one claiming to be an Aryan. For, no one is above error,” she tells Hanuman.
Sita’s courage, coupled with her wisdom, manifested in her self-respect and self-confidence. In fact, the portrayal of Sita and Draupadi in our epics indicates the respect and honour that Indian society has accorded to women’s self-esteem. Sita was submissive only to the extent that her self-honour was not violated, whether the violator was Raavan or Ram. Ram raises questions over her fidelity not once, but twice. The first occasion was after the defeat and death of Raavan. Sita was aghast. “You are not a lowly man, nor am I a lowly woman,” she chides him. Her hurt self-respect comes out in her words. “You have let your ill-temper run away with your judgment, and like a low-bred man, esteemed me lightly as though I was no better than the ordinary type of woman,” she accuses him. “Only in name am I of Janaka’s family. I came out of the pure ploughed earth,” she thunders. Agni, the fire God, stands testimony to Sita’s purity, refusing to touch her. Thus she comes out of Ram’s first fidelity test, but not without warning him about his lack of wisdom.
This courageous self-assertion of Sita can be seen again and again in Ramayana. The second time when Ram wanted her to leave was immediately after the return to the throne in Ayodhya. This time, the excuse was that the citizens had suspicions about her. Sita was pregnant at that time. Ram couldn’t muster courage to ask her to leave. It falls upon Lakshman, who takes her in a chariot to the banks of river Ganges and conveys the decision of the King. Lakshman was heartbroken, but Sita was stunned, yet composed. She asks Lakshman to convey to Ram that she would live until she gives birth to the children and prove her chastity.
Sita was given shelter and protection by Valmiki in his Ashram in the forests. Sita gave birth to Luv and Kush, the twins. She raised them as warriors, taught them archery and other war skills. She would personally guide and supervise their military training as there was nobody else to do the same in the forests. During the course of a yagna that Ram conducted, the horse enters the forest where they were all dwelling. Sita’s twins withhold the horse, war ensues and Ram’s army is roundly defeated. Ram comes to the hermitage and realises that the children were his own. Wants Sita back. Here again, Sita comes out as a woman of high self-esteem. “This earth is not for me,” she tells Ram, and categorically adds, “neither this husband, nor the subjects whom no proof can ever convince.” She seeks for Mother Earth to open up and rejoins her.
This was quintessential Sita, a brave, determined, wise and self-respecting woman. This is the Indian womanhood that our ancestors had idolised. For their stubbornness, neither Sita nor Draupadi were decried; instead, they were given a place of honour as great women.
Historically, in our civilisation, women are respected for their wisdom, self-respect and dignity. The world’s most ancient literature, the Vedas, contain a number of verses written by women scholars and saints. Gargi, Maitreyi, Lopamudra were some of them. There were at least 30 women authors of the Vedic hymns. The famous dialogue that Gargi had with Yagnavalkya, over the nature of Brahmaan is a tribute to the scholarship of that great Vedic philosopher and also a testimony to the enormous respect that women enjoyed in the Vedic period.
A similar incident happened much later when Adi Shankara and Mandana Mishra engaged in a Shastraartha—scholarly dialogue. When Mandana Mishra fails, his wife Ubhaya Bharati, jumps in to challenge Adi Shankara. Shankara was forced to return to his studies before coming back to face Ubhaya Bharati.
This should be the essence of true feminism. Geena D Andersen, the renowned Australian feminist, puts it succinctly, “Feminism is not about making women stronger. It is about changing the way the world perceives their strength.” We need to teach our generation to respect the strength and glory of womanhood.
What better occasion than Sita Jayanti for that!
(The article was originally published in OPEN Magazine on May 2, 2020. Views expressed are personal.)