Ask any Indian do they know “About” the Ramayana, and invariably they will shrug the shoulders at the sheer stupidity of the question. “Of course, I know of the Ramayana,” would be the most likely response. Query further if they actually “Know” the Ramayana, and their response will still be in the affirmative. Proceed on, and ask them if they have actually “Read” the Ramayana? There will be a long pause and in all likelihood the answer will be in the negative.
Strangely, we live in a weird time, where almost every Indian is pretty sure that he or she knows the Ramayana (in all its intricacies) and yet has not read it in person. And when I mean reading the Ramayana here, am talking about an unabridged version of it, say like Valmiki’s Ramyana, or Tulisdas’ Ramcharita Manas, Kamban’s Kambaramayanam, the Bengali Krittivasi Ramayana, or even the Jain Paumachariyam. There are many versions of the Ramayana that are readily available in many languages. In fact, the late AK Ramanujan in his erudite (and unnecessarily disputed) essay, 300 Ramayanas had spoken about how the narrative of Ramayana had percolated in various cultures and regions, transcending the boundaries of race or religion. Little wonder, there are a plenitude of Ramayanas for any person to choose from.
Yet, even with so many versions, so many forms of Ramayana, there are not many I know, who have read a single, let alone a few of these Ramayanas.
BTW, before you go eh–wait a minute, let me clarify, reading popular fiction by Ashok Banker, Devdutt Pattanaik, or even Anand Neelkanthan does not classify as reading the Ramayana. Neither does reading the Amar Chitra Katha Series. All these are derivatives and interpretation, at times very shoddy and unscholarly, of the Ramayana. And they don’t really count for much.
The essential trouble is, thanks to the popular Ramayana series, where you had the ever smiling Arun Govil as the Ramji and beatific Deepika as Sita maiyya (which almost all people of my age and time saw rather religiously every Sunday without fail) has given us a familiarity to the epic without us ever striving for. Add to it the fact that tales from the Ramayana are staple in any Hindu home, as say dal-chawal, only deepens the connect to the epic. We feel that we know the Ramayana like a back of our hand, without ever really knowing it.
I personally came across this weird dichotomy when I attended a lecture by Dr. Arshia Sattar when she was lecturing in Mumbai. It was there, that I suddenly realised that in spite of knowing Ramayana (at least believing to be so) quite well (and there being a copy of the same in the bookshelf), I had not got down to actually reading it. Of course, am aware of the characters, the narrative and even the intentions of all those, even so, I had not taken a serious effort to read the Ramayana in its entirety. Have started the process now, as I realised my inherent ignorance. So When Dr. Sattar decided to present to us a new facet of Sita as penned by Valmiki, it came as a rather pleasant surprise.
Sita, as we know her, is a genteel goddess of goodness, often presented as an avatar of Mahalaxmi. She is a docile and dedicated wife, who sticks by the husband no matter what is thrown at her. She is the epitome of Indian values, of domesticity. Yet, even so, she is not really the counter-weight to the Maryada Purshottama, she is not the Maryada Streeuttama. That is because that are a few chinks in her personality, which results in her suffering. There are many things that she does are actually meant to be a strict no-no for the rest of the ladies to do.
On the brighter side though, Sita goes through a whole ton of miseries that actually not of her making, yet she winces not, complains not, takes no offence. She is like that perfect wife that a man can wish for; loyal, faithful, obedient and yet so gorgeous that she could move a man down the path of ruin in his desires for her. She is always standing right behind her man — remember behind, not in line, a step behind.
In many ways, Sita was a creation of a masochistic and misogynist society that wanted to create a template for all the ladies to follow. Her character was crafted to send out a message, of monogamous-devoted-love towards the husband at whatever cost. This was the Sita that has been presented in front of us, and not surprisingly this is a Sita we all know; a frail woman who was a victim of her fate and could not ever stand up against the injustices perpetrated against her, especially by her beloved husband.
Yet, the original Sita, as penned by Valmiki, was anything but a weakling or a frail lady. She had a mind of her own, and stood her ground when needs be. While the narrative of the Valmiki’s tale is more or less the same. The essential difference is that Sita is here not merely a caricature or a shadow as we know her to be from the later renditions, but rather an impressive lead who influences the course of the events.
Sadly, this Sita, is not known too well known beyond the literary circles. And possibly, not many would like to have it so. Let me pick a few instances from Valmiki’s Ramayana to introduce you to the Sita as she apparently was, or rather, meant to be:
Outspoken and Equal
While Sita is indeed married to Rama, and that gives her a sort of lower stature in the Indian society, but that does not mean that she considers herself to be inferior. When Rama decides to proceed to the vanwasa, he decides to do so alone. He proceeds on to inform Sita of the decision, and almost orders her to stay back. His mind is made, and his manner is curt, “You stay back here and do your duties as my wife, while am away.” Sita outrightly refuses Rama’s proposal, and says that she is coming along come what may.
Rama yields not, and tries different tracks, even going to the extent of trying to scare her, by stating that the forest is a dangerous place full of wild animals and unknown beasts, not a place for a lady like her. Undaunted, Sita taunts Rama, “I always thought you were a woman in a man’s body, you can’t even take care of your wife. What sort of man are you?” Sita’s arrows find their mark and Rama has no option but to take her along to his banishment into the jungle.
A Wise Counsel
One day when Sita and Rama are in the Dandaka vana discussing things several things. In a candid moment Sita expresses to Rama her fear of his violent nature . She tells him that he is a perfect man in many ways, but yet because of his “kshatriya” or martial roots, he has a natural affinity towards violence be towards beasts or rakshasas or anyone else. According to Sita, there are three essential flaws that typical men suffer from, namely, “telling lies, coveting another man’s wife, and violation of dharma”. Since Rama has not these flaws, he is rather perfect except for his tempestuousness.
Hence, she advises Rama to keep in his natural affinity in check, and not pick up the bow at drop of a hat. “While you are in the vanwasa, don’t yield to violence. You can be a kshatriya once again, when you return to Ayodhya. Till then refrain,” she states. Of course, Rama does not follow her counsel and shortly afterwards you have the Soorpankha episode, wherein the brothers Rama/Lakshmana chop of the ears and nose of the wily Rakhsasasi, and thereby set in motion the chain of events that are to follow.
Keeping in mind the Indian ethos, the relationship between Rama and Sita has been always portrayed as a very sombre one, as neat and as platonic as it possibly can be. I mean, the representation is pretty plain-jane, like any other love-less arranged marriages that are pretty common in our societies. The fact that Sita is gorgeous, or Rama is handsome, has no bearing at all at the way the two feel for each other. There is just no physicality that the two share, no chemistry can be found here.
Yet, they spent a good 13 years in the beautiful Panchavati forests, near the Chitrakuta mountains, next to the gurgling Madakini river, living in a cottage. The fact that they were having fun-filled vacation is obvious as they had the ever able Lakshaman to do the everyday chores and menial things. When he is not serving his brother and sister-in-law, Lakshamana is also there guarding the cottage at the night. Hence, this period is a sort of romantic interlude for Rama and Sita, and like any two young adults they seem to enjoy it to the utmost in each other’s company. There is much amorous dalliance between the two, away from the prying eyes of the public of the Kosala kingdom.
And we are let in on this secret by Sita herself when she narrates the incident to Hanumana as a proof that can be carried by him to Rama. Known as the Kaakaprakarana (crow episode), it is a incident as narrated by Sita, in which she had been once attacked by a crow. While Rama slept on her lap, a crow started pestering her and used its claws to hurt her. The vile bird scared Sita and even left a mark on her breast. Waking up and seeing this, Rama was subsumed by anger and even invoked the Brahmastra to kill the crow. The crow tried his best to escape the celestial weapon but could not and in the end, submitted himself to the mercy of Rama, escaping death at the loss of an eye. The episode not only details an intimate account between the two, but also is meant to rouse the innate passions of Rama and spur him into action.
Nevertheless, this is the only time in the whole of Ramayana, where you have the stiff lipped Rama sharing an intimate moment with his darling wife, by sleeping on her lap and so on. It reveals a very tender side to the relationship that is shared between the two. It is in context of this that you can understand, where Sita draws her powers to stay firm in her dedication to Rama or why Rama is truly devastated when Sita is abducted by Ravana shortly after. Sadly, we don’t have more references like this in the epic. Leaves you to wonder as to why the well of love in Rama’s heart ran dry soon after.
Unafraid to Speak Up
Soon after that Ravana has been killed, Sita is eagerly awaiting for Rama to come rushing and embrace her in her arms. But on the contrary Rama calls her on the battlefield and then goes on to tell her, that the battle was not fought to rescue her but to erase the blotch that was smeared on the family name. Rama very rudely tells her, “that you are free to go anywhere or anyone”, even going to the extent of suggesting names of Lakshamana, Vibhishana, or even Sugreeva.
Hurt at the turn of events, Sita explodes in anger. She belabors Rama for have spoken like a “low class man”. She reminds him that she is the daughter of Janaka and no small fish to be ignored. Subsequently, in a fit of anger, Sita orders Lakshamna to build a pyre on which she will immolate herself. But then the fire burns her not and the immolation turns into a chastity test.
Certified by fire, Sita is yet again embraced by Rama, and takes up the rightful position as his consort. But then this reverie is rather short-lived. As shortly after Sita ascends the throne of Ayodhya after years of struggle and finds herself pregnant, she is back in the dumps again. This time verily dumped by the man she so fastidiously was devoted to.
Spunk is her Style
Many times through the epic tale, Sita finds herself in very unfortunate spot. Shortly after marriage, she is confronted with the prospect of a solitary 14 years, as Rama is condemned to a vanwasa, but she chooses otherwise. Abducted by Ravana, and discovered by Hanuman, she refuses his offer of cart her on his back. When Rama dumps her after the war, she makes him do otherwise with a agnipariksha.
The saddest possible moment for her is when in advanced pregnancy, she finds herself at the mercy of the elements. And it comes as a rude shock to her. Because just a day earlier to her banishment, Rama had asked her adoringly if there was any wish she had, and Sita had expressed the desire to visit a few ashrams by the Ganga riverside and happily Rama had arranged for it. It was post this that Rama hears about an incident wherein a washerman (or dhobi) who had dumped his wife on suspecting her chastity, and invoking the name of Rama, saying that “he was no Rama to accept her so”. Being a king, Rama feels the responsibility of being without a blemish, even if it entails sacrificing her wife.
So, when a teary-eyed Lakshmama informs Sita after a charming boat-ride to Valmiki’s ashram that she won’t be returning back to Ayodhya with him, she is devastated and breaks down. But then after an outburst like an unseasonal shower she picks herself together, accepts her fate and sends her good tidings to all back in Ayodhya. Yet even in this, she fails not add rather satirically that hopefully now (after the banishment) the citizens of Ayodhya will lead a better life under the reign of Rama. In that little spark, we can discern the spunk that Sita has, she accepts her fate but makes her displeasure rather evident.
Rising against Fate
The final episode in Sita’s is a culmination of all her tragedies, not surprisingly in tragic way. When Rama comes to know about Luv and Kush and realises that he are his sons (confirmed by Valmiki), he invites them to Ayodhya. Therein he states publicly that he never once doubted the paternity of the kids, and neither did he harbour any suspicion on Sita’s chastity. Now, if only she would perform a final agni-parisksha, in front of the citizens of Kosala, she can then become the queen again and enjoys the fruits of luxury.
Thus, Sita just has to perform one last ritual and all be fine again. But by now, Sita is tired of the ordeal. She knows in her heart that Rama can be quite fickle and unreliable, as he mixes personal matters with those of the state. She also knows that the redemption offer is presented on a platter because of the 2 sons raised by her, the heir to the Kosala kingdom. The kindgom in general and king in particular are more interested in the continuation of the hegemony, than the expiation of Sita. And so, in a final act, Sita brings forth Bhoomidevi as her witness, and disappears into the nether world as a final mark of protest against the sexist society of those times.
Sita’s last refuge into the earth, is also her last refusal to bow down to the diktats of the society. She could have indeed accepted the offer, submitted herself to angi-pariksha 2.0, and lived a life of bliss. But then, that was not the nature of Sita. I mean, if at all luxury and a life of ease is what she essentially desired, she could have stayed back in Ayodhya like her sister Urmila, and continued on. She could have given up when Rama debunked her after the war, or even raised the children in hate or spite. But no, she loved Rama from the very beginning to the end. But that does not mean that she will submit to every whim and fancy.
In this way, Valmiki’s Sita is a not a weakling or a frail lady, as we have come to believe in our culture. Her destiny is indeed tragic but she is no puppet in the hands of fate. And this is the Sita that we all should know and respect.
Sadly, the story of Sita over the ages has been intermeshed with a lot of other elements. As Rama was elevated into Lord Rama, the narrative (especially the popular Tulisdas Ramacharita Manas) acquired a celestial hue. For instance, the whole concept of Chayya-Sita who has been entrusted to Agni dev, has solely been constructed to shield Rama from the consequences of agni-pariksha, and having made Sita go through it. Also, the Lakshman-rekha did not exist in the original Ramayana too. The border etched by Lakshmana is meant to be line etched by the society and when Sita transgresses it, the responsibility of the consequences are hers. These two constructs are later addition to put the onus of the events on Sita’s shoulder. This narrative has essentially made her weak and infirm, which she never was.
Popular media too has reinforced this same narrative, through the movies and serials. More often than not most of these serials are a hotch-potch of various naratives weaved into one. The original Ramayana serial (Ramanand Sagar) while claimed Valmiki to be the source, was more aligned to Tulsidas’ bhakti-tinted Ramcharita Manas. Apparently, there is yet another serial currently on air, called as Siya ke Ram. On a little research I could not glean any specific information as to what version of Ramayana was it following. Considering that its lead writer (Anand Neelkanthan) and chief consultant (Devdutt Pattanaik) are popular fiction-writers and not really scholars of research, I do have my sincere misgivings about the authenticity of the way Sita’s life would be depicted. For instance, the name Siya has been used by Tulsidas, even as the story is supposed to be from Valmiki. Apparently Valmiki never used term Siya in reference to Sita, hence it seems a bit baffling.
And that brings us to the final point. Should we really bother about in what way or manner Sita’s life is depicted? After all, she is just another character in a popular epic, why should really we be analyising so much? What is the need for authenticity? Of scholarly rendition?
Well, indeed there is. Because Sita is not merely a woman in a story or a mythical heroine, she is meant to be a model of how women must be in real life. Created by men, Sita’s actions are meant to be a guide-book for the rest of Indian women to follow. Be docile, be kind, be accepting, be graceful, be faithful and yes don’t forget to give birth to valiant sons. That is how the male-dominated society wishes it’s women to be. Fighting for Sita’s honor or image is thus fighting for all the very women in India, who are burdened down by the narrative. By liberating Sita from the moorish rendition, we can redeem all those very women who are impressed or coerced to be like Sita. A Sita, that she certainly not was. And this is the Sita, we all must fight for.
So let’s make a beginning by promising to know the real Sita, from the real version. There are even online versions (PDF) that are available for free download.
P.S. Deeply indebted to Dr. Arshia Sattar, whose lecture was the basis of this introspection. Her book, especially the translation of Valmiki Ramyana is available on Amazon and other portals.