As India was watching the re-telecast of ‘Ramayana’, a celebrated television show from the 80s, ‘Sita Navami’, the birthday of Sita went relatively unnoticed on May 2nd. Bhagini Nivedita, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda once said, “not only in India, but every woman in the world should put the ideal of Sita before herself”. It is pertinent to think that why is she asking modern women to have an ideal of an ancient woman like Sita. At first glance, Sita appears to be a docile woman who always conducts according to her husband’s will. Then how can the ideal of such a woman be appropriate in every woman’s life?
In the popular narrative, Sita is perceived as an unfortunate woman subjected to continuous injustice throughout her life since her marriage. This victimhood image is fueled by innumerable references of Sita as a symbol of women’s oppression and suffering in television serials, books, movies, and folklore. Topics related to Sita’s misery always trend in debate competitions. Capitalizing on this narrative, the left and other groups have been using the character of ‘Sita’ only to further their favorite agenda, i.e., prove the pathetic status of women in Indian society and blame the ‘Brahmanical Patriarchy’. As a result, whether it is a family conversation or an intellectual gathering, the mention of Sita keeps revolving around injustice done to her.
Due to this prejudiced and skewed view, one fails to notice the values which define Sita’s life – courage and self-respect. A careful reading of Valmiki Ramayan brings out Sita’s core characters in its wholeness, making her more relatable, that other retellings of Ramayana somehow could not convey. Recently, I got an opportunity to read Vandaniya Lakshmibai Kelkar’s discourse on Valmiki Ramayana that throws light on these qualities of Sita.
For instance, when Shri Ram comes to take leave of Sita for 14 years of exile to the forest, Sita expresses only one wish, ”I want to accompany you in the forest.” Shri Ram gives many arguments against taking her to the forest with him, but she does not budge. He further tries to persuade her, “There will be dreadful demons in the forest and it may happen that they can harm you, so you should not come with me to the forest. Instead, you will be safer here under king Bharat’s control.” On hearing this, Sita tearfully rebukes him, “you cannot protect me, that’s why you want to leave me here in others’ control. If Raja Janak will hear this, he will think of you as a woman in the form of a man!” Thus, Sita’s strong resolve and reasoning make Shri Ram accept her decision.
Sita’s swadharm was to accompany her husband in the forest. That’s why, she remained firm over her decision despite her husband’s denial, to fulfill her swadharm. That shows she had the courage and ability to put forth her opinion with vigor whenever necessary to protect her swadharm. The fact that Sita could convince Shri Ram with her arguments on subjects like Dharm, a feat that was only possible for Gurus and sages, also shows her awareness and in-depth understanding.
Second such instance comes when Sita was abducted by Ravan and kept in his Lankanagari. Many other women were also there, kidnapped by Ravan, who accepted his authority either out of fear or his opulence. But Sita did not succumb to Ravan’s fear or temptations. One day, Ravan’s wife Mandodari tried to convince Sita to fulfill her husband’s wish, “you are the wife of a wise man like Ram, then you must be knowing that we are all part of that one divine soul, then why do you distinguish between Ram and Ravan?” Sita immediately questioned her back, “while I am the wife of a wise man, Ravan himself is supremely knowledgeable, then why does he distinguish between you and me?” Sita’s exceptional patience and quick-wittedness surprised Mandodari. On another such occasion she rebukes Ravan, “If I wish, I have all ability to destroy you with my Tapas, but I wait for Shri Rama to come, so that he gets the fame.” For the same reason she also refuses to leave with Hanuman later.
We can imagine how Sita was fearless, prudent, and determined even in such difficult circumstances. Isn’t it entirely different from the widespread image of Sita as a helpless woman sitting in Ashoka Vatika who grieves over her misfortune?
The third incident I would like to share is when Lakshman farewells Sita in the forest. Sita categorically says to Lakshamana, “by the command of Shri Ramachandra, you are leaving me here. I am not sad about this. But give my message to Raja Ramachandra that he has sacrificed his wife to follow his Rajadharma. So it is not worth sorrowing in her memory now. Instead, he should focus on efficiently handling the administration of Ayodhya.” Shri Ram was indeed grief-stricken in the palace. After hearing Sita’s message he gets ready to attend the royal court. It is evident that Shri Rama’s character reflects Sita’s strength only. Sita gave Shri Ram the power and inspiration to fulfill his Rajdharma as a king.
In the climax, when questions were raised on her modesty once again, Sita did not agree to this, and to protect her self-respect above all, she merged herself into the Earth…
It is easy to (mis-)interpret Sita as a docile woman rather than a queen, who always fulfilled and protected her dharma with self-respect. She analyzes each situation that appears before her with utmost patience and takes action based on her conscience and swadharma. It is courage and self-respect that is quite clearly evident in all the difficult moments in her life, not helplessness. Sita’s decisions reveal her sublime character.
And, that is why Sita does not seek your sympathy, rather she is a source of inspiration for femininity.