Right from my childhood I’ve been trained and tutored to view Sita with tremendous compassion, extreme reverence and even pity. Over the centuries, this is how she has been viewed. Tears and Sita have been inseparable. Talking about her, singing her tale, thinking about her, people usually have wet eyes. One doesn’t have to go far to testify the truth of matter. ‘Ramayana Paath’ is a very common practice in the northern part of our country. Child birth, marriages, house warming ceremonies, any auspicious happening is reason enough for people to call a ‘mandali’ and the ‘paath’ starts. Every mention of Sita is coupled with blocked throats and wet eyes. This response to Sita is infectious. It has been passed to us over the centuries. It’s in our DNA.
To imagine that any piece of writing would be able to change all this would be foolish indeed. Strange as it may sound, there’s nothing exactly pitiable about this woman. Teaching P Lal’s English translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, I’ve come to a firm conclusion that Sita does not deserve our pity. This kind of a response might be a way of escaping the real issues. It might be something else. I don’t know. But Sita should arouse our admiration, awe, respect, love but certainly not pity.
It’s worth noting at this point that people in India don’t name their daughters after Sita. Daughters can be Gita, after the great sermon of Lord Krishna; they can be Meeta, denoting a vague meaning of friendliness but none of them are Sita. Why? Why don’t we call our daughters Sita? All other goddesses are rewarded by christening of Indian girls after their names - Laxmi, Durga, Devi, Adya, Parvati, Gauri, Uma, Satyabhama, Jaya, Sunayana; even lady angels, ‘apsaras’ like Urvashi and Menaka are favored. But there’s no such condensation for our Sita. Some men dare to take her name necessarily along with that of her husband, Ram – Sitaraman, Sitaramaiya, or simple Sitaram. And yet, no other female figure enjoys the kind of supremacy Sita enjoys. She is worshipped but from afar; she’s not brought near in the form of daughters, sisters, wives, neighbors and so on. I once asked a senior, traditional lady as to why we don’t call our daughter Sita and she told me that since Sita suffered a lot in this world, we don’t name our daughters as Sita. We don’t want our daughter to suffer like her. So seductresses like Urvashi and Menaka would do but not a woman like Sita who stood up for her dignity and successfully stood her ground.
This is a telling tale on Indian mind-set. We don’t accept strong woman. Pleading women, weeping women, seducing women, foolish women, superficial women - you name any brand and we accept them. But we don’t accept strong women. Strength, mental superiority and iron-ness are things we don’t savor in our women. A woman who can control her instincts is a potential threat to male superiority and status quo. Deep down, the male mind fears a woman who does not fall a prey to her instincts. No temptation comes from outside. The enemy lies within us. A woman can be carried away ‘samundar paar’, can be ill treated, all time tested mechanisms, ‘Sam, dam, bhaya, bhed’ can be applied on her; yet she can stand her ground. She can do it with a barrier of a grass blade because walls and veils do not protect a woman’s dignity; her mind does. Mental strength is the only strength.
Ravana says that he is young, handsome, wealthy, powerful and attractive; Sita is a bundle of bewitchment; together they’d walk on the ocean beach. She’d be adorned with the best jewels in the world. Her father’s family would be rewarded with wealth. Hundreds of maids would look after her day and night. What else could she possibly want? What could any woman want?
Ravana at this point is the personification of ‘aasakti’ (indulgence of senses). Valmiki’s description is highly suggestive. Wine, woman, disarranged clothes, and entangled jewels and clothes – all present the heady picture of enjoyment of senses. Ravana is in the celebration of senses. Sita is in the celebration of the soul. He’s looking outside; she’s looking within herself. Here’s a young, beautiful princess, recently married to a very lovable prince. She’s on her honeymoon. Brutally broken from her lover, who’s her husband, she’s asked to submit to another man. Obviously she’s being treated as a commodity. Her feelings do not matter for the man who wants to ravish her as a dish on his much stuffed platter. The will of the male is considered to be supreme. She reverses the order; her will prevails. The male will is defeated. Sometimes, I feel that there can be no stronger feminist symbol than Sita.
Sita, if we look independently is the original ‘satya-agrahi’. Forced to live in Lanka, she refuses to take food, to dress up, in short, to enjoy life. Her mourning becomes her being. She’s seduced. She’s tortured. She’s shown fear. The ‘raakshasis’ around her are instructed to mould her in whatever manner they can. The flame of her pure heart converts people like Trijata even in the land of demons.
Here’s an epic scene from an immortal epic. The two flows of life - ‘tamsik’ (consumption based) and satwik (abstinence based) are there for everyone to see. The presentation is powerful. Sita is slim. She’s beautiful. She’s vulnerable or so she seems to be. She’s lonely. She’s deep in sorrow. Ravana, on the other hand is the king. He’s in his own territory. He’s powerful or so he seems to be. He’s deep in erotic pleasures of life. To top it all, he’s brought Sita to Lanka. He’s relishing the prospect of enjoying her. Here’s a complete contrast. No worldly wisdom can predict that Sita would win and Ravana would lose.
Sita challenges the basic patriarchal mind-set which treats women as pawn for all sorts of reasons – revenge, insult, scoring points, conveying messages, fulfilling long nurtured complexes and so on. There can be more reasons. Why do we have all solid abuses in our country based on women? ‘Your mother’, ‘your sister’ – we all know them only too well. Women are symbols of weakness. Only women have honor; men do not share such useless things. Ravana was also fulfilling his long cherished complex. He was rejected by Sita in her ‘swayambar’ – this might be the reason. His sister was insulted by the brothers, Ram and Laxman – that might be the reason. But his wrath had to fall on a lonely, simple, unarmed, unprotected woman. Sita refuses to pay the price. She refuses to become a prey of his complicated complexes. She reverts the cycle.
I personally feel that her commitment is first and foremost to her own self. Her confidence and dedication emanate from her self-respect. She is fighting for her own, personal, individual dignity; more than for anything else. She’s reversing the canon that fathers, husbands and sons are the keepers of women; women have to follow the dictates of one of the tree categories of men throughout their lives. She crosses the Laxman Rekha only moments after it is made. Plunged into calamity, she’s her own keeper. Her actions say that a woman will decide her own destiny. The will of the woman will matter. No one can force a woman into any act.
The only strange thing in her case is that usually freedom means promiscuity; she has chosen the path less traveled. Sita says that freedom means to go for more than one partner or not to go for more than one partner. Freedom does not necessarily mean getting wild. This is a unique correction on our generally conceived idea of freedom. You ask anyone about the freedom of a married woman and without wasting a second; images of infidelity would start dancing before the eyes, ‘aaj phir jeene ki tammana hai’. We have simply not thought about the freedom to say ‘no’. This is the greatest form of freedom. When you say ‘no’, you’re definitely spelling a specific choice, ‘I want this and not this’. Here’s freedom coupled with discretion and decision.
Sita is in the habit of taking her own decisions. Her words and actions propel the epic. Not only does she take a stand on her choice of a partner, she sets the agenda for Ram. She’s very specific. She spells the exact time limit within which Ram has to come and perform the most important part of his ‘leela’ on earth – public killing of Ravana. Hanuman clearly says that he can carry her back easily but her response is laden with sound reasons – Hanuman’s safety, her own safety, her married status and above everything else resurrection of the stature of Ram. Ram should act only the way that befits him. There’s no other way but public killing of Ravana by Ram. Sita spells the details, the lines which everyone has to follow. Sita’s message is clear. She is not for the short cut. Being born in this less than perfect world, there’s no point in being afraid of miseries or hardships. What matters is the way one deals with challenges. That is the most important thing.
I don’t intend to take away all the weeping associated with Sita in our country. Perhaps it is good for our own catharsis. It cleanses us of many dark and hidden fears. But my own personal perception of this lady is that of a fighter, a truly strong person. Sita and Ram are imbedded in the collective consciousness of our country. What must have started with a young prince killing an evil king has now become the reservoir of all that we wish to see in ourselves. Ram is truth. Ram is righteousness. Ram is beautiful. Sita is purity. Sita is goodness. In this long line, I wish to add a small hyphen - Sita is strength. Sita is the original iron lady.