Sita: The Original Iron Lady

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.   


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

Top | Women

Views: 3676      Comments: 12

Comment Excellent article.
I read this 2 years ago and eversince searched the internet for another read. Could not find it till today. At last today I found and felt so happy to read once more and pondered over. One of the best personality assessment of a person. The inner meanings of these charecters to expounded to next generation this way. This is what makes different from barbarian lustful cultures. I send this articles for youngsters inmy family read. Thank you once again.

18-Oct-2014 15:47 PM

Comment Fantastic reading of the Ramayana.Saw Sita Mata in absolute new awatar.I agee with the depiction.

Raghunandan Sharma
14-Sep-2014 08:45 AM

Comment WOW...what a perception. Mind blowing. I wish all men to read this article and henceforth they will not look at Sita or any women associated with weak and hardships. Thanks for this article. This is the first one i read from Prof. Shubha ji....please keep writing such one more. Will bring so much good to the society.

28-Mar-2013 23:51 PM

Comment Realy a Good One Write up..

Yes Sita is a Iron Lady .. not alone a Iron Lady .. she is an Iron Lady (soft Iron lady) the Ramayana is written not as a story of individual it is the style of Life and all the charatctor in ramayana are unique in its rool and all are great rolls even the Frontline Monkeys is an model rool and we should learn how they are unite and building the Sethu bridge to enable rama to reach Lank/.. Rember the monkey;s not having the sixth sense and not expected ay return and just want to help others..

Ravana is not a Bad charactor it is an charactor which say how he respect the feeling of his sister and I will say the real good nature of Rama, Laxmana, sita or Hunuman came out only because of this Acyts and behaviour.

Like this we can write a lot of Ramayana and I am pround to be in this country whre these great Avatars lived and left behind Good things for us to use and live Happy..

N Jambunathan
03-Dec-2011 20:51 PM

Comment A good literary treatment to this noble character in Ramayana. THANKS.

15-Nov-2011 19:33 PM

Comment In my definiton, freedom is not limited to getting wild. If I have the freedom to violate norms, I must also have the freedom to follow the norms. I just cannot accept the slavery of 'getting wild'. Getting into newer chains and often dirtier, is not freedom. Freedom is free application of mind. In this context, I admire Sita's mental strength. Freedom to say 'no' to patterns of behavior your rational mind does not approve of; this in my opinion is freedom.

Prof. Shubha Tiwari
08-Nov-2011 00:33 AM

Comment Sita did not actually reverse any patriarchal mindset or practice, she reinforced them. I find most of her actions consistent with the most traditional and conservative thought. Just putting up a bunch of random arbitrary conditions for Ram does not make her an iron lady, it makes her the storyteller's pawn, a nice explanation for an unnecessary battle. And it makes her suffer unnecessarily.
Freedom usually means going wild *because* traditional wisdom says not to go wild. If you are completely independent and free, what's the use if you don't defy some of the rules that everyone else follows? You might as well remain "un-free", its not like its going to make any difference! As far as I can tell, Sita never defied *any* traditions or beliefs, even those which are obviously unfair towards women.
All this behavior shows us that Sita was a woman who got caught up in the middle, and suffered. And naming daughters after such a person is not bad or wrong, but it is a bit weird.

07-Nov-2011 21:36 PM

Comment It can only be an exhaustively-read and thoroughly passionate writer who reaches such profound conclusions regarding Sita's life as are reached in the given write-up. I confess not to have read the Ramayan with an eye for reading between the lines, but from what little I have read (and heard of it), it is clear that Sita is not as uni-dimensional as she so is so often portrayed in modern-day recitals and retellings of the epic.
For me, the character of Sita personifies resolution, commitment and defiance. Be it her angry rebuttals to Ravan's advances on her or be it the audacity with which she leaves her husband's side after having repeatedly made to prove her chastity, Sita's resolute belief in her own propriety, righteousness and 'dharm' is vividly and constantly underlined and substantiated.
It is also very telling of the typically patriarchal Indian psyche that has mutilated Sita's personality through generations of retellings and reduced it to a mere caricature of her actual self.
It is indeed unfortunate how only a shadow of the original Iron Lady remains in our present day storytelling of the Ramayan, and how the modern artistic phenomenon of confining female characters to the background so as to let the male characters hog the attention in the foreground has crept into the way we understand Ramayan today.

Bharat M.
07-Nov-2011 07:14 AM

Comment The interpretation and character study of Sita is certainly original and provoking. I am sure many more interpretations are possible too. The writing is flawless and powerful. Sita, and for that matter Ramayana, are a study in contradiction (s) that life usually presents to we mortals. Drawing the best out of it is perhaps the only thing we can do. The writer certainly succeeds in doing so. I expect more such soul stirring pieces from her.

Rohit Misra
06-Nov-2011 23:30 PM

Comment The writer has excelled in expressing the true picture of womenhood as it stands in our culture. I wish her all the best in reaching new heights in the depths of Indian culture and philosophy, and ofcourse in literature.
Hari Om

Dr Sajjansingh
01-Nov-2011 22:13 PM

Comment In Dravidian lands, especially in Tamilnadu, girls are named, not infrequently,as Sita, Janaki,Mythily,Vaidehi, Sitalakshmi etc. We accept strength in women and appreciate it : Kannagi,Draupadhi,Dakshayani, Savitri,Tara why even Mandodhari and ofcourse Sita are all common names for women here.'sowcar'Janaki, Savitri were famous actresses. We also had a moderately famous actress called Sita who divorced her husband!

01-Nov-2011 02:03 AM

Comment This piece is excellent. Its title inspred me to read this article. Till now I myself have deep pity for Sita. One of my colleagues used to recite and sing lines of Ramayan before us. She was a professor of a Govt. Post Graduate College. She was considered a good orater on this topic. She used to invariably weep during her narration. I heard her several times. So this is embedded in my being that Sita's life is full of woes & sufferings. Thus she is an object only of pity. But through this article I get an important point that Sita is the symbol of courage and strong will. She is the most respectable and adorable personality. Definitely she is an Iron Lady.

Shailbala Misra
31-Oct-2011 00:55 AM

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