-by Rima J. Pundir | 01/19/2018 |
For those of you who know a bit about the legend of Rama and Ramayana, Sita (Rama’s wife and the avatar of Lakshmi) was no lily-livered woman of yore. She put men firmly into place, and despite all the emotional trauma, stayed on top like a badass feminist…
Frankly speaking, while I am a Hindu, I am a bit of an atheist. Or rather, I like to call myself a non-conforming spiritualist. My faith teaches me about many a God & Goddess and yes, if I need to turn to divinity for guidance or a shoulder to cry on, I choose to look upon the idol I like and find commonality with.
- Kali, for sheer feminine strength and will.
- Krishna, for his wisdom and mischievousness.
- Ganesha, for his rotund benevolence.
- Shiva, for his dance of life and of destruction.
- Sita, for the sheer force of being a woman.
Ramayana: The Gist of the Legend
One God that never much found a follower in me is Rama. Shown to be a man of his word, he never kept his marriage vows to Sita—and instead, chose to be a judicious king rather than an accepting husband. The Ramayana is a very complex epic and not something that can be truly delved into in just one article.
But for simplicity’s sake, here’s the gist of the story: King Dashratha of Ayodhya had three wives, from whom four sons were born. The eldest was Rama with Lakshmana, Bharata, and Shatrughna as his younger siblings. Rama was basically Vishnu’s avatar and Lakshmana was the avatar of Vishnu’s steed—the seven-headed serpent called Sheshnaga. So Rama, at his father’s behest, attends Sita’s swayamvar (a ceremony where prospective grooms vy for the hand of a princess). He wins her hand in marriage and Sita’s younger sister Urmila is wed to Lakshmana. When they return to their kingdom with their wives, one of Dashratha's wives conspires to make Rama leave for exile so that her son, Bharata, ascends to the throne. Rama leaves with Sita and Lakshmana in tow.
While in the forest, Sita is kidnapped by the demon king of Lanka, Ravana. To rescue Sita, Rama and Lakshmana fight an epic battle with Ravana along with their allies Hanumana (the avatar of Shiva), Sugreeva (the king of bears), and Vibishana (the brother of Ravana who wants to be with the good). Ravana is ultimately slain, and Sita rescued. By this time, the exile period is over and everyone returns to Ayodhya. Finally crowned as king (Dashratha passed away bemoaning the fate of his son, and Bharata never took to the throne—ruling in the name of his brother instead), Rama expects all to be happy. But there is doubt on Sita’s purity and so she is asked to pass through a pyre to give an Agni-Pariksha to prove her purity and loyalty to Rama. She passes the test and is crowned queen. But her happiness is soon cut short when Rama, upon overhearing a man saying unbecoming things about Sita casts her out of the kingdom—denouncing her for having stayed with another man despite her having proven her purity.
Sita leaves and is distraught. But she takes shelter in an ashram and soon births twins—Lava & Kusha. Years pass and the boy grows—meanwhile, Rama is performing a yagna, where one tradition is that he lets a royal steed loose through the kingdom to announce his right to offer these prayers. The horse is captured by Lava & Kusha and when Rama arrives to find his horse, the sons are ready to fight their father. Sita intervenes and asks Rama to recognize his rightful heirs. Rama is shown to be remorseful and asks Sita to come back as his queen. Sita, who clearly has had enough by now, adamantly refuses and finally asks Mother Earth to open her bosom so she could take her eternal rest.
Sita, borne from the earth, disappears into the folds of Mother Earth and ends her mortal life so. Rama stays remorseful and single for the rest of his mortal time on Earth. As soon as his sons grow and are crowned rulers, Rama gives up his mortal life by entering into the waters of the river Saryu, forever bemoaning his treatment of Sita.
So why is Sita a feminist?
So why, then, do I consider Sita to be a feminist? To some, Rama was the ultimate man. He felt that he, as king, was far more answerable to his people, than to just his wife. To others, it seemed that Rama and Sita, while being physically apart, never truly were in conflict with each other for their divine souls had merged eons ago as Vishnu and Lakshmi. The latter also finds backing in the fact that Sita took shelter in the ashram of Rishi Valmiki who later penned the Ramayana and gives birth to twins Lava & Kusha in a protected environment where they learn all that they need to as princes and heirs to the Raghuvanshi clan. Later Rama too accepts them as his sons and makes them ascend the throne, discarding his mortal life as soon as they are kings. To a point, I can accede to Rama’s thought process—perhaps it was an idealistic time we cannot understand or comprehend anymore in the morally corrupt kali yuga of today. Perhaps, as a king, the responsibilities that he bore in an age where a man’s word was everything is beyond what mere mortals can envisage.
But while I can understand what he did, I cannot agree with it. And what really struck me about the Ramayana was that neither did Sita. Sita was far from a weak-willed, submissive woman as she is so oft portrayed in today’s retellings. Let me count the ways for you…
- She was born of the earth, raised as a princess, and chose Rama as her husband of her own free will.
- She chose to be exiled with her husband when she could have stayed in the comfort of the palace.
- She may have been kidnapped by Ravana, but she refused to let him touch her and such was that force of will of hers, that it cowed Ravana too.
- She even refused to be rescued by anyone other than Rama, calling it her husband’s right and no one else’s—even though Hanumana risked life and limb by flying into the Ashoka Vatika – the garden where Sita chose to stay when imprisoned by the Lankan lord.
- When rescued by Rama and returning victorious to Ayodhya, Sita willingly agreed to pass through the flames to prove her purity and that she remained untouched by any other man than her husband. She did remind Rama that this was not asked of him—so she made it clear that the rules that men lived by were different than the ones women had to abide by.
- She forgave Rama this one infraction. But when Rama showed a lack of faith in her a second time, Sita chose to go into exile again and birthed her sons away from her husband and raised them as strong princes.
- When Rama begged her to come back, Sita adamantly refused. And she nearly laughed in his face when asked to give an Agni-Pariksha a second time.
- As an ethereal being, Sita chose to go back to her roots, literally—born of the earth, she asked Mother Earth for solace and when the folds of the Earth parted, Sita took refuge with her mother.
- As a mother, she ensured that her sons got the best of education and training as is worthy of princes so that one day they could take their rightful place as heirs to their father’s throne—never does she try and turn them into weapons to be used to bring around a husband who had wronged her.
- Finally, Sita’s sense of dharma far exceeds Rama. For she is the woman who rejects his ideology and his abandonment of her and brings the man they called Maryada Purushottam (the ideal man with the highest of morality) to shame by choosing to end her mortal life over indignity. Did she commit suicide, so to speak? I don’t know and much of Hinduism is emblematic and murky at best. I choose to believe that she moved to a higher plane of consciousness, away from her loved ones that had hurt her the most.
Clearly, the woman was worthy of being called a Goddess. And somewhere down the ages, time (and men) obliterated her character into someone submissive when clearly she was a much higher entity than what her husband or clansmen were. So for me, it’s a yes for Sita and a no for Rama.
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