Sita

THIS SEARCH FOR Sita began near the botanical gardens in Peradiniya, Sri Lanka, on a day redolent with the breeze of spring. As I absorbed the lush landscape, the swaying palms, the feather-leaved bamboo, the Java willows, I thought I saw her, sitting on a rock, perhaps an apparition from a Raja Ravi Varma Painting.
Sita, Janaki, Bhaumi, Bhumija, Bhukanya, daughter of the Earth. A flesh and blood presence, a young woman in distress. Was it myself that I saw there, sitting on that rock? For all of us Indian women carry some of her within us: Sita’s strength and her vulnerability.
The name Sita derives from the Sanskrit word for ‘furrow’ or ‘marks of the plough’, and metaphors of the earth surround her birth. Janaki, the daughter of Janaka, was a strong young woman, who could lift the Hara, Shiva’s bow, with one arm while swabbing the floor with the other in her father’s house.
Then why do I picture her weeping? When and why did she become a figure of weakness rather than strength? Sita, in our prevalent idiom, is weak, oppressed, a natural victim. Considering that Sri Rama’s wife, Vaidehi, Sita, Ramaa, call her what you will - is the primary archetype for all Indian women, a role model pushed and perpetuated by a predominantly patriarchal society, it is no wonder that she is someone the modern emancipated consciousness prefers to banish into yet another exile.
But she does not exit so easily. Sita has been there, in the mass consciousness of our subcontinent, for very long now. She has been there since the beginnings of our timeless history, in the different versions and renditions of the Ramayana, written or recited and never forgotten. She lives on in all the Sitapurs and Sitamarhis of the nation, in the Janakpurs and Ramgarhs and Rampurs. She has been on celluloid, and on television, she has been elected to Parliament from Vadodara, in the person of Deepika Chikhalia, the actress who played her role in Ramanand Sagar’s television serial titled Ramayana. She is there in song, in poetry, in the tears that Indian women have been shedding through generations as they tread the Lakshman rekhas that barricade their lives, as they are consumed by the flames of the penitential agni Pareeksha that their families regularly subject them to.
Is this why those hot, helpless tears do not leave my vision or memory?
Mythology in India is not just an academic or a historical subject, it is a vital and living topic of contemporary relevance. The complex social, political and religious attitudes of ‘modern’ India cannot be understood without an understanding of our myths and their impact on the collective faith of the people. The emotions that drove my quest to deconstruct the real woman behind the anguished formal portrait of Mrs Ramchandra Raghuvanshi were those of sympathy, empathy and curiosity about the fractured identities and expectations of most women in India today. When Dr. Malashri Lal and I began work on compilation of this anthology, we wished to present a composite picture of Sita, of a woman negotiating the public and private spaces in society - between kingship and exile, duty and assertion, loyalty and assertion, loyalty and rejection.
The Ramayana is considered an adikavya, an epic in the realm of poetics, in contrast to the Mahabharata, which is described as itihaas or history. The sage Valmiki, to whom the definitive or classical version of the Ramayana is ascribed, was inspired to begin the epic poem after seeing a kraunch bird, in sight of its mate, killed by a cruel hunter. The dominant emotion invoked in the opening passages is that of compassion, and it is compassion, again that is evoked in the seventh segment, the Uttara Kanda, where Sita, that brave single parent, bears and rears her twin sons. Her children, Lava and Kusha, are described by Valmiki in the matrilineal mode as Sita’s sons – “Maithili sutau, Sita putrau.” Called “suvrata dharmacharini”, or the abstemious and righteous one, Sita is never, in any interpretation, depicted as having deviated from her loyalty and integrity to her royal husband.
The Ramayana is a story about monogamous love, in contrast to the complex and passionate codes and polygamous practices of the Mahabharata. Rama’s father Dasharatha, had suffered the consequences of polygamy and the attendant succession crises, but Sri Rama determinedly maintained his monogamous resolve and adhered to his “ek patni vrata.”
Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha, Bhavabhuti’s Uttara Ramcharita, and all the variations and regional interpretations of this heroic poem, celebrate kinship and the affection and loyalty of brothers, and other social codes of crucial importance in a complex feudal society. Sita, portrayed as being utterly and unquestioningly in love with her husband, is always brave, always dutiful, and does everything in her power to preserve the fabric of this patriarchal universe. She indicates her anguish and exerts her autonomy by departing from this world after being asked to take the second test of fire, but only after having completed the full cycle of her perceived duties. In diasporic and local versions of the epic, however the contours of the story remain more human and compelling. A handsome and loving couple, united by destiny, the gods, and love for each other, are sent into exile because of feminine manipulations and domestic discontent. The screenplay has all the box office elements of drama and suspense, and the lofty emotions of honour, duty and revenge are played out to a successful denouement.
The anticoda begins with the spoils of peace. When a washerman disgruntled with his wife starts slandering Sita, the anointed queen of Ayodhya, the rites of kingship dictate that the subject of the slander be censured by banished to live in the forest, alone. The inequity of the situation, and the cruelty of the indictment, are dealt with quite differently in folk tradition and high art. While sophisticated moralists and classicists have many explanations and alibis for Rama’s royal lapse, (including some deeply obtuse metaphysical justifications), the folk songs and alternate traditions wax indignant and side with the victim.
This collection of essays attempts to accommodate different points of view. It is divided into sections covering ‘Commentary’, ‘Dialogue’ ‘Sources’ and ‘Interpretations.’ Lord Meghnad Desai, in ‘Sita and Some Better Women in the Epics’, contrasts the women of the Mahabharata with those portrayed in the Ramayana. In ‘Janaki; The Fire and the Earth’, Tarun Vijay explains the nuances of the ‘maryada’ that define Rama’s moral position, presenting the picture from what might perhaps be Sri Rama’s point of view. Interestingly, this thread is picked up again in Arshia Sattar’s thoughtful retrospective gaze, as she re-examines the translation of the Ramayana she completed some ten years ago. “I am shocked that it is he who draws me to him, compels me to try and understand his cruelty towards Sita and what it means for him to be king, perhaps even against his innermost wishes. I find myself more and more involved with Rama and am convinced that the way to a more complete understanding of the Ramayana, especially for contemporary women, has to be through an inclusion rather than a rejection of Rama and his questionable behaviour.”
Creative fiction on the subject of Sita takes many imaginative directions. Shashi Deshpande gives voice to Sita’s emotions when she is abandoned in the forest, Vijay Lakshmi Chauhan weaves a modern story on the theme of jealousy. Mallika Sengupta retells the taut drama of the agni pareeksha. In her piece on Bhojpuri women’s songs, Smita Tewari Jassal brings alive the vital folklore on the subject. Madhureeta Anand discusses the experience of scripting and shooting the film she made on Sita. ‘Laying Janaki to Rest’, in contemporary terms. Sonal Mansingh, Indira Goswami, and Madhu Kishwar share their views and insights on the Sita archetype. A few of the diverse traditions in which the Sita narrative is interpreted are included, as are creative personal interpretations of the Sita myth.
Reading and reacting to the mountains of material that the subject generated was a tiring but consciousness-enhancing task. It was the last piece which swung the whole thing into perspective for me. Keshav Desaraju had suggested that we look at the works of the late Kumudini, who humanized the epic by writing about Sita’s imagined letters to her mother. Devotion and respect had distanced Sita from us, while academic interpretation had sterilized the subject. This imaginary daily life reminded me that, at some level, Sita was a human incarnation, tried and tested by extraordinary circumstance.
At a moment of change, when some people are holding on to while others are letting go of, our past, I want to stress upon the continuity and flexibility of Indian culture and traditions. This book was conceived with love and respect by a practicing Hindu: one who recognizes the strength of debate, dissent and questioning within our way of life.
Sita was not only an immortal daughter of the Earth, or an incarnation of Lakshmi. She was also intensely human, although her vulnerabilities are lost in the accretions of myth and reverence. But Indian myth is never static, it is constantly in the process of reinterpreting and revalidation itself, and the society that it defines. Perhaps it is time to seek a new image of Sita-one who does not have to return to the Earth, but can resolutely reclaim it.