Sita

A modern depiction of Sita and Rama in Hindu art.

Sita (Sanskrit: meaning "furrow") is one of the principal figures of the Ramayana, a famous Hindu scripture of epic proportions, which details not only the heroic exploits of her husband Lord Rama, but also the sublime love story between Sita and her husband. As the devoted wife of the seventh avatar of Vishnu, Sita is regarded as the most esteemed exemplar of womanly elegance and wifely virtue in Hinduism. She is also considered to be an avatar of Lakshmi, Vishnu's consort, who chose to reincarnate herself on Earth to provide humankind with a paradigmatic example of good virtue.

Contents

Origin

The Sanskrit word Sita literally means "the line made by the plow" or "furrow," a term held by ancient Indians to be redolent of fecundity and the many blessings that accrue from settled agriculture. Accordingly, the goddess known as Sita appearing in early Vedic literature is closely connected to the earth and is thought to bless the land with good crops. In various texts, Sita is listed as the wife of gods who hold jurisdiction over the fertile rains, such as Parjanya and even Indra. In the Vajasaneyi-samhita, Sita is invoked when furrows are drawn during a sacrificial ritual. This Vedic goddess of the fertile earth, though she remains relatively insignificant in these early texts, may represent a prototype of the character Sita who appears in the Ramayana. The role of kings in ancient India was often described in terms of promoting fertility of the land over which they ruled. Thus the significance of pairing Rama (the archetypal ruler) with a wife connected to the earth's bounty was readily apparent.[1]

Mythology

Childhood

Sita was a foundling, discovered nestled in a furrow in a plowed field, and for that reason she has been regarded as a daughter of Bhumidevi, the Hindu earth Goddess. Her discoverers were Janaka, king of Mithila (Modern day Janakpur, Nepal) and his wife Sunayana, who gave her the name Sita and raised her as their own. She also inherits the name Janaki as the daughter of king Janaka, and the name Mythili or Maithili as the princess of Mithila. One obscure version of the story, popular in parts of Kerala, even goes so far as to suggest that Sita was a child of Ravana, the demon king of Lanka who would later go on to kidnap her in lust. Upon giving birth to the infant who would grow to be Sita, Ravana's wife Mandodari placed her in Janaka's plow-path since she feared that the child could be the harbinger of her husband's doom.

When Sita reached adolescence, a swayamwara or "self-choice" ceremony was held for the purpose of selecting a suitable husband for her. In order to find the best match for his daughter Sita, King Janaka presented all would-be suitors with the challenge of lifting the bow of Lord Shiva and stringing it. Only the man who performed this heroic task would be able to have Sita's hand in marriage. Rama, prince of Ayodhya, along with his brother Lakshmana and the Sage Vishvamitra were in attendance at this ceremony, and they watched as numerous noblemen failed at stringing the bow. Disappointed, King Janaka poured out his dilemma and misery, sending Lakshmana into a rage at the fact that the monarch had not offered Rama the same test. Upon the invitation of King Janaka, Lord Rama proceeded to lift the bow of Shiva and strung it with ease. So strong and adept was Rama in performing the task that he actually broke the mighty bow in the process of performing the task. With that, not only was Rama's vigor evident to King Janaka, but he had also stolen the heart of Sita, and so the two were wed.

Exile, abduction and emancipation

Ravana abducts Sita, by Ravi Varma

Some time after the wedding, circumstances became such that Rama felt it was his duty to leave Ayodhya and spend a period of exile in the forests of Dandakaranya. Considering it her own wifely duty to stand beside her husband, even in exile, Sita also willingly renounced the comforts of the palace and joined her husband in the forest. However, the worst was yet to come, specifically in the person of Surpanakha, a rakshasa woman of ill-repute. She attempts to seduce Rama and Lakshmana, who resist her temptations and mutilate her as punishment. When Surpanakha reports this to her brother Ravana, the demonic king of Lanka and also one of Sita's former suitors, a plan for revenge hatches in his mind. He sends to the forest a rakshasa disguised as a golden deer. Upon seeing what appears to be a beautiful animal, Sita sends Rama off to capture it for her. The deer leads Rama off far away, and when he is finally struck down by Rama's arrow, the deer begins to cry out its agony in Rama's voice. Hearing this, and assuming her husband to be in trouble, Sita demands that Lakshmana go to the aid of Rama. Lakshmana has been ordered by Rama to keep watch over Sita, but Sita is insistent that Lakshmana go, insinuating that his refusal to leave the ashram is actually illustrative of his desire to let Rama die, thereby allowing him to take Sita as his wife. Reluctantly, Rama runs off to his brother's aid.

With Rama and Lakshmana gone, Ravana, the demonic king of Lanka and one of Sita's former suitors, crept into Rama's ashram in which Sita sat vulnerable.[2] Overwhelmed by her beauty and his own uncontrollable passion, Ravana conspired to kidnap her. Upon discovering Sita missing, Rama and Lakshmana set out on what would be a long and hazardous search to find her.

Ravana carried Sita back to the distant island kingdom of Lanka where he ruled. At one point along the way, Jatayu, the vulture-king who was a good friend of Rama, attempted to swoop down to rescue Sita from Ravana, but was stymied in his attempt by the powerful demon who chopped off his wings. Jatayu survived long enough to inform Rama of what had happened and also to tell him of the direction in which Sita was being dragged. Upon their arrival in Lanka, Sita was held in captivity for a year. During this time, Sita assiduously protected her chastity at all costs, completely unwavering in her resolve despite Ravana's repeated advances upon her, as well as the harassment she suffered at the hands of female rakshasas. Her persistent faith was rewarded when Hanuman, the anthropomorphic monkey who lived in unquestioning service of Rama, located where she had been held captive and provides her with Rama's ring, a gesture of her husband's undying love. Although Hanuman offered to free Sita and carry her home on his back, she refused the offer, knowing that it was the sole destiny of Rama to overcome Ravana and rescue her. Eventually, Rama succeeds in slaying Ravana after a tremendous battle that marked the climax of the war between Rama's allies and Ravana's army of rakshasas. In the aftermath, Sita is promptly liberated from her shackles by her victorious husband.

Agni pariksha

As could be expected, Sita was overjoyed at the thought of embracing Rama once again after he had rescued her. Rama, however, refused to look at her, excoriating her on the basis of the fact she has lived in the house of another man. Rama informed Sita that he had fought the war solely for the purpose of avenging the dishonor that Ravana had done him, and that she was now free to go with whatever man she wished. This sudden turn of events left all onlookers shocked and mystified. Sita was understandably devastated by Rama's actions, and, shaking with grief and humiliation, begged Lakshmana to build her a pyre upon which she could burn herself alive, as the thought of life without Rama filled her with insurmountable despair. At this point, Lakshmana grew angered with Rama for the first time in his life, but, following his brother's order, he built a pyre for Sita nonetheless. While the onlookers stood paralyzed with the sheer pathos of the display, Sita walked slowly into the fire. But to their even greater shock and amazement, she was miraculously unharmed by the flames, instead glowing radiantly from where she stood at the center of the pyre. Rama interpreted this as confirmation of her purity, since Agni, the fire god, would surely have destroyed the impure and sinful, and he immediately ran to Sita to embrace her. He had never doubted her purity for a second, but, as he would later explain to Sita, the people of the world would not have accepted or honored her as a queen or a woman if she had not passed this test, commonly referred to as the Agni pariksha.[3]

Later life

Upon returning to Ayodhya, Rama was crowned King and Sita was to be his queen. However, in spite of her survival of the Agni pariksha, it soon became evident that a significant percentage of the citizenry of Ayodhya still doubted her chastity, considering the persuasive power of Ravana and the sheer length of time she had been held captive by him. Hence, these unconvinced citizens were of the opinion that Sita was unfit to be queen. Although Rama knew in his heart that these aspersions cast on Sita were entirely baseless, he nevertheless felt that his responsibilities to his citizens as a ruler superseded his responsibilities to his wife as a husband. This one-pointed sense of duty led Rama to order the banishment of Sita from his household, and, ever the faithful wife, Sita complied with his command.

Thus, once again Sita was in exile, but this time all by herself and also pregnant, at that. She sought refuge in the hermitage of the sage Valmiki, where she delivered twin sons, Lava and Kusha. Sita raised her sons single-handedly in the hermitage, and they grew to be valiant and intelligent. Eventually they were united with Rama, and, upon witnessing this acceptance of her children by their father, Sita sought final refuge in the arms of her original mother Bhumidevi. Hearing her plea for release from an unjust world and from a life that had rarely been happy, the earth dramatically split open and Bhudevi manifested herself, taking Sita away. Although Rama demanded Sita's return, the earth remained closed, and Rama lived out the remainder of his life in sorrow, never remarrying. Instead, he ordered the construction of a golden idol of Sita which he used from that point on at rituals requiring the presence of a wife.[4]

Depiction

Lord Rama (center) with wife Sita, brother Lakshmana and devotee Hanuman.

As a traditional archetype (though frequently criticized in modern times) of feminine beauty and grace in the Hindu religion, Sita is often depicted in Indian art, sculpture and iconography as a resplendent woman with pleasant facial features. She is fair-skinned with long, black hair, though her head is sometimes covered by an elaborate head-dress in order to communicate her queenly status. As could be expected of her social status, she is often bejeweled with bracelets and anklets of gold. She wears a sari, which symbolizes her chaste and virtuous nature. Her physiognomy is almost always anthropomorphic, though she may be depicted with additional arms in images attempting to speak to her status as an incarnation of Lakshmi. In religious iconography, she is usually seated or standing at the left side of her husband Rama, as well as any number of other important characters from the Ramayana including Hanuman, Lakshmana, her twin sons, and sometimes even Ravana. Such pictures often depict famous scenes from the Hindu epic.

Worship

With the composition of Tulsidas' devotional Ramcarit-manas came the increasing popularity of Rama in popular worship. With this came increased theological significance for Sita, as well. Together, Rama and Sita came to be conceived of as the supreme divine couple, male and female aspects of god, and were invoked as such in religious practice. In contemporary Hinduism, Sita is identified as a goddess and is a common focus of worship, however, she has not attained the status of a powerful, independent deity in and of herself. Accordingly, it is rare to find a temple dedicated to Sita alone. Instead, her idol is most often found in temples dedicated to Rama or Hanuman, installed alongside her husband and other important characters from the Ramayana.[5] She is approached by worshipers not as deity who provides blessings, but rather as an intermediary figure who can petition her husband for the dispensation of grace upon human beings. In spite of this trend, some Shakta groups, particularly those in eastern India, have identified Sita as the dominant member of her relationship with Rama. [6]

Festivals

Sita is a central character in a number of popular Hindu festivals. Rama Navami, the final day of a larger nine day festival called Vasanthothsavam (the "Festival of Spring"), is considered the wedding anniversary of Rama and Sita. On this day, worshippers perform marriage celebrations for small statues of Sita and Rama in their houses. In the evening, these statues are taken onto the streets in a grand procession. For the duration of Rama Navami, temples are festooned with elaborate decorations, and readings of the Ramayana take place. All the while, Hindus worldwide direct their prayers to Rama and Sita, as well as their close companions. Sita is also widely acknowledged alongside her husband during the ten day Vijayadashami festival, appearing as a major character in a dramatic performance of the Ramayana called the Rama-lila, which is performed throughout India. Furthermore, during Diwali ("the Festival of Lights") in North India, lamps and candles are customarily lit in order to reenact the legend that oil lamps were lit along the path to Ayodhya to guide Rama and Sita back home after Ravana had been defeated.

Controversy

Traditionally, Hinduism has championed Sita as the role-model and epitome of domestic wifely duty towards one's husband. Her elevated status in Hindu mythology, however, has recently been tarnished and criticized by Indian feminists who see Sita as an overly-submissive wife who committed suicide for an ultimately untrusting husband.[7] Sita's ideal qualities are presented in the Ramayana to be her unquestioned subordination to the demands of her husband [8] Many Indian feminists therefore reject Sita as the archetype of women's rights. In their reassessments of the Ramayana, they have concluded that Sita's behavior is not worthy of emulation and instead identify Draupadi as a better role model based upon her confidence and resolve.

Another controversial element surrounding Sita's mythology is her test by fire (Agni pariksha) and her later abandonment by Rama altogether in the Uttarakanda, the last book of the epic. Due to these disturbing developments in the narrative, some later poets such as Kampan, author of the Tamil Ramayana, and Vishvanatha Satyanarayana, author of the Telegu version, have left out the latter part of the book entirely.[9] In congruence with these developments in the narrative, modern Indological scholarship has suggested that the Uttarakanda section of the Ramayana was interpolated into the story later than books two through six, thus emancipating the "true" Rama of responsibility for his mistreatment of Sita.[10] Accordingly, many Hindus today accept a version of the Ramayana in which Sita and Rama live together happily after Rama is crowned king.

Notes

  1. David Kinsley. Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Traditions. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 67.
  2. Some versions of the Ramayana suggest an even more profound history between Sita and Ravana. These stories claim that Sita was actually a reincarnation of Vedavati, an orphan lady who placed a curse upon Ravana after he had ravished her.
  3. Conversely, "It has been suggested that Sita's 'agni pariksha' in the Ramayana legitimizes women's oppression in India." See Geetanjali Gangoli. Indian Feminisms: Law Patriarchies and Feminism in India. (2007), 102.
  4. Some believe that this part of the story was written at a later time than the rest of the text and was promoted primarily by the British. As such, many Hindu organizations today disown the Luv-Kushkanda and state that once Rama was crowned king there was Ram rajya, an epoch in which all of humankind lived in happiness.
  5. Kinsley, 79.
  6. R.P. Goldman and S.J. Sutherland Goldman. "Ramayana" In The Hindu World, ed. Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby. (London: Routledge, 2004), 89.
  7. Jacqueline Suthren Hirst and Lynn Thomas (eds.), Playing for Real: Hindu Role Models, Religion, and Gender. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  8. Goldman and Sutherland Goldman, 85.
  9. Velcheru Narayana Rao, "When Does Sita Cease to be Sita? Notes toward a Cultural Grammar of Indian Narrative." In The Ramayana Revisited, ed. Mandakrnata Bose. (New York: Oxford University Press), 224.
  10. David Shulman, "Fire and Flood: The Testing of Sita in Kampan's Iramavataram," In Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of Narrative Tradition in South Asia. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 90. See also Hermann Jacobi's The Rāmāyana; Das Rāmāyana of Hermann Jacobi for a defense of Rama's moral character based upon stratigraphy.

References

  • Gangoli, Geetanjali. Indian Feminisms: Law Patriarchies and Feminism in India. Ashgate Publishing, 2007. ISBN 978-0754646044
  • Goldman, R.P. and Sutherland Golman, S.J. "Ramayana" In The Hindu World, ed. Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby. London: Routledge, 2004. 75-96. ISBN 0415215277
  • Hirst, Jacqueline Suthren and Lynn Thomas (eds.), Playing for Real: Hindu Role Models, Religion, and Gender. Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0195667226
  • Jacobi, Hermann. The Rāmāyana; Das Rāmāyaņa of Hermann Jacobi. Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1960. ISBN 1421235986
  • Kinsley, David. Hindu Goddesses: Vision of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Traditions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0520063396
  • Mitchell, A.G. Hindu Gods and Goddesses. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1982. ISBN 011290372X
  • Narayana Rao, Velcheru. "When Does Sita Cease to be Sita? Notes toward a Cultural Grammar of Indian Narrative" In The Ramayana Revisited, ed. Mandakrnata Bose. New York: Oxford University Press. 219-241. ISBN 9780195168327
  • Pattanaik, Devadutt. Indian Mythology: Tales, Symbols and Rituals from the Heart of the Subcontinent. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 2003. ISBN 0892818700
  • Shulman, David. "Fire and Flood: The Testing of Sita in Kampan's Iramavataram," In Many Ramayanas: The Diversity of Narrative Tradition in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 89-114. ISBN 0520072812

External links

All links retrieved September 22, 2015.

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