ancient Indian folk song depicts a young girl describing
to her father the kind of husband she wants. After
narrating his various qualities, she say in the
end: "Go north, go south, or get for me a
groom from the east, but don't ever go westwards."
The Marriage of
Sita and Rama
Significantly, this song belongs to the region
of Mithila, where Sita, heroine of the epic Ramayana
was born. More interestingly, Ayodhya, where lived
her husband Rama, lies to the west of Mithila.
Thus, what this lyric is effectively saying is
that a girl from this region would not prefer to
have a groom like Rama, which is ironical considering
the fact that he is considered the 'perfect man'
in the annals of Indian thought. Further, though
the numerous temples in this region contain images
of both Sita and Rama as a couple, they are invariably
named Janaki Mandirs (Temples of Sita). Janaki
being another epithet for Sita signifying that
she is the daughter of king Janaka. Even today,
the people of Mithila consider it inauspicious
to marry off their daughters in the month of Marg-Shish,
which is the season when Sita and Rama tied the
Rama - the Ideal
These traditions seem
less odd when we realize that people all over
India will say approvingly
for someone: "He is a Rama like son, a Rama
like brother, or a Rama like king. " It is
rare however to hear the following as a compliment "Rama
like husband or son-in-law."
Intriguing as this phenomena is, the reasons for
this all-pervasive sentiment are readily understood
when we recall the life adventures of this couple.
As is well known Rama, even though he was its rightful
heir, abdicated the royal throne in favor of one
of his younger brothers. In addition, he was banished
to the forest for fourteen years by his stepmother.
Sita, the devoted wife that she was, also accompanied
him to his exile. Later, a demon named Ravana carried
her away forcefully and it was only after a fierce
war that Rama could regain his virtuous wife. Before
accepting her as his queen again however, he asked
Sita to publicly prove her chastity, witnessed
by all those present in the battlefield.
Sita and Rama in
Thus it is obvious that
Sita's trials did not end with her liberation
from the demon's captivity.
All versions of the Ramayana are unanimous in reiterating
her fidelity and devotion towards Rama even in
times of extreme adversity. For example, when the
hero is preparing to go to exile in the forest
all alone, she addresses him thus: "O son
of an illustrious monarch, a father, a mother,
a brother, a son or a daughter-in-law, all enjoy
the fruit of their merits and receive what is their
due. It is only the wife who actually shares the
fortunes of her husband. When you depart this day
for the dense forests which are difficult to penetrate,
I shall walk ahead of you crushing under my feet,
all the thorns that lie on your way." This
is just one of the many expressions Sita used to
convince Rama to take her with him. She considered
it her privilege to share in his misfortune and
suffered the consequent trials and tribulations
in equal measure throughout their sojourn in the
forest. However, being exiled in the forests was
the least of her troubles.
In fact, not even her
kidnapping by Ravana could break Sita' immense
will-power, constantly nourished
as it was by the memory of her beloved Rama. Ravana
too, fearing the accumulated merits of a chaste
woman did not dare touch her; he nevertheless did
try to make advances. What was Sita's reaction
to his overtures? The great sage poet Valmiki (author
of Ramayana), has captured her wretched condition
vividly, through a series of inspired metaphors.
For example, on viewing Ravana: "She seemed
like a flame wreathed in smoke; a great fame which
had dimmed; a lotus pool stripped of its blossoms;
like Rohini pursued by Ketu (a metaphor for the
eclipsed moon); a traditional text obscured by
a dubious interpretation; a faith that has been
betrayed; an order that has been flouted; a hope
which has been frustrated and an understanding
that has grown feeble."
Rama's Ring to Sita at Ashoka-vatika
Witnessing her appearance,
Hanuman, the loyal monkey ally of Rama says: "For
a woman the greatest decoration is her lord and
incomparably beautiful, no longer shines in Rama's
Although her physical
beauty undoubtedly dims on account of the enforced
separation; she keeps
her mind fixed upon Rama, and thus radiates with
an inner beauty as a result of this steadfastness. "Though
that blessed one was shorn of her own beauty, yet
her own soul did not lose its transcendency, upheld
as it was by the thought of Rama's glory and safeguarded
by her own virtue." Truly she remained chaste
in both thought and deed and the various recensions
of the epic recall episodes where even the mighty
Ravana had to bow before Sita's piety. Once for
example, when the demon approached her, she placed
a single strand of straw in between them and challenged
him to cross the "proverbial last straw." Predictably
he did not dare to do so. He knew that the chastity
of a virtuous woman was like a fire that could
reduce to ashes anyone who tried to violate her
against her will.
All of Sita's miseries in the confinement of Ravana
pale in comparison however to the emotional trauma
and humiliation she was subjected to by Rama himself.
In a bitter irony, what was to be her moment of
deliverance, turned out to be the beginning of
Abduction of Sita
Standing before him, her
eyes raised expectantly to his face, the innocent
Sita wept, overwhelmed
at the prospect of a joyful reunion with her consort
after his victory over Ravana. The latter however
remained formal and aloof and set out to articulate
his heartfelt thoughts (hrdyaantargatam bhavam): "Today
I have avenged the insult to my honor and fulfilled
my promise. You stand unabashed before me, even
though suspicion has arisen with regard to your
character. Today you seem extremely disagreeable
to me even as a light to one who is suffering from
sore eyes. Therefore go wherever you like, O Janaka's
daughter, the ten directions are open to you today.
What man born in a noble family would take back
with an eager mind a woman who has dwelt in another's
house, simply because she has been kindly disposed
towards him in the past? How can I accept you,
who were squeezed into the arms of Ravana while
being borne away by him and who regarded you with
a lustful eye? There is no more attachment for
you in my heart. You may therefore go wherever
Harsh words indeed, which
pierced Sita's tender heart like arrows tipped
with poison and shrinking
within herself, the sensitive lady shed profuse
tears, saying: "I was helpless when I came
into the contact of Ravana and did not act of my
own free will on that occasion. My adverse fate
alone is to blame on that score. That which is
under my control, viz., my heart, eternally does
it abide in you."
The South Indian Ramayana, authored by Kamban,
sums up her situation graphically:
Like a deer
on the point of
tortured by terrible thirst
in the middle
of a desert
just beyond reach,
she grieved at the barrier
that rose before her.
Addressing her brother-in
law Lakshmana, she says: "Raise
for me a pyre, which is the only antidote against
this calamity. I no longer desire to survive, smitten
as I am with false reproaches." Lakshmana
looked at his brother, half-expecting him to put
an end to this bewildering public spectacle. Scrutinizing
his elder sibling's expression, Lakshmana realized,
to his horror, that this was exactly what Rama
Not one of the assembled warriors, who just moments
before had proved their mettle in the battlefield,
had the courage to dare open his/her mouth opposing
the grave injustice being perpetrated. The obedient
Lakshmana set out to prepare the pyre. As a mark
of respect, Sita circumambulated Rama, who, as
the ancient texts put it - stood with his head
bent low. As she approached the blazing fires,
the world went into a crisis: the immortal gods
and living beings, the cosmic elements, the four
Vedas and Dharma, all cried out in horror. Then:
As if she were going home
her place on the lotus
that rises up from the flooding
and as she entered, that fire was scorched
The lotus here refers to Sita being an incarnation
of the great goddess Lakshmi, who is typically
associated with this auspicious flower.
Ravana Fails to
Win Over Sita at Ashoka Vatika, Lanka City
Here, to highlight the extremely pure bearing
of Sita, the poet has innovatively depicted the
moment as being one of an excruciating, fiery torment.
Fire is burnt by the heat Sita holds within herself;
generated by a lifetime of chastity, self control,
faithfulness, suffering and sacrifice, which are
represented here not as abstract ethical virtues
but rather as part of the substantial and dynamic
reality that suffuses the inner being of a faultless
woman like Sita. It was this same heat that had
earlier terrified Ravana against coming near her.
Her trial-by-fire is portrayed
evocatively in the ancient texts and she not
only emerges unsinged,
but also manages to scorch the god of fire (Agni)
himself, who, according to Kamban, screams out
in pain and protest. Lifting Sita in his hands,
Agni points out that the beads of perspiration
formed on her body due to anger directed at her
husband were not dried up by his flames while the
flowers she wore in her hair still continued to
bloom as freshly as ever. Sita's accumulated spiritual
force of concentrated energy (tapas) proved too
much for even the fire-god, who emerged saying: "I
had to materialize because I could not bear the
blazing fire of faithfulness in this woman."
He also asks Rama:
Didn't you hear
when the gods
and all that moves and is still
as they struck their eyes?
Have you abandoned Dharma
and resorted to misery
Will rain fall,
will the earth
bear its burden
without splitting in two,
Dharma go the right
or can this universe survive
if she becomes
if she utters a curse,
even Brahma on
his lotus will die.
Sita's Fire Ordeal
Rama is overjoyed at the
developments and the public display of his wife's
unblemished character: "Sita
undoubtedly needed this purificatory ordeal in
the eyes of the people inasmuch as this blessed
lady had lived for a long time in Ravana's confinement.
The world would have murmured against me saying
that my mind was so dominated by lust that I actually
accepted the daughter of Janaka without proving
her chastity. I too knew Sita to be undivided in
her affection to me. Ravana couldn't violate her,
protected as she was by her own moral power. In
order, however, to convince the inhabitants of
the three worlds, I ignored Sita even while she
was entering the fire. She is as inseparable from
me as sunlight from the sun."
That Sita herself volunteered for the agni-pariksha
speaks for the high volume of understanding between
the couple since she understood Rama's wish without
him explicitly stating it. Her action was not a
surrender to the unreasonable whims of a husband
rather a supreme act of defiance that challenged
the aspersions cast on her, by the means of which
she highlighted the superficiality of his doubts,
so that even the gods had to materialize and point
out the apparent fallacy in the indignity he had
so unceremoniously cast on her. She emerges as
a woman that even Agni - who has the power to reduce
to ashes everything he touches - dare not touch
or harm. Eminent Indian poetess Bina Agarwal has
pulled no punches while narrating Sita's dual victimization:
With your husband you chose
suffered privation, abduction,
then the rejection
the chastity test
on scorching flames,
the victim twice victimized.
Could those flames turn to flowers
they say you, devoted wife,
and let him have his way.
The Desertion of Sita
Thus reconciled, the contended couple repaired
back to Ayodhya and Rama continued to rule as an
ideal monarch over his extensive rein.
More misfortune however was in store for Sita.
No sooner had the couple settled down than rumors
started in the capital questioning the propriety
of having a queen who had spent a year in a villain's
captivity, putting her chastity under doubt. Surprisingly
for a clear-headed individual, Rama took these
allegations to heart and asked his younger brother
Lakshmana to banish Sita (this time alone), to
the forests. Rama did this even though he was well
aware that his wife was well advanced into the
Thus Lakshmana carried
Sita the next morning, on the pretext of visiting
the hermitage of a sage,
to the forests. The unknowing, innocent lady cheerfully
boarded the chariot. Little did she know what travails
lay in store for her. Once they reached the wilderness,
her brother-in-law informed her thus: " You
have been forsaken by the king who is afraid of
the ill-report circulating among his citizens.
You are to be left near this hermitage by me."
Hearing these cruel words
the crestfallen Sita fell swooning to the ground.
However, it was not
long before the valiant lady composed herself and
addressed him thus: "This mortal frame of
mine was indeed composed by the creator for bearing
sorrow only. What sin was committed by me, that
though being of good conduct, I should be forsaken
by the king? I cannot give up my life since I carry
within myself the seed which will carry forward
the lineage of my lord. Do then as you are ordered
O son of Sumitra (Lakshmana's mother), forsake
me the miserable one, obey the orders of the king,
but do tell him this on my behalf: If to preserve
your good name among your people, I must be sacrificed,
I am content to let it be so. As you serve your
subjects, so I serve you."
Rama and Family
(Rama, Sita and Lakshmana)
One jarring feature of this whole episode is the
role of Lakshmana who is often deified not only
as the ideal brother, but also the perfect brother-in-law.
He was known to vent his quick temper whenever
he perceived an injustice being perpetrated. In
fact when, against the norms of natural justice,
Rama was exiled for fourteen years, Lakshmana advised
his elder brother to take up arms against their
father's decision and seize what was rightfully
his by force. Yet when this grave impropriety was
being committed on Sita, he was silent, why? In
the immortal words of Bina Agarwal:
on his brother's behalf, left you,
in the dark forest,
some citizen's demand!
was injustice to
not worthy of his anger?
you, loving sister-in-law,
bore this too is silence
and let him go away.
Sita - The First Single Mother
in the World
Sita with her two
sons - Luva and Kusha
Thus abandoned, Sita gave birth to twin sons in
the wilderness and brought them up all alone, without
the protective presence of a father, hence becoming
the first single parent in history.
When these worthy sons entered their teens, tales
of their valor spread far and wide, and it was
not long before Rama realized that they were his
own offspring. This knowledge prompted him to immediately
call his beloved Sita and the two boys to his court.
In front of the assembled subjects, tributary kings,
ministers and merchants from all parts of his empire,
he asked her to undertake the fire ordeal again
for the benefit of these venerable gentlemen, who
had missed the earlier spectacle in Lanka.
Sita's reaction however
was different from that earlier occasion. The
emotional scar had obviously
not healed. This time she did not ask her brother-in-law
to prepare a funeral pyre for her. Nor did she
circumambulate her husband in meek submission.
Rather, with folded hands, she merely uttered the
following words: "If I have remained true
to Rama in mind, speech and action, may the Mother
Earth embrace me in her bosom." No sooner
had she spoken than the ground beneath her feet
split wide open, and before anybody had the time
to react, she entered the depths. A dejected and
helpless Rama was engulfed in grief. Thus did end
the exemplary life of Sita, with fate pursuing
her to the bitter end.
In the televised version
of the Ramayana, shown in serialized form on
Indian television, the Earth
Goddess is shown emerging from the ground seated
on a bejeweled throne. Spreading out her arms she
beckons Sita saying: "Come my child, this
world is not worthy of you." Sita does as
she is told, leaving behind her, the lamenting
Sita as Janaki
It is interesting to connect the above episode
with the fact that Sita was not only metaphorically
(as all woman are), the daughter of the earth,
but also literally so, since she had not materialized
out of the human womb in the 'normal' manner, rather,
she had been found by her father, king Janaka,
when he was tilling the fields with a golden plough
in fulfillment of a sacred ritual. This is also
the reason why the people of Mithila (the place
where she was so 'discovered') think of her as
the daughter of the whole village because, if Janaka
had not ploughed the grounds that day, someone
else from the region would have definitely found
her and thus she would have become that person's
Sita's appeal to Mother Earth
to reclaim her was not the helpless reaction of
slighted woman. It
was a spirited, self-effacing statement of protest,
when things went beyond endurance. For those of
us living in this technologically advanced modern
age, Sita's message is extremely significant. As
we continue to assail the earth, taking her for
granted, she is bound to someday lose patience
and cleave open her chest in trepidation, leading
to goddess knows what calamity.
Did Rama Really Doubt
Rama's conduct vis-a-vis Sita leaves many questions
unanswered. The most significant is of course whether
he really doubted her fidelity. Even if we disregard
the traditional sentiment believing otherwise,
there is a strong logical basis supporting the
1). Some time after he
abandoned her, Rama decided to perform the horse
sacrifice (ashvamedha yagya)
which is the highest ritual a king can strive to.
There was a technical snag however. Of the hundreds
of ceremonies a Hindu has to perform, not one can
be performed without a wife. Therefore many in
Rama's retinue suggested that he remarry. A suggestion
he firmly rejected: "In the heart of Rama
there is place for only one woman and that one
is Sita." He therefore had a golden image
of his wife made and completed the sacrifice. Would
anyone thus give his wife a position of such supreme
respect if he doubted her chastity?
2). After the vanquish
of Ravana, when she was first brought into his
presence, Rama compared
Sita to a "light," which was hurting
his "sore eyes." Thus it is his vision,
which finds defect in the bearing of the noble
lady, that is at fault, and not the "light" itself,
whose natural function is but to illuminate.
3). On the same occasion, before
entering the fire, Sita circled Rama clockwise,
homage. What was Rama's reaction during her circulation?
Well, he kept his head down (adhomukham). Is this
not a gesture of self-indictment and contradiction?
The ostracized victim is boldly performing what
she has set out to do, while her accuser stands
with a hung head.
Lord Rama and Mahatma Gandhi:
A Shared Obsession
According to Shastri Panduran
V. Athavale, a noted social reformer, "It
was not Rama who abandoned Sita; in reality it
was the king who abandoned
his queen. In the effective performance of his
duty, he had to choose between a family and the
nation. Rama sacrificed his personal happiness
for the 'larger' national interest."
In other words, Rama wanted
to set a standard, a stainless example for his
subjects and followers
to look up to. The psychological havoc it may have
wreaked on those dependent emotionally on him was
of no consequence whatsoever. Thus often does the
immediate family of a reformer suffer even though
the nation as a collective may gain substantially.
Mahatma Gandhi says in his article 'The Law of
Suffering,' "Progress is to be measured in
terms of the suffering undergone by the sufferer.
The purer the suffering, the greater is the progress.
Hence did the sacrifice of Jesus suffice to free
a sorrowing world. In his onward march he did not
count the cost of suffering entailed upon his neighbors,
whether it was undergone by them voluntarily or
The Mahatma in
(With His Better Half (c.a. 1913))
Recall in this context the Mahatma's own neglect
of his children, and his imposition of a strict
disciplinarian regime on his wife in a drastic
manner without preparing her slowly and steadily
like he did the entire nation. This is but another
instance of the better half being taken for granted,
being treated as another experiment in the moral
evolution of humanity rather than as a free-minded
individual who could have a viewpoint of her own.
Likewise Rama never cared to personally explain
anything to his wife; he knew she would understand.
These virtuous ladies suffered in silence. What
did Kasturba Gandhi as a mother, as a woman, gain
out of the high moral pedestal her husband bagged
for himself? Her children lacked the presence of
a simple, loving father whom they could look up
to in an ordinary way. Indeed, it is their 'extraordinariness,'
that often distances the path-breaking revolutionaries
like Rama and Gandhi from their children who have
their own normal, 'selfish aspirations.' In such
circumstances a rebellion definitely brews beneath
the placid surface. It culminates into the supreme
sacrifice of Sita leaving a distraught Rama behind,
or it may find expression in objectionable actions
(as those of one of the Mahatma's sons), whose
sole aim is to bring grief to the 'larger than
life' parent. In either case it is the woman of
the house who pays the heaviest price. It must
be realized here that engrossed in this program
of social reform, stress is placed not only on
merely being fair, but equally important is to
appear to be 'fair' and 'impartial,' and being
theoretically rigid in setting high standards for
their own families while being practical and flexible
when applying these same principles to the general
populace. However, it must go to the credit of
both of them they set an equally, if not sterner,
moral regime for themselves.
Conclusion: Who is Greater? Rama or Sita?
Sri Sita Ram
Sita sets a high standard as an ideal wife who
stays unswerving in her loyalty and righteousness,
no matter how undesirable her husband's response.
Her refusal to perform a second agnipraiksha and
her consequent reversion to mother earth is not
merely an act of self-annihilation. It is a momentous
and dignified rejection of Rama as a husband. Truly
Rama may have deselected her as his queen in deference
to social opinion, but it is Sita who rejects him
in a personal sense as a husband. By this act does
she emerge supremely triumphant. If the defining
scale for quantifying greatness is the amount of
suffering one has undergone, it is undoubtedly
Sita who is the clear winner. It is her dignified
tolerance (sahan-shilta) and self-effacing silence,
which may even be termed as weakness by many, that
turns out to be her ultimate emotional strength,
far valorous than any assertive aggression. Rightly
therefore does her name always precede that of
Rama (as in Sita-Ram or Jai Siya-Ram).
In the words of Swami
Vivekananda, " There
may have been several Ramas, perhaps, but only
References and Further Reading
- Gandhi, Mahatma. The Collected Works (Vol. 20): New Delhi, 2000.
- Grimes, John. A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy (Sanskrit - English): University of Madras, 1988.
- Hawley, John Stratton and Donna Marie Wulff: The Divine Consort (Radha and the Goddesses of India): Delhi, 1995.
- Kakar, Sudhir: The Essential Writings: New Delhi, 2002.
- Kinsley, David. The Goddesses' Mirror Visions of the Divine from East and West: Delhi, 1995.
- Richman, Paula (ed). Questioning Ramayanas: New Delhi, 2003.
- Richman, Paula (ed). Many Ramayanas The Diversity of a Narrative Tradition in South Asia: New Delhi, 2001.
- Sastri, The Rt. Hon. V.S. Srinivasa Sastri. Lectures on the Ramayana: Madras, 1986.
- Srimad Valmiki-Ramayana (2 vols. With Sanskrit Text and English Translation): Gorakhpur, 2001.
- Vatsyayan, Sacchidanand. Jan Janak Janaki (Hindi): Delhi.
- Vivekananda, Swami. The Complete Works (Vols 3, 4 & 6): Kolkata, 2003.
- Wolpert, Stanley. Gandhi's Passion: New York, 2001.