Sita - The Silent Power of Suffering and Sacrifice

Article of the Month - May 2020
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All versions of the Ramayana are unanimous in reiterating Sita Ji's fidelity and devotion towards Rama even in times of extreme adversity. For example, when Shri Rama 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 karma individually 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 Shri 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 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."

Witnessing her appearance, Hanuman says: "For a woman the greatest decoration is her lord, and Sita, though incomparably beautiful, no longer shines in Rama's absence."

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.

Ravana Fails to Win Over Sita at Ashoka Vatika, Lanka City
Ravana Fails to Win Over Sita at Ashoka Vatika, Lanka City

All of Sita's miseries in the confinement of Ravana however, pale in comparison to the emotional trauma she was subjected to after Shri Rama's victory over Ravana. In a bitter irony, what was to be her moment of deliverance, turned out to be the beginning of another trial.

Standing before Rama, her eyes raised expectantly to his face, the innocent Sita wept, overwhelmed at the prospect of a joyful reunion with her Lord after his victory. 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 touched by 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 you like."

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." 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 expected.

Not one of the assembled warriors, who just moments before had proved their mettle in the battlefield, had the courage to dare open his mouth opposing the grave injustice being perpetrated. The obedient Lakshmana set out to prepare the pyre. As a mark of respect, Sita Ji 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 to her place on the lotus that rises up from the flooding waters, she jumped in; and as she entered, that fire was scorched by her burning faithfulness.

The lotus here refers to Sita being an incarnation of the great goddess Lakshmi, who is typically associated with this auspicious flower.

Here, to highlight the extremely pure bearing of Sita, the poet has 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 sages
and all that moves and is still
in the three worlds
screamed, as they struck their eyes? Have you abandoned
Dharma
and resorted to misery instead?

Will rain fall,
will the earth bear its burden without splitting in two,
will Dharma go the right way,
or can this universe survive
if she becomes enraged?
if she utters a curse,
even Brahma on his lotus will die.

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 desire 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 trial 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. She was the victim twice victimised.

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 family way. Thus Lakshmana carried Sita the next morning 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."

Sita - The First Single Mother in the World

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 one 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 assembly.

Sita Enters The Earth (Based on the Ramayana of Valmiki)
Sita Enters The Earth (Based on the Ramayana of Valmiki)

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.

Did Rama Really Doubt Her Chastity?

Rama's conduct vis-a-vis Sita leaves many questions unanswered. The most significant is of course whether he really doubted her fidelity. There is a strong logical basis supporting the conventional view:

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). Before entering the fire, Sita circled Rama clockwise, in respectful 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.

Conclusion: Who is Greater? Rama or Sita?

Sita sets a high standard as an ideal wife who stays unswerving in her loyalty and righteousness, no matter how unfavourable 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. 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 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).

Whole world is Rama Sita I know,
With folded hands to them I bow.
Whole world is Rama Sita I know, With folded hands to them I bow.

In the words of Swami Vivekananda, " There may have been several Ramas, perhaps, but only one Sita."

References and Further Reading:

- Gandhi, Mahatma. The Collected Works (Vol. 20): New Delhi, 2000.

- Grimes, John.A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy(Sanskrit - English): Varanasi, 2009.

- 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.