However, there is no escaping the fact that in north India the Sita of popular imagination has been deeply influenced by the Sita of Ramcharit Manas by Tulsi. In most other versions of the Ramayan, close companionship and joyful togetherness of the couple are the most prominent features of the Ram-Sita relationship rather than her self-effacing devotion and loyalty which have become the hallmark of the modern day stereotype of Sita. The medieval Ramayan of Tulsi marks the transition from Ram and Sita being presented as an ideal couple to projecting each of them as an ideal man and woman respectively.
As a maryada purushottam, Ram's conjugal life has to be sacrificed at the altar of "higher" duties. Sita is now portrayed in a highly focussed manner as an ideal wife who acts as the moral anchor in a marriage, and stays unswerving in her loyalty and righteousness no matter how ill-matched be her husband's response. The power of the ideal wife archetype in Tulsi's Ramayan overshadows the happy conjugal life of the couple prior to Ram's rejection of Sita.
The Sita image indeed lends itself to diverse appeals which is perhaps why it has continued to hold sway over the minds of the people of India over the centuries. For instance, in a study carried out in Uttar Pradesh, 500 boys and 360 girls between the ages of 9 and 22 years were asked to select the ideal woman from a list of 24 names of gods, goddesses, heroes, and heroines of history. Sita was seen as the ideal woman by an overwhelming proportion of the respondents. There were no age or sex differences1 That was a 1957 survey. However, Sita continues to command similar reverence even today, even among modern educated people in India. This paper is a preliminary exploration into why Sita continues to exercise such a powerful grip on popular imagination, especially among women.
My impression is that 80 to 90 percent of the poems that came to us for the Hindi version of Manushi, and at least half of those for English Manushi, revolved around the mythological Sita, or the writer as a contemporary Sita, with a focus on her steadfast resolve, her suffering, or her rebellion. Sita loomed large in the lives of these women, whether they were asserting their moral strength or rebelling against what they had come to see as the unreasonable demands of society or family. Either way Sita was the point of reference - an ideal they emulated or rejected. I was very puzzled by this obsession, and even began to get impatient with the harangues of our modern day Sitas.
And then came the biggest surprise of all. The first poem I ever wrote was in Hindi, and was entitled, Agnipariksha. I give some extracts in a rough translation:
I too have given agnipariksha,Not just me, even my former colleague, Ruth Vanita, who is from a Christian family, wrote many a poem around the Sita theme. Her recent collection of poems has several poems that revolve around the Sita symbol. It took a long time, but eventually I became conscious that this obsession with Sita needs to be understood more sensitively than I was hitherto prepared for. Therefore, I began to ask this question fairly regularly of various men and women I met over the years: who do they hold up as an example of the ideal man and ideal woman? Young girls tend to name public figures like Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Indira Gandhi, and Mother Teresa as their ideals. But those already married or on the threshold of marriage very frequently mention Sita as their ideal (barring the few who are avowedly feminist). At this point of their life, the distinction between an ideal woman and an ideal wife seems to often get blurred in the minds of women. That includes not just women of my mother or grandmother's generations but even young college-going girls - not just those in small towns and villages, but also those in metropolitan cities like Delhi.
Not one - but many
Everyday, a new one.
However, this agnipariksha
Is not to prove myself worthy of this or that Ram
But to make myself
Worthy of freedom.
Every day your envious, dirty looks
Reduced me to ashes
And everyday, like a Phoenix, I arose again
Out of my own ashes ... ... ...
Who is Ram to reject me?
I have rejected that entire society
Which has converted
Homes into prisons.
Even among my students in the Delhi University college where I teach, Sita invariably crops up as their notion of an ideal woman. She is frequently the first choice if you ask someone to name a symbol of an ideal wife. When I ask women why they find this ideal still relevant, the most common response is that the example Sita sets will always remain relevant, even though they may themselves not be able to completely live up to it. This failure they attribute to their living in kalyug. They feel that in today's debased world it is difficult to measure up to such high standards. However, most women add that they do try to live up to the Sita ideal to the best of their ability, while making some adjustments keeping present day circumstances in view.
It is a common sentiment among Indian women (and men) that the ideals set in bygone ages are still valid and worth emulating, though they admit few people manage to do so in today's world. This attitude contrasts sharply with the popular western view that assumes that people in by-gone ages were less knowledgeable, were far less aware and conscious of their rights and dignity, had fewer options, and therefore were less evolved as human beings. This linear view of human society makes the past something to be studied and kept in museums but is not expected to encroach upon the supposedly superior wisdom of the present generation. In India, on the other hand, Ram and Sita are not seen as remote figures out of a distant past to be dismissed lightly just because we are living in a different age and have evolved different lifestyles. They are living role models seen as having set standards so superior that they are hard to emulate for those living in our more "corrupt" age, the kalyug.
My interviews indicate that Indian women are not endorsing female slavery when they mention Sita as their ideal. Sita is not perceived as being a mindless creature who meekly suffers maltreatment at the hands of her husband without complaining. Nor does accepting Sita as an ideal mean endorsing a husband's right to behave unreasonably and a wife's duty to bear insults graciously. She is seen as a person whose sense of dharma is superior to and more awe inspiring than that of Ram - someone who puts even maryada purushottam Ram - the most perfect of men - to shame. She is the darling of Kaushalya, her mother-in-law, who constantly mourns Sita's absence from Ayodhya. She worries about her more than she does for her son Ram. As the bahu of Avadh, she is everyone's dream of an ideal, loving daughter-in-law. To the people of Mithila, she is far more divine and worthy of reverence than Ram.
Her father-in-law, Dashrath, and her three brothers-in-law dote on her. Ram has at least some enemies like Bali who feel wronged and cheated by him. Ram can become angry and act the role of an avenger. Sita is love and forgiveness incarnate and has no ill feelings even for those who torture her in Ravan's captivity.
In many folk songs, even Lakshman, the forever obedient and devoted brother of Ram, takes Sita's side against his own brother when Ram decides to banish Sita. In one particular folk song, he argues with Ram: "How can I abandon a bhabhi such as Sita who is like food for the hungry and clothes for the naked? She is like a cool drink of water for the thirsty. She is now in full term of pregnancy. How can I cast her away at your command?" (Singh, 1986)2 He is in such pain at having to obey and carry out such an unjust command of his king and elder brother that he does not dare disclose the true intent of their trip to the forest. Squirming with shame, he leaves her there on a false pretense.
She is a woman who even the gods revere, a woman who refuses to accept her husband's tyranny even while she remains steadfast in her love for him and loyalty to him to the very end. People commonly perceive Sita's steadfastness as a sign of emotional strength and not slavery, because she refuses to forsake her dharma even though Ram forsook his dharma as a husband. Most women (and even men) I have spoken to on the subject refer to her as a "flawless" person, overlooking even those episodes where she acts unreasonably (e.g., her humiliating Lakshman with crude allegations about his intentions towards her), whereas Ram is seen as possessing a major flaw in his otherwise respect worthy character because of the way he behaved towards his wife and children.
Sita's offer of agnipariksha and her coming out of it unscathed is by and large seen not as an act of supine surrender to the whims of an unreasonable husband but as an act of defiance that challenges her husband's aspersions, as a means of showing him to be so flawed in his judgement that the gods have to come and pull up Ram for his foolishness. Unlike Draupadi, she does not call upon them for help. Their help comes unsolicited. She emerges as a woman that even agni (fire god) -who has the power to destroy everything he touches - dare not touch or harm. Thus, in popular perception Sita's agni pariksha is not put in the same category as the mandatory virginity test Diana had to go through in order to prove herself a suitable bride for Prince Charles, but rather as an act of supreme defiance on her part. It only underscores the point that Ram is emotionally unreliable and can be unjust in his dealings with Sita, that he behaved like a petty minded, stupidly mistrustful, jealous husband and showed himself to be a slave to social opinion. Most women and men I interviewed felt he had no right to reject and humiliate her or to demand an agnipariksha.
His rejection of Sita is almost universally condemned while her rejection of him is held up as an example of supreme dignity. By that act she emerges triumphant and supreme, she leaves a permanent stigma on Ram's name. I have never heard even one person, man or woman, suggest that Sita should have gone through the second fire ordeal quietly and obediently and accepted life with her husband once again, though I often hear people say that Ram had no business to reject her in the first place.
Athavale is at pains to point out that Ram's abandonment of Sita was a symbol of the highest self sacrifice. "Sita was dearer to Ram than his own life. He had never doubted the chastity of Sita ... For had it been so, he would not have kept by his side the golden image of Sita during the sacrificial rites [Ashwamedha Yagna]." (Athavale, 1976)5
However, even a passionate devotee of Ram like Pandurang Shastri finds it hard to give a totally clean chit to Ram:
"Once Ram appeared callous, even cruel. Upon the death of Ravan, after the battle of Lanka, Sita extremely happy appears before Ram. Sternly Ram says to her, 'I do not want you who has been looked at and touched by another person. You may go wherever you want to. You may go either to Bharat, Laxman, Shatrughan, or Vibhishan and stay with any of them.' We do not know for what purpose he was so harsh, or what he intended to convey to Sita by these words, but it is equally certain that they were terrible words ... Even the people who heard Ram saying such bitter words wept. Everyone felt the bitterness of those words, the injustice that was done, but none dared to protest or plead."6
The most powerful indictment, however, comes from the people of Mithila, the region which is the parental homeland of Sita. We are told that Sita's being is part of the very consciousness of Mithila; she is all pervasive in the land, in the water, and in the air of Mithila. "Her pain sits like a heavy stone on the hearts of Mithila's people." (Khan, 1986) 7
This sentiment comes through numerous folk songs of the region. An account of what the injustice done to Sita means to the people of Mithila is poignantly evident in several accounts by leading Hindi writers published in the form of a joint travelogue. This project was organised by the don of Hindi literature, Sachidanand Vatsayayan, whereby a large group of Hindi writers travelled through the region connected with Sita's name starting from her birthplace Sitamarhi on to Janakpur, Ayodhya and ending their journey in Chitrakoot. The purpose of this project was to delve into the secret of why and how the Ramayan, the story of Ram and Janaki, and the locales associated with their names, have become part of people's consciousness and how it has influenced the value system of the educated as well as the illiterate and defined their cultural identity. (Singh, 1986)8
Sita is not just the daughter of Janak in this region but a daughter of all Mithila because, as the folk songs of this region testify, popular sentiment maintains that, had Raja Janak by chance not gone to plough the fields that particular day, someone else from any other jati might have gone and found her. In that case she would have become that person's daughter. Therefore, Sita is treated as a daughter of every household in Mithila. In Mithila the entire village is considered as naihar (parental home) not just one's actual father's abode. (Khan, 1986)9 Therefore, various folk songs show the entire people of Mithila grieving over Sita's fate.
In some folk songs women of different strata plead with their respective husbands to go and fetch her back to her home after her desertion by Ram. However, Sita in her pride and dignity refused to return and brought up her two sons all on her own. Various writers of this anthology describe how the dignity with which Sita suffered privations after Ram's painful rejection has remained alive in people's consciousness as if this injustice was undergone by their own daughter. "Even today, people of Mithila avoid marrying off their daughters in Marg-Shish because that is the month Sita got married. Even today, people of Mithila do not want to marry their daughters into families living in Avadh, in fact anywhere west of Mithila.
They repeatedly recite Sita's name in marriage songs but Ram's name is omitted. At the end of the song there is usually one line which says "'such like Sita was married into Raghukul [the family name of Ram]'" (Dalmia, 1986)10 . There is a beautiful folk song of Mithila quoted by Usha Kiran Khan in which a daughter tells her father what kind of a groom he should find for her. After describing various qualities she is looking for, the daughter advises her father: "Go search in the north, go south, or get me a groom from the east. But don't go westward, O father, get me a groom from the north." (Khan, 1986)11
This daughter of Mithila has a status higher than that of Ram in her own region. In various polemical songs, Ram is shown as inferior to Sita. (ibid)12 At the time of marriage Shiv Parvati songs are more popular than Sita songs. In this context it is well worth remembering that Ram had to prove himself worthy of Sita before her father offered his daughter to him. This is how one of the folk songs of this region describes it: "Everyday Sita used to clean and smear cowdung in the temple courtyard. One day her father Janak saw her lift the heavy Shiv dhanush (bow) with her left hand while smearing with her right hand the floor where the dhanush was kept. At that very moment he vowed that he would marry his daughter only to such a man who had the valour to break that dhanush into nine pieces. Hence, the condition of swayamvar that Sita would only be given in marriage to a man who could demonstrate such exceptional strength."13 People of Mithila still believe that though Ram passed the initial test for winning her, he failed to prove a worthy husband.
Another writer, Shankar Dayal Singh, commented on how he sensed the all pervasive sentiment of anguish and pain in the collective consciousness of the people of this region at the injustice done to Sita. He goes on to say:
"This region has taken a strange revenge in a silent way. From pauranic times, everywhere, in every village and small town (kasba) are found Shri Janaki mandirs where Ram and Lakshman are also present along with Janaki. But the temples are named after Sita as evidence that somewhere the pain of Sita is still hurting the folk sentiment consciousness as though saying: 'Ram, you made our Sita walk barefoot in the forests. Ravan challenged your manhood and forcibly abducted Sita. Though this mother of the universe (Jagajannani) went through the fire ordeal to prove her innocence, you abandoned her. Our daughter, our sister was treated thus by Ayodhya. But we are careful of our maryada (honour). That is why O Ram, we will keep your idol in the temple. We will even worship it, but the temple will be known in Sita's name.' That is why the whole area is littered with Shri Janaki mandirs. There are Sita legends attached to every spot, even trees and ponds." (Singh, 1986)14
Vatsayan comments on how in Chitrakoot people offered them leaves from a tree believed to be the ones which the abandoned Sita used to eat in order to still her hunger. What is the proof offered? The leaves tasted sour and if you drink water after chewing some, the water tasted sweet. So the lore has it that Sita mai used to drink water after filling her stomach with these leaves and that sweet aftertaste helped sustain her through days of destitution. Thus, her memory is kept alive in every aspect of the natural as well as the cultural landscape of Mithila. As writer Lakshmi Kant Varma sums it up: "Sita sahanshilta (quality of dignified tolerance) is written on every leaf of Balmiki Nagar" - the ashram where she spent her years of banishment. (Varma, 1986)15
Thus, not just modern day Sitas but even traditional women and men reject Ram as an appropriate husband. Indian women's favourite husband has forever been Bhole Shiv Shankar - the innocent, the trusting, the all devoted spouse who allowed his wife to guide his life and his decisions. Unmarried women keep fasts on Monday, the day assigned for Lord Shiv and pray that they may be blessed with Parvati's good fortune. Shiv and Parvati are the most celebrated and happy couple in Hindu mythology, representing perfect joy in togetherness, including in their sexual union. Their mutual devotion, companionship and respect for each other are legendary. Shiv is not seen as a bossy husband demanding unconditional obedience but as one who respected his wife's wishes, even her trivial whims. To quote Devyani (a middle aged woman working as a domestic help in my neighbourhood): "Bhole Shankar never caused pain to his wife. He would indulge every whim of hers. Only when a man behaves with such respect for his wife can you have a sukhi grahsthi (happy domestic life)."
It is significant that pauranic descriptions of Shiv show him as the least domesticated and the most rebellious of all the gods, one whose appearance and adventures border on the weird. He is so unlike a normal husband that Sati's father never forgives her for marrying Shiv. Yet Hindu women have selectively domesticated him for their purpose, emphasising his devotion to Sati/Parvati as well as the fact that he allowed his spouse an important role in influencing his decisions. At the same time these women conveniently overlook the many very prominent and contradictory aspects of his life and deeds.
Interestingly, Parvati is not just seen as a grihalakshmi, as someone whose reign is confined to the domestic sphere. She often also controls and guides Shiv's dealings with the outside world, constantly goading him to be more generous, compassionate and sensitive to the needs of his bhakts.
While there has been a lot of discussion and analysis of the demands put on women in the Hindu tradition, the sacrifices expected of ideal wives, we have failed to evaluate the demands put on an ideal husband. The Hindu tradition might valourise wives who put up with tyrannical husbands gracefully but it does not valourise unreasonable husbands. On the contrary, it places heavy demands on them and expects very high levels of sexual and emotional loyalty from them if they are to qualify as "good husbands". Shiv, for instance, is perceived as someone who cannot live without Parvati. He is said to have no desire for other women. He is supposed to have roamed around the world like a crazed being carrying Parvati's dead body on his shoulders after she jumped into the fire to protest against her father's insult to her husband. His tandava threatens to destroy the whole world and he rests only after he has brought her back to life. However, most women realise that a Shiv like husband is not easy to get. Therefore, they need other strategies to make husbands act responsibly.
There are several practical reasons why Sita-like behaviour makes sense to Indian women. The outcome of marriage in India depends not just on the attitude of a husband but as much on the kind of relationship a women has with her marital family and extended kinship group. If, like Sita, she commands respect and affection from the latter, she can frequently count on them to intervene on her behalf and keep her husband from straying, from behaving unreasonably. Similarly, once her children grow up, they can often play an effective role in protecting her from being needlessly bullied by her husband, and bring about a real change in the power equation in the family, because in India, children, especially sons, frequently continue living with their parents even after they are grown up. A woman can hope to get her marital relatives and her children to act in her favour only if she is seen as being more or less above reproach.
Most women realise that it is not easy to tie men down to domestic responsibility. You need a lot of social and familial controls on men in order to prevent them from extra-marital affairs which can seriously jeopardise the stability of a marriage. Thus, they think it is best to avoid taking on the ways of men. To respond to a husband's unreasonableness or extra-marital affair by seeking a divorce or having an affair herself would only allow men further excuses to legitimise their irresponsible behaviour. Thus, it is a strategy to domesticate men, to minimise the risk of marriage breakdown and of having to be a single parent, with its consequent effect on children. A man breaking off with a Sita-like wife is likely to invite widespread disapproval in his social circle and is therefore, more likely to be kept under a measure of restraint, even if he has a tendency to stray.
While for women Sita represents an example of an ideal wife, for men she is Sita mata (jagjannani), not just the daughter of earth but Mother Earth herself who inspires awe and reverence. By shaping themselves in the Sita mould, women often manage to acquire enormous clout and power over their husbands and family.
This article has been extracted from a longer paper presented at a conference organised in January 1996 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.