Saturday, December 7, 2013

Reflections Paper - The Strength of Sita

I got interested in Sita after I saw the movie "Sita Sings the Blues".  Here are some stills for the film.

I wrote this paper on Sita for the online class I am taking on the Southeast Asian Goddess class at LMU with Laura Amazzone.  I didn't like how she presented Sita although I love this class.  This paper is my attempt at a rebuttal on the class lecture.

Reflection Paper -  The Strength of Sita

There is more to Sita than the docile servile wife presented in many books, articles and our class lecture.  This winter while travelling in India, I met many Sitas.  Women who worked, raised children, and strived to be the perfect wives. Many making their food by hand to put unprocessed nutritious meals on dinner tables every night regardless of their exhaustion from a hard day’s work. Home in California, my cousin Mary is a model of Sita. A single mother, she raised a highly intelligent, loving and compassionate son by herself.  When everyone in the family told her at nineteen she was too young to be a mother and begged her to have an abortion, she didn’t listen and took on the challenge of motherhood and succeeded. Her forest was Southern California.  Her ashram was Inglewood. Her Valmikis were her mother, her best friend Ann, and I.
"As I reflect, I see Sita, more than any other character, is an integral part of the Indian woman's psyche. At every stage of an Indian woman's life, her name is invoked. I find it amazing that one great epic written by a poet thousands of years ago has shaped and continues to shape and reshape the thinking of an entire culture. And, how certain aspects of a character have been emphasized more than others to suit the political and societal norms of the day. They have been understood or misunderstood to manage relationships through control and power." [1]Anju Bhargava,

Sita has a number of admirable traits. Sita stood up to her husband Rama’s accusations of infidelity by volunteering to go through a test of fire. This trial by fire was not an act of sati but one of strength and subversion. Rama didn’t believe Sita was faithful, and Sita proved her innocence in a truly shocking and powerful way.  Sita raised her sons as a single mother in the forest and they turned out to be wonderful, smart boys.  Sita loved Rama so much and didn’t care that she was the one in the relationship who loved more steadfastly.  Lastly, when Rama asked too much and proved truly unworthy, Sita went back to the earth and away from him and his toxicity. Sita could have gone back in the earth during any of her ordeals in the Ramayana, but she chose not to. She lived life and exited it on her own terms.  That’s praiseworthy.  That’s how I want to live my life.
"It is clear in the Ramayana that Sita is no mere human being.  Her birth is supernatural, and her abilities and appearance are exalted throughout the text." [2]David R. Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986),  68.

Because I am unable to read the Ramayana in the original Sanskrit, in this reflections paper I have used three translations of the Ramayana – Buck, Subramaniam and Menon in an attempt not to be biased by one translator.  I also have used some quotes and interpretations I have found on the internet and in the suggested reading on the course’s syllabus to back up my interpretation of Sita, which is different than what was presented in the lecture.

Sita – Test by Fire
In the Ramayana, after Rama defeats the demon Ravana who had kidnapped Sita, Ram explains to Sita that her reputation is now stained and tells her their marriage is over. Ram elucidates that he is of noble birth and cannot be married to a tainted woman. He expands that he is indifferent to her and it even pains him to look at her. He has fought and defeated Ravana only for the sake of dharma and did not come to Lanka to be reunited with her.

Sita rebukes Rama in the following speech, and as you will see, this in no speech of a docile woman. “My lord, ordinary men will talk thus to ordinary women.  But you are no ordinary being and yet it has pleased you too use such harsh words to me … Because of the behavior of some low-minded women you have made up your mind to condemn entire womanhood . . . .You are in no way different from an ordinary man who lets anger gain the upper hand in his mind.  In your eyes my womanhood appears to be at fault.  In your anger you seem to have forgotten that I come of a noble House too, that of Janaka.  I was born of the earth and you, well-versed as you are in Dharma, do not seem to pay any heed to my ancestry though you seem to remember your own very well.  You once took my hand in yours and made me your wife.  You have forgotten that I have been a good wife to you and I have been devoted to you. You seem to have forgotten that too . . . Rama considers that I am tainted. May Agni announce to the world that purity that is Sita.  If it is true that I am conversant with all Dharmas and have been true to Rama in thought, word and indeed, if the sun, the moon, the god of wind, the four quarters, the day and the night, and the earth, my mother, know the fact that I am sinless, then may Agni protect me.” [3]Kamala Subramanian, Ramayana (Mumbai: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2012), 640-64.

Sita’s speech shows her strength and self-assuredness. Because she does not fear fire,  she will go through fire to prove herself to Rama.  This is not the act of a submissive woman but of a powerful goddess, an avatar of Lakshmi to Rama’s avatar of Vishnu. I love how she calls on the sun, the moon, the wind, the day and the night and the end her mother the earth.  She is fierce, she is self-confident and rooted in all of nature and the elements.

Sita Abandoned

After the ordeal by fire, Rama accepts Sita again as his wife.  Unfortunately, after ruling some time, he again reproaches her. “Back in Ayodhya, however, when everyone was living happily ever after and the glorious era of Ramrajya is under way Rama hears that his citizens are gossiping about Sita and are unhappy that he accepted her back after she was under Ravana’s control. To stop this gossip and to set a stainless example for his subjects, Rama decides to banish Sita from his kingdom, even though he has learned of her pregnancy.  He commands his brother Lakshmana to take Sita to a deserted place and abandon her.” 4  David R. Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986),  74.

This in one Rama’s most shameful acts and he does not even have the guts to do it himself but leaves it to his ever obedient younger brother.  Even Lakshmana does not respect Rama’s decision.  “Lakshmana replied (to Sita), ‘In fear of scandal, like a coward Rama now uses this journey as the pretext to abandon you here in the woods.”  5 William Buck, Ramayana, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 394.

But Sita, ever resilient says to Lakshmana, “I know you must leave me here, as your brother has commanded.  But tell him from me that I will pray for him every day, as I have always done. For who else can save him from the curse that must fall on him, for what he has done to me today?” 6 Ramesh Menon, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic (New York: North Point Press, 2001),  601.

Sita’s response to Lakshmana shows again her amazing fortitude. She knows she is in the right and that Rama is going to be cursed for her reprehensible abandonment, but, she follows her dharma and goes into the forest never complaining but with her eyes wide open.

Sita raises her sons in Valmiki’s ashram.  When she arrives, Valmiki says, “This is Rama’s wife. Sita is sinless, but her husband has abandoned her in the forest for what his people say about her. Look after her; she is more than what any of us realize.” 7. Ramesh Menon, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic (New York: North Point Press, 2001), 603.

It is up to us to imagine what Sita did for fourteen years in the Ashram. Certainly, a great story.  I discovered on the internet that at least one person has written an account.  What we do know from the Ramayana is that as a single mother Sita raises two brilliant sons;   a testament to her fortitude.  Sita’s time in the ashram is a period of personal growth.  This is the first time in her adult life that she is separated from Rama and she forms her singular Sita identity.  

Sita returns to the Earth

Valmiki composes the Ramayana and teaches it to Sita’s sons Lava and Kusha. Later, Rama holds a festival, where the boys recite the Ramayana for king Rama.  When Rama hears the story he realizes the boys are his son and laments. “For twenty-five days, Lava and Kusa sang the Ramayana for Rama and all the others who had come to his aswamedha yagna, When the singing was over, Rama called for some messengers and said to them, ‘Go to the Muni Valmiki’s asrama, and if Sita is found to be pure, let her come here to our yagna.  Let her take an oath in this yagnashala that she is untainted and that Lava and Kusa are my sons.’” 8 Ramesh Menon, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic (New York: North Point Press, 2001), 648.

Valmiki is angry that Rama needs to again test Sita. Valmiki addressed Rama and the crowd and says, “Rama, you abandoned this Sita, who is purity itself, near my asrama.  You were afraid of what the world thought of her and said of her.  Why, it seems to me you doubt her yourself, that you ask her to come here and swear an oath.” 9 Ramesh Menon, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic (New York: North Point Press, 2001), 649.  Valmiki is expressing the opinion of the reader who is truly feed up with Rama’s treatment of Sita.

After being called out by Valmiki, Rama replies somewhat disingenuously, “Muni, I never doubted Sita’s purity.  I beg you, do not accuse me of a sin I never committed, to add to the one that I did.  Indeed, I did banish my queen for fear of what the people were saying about her, but then, my lord, I am king, and my first and final dharma is toward my people. It would never have done for them to have doubted their king, for even a moment: that he was weak and took back a tainted woman…I have no doubt Lava and Kusa are my sons. Let all those gathered here for the aswamedha have no doubt about my love not only for my sons, but for my wife Sita.  I beg her to forgive me for the anguish I have caused her, and now, for the sake of our son’s future, to swear her oath before this sabha of rishis and kings and also the people who doubted her.” 10 Ramesh Menon, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic (New York: North Point Press, 2001), 649.

Sita comes to the palace without anger and accepts another test to prove her innocence.  But this new Sita has been changed by motherhood and her time in the ashram.  “Then Sita stepped a little away from him and said, “Mother Earth, if I have been faithful to Rama take me home, hide me! Earth rolled and moved beneath our feet. With a great rumbling noise, the ground broke apart near Sita and a deep chasm opened…On that throne sat Mother Earth. . . She was patient with seasons and with kings and farmers; she endured all things and bore no line of care from it.  But this was the end of her long patience with Rama… Then she stretched out her arms and took her only child Sita on her lap. She folded her beautiful arms around her daughter and laid Sita’s head softly against her shoulder as a mother would. Earth stroked her hair with her fair hands, and Sita closed her eyes like a little girl.  The throne sank back underground and they were all gone…The gods spoke, “Well done, Oh Sita. Praise to you.” 11 William Buck, Ramayana, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976),  415.

Sita does not come back to Rama’s to be his wife. Her mother, Mother Earth, gives her the love and comfort that Rama has not been able to provide. The other gods praise her for her defiant answer to his last test of purity. She proves her pureness but in her proof, she rejects him by disappearing into the earth away from the ever questioning Rama and leaves him to finish the rearing of their children by himself, and in addition, leaves him to have a statue as a queen not a real woman.  The paradox of Rama: is in his quest to be the perfect king he does wrong by the people who love him most, first Sita and later with the death of Lakshmana by his own impetuous words.

Sita-Ram aka Shiva-Shakti

The Ramayana is a tragic love story. Sita loves Rama and Rama loves Sita.  They together form a whole Sita-Ram.  When we dwell on Sita’s devotion to Ram and forget Ram’s devotion to Sita it becomes a half story and a half truth. Sita’s love is the purest while Rama’s love waivers, but they both love intensely.

This is just one quote of many to show how upset Rama is when Sita is kidnapped. “Doubly traumatic is the situation later in the forest when Sita is kidnapped and separated from Rama. At one point Rama is reduced to a blubbering, half-maddened wreck and must be returned to sobriety by the appeals of his brother Lakshmana, who tells him it is unmanly and improper to lament so.” 12 David R. Kinsley, Hindu Goddesses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 70.

When Sita and Rama return to the palace before his love is turned by the gossip of his citizens.  Sita and Rama enjoy a beautiful married life where they perform their separate duties but always come back to each other and spend a lot of time together. “Thus their time passed. Rama would spend half his day attending to the affairs of the kingdom; then would come to Sita in their garden. She, for her part, would spend her mornings seeing to her domestic chores, and especially looking after the needs of her three mothers-in-law, without favor or distinction.  Then she would keep her daily assignation with Rama in the charmed grove.” 13 Ramesh Menon, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic (New York: North Point Press, 2001), 597

Sita needs Rama and Rama needs Sita. “In the Ramayana, however, it is not only Rama who acts, as the hero, to restore and maintain the powers of fertility, but it is Sita, as a goddess, in the mode of sakti, “energy” who actually instigates the action herself, forcing the hero again and again to acts of heroism.  Without Sita there would be no story, not simply because she is a passive victim requiring rescue, but rather because she is instrumental throughout the epic in making the critical events of the story occur.” 14 John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), 219.

In conclusion, I have heard many times in my life as a yogini the mantra Sita-Ram.  The mantra is not Ram alone but Sita-Ram.  The mantra is not Hanuman-Ram but Sita-Ram.  Again the mantra is not Lakshmana-Ram but Sita-Ram because the two of them are the story of the Ramayana, not one alone. “…Ram and Sita are to be regarded as one being, her virtue the source of his power…Thus, Sita, who in one dimension is the dutiful and obedient wife of Rama, may also be viewed as a goddess whose power is the source of earth’s fertility and as the sakti of the hero Rama whose energy motivates him to perform feats of heroism and whose fidelity underlies the strength and enduring qualities of his reign as king. United with the hero/god, Sita is the source and support of the continuing prosperity of the world, as symbolized in the extraordinary qualities of the rule of Rama, his divine ten-thousand year reign” 15 John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982). 221-223.
"Those who see in Sita a willing slave under Rama do not realize the loftiness of either her independence or Rama’s consideration for her in everything. Sita was no helpless, weak woman incapable of protecting herself or her honour." 16 Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, 2-5-1936, p. 93

Let’s not underappreciate Sita or believe that all the women worshipping her do so because they want to be docile wives.  Maybe they see the strength in Sita, like I do, like Gandhi did and they are looking for that attribute too, as well as many others, when they invoke her name.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment. It is much appreciated.