That Sita should be so widely held to be the embodiment of ideal Indian womanhood baffled me no end as a child. For the life of me I could not fathom what was so ennobling about ending up a destitute and being forced to wander the forests begging for food and shelter. Thinking of her I felt more pity than respect. If that is what being ideal does to you, I’d much rather not be ideal, thank you, I remember thinking.
In all of Hindu mythology, few women cut sorrier figures than Sita. Throughout her life, she shows extraordinary devotion to her Lord and Master Rama, and all she ever gets in return is hardship, humiliation, rejection and ultimately abandonment. Her devotion to Rama is seldom if ever reciprocated–the only thing Rama is devoted to is his duty –or his perception of it.
It is telling that Rama should be hailed as the ‘best’ man (purushottam) precisely because he placed duty above all else–the else including his wife. Equally telling is the fact that Sita is idealised as the epitome of the virtuous wife–the wife who faces the hardest of trials for her husband’s sake without complaint. These are indicative of just how well male supremacy is enshrined in the Indian tradition.
While we’re at Sita’s wifely virtues, it is pertinent to note that all hardships that Sita had to endure came her way for no other reason than her marriage to Rama. The ever so faithful Sita had little choice but to follow Rama when he was exiled. Stripped of royal previleges, she lead an ascetic life fraught with privations in the grim forests. She suffered a humiliating abduction which might not have come to pass if Rama and Lakshmana had not provoked the asura king Ravana by scarring the face of his sister Shoorpanakha.
When finally rescued, Sita is cruelly rejected by Rama on the pretext of her having stayed in the house of another man for so long. Is it any wonder that victim-blaming is in our socio-cultural DNA? It finds precedence in the most revered of our ancient texts, after all!
Crushed, Sita undergoes a trial by fire to prove her faithfulness and emerges from the flames unscathed. The gods descend to testify to her purity and Rama accepts her for the time being.
Of course, it couldn’t even have occurred to Sita to demand a similar proof of faithfulness from Rama. Such decadent ideas can only ever come to the diabolical minds of the women of Kaliyug !
Ultimately even the ordeal by fire proves to have been in vain when Rama, unnerved by the rumours about Sita’s character that refused to die, abandons a pregnant Sita in the most disgraceful manner. That he is unable to tell Sita to her face about his decision suggests that he did have an inkling of the unfairness of it. It is left to Lakshmana to drop Sita in the forests for good. Lakshmana flinches at the having to carry out such a cruel act but carry out he does. Not for nothing is he the ideal brother.
Apologists for Rama say that he only rejected Sita as the queen and not as his wife. Does that justify his actions? Even in that case the proper thing to do would have been for him to renounce the throne so that Sita would no longer be queen and accompany her to the forest! What twisted sense of ‘duty’ propelled him to abandon her at the merest whiff of rumour? What about his duty as a husband and a father?
Sita, pregnant and helpless, is left to fend for herself in the middle of the forests surrounding her husband’s kingdom. Alone, she braves wild animals and subsists on food received as alms until she finds shelter in the hermitage of Rishi Valmiki where her twins are eventually born.
[A small digression here. Sita is said to have been sorely disappointed when no help for her was forthcoming even from the kingdom of Mithila , her parents’ abode. She is said to have cursed the people of Mithila thus in the following words
Rane bheetah, gruhe shoorah, pratyakshe priyavaadinah Paraspar virodhinah yooyam, Mithilayaam bhavishyatha
(Cowards at the battlefront, brave-hearts within the confines of your home, you are habitual sweet-talkers. You will forever remain at loggerheads amongst yourself–this will be the future of Mithila.)
I happen to know this trivia because I hail from the region which was erstwhile Mithila and Sita’s curse is a bit of a folklore over there.
It is noteworthy that Sita, being Sita, refrained from cursing her Lord and Master Rama who was most directly responsible for her travails. ]
Later on, when Rama asks her to submit to a second trial by fire, even Sita has had enough. She invokes her mother Bhumi(the earth) to take her inside if she has always been faithful to her lord, and the earth splits to take her in. In a startling climax to the story, Sita rejects Rama spectacularly, preferring death to life with him. The tables are suddenly turned on Rama–now it is he who must feel the pain of rejection. The irony here is, even Sita’s rejection of Rama must come with proof of her eternal faithfulness.
Her anger towards Rama finds expression in her hurting herself (by her metaphorical suicide) and not her lord. That must surely be the biggest of her virtues!
Sita’s ideal-ness lies in her unstinting devotion and loyalty to her husband and she is shown to suffer due to precisely these virtues. So much for ideal-ness.
Even though most modern Indian women would not want to emulate Sita in their lives, it is not surprising that quite a few in our society fervently want them to do just that. Recently, the Bombay High Court, no less, rued in a ruling that women no longer try to live up to Sita’s example. Oh well.