Role Model # 3 : Sita And The Idea Of Virtuosity

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.

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35 Responses to Role Model # 3 : Sita And The Idea Of Virtuosity

  1. Swati Murti says:

    you actually nailed down my thoughts about the entire maryada-purushottam image of Rama…I do understand the responsibility of running a kingdom and his greatness in sacrificing his personal life for that quest but what about her??? what about the children…aren’t they his heirs and future of the very kingdom to which he is responsible.
    didn’t know about Sita’s curse…that’s sad that even her own country abandons her. i thought she never went there. oh, did she invoke her mom because of her second faithfulness test??? probably, I lost track of ramayana by then. that is way too much for me to accept.
    and, why should women live like Sita now?? no man has any kingdom to run unless his family is touted as one for which he should sacrifice the essence of the family. after all, its a woman who defines and nurtures the family.
    and, the question on Ram’s faithfulness was always in my mind. I never spoke about it to avoid hurting anyone’s sentiments but still, isn’t that the truth??? especially after hanuman also told ram that sita is so devastated by this separation of, what, 12-13 years???

    • //why should women live like Sita now?? no man has any kingdom to run unless his family is touted as one for which he should sacrifice the essence of the family. //

      Oh many of her virtues are still considered relevant. The Bombay High court , for instance, pulled up a woman for refusing to relocate to Port Blair where her husband had been transferred–saying if Sita could follow her husband to the forest, why can’t you!! Basically it is about accepting your husband as your ‘lord’ and facing any and all hardships without complaining. A lot of men wouldn’t mind that happening !

      Umm, I didn’t mean to question Rama’s faithfulness–only that nobody in the story seems bothered whether or not he conformed to the same level of ‘purity’ that he demanded from Sita.

  2. R's Mom says:

    *Stands up and claps loudly*

    I loved this post SH! Its so true…I think Sita was plain crazy…I mean seriously boss, that guy left you in the woods after fighting Ravana..he may have as well not rescued her eh?

    and Rama must have been a great king, I dont deny that, but he was definitely not a great husband!

    • The thing is, becoming a great husband wasn’t even on his agenda–he takes pains to come across as the ideal son, ideal brother and ideal ruler but never the ideal husband!! He clearly thought that his duties as a husband were not nearly important enough.

  3. Iva says:

    Followed a link from IHM’s blog here and loved your post. I hail from the same region too.
    Have you heard Rama’s Song from Sita Sings the Blues? You will love it. The entire movie is available online under CC license.
    [Mobile link, can’t find the desktop one. Sorry]

    • Welcome here, Iva. So you’re from Mithilanchal too!!
      Glad to know you liked the post , and thanks for the link 🙂

      • Iva says:

        Now that I have access to a desktop, here’s a proper link.
        Also, I read your entire series of posts on mythological female role models. My favorite character (perhaps the only one I really like) is actually Kaikeiyi. She is awesome. She was a warrior and helped her husband fight against asuras. She is no docile, sweet wife, unlike Sita. She knew what she wanted of life, and got it. Also, she wasn’t afraid of what people would say, at all.

      • Aww, the song’s a little unkind. Rama didn’t quite set his wife ablaze, the wife did it on her own in order to convince her lord!!

        Kaikeyi..hmm.Yes, she was no shrinking violet and that is refreshing. I understand her wanting her own son to succeed to the throne, but why did she have to insist on having Rama banished for fourteen long years. Also, initially she was happy for Rama as he was very dear to her but Manthara instigated her into having a change of heart. That suggests weakness of character on Kaikeyi’s part. Hence not a very laudable character overall, IMO.

  4. Ashwathy says:

    The curse Sita put on her own folks is a bit of a surprise to me. Didn’t know about that one. The rest – I totally agree with you. I have honestly felt sorry for the poor character…helpless and under the mercy of the decisions made by her husband….whose priorities lie elsewhere. Sounds a bit like modern day life for many women as well, don’t you think? 😛

    The only saving grace is Sita’s exit by rejecting Rama when he finally comes to take her. But yes like you said, it had to come along with proof of her devotion, so that dampens the whole concept.

  5. I read your posts on Savitri, and now Sita with great interest.
    I can understand your views.
    Even I am not too comfortable with many of the characters in the Mahaabhaarat and Raamaayan.
    I don’t think there are any heroes in these epics. All I can say is that Raama comes off better than the Paandavas.

    I once discussed these feelings with an elder.
    His viewpoint was that these epics are honest in their portrayal.
    No one has been whitewashed.

    If we judge them harshly today, after thousands of years, it is hardly fair.
    The conditions that existed then, the social norms at that time, must be considered.
    Fair criticism can come only from some one living in that period. It will be very difficult for us to have an impartial view of incidents that took place or were supposed to have taken place thousands of years ago.

    We live totally different lives today.
    Even today, everything is not black and white.
    We will have difficulty in judging people and incidents happening today.
    Depending on your religious, or political views, what is right for others may be wrong for you.

    Thousands of years from now, I am sure many of the things we do today, would be judged differently by a future generation.
    Consider America. As early as 200 years ago, Slavery was acceptable in America.
    Today, even the Southerners will accept that it was a social crime.

    I love these epics and the characters.
    Sita was a model women for that period.
    There was no gender equality then and no one felt that there was anything wrong.
    Today of course, things are different.

    Would you consider Indira Gandhi a great woman ? Or Mahaatma Gandhi or Nehru great men?
    There could be several opinions on this even today and a thousand years hence it will be even more fiercely debated. I wonder what that generation will think of them.

    I have read accounts glorifying Raavana. I have also read pieces that present Karna in a different light.

    Keep writing. I look forward to reading your views on more of our characters from epics.

    • GV Ji,
      I agree that Rama was better than the Pandavas, but then at least the Pandavas didn’t have those idealistic airs about them. At least they had no pretensions to moral infallibility. What gets my goat about Rama is that he is this maryada purushottam, this guy who could do no wrong, this IDEAL man all men should look up to–because all this suggests that his duties as husband were immaterial and trivial. I am sure this message has not been lost on the generations of men who have venerated Rama. I am sure that in a country as deeply religious as ours, this has contributed to the widely prevalent culture of misogyny.

      If ancient/mythological figures shouldn’t be judged according to the norms and standards of today because times have changed, they also shouldn’t be held up as ideals–because times have changed.

      I have read a few accounts glorifying Raavana too. Well, he did have his good points and was not an out and out demon. He was an accomplished musician and Veena player. He was also very well-versed in statecraft , a fact Rama himself acknowledged when he sent Lashmana to a dying Raavana to ask for tips on the same. Also, he must be given credit for not forcing himself upon Sita. The fatal flaw in his character that eventually did him in was his extreme arrogance which did not let him see reason.

      I don’t think too highly of Indira Gandhi but my father does :-)–he avoids getting into a discussion on the emergency but is full of praise for her handling of the 1971 war. I agree with you here, whether or not you find someone great is a matter of perspective.

      Gv ji,I do not know enough mythology to do more posts on it. Glad to know you found the series interesting 🙂

  6. Jas says:

    Can’t really tell you how deep and strong this post is. Really glad that there is someone who can question what is wrong even if the subject is a taboo.

  7. Absolutely agree with you. Sita was an idiot, and thankfully many of today’s women wouldn’t want to be anything even remotely similar. And less said about Rama, the better , I always thought he was a coward 🙂

    • Maybe she was too much in love with him, maybe she really thought of him as her lord, maybe she didn’t really have a choice…whatever it was , thank God women no longer subscribe to her type of ideal-ness.

  8. Fem says:

    On another note, how was assaulting Shoorpanaka justified in any way? This just shows that any time a woman shows desire for a man, she is open to be assaulted. Only men are allowed to have desires.

    And tbh, I think Ravan was much more a gentleman than Ram could ever hope to be.

    • Indeed!! Shoorpanakha was unarmed and wasn’t really attacking them–assaulting her was not justified at all. They could certainly have found a more dignified, reasonable way of fending off her sexual advances.

      The implication seems to be that any overtly sexual woman deserves to be punished, and the punishment needs to be exemplary–scarring her face permanently, for instance.

  9. Deeps says:

    Yet another smashing post! So very well interpreted and articulated 🙂
    Sita, I agree, evoked more of a sense of pity than respect! And Rama, well I was never a fan. And the more I come across different analyse his character after the more I find him despicable!

    SH, it would be nice if you could link up your previous parts on Sati and Savitri to each of your post for easy reference. Each post of yours is worth pondering upon and definitely reaching out to more and more people. Just a suggestion :)?.

    Would you be analyzing Draupadi’s character by any chance in any of your upcoming posts? It’d be interesting to know how you’d interpret her. I really liked the way Chitra Banerjee presented her in ‘Palace of Illusions’. Have you read the book?

    • Deeps says:

      come across *different analyses of* his character- typo!

    • You mean a single link for the series on the home page? That’s a good idea–will do that once I figure out how it can be done. I need to learn more about quite a few WP features!

      No Deeps, I haven’t read The Palace of Illusions–its been on my to-read list for quite some time. I had really liked The Bride’s posts on the book.

  10. Pepper says:

    *Applause* When I think of our nation’s past, I feel enraged. Each time. We are such a warped country. You are right, victim blaming is in our DNA.

    • Welcome here, Pepper, and I am glad you liked the post ! Thank you for stopping by.

      • surindernath says:

        Ram as a husband is and was a super duper FLOP. He is definitely not a role model as a husband.

        Having said that, I must also say that the people who worship( I don’t because I am religious without any religion) Ram don’t worship him as a husband. He is worshiped as an Avatar( alongwith Sita – Sita Ram) and no Avatar came here to have a happy comfortable life. All suffered – Jesus, Krishna Mohammad and Ram – they all suffered. Sita was no exception.

        Why? Well the answer is, Ras-Leela and Ram Leela. What is Leela? Which is not real !

      • Yes, I suppose it is universally accepted that whatever else Rama was, he was not the ideal husband. He didn’t even mean to be one, actually. Come to think of it, do we even have a role model for husbands? There are plenty for wives, of course, but husbands? The Indian culture doesn’t deem it important for a man to be a good husband, apparently.
        Welcome here:-)

  11. Sanjana says:

    I have always found Sita to be the most stupidest of women and Ram to be one of the meanest jerks in the business! I’ve questioned quite a few Ram Bhakts about how unfairly Sita was treated and their irritating answer to it was ” It was meant to be! that is how their life was destined to BE! Even Ravan, before he died, died hailing Ram’s name.”
    How convenient to blame it all on “destiny”.

    I didn’t know she was asked to stand by trial TWICE! Mannnnn!
    Worst part is that there are people like that still around! *sigh*

    My memories of the Ramayan are basically what my mum told me when I was little and later, what came on Doordarshan.

    I remember, on the show, they showed that she was born from the earth, and the earth split open to reveal and cradle with a gurgling liltte baby smiling away.

    Once, I told this to my friend on our way back from school, and after we got out of the bus, I drew an approximate rectangle on the ground and we started digging, in an attempt to get our own Sita! We did that until my mom came looking for me, all worried as to why I wasn’t back from school yet! 😛

    • Indeed! How convenient to blame it all on destiny. I think this karma obsession has done us a lot of harm– every kind of nonsense is placidly accepted in the name of karma/destiny without much of an effort being put in to rectify the situation.

      Most Rama-bhaktas squirm when questioned about Sita, because they know their excuses are pretty lame.

      LOL on you digging up earth to find your own Sita 😀

  12. Smitha says:

    That was brilliant! Just loved your analysis, and agree 100%. It troubles me too that Rama is considered a Maryada Purushottam, when he fails so miserably in his role as a husband. I guess that relationship/responsibility was never of importance- pretty much what people try to tell now -a husband’s responsibility towards his wife is literally never considered important, while his responsibility towards his parents/work are of utmost importance.

    It is sad that Sita took it all, without protest, accepting whatever she got. Cursing her parents, bit never her husband..

    Love this post! Off to read the rest of your posts!

    • Exactly! Someone who couldn’t care less about his duty as a husband is hailed as maryada purushottam– talk about institutionalized misogyny!
      Glad you liked the post, Smitha. Do take a look at the other posts too whenever you have some time on your hands 🙂

  13. kinmin says:

    Totally loved this post and the ensuing discussion! I don’t have much to add here, but look forward to read more on the topics!

  14. Well! guess you are right. Ram was stupid! Instead of showing all that dedication,commitment blah blah…. towards Sita he should have got one or two more queens in between the time period he was away from her. Furthermore, Sita was even dumber, should have left Ram the moment he decided to go for that 14 years of jungle vaas. She should have got herself someone new. Though that person wouldn’t have been Ram , but then who cares , its the act of survival that matters in this animal kingdom! 😛

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