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Redefining Sita

Redefining Sita

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In this special feature commemorating International Women’s Day on March 8th, Dr. Puja Banerjee Barua delves into the multifaceted character of Sita, the revered female protagonist of the ancient epic Ramayana. Through her personal reflections and insightful analysis, Puja challenges conventional narratives surrounding Sita’s portrayal and calls for a re-evaluation of her significance in the epic and in society at large.

8th March, Women’s day again. l was entrusted with the task of penning a special feature this year. An article by a woman, on women, on Women’s day! Need one say more? As it turns out,  one does. Not the usual song and dance routine about how equal to men and liberated we women are, in all fields and then some, but more…yes, definitely more. As l was sifting through the layers in my cerebral cortex (thankfully there aren’t many!), l quickly zeroed in on one woman who deserves some talking about. Sita.

Yes, you read that right, my friend. Sita. The famed female protagonist of the much revered ancient Indian epic, Ramayana. Consort of  Rama. Helpless abductee of Ravana. Mother of Lav and Kush.

My earliest memories of Ramayana are of me leafing through the pages of an Amar Chitra Katha comic on Lord Rama, all of age six, where the only thing that stayed with me was how humans and animals worked in close association to bring about Rama’s victory in battle, against demon king Ravana. Switch to 1987, the year that was to change television viewing in India forever, with Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan being telecast on national television Sunday mornings at 9.30 a.m sharp. Every member of every household would plant himself or herself in front of the ‘idiot box’ almost as a holy ritual during the telecast and lap up all that was served with utmost earnestness and devotion, unquestioningly.

I remember experiencing all of the popular roller coaster of emotions as l watched the drama series …the thrill of the blossoming Rama-Sita romance, the flush of pride at seeing Rama lift the ‘Pinak’, Shiva’s bow, a strong sense of indignation at the injustice of Rama being kept from becoming the crown prince and sent to exile and utter horror at Sita being abducted by the villain, Ravana. I felt it all. But somewhere amidst all that l was feeling like everyone else around me, l also felt an emotion that l couldn’t quite put a finger on at the age of eleven, when l saw Sita undergo a trial by fire and  then being abandoned by Rama because her chastity and fidelity were questioned by Rama’s subjects and yet in the eyes of the masses, Rama could do no wrong! Why could Rama not stand up for his faithful, devoted, chaste Sita? Why did he and how could he let go of the woman who followed him loyally into exile shunning all material comfort, defying Rama himself? How could he not have stood behind the woman who kept herself pure in mind and body even in the face of extreme emotional atrocities and frank lust at the hands of a diabolical Ravana?

So many years later, l am older and wiser and have had opportunity to see life up close as a woman myself and observe others of my ilk in the society and trust me, the questions still rankle me. When Valmiki wrote his Ramayana back in the early Vedic age, l believe he named his female protagonist ‘Sita’ on Sita, the goddess of fertility, whose mention can be found in the ancient Vedas before his time. He drew from the power of endowment and plentifulness that the goddess symbolises. Sita was supposed to have been found by King Janaka of Videha when he was plowing/ tilling the land as part of a sacred ritual, and was adopted by him and his wife. Hence her name also came to mean ‘daughter of mother earth’.

From a princess reared in luxury to a faithful wife leaving behind that very luxury to follow her husband into 14 years of exile, Sita’s journey was a chequered one. If one looks carefully, one would realise that there is no Ramayana without Sita. She is the soul and crux of the epic. Contrary to popular notion, Sita embodied strength of spirit and you will be surprised to know, of body as well. She was the only other person who could lift the Pinak, apart from  Rama! And it was by conscious consent that she accompanied Rama into exile. It was her choice….one that she exercised against Rama’s better senses.

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Oh yes, she had her flaws…her lusting after the eye catching golden deer, which was none other than the demon Maricha in disguise, her stubbornness in insisting Lakshmana leave her and go to Rama’s rescue, her disobeying Lakshmana and stepping outside the ‘Lakshman-rekha’, the sacred circle that Lakshman drew to keep her safe…she had all the trappings of a typical woman, irrespective of age and era! But that only made her human, endearing her to her kind.

Why is it that whenever Sita is mentioned, the picture that comes to mind is of a demure, docile, obedient, defenceless woman? Why do we not talk about her firm resoluteness and unflinching love in her following her husband into a world of uncertainties and inconveniences? Why do we not talk about her sense of pride and self esteem that did not allow Hanuman to carry her back to Rama from captivity in Ravana’s Lanka? She had insisted that Rama fight the demon Ravana, claim her back and take her home with him in all glory. Was she wrong to do that? Why do we not talk about the integrity of her character, her unwavering fidelity to her husband, when she might have made her life easier by giving in to Ravana’s advances? Why do we not talk about her being a single mother and bringing up her twins, Lav and Kush, all on her own, in adversity, the amount of determination and courage that must have been required of her?

Isn’t it time for all of us to revisit Ramayana? Who is it about really? Maryada Purushottam Rama? Or the loving, devoted, chaste wife  Sita? Or the proud and dignified princess Sita who knew her mind very well ? Or the wronged and abandoned loyal consort Sita? Or the courageous single mother Sita? What better day to do it than a day dedicated to celebrating and commemorating all that a woman is ?! Here’s to womanhood…

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