We have been hearing a lot about Kali and Durga lately, manifestations of the great goddess (“Kali Ma,” by Jassy Watson, July 3; “What Would Durga Do?” by Barbara Ardinger, August 2). Nancy Vedder-Shults’ three-part series on Kali (August-October, 2014) too helped shed light on an often misunderstood deity. Both Kali and Durga personify the power or shakti within women, a force that can be empowering and terrifying at once. Kali represents uncontrolled female energy, whereas Durga is portrayed as one in control of her abundant power. These images, especially the one of Kali are double-edged; they can prove problematic for women insofar as – from the male perspective – they confirm the fact that women possess an alarming energy, especially a sexual one, which in turn justifies the need for men to subdue them.
Within this context, I would like to talk about Sita, who, one could argue, is the antithesis of the two. Sita is the gentle wife of Lord Rama, hero of the Ramayana, a two-thousand year old Sanskrit epic. In the Ramayana, Rama, the crown-prince of Ayodhya, is exiled to the forest for fourteen years. His loyal and faithful wife, the princess and goddess Sita, insists on accompanying him to the wilderness. There, the demon king, Ravana kidnaps her leading to a battle between Rama and Ravana. Almost a year and thousands of casualties later, Rama succeeds in slaying Ravana and reclaiming Sita.
But alas, Rama rejects his wife in the presence of the hundreds of onlookers, eagerly awaiting the reunion of the couple, on the grounds that her chastity was suspect; after all, says Rama, surely Ravana couldn’t have resisted her ravishing beauty? If she is to be worthy of Rama, Sita has to undergo a trial by fire to prove that she had indeed remained chaste throughout her captivity. Although she passes with flying colors, Rama eventually gives in to gossip and banishes her to the wilderness a few years later – while she is pregnant with his twins – where she is left to die (she, however, does not).
Had this story remained legend or myth, it would have posed little threat. The problem, however, lies in the fact that even in modern India Sita continues to be the archetype of the “ideal Indian woman” owing to her unswerving devotion to Rama. As recently as 2012, the Bombay High Court bench comprising two male judges “counseled” a woman unwilling to live with her husband thus: “A wife should be like goddess Sita who left everything and followed her husband Lord Ram (sic) to a forest and stayed there for 14 years.” This incident aptly sums up the influence of the Ramayana on millions of Hindus living in the twenty-first century. It is hardly a surprise that Sita never stands alone – in temples she is always portrayed as Rama’s consort, while in popular art she is either Rama’s wife, Ravana’s victim or mother to her sons, Luv and Kush.
But Sita is far more complex than the subservient and helpless character many imagine her to be. And it is here that I want to draw attention to a most unusual portrayal of her. In the anonymously written fourteenth century Sanskrit text Adbhuta Ramayana (The Wonder-filled Ramayana) Sita literally takes over the reins of battle from an exhausted Rama. But most remarkable is the imagery associated with her. Not only has gentle Sita turned into an imposing warrior figure, the correlation between her and Kali is unmistakable.
This is indeed curious given that Sita’s traditional character is the epitome of passivity. The woman for whom men from far and wide sought to win her hand in marriage on account of her unparalleled beauty has now turned into a terrifying sword-wielding demon with her disheveled hair, garland of skulls and lolling tongue dripping with the blood of her victims. Lest one miss the connection between Kali and Sita, the author continues to address this terrifying form specifically as Sita. Thomas B. Coburn in his article, “Sita Fights While Rama Swoons,” asks the question on everyone’s mind: What has here become of the sweet, mild maid of Mithila?
Rather than delve into a detailed description of this Sita, the cover of a contemporary Hindi translation of the Adbhuta Ramayana says it all. Accompanying the title are the words: “In times of peace, she is Mother Sita, in troubled times, that very one turns into Kali, the auspicious.”
Fascinating, isn’t it? As far as I know, this is the only instance of Sita portrayed as Kali. But although at first glance Sita and Kali appear to be disparate entities, it eventually all falls into place. A deeper theological examination of Hindu texts reveals Sita as the manifestation of the primeval feminine force or prakriti, the cause of all creation. Simply put, prakriti is none other than the underlying power or shakti of the universe. Coming back to the original premise then that all women possess an uncontrollable power or energy, it makes perfect sense – Sita as the latent form of Kali is always in need of suppression.
The Adbhuta Ramayana thus exposes Sita for who she really is – a powerful woman. This in turn helps explain why the Sita of popular consciousness has to be passive and submissive. She certainly cannot be the Sita of the Adbhuta Ramayana, lest women get out of control and stomp the universe with their unbridled and blood-thirsty shakti!
 “Sita Fights While Rama Swoons: A Shakta Version of the Ramayana,” Manushi 19 (Sep-Oct 1995): 9. Sita was the daughter of Janaka, king of Mithila.
 Publishers: Bhuvan Vani Trust, Lucknow, India. Image, courtesy Manushi 19 (Sep-Oct 1995): 7.
Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. Vibha moved to Albuquerque last year from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She will be teaching a class on eastern religion at University of New Mexico this coming fall.