And Then There Was Sita by Vibha Shetiya


VibaWe 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.

Sita's abduction by Ravana. Artist: Raja Ravi Verma

Sita’s abduction by Ravana. Artist: Raja Ravi Verma

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).

Goddess Sita with Rama

Goddess Sita with Rama

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.”[1] 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.

Sita with her sons

Sita with her sons

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?[2]

Sita as Kali. Image, courtesy Manushi 19 (Sep-Oct 1995): 7

Sita as Kali. Image, courtesy Manushi 19 (Sep-Oct 1995): 7

Rather than delve into a detailed description of this Sita, the cover of a contemporary Hindi translation of the Adbhuta Ramayana says it all.[3] 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!

[1] http://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai/a-wife-should-be-like-goddess-sita-court/article1-852918.aspx
[2] “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.
[3] 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.

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Categories: General, Goddess, Hinduism, Myth

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15 replies

  1. Thank you so much for this absolutely fascinating essay, Vibha! I hope to read more of your work!

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  2. Great to have your perspective on FAR!

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  3. Thanks Vibha!
    The sexism of these stories is unacceptable — the idea, for instance, that if women get out of control, they will “stomp the universe with their unbridled and blood-thirsty shakti.” So why does any Hindu woman go on being a Hindu, with such troubled images at the heart of her worship? In Judaism and Christianity, the suggestion that Eve is the cause of all evil in humanity is very similar, however, yet women go right on happily being Jews and Christians. In my opinion, it is the deeply-confused god named Sexism who is the real evil character in all of this, if we want to attribute a divinity to it.

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    • You raise a very interesting question, Sarah (and an age old conundrum). Why do women continue being faithful to a religion/ culture that more often than not exploits/ dismisses/ tames them. I think there is a lot of politics involved in this: religion – as a human construct – can be another form of power. And once again we see aspects of religion that lead to a state of confusion; women, at least in the Hindu context, are also revered as goddesses, powerful mother figures, controller of destinies while at the same time accorded secondary status in society. One of the most intriguing aspects of Hindu society to me is how women don’t have much power in public, but within the private arena – the family – they can often hold the reins. Although very complicated in that perhaps this is one way for a woman to release suppressed tension, could it also provide male “justification” for the way they are treated generally? That “who says women don’t have control? In my family, she’s the boss”?

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      • This type of female power also exists in the traditional Greek family. It is hard for N. Americans and N. Europeans to understand that it is a real power. In the US and N Europe, family is not the center around which all else revolves. We are taught to leave home and make it on our own, and in this scenario, accomplishments tied to work are considered more important than accomplishments tied to family. But where family really is central, then women’s power in the family is a real power. However, I would add that in traditional Greece it is a power that is often distorted because it is wielded through manipulation and laced with a good dose of resentment against the power of men in the official culture in which men are put first and a the man’s word is the final word.

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    • Thank you Carol (and Sarah) for your wonderful insights. I too wonder if the power that Indian women potentially wield within families is manipulation, subconscious or not – there are numerous examples of women working around the system to make themselves heard. However, in order to be accepted by society, their behavior cannot directly oppose or clash with norms. It is often in a passive-aggressive manner.

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  4. Related to Sarah’s question, is the notion that “female” energy is auspicious and inauspicious–the power of creation and unbridled destruction a “theological error”? And if it isn’t, does that mean the “females” must either rule men or be ruled by them? In “matriarchal socieities” (Abendroth), the power of women/mothers is creative but not fearsome, and women do not rule “over” men.. In other words is the idea of fearing and the fearsomeness of female power based on male fears in patriarchal societies (in which the “control” of female freedom=female sexuality) is always an unstable proposition?

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    • Carol, you too raise an interesting point. I’m not sure if it is supposed to be a dichotomy – women rule or should be ruled. But in the Indian context, I wonder if this whole reverence for the mother goddess who should be tamed is a relic of Aryan culture? Although far from conclusive, the abundant presence of female figurines has led scholars to wonder if there existed a matriarchal culture (or at least one in which women were visible) in the period before the Aryan migration into India; archeological finds from the Indus Valley civilization (which flourished circa 2500-1750 BCE) have revealed an advanced society with urban planning, drainage system, etc. AND numerous artifacts that appear to be female figures. This of course could be pure conjecture, but my question is, did the Aryans, a patriarchal society, subsume some of the elements of the earlier civilization by accepting women goddesses into its fold, but in such a manner that they were viewed as fearful, thereby revealing their own suspicious attitude towards women? If so, then it does not seem to be an “anomaly” but a rather calculated reasoning. But again, this is speculation. We will have to wait for more conclusive evidence!

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      • This is where my mind went when I taught women and Hinduism.

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      • I have been researching the ancient goddess cultures for several months and from what I can discern, in India, the entire Middle East, and elsewhere the patriarchal, god worshiping, Aryan cultures overran the more peaceful, agricultural, matriarchal, goddess worshipping cultures. However, it took thousands of years to eradicate the worship of the eternal mother/goddess. The only way these people could get rid of matriarchy and men rule was to destroy goddess worship. Sanskrit was an Aryan language. Interestingly, the original people in these areas were also darker skinned and to the invaders lesser humans, the effects of which we still see today.

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      • Nairs in Southern sate of Kerala, with their tradition of matrinileal descent, are an interesting case

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    • Yes, Yasser, the Nairs are indeed an interesting case. All the more because the fact that they are a matrinileal community does not necessarily translate to women having more control over their own lives.

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      • It turns out that there are numerous subaltern, female-positive versions of the Ramayana. In some of them Sita leaves in disgust. I can’t find my notes on this, but here’s one example: “An alternate version of Ramayana, often termed as the ‘Chandrabati Ramayana’ dares to examine Ramayana from Sita’s perspective. It brings to light the emotional state of Sita as a result of the events that happened in Ramayana. As a critical examination of the Ramayana it has not gained the favour of the Hindu religious organizations and lies in oblivion. A few copies of this text survive to this day and they too have been subjected to censorship through editing. The predominant characteristic of the Indian society still remains patriarchal and any dissenting opinion is enthusiastically suppressed. The ancient Indian scriptures continue to serve as a moral guardian of this patriarchal system and their ‘holiness’ guarantees that they shall not be subject to examination and scrutiny.” http://www.quora.com/Ashay-Anand/A-potpurri-of-Controversial-Writings/Ramayana-A-Feminist-Critique

        The Chandrabati Ramayana seems to be part of a considerable Bengali female counter-narrative tradition.

        “Sita’s Ramayana belongs then to a distinctive female narrative tradition. Kept alive by folk songs and memories, this tradition continues to leaven the epic world of heroes and war and the virtues of nurture, compassion and tolerance.” There are also two other female characters who are introduced into the chain of events in Sita’s Ramayana, who do not appear in the original story. …

        “And one other remarkable aspect of this retelling is that Sita takes a position of feeling remorse for all of the losses in the war which results, following the chain of events after her abduction; she feels compassion even for those who are on the “other side” of the conflict. She is capable of recognizing honour in her “enemy” and betrayal in her “ally”, ultimately condemning the act of war itself.

        “Her sense of what has befallen her renders her open to what other women endure. And rather than divide the world up into good and bad, right and wrong, Sita’s vision encompasses all those who suffer, endure and ultimately bear the consequences of what kings and wars do — and this includes not only women, children and ordinary people, but also animals and birds.” http://www.buriedinprint.com/?p=9318

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    • Thank you, Max, for pointing to Chandrabati. I would argue that her narrative is proto-feminist in that she speaks on the sorry lot of women who are discriminated against because they are women, which is remarkable for someone from the sixteenth century. Interestingly, however, Chandrabati’s Sita does not utter a single ill word about her husband, rather she blames it on fate. The “modern” Sita – the one belonging to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – fulfils this task, clearly as a feminist, when she ends up rejecting Rama rather than the other way around!

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