Wifehood Redefined: The Twentieth Century Sita by Vibha Shetiya


VibahIn 2003, I picked up a collection of essays on little known Ramayanas. Buried within was a poem by Pathabhi Rama Reddy. Pathabhi, a rebel of Telugu literature, defied not just conventional rules of grammar but also those of popular thinking, best exemplified by his poem, “Sita,” the subject of this post.[1]

Rama’s harsh treatment of Sita in the Ramayana epic when he first doubts her purity, compelling her to undergo a trial-by-fire, and then banishing her despite the fact that she had proved her loyalty to him, has attracted criticism from all quarters – how could the “perfect man” behave so callously towards his own wife who had been Ravana’s helpless victim? The fluidity of the story has ensured a visibility for Sita, no doubt.

But while many have commented on what they see as Sita’s ultimate moral victory when she asks her mother, the earth, to swallow her up, very few have offered her the option of resisting the patriarchy not by disappearing, but by actively fighting back. Pathabhi is one of the few authors who endows Sita with an active role in protesting Rama’s treatment of her. Recognizing that Sita remains the ideal Indian woman even today, Pathabhi ingeniously offers women not a new character as a role model, but a new model of “Sita” herself. His Sita is the twentieth century Sita who refuses to be bound to her traditional gender roles:

Sita was my classmate.
Together she and I
read that great new poem,
the Ramayana, by Vishvanatha Satyanarayana.[2]

After the lesson
looking toward Sita,
at her thoughtful eyes, I asked:

“You heard the whole Ramayana, didn’t you?
Swiftly like poetry,
we visited an ancient era
with Rama, that so-called ideal man.
We entered the ancient wilderness of time
And met him, didn’t we?
Following him to the forest,
we saw him kill the defenseless Bali[3]
and subject his loyal wife to a trial-by-fire
Tell me, Sita!
Having heard all this,
would you want to be like Sita,
virtuous wife of the hero Rama?”

Hearing this, she said,
“Pathabhi! Sita is the most excellent
of devoted wives,
the very epitome of Indian womanhood.
One would be lucky to be like her;
that would be the greatest fortune of all,
wouldn’t it?
But even if I wanted to be Sita,
I would not consent to being Rama’s wife.
Never.”

“Well said, Sita, well said.”

“Rather than Rama’s wife,
I would be the lover of Ravana –
the demon with a heart.
I would immortalize him
with the power of my love.
Okay then, Pathabhi,
would you want to be Rama?”

“What did you say, Sita?
If you have no desire to be Rama’s wife,
why would I even want to be (like) Rama?
Rather than Rama,
my fervent desire is to become Ravana.
With my ten mouths,
I would kiss your lips,
your tender body and your face.
I would bind you forever
with the gaze of my twenty eyes.
Pulling you to my chest
with my powerful twenty arms
I would hold you in a tight embrace,
and make you one with me.”

Now,
Sita is my lawfully wedded wife.[4]

With this poem Pathabhi turns the traditional story on its head – he makes it woman-centric by having Sita as the central character. Indeed, it starts off by asserting that “Sita was my classmate,” a marker of gender equality, especially given that Pathabhi wrote it in 1939, a time when education was available to few women.

Most importantly, however, Pathabhi endows Sita with a definite sexuality. Goddesses – barring those who are “out of control” such as Kali – are desexualized in popular art and culture. The situation is all the more stark in the case of Sita, a woman so famed for her beauty that men from far and wide compete for her hand in marriage. The implication is of course that she is a desirable woman. Somewhere along the way, though, she gets stripped of her physical attributes and sexuality to the point that she becomes synonymous with “chastity.”

Pathabhi defies convention in more ways than one when his Sita still wishes to remain Sita, “the most excellent of devoted wives, the epitome of womanhood,” but she does not wish to be Rama’s wife. Significantly, it is this Sita who thinks and acts for herself that Pathabhi finds attractive, and because of her, chooses to become Ravana himself – not the lustful villain of traditional texts, but the sexually desirable lover of the modern Sita. Pathabhi thus makes it clear that the problem lies not with Sita, but with Rama and his treatment of her.

Most striking, however, is that the relationship between Ravana and Sita in the poem is a socially approved one; she is his legitimate wife, not his mistress.[5] This is significant because Pathabhi has tried to remain within the parameters of tradition while striving to change Sita’s image from passive victim – of both Rama and Ravana – to a woman who is in control of her destiny. Ironically it is “Ravana” who is acknowledging Sita for the complete woman she is; it is he who helps her reclaim the sexuality she has traditionally been stripped of.

The roles are reversed when Sita no longer toes Rama’s line; doubly so when Pathabhi, an Indian male, chooses to “follow” the independent Sita. By inserting himself into the poem, Pathabhi erases the lines between myth and reality. This is significant, for after all, it is the mythical Sita who thus far has continued to remain a model for the earthly woman. Pathabhi, a flesh and blood male, on the other hand, has now chosen to follow the mythical Sita.

Pathabhi stresses that Sita is still the same Sita – loyal, caring and devoted to her man; she is still the “ideal Indian woman.” Only here, emphasizes Pathabhi, her man is one who has loved and respected her in return.

[1] Telugu is spoken in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

[2] A Telugu writer who heavily relied on the traditional Sanskrit Ramayana when he wrote his own Telugu narrative.

[3] Another controversial episode occurs when Rama kills his rival, Bali, by shooting him with an arrow when the latter had his back turned towards him, thereby violating the most basic ethics of warfare.

[4] I am grateful to Velcheru Narayana Rao for first introducing me to this poem in his essay, “When Does Sita Cease to be Sita?” It was this article that prompted me to learn Telugu and examine other modern Ramayana stories from Andhra Pradesh.

[5] The original says, “Sita naa saha-dharmacharini,” which literally means “Sita is my co-law-abider.” This in itself is interesting because Pathabhi has refrained from using patni/ wife; dharmapatni is commonly used to refer to “lawful wife.” Pathabhi thus makes it clear that they are legally united although he has preferred to convey the sense of “together Sita and I will fulfill our dharma as a couple.”

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 teaches at University of New Mexico.

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Categories: Divine Feminine, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess, Hinduism

Tags: , , , ,

12 replies

  1. As you and Judith Shaw are demonstrating, “feminist midrash” or retelling of traditional stories is needed in Goddess traditions too. We need to liberate all of our symbols from their patriarchal bonds.

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    • Interestingly, Carol, there are myriad retellings of the Ramayana where Sita takes on a more active role (although Pathabhi’s is definitely among the most subversive). The question then lies – how do we bring these lesser known, or lesser talked about ones, into the public domain?

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  2. Stuck in a supermarket line, I was looking at the titles of the tabloid. Although one celebrity was described as the “hellish wife”, I thought, “Would these qualities apply to a hellish husband; intense jealousy, destructive temper tantrums, narcissistic (diva) demands?” Then comes your blog post on Rama…

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    • Yes, nmr! Thing is, although almost everyone in India recognizes that Rama’s actions were unjust, cruel, insensitive, etc, many will balk at the idea of call him – a god – hellish!

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      • Vibha atleast we as sanatan dharm are open to interpretation and we even don’t accept our Lord (God) doing unjust things/act.
        Does any other religion dare to interpret their characters in some othe light or shade?
        Does any islamist or muslim has guts (or creativity) to write similarly on aisha or muhammud or in that say a christian on mary?

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  3. Wow, is that poem an eye-opener. The media give us all sorts of hellish news about what can happen to women in India in the 21st century, things like gang rape where the men aren’t punished. Rama seems to inhabit some modern men. I’m with Pathabhi–knowing Sita in school and praising her and making her the hera of his poem. Go, Sita!

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  4. Regards “resisting the patriarchy not by disappearing, but by actively fighting back.”

    Of course not always, but sometimes walking away is the best way, maybe the only we have of actively fighting back, a great tactic introduced by Mahatma Gandhi.

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    • I definitely agree with you, Meg – there is power in passive resistance. A lot of commentators have indeed lauded Sita’s “protest” in the form of giving up her earthly existence, in effect saying “Enough is enough.” But as many people I talked to during the course of my research stated – “Perhaps that time was difference. Today, suicide is not the answer.” This is where I think the fundamental problem lies – trying to reinforce the idea that one has to take matters into one’s own hands not by giving up, but by fighting back. I think Pathabhi recognized that.

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  5. Thanks, Vibha. Because of the Ramayana and also because of what seems to be the greater sexism of Vaishnava Hinduism, I’ve been less interested in its myths. I love this retelling.

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  6. Thank you for all your comments. My apologies for the delay in responding – I was in transit when this post was published, and then had to recover from jet-lag (India is twelve and a half hours ahead).

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