Of Sita We Sing

My interest in Sita's story began with Ramanand Sagar's Doordarshan serial Ramayana that began on January 1987 and continued for a year and a half.  The whole country fell victim to this Ramayana fever and 9:30 A.M. on Sunday mornings became the high point of the entire week.

Though I was barely seven or eight years old then, Sita, played by Deepika, had a lasting

impression on my mind. I found myself more drawn towards her world than Ram's (played by Arun Govil) world of monkeys, courts, and wars. Endless questions rose in me and I would often run to Grandfather looking for more background information on the Sita stories. Thus it continued for a while, the serial ended and a new world of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Pancha Pandav, and Feluda held me captive.  Sita remained largely forgotten, like an once-favourite doll that had lost an eye, and lay abandoned, half-hidden in the back cabinet. During my teens I dismissed Sita as a typical passive wife with no control over her life. It was ‘cool' to reject her story. Grandma used to say it is not auspicious to name a girl Sita, considering the poor girl's fate. That's how I began to think of her – a poor little princess. I was aspiring for equality, for what-you-can-do-I-can-do-better kind of feminism then.

 

As a student of literature somewhere during college I became interested in re-telling of myths and mainstream stories. It was at this point I started reading some of Nabaneeta Dev Sen's articles and stories on Sita, available both in Bengali and English. I became aware that Valmiki's Ramayana (dated roughly between 500 B.C. and 1000 B.C.) is just one version of the Ramayana. Some of the other versions include the great Tamil scholar Kamban's Ramayana written in the 12th Century, Molla's Ramayanam in Telugu written in the 14th Century, Tulasidas's Ramacaritamanas in 16th Century written in Avadhi, and two Bengali versions written by Chandrabati and Krittibas. Apart from these I discovered a treasuree trove of numerous women's songs sung by the women of various regions. Not only in India but throughout the Asian sub-continent, Ramayana continues to be adapted and re-interpreted. Sometimes Ram is the Muslim hero Laman and so on. What continues to fascinate me is how Sita's story continues to be so popular even today. Let us consider some of the themes from Ramayana and its continuing relevance in today's society. Navaneeta Dev Sen, the noted Ramayana scholar, has recorded a Marathi work song in her ‘Lady Sings the Blues: When Women Retell the Ramayana':

 

Sita's exile,

Let us share it among ourselves.

Sita's exile,

Is happening every moment, everywhere

When leaving for the forest

Sita distributed it amongst us all

Bit by bit.

 

There are alternate ways of reading a myth. If patriarchy has created Sita as the role model of their notion of the ideal silent wife, the village women have picked up the Sita myth to give themselves a voice, to break their silence. In the mainstream canon, Sita is a devi, a reincarnation of Goddess Lakshmi herself. In the women's retellings Sita is a far cry from the idolized devi. She is a flesh-and-blood woman. In most of the songs she is not a rebel, but she breaks her silence and sings of her sufferings, loneliness, and sorrow. As many discerning readers have realized, the main epics were writing by men for men and about men. Women appear in the sidelines, the excuse for war and bloodshed. After all, it is ‘common' knowledge that Kurushetra was fought because of Draupadi, the Trojan War due to Helen, and Ramayana due to Sita's abduction by Ravan. But within such patriarchal texts, women continue to create a space for their stories – the stories of love and loneliness, abduction and suspicion, desertion and childbirth. Though it is still mostly heard by women, it fulfils their basic desire to be heard. Sita becomes their persona, their voice through which they break their silence. Draupadi with her five husbands and Krishna as additional friend and protector is perhaps not something that the average woman can relate to. Let us look at some of the themes that these women sing about.

 

A foundling is found: There are many variations in the stories of Sita's birth. Some Jain versions even claim that Sita was Ravan and Mandodari's daughter and abandoned because her horoscope proclaimed that she would be the cause of her father's death. However, all versions are unanimous that King Janaka found her at the edge of a furrow and raised her with great love and affection. There is a double motif hidden here.

How many girl children are still abandoned and killed before birth because they are believed to bring misfortune and poverty to the fathers, the dowries they will need for marriage? The second is the one of wish fulfillment. A foundling of uncertain birth is raised as a beautiful princess by doting parents. In a country still infested with caste barriers and pure bloodlines we don't see such stories too often.

 

The great Indian arranged marriage:  Tulasidas's Ramcaritamanas and many of the women's songs report that while cleaning out the courtyard one day, Sita had effortlessly lifted the Shiva's bow and put it aside to complete her cleaning. King Janaka had watched Sita's great might and decided that she could only be married to someone mightier than her, someone who could not only lift the bow but string it too. It was only natural that the father of a kshatriya princess would want his desired son-in-law to be a more skilled warrior and mightier than his daughter. The practice still continues more than 2500 years later. Only the criteria have changed depending on the class of the bride and groom. If the girl holds a masters degree the groom should preferably hold a doctorate degree. If the girl brings home a decent salary, the groom should preferably bring home double that amount, or if not that, at least more than the bride.

All women dream of finding love and happiness with the stranger they are being married too. It is perhaps this that hope gives them the courage to trade the security and love of their parents' home and plunge ahead to an unknown life with a stranger. Song after song sing of the mutual love of Ram and Sita – a wish fulfillment again for many of the singers who find very little real love in their lives. The marriage rituals, decorations, and stree achars are also described in great details – for marriage and romance are stuff women's dreams are made of, and thus primarily women's domain.

In Valmiki's Ramayana, Ram's elder sister Santa hardly plays a part. But she becomes a central character in many of the women's songs. She is a supportive elder sister-in-law, who advices Sita on the correct behaviour of a married woman and daughter-in-law.  Kausalya too is represented in these songs as the ideal mother-in-law every daughter-in-law dreams of in a joint family, a mother-in-law who shows warmth and support for her daughter-in-law and who helps to bring her closer to her husband.

True to life, not all songs are of bliss. Some Marathi songs hint at trouble in the paradise from early on.

 

Ram gave Sita his love

On a tiny tamarind leaf

Kaikeyi poured poison in Ram's ears

So he chews his paan all alone

All by himself

While Kaikeyi waits behind the door

Like a scorpion.

 

Sita and Surpanakha: Alter-egos? The idyllic bliss of their forest existence is broken by the arrival of the demoness Surpanakha, who takes one look at Ram and falls deeply in love. When she openly admits the same to Ram and asks him to take her for his wife, Ram banters with her for a while, before admitting that he is already married to Sita and advices her to shift her attention to the more eligible Lakshman -though Lakshman is already married to Urmila, but perhaps her absence make him eligible, or perhaps Ram just wanted to have some fun at the expense of a ‘loose' woman. Lakshman too refuses to marry her and reads Surpanakha a long lecture on the correct code of moral and sexual behaviour for women. When things start getting out of hand, Lakshman disfigures her by cutting her ears and nose.

The explanation: Surpanakha had not only overstepped the boundary of expected female behaviour, she was bent on attacking Sita and Lakshman had to protect Sita, the good wife. Many critics have found it difficult to place this scene in perspective with Ram's nature. Many writers have imaginatively given alternate endings where Surpanakha is depicted as a brave heroine, the pioneer of sexual rights for women.

Sita and Surpanakha are the two types of women who appear almost universally in folklore and mythology: Sita is good, pure, auspicious, and subordinate, whereas Surpanakha is evil, impure, inauspicious, and insubordinate. The good woman is one who remains controlled, both mentally and physically, by her husband (or, in his absence, her father, brother, or son) and whose sexuality is channeled into childbearing and service to her husband. The bad woman is one who is not subject to these controls. In contrast to Sita, Surpanakha is unattached and wanders about freely. In Valmiki, she describes herself as a strong woman who goes where she likes under her own power. It is not surprising that she is said to be a widow, since widows are considered dangerous and inauspicious, circumstances having rendered them unable to bear children. Their chastity is also suspect, since they are no longer under the control of a husband, and such women are believed to have insatiable sexual appetites. Surpanakha's unmarried state is thus the major source of her evil nature; being a raksasi is at best a contributing factor. After all, Mandodari, also a raksasi , is praised for her virtue, chastity, and devotion to her husband, Ravan. Accordingly, it is Surpanakha's status as an independent woman which is denounced. But the loose woman, while perceived as dangerous, also holds a certain fascination for the male imagination, which is perhaps why Ram and Laksman linger a bit, egging her on rather than banishing her immediately.

It is revealing that Ram uses Sita as the excuse for Surpanakha's mutilation: the ‘bad woman' or Alaksmi is punished in order to protect the ‘good woman,' or Laksmi or perhaps to serve as a warning of what would happen to the ‘good woman' if she steps out of the male protection. Interestingly in rural Bengal Laksmi festivals, an image of Alaksmi is made and ritually disfigured by cutting off its nose and ears, after which an image of Laksmi is installed in order to ensure good luck and prosperity in the coming year. Discussion of female sexuality remains a taboo even today in most parts of the country. Surpanakha's story merges with Sita's as she steps out of the Lakshman Rekha and continues to fascinate and inspire interpreters for generations to come.

 

The Golden Deer and Stepping out of the Lakshman Rekha: Sita's desire for the golden deer sounds out of place when we remember that she had happily shunned all luxury and riches to be together with Ram in the forest, especially her insisting on it even though Ram tells her that the animal is a demon in magical disguise. In the Ramayana of the lower caste Telugu women, who are used to fending for themselves, Sita does not insist on Ram getting the deer; she says instead:

 

You give me your bows and arrows

I will go right now and get the animal.

 

His ego hurt, Ram rushes forth to capture the golden deer. Many other versions have equated the golden deer with sons. In a Telugu women's work song Sita questions Lakshman what would happen if she crossed the Lakshman Rekha. Lakshman clearly warns her that she would be abducted. When Ravan comes in the disguise of a beggar he tempts her that with each circle she crosses she would be gifted with a son. Even though she knew she would be abducted, in her desire to have sons she steps out of the circle greedily. A Bengali work song describes that Ravan blackmailed her that if she did not come out to give him food and water he would kill himself at her door and thus she would commit the great sin of taking a male life, which has a much higher value than her life and safety.

The golden deer syndrome of preferring sons to daughters still continues. Lakshman Rekha has become the symbol of ‘appropriate' female behaviour and most instances of violence on women are even toady brushed off as ‘she must have invited it with her lewd looks/dress/ behaviour'.

 

Trial by Fire: Kamban's Ramayana paints a poignant picture of Sita standing before Ram, her eyes raised expectantly to his face, overwhelmed at the prospect of a joyful reunion with her husband after he manfully fought and won his victory over Ravan. Ram, however, remains formal and aloof and sets out to articulate his heartfelt thoughts. In Kamban's Ramayana he rejects Sita on the grounds:

 

You took pleasure in food,

 you didn't die

 for all your disgrace

 in the great palace of the devious demon.

 You stayed there, submissive,

 wholly without fear.

What thought has brought you here?

 Did you imagine that I

  could want you ?

 

Another version of Ramayana further clarifies: ‘Today I have avenged the insult to my honour and fulfilled my promise. You stand unabashed before me, even though suspicion has arisen with regard to your character. Today you seem extremely disagreeable to me even as a light to one who is suffering from sore eyes. Therefore go wherever you like, O Janaka's daughter, the ten directions are open to you today. What man born in a noble family would take back with an eager mind a woman who has dwelt in another's house, simply because she has been kindly disposed towards him in the past? How can I accept you, who were squeezed into the arms of Ravan while being borne away by him and who regarded you with a lustful eye? There is no more attachment for you in my heart. You may therefore go wherever you like.'

Addressing Lakshman, Sita says: ‘Raise for me a pyre, which is the only antidote against this calamity. I no longer desire to survive, smitten as I am with false reproaches.' Looking at his elder sibling's expression, Lakshman realized, to his horror, that this was exactly what Ram expected.

Not one of the assembled warriors, who just moments before had proved their mettle in the battlefield, had the courage to dare open his mouth opposing the grave injustice being perpetrated. The obedient Lakshman set out to prepare the pyre. However, Sita's purity is such that the fire god Agni himself gets burned and cries out in pain. He asks Ram:

 

Didn't you hear

when the gods and sages

and all that moves and is still

in the three worlds

screamed, as they struck their eyes?

Have you abandoned Dharma

and resorted to misery instead?

 

Will rain fall,

will the earth bear its burden

without splitting in two,

will Dharma go the right way,

or can this universe survive

if she becomes enraged?

if she utters a curse,

even Brahma on his lotus will die.

 

Eminent Indian poetess Bina Agarwal narrates Sita's, and any woman's, dual victimization:

 

With your husband you chose exile:

suffered privation, abduction,

then the rejection –

the chastity test on scorching flames,

the victim twice victimized.

Could those flames turn to flowers

without searing the soul?

they say you, devoted wife,

questioned him not

and let him have his way.

 

We come across Sita's story everyday, across classes, castes, and education levels. Suspicion the green-eyed monster in Ram's head is no less deadly than Ravan, the external victim he vanquished.  The defining issue however remains chastity and its definition. Sita asserts: ‘I was helpless when I came into the contact of Ravan and did not act of my own free will on that occasion. My adverse fate alone is to blame on that score. That which is under my control, my heart, eternally does it abide in you.' Why is physical chastity so important when most victims have no control on the violence committed on them? Why does a victim have to take the fire trial even now? How many times, at how many pyres will Sitas continue to burn before we learn?

 

The Deserted Wife – Childbirth in Exile

The green-eyed monster is a lingering one. No sooner had the couple settled down romours and suspicions came back to haunt Ram, some external but some perhaps internal. After all Sita had spent a year in another man's captivity. Not-so-surprisingly Ram, the protector of Rajya and dharma asks his younger brother Lakshman to kill/banish Sita well aware that she was expecting their first child. Lakshman, on the pretext of taking Sita to visit the hermitage of a sage abandons her in the forests. No one bothered to explain to her that she was being deserted. After all she would soon find out. Lakshman, the righteous one who had mutilated Surpanakha when she had threatened to harm Sita, meekly does his brother's bidding. The helplessness of Sita catches the imagination of many rural women across India, who can understand her plight of giving birth without medical treatment and care too well. A Marathi song laments:

 

Where is the smoke coming from, in the dense forest?

In the dense forest, Sitabai has given birth.

Water is being boiled

Sitabai has given birth.

Where will Sitabai find a bed?

Dark beauty Sitabai,

You better make a bed of rocks

And sleep on it.

Sitabai has given birth

Where will Sita find nourishment?

There is no one to cook her a meal.

Sita is in exile, there is no cradle for her babies.

Sita made a bed of flowers

And placed her twins in it.

Sitabai has given birth.

The hills and the forests are rejoicing.

She has no one else to call her own.

Sita says, ‘I have lived a life of rejection.'

All her life she has been neglected by Ram,

Yes, all her life.

 

Single Motherhood and Rejection of Ram as Husband: Sita who gave birth to twin sons in the wilderness and brought them up all alone is not a weak woman. She has a quiet dignity about her and she seems to have made her peace with life. She no longer thinks of Ram as ‘aryaputra' or ‘husband' but as king and thus, distanced from her. She has learnt to rely on herself alone and raises two brave sons. She does not need male protection or jewelry and fine clothes to make her feel safe and beautiful. She has gone beyond the patriarchal definitions of good and bad and continues to live like an ascetic in Sage Valmiki's hermitage. When her sons enter their teens, after a long drawn out drama, the sons prove their might and royal breeding and are thus acknowledged by Ram as his own. Ram promptly summons Sita and the two boys to his court and though unwilling Sita comes at Valmiki's bidding. In front of the assembled subjects and kings from all parts of his empire, he asks Sita to undertake the fire trial again for the benefit of these venerable gentlemen, who had missed the earlier spectacle in Lanka. Sita's reaction, however, is completely different from that earlier occasion. With complete outward composure, this time around she rejects her life as Ram's wife. With folded hands, she merely prays Mother Earth to end her suffering. Mother Earth willingly takes her foundling daughter back to her bosom. Thus Sita ends her life preferring a dignified death than a second chance at marriage to a man who had betrayed and deserted her before. The end of Sati, Siva's consort is somewhat similar. But where she ends her life unable to bear her husband's defamation by her father, Sita gives up her life to protect her self-respect and dignity – a rather strong message from an outwardly gentle and meek Sita. Even though she rejects her husband in the end, she remains the ideal woman, even within the patriarchal cannon.

 

Satyagrahi Sita: This dignified and strong Sita captured Gandhiji's imagination. He used Sita as a symbol of women's strength, autonomy, and ability to protect themselves, rather than depend on men for safety. For the protection of her virtues, even in Ravan's custody, she did not ‘need the assistance of Ram'. Her own purity was her sole shield. Ravan dared not touch her against her will. Gandhi's Sita was ‘no slave of Ram'. She could say no even to her husband. Gandhi's message that women had the right to define and follow their own dharma (code of morality) rather than be constricted to wifehood brought hundreds of thousands of women out of domestic confines into the political arena during the National Movement. Gandhi's Sita became a symbol of swadeshi or decolonization of the Indian economy. He asked the women of India to follow her example and wear Indian homespun, and boycott foreign fineries because his Sita would never wear imported fabric. Gandhi's Sitas were encouraged to break the shackles of domesticity, to come out of purda, to lead political movements, and teach the art of peace to this warring world. Gandhi often admitted that he learnt his first lesson in satyagraha from women like his mother and wife, both of whom were indeed Sita-like in their steadfastness and commitment. That the essence of satyagraha lay in securing a moral victory over one's opponent by winning over his heart rather than vanquishing or humiliating him, as well as gaining the sympathy and support of all those who witness the conflict.

 

One Sita many Songs: Swami Vivekananda says, ‘There may have been several Rams, perhaps, but only one Sita'. Her story becomes the master story containing within it the blueprints of the stories of generations of women waiting to be heard, as also of our unborn daughters. We fill up the missing pages of history with our stories, yes of Sita we sing for she is us…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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