Feminine Mythique History & Culture

Sita’s multivalence

To feminists, she is a woman who will not live a lie

Sita remains one of the multivalent characters in our myths. To some, she is a goddess. To the patriarchy, she embodies the perfect wife who submissively follows her husband into exile and then bears the burden of his obligations as a king. And to feminists, she is a woman who will not live a lie and who, after uniting her sons with their father, disappears forever on her own terms.

In all of these aspects, we are used to seeing Sita as a relational person – she is a wife, a daughter, a mother, a daughter-in-law – and we read her actions in these various roles as we choose. But there is at least one moment in the Valmiki Ramayana where she speaks as herself, as a woman of independent thought and deep conviction.

Rama and Sita have just begun their time in the forest. They have left the settlements of the sages behind and have moved further away from the city, into the Dandaka, where rakshasas roam freely and monsters lurk. Sita opens up a most unexpected conversation with Rama about the weapons that he and his brother carry, despite having adopted the conduct and attitude of ascetics. She is concerned that because of their passions, men succumb to the weakness of ‘. . . inflicting violence and cruelty upon other beings without reason or enmity” and because Rama is a kshatriya, the mere presence of his weapons lead him to violence.

Sita tells him that, in the forest, kshatriyas should use their bows only to protect the oppressed. Almost dismissively, Rama agrees with her and reminds her that he is here to secure the safety of the sages and that his weapons are appropriate, even in this ascetic circumstance. Soon after, Shurpanakha appears and the violence that Lakshmana unleashes upon her has catastrophic consequences.

Sita’s plea is not strictly one for non-violence. She seems to suggest that there can be times when violence is needed and is perhaps, justified. Her concern is for the innocent who can be victims both of righteous and unrighteous violence. She also urges Rama to behave in accordance with his situation and the circumstance, telling him that he can revert to be being a full-blooded kshatriya when they return to Ayodhya. In a larger view, Sita is actually telling Rama that the practice of one’s dharma needs to include sensitivity rather than a dogmatic inflexibility towards what is considered to be right. Most important, Sita is speaking here as a human being, as a woman reacting to the potential for violence that is close to her. Whoever we are, feminist or otherwise, this is a Sita with whom we can all empathise.

The writer works with myth, epic and the story traditions of the sub-continent.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2020 8:48:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/women-in-indian-mythology/article17318273.ece1

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