The Goddess sita:
WIFE, MOTHER, WOMAN
By Katy Winterburn
Artwork by Aashna Mendiratta
I was fortunate enough to have grown up reading a wide selection of Hindu mythology, although none struck me in the way that the Hindu epic poem Ramayana, a Hindu epic poem, did. The Ramayana is centered around the Prince Rama (a divine reincarnate of Lord Vishnu), and his efforts to retrieve his wife, the Princess Sita, from the evil demon, Ravana. As a child, I interpreted it as an adventurous tale of great courage, triumph, love and loyalty; h; its darker themes; however, its darker themes remained were apparent. There were strange and incomprehensible injustices within the story that I could not understand, and no injustice was more bitterly felt than that of the Princess Sita.
There was something about Sita that was more compelling to me than even Lord Rama, whose enormous feats were intended to be awe-inspiring. A divine goddess in her own right, she was more than just the damsel-in-distress, required by the story merely as as a means to an end. Like many heroines of ancient literature, Sita was blindingly beautiful, while also being a princess that was sought after by every handsome and eligible bachelor in the land. She seemed to fulfil the required tropes of the desirable female in literature and yet refused to be confined to this tired old tradition. I remember looking at the various illustrated depictions of Sita in children’s adaptations of the Ramayana, and feeling curious that a woman who looked so forlorn in her captivity could also exude an unquantifiable bravery.
Indeed, it would be many months before her husband was able to successfully rescue his wife from her kidnapper, Ravana. Sita’s captivity supposedly spanned almost a year in the lore, and in that time, we see her suffer abuse, mental torture and humiliation at the hands of the demon, Ravana ( rakshash as is the Sanskrit translation). Nevertheless, her unwavering determination to remain unmoved by Ravana’s malicious threats, will always be a testament to her great strength of character. What interests me most about Sita is her open, unabashed emotionalism. She is often depicted with tears in her eyes whilst captive, as a way to encapsulate her depressed state, and her victimhood. True, to some, Sita is the biggest victim of the story. Victimhood can lead to (misguided) assumptions of weakness, although weakness itself is not a wholly bad thing, nor is vulnerability. While I do not think Sita ever reflected signs of weakness, she was certainly vulnerable. And in her vulnerability, Sita proved to us how entirely, utterly human she could be even in her divinity. It was her ability to feel in a world defined by the pomposity and grandeur of gods, goddesses, demons and spirits, that rooted Sita to the real world, and what connects her to South Asian women even today.
Despite her return to her beloved, Sita’s story ends tragically. There is often a cut-off point in the Ramayana, particularly in children’s books and media adaptations, wherein the story has a happy conclusion. Lord Rama and Sita returned to their kingdom, Ayodhya, to the delight of their subjects. So imagine my utter dismay upon eventually learning that the story continued; Rama exiles Sita once more, after rumours spread spread that she had been unfaithful to him during her captivity. She was pregnant at this time, and gave birth to twins. As though we had not enough reason to admire her, Sita then raised her children almost entirely on her own. Again, the parallels that can be drawn between her struggle and the struggles of so many women today—particularly women from marginalised backgrounds—are astounding. I am reminded of my own mother, and every South-Asian mother I have ever known, who have wept through hardships in a new country that can often be isolating in many ways, for the chance of an optimistic future for their children.
Sita’s story ended with her calling upon her mother, Earth, to take her back to the realm to which she truly belonged, after Rama unsuccessfully persuaded her to return with him and their sons to his kingdom. I am sure that there are numerous philosophical reasonings that have necessitated Sita’s actions but I was still left wanting more. It seemed unsettling, and unmeritocratic, that despite having proven her loyalty through and through, Sita was abandoned by her own Lord Rama. I was left still wanting more.
Spurned though she was in the epic, Sita remains one of the most recognized and well-beloved goddesses in Hinduism today. In her article of the Contemporary Influence of Sita, Anju P. Bhargava calls her the “pati vrata”, the ideal woman, “for many immigrant women.” Sita now embodies not only the ideal woman, but the role of the ideal wife, and the ideal mother. While I agree that Sita was, and will always remain, one of the greatest women in Hindu mythology, putting her on the status of ‘ideal’ can have unfortunate implications. Putting women on a pedestal, particularly notable figures in history and ancient literature, has left communities dangling in a precarious balance. Take, for instance, the overwhelming controversy generated by the epic period movie Padmaavat; huge protests and boycotts took place because people were angered by the supposedly blasphemous depiction of the titular character Paadmavati, by actress Deepika Padukone. It seemed superficial that men were jumping at the chance to defend the honor of a woman who existed merely in the realm of paper and ink, while shying away from the reality of domestic abuse and female infanticide. This is a perfect example of the overwhelming influence of women in Hindu mythology and literature.
For me, Sita was never the ideal, but the reality. She embodies the strength women already possess within themselves. The goddess Sita was a wife, a mother, and a woman from who I learnt that in the presence of evil, it is possible to find good, and in the presence of darkness it is possible to find light. And in a bitter and skeptical world, that is a beautiful sentiment to have.
 <Anju P. Bhargava, Contemporary Influence of Sita, https://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/s_es/s_es_bharg_sita_frameset.htm (18th November 2018)
 BBC News, Padmaavat: Why a Bollywood epic has sparked fierce protests,
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-42048512, (25th January 2018)