Sita is known to all as the emblem of faith, devotion and chastity. Later retelling, interpretations and representations of Ramayana have tended to describe her as the gracefully docile wife, who never left her husband Rama‘s side. She is also deified as the chaste woman who passed through fire unscathed to prove her ‘honour’ and yet chose to denounce the world when it was questioned (a second time). In fact, in contemporary deconstruction, Sita has been appropriated by discourses on the ‘right kind of feminist’, one who unlike Draupadi, does not demand her rights and vivaciously get her way at any cost but rather practices stoic reserve and resignation like Sita. But is that the only way to look at Sita today?
A group of people gathered on Thursday evening in a cafe in Delhi’s Hauz Khaz to discuss the question. At a time when ‘feminism’ is being deemed as the new formula for success, filmmakers, writers, advertisers and content creators of all shapes and sizes have found their new hero – the ‘heroine’. The shift toward feminist narratives in films, literature and art was long overdue and not largely unwelcome. But how to populate this narrative with binding characters? For content creators, one of the easiest inspirations is the past. And one of the biggest woman protagonists in Indian mythology is Sita.
However, some felt that Sita‘s descriptions even in modern retelling and deconstructions have remained one-dimensional. Writer and former chief of the National Commission for Women, Dr Charu Wali Khanna, said that the when it came to deconstructing Sita, the problem was that most stopped at the first layer. “Interpretations of Sita tend to paint her as the perfect, most graceful wife. She is praised for her purity and chastity. While those could be virtues worth mentioning, one tends to forget how argumentative and iron-willed Sita was. She was the daughter of a King and the wife of another. Yet she chose to abandon the comforts of the palace and join her husband in his 14-years-long exile. It was strictly against the prescribed behaviour for women at the time,” Khanna said.
The former NCW chief who has recently written the book ‘Sita Returns: Modern India Through Her Eyes’ said that it was important to realise the independence of Sita, who after being questioned by her husband, refused to remain with him and chose to raise her two sons alone, as a single mother.
Local folklore, history and mythology often provide the basis for pop culture and it is not uncommon to find the roots of contemporary icons in older, even ancient and obscure traditions. However, when it comes to women, researchers often come to a halt due to the sheer lack of strong women characters in legends and lore. This does not in any way mean that there were no strong women in the past that can serve as icons of feminism today. But rather a reminder of the dominance of men as historians, poets, writers and scribes in ancient times and also as contemporary interpreters of these ancient sources.
According to historian and author Devdutt Pattnaik, much of the patriarchal parts of the Ramayana, including Uttara Kanda‘, the last chapter of Valmiki’s Ramayana in which Rama exiles his wife for staying with another man, were added later when the text became of part of a Vaishnava traditions. The focus was on attempting to deify Rama as a god and an avataar of Vishnu, as well as a just king who will follow rules at all costs. Many have seen it as an attempt to further mollify Sita’s character as just one to support Rama‘s ascension to divinity.
However, historians and academics like Devdutt have attempted to paint a different picture of Sita – one which is not bound or defined by the identity of her husband or her status as the wife of Rama. According to advocate Mishika Singh, this was a great move.
“Sita is more relevant than ever today, especially in the age of me too. While the world wants to remember her as a beacon of grace and purity, we need to remember that she in her own way also represented rebellion and the power to say no,” Mishika said. The lawyer who deals in matrimonial and family law, said that if there was one take away from Sita that the modern woman could carry home, it was her strong sense of self.
Many in the group also drew comparisons of Sita with modern day victims of sexual harassment. She had been abducted by Ravana and after she survived it, she faced questioned about her own purity. She was banished by her husband because an honourable king could not be wedded to a woman who ha spent so many nights in a strange man’s house. It is easy for her doubters (as well as for Rama himself) to forget that she had been abducted and not willfully living with Ravana. It is easy to forget that she was the victim. The trials Sita faced are much like the trials faced by victims of sexual violence today who are asked an array of questions meant to shame and thaw them. However, Mishika stressed the fact that Sita did not take the abuse, lying low.
“Sita never agreed to the unfair treatment meted out to her. Even with her abuser in Lanka, she maintained stoic anger. And back in Ayodhya, she refused to forgive Rama for banishing her and chose to leave him. That’s a lesson for many women who put up with issues because they may not find the strength in them to stand up to the men in her life,” she added.