Sita, Wild yet Demure

Ramayana 20 Comments

Published in Sunday Midday, 29 March 2009

When a daughter steps out of her father’s house after marriage, the father is supposed to say, “May you find happiness wherever you go.” But Janaka told Sita something else, “May you bring happiness wherever you go.” Perhaps because Janaka was a good father who had brought up his daughter to be autonomous and responsible for her life and those around her or perhaps because Janaka knew his daughter was a goddess – the earth itself.

The earth can be wild or domesticated. Wild, she is the forest. Domesticated, she is the field. Wild, she is a woman. Domesticated, she is the wife. In Hindu mythology, wild earth is visualized as an unclothed goddess, Kali, fearsome, naked, bloodthirsty, one with hair unbound. Domesticated earth is visualized as draped in cloth, Gauri, the goddess of civilization, gentle, demure, beautiful. Gauri’s cloth represent the rules that turns nature into civilization – rules such as a marital fidelity that ensure that even the weakest of man has conjugal security.

Sita is Gauri – the clothed goddess. As Gauri, she is the wife who follows her husband wherever he goes. When Ram prepares to set out into his exile, she follows him – not because he asks her to follow, but because it is her duty to be by his side. He tries to stop her but she insists on fulfilling her role as wife. Ram cannot dissuade her otherwise. And so he sets out with her. Sita thus is not the obedient wife – she is the dutiful wife, the one who knows her responsibilities.

Sita’s role as Gauri is further reinforced by Anasuya, the wife of the Rishi Atri, who gifts Sita with a saree which never gets soiled. Later, when Sita is abducted by Ravan, she starts leaving pieces of jewellery, ostensively to leave a trail behind her so that Ram can find her. But by abandoning her jewellery a subtle symbolic message is been given to Ram. It means that his dharma is being challenged; Ravan has defied the civilized code of marital fidelity. Ravan wants to make Ram’s field, his forest; he wants to make Gauri, Kali. Every jewellery dropped is a reminder of how close civilization is at risk of being overrun by the forest.

When Ravan is killed and Sita rescued, Ram demands proof that Gauri, the field, bound to a single man, did not even momentarily become Kali, the forest, bound to no man, hence available to all men. The only way this can be done is through the trial of fire. Sita goes through the trial of fire and the fire does not touch her proving that neither in thought nor in action did she ever think of any other man.

Despite this proof of chastity, the people of Ayodhya ask Ram to reject the queen of soiled reputation. The same laws and traditions – the Raghu-kula-riti – that demanded Ram obey the commandments of his father, now demand Ram respect the wishes of his people. And so, Sita is sent to the forest.

It is strange that Ram, the only Hindu deity known for being faithful to one wife, is also the only Hindu deity to abandon his wife. This clearly is meant to highlight the difference between Ram, the husband, faithful to his wife and Ram, the king, sensitive to the wishes of his people. Ram, the king, has Sita sent back into the forest but Ram, the husband, never remarries. He places next to him an effigy of Sita made of gold, the metal which symbolizes purity, suggesting that he does not doubt his wife’s fidelity but he does respect the laws of Ayodhya and its royal household, however misguided they may have been.

Who is this Sita in the forest? Gauri or Kali? She is Gauri to her children – raising them as powerful warriors who on their own are able to defeat the mighty army of Ram. But she is also Kali – the one who has shaken off the mantle of civilization. She will not be bound by rules of civilization. Rejected, she refuses to return to Ayodhya as queen or wife. She does not feel the need to follow her husband, this time, as wife. She does not feel obliged to represent the prosperity of the household that rejected her, or bring good luck into it. When asked to prove her chastity once more she returns to the bowels of earth, whence she came from. When Ayodhya asked their king to abandon his queen, they inadvertently ended up losing Janaka’s daughter who took away all happiness with her.

  • Pratyush

    The title “Sita, Wild yet demure”, I feel, is a bit misleading, by stressing on wildness as the primary attribute. Sita is understood my most people as a demure pati-vrata woman, someone who did not openly protest any of the injustice meted out on her. Infact, contrasted with Draupadi, the other first lady of Indian mythology, who sought revenge, blood for her humiliation, Sita appears to be an epitome of calmness and control. Could you please clarify this.
    (Though demure, Sita is indeed, known for her strength: in raising two children, alone, while suffering the vagaries of the forest).

    • Since when did screaming for blood and revenge become strength? Since when did choosing to be demure become weakness?

  • Anand

    Dear Dr. Devdutt,
    Your Book ‘Myth=Mithya’ speaks of Shakti is three forms – Gauri, Kali and Durga; where Durga is regarded a middle path to the extremties displayed the other two. Does Sita corelate closer to Durga than to Kali or Gauri when raising her sons? Does Wild yet Demure relate better to Durga than to the other two?
    I have another query; what should one make out of the episode where Sita riles Lakshman to protect his brother than to stay back and defend her? She goes on to cast suspicion on his intentions and unable to bear this, Lakshman goes to protect Rama. Does she not violate the word of her Husband in asking Lakshman to act on the contrary?
    Lastly, Para No. 5 has some linguistic errors (because, done).

    • That’s a good observation…yes Durga it seems….though she never really fights physically….food for thought indeed…
      The episode where she accuses Laxman shows that the seams of civilization are collapsing and the mind is giving way to foul thoughts…..

  • Shrikant

    Since the time Sita left Ayodhya taking away its happiness, India has taken to chaos.. could that be a fair deduction :)

    In this avataar as Ram, what was the prime goal that Vishnu was trying to accomplish?
    was it only to destroy the Rakshasa forms of Jai and Vijai or was there a message that the social structure also would start to break down after this incarnation period?

    • Maybe it is our refusal to be Ram or our determination to drive Sita out that is creating this situation….our inability to have faith in ourselves or others….

  • Ramesh Subrahmaniam

    Dear Dr.
    I have always been fascinated by mythology,particularly Indian. My question is this How come poets belonging to two different communities wrote Epics,based on same idea. OBDUCTION AND SEDUCTION OF OTHER MAN’S WIFE”. I am referring to Ramayan and Homer’s Iliad. In Ramayan, it is written according to Indian Culture Viz., Sita was forcibly obducted by Ravan, and as a Pativrata
    She is not yielding to Ravan,waits for Ram, who with the help warriors likeSugreeva,Hanuman,
    etc., Kills Ravan and takes back his wife.
    Whereas in Iliad, Helen wife of King Menelaus,
    willingly runs off with Prince Paris of Troy and lives with him, till Menelaus comes back with warriors like Ulysses,Achilles etc., after defeating and Destroying Trojans takes Helen back. What a coincidence? who copied whom? Secondly, if they have not copied, was there any such incident which could have taken place, and made poets living in different continents, separated by thousands of miles, write an EPIC with the same concept.
    Secondly Probably Helen”s character is based on the moral standards prevalent in Greece, at that time ( Viz., running off with Paris) and Sita’s character is based on Indian Moral standards. Menelaus was a sadistic and violent person, where as Ram was a virtuous person. can you pls. throw some light on this?

    • For Indians, Ram and Sita are forms of the divine. Melenaus and Helen are not. So one cannot compare the two narratives without either reducing the Ramayana into epic literature or elevating Iliad to a sacred scriptures. To understand Ram, we have to understand Vishnu and the concept of avatar. We have to focus on cosmic truth (sanatan satya) not social morals (samajik satya).

  • Raji Ramesh

    This is a refreshingly well-written article about Sita!! I enjoyed it very much.

    I just wanted to add a comment / question and would like to know your opinion!

    In the final step, Sita is partly Gauri and partly Kali. She is in some-kind of inbetween stage.

    She has finished the terrible ordeal of the “dark night of the soul : Trial by Fire” and comes out of it as an Individual on her own rights, who can have a few good Individual friends.

    ( Mixture of bound / unbound situations : wonder what to call this state!
    A woman can be much more than being bound to one man or available to any man.)

    Such a state would give a fresh breath-of- life to womanhood in general, rather than Sita being always doubted for fidelity which drives her to commit suicide by being swallowed by earth, and Rama being a wimpy husband who is more worried about society than his love for his wife.

  • Raji Ramesh

    I believe, I would call those intermediate states of consciousness as Hidden States of Fractal Dimensions.

    Sita or Rama or any man or any woman who has the courage, curiosity and determination to explore and understand the workings of the natural world can experience them!!

  • Darshan Masalia

    Hi Mr. Devdutt,

    This is in reference to the last line of the last para. My perspective is that because the fidelity and chastity of a woman like Sita was questioned and despite the “Agni-pariksha” as she was exiled, wrath was inevitable on Ayodhya. This should be looked at as a lesson for the latter generation – If you do not trust your spouse, especially your wife or your beloved ones. Especially after enough evidence having been provided to prove innocence.

    Just my perspective. Would like to know your comments.


    • This is not just about wife’s fidelity….it is also about queen’s reputation….her living with another man, sexual fidelity notwithstanding, made her in the eyes of the people unfit as a queen….so what matters more ….the question is more complex that just trusting the wife, I feel

  • Ishwar

    You are indeed a facinating writer. One comment though. This is the first time I have seen someone attribute Sita with Durga (Gauri and Kali). Since childhood, I have always heard her to be an incarnation of Laxmi Ma – the wife of Vishnu Bhagvan. Any thoughts?

    • This is mythological patterning…which means one does not focus on “form” but the “idea” that is expressed…in patterns lies wisdom

      • I agree with Devdutt, as the state of the two forms of Goddess is just symbolic. It has nothing to do with incarnations which, by the way, are there as they are. It is important to understand the two extremes in order to understand the Greatness of Sita.

  • Ishwar

    You lost me there. Can you please elaborate more or point me to some relevant article that explain the answer you gave here?

    My understanding of your statement is that the transcendental genealogy of the characters in the Ramayan is irrelevant in mythological patterning. Does this mean that mythologists have the right to attribute Raam with Shiva instead of Vishnu?


    • If it does not appeal to you, just ignore my writings as the ramblings of a fool….best wishes

  • Ishwar

    Please don’t be offended as it is not my intention to do so. I am just trying to understand my religion from your perspective, which is a very intriguing one. Best Wishes to you too!

  • Pingback: Another perspective | Also Hindu()

  • srinivas M. Chaskar

    Dear Sir,

    Have a doubt on the my own learning of life. ” irrespective of the outcome you be stick with your principals. How in this case Shree Ram has left sita just because the “Praja” has a objection. Excluding Rajdharma. Whats your thought on it?