Sita, is the heroine of the Hindu epic Ramayana. She is the consort of the Hindu god Rama (avatar of Vishnu) and is an avatar of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and wife of Vishnu. She is esteemed as a standard-setter for wifely and womanly virtues for all Hindu women. Sita is known for her dedication, self-sacrifice, courage and purity.
Sita is described as the daughter of the earth goddess Bhūmi and the adopted daughter of King Janaka of Mithila and Queen Sunayna. In her youth, she marries Rama, the prince of Ayodhya. Soon after her marriage, she is forced into exile with her husband and brother-in-law Lakshmana. While in exile, the trio settle in the Dandaka forest, from where she is abducted by the Ravana, Rakshasa King of Lanka. She is imprisoned in the Ashoka Vatika of Lanka by Ravana. Sita is finally rescued by Rama in the climatic war where Rama slays Ravana. Sita proves her chastity by undergoing a trial by fire. Thereafter, Rama and Sita return to Ayodhya, where they are crowned as king and queen. However, Rama abandons a pregnant Sita, when one of his subjects casts doubt over her chastity. In the refuge of Sage Valmiki's hermitage Sita gives birth to twins Lava and Kusha. After her sons grow up and unite with their father, Sita returns to her mother, the Earth's womb for release from a cruel world.
She is best known by the name Sita, derived from the Sanskrit word sīta, which means furrow. According to Ramayana, Janaka found her while ploughing as a part of a yagna and adopted her. The word sīta was a poetic term in ancient India, its imagery redolent of fecundity and the many blessings coming from settled agriculture. The Sita of the Ramayana may have been named after a more ancient Vedic goddess Sita, who is mentioned once in the Rigveda as an earth goddess who blesses the land with good crops. In the Vedic era, She was one of the goddesses associated with fertility. A Vedic hymn (Rig Veda 4:57) recites:
“ Auspicious Sita, come thou near;
We venerate and worship thee
That thou mayst bless and prosper us
And bring us fruits abundantly.
In Harivansha Sita has been invoked as one of the names of goddess Arya:
“ O goddess, you are the altar's center in the sacrifice,
The priest's fee
Sita to those who hold the plough
And Earth to all living being.
The Kausik-sutra and the Paraskara-sutra associate her repeatedly as the wife of Parjanya (a god associated with rains) and Indra.
Sita is known by many epithets. She is called Jānaki as the daughter of Janaka; Maithili as the princess of Mithila'.As the wife of Rama, she is called Ramā. Her father Janaka had earned the sobriquet Videha due to his ability to transcend body consciousness; Sita is therefore also known as Vaidehi.
Sita's origin has been the subject of scholarly studies. Sita's birth and parentage have been depicted differently in different versions of Ramayana.
Valmiki's Ramayana: In Valmiki's Ramayana and Kamban's Tamil epic Ramavataram, Sita is said to have discovered in a furrow in a ploughed field, and for that reason is regarded as a daughter of Bhūmi Devi (the goddess earth). She was discovered, adopted and brought up by Janaka, king of Mithila, and his wife Sunayana.
Ramayana Manjari: In Ramayana Manjari (verses 344–366), North-western and Bengal recensions of Valmiki Ramayana, it has been described as on hearing a voice from the sky and then seeing Menaka, Janaka expresses his wish to obtain a child. And when he finds the child, he hears the same voice again telling him the infant is his spiritual child, born of Menaka.
Janka's real daughter: In Ramopkhyana of the Mahabharata and also in Paumachariya of Vimala Suri, Sita has been depicted as Janaka's real daughter. According to Rev. Fr. C. Bulcke, this motif that Sita was the real daughter of Janaka, as described in Ramopkhyana Mahabharata was based on the authentic version of Valmiki Ramayana. Later the story of Sita miraculously appearing in furrow was inserted in Valmiki Ramayana.
Reincarnation of Vedavati: Some versions of the Ramayana suggest that Sita was a reincarnation of Vedavati. Ravana tried to molest Vedavati and her chastity was sullied beyond Ravana's redemption when she was performing penance to become consort of Vishnu. Vedavati immolated herself on a pyre to escape Ravan'a lust, vowing to return in another age and be the cause of Ravana's destruction. She was duly reborn as Sita.
Reincarnation of Manivati: According to Gunabhadra's Uttara Purana of the ninth century BCE, Ravana disturbs asceticism of Manivati, daughter of Amitavega of Alkapuri, and she pledges to take revenge on Ravana. Manivati is later reborn as the daughter of Ravana and Mandodari. But, astrologers predict ruin of Ravana because of this child. So, Ravana orders to kill the child. Manivati is placed in a casket and buried in the ground of Mithila where she is discovered by some of the farmers of the kingdom. Then Janka, king of that state adopts her.
Ravana's daughter: In Sanghadasa's Jaina version of Ramayana of the 5th century BCE, Sita, entitled Vasudevahindi, is born as daughter of Ravana. According to this version, astrologers predict that first child of Vidyadhara Maya (Ravana's wife) will destroy his lineage. That's why Ravana abandons her and orders the infant to be buried in a distant land where she is later discovered and adopted by Janka.
When Sita reaches adulthood, Janaka organizes a swayamwara with the condition that Sita would marry only that person who would be able to string Hara Dhanu (bow of Shiva). Janaka knew, the bow of Shiva was not even liftable let alone stringable for ordinary mortals and for selfish person it was not even approachable. Thus, Janaka tries to find the best husband for Sita.
At this time Vishvamitra had brought Rama and the other one, Lakshmana to the forest for the protection of sacrifice. Hearing about this swayamwara, Vishvamitra asks Rama to participate in the swayamwara and takes Rama and Lakshmana to the palace of Janaka. Janaka is greatly pleased to learn that Rama and Lakshmana are sons of Dasharatha. Next morning, in the middle of the hall, Rama lifts up the bow of Shiva with his left, fastens the string tightly and finally breaks the bow. And thus Rama fulfils Janaka's condition to marry Sita. Later on Vivaha Panchami, a marriage ceremony is conducted under the guidance of Satananda. Rama marries Sita, Bharata marries Mandavi, Lakshmana marries Urmila and Shatrughna marries Shrutakirti.
Some time after the wedding, circumstances forced Rama to leave Ayodhya and spend a period of exile in the forests of Dandaka and later Panchavati. Sita willingly renounced the comforts of the palace and joined her husband in braving exile, even living in the Dandaka and Panchavati forests. The Panchavati forest became the scene for her abduction by Ravana, King of Lanka. Ravana kidnapped Sita, disguising himself as a brahmana mendicant, or begging holy-man, while her husband was away fetching a magnificent golden deer to please her (Panchavati Near Thapiyamaan Puliyur (Tamil Nadu). Jatayu, the vulture-king, who was a friend of Dasratha (Rama's father), tried to protect Sita but Ravana chopped off his wings. Jatayu survived long enough to inform Rama of what had happened.
Ravana took her back to his kingdom in Lanka, and Sita was held as a prisoner in one of his palaces. During her captivity for a year in Lanka, Ravana expressed his desire for her; however, Sita refused his advances and struggled to maintain her chastity. Hanuman was sent by Rama to seek Sita and eventually succeeded in discovering Sita's whereabouts. Sita gave Hanuman her jewellery and asked him to give it to her husband. However, Hanuman was caught by Lankan forces. Hanuman was about to be executed and burnt in a bonfire when he managed to escape and in return burned down the Lanka capital city.
Sita was finally rescued by Rama, who waged a famous battle to defeat Ravana. Upon rescue, Rama worried about the future of human society– that any man or women may not use this as an excuse to live with each other without marriage, makes Sita walk on fire to prove her chastity.
The Thailand version of the Ramayana, however, tells of Sita walking on the fire, of her own accord, to feel clean, as opposed to jumping in it. She is not burnt, the coals turn to lotuses. Walking on live coals is still a common custom in the south of India.
The couple came back to Ayodhya, where Rama was crowned king with Sita by his side. While Rama's trust and affection for Sita never wavered, it soon became evident that some people in Ayodhya could not accept Sita's long captivity under the power of Ravana.
Sita returns to the Earth's womb with her mother as Rama, her sons and sages watch in astonishment.
During Rama's period of rule, an intemperate washer man, while berating his wayward wife, declared that he was "no pusillanimous Rama who would take his wife back after she had lived in the house of another man". This statement was reported back to Rama, who knew that the accusation of Sita was baseless. Nevertheless, he would not let slander undermine his rule, so he drove Sita out.
It is also believed that even goddess Sita cannot escape from "karma" being human. During period of 14 year exile when Sita asks Rama to fetch the magical, golden deer for her, Rama asks Lakshmana to guard Sita and their home, and to take special care since he felt bad omens and sensed danger and evil. The golden deer is in fact the demon Maricha, who must distract Rama and Lakshmana away from the hut so as to allow Ravana to kidnap Sita. When Rama kills the deer, even as he is dying, Maricha cries out in Rama's own voice, crying for Sita and Lakshmana to help him. Although Lakshmana knows that Rama is invincible and beyond any danger, Sita panics and frantically orders Lakshmana to go to Rama's aid immediately. Lakshmana initially disobeys Sita's orders knowing his brother is invincible and beyond any danger but, Sita questions about Lakshmana's intentions of not saving Rama, even though those not meant from heart it was only to force Lakshmana to go out to search for Rama. Even though Sita's words spoken to Lakshmana not meant from her heart, she has performed sin by questioning the intentions of virtuous Lakshmana. This is the reason Sita also has to undergo similar kind of humiliation "no pusillanimous Rama who would take his wife back after she had lived in the house of another man" leading Sita was thus forced into exile a second time.
Sita was thus forced into exile a second time; she was not only alone this time but also pregnant. Abandoned Sita wandered about in the forest and at last reached the hermitage of Valmiki who gave her refuge in his hermitage, where she delivered twin sons named Kusha and Lava. The other hermits did not like like discouraged Valmiki for giving Sita shelter and protection and they said– "Sita is impure, otherwise her husband would not have abandoned here".
In the hermitage, Sita raised her sons alone, as a single mother. They grew up to be valiant and intelligent, and were eventually united with their father. Once she had witnessed the acceptance of her children by Rama, Sita sought final refuge in the arms of her mother Bhūmi. Hearing her plea for release from an unjust world and from a life that had rarely been happy, the earth dramatically split open; Bhūmi appeared and took Sita away to a better world.
Speeches in the Ramayana
While the Ramayana mostly concentrates on Rama's actions, Sita also speaks many times during the exile. The first time is in the town of Chitrakuta where she narrates an ancient story to Rama, whereby Rama promises to Sita that he will never kill anybody without provocation.
The second time Sita is shown talking prominently is when she speaks to Ravana. Ravana has come to her in the form of a Brahmin and Sita tells him that he doesn't look like one.
Some of her most prominent speeches are with Hanuman when he reaches Lanka. Hanuman wants an immediate union of Rama and Sita, and thus he proposes to Sita to ride on his back. Sita refuses as she does not want to run away like a thief; instead she wants her husband Rama to come and defeat Ravana to save her.
A female deity of agricultural fertility by the name Sita was known before Valmiki's Ramayana, but was overshadowed by more well-known goddesses associated with fertility. According to the Ramayana, Sita was discovered in a furrow when Janaka was ploughing. Since Janaka was a king, it is likely that plowing was part of a royal ritual to ensure fertility of the land. Sita is considered to be the child of the Mother Earth, produced by the union between the king and the land. Sita is a personification of the Earth's fertility, abundance, and well-being.
Sita has been a much revered figure amongst the Hindus. In the blurring of the boundary between religion and mythology, between history and fiction, she has been portrayed as an ideal daughter, an ideal wife, and an ideal mother. These portrayals of her never change, and are more or less constant in various texts, stories, illustrations, and even movies and modern media. Sita is often worshipped with Rama as his consort. The occasion of her marriage to Rama is celebrated as Vivaha Panchami.
The actions, reactions and instincts manifested by Sita at every juncture in a long and arduous life are deemed exemplary; Her story has been portrayed in the book Sitayanam. The values that She enshrined and adhered to at every point in the course of a demanding life are the values of womanly virtue held sacred by countless generations of Indians.
What is ambiguous is her portrayal as an ideal queen. Was she a good states person? Was she a warrior? Her sacrifices and actions are most often portrayed in her personal capacity and not as a governance figure. Sita was abducted because she had to step out of the safety line to give alms to Ravan disguised as a Brahmin. The giving of alms to Brahmin in those times was more of a duty to be performed, rather than an optional charitable act. This held true more so for the royals and they were to lead by example. Also, the incident of Sita's refusal to come back with Hanuman like a common thief, her renunciation of queen-hood and exile from Ayodhya after her return. All her key aspects are shown in a favourable light, but not as a head of state, but as an ideal woman. This is in stark contrast to Rama, who is always portrayed also as an ideal king who was just and fair and always thought of his people before all else in addition to being depicted as an ideal husband and an ideal son.
Popular culture sees Sita as an abla nari or a helpless woman. She is portrayed as someone who needs support and assistance of the male folk in the myth. However, this would have to be balanced with Sita's steadfast demonstration of honor and dignity, compelling her to both enter the fire and to ask Mother Earth to take her from a setting filled with pain and misunderstanding. In this light, Sita becomes a complex figure of what it means to be a woman.
As a feminist issue Sita endures the trial by fire (Agni Pariksha) to prove her chastity.
From a feminist perspective, Sita's story is illustrative of subjugation of women in Hindu culture especially in comparison to Durga who is a symbol of female raw force:
She fits the classic damsel in distress stereotype, waiting to be rescued by a man. Indeed she takes it a step further and refuses to be rescued by anyone other than her man.
She alone is suspected of adultery by Rama and her subjects, and forced to prove her innocence. Rama is never asked to undergo the trial by fire to prove he was faithful to her, and neither is he doubted by his subjects or by Sita.
Rama banishes Sita to the forest for merely having been accused of adultery by citizens of Ayodhya.
Years later, when Rama meets her again through coincidence, he hesitates to take her back, causing Sita to call up her mother Bhūmi and be subsumed into the earth (which may arguably be a metaphor for suicide).
Thus from a feminist perspective, to hold Sita up as an example of the ideal woman and wife is to endorse male supremacy and female subservience; and to endorse Rama as the ideal husband is to endorse misogyny. There is evidence that this "Sita Syndrome" encourages domestic violence and subjugation of women in the subcontinent and diaspora communities.