The much beloved Sita, Rama’s faithful consort throughout his escapades in exile, and the central ‘victim’ within Hindu epic Ramayana, has been interpreted, invoked and appropriated since she was first inscribed by the sage Valmiki 10,000 years ago. During the traumas of colonial rule and the struggle of the Indian independence movement, the epic inspired nationalist sentiment for its portrayal of good over evil, discipline in the face of misfortune, and ‘chastity’ amidst foreign control.
Sita has been placed in thousands of years of literature because she is the transcendental woman, relevant across empires and eras as the embodiment of an enduring Hindu culture. She represents what it means to be the ‘ideal Hindu woman’, so she has inevitably been reworked and employed as a political tool to influence Indian womanhood. But instead of her actual characteristics, it is the use of her character in folklore as a discursive construct that may truly represent the reality of womanhood in India. Gandhi chose to focus on her renouncing her luxurious life to follow her husband into exile so that he could inspire the choices of women during the anti-colonial campaign; the traditionalists emphasise Sita’s chastity and obedience, and nationalists conceptualise her body as under attack from foreign invasions.
Amplifying one aspect of her story at the expense of others creates strict binaries, both within Sita and for the women who are expected to draw inspiration from her. While Sita’s character seems contradictory, this may only seem so because those interpreting it frame women as objects centred around the male subject, with experiences in relation to his and devoid of complexity.
Sita’s resilience throughout her period of imprisonment and loyalty to Rama’s honour was reflected during the independence movement in the belief that the Hindu woman was ‘uncolonisable’, her body the vehicle of culture and the harbinger of a free India. The feminine was the ‘repository of religious belief’, as it represented a private sphere which maintained tradition and could not be invaded by the British, the modern or the Muslim. The prolific ‘Bharat Mata’ (Mother India) imagery was popularised during the movement – a sari clad traditional Indian woman, standing upright with the flag, representing virtuosity and the ‘motherland’ to be fought for. Here, women’s bodies represented the nation.
Gandhi emphasised a Sita who refused to abandon her husband in exile, who gave up a life of luxury to follow her husband’s pursuit of goodness, and whose heart and mind remained loyal when her body was controlled by the ‘foreign’; this was to inspire women to quit using cotton provided by the imperialists, and for upper caste women to endure the struggle, maintaining their places within the private sphere while yielding economic influence.
Ramayana also inspired nostalgia for a ‘divine political order’, a time when India was Hindu, demonising the ‘other’ and capturing the imaginations of Indians who aspired for a rule as good as Rama’s after his heroic battle against the Sri Lankan demon king Ravana. In the years preceding and after partition, imagery of Pakistan abducting ‘our’ Hindu women inflamed the Hindu nationalists further, as the women represented the frontier to be fought for and the cultural boundary to be secured from ‘outsiders’. Invoking the kidnapping of Sita by Ravana in Ramayana fed into this ‘protectionism’ and xenophobia, or perhaps influenced it in the first place, with India’s first prime minister Nehru recognising that ‘nothing adds to popular passions more than stories of (Pakistan) abducting women’. So women’s bodies, throughout the independence movement and subsequent nationalist discourse, are the site for debate over what it means to be ‘Indian’, and Sita embodied this starkly.
Inevitably a tale of such significance has had considerable influence on maintaining the binary of the ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ woman, whereby a woman’s role within the Hindu culture is to ensure the family structure does not disintegrate and by extension that the Hindu nation prosper. In Valmiki’s original version, Sita is referred to as a ‘Manini’ (proud lady), implying that a woman’s reputation and value is based on her sexual obedience and purity. In fact, the demon sister of Ravana, Surpanakha, is juxtaposed with Sita when she unsuccessfully tries to seduce Rama and inspires her brother to start a war with Rama and kidnap Sita out of revenge. Surpanakha’s sexuality is depicted as poisonous and uncontrollable, begetting evil when unleashed or unsatisfied. This frames women’s sexuality as something that must be tamed lest it destroy the fabric of society, and propriety in contrast maintains the stability and morality of the family structure.
Sita’s story may have even had an effect on the legal regulations of the Hindu private sphere a well. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has reignited the recurring debate about implementing a Uniform Marriage Act in the name of ‘protecting’ women from sexist Islamic practices like bigamy and the recently outlawed ‘Triple Talaq’. Yet Hindu nationalists fail to mention the inequities within Hindu law, such as guardianship and property laws which still favour men. Polygamy is also no more common among Muslim men than Hindu men in India, but Islamic law protects the inheritance, alimony and child-support rights of the multiple Muslim wives. For Hindu women, however, those in relationships and having children with already married men are perceived as ‘whores’, the personification of moral depravity, so they can be ‘discarded’ without any discernible rights. And Hindu families would sooner send their abused daughters back into the matrimonial homes than take them back in or allow divorce, expecting women to accept their family and fate like the virtuous Sita did throughout her tumultuous life.
So like Sita these women become pawns in the struggle for family honour, for the reputation of the men they are legally married to or serving as a ‘concubine’ to. Yet unlike Sita they do not fit the mould of the chaste wife and devoted mother and thus are excluded from the laws which govern Hindu personal lives. They fit neither into the public sphere, nor the private – they are the ‘abject’, excluded from yet central to how society defines the woman. The discourse around the changing law signals a Hinduisation of personal law in the name of female protection, but only if these women uphold values of propriety expected of the Hindu patriarchal tradition, otherwise they are not ‘woman’ enough to be included in the discourse.
Many will counter this tragic view with the image of growing empowerment and participation for Hindu and Indian women. It is true that women played a role in partition, that India has had a female Prime Minister and that women have made it to the top of most fields, including politics. Yet this agency is still in relation to, and curtailed by men. Only 22% of India’s Lok Sabha (lower house) are women, placing it 141 out of 193 countries; in the 2014 elections women won just 11.2% of federal seats; just six women have served on the Supreme Court bench since 1950 and only 10% of high court judges are women. This means there has not been the ‘critical mass’ required to de-masculinise leadership and high level decision making. So agency must be understood within this structure of domination, and revealed for what it is not: empowerment. For example, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the social and organising backbone of the BJP, have women-only factions, but they are supplementary to, rather than central to the masculinised decision making which excludes women from organisational power. Despite women’s equal right to political, social and economic activity they lag behind in positions of power and decision making.
It seems that women’s inclusion is supplementary rather than central, mirroring the way in which Rama’s heroic exploits overshadow Sita’s loyalty and pain in most versions of Ramayana. In some ways, Sita seems powerful: she chooses to join Rama in exile despite his protests, she maintains her strength during her year as Ravana’s hostage, she emerges unscathed from the fire ordeal Rama insists of her to prove her chastity and she survives banishment in the jungle at the hands of her husband and refuses to endure a second fire ordeal, choosing to be swallowed up by her mother, ‘the earth,’ instead. Yet it is obvious that all her strength is confined to her role as a (loyal) wife and a (brave) mother, mirroring women’s empowerment today in India: within the confines of the Hindu patriarchy, never threatening the gender hierarchy or the masculine. Sita’s final decision to be swallowed up by the earth suggests her liberation could only come when free from the bounds of the constructed, patriarchal society she inhabits. In the way that Sita’s fate is determined by the men around her, despite her contestation and courage, it seems women within a Hindu society will always be constrained by its power imbalances.
Ramayana is likely to remain central to Hindu tradition and folklore, and in light of populism’s ascent in India, to nationalistic political rhetoric, too. Sita’s experiences render her body a battlefield for men, yet her values impart lessons upon women in India today. Perhaps the most poignant is that the complexity of womanhood cannot possibly be defined by one interpretation of the epic.
Image: Igor Ovsyannykov
Aditi Razdan is a Law and Asian Studies student at ANU, drawn to the country of her ancestors and the stories of her people. She is particularly interested in issues of race, the politicisation of culture and religion and the criminalisation of coloured bodies. She is a Sub-Editor at the East Asia Forum, Editor of Demos and has had her work published in Demos and The Kashmir Times.