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Sita by Nandini Sahu

    

    “And we forget because we must

                                                    And not because we will.”

                                                                      --Matthew Arnold, ’Absence’

“One feature of modern sensibility is…the idea that what has been forgotten is what forms our character, our personality, our soul."


                                                               --Ian Hacking

Forgetting and forgiving, the two eternal qualities of any human being—of Sita in this context—have they not been rather arbitrarily interpreted to the extent of being even misinterpreted by the critics? Were those two qualities not being exploited by her near and dear? Are we not forgetting what Sita’s real message to the society was?

The structure of the Srimad Valmiki Ramayana is arranged into six Kandas or Books, and they are:

 1. Bala Kanda ( Book of Youth)

 2. Ayodhya Kanda (Book of Ayodhya)

 3. Aranya Kanda (Book of Forest)

 4. Kishkindha Kanda (The Empire of Holy Monkeys)

 5. Sundara Kanda ( Book of Beauty )

 6. Yuddha Kanda ( Book of War )

7. Uttara Kanda(Luv-Kush story)

(Source: wikipedia)

There are a little more than three hundred versions of the Ramayana written over centuries since Sage Valmiki first wrote it. My long poem Sita is, in no way, a retelling of The Ramayana. It is, rather, penned as a poetic memoir of the heroine of the epic, Sita, told in the first person narrative.

As I look back and forth at my entire literary oeuvre, Sita seems to have shaped up as a long poem that is seminal to my thoughts on life that find expression in the creative impulse of literature. It has always been with me, sometimes haunting and at others, fuelling the mind in all thought and action. In that sense, it could perhaps be one of my most ambitious, endearing   ecofeministic poems. One long poem, it’s going to be presented in 25 sections/cantos. A narrative of my life has been taking shape in Sita, like a photograph in a dark room.

 

Mythology says that in her previous birth, Sita was Vedvati, the daughter of Rishi Kushdhwaj. She was doing a deep penance in the forest in order to marry Lord Vishnu. Ravana happened to see her and tried to marry her forcibly. Vedvati jumped into fire to save her chastity and took her next birth as Sita. Jumping into fire, taking birth from the earth, going back to Mother Earth rather than having a natural, human death – these Nature linked attributes make the Western critics compare Sita with the heroines from other classical tales like Eurydice, Persephone and Ceres. To me, Sita is beyond any comparison, she is the quintessential spirit of every woman – ageless, timeless and omnipotent.

Sita is undoubtedly the most significant figure among Indian mythical women, and surprisingly, there is as yet no solo account of her story. Diverse versions concur in myths, literature and folklore. Classical texts glorify Sita; folktales, folksongs and ballads associate sometimes her abiding dilemma with that of the lives of the marginalised tribal and rural women. And this is often a trope to conveniently cipher them as marginal and suffering, or the subaltern, as Mata Sita was! Some folk versions project her as the most powerful woman, like Goddess Kali. At the same time, it is an equally interesting fact that even the modern day, progressive and empowered woman is wont to see a bit of herself in the self-willed, stubborn, confident, mortal woman, Sita. Thus, there is a bit of ‘Sitaness’ in every Indian woman, which is what engages me in this narrative penned in twenty-five long  poems of three lined stanzas.

During my childhood, I was very disenchanted to hear the story of Sita’s two exiles, especially the second one, from my grandmother. Rama, almost the only Hindu God, who was ekapatnibrata, had only one wife, was also the only Hindu God to reject his wife and ask her for fire-tests. I was heartbroken when she read out the lines from The Ramayana one night describing Sita’s plead to Mother Earth to take her back in these lines:

“If unstained in thought and action I have lived from the day of birth, spare a daughter’s shame and anguish and receive her. Mother Earth! If in duty and devotion, I have labored undefiled, Mother Earth! Who bore this woman, once again receive they child! If in truth onto my husband I have proved a faithful wife, Mother Earth! Relieve thy Sita from the burden of this life!”

How could Rama, the ‘maryada purushottam’, the paragon of all virtues, deject his wife, a woman who deserved all dignity, just to respect the wishes of the washer-man, a male-chauvinist, a categorizer, a patriarch? And I was never contented with the way my grandmother would defend Lord Rama’s action, justify Sita’s fire-tests and Rama’s agony after leaving her, and defy him by saying that, see, Lord Rama never remarried! After Sita Maiya was sent to the forest, Rama placed an effigy of Sita made of pure gold, which symbolized chastity and purity. This means he never doubted her character; but being the king, it was the demand of his position to respect the wishes of his subjects. He carried out the promise of his father and took exile, he should also respect the laws of the land and abandon his wife.

But, was it logic?

Apart from listening to my grandmother’s oral tales, I read a whole lot of The Ramayanas during my formative years. Some of those versions were: Kavitavali by Tulsidas, R.K. Narayana’s Ramayana, which was a rendering of Kamban’s Ramavataram into prose in English, The Ramayana of Tulasidasa translated by F.S. Growse, the seven Kandas of The Ramayana by Valmiki, Balarama Dasa’s Jagamohan Ramayan in Odia, Adikavi Sarala Dasa’s Vilanka Ramayana in Odia; and then I watched the Rama-Lila performances in Odisha(and now in Delhi in the Ramlila ground) with keen interest. I read Gangadhar Meher’s Tapaswini and Upendra Bhanja’s Vaidehishavilas, both in Odia, and was quite inspired by their poetic rendering of Sita’s  character. Reading the religious texts of many other religions too inspired me. Somewhere in this text, as an epic poet, I have referred to the Moses story from the Old Testament ,drawing  obvious parallels between The Ramayana and the Holy Bible .

In Odisha, my home state, the  Bhagabat  Tungis  were places where people gathered in the evening to listen to discourses from the Srimad Bhagavad and The Ramayana. (The tradition is sadly on the verge of being wiped out under the impact of modernization.) I listened to the Ramayana there as a child, and understood that Srimad Bhagavad is the most popular among the 18 Puranas; it contains the essence of Indian philosophy. It simplifies the many esoteric philosophies of other scriptures and Vedas. It imparts knowledge of life, that is, doing one’s duty without any attachment-- as T S Eliot would have said, depersonalizing oneself. It teaches us to shun pride and arrogance. Devotion has nine marks--listening to the name of God, chanting his name, remembrance of Him, serving, worshiping, saluting Him, friendship and self-dedication. We should surrender the fruits of our achievements to God without bothering about success or failure. I correlated these inherited ideas of Srimad Bhagavad with the life philosophy of Sita and interpreted her character with passion and devotion.

When I grew up, I thought objectively about Sita’s acceptance of life with all positivity. Her never-give-up attitude made her my role model, my icon. Even though she was the icon of rebellion, she had great patience. Her birth from the womb of Mother Earth stood for Nature, vivacity and truth. Sita is the epitome of a virtuous woman in Indian cultural imagination. Mahatma Gandhi, during the Non-Cooperation Movement, projected Sita as the ideal character before the Indians – that their anti-colonialism and respect for cultural values may be emulated from Sita, who was rebellious enough not to accept injustice, patient enough to protest silently, uncompromising when it came to proving her virtue and independent when she was dejected by all. That way, Sita was truly modern, even though her patience and silent suffering is sometimes criticized by us modern women – that by being so forgiving by nature, she has kind of justified, encouraged the subjugation of women! I do not agree to this version of Sita’s character. To my mind, Sita had the courage to break all conventions. Perhaps I consoled myself by thinking, Rama could never lead a normal life after he banished Sita. Ultimately after her going back to Mother Earth, he had to make an end of his life by going into the Sarayu river. Isn’t it a lesson / example for any man that if he gives heartache to the ‘Laxmi’ in his life, his woman, he has to pay back? Sita was like Parvati, raising her children single-handedly, making them such powerful that they could defeat the entire army of Rama during the Asvamedha Yajna. Then, she was none other than Goddess Kali when she refused to go back to Ayodhya as the queen and wife by proving her purity once more. The people of Ayodhya realized, ultimately, that by abandoning a woman, they have lost all glory of Ayodhya.

 Even when we read the folk tales and folk songs of India, especially those related to the Sita myth, orally transmitted to us from the Mithila region, this sentiment comes through. Sita has been accepted as the daughter of every house in Mithila, and the parents are reluctant even today to marry off their daughters in Avadh. In all wedding songs of the region, one can hear only the names of Sita, not Rama. One of the folktales depicts the story of the Shiv Dhanush. Once Sita was smearing cow dung on the floor when she casually lifted the Shiv Dhanush. Then her father decided his daughter would marry a man who can only break the Shiv Dhanush into nine pieces. I was concerned after reading this patriarchal attitude in our folklore as well. If a girl is good enough to do something praiseworthy, her husband must be at least ‘nine times’ better than her!! Again, the very idea of a Swayamvar is to facilitate a girl to select her husband among many. But by putting this precondition of getting her the mightiest husband, at least nine times better than her, again patriarchy has snatched the freedom of a woman. This continues even today—the preconditions of any marriage, and the criterion to find a good bridegroom, are mostly decided by the elders in the family—thus many loveless marriages happen. Like Rama qualified in the Shiv Dhanush test, but finally he failed to be a praiseworthy husband.

 It is an accepted fact that the story of Sita comes to us with an entirely captivating contemporaneity. Since the last 2500 years, the story has been articulated in innumerable ways in the diverse tongues of India. But in these interpretations, not only are the beseeched historical accounts juxtaposed with a decipherable degree of magnetism that would make an interesting neo-historicist study, authors across the spectrum of time have also endeavoured predictive elements of their own periodicity into the incarnate history of the ever renewable legend of Rama-Sita. I have the similar enticement, and devoid of dipping into the  jeopardies of survival, I have attempted here a miracle of divining and humanising Sita, with a quixotic presentiment. There are the plunges of a very subjective otherworldliness to recount the concerns rampant in the contemporary society  with the recurrent morals and multiplicities of the story of Rama-Sita. Willy-nilly, however, the gendered stereotype of an epic as a masculine form has come under the scanner in my perspective in this poem.

Oppression, austerity, obedient allegiance to husband are some of the epitomes associated with the standard observations of the character of Sita. But  the Sita who embodied feminine power, who could lift Shiva’s colossal bow, who audaciously decided on  convoying with  Rama into exile, who dared to encounter Ravana  boldly, and who disproved to undertake a subsequent trial, a second fire-test, is time and again disremembered. To me, Sita is the strongest woman in any mythology in the world.  I would rather say, Sita lives in our collective consciousness as a powerful inspiration on the spirit of all progressive, independent women, with or without their knowledge of it.

Kamban has portrayed The Ramayana as a ‘divine comedy’; it has been translated by the able hands of R.K. Narayan, who had no religious-bias in his character. Perhaps, like Ramanujan, he too believed that religion is ‘like one’s underwear’. Anyway, I was moved by one phase in Kamban’s Ramavataram, where Sita reunites with Rama after one year’s separation in Lanka in full public view, and is agitated by her husband’s indifference:

“Rama remained brooding for a while and suddenly said, ‘My task is done. I have now freed you. I have fulfilled my mission. All this effort has been not to attain personal satisfaction for you or me. It was to vindicate the honour of the Ikshavaku race and to honour our ancestor’s codes and values. After all this, I must tell you that it is not customary to admit back to the normal married fold a woman who has resided all alone in a stranger’s home. There can be no question of living together again. I leave you free to go where you please and choose any place to live in.” I was deeply grieved and shocked to think of the helplessness of a wife, who loved only and only her husband in her thought and action, is deserted because she had to “live alone” in a stranger’s place for some time, for some reason, without the support of father, brother or husband-- precisely without any patriarchal support. Anyway, without being shattered, the way Sita handled the situation, proved her chastity without asking Rama to prove his chastity (he, too, lived among strangers in the absence of his wife!) made me respect her to the utmost, and I decided, I am going to pen it down.

Sita (A Poem) presents my assertion and assessment of Sita that reconnoitres multiple traits of her life and personality. It retreats to the regional Ramayanas, mythology, folklore and talks about her birth, love, marriage, exile, abduction, test by fire, and as a final point, her homecoming/going back to Mother Earth. I endeavour to offer a novel elucidation to this mysterious, inexplicable character and her ineffaceable influence on our lives. It’s a poem about the contemporaneity of Sita. Could I say, I have deconstructed the stereotypical ‘Sita’ and instituted the bits and pieces of the bold and beautiful Sita in all of us? The world says, a woman is mysterious. She wants to look good, get admiration and devotion, yet she doesn’t desire to be coveted! It’s such difficult to understand her when she keeps her beauty beyond bounds with the armour of knowledge and power! This is what I call the ‘Sitaness’ of every woman.

Sita was a woman close to Nature—she was the original ‘ecofeminist’—if I may! Deserted twice, abducted once, she never spent her life brooding over a decipherable destiny, rather she took the charge of the flora and fauna, and then her own children Lava-Kusha, as a single parent till they were twelve years old. She was like Mother Earth. She was the embodiment of patience, endurance, optimism, love and motherhood. At one point, Sita realized her weaknesses as well, like any mortal woman. She tampered with the laws of Nature by believing in a golden deer, whereas rationally she should have thought that Nature cannot produce a golden deer! She crossed the Lakshman-rekha, doubted the integrity of her brother-like brother-in-law, Lakshmana, when he denied to leave her alone in the jungle and go in search of his brother Rama. She accepts her culpability, thus sends a message that guilt and punishment go hand-in-hand, even for Goddess Sita. Sita’s silent acceptance of injustice, her fire-test, cannot be manipulated as her acceptance of victimhood, setting a platform for future injustice to women through domestic violence, bride-burning, Johar or Sati. Sometimes critics are like lice on the body of a text. That’s what some critics have done to the character of Sita in the Ramayana; they have mostly distorted her character and personality. For me, nonviolence was Sita’s strength and she was a true Satyagrahi ; and she defeated patriarchy at every step, by not attacking the accoster with the same weapon. Thus, I transact with the bigger questions of patriarchy and identity politics in this poem. It’s a poem about patriarchal management,gender and identity issues of a text. Finally, I talk of today’s women, the new women, and their strength of character vis-à-vis / as an inspiration from the character of Sita, who, to my mind, remains a living prototype.

 

Fritj of Capra, a physicist, whose  The Tao of Physics (1975) was inspired by a mystical experience in which he realized the working of the cosmos to be “the Dance of Shiva.” About the vibrating universe and peace, he comments:

 Modern physics…pictures matter not at all as passive and inert, but as being in a continuous dancing and vibrating motion whose rhythmic patterns are determined by the molecular, atomic and nuclear structures. This is also the way in which Eastern mystics see the material world. They all emphasize that the universe has to be grasped dynamically, as it moves, vibrates and dances; that Nature is not in a static, but a dynamic equilibrium.”

I find its Indian parallel in our myth. Both linguistically and discursively, there is this common claim of Hindus that God stands for G.O.D.--Generator, Operator, Destroyer, i.e. Lord  Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva –  and such ideas only make the familiar unconventional and the strange  more familiar. The word Shanti, peace,  is firmly couched in the Sanskrit, mostly, Hindu tradition – but it’s everywhere – in Eliot’s The Waste Land to Madonna’s lyrics to Michael  Caine’s character in the film Children of Men (2006) . In Indian mythology, Sita spreads this word ‘Shanti’ in its true spirit through her peaceful rebellion. She herself is the Generator, Operator, Destroyer; and the familiar and the strange, both are her ideas of taking life in her stride.

A part of me says that Sita should never have given even the first fire-test after Rama rejected her publicly in Lanka. Rather she should have gone back to the lap of Mother Earth at that instant without giving Rama the joy of being her rightful husband and father of her children again. After all a man had accused the character, the purity, the sanctity of a woman which is the ultimate unbearable thing for her! Why did she bear with this humiliation, prove her purity, and go back to the man who had no respect, no trust, and no faith? Yet another part of me believes, what Sita did was most desirable. After all a woman stands for patience, purity, penitence and perseverance. She took the fire-test and proved that what the society can think of a woman out of its narrow outlook, is wrong. She earned the reverence of all by the fire-baptism. Next, she had to come back forgiving Rama for his first ever mistake because she truly loved him. Also, she had some incomplete work in her life as yet. A woman is complete with motherhood. She had to perform her duties of a wife, queen, daughter-in-law and most importantly, a mother. Thus, I leave it to the reader of ‘Sita’ (A Poem) to frame his/her own individual view about Sita’s character. For me, Sita was a rebel even though she never fought back with the same weapons, because she didn’t believe in the victor-vanquished theory. She had more patience, courage and conviction than any woman, because a non-violent revolution needs far more perseverance than a violent one. I have posed some existential questions of life through this poem, through Sita’s questions to Lord Rama, and of course to the society. Through my long narrative Sita, which can be read as a poem of social mobility, I salute the spirit of women who succeed in leading a meaningful life against all odds.  

 

 

References:

--Ian Hacking, ‘Memory Sciences, Memory Politics’, Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory. New York:Routledge,1996. (70)

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