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Sita Devi established gender norms and made an impact on Hindu women and feminists alike. Her epic, the Ramayana, was primarily about her husband, Rama. She played the role of a perfect wife, loving and serving only her husband. She significantly set the bar for Hindu women. However, contemporary Hinduism frowns upon this original depiction of Sita, expressing a modernization of the religion and representing more contemporary values.
Sita’s origin and appearance have greatly influenced her story. “Sîtâ was born from the earth when it was ploughed”. Though her mother was Bhu Devi, the earth herself, she was brought up by the childless King Janaka of Mithila as his adopted daughter. “Janaka brings her into existence when she springs from the furrow he is ploughing as part of a spring fertility ritual…”. Sita appears as an incarnation of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, good fortune, prosperity, and beauty. Because of this, she is often depicted in Indian art as very conventionally attractive, with beautiful facial features and a voluptuous figure. “She is fair skinned with long, black hair, though her head is sometimes covered by an elaborate headdress in order to communicate her queenly status”. She is frequently wearing a Sari, abiding with her chaste and virtuous nature. She is also “anthropomorphic” most of the time, having solely human characteristics. However, she is occasionally depicted with additional arms in images intending to depict her as the reincarnation of Lakshmi. Sita was the devoted wife of Rama, who married her after winning a marriage contest by lifting and shooting an arrow from Siva’s celestial bow. Primarily, Sita is a character in one of the greatest epics of Hindu India: The Ramayana.
The Ramayana is the story of Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, and Sita. Rama and his three brothers grew up in the court of their father, King Dasharatha. After a series of successful missions, King Dasharatha decided to appoint Rama heir to the throne. However, Rama’s stepmother wanted her son to be heir, so she convinced her husband to banish Rama to live in the forest with his brother, Lakshman. A loyal wife, Sita insists on accompanying Rama to the forest. In the forest, a princess named Surpanakha tries to tempt Rama. “But when Râma shunned her, saying that he only loved Sîtâ, Śurpanakhâ attempted to kill Sîtâ”. Lakshman, Rama’s brother, defended Sita and cut off Surpanakha’s nose and ears. “She [Surpanakha] vowed revenge and went back to her brother in Lanka, King Râvana. He in turn vowed to abduct Sîtâ to punish Râma”. Ravana, a greater demon, used his uncle Marici to distract Sita by changing his shape into a golden deer and leading her away from Rama, thus, successfully abducting her. Rama goes to find her and receives help from the monkey god, Hanuman, and his monkey army. The monkey troops build a bridge to Lanka and Rama kills Ravana in a terrible battle to rescue Sita. Following this battle, Rama and Sita are restored as rulers. Some versions of the epic have Sita returning to her role as queen and living a life of luxury. Others, however, describe her banishment by Rama. His kingdom did not trust her chastity, believing that she may have had an affair with Ravana while under his watch for so long. Sita eventually gave birth to two sons, and once having met them, Rama allowed his wife and children to come back to the palace. His people continued to challenge her chastity nonetheless. Ultimately, Sita committed suicide, asking her mother to open the earth and take her home. Rama then followed his wife and committed suicide as well. “He [Rama] drowned himself in the river Sarayu. (It could be said that he went through water purification to heaven)”.
As the incarnation of Vishnu’s wife, Sita represents the perfect and most virtuous wife, daughter, and woman. “The Râmâyana tells of the heroic deeds of Râma and his allies as they tried to rescue Sîtâ. But the rescue took a very long time, while Sîtâ was forced to undergo many trials, her endurance of which made her the example of the perfect wife”. Sita is one of the five ideal women, pancakanaya, in Hindu mythology. “Her story is a story of sacrifice and sorrow endured in order to help her husband keep both her dharma (ordained duty) and his”. Sita is named the “…ideal high caste Hindu wife — one who is chaste and modest, faithful and devoted to her husband, and rigorous in the protection of her own virtue, as defined by strīdharmic norms”.
Sita and Rama are known in Hinduism as the perfect couple, supreme and divine representing male and female aspects of god. Until recently, however, Rama was a more popularly worshipped figure due to the composition of Hindu devotionals like Ramcarit-manas by Tulsidas. In modern day Hinduism, Sita is a common focus of worship in festivals like Rama Navami, the final day of a nine day festival called Vasanthotsavam (the ‘Festival of Spring’), the ten day Vijayadashami festival, and Diwali (‘the Festival of Lights’). This recognition was not always common for Sita. “Accordingly, it is rare to find a temple dedicated to Sita alone. Instead, her idol is most often found in temples dedicated to Rama or Hanuman, installed alongside her husband and other important characters from the Ramayana”. She was always approached as a deity who could not give blessings on her own, but one that could ask her husband to do so on another person’s behalf. This change came about when Indian feminists criticized Sita for being “…an overly-submissive wife who committed suicide for an ultimately untrusting husband”. Ultimately, Sita and the Ramayana are historically significant for setting gender roles and virtuous values for women in Hindu society and inspiring changes in contemporary Hindu beliefs.
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