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The Star of the Ramayana is described as a perfect woman: loyal, brave, and modest are a few of the most commonly used words in relation to the incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi. Sita was significant in many ways, and vital to the stories of her husband, Sri Rama.
Though she was best known through the stories of her husband, Sita is no small character. According to Williams in the Handbook of Hindu Mythology, “Sîtâ was born from the earth when it was ploughed” as an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, who represented prosperity. This leads historians to believe that Prithivi, the Hindu goddess representing Mother Earth, is Sita’s mother — but she was raised by King Janaka as his daughter. King Janaka was a great and respected scholar, and Sita grew into a powerful woman who was regarded as perfect by most because of her faith, modesty, and perseverance. She and her husband, Rama, were wed after he won the marriage contest by “…lifting and shooting an arrow from the divine bow of Śiva” (Williams 265). Sita was loyal and devoted to her husband — so loyal that she almost met her death because of it — which is yet another reason why she is described as an ideal high caste Hindu wife. While the New World Encyclopedia states that many modern-day Indian feminists see the Star of the Ramayana as an overly submissive wife who ultimately killed herself because of a husband who didn’t trust her, she is still commonly worshipped alongside her husband: specifically during planting seasons in an effort to grow a more bountiful harvest (New World Encyclopedia 2).
Sita first appeared to the childless Janaka while he was in the midst of a sacrifice. According to Johnson, Janaka brings her into existence when she springs from the land that he is ploughing as part of a soil fertility ritual. The name Sita actually comes from a Sanskrit word that means ‘the line made by the plow’, which further supports her agricultural significance as a deity (New World Encyclopedia 2). In any case, as an incarnation of Lakshmi, she was placed on the earth in an effort to follow her husband’s many rebirths as an avatar of Vishnu (Williams 265). The New World Encyclopedia describes Sita as fair-skinned with long, black hair and beautiful facial features — a traditional stereotype of Hindu elegance. To preserve her innocent nature, she is often depicted wearing a sari, and always stands to the left of her husband Rama — as well as other important characters from the Ramayana. The New World Encyclopedia states that, “As could be expected of her social status, she is often bejeweled with bracelets and anklets of gold”. In most images and representations, Sita is portrayed with human-like characteristics, but is sometimes drawn with “additional arms…attempting to speak to her status as a reincarnation of Lakshmi”.
As with other Hindu deities, Sita has a personal mission, described in the Ramayana as “Rama’s Journey”. Rama grew up with three brothers in his father, King Dasharatha’s, court. Once he was of age, his father anointed him the heir to the throne — “but an intrigue of his stepmother forces the king to honor an old oath and to exile his son to the forest for a number of years”. Shortly after the marriage of Rama and Sita, Rama and his brother were exiled from Ayodhya because of his stepmother, and they spent an undefined period of time in the forests of Dandakaranya. Sita, being a devoted and loyal wife, traveled with him. Williams states that upon arriving in the forest, a princess named Surpanakha attempted to tempt Rama, who responded by stating that he only loved Sita. After hearing this, the princess tried to kill Sita, who was defended by Rama’s brother Lakshman (Williams 266). In the aftermath of the fight, in which Surpanakha lost her ears and nose, she vowed to take revenge on the group and returned to her brother, King Ravana. In an effort to punish Rama, Ravana abducted Sita by changing his image into that of a golden deer and leading Rama away from his home in the forest. Upon realizing the trick, Rama attempted to shoot the animal with an arrow, “…but while the deer was dying, it cried out in the voice of Râma, calling for the help of Lakshmanan” (Williams 266). Rama takes on the quest of finding his wife with the help of the monkey god Hanuman, and his army of monkeys. According to Leeming, the monkeys are magically able to build a bridge to Lanka, the island where Ravana resides. During a horrible battle, Rama was finally able to kill Ravana, thus rescuing Sita. But the tale does not end there. While there are many versions of what follows the heroic rescue — “some versions have Sîtâ returning as queen to a life of luxury and happiness…others tell a tale of sorrow and agony”. Leeming states that Rama at first rejected Sita, as he felt that she needed to publicly display her fidelity. His people had concerns for her chastity after living with the demon king of Lanka for so long, and “…to avoid this casting doubt on his honour, or undermining his status as a perfect king, Rama orders Laksmana to abandon the queen in the forest. There, she gave birth to Rama’s twin sons, which and upon meeting them, Rama allowed his wife and children to come back to the palace. But the tormenting of his people did not end, and “Sîtâ was put to tests to prove her chastity to the people of Ayodhya”. She didn’t wait for Rama to decide her fate again — and instead committed suicide. After her death, “Some versions have her mother, the earth, opening and taking Sîtâ back into her abode”. In any case, Rama didn’t thrive after the death of his wife. Williams describes Rama drowning himself in the Sarayu River, as it was believed that water purification allowed individuals to enter Heaven.
The Star of the Ramayana is one of the best representations of a perfect Hindu woman. But though she is honored as flawless, Sita hasn’t yet obtained the status as an independent deity, which means that she is only worshipped alongside her husband and other famous deities of the Ramayana. According to some Vaiṣṇava bhakti sects, she may assume a significance equal to that of her husband because of the trials she endured, but it is not common to find religious offerings to Sita alone. In the modern era, some Indian feminists see Sita as overly yielding, and cast hatred on her death — killing herself because of an untrusting man — arguing that she shouldn’t serve as a model for Hindu women. Though, no matter what side one falls on, it is hard to ignore the fact that Sita was brave and persistent — qualities that were respected during her life, but also qualities that are respected in the present world. For these reasons, and many more, Sita continues to serve as a legacy and role model in Hinduism — today, and for many years to come.
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