In the sixties, this author visited a tribal hamlet atop a hill in Koraput region of Odisha, till then densely wooded, the women folk of which remained uninhibitedly unclad, but for some intricate ornaments hanging down their waist. The reason? Once during their sojourn in the Dandakaranya, Sita was bathing in the sweet river Tamasa, bare, when some passing women of this ancient tribe smirked among themselves, looking at the sight. Sita asked them how could they, being children of Nature themselves, fail to appreciate the fact that she had been totally identified with Mother Nature at that moment? The women were shocked. To atone for their conduct they went bare and have remained so since then.
Neither Verrier Elwin who married a tribal woman and lived and wandered in the region for years nor any other anthropologist had traced the genesis of this tradition. We do not know how many such traditions and legends, outside the epic, could have prevailed in remote regions of the nation. But this one is an unmistakable sample of the sway the character of Sita could exercise over those around her, a trait that squarely fits Valmiki’s heroine.
For example, during the early phase of their exile in the forest several delegations of sages complained to Rama about their demon tormentors and Rama promised them repeatedly, touching his bow and quiver, that he would make proper use of that powerful set to vanquish those evil elements. Sita waits and at an appropriate moment tells her husband the anecdote of a young ascetic who suddenly came across a glittering sword and fascinated, tried it on a creeper and went on indiscriminately applying it on innocent creatures, eventually having a straight plunge into hell when dead. She warns him against passionately killing the demons, for the psychologist in her fears, ‘Like fuel quickening fire, the presence of weapons in the hands of a warrior instigates him to action’.
A publication by a prestigious Western university on feminism in India unhesitatingly states in its conclusion that it was the impact of Sita’s character that kept the women folk of India docile and timid for centuries. Ironically, this too is the impression of Sita the greater part of the Indian elite goes satisfied with, for our knowledge of epic characters is generally limited to stories on them retold in school supplementary readers and comics.
But Sita is staggeringly different. A distinguished author and literary critic of our time, the late K R Srinivasa Iyengar, titled his long poem on the epic Ramayana as Sitayana. Indeed, but for Sita asserting her will, independent of the wills and advice of her near ones and often in defiance of them, the denouement of the original epic, Valmiki’s Ramayana, could not have been possible. It was she who resolved to accompany Rama and Lakshmana into the forest despite strong dissuasions from the elders. It is she who insists on Rama to fetch the illusory golden deer; it is she who, through her rude exhortations, obliges Lakshmana to run in search of Rama, imagined to be in danger, thereby enabling Ravana to kidnap her.
When the brave Hanuman discovers her and offers to carry her back to Rama stealthily, at first she politely warns her of the practical ordeal he would face if found out, for he cannot fight freely with someone on his back, and then raises the issue sublime: if Rama follows the very method to regain her what was followed by Ravana, where is the difference between the two? The implication is unmistakable. The evil deserves elimination, not just deprivation of his trophy!
But the most misunderstood or loosely understood part of the episode is the ‘Agni Pariksha’, the fire test she went through. It is not Rama who proposes or even conceives of it. He only expressed his anguish, no doubt in a rather rude manner, at the inevitable reaction of his kinsmen and subjects at Sita who had been a captive of a demon king continuing to be their queen. A disgusted Sita herself ordered the others to arrange for the fire and entered it and emerged unscathed as she was identified with the flames in her purity.
The original epic by Valmiki —India’s first—the second being Vyasa’s Mahabharata, ends with the couple’s return to Ayodhya and the coronation. The ‘Uttar Kanda’ or the postscript canto, consisting of a loose tongue criticising Rama for his not abandoning Sita, her subsequent exile and giving birth to twins at Valmiki’s hermitage etc. is a later addition. But whoever be its poet, he was a great satirist on the conduct of mice and men. Rama is eager to have Sita back and installed as his consort. But the citizens demand a repetition of the fire test for their satisfaction.
The serene Sita pities their thirst for miracle. She pities the helplessness of the ruler who must accommodate the silly. Once she had passed the fire test out of her own free will. Now she is required to repeat the performance for the entertainment of the hoi polloi! She takes the instant decision to satisfy and snub them at the same time. She invokes the ultimate miracle. She appeals to Mother Earth from whom she had emerged to take her back into herself. The earth opens up before her and she bids goodbye to humanity.
A gift for us by the Earth Spirit, Sita had been nurtured by Janaka, the embodied father-consciousness, protected by the nobility-incarnate Rama, and victoriously rescued from the gigantic dark force. But we the little people did not deserve her.Hail to the project to invoke her again on the soil where once upon a time she had been found by the monarch of the then Mithila, now Punaura Dham in Sitamarhi, Bihar. Once she destroyed the mighty demon. This time let her Grace destroy the tiny imps of distrust, jealousy and prejudice which govern our puny minds.