Not Sri Rama, but society banished Sita

Not Sri Rama, but society banished Sita

When Sita was abducted by Ravana, it was criticised not only as violence against a woman, but also as stealing of one man’s property by another.

In Indian mythology, polygamy was much more common than monogamy. However, in Ramayana, Sri Rama and Sita are strictly monogamous. When they were exiled in the forest, Surpanakha tried to entice Sri Rama to leave Sita for her. She was punished by disfiguring her face. When Sita was abducted by Ravana, Sri Rama gathered an army of monkeys and waged a war to get her back. Sita, on her part, never failed once in her steadfast devotion to Sri Rama. She chose to lead a life of hardship with him in the forest, rather than stay back in the palace and enjoy a life of luxury. Her devotion survived long imprisonment by the mighty Ravana.

Against this background, it is strange to note that Sri Rama is perhaps the only one among the major mythological personalities to banish his wife to the forest, while he continued to rule in Ayodhya. What explains this abandonment of a supremely devoted wife by an absolutely faithful husband? One, perhaps, has to look into the societal norms of the time. The society of the Ramayana is highly patriarchal. A woman was supposed to “belong” to her father after birth, her brothers after her father’s death, her husband after marriage, and her sons after widowhood. Unjust though this system obviously is, it shaped societal norms of the time.

When Sita was abducted by Ravana, it was criticised not only as violence against a woman, but also as stealing of one man’s property by another. When Sri Rama waged a war to get Sita back, it was not only as a husband, but also as a Raghu Kula King for winning back the clan honour lost due to abduction. Even after the slaying of Ravana, Sita’s ordeal did not end. Her personal assurances of her purity were of no avail. She had to undergo agnipariksha—a trial by fire.

The argument given is that though Sri Rama never doubted her purity, he wanted it to be demonstrated before the three worlds. Not everybody was convinced, though. Words spoken by an intemperate washerman during a dispute with his wife led Sri Rama to exile Sita to a forest to avoid any blemish on his kingship. The societal pressure was felt by Sita too.

In some regional versions of Ramayana, Sita once sees Sri Rama pass through the forest, but does not speak out, her silence indicating her bowing to the societal norms. Rama, the king, fulfilled his duty towards his subjects, while Rama, the husband, suffered in silence for failing in duty towards his wife. In a society that denies equality to women, even a perfect man cannot be a perfect husband.

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The New Indian Express
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