Sita, Interrupted

In Religion on October 25, 2012 at 3:09 am

Sometimes the only way to stay sane is to go a little crazy – Girl, Interrupted

I have to admit that writing about Sita was a complex undertaking on my part!  This stuff is not for the faint-hearted for sure.  The layers of understanding, interpretations and myriad sources of the Ramayana, add to that a variety of interpretations make it the most complex study I have undertaken and truth be told, I have not even scratched the surface yet!  My greatest achievement will be to get a shrink-to-fit understanding of Sita for my blog post.  How wrong can this be?

If we have to be truthful to the Ramayana we have to break away from our own mythical logic and understanding of Sita.  Our perception of Sita’s conformity to our social constructs of woman, their sexuality and their role in a patriarchal society is plain wrong.

Ramayana is not to be blamed for our conceptions or misconceptions of women of our times.  It is our interpretations and adaptations that are squarely to be blamed.

The epic Ramayan has been retold many times.  Each of these retellings adds a concentric circle of understanding different and unique from the previous retellings.  True to the Gnostic traditions of oral histories, many shades of meanings have been added, derived and adapted in a plethora of Indian languages.

The Ramkatha is a fluid narrative flowing through ages of narrative interpretations by creative authors.  The moment we stop this fluid narrative undergoing adaptations by localizations through the ages, we risk fossilizing our understanding of the core teachings.

Valmiki interpreted Sita in Sanskrit.

Kambar interpreted Sita in Tamil.

Here are a few that interpreted Ramayana through their short story Ramkathas re-envisioning Sita, much more boldly than the above two.

Does Ramayan allow for an interpretation?  Yes, it does.  This is the beauty of Ramayan.  It is this ambiguity that makes it a timeless classic.  An ambiguity ripe for your interpretation is what makes it navigate through the centuries and not make it outdated and anachronistic for any future era.  The concept of interpreted Ramkathas exist from ages ago, the earliest being in the 6th century AD.  The advent of cheap regional language magazines saw the advent of serialized Ramkathas that were bold in concept and liberated Sita to a point that will make it appear politically incorrect in our modern times!

But yet, we take comfort in rigidities.  When we say that Ramayana is a “timeless classic”, we are actually referring to a framework and narrative that is asking you to come inside and be part of the narrative.  You cannot be an independent observer, you are a participant to the narrative.  Imagine what an important role that must be!

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees to this concept.  Most of us want a “timeless classic” to be actually stuck in a past that serves our biased patriarchal purpose.  While we have changed our perceptions of many things, we refuse to interpret Sita any different from how Valmiki himself interpreted Sita centuries ago.

Sita, Interrupted

The reason I have mentioned the above writers is because they have all played a big role in filling the character gaps that Valmiki or Kambar might have left open or unsaid in their narratives.  Especially in the case of Sita, the more recent interpreters have made her character, full-bodied rather than static and abstract exemplar of the original epic.  Sita liberated from an iconic frame to a narrative frame.  She holds a conversation, she responds back to Rama.  She is no longer the subservient and dutiful wife by the side of Rama as portrayed by Valmiki or Kambar.  Readers tend to care for such a character.  They want to see this complex Sita presented with life choices, struggle through life as they know it, and through this struggle grow and mature as a woman.

There are two other character foils for Sita: Ahalya and Surpanakha.

Ahalya is Gautama’s wife who mistakes Indra to be her husband.  Indra is infatuated with Ahalya and is disguised as her husband to seduce her.  Gautama, is enraged and curses Ahalya.  Cursed by her husband to become a stone, Ahalya eventually receives grace from Rama’s feet.

Surpanakha is Ravana’s sister, infatuated by Rama’s handsome looks wants to marry him.  Her nose is chopped off because of her advances and frustrations.  She triggers the chain of events culminating in the abduction of Sita by her brother Ravana and the eventual battle and downfall of Sri Lanka and Ravana.

What are character foils?  They are meant to stand next to the main character and play a sharp contrast in features, so the main character’s strengths or weaknesses pop out in sharp relief.

If Sita is a Laxmi avatar, then Surpanakha is an Alaxmi avatar.  If one is the epitome of auspiciousness then the other is the simple opposite, representing the inauspicious.  If Sita is a dutiful wife then Surpanakha is a sexually frustrated wandering widow.  So on and so forth.  Valmiki pitches Sita and her foils to help us understand who Sita is and then more importantly who Sita is not.  Why is it important to know who Sita is not, through Surpanakha?  Valmiki dexterously introduces the concept of punishment in this patriarchal society.  To be like Surpanakha, or more importantly, to not be like Sita will invite punishment.

There are two things to understand clearly from Valmiki’s Ramayana:  What is the violation?  What is the punishment?  Even before Valmiki begins writing about Sita, he introduces a fundamental theme to his narrative:  The interruption to marital bliss leads to grave consequences.  Early on in the Ramayan, a hunter accidentally kills a bird during it’s lovemaking and pays for his sin.  This incident portends what is yet to come.  The marital bliss of Rama and Sita is shaken and they are exiled to live in a forest for fourteen years.  Later, Rama’s marital bliss is challenged by Surpanakha, then much later by Ravana who abducts Sita.  It is in the context of this Sita’s role as a subservient wife fits in perfectly as she is instrumental in maintaining the marital bliss in a patriarchal world.  She does not upset the cart as all around her, people who do are paying a steep price:  just look at Surpanakha.

Surpanakha is India’s first liberated woman.

Call her what you may, but she certainly is.  The Hindi texts call her randi which has a dual meaning of a widow or whore.  Male anxiety over female sexuality gives rise to some strange vocabulary indeed!  She is just the opposite of Sita who is suhagin and sumangali.  I vividly remember playing the role of Surpanakha in a childhood play, and I gyrated to the tune of a sensuous music, while my friends lustily jeered me on with ribald jokes.  Talk about male anxiety over female sexuality at that age!  That anxiety continues and is ever present in our society.

In a patriarchal narrative women are expressed by their sexuality or their willful suppression of it.  Whereas all of the male characters are defined by their mostly paradoxically pardonable sexual indiscretions, their physical might and their governance and wisdom.  Surpanakha is one such objectification of Indian women whose sexuality is amped-up to a point of calling her as one with “loose morals”.  It is her unrestrained and untamed passion for Rama that makes her loose her honor.  The nose is the representation of honor in the mythic tradition and it is chopped off because that is the punishment for sexual impurity.  At what point does love become unrestrained?  At what point does the moral become “loose” and come off the hinges?  Valmiki decides.  Can we re-envision this?  Of course we can!

Actually, I tend to lean for the Kambar’s version of the Ramayana, where Surpanakha is a beautiful woman and she expresses her love to Rama.  She must have been beautiful as Rama and Laxmana linger to converse with her for some time and play with her emotions.  Rama has signed up for the eka-patni-vrata or monogamy, and is in a period of exiled asceticism given to sexual suppression.  For Rama, this is a very unsatisfactory compromise given that the ascetic and the householder are mutually exclusive ways of living.  Valmiki puts the stress on the dharma that Rama chooses to live by and does an exemplary service to both these traditions.  The stress is not on how he executes it or if spiting Surpanakha’s advances by slicing her nose is good or evil, as long as the dharma of asceticism is not upset.

So long as Rama services both the dharmas with exemplary panache, the moral justification for mutilating an objectified woman for her profession of love magically appears from nowhere.  That justification hastily converts love to sexual aggression.  Works all the time, when women are involved in the iconic frame and not the narrative frame.  Hence the iconic frame is really flawed.  Creativity exists in the narrative frame and shows us signs of narrative health and social health when intelligent folks interpret and re-envision these texts.

Another of Rama’s flaw: other than putting dharma above all else, is that, he is in thrall to public opinion.

When he rescues Sita back from Ravana, he hears murmurs that resonate deeply within him.  There are rumors swirling around in the bazaar of human foibles, that Sita was after all in Ravana’s palace and question her virtuous chastity.  Rama banishes Sita from his kingdom.  A pregnant Sita delivers her twins in a forest and is under the protection of an hermit there.  Here is the second woman who is in love with Rama that has been driven away.  Surpanakha being the first spurned one.  This makes for a very difficult reading.  Where the “good” woman and the “bad” one both meet the same rejection from the same man.  Where did Rama fail?

Rama puts the unsubstantiated rumor of the lowliest citizen much above the life of not just any woman, but Sita, the most virtuous and dutiful wife who served him well during his harsh exile of fourteen years in the forest.

Governance is upheld.  Governance of the land is Rama’s dharma to his people.  This is why we call this era Ram Rajya, the golden age of governance.  Sita and Surpanakha moved in and out conveniently as props to this epic iconic telling.  The objectified woman playing subservient to a patriarchal dharma.

Sita and Surpanakha are alter-egos.  They represent the duality of women.  One cannot exist without the other.  A pure iconic representation of one in isolation of the other has a half life of a rare chimera in the wild.  To say that every woman should follow the traditional laws as laid out by Manu would be deceiving the advances made by the twenty-first  century.

A woman must obey and be protected by her father in youth, her husband in married life, and her sons in old age; a woman should never be independent (Manusmrti V.147, IX.3)

That last line there is a just wee bit troubling!  Valmiki fleshes out these two alter-egos beautifully well.  He makes the story so human.  Humans are ambiguous.  They have no idea what will happen next and where they want to be next.  Human stories will not have happy endings all the time.  Valmiki was not writing an escape into a fantasy world of goody two shoes characters.  His pathos is incredibly vital in it’s believability.

It is up to us to recognize and honor the duality of woman.  The macho anxiety a male feels has no basis.  It needs to fade away as men too walk into the twenty-first century not with the Sitas imagined a long time ago, but her very modern avatar imagined by Sita herself.   There is a strong threat to the ongoing narrative and the society demands a homogenization and quite frankly a fossilization of the shastraic precepts of the Ramayana.  Sita herself does not seem to be controlled by these threat factors and has chosen to be liberated from her iconic objectification and representation of the past.

The modern Sita makes sure that the historical fluidity, diversity and vitality of the Ramayana tradition is intact.  Sita today has moulded herself after current fast unfolding events and not upon any fixed ideals of straight-jacketed characters of the past.  It is the iconic Sita that I meant to interrupt, to give way to a new Sita that has already arrived amidst us.


Here are a few that interpreted Ramayana through their short story Ramkathas re-envisioning Sita, much more boldly than anybody.

  • Ranganayaki Thatham (1905-1986), who wrote under the pseudonym of Kumudini
  • C.S. Lakshmi (1944-), a prize-winning Tamil writer known to readers as “Ambai”
  • Gudipati Venkata Chalam (1894-1979) A Telugu writer
  • C. Subrahmaniya Bharati (1882-1921) the greatest Tamil poet of the twentieth century.
  • Muppala Ranganayakamma (1939-). Telugu writer noted for her Marxist feminist critiques of society
  • Kandula Varaha Narasimha Sarma (1939-) Telugu writer under the nom de plume of “Kavanasarma” has made the most extensive use of contemporizing the characters.
  • C. Viruttachalam (1906-1948) Tamil writer with a chosen penname, Pudumaippittan

The small icon to the left of the SoundCloud widget is that of Shobana, Bharatanatyam exponent and living legend. I could not think of a reason to write about her, so sneaked in a picture!

Why am I trying to salvage Surpanakha’s image?

A few years back when the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown hit the market, I was taken up by the Divine Feminine and the suppression of Mary Magdaline, one of the key disciples of Jesus.  After trudging through about 23 written publications on the politicized history of recasting Mary Magdaline as a woman of the flesh and a repeal by the Vatican in 1969 that they had in fact erred, and the continuation of the popular myth that she is not sexually pure, I have come to vaguely understand how gender based suppression or exoneration works.  That troubling enlightenment was never blogged about by me, but I think I will some day.  I instead applied this Christian anomaly onto Surpanakha as an unsubstantiated theory that vaguely resembles in truth a Christian aberration.

Love it or hate it, at the heart of women’s gender politics and liberation, is the anxiety of men regarding their sexuality.


The sighting of Sita – NJ Nandini

On Religion
sita pieta pieta
The symbolism of Ganesha Pieta Carnatic The Duality of Shiv-Parvati


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