Sita, the daughter of Siradhvaja Janaka, the king of Videha, known in the literary and Puranic traditions also as Janaki,Vaidehi, Bhumija, Agnija, Matulingi, Ratnavali, Dharinija, Raktaja etc., contextual to various myths related to the circumstances of her birth, was the consort of Lord Rama, the eldest son of Ayodhya’s king Dasharatha, and the mother of the illustrious sons Lava and Kusha. Sita’s names Janaki and Vaidehi relate respectively to Janaka, her father, and to Videha, the land that her father represented. Bhumija, born of ‘bhumi’ – the earth, relates to the most widely accepted circumstances of her birth under which she is said to have risen from the earth when king Janaka ploughed it for installing ‘Agni’ of yajna – fire of sacrificial rite that accepted oblation made in the course of the yajna. It was customary to plough the land where the Agni of yajna was installed. With ‘dharini’ being another synonym for ‘bhumi’ her name Dharinija has same connotation as Bhumija. Agnija, born of fire, Matulingi, born of great phallus, Ratnavali, born out of jewels, and Raktaja, born of blood, refer to other myths that the tradition associates with the incidence of her birth.
Apart a few allusions to term ‘sita’ in the Vedic literature denoting an entirely different entity, the great epic Ramayana by Valmiki, believed to have been composed during Rama’s lifetime itself, is the earliest known source of the story of Rama.
The Ramayana does not deify either Rama or Sita, its hero and heroine; however it fails to contain them in human frames often allowing them to transgress it and acquire quasi-divine status. The Ramayana mythicises at least the circumstances of the birth of Sita, as also Rama, and often elevates their glory to heights beyond human domain. The Puranic tradition elevates Rama, and of course Sita, to the divine status revering Rama as Lord Vishnu’s incarnation, and Sita, as Lakshmi’s. The factum of Vishnu’s incarnation as Rama has been interpreted in terms of Rama’s act of eliminating Ravana, Lanka’s demon king, and Lakshmi’s, as Sita, in presenting a rationale – a righteous reason for Rama’s act of Ravana’s annihilation.
Sita has not only kept to the right track Indian womanhood, affording it the most perfect model of a devoted wife and ideal mother but with Rama is for centuries now the core of faith of millions of Indians who find in them the prime source of their spiritual energy as well as material well-being, a ladder that led to salvation as also to mundane heights, a model for righteous living, ideal home and perfect society, and a stay to tag with all their woes and miseries, achievements and failures, prospects and disappointments, strength and weaknesses, all auspices, occasions of rejoicing and all festivities. Sita, like Rama, her husband, seems to be one beyond time.
SITA IN LITERATURE PRIOR TO THE RAMAYANA
Sita, the term literally meaning ‘furrow’, the line made by plough, is the Vedic name of the goddess associated with the ploughed fields. In one of the hymns in the Rig-Veda this goddess manifesting furrow line is invoked jointly with Kshetrapati, the lord of fields, for blessing with prosperity and abundance. Obviously, the invocation is directed to the ploughed land’s inherent fertility power which being capable of bestowing prosperity and abundance is divine and is hence deified and invoked. However, this Vedic stand in regard to Sita is not uniform. In Kaushika Sukta Sita has been identified as the wife of Parjanya, a god associated with rain. She has been invoked as the ‘mother of all gods, mortals and creatures’ and is prayed for growth and prosperity. But, in the Paraskara Sukta, she has been identified as the wife of Indra, the Vedic god with greater magnitude often associated with rain and fertility.
This position further changes in Samhitas. Under a practice during post-Rig-Vedic period, there came to prevail a practice which required due ploughing of the ground where the fire for yajna was to be installed. Obviously it aimed at ensuring that the yajna charged the ploughed fields with fertility and enabled them for yielding abundant crop. The practice, called Agnichayana – selection of site for installing yajna-fire, was something like a quasi-ritual. The Vajasaneyi-Samhita attributes to this practice the status of a proper ritual providing that yajna-bhumi should have drawn on it four furrow lines and when drawing these lines Sita – the goddess associated with ploughed field, should be invoked with prescribed hymns. This linked emergence of Sita in the mind of yajnika – performer of yajna, with the act of ploughing the yajna-bhumi. As is commonly contended, once when ploughing a part of land for consecrating it for yajna there rose from under it a young girl that king Janaka brought home, adopted her as his daughter and in consideration of her emergence from the furrow-line named her Sita. Tulsidasa also followed this rather simple line on the incidence of Sita’s birth. In any case, Valmiki seems to have seen in his Sita the same forbearance, steadfastness, divine spirit to suffer without grudge and always being on giving end as should have characterised the earth-born – one manifesting the earth’s inherent spirit in its totality.
LAKSHMI’S INCARNATION BY THE CURSE OF SARASWATI
The Devi Bhagavata, Kamba Ramayana and many Puranas almost unanimously hold that Sita was Lakshmi’s incarnation. The myth in Devi Bhagavata and Kamba Ramayana links Vedavati, Panchali and Tulsi, too, with Lakshmi’s incarnation cult consequentially to Sita. As these texts have it, once, in Baikuntha – Vishnu’s abode, his all three consorts, Lakshmi, Ganga and Saraswati were sitting with Vishnu. To her annoyance Saraswati noticed that Ganga was enticing him by her tempting glances. Saraswati admonished her for this and a quarrel ensued. Lakshmi, too, in her effort to calm down Saraswati, annoyed her. Infuriated she cursed Lakshmi to be born as a plant. With no fault of her Lakshmi, enraged with Saraswati’s unjust behaviour, also retaliated and cursed her to turn into a river. Saraswati also cursed Ganga to become a river. After the rows of curses was over, Vishnu explained to Lakshmi that she would take birth as the daughter of Dharmadhwaja on the earth with Tulsi as her name, and from a portion of her would grow a plant of the same name.
Dharmadhwaja and Kushadhwaja were the sons of Rathadhwaja and the grandsons of Vrashadhwaja. Vrashadhwaja was Shiva’s devotee. He hence promulgated the worship of Shiva in exclusion to all other gods. This annoyed all gods. Consequently Surya cursed Vrashadhwaja depriving him and his descendents of all their riches and lustre. The curse instantly worked. For redeeming themselves and their descendants from the curse Dharmadhwaja and Kushadhwaja, Vrashadhwaja’s descendents in the third generation, did great penance to please Lakshmi who alone could revive their glory. Satisfied with their great austerities Lakshmi appeared and as desired promised Dharmadhwaja and Kushadhwaja to take birth as the daughter of each of them. In due course Dharmadhwaja’s wife Madhavi gave birth to a girl child. They named her Tulsi. The child was born by a portion of Lakshmi. His brother Kushadhwaja along with his wife Malavati also awaited Lakshmi to take birth as their daughter. Lest he transgressed from his path he was always reciting hymns from the Vedas. One day when so reciting Vedic hymns there emerged from his mouth a child with divine aura on its face. The child was no other than the one born by another portion of Lakshmi. Kushadhwaja named the child Vedavati, sometimes alluded to as Devavati. One day, a demon named Shambhu came to the hermitage of Kushadhwaja. He saw Vedavati and fascinated by her tempting beauty desired to marry her. He asked Kushadhwaja for her hand but Kushadhwaja refused. This annoyed Shambhu but he went away. However, he came back in the night and killed Kushadhwaja. Hearing her father’s shriek Vedavati rushed to him. When she found him lying in a pool of blood, her eyes burnt with wrath. With her fiery eyes she looked at the demon and in a moment he was burnt to ashes.
Left alone Vedavati retired to Himalayas where determined to have Mahavishnu as her husband she began performing severe penance. It was around the same time when Ravana was on his victory campaign and having defeated most of the kings of plain was in Himalayan region. Suddenly he saw Vedavati engaged in penance. Her celestial beauty mesmerized him. He went to her and asked to give up her bark clothes and matted hair and marry him, and when she refused, caught her hold and began dragging her forcibly. Vedavati resisted, even hurt him with her nails and teeth, but when unable to protect her, she wished that the mortal body which a wicked man had rendered impure by his touch be destroyed. Her divine wish worked, and the very moment there rose from the earth a celestial fire and Vedavati jumped into it and turned into ashes. Before she immolated her she warned Ravana that she would be re-born as Mahavishnu’s consort and for her Mahavishnu would kill him. She would be thus the cause of his destruction.
Ravana, deeply engrossed in her love, was shocked at the loss of such paramount beauty. He collected her ashes in a golden box, brought them to Lanka and consecrated them at a secluded place which he visited everyday. However, since that day Lanka everyday witnessed one bad omen or other. One day Narada visited Lanka. Ravana asked him the cause of these bad omens and how he could get rid of them. Narada explained that their occurrence was linked with Vedavati’s ashes and advised him to shift them out of Lanka without opening the box. He warned that a great disaster would take place if the box was opened. As advised, Ravana instantly picked the box from its place and dropped in into the ocean. One day a gang of pirates saw it. They collected and carried it to Indian main land, their home. However, whenever they tried to open it something untoward occurred. Out of fear they buried it into a pit near a river in Mithila region without opening it. After some time king Janaka selected the spot where lied buried this box for installing agni for the performance of his yajna and ploughed it. While ploughing it the box was unearthed and from it emerged a girl child. United with the spirit of Vedavati and the holy ambience of Videha the ashes contained in the box had transformed into it. Janaka brought the child to his palace where it was received with royal grandeur and was named Sita.
SITA AS PADMA
The myth in the Ananda Ramayana links Lakshmi’s incarnation as Sita to king Padmaksha. Once with the objective of obtaining Lakshmi as his daughter king Padmaksha did severe penance which pleased Mahavishnu who gave him ‘Matu-linga’, and thereby a daughter was born to him. It is in context to this Matu-linga myth that Sita is sometimes alluded to as Matulingi. Padmaksha named his daughter Padma. When of marriageable age, Padmaksha held his daughter’s Swayamvara – bride wedding by her own choice out of the suitors participating in it. However, before the Swayamvara was accomplished a band of rakshasas – demons, stormed the venue, destroyed everything and killed king Padmaksha. Unable to protect her otherwise Padma, foiling the attempt of rakshasas to obtain her, jumped into fire and disappeared.
After some time Padma emerged from fire. It was for her emergence from fire that Sita is sometimes alluded to as Agnija – born of fire. Incidentally, at the time when she emerged from fire Ravana, flying in his Pushpaka Vimana – aircraft named Pushpaka, passed over the spot and saw Padma. Infatuated by her rare beauty he got down with the intention of obtaining her. However, before he could reach her she created fire by her will, entered into it and burnt. Ravana searched the pile of burning wood and found in it five jewels into which Padma had transformed. Ravana collected them and put them into a gold-box and when back to Lanka gave to his wife Mandodari. A few days later Mandodari opened the box and to her utter dismay found sitting into it a virgin with rare beauty. It shook Mandodari with fear for being the cause of the destruction of her father Padmaksha, his family and state Mandodari believed that the presence of the girl in Lanka would only inflict destruction on it. She hence pressurized her husband to cast the box outside Lanka. Ravana carried it to Mithila and buried it there. Before the box was buried a voice from inside the box warned Ravana that she would again come to Lanka and kill him and his clan. One day, a Brahmin, while ploughing his field, found the box, and as required the prevalent practice in regard to underground things, he carried the box to king Janaka who opened it and found in it a beautiful child. He adopted her and named her Sita.
SITA AS RAKTAJA
Though it yet relates to Sita and Ravana, the Adbhuta Ramayana has a different version of the myth. Having grown immensely powerful Ravana’s excesses were on increase. He was particularly cruel to sages of Janasthana engaged in penance. He took delight in shooting his arrows on them and collected in a big pot the blood that these arrows extracted from their bodies. Those days Janasthana had a great sage known as Gratsamada engaged in rigorous penance for obtaining a daughter such as would equal Lakshmi in every thing. In his own way he recited a hymn and when concluding it he would take a little milk on a Dharba grass-leaf and pour it into a pot. As if making oblation to the divine power he was dedicated to, he repeated it with recitation of each hymn believing that the day the pot was full his wish would also be accomplished.
Ravana who sought great delight in tormenting sages engaged in penance knew that deprivation of his ritual pot would more grievously torment Gratsmada than would do any of his arrows. Hence, one day Ravana rushed into the hermitage of Gratsmada and carried away his pot of milk. He poured the milk that the Gratsmada’s pot contained into his pot filled with the blood of the sages, shook it thoroughly and gave it to his queen Mandodari to keep it. Ravana’s cruelties and misdeeds were on increase everyday which Mandodari did not like. Annoyed as she was, Mandodari one day decided to commit suicide and with such intention swallowed the contents of the pot. However, instead of bringing death it made her pregnant. Fearing Ravana’s contempt she buried that foetus at Kurukshetra. After sometime from the spot where the foetus was buried there emerged a girl child that king Janaka adopted with Sita as her name. This myth gives Sita her name Raktaja, one born of blood.
SITA AS RAVANA’S DAUGHTER
The Devi Bhagavata comes out with a strange myth. This myth acclaims Sita to be Ravana’s daughter. On Ravana’s proposal to marry Mandodari, her mother Maya gave her consent but warned him at the same time that according to Mandodari’s horoscope her first child was destined to kill its father. Hence, he should kill the firstborn. However, Ravana did not act upon her advice. Instead of, he put the newborn into a box and buried it at the city of king Janaka. Later, Janaka discovered her, adopted her and named her Sita who as Rama’s consort was instrumental in Ravana’s elimination.
SIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN SITA’S LIFE
Rama being the focal point of the Rama-katha, Sita’s presence in it is not very regular. In the tradition of thought she represents Devi – primordial female energy, but not her operative aspect as does Durga or Kali. She is not seen operating or taking even a decision except rarely as when she decides to go with Rama during his exile, though here, too, with whatever her arguments she convinces Rama to permit her to accompany him, that is, it is finally Rama who takes the decision. Though myths in different Puranas vary to this extent or that, Sita’s ability to handle Shiva-chapa – Shiva’s bow, prompts king Janaka to give her in marriage only to a prince who is capable of lifting, stringing and shooting Shiva’s bow. Janaka holds Sita’s swayamvara – marriage-festival which allowed a bride to have a groom by her own choice. However Janaka’s pre-condition, as also myths related to her marriage, makes Sita’s swayamvara a bit different. Not merely that Lakshmi had incarnated as Sita to assist Vishnu incarnating as Rama, and hence their marriage, a pre-scheduled thing, but in literary tradition too, Rama was Sita’s choice. However, the apparent decision mandating her to wed Rama was Janaka’s, her father, not Sita’s. Sita only complied with what her father decided.
Sita reveals an independent mind on other occasions too, but does not ever thrust her decision. When at Dandakavana, Rama assures sages doing penance there to kill rakshasas interrupting their austerities. Sita does not approve this decision of Rama, and for quite valid reasons; firstly, she contends that rakshasas had not harmed Rama or his family in anyway, and secondly, in the forest he was not Ayodhya’s prince but one exiled from that position, and that the arms that he carried were for self defense or to protect the weak, not for resorting back to that princely position from which he stands exiled for fourteen years. However, despite that she gives her mind, she leaves it to Rama to decide his course of action. A mother with a kind heart, Sita instinctively dislikes violence against anyone, even those tormenting her. When Hanuman inclines to punish wicked rakshasis at Ashoka-vatika where Sita was in confinement, she disallows him from doing so. She is as much worried when she knows how Hanuman was being tormented by setting his tail on fire. She prays Agni to protect him.
Whatever the myths of her origin, in spirit and her entire being Sita represents as Lord Rama’s consort what Lakshmi represented as Vishnu’s in theological tradition – absolute devotion, unshakable faith, chastity, service, constant companionship and a desire to help accomplish his cause, besides her unique divinity with which blends the highest kind of womanhood.
As in Lakshmi-related myths, Sita’s ever faithful and calm mind agitates just once when on sage Valmiki’s initiative Rama agrees to accept her but only after she once again gives proof of her chastity. Her apparently cool but agitating mind does not accept it. Lest she is mistaken, she takes vow of chastity – her ever last, only for invoking gods to be her witness and the mother earth to yield space and take her back into her womb; and thereupon the earth, perhaps in disapproval of Rama’s demand, opens up, and Sita enters the earth.
Earlier after Ravana had been killed and Lanka conquered, when brought before Rama, he questioned her chastity and asked her for giving its proof, and despite that Rama’s words were harsh and disparaging, Sita, besides taking oath of chastity, coolly entered the fire in the presence of all – men, animals, gods, demons, sages, kinnaras, gandharvas and other celestial beings without grudge or disapproval. The fire that burnt impurity had nothing to burn in Sita, not even her garments – the purest ones, and the fire god himself brought her back and presented her to Rama. Her chastity was thus universally approved. However, when in compliance with Rama’s order Lakshmana abandoned her – a pregnant woman, in forest, a non-complaining, calm and discreet Sita only took it as a compulsion of a king. Before the incidence, when Rama was only meditating on banishing her in consideration of public opinion, and was in great strain, she asked him that she wished to go on a trip to forest, obviously for relieving him of his strain and making it easier for him to leave her there quietly.
And, such efforts seeking to minimize Rama’s strain Sita had always done. When Rama feared that the forest life, and that too for fourteen years, would be difficult for Sita, she relieves him of his reluctance by telling him that astrologers, considering the position of planets at the time of her birth, had predicted that she would pass a part of her life in the forest. Thus, she assured that going to forest was her destiny which his company would only render easier. But this time Rama’s inability to secure her honour despite that he admitted that she was chaste and Lava and Kusha were his sons, hurt her deeply, as was hurt Lakshmi when with his leg sage Bhragu had hit Vishnu on his chest, insulting her too along with him, and Vishnu, securer of her honour, only bore it as his obligation to a sage. A sage’s unbridled act or a misled public opinion could be compulsions of gods and kings but an honour-loving mind, whether enshrining a divine frame or human would not bear it, and Sita, and of course Lakshmi who she incarnates, presents its ultimate example. Sita’s sense of honour and propriety over-rides her temptation to go back to Rama not now alone but always. When in Ravana’s custody at Ashoka-vatika in Lanka, she declines Hanuman’s proposal to take her back to Rama. Confidant as she was she tells him that Rama would one day defeat Ravana and take her back; and also that it would be unbecoming of Rama and disgrace him if she slips from here like a thief as Ravana had brought her.
In the Rama-katha, Sita’s is often a presence, though sometimes it completely changes the course of events. Sita is undemanding and is contented in every situation. However, at Panchavati she beholds a golden deer passing across their hut and tempted by its beauty asks Rama for its skin. The deer was Marichi, a demon in transform sent by Ravana who incited by his sister Surpanakha had designs to abduct Sita by deceit as in fair war he could not defeat Rama. First Rama and then Lakshmana go after the deer and taking advantage of their absence Ravana, disguised as an ascetic come for alms, succeeds in abducting Sita. Before Rama could realise it the mischief had been done. Sita does not have any active role in it but her mere presence or simple eagerness leads to annihilation of Ravana, the objective for which Vishnu had incarnated as Rama.
If anything, it is Sita’s divinity, which reveals not merely in her sublimity, chastity, unshakable devotion and in her instinctive detachment towards all things that the world of men or gods had, but also in Ravana’s fear of her, that works in the Rama-katha. Convinced of her divine powers a wicked person like Ravana does not dare even touch her. A Ravana, endowed with power of undoing all weapons, those of men or gods, fears even the straw that Sita waves towards him, believing that charged with her divine powers this straw would destroy him as the fire destroyed a straw.
SITA’S RARE MIGHT
Rama-katha is the witness not merely of Sita’s spiritual power but also the might that enshrined her physical body. Once, Parashurama, the great Brahmin warrior, came to Janaka’s court with his bow. It was so heavy that not less than two hundred fifty pairs of bulls could transport it. Sita slipped away with the bow and using it as a dummy horse began playing with it. Parashurama, amazed as he was when he saw Sita playing with his bow, advised king Janaka to marry her to a prince who broke it. As per the Kamba Ramayana, the Shiva’s bow, which he had used in early days for destroying the yajna of Daksha Prajapati, for avenging the death of Sati, his consort and the daughter of Daksha Prajapati, was a holy relic in the personal shrine of king Janaka. It was given to one of Janaka’s ancestors in older days by Shiva himself. Not able to reach the height of jasmine creeper for plucking flowers from it, Sita rushes to the palace shrine and returns with the Shiva’s bow with which she shoots an arrow and a multitude of flowers fall. Janaka saw all this from a window proclaimed that Sita shall be married only to him who is capable of taking, drawing and shooting the Shiva-chapa – Shiva’s bow.
In Sita’s sarcastic remarks and threat to commit suicide when Lakshmana shows his reluctance to leave her alone and go to help Rama who had gone to hunt the golden deer there reflects the same frame of mind as of a common woman. However her anger transforms into her repentance the moment she finds that Ravana had abducted her. For a while fear grabs her but instantly the presence of mind works and she drops her ornaments etc. the moment she sees some persons on a hill top. With her loyalty, devotion and sacrifice she so inspires Rama that even after she had been banished Rama does not think of marrying another woman, not even for ritual needs of Rajasuya yajna, despite that polygamy was a common feature among Kshatriyas those days or even later. Every woman’s aspiration, Sita initiated the cult of monogamy, a husband’s adherence to one wife, and a wife’s total dedication to her husband. When Rama tried to frighten Sita with difficulties of forest life and its horrible face, she dismissed everything just in a single sentence : ‘where there is Rama there is Sita’. It defines why in ‘Sita-Rama’ the tradition allocates first salutation to Sita, not Rama.
This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet
For further study
Devi Bhagavatam, Varanasi, Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Mahabharata, Gita Press, Gorakhpur; Poona; Calcutta.
Padmapurana, Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Prabandha Kosha (Rajashekhara), Shantiniketan
Rig-Veda Samhita, edited by F. Maxmuller; English trans. by H. H. Wilson, Poona.
Valmiki Ramayana, Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Ramacharita Manasa by Tulsidasa, Gita Press, Gorakhpur
Vishnudharmottarapurana, Bombay, Baroda
Vishnupurana, Bombay, Gita Press, Gorakhpur
David Kinsley : Hindu Goddesses, Delhi
Veronica Lons : Indian Mythology, New Delhi
Dr. J. K. Trikha : A Study of the Ramayana of Valmiki
Dr. Daljeet and P. C. Jain : Ramayana, New Delhi
Swami Harshananda : A Concise Encyclopaedia of Hinduism, Benglore