English 205: World Literature to 1500
A hero is usually a person who is idealized for portraying such characteristics as courage and loyalty or for outstanding accomplishments or for noble pursuits. Usually, to be considered a hero, a person is described as physically brave and fearless and always the ultimate winner of all battles. However, in the The Ramayana, an epic of ancient India, a gentle and unarmed Sita is seen as the ideal hero of faithful and valiant love. Sita, a major goddess of Hinduism, is the daughter of Janaka and Maithili, a princess of Mithila and the wife of Lord Ramā. Sita is honored as a hero because she exemplifies true spousal love as characterized in the ancient world. The heroic love that Sita has for her husband is expressed in the epic as unconditional, responsible and faithful.
One characteristic that marks Sita as an ideal hero is that she loves Rama with unconditional love, unlimited even when unreciprocated. Sita wholeheartedly loves Rama regardless of his treatment or suspicions of her. When Sita and Rama married they were exiled by Rama’s stepmother who wanted her son to be king. Sita and her husband lived with Rama’s brother, Lakshman, in the forest.
One day Sita saw a lovely deer passing by and begged Rama to catch it. They did not suspect that the deer was a decoy sent by Ravana, the King of Lanka, who had fallen in love with Sita and wanted her as his own. As Rama hastened to please her, leaving her alone in the forest, Sita was kidnapped by Ravana and taken to his kingdom.
After rescuing Sita from Ravana’s kingdom, Rama doubted Sita’s purity since she had been forced to stay in Ravana’s house for a lengthy time. Though Sita had remained faithful to Rama he, because of his suspicion of her seduction, asked Lakshman to leave Sita outside the borders of the kingdom in a desolate hermitage. Though Sita was miserably abandoned by Rama, she continued to love him unconditionally.
“Sita told Laksmana “Do as you were told, Laksmana! Abandon me, a poor, wretched woman! You must obey the king. But listen to what I have to say. Bow to all my mothers-in-law and touch their feet. Give them my greetings. Give them and the king my best wishes for their welfare. Tell the king, “Always treat your subjects as you would your own brothers. That is the highest dharma and it will earn you incomparable fame and glory. I care nothing for this corporeal body of mine! You should do whatever it takes to prevent the people from gossiping!”” (The Ramayana by Valmiki, p. 668, Chapter 1).
Sita does not think of her own welfare but focuses her concern on her husband’s reputation. Sita loves Rama despite his suspicious and unjust treatment of her.
Besides her absolute unconditional love for Rama, Sita also possesses a responsible love for him. Sita always cares about her husband’s safety. When Rama was chasing the bogus deer in the forest it screamed for help assuming the voice of Rama to mislead Sita. Because of her passionate anxiety for her husband’s safety she forced Lakshmana to leave her to help Rama. Unfortunately, Ravana tricked Rama and Sita by the help of Mareecha’s scream and Sita was captured.
“Sita, hearing the cry of Mareecha, said to Lakshmana, ‘Something has happened to my lord. Go and help him.’ …. ‘There is no time for explanations or speculation,’ she said. As she was talking the cry was heard a second time. ‘Oh, Lakshmana! Oh, Sita!’ And Sita was seized with panic and lost control of herself completely. She cried, “Do not stand there and talk! Go, go and save Rama.’ … Sita had no ear for any explanation and went on repeating, ‘Go, go and save him! How can you stay here talking! I’m surprised at your calmness.’ As Lakshmana kept on asking her to remain calm, she became more and more worked up and began to talk wildly.” (The Ramayana, Chapter 5 – The Grand Tormentor p. 83-84)
Sita risked staying alone so that Lakshmana could rescue Rama from what seemed to be a dangerous situation for him. According to the words of Lakshmana: “I don’t go, she will kill herself,” he reasoned. “If I go, she will be in danger. I’d rather be dead than facing such a dilemma … I’ll go, and what is destined will happen. Dharma alone should protect her. He said to Sita, ‘Our elder Jatayu is there to watch us, and he will guard you’” (Chapter 5, p. 85). Sita’s responsible love for her husband far outweighed the risk to her own wellbeing.
Another choice by Sita speaks loudly of her responsible love for Rama. She does not reject or abandon their two sons who were born while she was exiled by her husband.
“He suspects that Sita’s virtue has not survived her long confinement in Lanka and refuses to accept her. A distraught Sita undergoes a trial by fire in order to prove her chastity and survives. A chastened Rama returns with her to Ayodhya to be crowned king. But doubts about Sita’s virtue haunt him and when he hears of rumors against her among the general public, he banishes her from his kingdom. In exile she gives birth to two sons.” (R. K. Narayan The Ramayana by Pankay Mishra - xi)
Sita could have aborted her unborn children when Rama decided to reject her with such finality, but she never considered it an option. What could have been chosen as retaliation in an emotionally devastating situation was not even considered by this woman who loved responsibly. Sita did not behave shallowly as perhaps many would, but rather acted as the definitive heroine who continues to love in the midst of demoralizing circumstances.
Another proof of this love is found in the way she teaches her children only good about their father Rama. In the video Sita Sings the Blues, Sita asks Valmiki, the first poet of India, to teach her children, Lava and Kush this song:
“Rama's great, Rama's good, Rama does what Rama should
Rama's just, Rama's right, Rama is our guiding light
Perfect man, perfect son, Rama's loved by everyone
Always right, never wrong, we praise Rama in this song
Sing his love, sing his praise, Rama set his wife ablaze
Got her home, kicked her out to allay his people's doubt
Rama's wise, Rama's just, Rama does what Rama must
Duty first, Sita last, Rama's reign is unsurpassed!
Rama's great, Rama's good, Rama does what Rama should
Rama's just, Rama's right, Rama is our guiding light
Perfect man, perfect son, Rama's loved by everyone
Always right, never wrong, we praise Rama in this song.”
Far from acting with revenge, Sista very generously raised her children to respect and love their father while she continued to suffer silently from his ill treatment.
Another feature showing Sita’s heroism is her spirited faithfulness in resisting Ravana’s advancements. In front of Ravana, “Sita covered her ears with her hands. ‘How dare you speak thus! I am not afraid to lose my life, but you wish to save yours, run and hide before Rama sees you’” (Chapter 5, p. 87). She is not terrified to oppose Ravana and refuses with vehemence his obsession of her. Ravana pleads, promises and swears to win her over but Sita steadfastly refuses him. Ravana said, “Be kind to me. I am dying for your love. I will give you a position greater than anything a goddess can have. Have consideration. Have mercy. I prostrate myself before you” (The Ramayana, Chapter 5, p. 87). Sita with strong determination based on her faithful love for Rama dares to face the powerful force of Ravana’s demands and threats. She is not broken down by her captivity and Ravana’s entreaties. Her strength of will, her faithfulness and her courage paint another picture of her heroism.
Rama is obviously not as staunch in this marital relationship as is Sita; he is more concerned about his reputation than his love for her. She willingly undergoes a trial by fire to demonstrate her fidelity. “She beckoned to Lakshmana and ordered, “Light a fire at once, on this very spot’” (p, 150 Interlude). Sita is bound to the purpose of showing her loyalty to her husband. “Sita approached the fire, prostrated herself before it, and said, ‘O Agni, great god of fire, be my witness.’ She jumped into the fire” (Interlude, p. 150).
Though suffering the pain of unproven innocence, Sita is not afraid to lose her reputation to prove her love for Rama. Her willingness to be tested is a significant lesson for all relationships based on love. True love is faithful through unexpected difficulties and struggles even when the partner does not stay the course. Sita does not focus on her suffering but on her loving, though unrequited relationship, with Rama.
Sita never ceases to show faithfulness to her husband even when he chooses his reputation over his acknowledgement of her innocence In the Interlude, it clearly says:
“Rama remained brooding for a while and suddenly said, ‘My task is done. I have now freed you. I have fulfilled my mission. All this effort has been not to attain personal satisfaction for you or me. It was to vindicate the honour of the Ikshvahu race and to honor our ancestor’s codes and values. After all this, I must tell you that it is not customary to admit back to the normal married fold a woman who has resided all alone in a stranger’s house. There can be no question of our living together again. I leave you free to go where you please and to choose any place to live in. I do not restrict you in any manner.” (p, 149)
“On hearing this, Sita broke down. ‘My trials are not ended yet,’ she cried. “I thought with your victory all our troubles were at an end …! So be it.’ She beckoned to Lakshmana and ordered, “Light a fire at once, on this very spot’” (p. 149).
Sita is the idyllic woman hero of the ancient world where patriarchy functioned to hold power over women (even goddesses) and cast a woman as the possession of her husband. With this background Sita is an ideal hero. Loving her husband unconditionally, responsibly and faithfully in the midst of great suffering and injustice Sita stands as a valiant model of a hero whose strength lies in her heart and spirit.
Narayan R. K. The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic (Suggested by the Tamil Version of Kamban). 1972. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Sattar, Arshia. The Ramayana. Valmiki. Penguin Books, India. 1996. New York: Penguin, 2000.
Sita Sings the Blues, www.sitasingstheblues.com/watch.html.