One of the most significant and enduring women characters through the ages in the Hindu religion depicting a model of perfection and excellence with endearingly human traits is undoubtedly Devi Sita the consort of Lord Rama. Saints and sages confer on her unassailable heights of glory and consider her a woman who was ever-pure, ever-chaste, all patience and all suffering without a murmur. She is considered to be the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi the consort of Lord Vishnu both taking birth in the transitory plane of existence to illustrate to humanity the finest of virtues that need to be inculcated and put into practice. By using precept instead of word as the best method of instruction Devi Sita showed mankind that the path to perfection is by accepting and transcending suffering without being weighed down by anguish and pain. The method to be adopted is not by avoiding suffering but by subversion with the right mental attitude. This is more elevating and purifying than any ordeal of fire.
Birth and Early life
King Janaka of Videha dynasty was a just and wise King who ruled over the Kingdom of Mithila. He had attained the exalted status of ‘Rajarishi’ meaning a King who lives like a sage. As he and his wife Sunayana had no children he decided to conduct a Yagna. While ploughing a piece of land to prepare the ground for the Yagna he unearthed a casket in which he found a small baby girl. He named her Sita which means furrow. Symbolically it is stated that a small hole or furrow easily collects rain water (implying one who could easily assimilate) while a raised ground (implying a person with ego) can never accumulate rainwater. She is also referred to as Janaki and Vaidehi. Her birthplace is considered to be Janakpur in Mithila in modern day Nepal while some legends also state it as Sitamarhi in Bihar. She grew up to be a gentle and beautiful girl, virtuous and wise.
One day Sage Parashurama carrying his ‘Shiva Dhanush’ bow came to visit King Janaka. He then left his bow outside the royal hall and went inside with the King. On his return he was stunned to find it missing and wondered as only a person with great physical strength and power could lift it. Looking around he saw Sita playing with it. He then blessed her and gave the bow to King Janaka. He advised King Janaka to hold a Swayamvara so that only a groom worthy of her beauty and power would succeed in marrying her.
Soon she grew up to a marriageable age and King Janaka decided to hold a Swayamvara and whoever could string the bow given by Parashurama would win her hand in marriage. Noble princes from far and wide attend the Swayamvara but none was able to lift the bow and string it. Finally, Sage Vishwamitra arrived with Rama and Lakshmana, the sons of King Dasharatha and on Sage Vishwamitra’s request Rama lifted the bow and strung it. With his immense strength, he bent the bow and broke it. Sita then garlanded him and King Janaka joyfully conveyed the good tidings to King Dasharatha who rushed with his entourage and the marriage was then performed in a grand way and Sita proceeded to Ayodhya to her husband’s home.
Dasharatha ruled wisely and when it was time to retire he decided to hand over the reins to his eldest son Rama. He fixed a suitable day for the coronation after consulting the royal priests. The people were overjoyed and looked forward to the happy event. Unfortunately the King’s third consort Kaikeyi under the instigation of her maid Manthara wished to redeem the promises that the King had earlier made to her namely to crown her son Bharata King and to send Rama to the forest in exile for fourteen years. The King had no other option but to grant the two wishes. Thus, Rama and Sita accompanied by Lakshmana set out in exile willingly renouncing the comforts of the palace though Rama tried his best to dissuade them.
They decided to stay in Chitrakoota but Bharata came there with his entourage to persuade them to return. When they declined he decided to place Rama’s sandals to rule the kingdom in the name of Rama. To avoid further persuasion, Lord Rama decided to shift to the Dandakaranya forest. In the forest the sages sought Rama’s protection against the Rakshasas who were harassing them and Rama being a Kshatriya promised to help them. Sita advised him to proceed cautiously as they were alone in the forest and antagonising the Rakshasas would invite danger. Rama patiently heard Sita’s words of advice and reassured her that he would proceed carefully. They befriended Jatayu on the way. They then built a hermitage at a spot called Panchavati and lived happily for a time in a hermitage surrounded by scenic beauty.
Unfortunately their idyllic time soon came to an end as a demoness named Surpanaka who was the sister of Ravana, the King of Lanka on her wanderings came across Rama and was struck by his charming personality. She approached him and asked him to marry her but Rama sent her to Lakshmana stating that he already had a wife. Lakshmana too refused saying his duty was only to serve Rama. Enraged at their refusal Surpanaka rushed towards Sita in a fit of jealousy whereupon Lakshmana cut off her ears and nose and drove her away. Surpanaka was humiliated and went to her brother Ravana and narrated to him her misfortune. In order to incite him further she described Sita’s unparalleled beauty stating that she would be a fit Queen for Ravana. This gave Ravana the idea to abduct her.
Ravana approached his uncle Mareecha to assume the form of a golden deer to lure them away while he kidnapped Sita. As planned Ravana carried away Sita and killed Jatayu who came to protect Sita. Before dying Jatayu informed Rama and Lakshmana about the carrying away of Sita by Ravana.
Sita refused to listen to Ravana’s pleas of marriage and Ravana in anger kept her in Ashok Vatika garden with demonesses guarding her. Meanwhile Rama and Lakshmana searching for her in vain were finally led to Sugreeva and Hanuman who located Sita and gave her Rama’s ring as proof of identity. Ravana and the demonesses were subjecting her to great mental agony by forcing her to agree to marry Ravana and Sita shed copious tears of misery and despair. Hanuman then gave her courage and even though he begged her to accompany him on his back she refused stating that only Lord Rama could redeem her honour and take her back in glory. She then gave Hanuman her Chudamani (crest jewel) and blessed him. Rama then built a bridge towards Lanka and with his army of monkeys won the battle after defeating and killing Ravana. But happiness continued to elude Sita.
Sita’s Agni Pariksha
When Sita was brought to be reunited with Rama, he refused and in order to prove to the world about the purity and chastity of his wife subjected her to Agni Pariksha or the test through fire. She came out unsullied and unharmed and Rama gladly rejoined her. They then flew to Ayodhya in the Pushpak Vimana and Rama was crowned King and Sita became the Queen. Unfortunately her happiness was short lived when unable to bear the slander in certain sections of his kingdom that she had lived in another man’s house for a period of one year Rama banished her into exile for the second time.
Sita who was enceinte at that time wandered in the forest and finally took refuge in the hermitage of Sage Valmiki where she later gave birth to her twin sons Lava and Kusha. Though a single mother she raised them to be brave and virtuous. Eventually they were reunited with their father Lord Rama and after witnessing their acceptance she felt it was time to leave the world as she had completed her duties.
The Earth is said to have dramatically opened and she finally found refuge and happiness in the loving arms of her mother Bhumi Devi.
In the Ramayana written by Valmiki, Kamba and Tulsidas, Sita has always been a much revered figure and the values that she enshrined and portrayed are deemed exemplary. She has been eulogised in books, plays, movies and stories by countless generations not only in India but also in Nepal and other Hindu countries.
Janaki Mandir Seeta Amman Kovil
The famous temples dedicated to Devi Sita are Janaki Mandir in Nepal, Sita Mai Temple in Haryana, Sitakund in Bihar, Seeta Amman Kovil in Sri Lanka and Seeta Devi temple in Kerala.
The character of Sita though self effacing kept to the background unless there was a need to come forward. She had great self worth and was not a silent sufferer or weak in character. On many occasions she held her own individual opinion without being subjected to the will of her husband Lord Rama like insisting on accompanying him to the forest in exile, refusing to escape on Hanuman’s back from Ashoka Vatika, mercifully protecting the women who guarded her after the war stating that they were simply following orders etc. She is depicted as a paragon of feminine and wifely virtues. Her proper behaviour in various stages of life reiterates the veneration that has been accorded to women in Indian culture. The deeper inner esoteric meaning is that Sita represents the Jivatma while Rama represents the Paramatma. The human body represents Lanka and the Rakshasas represent character traits like Vibheeshana representing Sathva Guna, Ravana representing Rajo Guna and Kumbhakarna representing Tamo Guna. The Jivatma captured in the island of Lanka desires for union with the Paramatma. By seeing the Lord’s ring (receiving Brahma Jnana) from Hanuman (symbolising Guru) she finds a way to be one with Rama. This is the soul’s journey to salvation.