Contributed by Jacqueline Suthren Hirst
Perhaps the best-known and most widely spread South Asian story is that of Rama and Sita. Often assumed to be Hindu, it has numerous Jain, secular, caste and regional tellings as well as multitudinous different Hindu ones. Indo-Islamic love stories know it and refer to it in all sorts of different ways. Not confined to the Indian sub-continent, it also has a lively existence in Buddhist environments in South East Asia (e.g. Thailand, Burma, Laos) and is retold amongst South Asian diasporas worldwide. In UK schools, it makes an annual appearance in Religious Education lessons around the autumn festival of Divali, which, for some Hindus, commemorates Rama and Sita’s homecoming to Ayodhya.
The standard story tells of prince Rama, banished to the forest by his father as the result of a vow. Accompanied by his loyal half-brother, Lakshmana, and his faithful wife, Sita, he slays numerous demons in the forest, fulfilling his dharma (duty) to protect the earth. Sita, however, is kidnapped by the ten-headed rakshasa (demon) Ravana, who carries her away to his kingdom of Lanka. In captivity, Sita remains pure and chaste. Found by Hanuman, the monkey general, she is eventually rescued by Rama. Fighting alongside his army of monkeys and bears, Rama himself finally slays Ravana, and returns with his entourage to the city of Ayodhya, where he is crowned king.
With this in mind, you might be a little surprised at the following poem:
Bellowing at the mighty, valorous demon,
Laughing boisterously and loudly, Sita, daughter of Janak,
The goddess, who had many hideous forms, abandoned her own form,
[And took on a form] fit for killing…
Gaunt, with sunken eyes that whirled in circles…garlanded with skulls…
Harsh-voiced…with lolling tongue…
She was as black as ocean… .
Carrying bell and noose, sword and shield,
She jumped down quickly from her chariot
And fell on Ravan’s chariot like a hawk.
In a flash she playfully lopped off Ravan’s
Thousand heads with her sword.
(Adbhuta Ramayana 23.7-13, tr. Coburn)
What differences do you note from the ‘standard’ story? See Richman synopsis with rider.
Does the imagery in the poem remind you of any other Hindu goddess?
What questions would you want to ask to help you understand this poem better?