Kali – from the Ek Niwas temple, Wolverhampton, UK
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)
As you read the poem, you may have recognised its description of Kali, the black goddess who is often shown with a necklace of skulls and a protruding tongue, carrying the weapons of various gods. Frequently, she is also shown trampling on the inert corpse of her husband, Shiva, as in the picture above, although it is not till later in the poem that mention is made of him.
Why then is the usually demure, if spirited, Sita, who is indeed the daughter of King Janaka, portrayed as this violent, independently acting, mocking goddess of destruction? Why, specifically, does she abandon ‘her own form’ and take on this one, ‘fit for killing’? Where, we might ask, is Rama? And why does this Ravana have a thousand heads?
According to our text, the Adbhuta Ramayana, the ‘normal’ story, told in seven books, is only episode 1 – a trailer for the main film. Passing over the trailer very rapidly, and assuming the hearer knows that story, the Adbhuta contains what we might call, ‘Sita rides again’! or ‘The story of Book 8’. Rama does indeed slay the ten-headed Ravana (told in one verse! 16.17) and returns to Ayodhya with Sita (three verses, 16.18-20). But there, in front of a great assembly of sages who have come to honour Rama and his great victory, Sita declares that the real battle – against the thousand-headed Ravana – is yet to be fought! Rama protests that he is equal to the task, but when he confronts this even more terrible Ravana – and fails, it is Sita who rises to the challenge. Enter the laughing deity of our extract above… Playfully, teasingly, she lops off his heads, as if in sport of no effort. Warming to her task, she severs, shreds and cuts the other demons, creating mayhem. Then, making a garland of the demons’ heads, she plays ball with Ravana’s own, her team augmented by thousands of ‘mothers’, female demons who manifest from the hairs on her skin to join in the game!
Many verses later, we find the daughter of Janaka continuing to dance wildly, drinking blood from flesh, her simultaneous identity as Sita and as Kali left in no doubt whatever. The earth, shaken about like a boat in a storm, is in danger of being swamped by the wild dancing, so much so that, entreated by the gods, Śiva himself appears and – in the episode pictured in the devotional poster above – lies down in the form of a corpse at Sita’s feet, in order to save the earth. And no, the text does not say, ‘at Kali’s feet’, but ‘at Janaki’s feet’, that is, at the feet of Sita, the daughter of Janaka. Never are we left to forget that the terrible Kali is none other than Sita herself.
Who then is this Sita?
To explore this further, we need to ask more questions about the text itself, the Adbhuta Ramayana, and Sita’s role in it.