Sita across traditions: two key episodes

The testing of Sita

The ‘testing of Sita’ is one of the most famous episodes in different tellings of the Ramkatha.  In the Chinese Buddhist text, Rama told Sita he would have to send her back to her family as people would suspect her of unfaithfulness after being away from her husband for so long. As we saw, Sita challenged the earth to open to show her purity  and this inaugurated the new era of prosperity and good values in the land. 

You might want to see how this episode is related in Valmiki’s Ramayana – both in the fire test after the battle in Lanka and in the final book where Sita calls on the earth, her mother, who swallows her up (Yuddha Kanda Canto 8; Uttara Kanda Canto 2)

Modern devotional poster of Sita's fire test   Modern devotional poster of Sita’s fire test

Sita's fire test from a Mughal manuscript     Mughal illustration

You could try comparing Kamban’s 12th century Tamil telling (Shulman 1991) and with the ‘shadow Sita’ who is involved in Tulsidas’s Hindu devotional telling which he began in 1574 CE.  You can find the whole of Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas in the Gita Press edition online This edition gives the Avadhi text, a transliteration of this in roman (the letters who use in English) and an English translation.  The fire test can be found in Lanka Kanda 107-109, p.927ff, starting with Hanuman going to fetch Sita.  Note that Sita is sometimes called Ramā with a long ā at the end, meaning ‘Rama’s wife’. 

Below is another example of an episode involving Sita as told in three different South Asian narratives.  You might want to choose further episodes to compare, using the resources suggested as your starting point.

Sita’s threatened suicide

In Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, Book 5, the popular Sundara Kanda, which focuses on Rama’s loyal devotee, Hanuman, we find Sita in captivity on Lanka, despairing that Rama has not come to rescue her:

This rakshasa Ravana, who holds me captive, has very little strength.  Surely my husband is capable of killing him in battle.  Why then had Rama, who slew in battle that bull among rakshasas Viradha in the Dandaka forest, not come for me?  Granted it is difficult to assault Lanka, which is situated in the middle of the ocean.  Still, there is nothing in the world that can stop the flight of Raghava’s arrows.  Why has Rama, so firm in his valour, not come to rescue his beloved wife, who has been carried off by a rakshasa? …

(Sundarakanda 24.14-17, tr. Goldman and Sutherland Goldman)

Wishing there were someone in Lanka who could give her poison, that she might die, and surrounded by threatening rakshasa women guards, Sita then utters a poignant lament.  We can feel her pain, her lack of esteem, her desire to blame Rama, her refusal to do so:

The wise royal seer Rama, who is desirous only of righteousness, is, in reality, the supreme soul.  Perhaps he has no use for me as a wife.  Generally people have affection only for those who are actually present.  There is no love for those who are far away.  But then again, it is only ingrates who diminish their affection in this way.  Rama would never do so.  Is it that I am completely devoid of good qualities, or it is just the exhaustion of my good fortune, that I, Sita, a young woman, should be bereft of Rama, who is deserving only the finest thing.  It would be better for me to die than to live…

 (Sundarakanda 24.40-43, tr. Goldman and Sutherland Goldman)

She is like ‘a little girl abandoned in the midst of a desolate wilderness’ (26.2).  It is only as her body begins to tremble and throb, auspicious signs that Rama will indeed come, that her sorrow is dispelled and her face shines radiantly, like the moon emerging from an eclipse.  Cue for Hanuman to effect his entrance, tell his story, calm Sita’s fears that he is only a manifestation of Ravana in disguise and present her with Rama’s ring…

Sita’s grief and desire to commit suicide travels across the years and cultures through Southeast Asian folk stories from the 13th century to the 18th century Thai Ramakien, a Buddhist politico-cultural telling legitimating the place of the Thai ruler, Rama I, which stays close to Valmiki’s narration though changes the names, probably due to local pronunciations. In this telling, Sida’s desire is more than just a wish.

Held by the giant Totsakan (Ravana), who truly loves her, and crying out to ‘the Discus-bearer’, (Rama as a descent of Vishnu), Sida declares herself to be at her wit’s end, not wanting to live without him.  She slips away from the female guardian giants who are asleep, finds a tree and pays her final respects to the gods of the universe.

This glorious woman
Pulled down a branch of the big sok tree to hang herself.
She lifted herself up.
She took her garment and tied her neck firmly.
Then she bound it around the branch of the big sok tree.
 She closed her eyes and made her decision.
 Then the woman jumped down.
 Then the Son of the Wind, the Brave One,
  When he saw the woman

  Tie her neck and jump down, he was shocked.
  His body trembled as if it would die.
  His heart was troubled.  It was on fire.
  He jumped down,
  Immediately, with agility (Ramakien 195-197).

 Hanuman unties her and is delighted to find she is not dead.  He prostrates before her, only to hear her say:

O you beastly forest monkey,
Why did you do this evil thing?
I am suffering.
Totsapak kidnapped me and fled
From the Discus-bearer, the Refuge…
Why did you interfere
So that I did not die? (Ramakien 200).

Her mind is only changed as Hanuman tells her of Phra Ram and gives her back her own ring and the cloth used to cover her upper body that Totsapak had thrown at Sadayu, the great bird who tried to rescue Sita as she was being kidnapped (compare Valmiki Ramayana Kishkinda Kanda 58.20-23).

The only clear Buddhist reference in this text is that Phra Ram is said to have been the Buddha in a previous life.  However, its cultural significance, as a Thai story about a Thai prince is clear.  In common with other Southeast Asian tellings, the identification of the ruler with the great king Rama, a deity and ruler of the ideal kingdom or Ramraj, was used to legitimise a template for proper government.  In the great Emerald Buddha temple which was built along with the Grand Palace by Rama I to celebrate the inauguration of the secure independent Chakri dynasty after earlier conflicts with Burma, the Ramakien covers its walls in lively articulation of the story and the current ruler’s claims.

Click here for more on Sida’s later trials in the Ramakien and for illustrations of Buddhist temple art and contemporary performance.

Our Adbhuta Ramayana, by contrast, knows of Sita’s grief in exile, but tells the story excessively briefly and entirely from Rama’s point of view, interspersing its precis of the story of her kidnap (10.3-4) and rescue (16) with Rama’s exposition to Hanuman of who he really is, the omnipresent Supreme Lord, the tranquil Self which is wisdom (12.21), the ground and source of all the manifested cosmos as understood in the scheme of the Samkhya school, elaborating on the Katha Upanishad (1.3.13).  He is also the guide of all who practise yoga and is the one to whom devotion is due.  Sita is a bit part player in this first part of the text, her tears in exile being used by Rama to refill the ocean out of compassion for it (16.14-15).  But this is all a prologue to the Shakta text as we have it now, with chapter 17 beginning Sita’s tale of the 1000-headed Ravana:

O brahmin sages!  Whatever praise was given regarding the slaying of Ravana seems like a joke! (17.18)

While, as Rama’s wife, she properly asks Rama, the sages and other elders for permission to tell her story, Rama, it seems, is properly put in his place!  Thoroughly riled, Rama sets out with his army to kill this far worse threat, accompanied by Sita, no victim now, but seated in his aerial chariot facing the mighty foe alongside him until, Rama felled by this new Ravana, she manifests as Kali and destroys all, as we have seen.

Feminist tellings