Sally J. Sutherland Goldman

in Hinduism

ISBN: 9780195399318
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:


Sītā, heroine of the ancient South Asian epic/narrative tale the Rāmāyaṇa, is the long-suffering wife of the epic’s hero Rāma. Called by such names as Vaidehī, “lady of Videha,” Jānakī, “daughter of Janaka,” and Maithilī, “lady of Mithilā,” Sītā has become the symbol of wifely devotion and sacrifice in Hinduism and has been held up as a role model to countless generations of women. Commonly given Vedic origins, it is not until the Sanskrit epics and early Buddhist literature that she appears as Rāma’s queen, and it is only in the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Vālmīki Rāmāṇaya, that her character is fully developed. Here, she is the daughter of King Janaka of Mithilā and wife of Rāma Dāśarathi, who follows her husband and brother-in-law Lakṣmaṇa into exile, is abducted by the ten-headed king of the rākṣasas, Rāvaṇa, and rescued by her husband and his army of monkeys, only once again, now pregnant, to be sent into exile by her own husband. Subsequent Sanskrit and regional versions of the narrative, as well as the numerous reworkings found beyond the subcontinent, render her in myriad ways. The role of Sītā is so significant in a number of these that the story is renamed in order to highlight her. Thus, we find works such as the Jānakīharaṇa, “the abduction of Jānakī,” the Sītāyana, “the adventures of Sītā,” and so on. In some versions, she is treated as a goddess in her own right. Despite, or more likely because of, the overwhelming force of traditional Hindu patriarchal norms that Vālmīki’s poem and other dominant regional versions glorify, there is a well-developed history of counter-Rāmāyaṇas that contest and subvert these very norms. A number of these contestations focus on Sītā. Thus, she becomes the subject of songs, poems, plays, movies, graphic novels, and the like, as well as a popular focus of feminist scholarship and activism. Sītā then comes down to us in the modern day as a significantly traditional yet multidimensional and complex marker of womanhood for millions of women throughout the world. She is the devoted and subservient wife of Rāma and yet a goddess in her own right, the very source of her husband’s power. She is the abused wife and yet an upholder of her self-esteem. The power of her character is such in the contemporary consciousness that no summary of studies and works on her would be complete without reference to a few modern representations of her in the performing and literary arts.

Article.  12998 words. 

Subjects: Hinduism

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