Shakti Sadhana

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Auspicious Sita, come thou near:
We venerate and worship thee
That thou mayst bless us and prosper us
And bring us fruits abundantly.
Rig Veda, IV.57.6



SITA IN MAINSTREAM HINDUISM

Sita is one of the most popular Goddesses in Hinduism today, but She is very rarely approached from a Shakta viewpoint. On the contrary, She is most commonly understood as the consort-goddess par excellence -- ever loyal, submissive and obediant to Her superior husband, Rama, Avatar of the great god Vishnu, Ideal Hindu King of Ayodhya, and hero of the epic Ramayana (c. 400-100 BCE):

In that epic, Sita devotedly follows Rama into forest exile, adapting to the hardships of jungle life without complaint. When later kidnapped by the demon King Ravana, She endures Her captivity with grace, fortitude and unwavering faith in and love for Rama. When Sita's steadfast devotion is rewarded with rejection (Rama tells Her that He rescued Her not for love, but for His family's honor; and expresses doubt concerning Her fidelity while in Ravana's hands)-- She stoically accepts His judgment, and proves Her purity by immersing Herself in flames without harm.

Taking the Ramayana at its most literal level, patriarchal Hinduism found in Sita a model of the perfect Hindu wife. Women from traditional Hindu families were (and to a significant extent, still are) raised from girlhood to womanhood under Sita's inassailable example of wifely dharma, in which submission and selflessness are the most prized of womanly virtues. Take, for example, this declaration, spoken by Sita when Rama tells Her that She need not join Him in exile:




Sita abducted by the demon Ravana, in the Pata folk style of Orissa.



Sita living in forest exile with Rama and His brother Lakshmana,
in a traditional Indian miniature painting.
"A wife wins the fate of her husband, and not her own, O bull of a man! Knowing this, I shall live in the forest from now on! Here and hereafter, there is but one goal for a woman: her lord, and not her father, her child, herself, her mother nor her friends. ... O, take me with you noble husband! Do as I ask, for my heart is devoted only to you. If you leave without me, I shall die!"(The Valmiki Ramayana, Critical Edition, Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1960-75, II.24.3,4,18.)



ALTERNATIVE VIEWS OF SITA

Sita's monumental deference to Rama virtually ensured that She developed no independent existence as a Goddess -- at least, not in mainstream Hinduism.

As David Kinsley writes: "Sita is defined in the Ramayana, and in the subsequent cult of Rama, almost entirely in relation to Her husband. ... [She] never achieves the position of a great, powerful, independent deity. ... [She] lacks an identity, power, and will of Her own. She remains in Rama's shadow to such an extent that She is often hardly visible at all. ... In popular Hinduism today, Sita is revered as a deity, [but She] is rarely worshiped in Her own right. Though She is honored along with Rama, it is understood that She is not His equal."

Just as partiarchal Hinduism understands Radha principally as Krishna's ideal devotee, or Parvati principally as Shiva's ideal devotee, it understands Sita's primary role as the ideal devotee of Rama -- or, at best, as His benign, motherly intermediary; a lesser divinity who can help Rama's devotees win Her superior husband's attention and favors.

That's hardly the stuff of Shaktism, obviously -- wherein any goddess form is regarded as at least equal and usually superior to Her male consort. And so, although She is acknowledged as a form of Lakshmi (who does play a significant role in the worship of many Shaktas), Shaktism generally dismisses Sita as a problematic if not irrelevant aspect of Devi -- an incompletely realized Goddess, suitable only for Rama-worshiping Vaishnavas for whom the Divine Feminine is of but minor importance.

Yet, both of these views seem unnecessarily limited. I do not intend to criticize legitimate Hindu traditions, or to disparage those who hold to the centuries-old, patriarchal understanding of Sita. Nor do I wish to distort the Ramayana beyond recognition, forcing it into a Shakta interpretation where none is warranted. I would, however, like to point out that legitimate, and decidedly Shakta, approaches to Sita do exist; and that even standard approaches to the Ramayana carry a strong, if rarely recognized Shakta subtext.

Sita-focused manuscripts of the Ramayana tend to come from the traditional Shakta strongholds in the East and South of India. As N.N. Bhattacharyya writes in his "History of the Sakta Religion":

"It is interesting to note that in the Adbhuta Ramayana, a late work highly favoured by the Kashmirian Shaktas, Sita is stated to have killed Ravana [by] assuming the form of Kali. The said work identifies Sita with the Supreme Being of the Shaktas. The [practice] of associating Shaktism with Rama-Sita legends may be traced even to the Sanskrit Ramacarita of Abhinanda, which is a work of the tenth century. ... [And] in Sarala Dasa's Oriya Ramamyana, the tradition of the Adbhuta Ramayana is followed, in which Sita herself killed Ravana in the form of Bhadrakali. The story of the slaying of Ravana by Sita is also found in the Jaiminibharata and other later Bengali Ramayanas. According to the popular Rama legends of the Mathura region, it was Sita who killed Ravana and, having accomplished the task, went straight to Calcutta instead of Ayodhya and settled there permanently as Kali Mai."

Even in the most standard and popular versions of the epic, many basic tenets of Shaktism may be found illustrated: Sita is the Earth; She is Fertility; She is Cosmic Order; and She is the animating Shakti. I believe that a fresher, more rounded reading of the old story might be an enlightening experience for all concerned.

More on Sita :
Sita - The Silent Power of Suffering and Sacrifice


Sita meditating in a modern sculptural representation




Sita as
Independent Goddess
SITA AS EARTH/FERTILITY GODDESS

Sita did not spring into existence with the Ramayana. In fact, She predates that epic by a millennium or so, making Her earliest known appearance in the Rig Veda, where She is worshiped in several hymns as an agricultural and fertility deity. The Kausika Sutra also identifies Her as "mother of gods, mortals, and creatures," and equates Her with intelligence, growth, increase and prosperity. As Cornelia Dimmitt explains, "Sita literally means 'furrow,' as in a ploughed field, or the parting of the hair on the head; it also implies the female vaginal furrow as the source of life." Vedic writings "show that She was worshiped as a goddess, the furrow personified." She is a Goddess who connects the fecundity of the earth with the eternal divine; and no doubt Valmiki had these powerful associations in mind when he described Her extraordinary birth in the Ramayana. As Sita narrates:

"Truly when [King Janaka, Her father in the epic] was ploughing a round field, I appeared, splitting the earth, as the daughter of the king. ... He saw my body all covered with dirt and was amazed. Having no children of his own, he put me affectionately on his lap and said, overwhelmed with love for me, 'This is my child!'" (II.110.27-29) Similarly, at the end of the epic, Sita does not die, but rather re-enters a crevice of the Earth with "a mighty tremor," on a throne sent by Her Mother, identified as Madhavi Dharani, or "Earth, the Upholder." (VII.88)



Sita Worshiped By the Gods
Sita's ancient associations with fertility and the Earth are continually echoed throughout the Ramayana. Plants and animals constantly reflect Sita's actions and moods. As the very essence of Prakriti, or Nature, Sita does not find Her jungle exile fearful: "Just as Sita used to delight in going through the city parks, so is She now content in the forest solitude." (II.54.9) At one point, when Sita makes a sacrificial offering under a "green-leafed Nyagrodha tree," all growing plants are brought to Her for inspection (II.49). In general, Sita is presented "as if She were truly the mistress of vegetation," Dimmitt notes.

When Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, the forest itself reflects Her absence. as Rama surveys the spot from which She had been abducted -- "the trees nearby that seemed to be weeping, the melacholy birds, miserable deer, and faded flowers ..." (III.58.6). Similarly, while in captivity, Sita literally begins to wilt like a flower deprived of its sap; at one point She is described as "a lotus pool stripped of its flowers" (V.15). But when She returns to Ayodhya, "fruitless trees became fruitful; trees without flowers abounded in blossoms; those that were withered sprouted leaves, and the foliage dripped honey" (VI.112).

Sita has an similarly powerful effect on animals, another aspect of Nature: When She leaves Ayodhya, elephants and cows cease to perform their functions (II.36); when She is kidnapped, lions and tigers follow Her shadow (III.50), a vulture tries to rescue Her (III.14), deer show Rama the direction in which She was taken (III.60), a crow keeps them on the right path (IV.1), and an army of monkeys (led by the great God Hanuman) and bears helps Rama to defeat Ravana and rescue Her.

SITA AS UPHOLDER OF COSMIC ORDER

Shaktism -- and many non-Shakta schools of Hinduism -- associate Devi, the Goddess, with cosmic order. Countless legends, most prominently those associated with Durga in the Devi Mahatmyam, or with various other Goddess forms in the Devi Bhagavata Purana, depict Her as the force the Gods turn to when Universal Order is threatened by the forces of Chaos. Now, Sita is clearly no avenging warrior goddess like Durga or the Matrikas -- but a close reading of the Ramayana clearly reveals that Creation would unravel without Her.

This aspect of Sita can also be traced back to the Vedas, which contain a primary source for the Ramayana -- the legend of how the thunder god Indra (who becomes Rama in Valmiki's epic) defeated the demon Vritra (who becomes Ravana). In the Vedic tale, Vritra (literally, the "encloser" or "container") was withholding the sources of life -- water, rain, rivers, cows, sunshine, and fertile land (all of whom become Sita in the Ramayana) -- from humankind. After a mightly battle, Indra releases these life-giving forces back to the Earth (Rig Veda, I.32).

This Vedic legend reflects the understanding that Indra, as masculine fertility deity of the Vedic peoples, had as His primary function the task of "pouring down the rain that nourishes vegetation by impregnating Earth," Dimmitt explains. "Sita, on the other hand, is the feminine productive furrow who is thus fertilized. ... Two modes of fertilizing power are in these passages united in a sexual metaphor: the male thunderstorm mates with the female earth."

And this Indra legend is precisely repeated in the Ramayana, where Ravana, by kidnapping Sita, has "obstructed the growing processes of Nature by confining their source," as Dimmitt writes. "That Her death would mean the end of the world is echoed in Rama's expressions of despair at the thought of Her loss." And Ravana states that one of his principle motivations for kidnapping Sita is his knowledge that "Rama will not survive without Sita" (III.29).

The resolution of the crisis is the same in both legends: "Rama kills Ravana as Indra slew Vritra, and for the same purpose: to release the obstructed powers of fertility and prosperity for his people." The importance of Devi's grace (and more particularly Lakshmi's grace) to a King's legitimacy was an important idea in traditional Hinduism. Kinsley explains: "Just as the King is needed to activate or provoke the Earth into life and fertility, so the Earth's fruitfulness is necessary to the King's success as a ruler." And so it is only when Rama has returned Sita to His side that He is able to return to Ayodhya and initiate His legendary age of ideal and perfect rule.

SITA AS SHAKTI

Conventional readings of the Ramayana see Rama as a pure "action hero," and Sita as an essentially passive damsel-in-distress who gets herself into trouble and then must be rescued by a powerful male savior. But closer analysis reveals that Sita is in fact the moving force of the entire epic, none of which could have happened without Her: "It is Sita, as a Goddess in the mode of Shakti, or energy, who actually instigates the action Herself, forcing the hero again and again to acts of heroism." At all major turns in the narrative, Sita steps out of Her demure submission and imposes Her will. For example:

1. Sita vociferously insists on accompanying Rama into the forest after He has already decided to leave Her behind. (II.24).
"Ostensibly, Sita is behaving like a loyal and devoted wife," writes Dimmitt. "Actually, She is insisting on Her rights to be protected and cared for by Her husband; she is forcing Him to do his duty."

2. Sita insists on possessing the illusory golden deer, sent by Ravana to trick Rama into leaving Sita alone.
3. When Rama leaves His brother Lakshmana behind to guard Sita while He chases the deer, Sita taunts Lakshmana until he, too, leaves Her alone.

"It is clear that without Her complicity, no kidnap could have occurred," Dimmitt notes. "It is because of Her own actions that Sita finds Herself alone, unguarded in the forest, ripe for capture by the wicked Ravana."

4. When the Monkey God, Hanuman, sneaks into Ravana's fortress and offers to magically whisk Sita away without the need for battle, Sita refuses.
"Ostensibly [She] disdains to be touched by anyone other than Her husband, Rama," Dimmitt notes. "Actually She is compelling Rama to be a hero by insisting that He alone must save Her." As Sita Herself tells Hanuman, "When you deliver my message to Raghava [Rama], that brave man will be compelled by law to do his heroic duty" (V.37.11).

"Thus does Sita, as Rama's Shakti, or motivating power, actually move the story forward by Her actions," Dimmitt concludes. "Not the passive victim She appears to be at first, Sita is rather the subtly active provovateur whose actions inspire the heroism of Her spouse."

And in a tale that seems, on its surface, utterly anathemic to Shaktism, it is interesting to note that two other female characters in the story also provide indispensible Shakti movement to the narrative, energizing their men by providing further motivation central to the epic: First, there is Kaikeyi, King Dasharatha's wife, who sets the epic in motion by insisting that Rama be banished so that her son can claim the throne of Ayodhya for himself. And second, there is Shurpanakha, Ravana's sister, who -- after she makes sexual advances upon Rama -- has her ears and nose chopped off by Lakshmana (III.17). Shurpanakha demands that Ravana avenge this indignity, thus providing the demon with his primary motivation for kidnapping Sita.

Thus, the observant Shakta should recognize in Sita not merely a docile consort, but a more importantly, a subtle manifestation of Shakti's supreme movement, existing deep in the very weave of this most "un-Shakta" of Hindu scriptures.

Indeed, the Ramayana itself refers to Sita at several points by the epithet, Ardhangini, "the half-body of Her husband" -- recalling the perfect Yin-Yang equality of Parvati and Shiva in the form of Ardhanarishwari -- and the overall sense of the text suggests that "Rama and Sita are to be regarded as one being, Her virtue the source of His power," Dimmitt observes. Indeed, Rama Himself declares: "Sita is to me what light is to the sun. ... I can no more forsake Her than an honorable man can renounce his honor" (VI.106).

And so Sita -- Earth Goddess, Fertility Goddess, Upholder of Cosmic Order, and Shakti -- when joined with Her masculine half, Rama, contributes Her divine power to His realm as devoted consort. United with the Hero/God, the Goddess Sita -- like all forms of Devi -- becomes the source and support of the ongoing prosperity of the world that is symbolized in the Rama's divine, 10,000-year rule.

WHY MODERN HINDU WOMEN LOVE SITA

Despite Sita's submissive, secondary status in the Ramayana, it is extremely important to note that She is one of the most beloved deities among Hindu women -- perhaps because She most closely reflects the everyday reality of their lives. She is demure yet quietly powerful; outwardly sublissive but inwardly very strong. She does not seek recognition or reward for this strength; She simply possesses it and employs it to better the lives of those who rely upon Her. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of Shaktism.

(For more on this topic, read "Sita's Garden of Epic Longing", by the excellent Indian essayist, Nabaneeta Dev Sen.)

In reviewing my preliminary draft for this page, two very different Hindu women kindly offered some enlightening comments. The first said, "My impression of Rama is that, quite frankly, he was a good king but a lousy husband. This may anger some people, so I hasten to add that this was not his fault. It was more of a social thing; he did what he was required to do from a social perspective. His people doubted Sita's chastity, and this reduced his authority as king, and so he put her aside.

"In a way Sita is stronger than Rama, because she accepts her dues without hesitation. She does not look for other people to blame. Rama is weak because he is not able to look past social convention and see justice. Even though he knows that his wife is innocent, he is not able to stand up for Her. So in a way, Rama is blind. He is more interested in keeping up social appearances than in doing what is right in an absolute sense. Only the Mother, Bhuv, accepts Her daughter unconditionally, with open arms."

My second commentator noted that Sita's great strength in adversity provides an inspiration for modern women. She said, "You did not mention the excellent role that Sita Devi performed in bringing up Her twin sons, Lava and Kusha, in Valmiki's forest ashram. In this sense, She is a role model to single mothers -- something that Shaktas should cherish." The first commentator agreed: "I wanted to mention this too. I know about Sita's exile in the forest, but I always wondered who helped Her there. There is no mention of it in the epic. Is it because Her achievement is perceived as insignificant that nothing was mentioned?"

The second added that, in the above discussion of the points at which Sita strongly asserts Her will, I left out several important episodes -- for example, Rama's request that Sita undergo another fire ordeal (years after the first) to once again prove Her chastity: "Sita Devi asserted Herself rather strongly again when Sri Rama wanted to put her to the agni pariksha the second time around -- She flatly refused and asked her Mother, Earth, to take Her back into Her womb! I believe you will find that there are many instances in the Ramayana where Sita Devi asserts herself very strongly as a woman in her own right."

Aum Maatangyai Namahe



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