In This Article Sītā

  • Introduction
  • History
  • Other Rāmāyaṇas—Sanskrit
  • The Rāmāyaṇas beyond the Subcontinent
  • Sītā as an Object of Religious Devotion
  • Society and Politics
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Popular Culture
  • On Screen
  • Feminist Readings

Hinduism Sītā
by
Sally J. Sutherland Goldman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0086

Introduction

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.

Primary Sources

The Rāmāyaṇa story, and thus the story of Sītā, is told in many different versions. The earliest versions of this narrative are in Sanskrit (the Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata 3.258–3.275) and in Pāli (Dasaratha Jātaka). Although the priority of these versions is a matter of scholarly debate, the version of Vālmīki is unquestionably the most elaborate and fully developed version of these and is the one, whether deservedly or not, from which all later renditions of the story are commonly understood to derive either directly or indirectly. In addition, there are many subsequent versions of the Rāmāyaṇa story both in Sanskrit and in virtually every regional language of the subcontinent. Only a few of the most influential and popular versions of the tale that significantly influence our understanding of the character of Sītā are mentioned here.

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