Uttara: A Story of Sita’s Sexual Assault, and How Patriarchy Turned It into Her ‘Sin’
Written by Arshia Sattar, Uttara provides a commentary on the Uttara Kanda, which is perhaps the most problematic part of seven books that comprise the Valmiki Ramayana. Sattar presents the role that Sita played in this part—where she has already been through one agni pariksha to prove her 'purity,' but still has to answer for it. She is treated constantly as some sort of damaged goods, and Sattar presents an alternate view—that Sita wasn't banished, that she left an overt patriarchal society to go back to a life that she preferred.
The banishment of the pregnant Sita into the forest is surely one of the most poignant moments in the Ramayana. In the Valmiki text, it occurs in the middle of the Uttara Kanda at a seemingly tranquil time when, after his coronation, Rama has been absorbed in stories about the exploits of Ravana and other beings that he has encountered in the course of his previous adventures. The stories are being told to him by various sages, chief among them being Agastya. Often, the stories are triggered by a question, by Rama’s curiosity about why things were the way they were or how someone had been defeated. After a number of these tales have been told, Rama dismisses the monkeys and bears who had followed him to Ayodhya. In the same way that he had honoured the kings who had attended his coronation with gifts, Rama is generous in his presents to his allies as well. There are tearful farewells, but the forest dwellers return to their own lands. At that very moment, there is a voice from the sky. Pushpaka, the wondrous flying vehicle, has returned, pleading to be in Rama’s service now that it has been released by Kubera. Rama honours the vehicle and sends it away promising to call it when needed. Rama then listens with pleasure to his brother Bharata’s report that during his month as ruler of Ayodhya, his kingdom has prospered, his people are healthy and happy and they wish for his long and successful reign.
Rama retires to his pleasure gardens with Sita where they eat and drink and are entertained with music and dance. Between these pleasures, both Rama and Sita attend to their duties, religious and secular. Sita takes care of her mothers-in-law and Rama attends to matters of state. Very soon, Sita is pregnant and Rama is delighted, promising to fulfil her every wish. She asks that she be allowed to visit the sages in the forest, to spend a night with them and eat only roots and fruits, reliving the simple joys of their time away from the city.
Rama goes to his court where his advisors and others in his royal retinue are waiting for him. They, too, tell him amusing stories and Rama says to one of them, ‘What do they talk about in the city, Bhadra? The city dwellers and those that live in the country, what do they say?’
Rama is clearly not prepared for what he hears next.
Bhadra joined his palms and with a steady mind, he said to radiant Rama, ‘Listen, king, to what the citizens are saying, the good and the bad, on the streets and in the markets, in the forests and in gardens. “Rama did a difficult thing when he built the bridge over the ocean, such a thing had never been done before, not even by the gods and the danavas. He destroyed invincible Ravana along with his army and his chariots. And he brought the monkeys and bears under his control, along with the rakshasas. He killed Ravana in battle and he brought Sita back. He turned his back on anger and led her into his own house. How could he take Sita back into his heart? How could he enjoy pleasures with her when she had been snatched from him by Ravana and had even sat on his lap? Ravana had taken her to Lanka and kept her in the ashoka grove—she was at the mercy of the rakshasas. How can Rama not be repulsed? We shall have to treat our wives in the same way—for whatever a king does, his subjects must do the same.” This, and various other things, are what the citizens are saying, king, in the city and everywhere in the country.’
Rama grew agitated when he heard this. He said to his friends, ‘What is this? Tell me!’
They hung their heads and bowed to him and replied, ‘It is sad, but it is true!’
. . .
Rama, scorcher of his enemies, dismissed them all when he heard what they had said. After he had sent his friends away, he began to worry about what he should do.
Why is Rama so sensitive to this gossip, so much so that he banishes the wife that he loves to the forest, not even sure if he will ever see her again? How did things come to this pass, since after the final battle in the Yuddha Kanda, Sita is proven innocent through the trial by fire? The gods, sages, siddhas and charanas all applaud her chastity from the heavens. Her earthly witnesses, apart from her husband and brother-in-law, are rakshasas, the monkey and bears, many of whom join Rama’s triumphal return to Ayodhya. The Yuddha Kanda (and arguably, the entire story) ends happily with Rama restored to his rightful place as king, his beloved wife, his devoted brother and his valiant allies by his side. Most importantly for this ending of the story, Sita’s chastity has been proven, she has been vindicated and Rama has taken her back.
The Uttara Kanda unstitches this happy end, leaving a tangle of loose ends that it will tie up in its own way with entirely different implications for how we consider all that has gone before.
Temporally, the Uttara Kanda locates itself in the time right after Rama’s coronation and stays with him until he ascends to heaven. As such, we find that the Uttara Kanda plays the part of the audience of the text, asking the questions, raising the doubts that sceptical readers and listeners might have about the events that took place in the earlier part of the story. This time, the question is simple, if devastating: what did Sita do when she was a prisoner in Lanka? Surely, she must have succumbed to Ravana’s power, if not his charisma. Perhaps she surrendered to him just in order to survive. Worse, Sita is now pregnant. In order to mitigate the subtext of sexual desire and choice that these real questions contain, the overt complaint that Rama’s citizens make is expressed rather more aspirationally. Citizens need to follow the example of their king, they need to behave as well as he does. Now that the king has taken back a wife who has been in the house of another man, the citizens will have to do the same—and they do not have Rama’s exalted capacity to do the best thing at all times, to always stand firm in dharma. Nevertheless, however the citizens’ concerns are framed, the first stones against Sita have been cast. And the worm of doubt wriggles into the tradition that tells this story. Or perhaps it is the other way around—that the later tradition betrays an anxiety about what happened in Lanka and writes an addendum to the story in which its doubts are placed in the mouths of devoted citizens.
While the Uttara Kanda asks narratively important (if naive) questions about who and what and how and where and when, the answers it provides tend to shut down the story in terms of our engagement with the characters and the choices they make. Typically, the answers tend to resort to either the infallibility of
Rama’s divinity or one of several inevitabilities generated through boons, curses and predictions. These eliminate the possibility that characters in the Valmiki Ramayana, be they human or divine, make choices at all. As readers and listeners, we are no longer able to think about the crucial dilemmas that they face and how and why they decide to act in the way that they do. On the other hand, if we see Rama’s actions through the later lens that bhakti offers us, we can think more deeply about what it means for a god to act in the world of men. Such a lens could significantly deepen and broaden our idea of divinity itself. It also keeps open the thrilling possibility of encountering the divine in our lives.
For all that the Uttara Kanda has papered over the cracks in terms of why Rama had to ask Sita to leave, there is one crack that remains open, its paper peeling. Whether or not it is an apotheosis, we can still see Sita’s departure as her choice.
Despite everything that the Uttara Kanda does to persuade us that this story about a woman accused of infidelity has been sealed in approved ways, the peeling crack allows us to see Sita for ourselves: not as a woman who was manipulated by an increasingly patriarchal structure, but as a woman who opted out of a system that had robbed her of her dignity. And this is what enables us to enter the universe of the Ramayana and make it our own.
These selected portions have been excerpted from the essay The Banishment of Sita that appears in Uttara by Arshia Sattar, published by Penguin Random House India.
Arshia Sattar has a PhD in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. Her translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana is now a bestselling Penguin Classic. Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish is a series of essays that reads the Ramayana as a tragic love story. Penguin has also published The Mouse Merchant: Money in Ancient India as well as her translation of Somadeva’s Tales from the Kathāsaritsāgara. She works with myth, epic, and the story literatures of the subcontinent.
You can buy Uttara: The Book of Answers here.