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One of the most popular heroines in Hindu mythology is Sita. She is known primarily as the wife of Rama, the hero of the epic Ramayana. As one of the protagonists of the Ramayana, Sita is revered as the model Hindu wife, who, although the victim of injustices, always remains loyal and steadfast to her husband. The divinity of Rama and Sita is not stressed in the early Ramayana of Valmiki (written sometime between 200 B.C. and A.D. 200), but they increasingly become identified as manifestations of the god Vishnu and his consort Sri-Lakshmi in later vernacular renditions of the tale. As early as the fourteenth century Rama is praised as the supreme manifestation of the divine,' and in North India today millions of Hindus consider him and Sita the supreme divine couple. Throughout this period of divinization, Sita has achieved her status primarily in relation to Rama. It is her wifely role, which has come to serve as a paradigm in Hindu mythology, legend, and folktale, which has defined Sita and made her dear to so many Hindus. Sita is the perfect model of wifely devotion.

Although Sita is associated with the wife of Rama in the minds of all Hindus today, a female divinity named Sita was known prior to Valmiki's Ramayana, and this deity was associated with agricultural fertility. Just why Valmiki associated the name of this deity with his heroine is not entirely clear, but that he did so consciously seems beyond doubt.

The Early History Of Sita

The word Sita means "furrow," "the line made by the plow," and is the name of a goddess associated with plowed fields in Vedic literature.

In a hymn addressed to the lord of the fields, Ksetrapati, Sita is invoked as follows:

Auspicious Sita, come thou near:
we venerate and worship thee
That thou mayst bless and prosper us
and bring us fruits abundantly.

May Indra press the furrow down,
may Pushan guide its course aright.
May she, as rich in milk, be drained for us
through each succeeding year.

In the Kausika-sutra Sita is the wife of Parjanya, a god associated with rain. She is the "mother of gods, mortals and creatures" and is petitioned for growth and prosperity. In the Paraskara-sutra Sita is the wife of Indra, a god often associated with rain and fertility, and is offered cooked rice and barley in the sacrificial fire. In the Vajasaneyi-sarhhita Sita is invoked when four furrows are drawn during a sacrificial ritual. This is reminiscent of plowing the ground upon which the fire altar is built during the Agnicayana ritual, an act apparently intended to ensure the abundance and fertility of the crops' Siti is also invoked as on~ of the names of the goddess Arya in the Harivamsa.

0 goddess, you-are the altar's center in the sacrifice,
The priest's fee,
Sita to those who hold the plough,
And Earth to all living beings.
Sita is not a very significant deity prior to the Ramayana of Valmiki. She is not mentioned very often and is overshadowed by much more popular goddesses associated with fertility, such as Sri-Lakshmi. Nevertheless, Sita does seem to be part of a fundamental intuition concerning the fertility of the plowed earth and the necessity of a male power to awaken, arouse, and inseminate her. Underlying Sita's connection with Indra, Parjanya, and other male deities associated with the inseminating effects of rain seems to be the basic perception that the ongoing fertility of the cosmos is the result of the interaction between the sky and the earth, between male and female, between the latent powers of the field and the inseminating effects of the plow, which opens the earth for the insertion of seeds into her fertile interior.

Kings & The Fertility Of The Earth

Identification of Rama's wife with a goddess of the plowed fields, with a goddess of fertility, seems to be related to the central role that kings in ancient India were assumed to play in promoting the fertility of the land 8 The interrelation between fertility and the manly vigor and power of the ruler or king finds its prototype in the Rig-veda, where the mighty god Indra combats the demon Vrtra, who withholds the creative, nourishing waters of creation. Indra having defeated the demon, the waters rush forth to fructify the earth and create a fertile, habitable cosmos fit for human civilizaion.

The theme of the king's bringing forth the abundance and fertility of the earth is central in the myths concerning Prthu, the first human king. In these myths the necessity of a king is related in part to the chaotic and barren nature of the earth in the mythic past. Prior to Prthu's reign the earth was inhospitable, her terrain was impossible to cultivate, and her fertility remained untapped. The Mahabharata describes Prthu as leveling the earth's mountains and hills to make her fit for agriculture and as milking the earth like a cow. As the legendary model for kings, one of Psthu's chief functions is to bring forth the fertility of the earth.

According to the Prthu myths, the earth, although fertile and potent, does not or cannot yield the abundance of her interior without being stimulated, activated, or, in the image of the Mahabharata, "milked" by a heroic, royal figure. Conversely, it is understood that the king's reign will not be fruitful, that he will not be successful, unless he can draw forth the richness of the earth. 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.

Certain myths and certain Vedic rituals indicate the theme of the king's winning the fruits of the earth. In various ways the king relates to, interacts with, or captures things that are related to the earth, such as cows. These acts symbolize the king's ability to draw forth from the earth her treasures and abundance. They symbolize the king's ability to "milk" the earth of her richness for the benefit of all living creatures. 'O The myth of the churning of the ocean may also be understood in this vein." Vishnu, as the cosmic ruler in this myth, usually plays the central role and dominates the action in his various forms: as the tortoise that provides the foundation for the churning stick; as the cosmic serpent, Vasuki, who provides the churning rope; as the seductress Mohini, who prevents the demons from partaking of the nectar of immortality; and as the leader of the gods. The central action of the myth is the churning of the ocean of milk to make it yield the nectar of immortality. Vishnu represents the active ruler who brings his power and ingenuity to bear on the passive fertility of the cosmos. The result of Vishnu's action is the drawing forth of representations of the abundance of the earth. Central among these are the nectar of immortality and the goddess Sri-Lakshmi. Sri represents good k "k, well-being, abundance, and fertility and is well known as dwelling wherever a righteous king reigns. She is sovereignty personified, and where she dwells there always exist wealth and abundance of all good things.

The Ramayana takes care to portray Rama as the ideal king and his rule as a model of social perfection. It is therefore not surprising that we would encounter the theme of Rama relating to, interacting with, or winning the riches of the earth. In fact, his winning Sita at her svayamvara (a suitor's contest for a bride), their subsequent marriage, and Rama's regaining STta from the clutches of the demon Ravana should probably be understood as an expression of this basic and ancient pattern in Indian religion. It is clear in the Ramayana that Sita is no mere human being. Her birth is supernatural, and her abilities and appearance are exalted throughout the text. She is, for example, called ayonija, "not born of a womb", and in appearance she is often likened to Sri-Lakshmi.

The nature of her birth (as well as her name) also makes it clear that Sita fits the theme of the mutual and necessary interaction between a king and the earth, which alone leads to fertility and abundance. According to the Ramayana, Sita is literally unearthed when her father. King Janaka, is plowing . Given Janaka's position as a great king, ruler of Videha, it seems extremely unlikely that he was simply in the fields farming when Sita was discovered. What is more likely is that Janaka was involved in some royal ritual, part of which involved the king's plowing the earth to bring about fertility." It is also probable that the act of the king's plowing the field was likened to sexual intercourse, a symbolic coupling of the king (and the powers he represented or contained) with the latent powers of the earth. The effectiveness of the ritual plowing, then, is manifest in the birth of Sita, the earth's personified fertility, abundance, and well-being, which has been brought forth by Janaka.

The marriage of Rama and Sita represents a further interplay between a vigorous, virtuous, powerful king and a woman who symbolizes the fecund forces of the earth, a woman who is literally the child of the earth. Their marriage institutes a relationship in which Sita is, as it were, plowed by Rama the king. The ultimate result of this auspicious relationship between kingly virility and earthly fertility is the inauguration of Ramrajya, "the rule of Rima," an idealized reign in which harmony, longevity, order, fruitful crops, and all social, political, and economic virtues dominate society to the exclusion of all ills.

Interposed between the marriage of Rama and Sita and the inauguration of Ramrajya is the central part of the epic narrative in which Rama is banished from the capital city, Sita is abducted by the villain Ravana, and Rama and his allies defeat Ravana and recapture Sita. During Rama's exile, Ayodhya, the capital of Rama's kingdom, is desolate. The citizens bemoan Rama's absence, and in all respects the situation is contrasted with the times when Rama was present there is Doubly traumatic is the situation later in the forest when Sita is kidnapped and separated from Rama. At one point Rama is reduced to a blubbering, half-maddened wreck and must be returned to sobriety by the appeals of his brother Lakshmana, who tells him it is unmanly and improper to lament.

In summary, traditional Indian religion viewed the king as a figure who could stimulate, activate, or somehow draw forth from the earth her creative potential. Indeed, it was held that without the king's beneficial influence, without the manly vigor of the king, the earth's fecundity would remain untapped; the earth would remain unproductive. The king entered into a relationship with the earth in which he could stimulate her, a relationship that was understood as not unlike a marriage. 'This marital relation of the ruler to the earth is directly expressed in the word Bhupati lord of the earth' i.e. king. In the Ramayana Rama's wife is associated with the powers of the earth, or the earth itself, through her name and through her unusual birth. Underlying Sita's epic character and personality is the ancient fertility goddess associated with the plowed field, who was worshiped for abundant crops and who was ritually activated by rulers in certain contexts. Sita, the epic heroine, has ancient roots, and one important dimension of her character associates her with the primordial powers of the earth.

The Ideal Wife

Sita is defined in the Ramayana and in the subsequent cult of Rama almost entirely in relation to her husband. She is portrayed as the ideal Hindu wife, whose every thought revolves around her husband. For Sita Rama is the center of her life. She is always steadfast in her loyalty to him. His welfare, reputation, and wishes are uppermost in her mind. The Manu-dharma-sastra describes the ideal wife as a woman who always remains faithful to her husband, no matter what his character might be: "Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure elsewhere, or devoid of good qualities, a husband must be constantly worshiped as a god by a faithful wife" The same text, commenting on the necessity for protecting women throughout their lives, says: "Her father protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in old age; a woman is never fit for independence". Sita is the ideal pativratar the wife devoted entirely to her husband. In her selfless devotion and sexual fidelity khepativrata nourishes an inner heat that both purifies her and provides her with a destructive weapon that can be used against those who might threaten her purity.20 This inner heat generated as a result of marital fidelity seems to be similar to tapas in the context of asceticism. Tapas is both the act of doing asceticism. Or something virtuous, and the result of doing that action, namely, an inner heat or fire.

Sita's mythological role as the ideal wife and pativrata is illustrated in several incidents in the Ramayana. When Rama is told by his father that he will not inherit the kingdom and that he must go into exile in the forest for fourteen years, he prepares to leave Sita behind in the city of Ayodhya because he thinks that she could not bear the ordeals and discomforts of the forest. She is grief stricken at this plan and delivers a long discourse to him on her desire to go into exile with him. The point to which she returns often is that a husband is a god to his wife and that aparto' from him a wife might as well commit suicide, so meaningless would be her existence. She threatens to kill herself unless he relents and allows her to go with him to the forest. She begins her plea with these words:

"O Son of an illustrious monarch, a father, a mother, a brother, a son or a daughter-in-law enjoy the fruit of their merits and receive what is their due, a wife alone follows the destiny of her consort, 0 Bull among Men; therefore, from now on, my duty is clear, I shall dwell in the forest! For a woman, it is not her father, her son, nor her mother, friends nor her own self, but the husband, who in this world and the next is ever her sole means of salvation. If thou dost enter the impenetrable forest to-day, 0 Descendant of Raghu, I shall precede thee on foot, treading down the spiky Kusha Grass. . . . I shall willingly dwell in the forest as formerly I inhabited the palace of my father, having no anxiety in the Three Worlds and reflecting only on my duties towards my lord. Ever subject to thy will, docile, living like an ascetic, in those honey-scented woodlands 1 shall be happy in thy proximity, 0 Rama, 0 Illustrious Lord.

Rama replies to her by describing all the dangers and discomforts of the forest and tells her that he cannot bear to inflict these things on her, that she must stay behind in the comfort of the city under the protection of her in-laws. She replies by saying:

The hardships described by thee, that are endured by those who dwell in the forest, will be transmuted into joys through my devotion to thee. .. . separated from thee I should immediately yield up my life. . . . Deprived of her consort a woman cannot live, thou canst not doubt this truth where I am concerned. . . . 0 Thou of pure soul, I shall remain sinless by following piously in the steps of my consort, for a husband is a God."

In her utter loyalty to Rama she compares herself to Savitrl, who followed her husband to the realm of the dead, and says that she has never seen the face of another man, even in her thoughts. She says that the forest discomforts will be enjoyed by her as pleasures as long as she can be with him. She sums up her plea to Rama: by saying: 'To be with thee is heaven, to be without thee is hell, this is the truth!" When Ravana abducts Sita and takes her to Lanka, he keeps her prisoner in a garden surrounded by demonesses. Several long descriptions portray Sita's pitiful condition in the absence of Rama. Through a series of metaphors Valmiki tries to capture both Sita's great beauty and her great grief. The latter has clearly eclipsed the former but cannot altogether hide it. In the words of the Ramayana she was resplendent with a radiance which now shone but dimly so that she seemed like a flame wreathed in smoke.

. .. she resembled a lotus pool stripped of its flowers. Oppressed, racked with grief, and tormented, she was like unto Rohini pursued by Ketu. ... Entangled in a mighty web of sorrow, her beauty was veiled like aflame enveloped in smoke or a traditional text obscured by dubious interpretation or wealth that is melting away or faith that is languishing or hope that is almost extinguished or perfection unattained on account of obstacles or an intellect which is darkened or fame tarnished by calumny.

Musing on her appearance, Hanuman, the loyal monkey ally of Rama, says: 'Tor a woman the greatest decoration is her lord and Sita, though incomparably beautiful, no longer shines in Rama's absence". Although her beauty is dimmed, although she lacks the presence of Rama, who alone gives her life meaning, she is described throughout this section of the narrative as constantly remembering Rama. Keeping him always in her mind, she is sometimes described as shining beautiful) as a result of this steadfastness. 'Though that blessed one was shorn of her beauty, yet her soul did not lose its transcendency, upheld as it was by the thought of Rama's glory and safeguarded by her own virtue".

Ravana comes to the garden and proposes that Sita abandon Rama and take him as her husband. She is shocked at this suggestion and refuses. Ravana then threatens that he will give her two months to agree to his wishes. If, after that time, she refuses, he will cut her up and have her for breakfast. Sita shows great pride and courage in the face of Ravana's threats. At one point she tells him that if she wished she could burn him to ashes with the fire that she has accumulated from her chastity. She refuses to do so, she says, simply because she has not been given Rama's permission.

When Hanuman finds Sita in her garden prison he proposes to return her to India by carrying her on his back. Given Sita's predicament and her longing to see Rama again, it would be natural for her to accept this offer of rescue joyfully. She does not agree to return with Hanuman, however, because to do so would mean touching another male besides her husband, which would violate her devotion to Rama. She also refuses to accept Hanumans offer because it would mean that Rama would not obtain the glory involved in rescuing her. Sita displays in this scene her habit of always thinking of Rama first. His welfare and reputation are uppermost in her mind. To her it would be wrong to think of her own safety first if it would mean adversely influencing Rama's reputation or opportunity for fame and glory. Ravana attempts to persuade Sita to accept him as her new husband by having his court magician create a head that resembles Rama's and a bow like Rama's. Taking these to Sita, Ravana claims that Rama has been defeated in battle and slain. In her shock and lamentation Sita's chief thought is that it must have been some fault of hers which resulted in Rama's untimely and undignified death. A virtuous woman sustains her husband and prevents his untimely death. Only some shortcoming or unvirtuous act, she thinks, can explain the tragedy. She begs Ravarta to take her to the body of her husband and slay her there so that she can be united with him in death.

After Rama defeats Ravana, Sita's loyalty to her husband is severely tested. Sita is brought before Rama, and she beams with joy at seeing him. He, however, scowls at her and announces that he has only undertaken the defeat of Ravana in order to uphold his family's honor and not out of love for her. He says that it would be lustful and ignoble for him to take her back after she had spent time under the control of another man. He disclaims her and even invites her to associate with one of his brothers or one of the surviving demon heroes. He concludes this frosty interview with her by saying: "Assuredly Ravana, beholding thy ravishing and celestial beauty, will not have respected thy person during the time thou didst dwell in his abode".

Sita is shocked at this accusation and protests her innocence, saying that although it is true that Ravana handled her, she could have done nothing to prevent it, that he abducted her by means of superior strength, and that throughout her ordeal and stay in Lanka she remained completely faithful to her husband and thought of him constantly. Grieved by Rama's false accusations, she asks Lakshmana to make a funeral pyre for her. Having displeased Rama and having been renounced by him publicly, she wishes to die. When the fire has been kindled Sita prepares to enter it by circumambulating Rama and then addressing Agni, the god of fire, with the words: "As my heart has never ceased to be true to Raghava, do thou, 0 Witness of all Beings, grant me thy protection! As I am pure in conduct, though Rama looks on me as sullied, do thou, 0 Witness of the Worlds, grant me full protection!" Because of her innocence and purity, Agni refuses to harm her and returns her to Rama so unscathed that even her flower garland remains unwithered by the heat of the flames. Rama, convinced of her purity, accepts her back and says that he will protect her forever.

Back in Ayodhya, however, when everyone is living happily ever after and the glorious era of Ramrajya is under way, Rama hears that his citizens are gossiping about Sita and are unhappy that he accepted her back after she was under Ravana's control. To stop this gossip and to set a stainless example for his subjects, Rama decides to banish Sita from his kingdom, even though he has just learned of her pregnancy. He commands his brother Lakshmana to take Sita to a deserted place and abandon her. When iakshmaria tells Sita of Rama's decision, her predilection is again to blame some fault of her own, either in this life or a past life, for bringing about her ill luck. She does not blame Rama, nor does it seem to occur to her that he might be in the wrong . She asks Lakshmana to send Rama this message:

0 Raghava, thou knowest I am truly pure and that I have been bound to thee in supreme love, yet thou hast renounced me in fear of dishonor, because thy subjects have reproached and censured thee, 0 Hero. . . . As for me, I am not distressed on mine own account, 0 Prince of Raghu, it is for thee to keep thy fair name untarnished! The husband is as a God to the woman, he is her family, and her spiritual preceptor, therefore, even at the price of her life, she must seek to please her lord.

After Sita has given birth to twin sons and has spent several years in exile in a forest hermitage, Rama summons her back to Ayodhya to undergo an ordeal that will absolve him of all shame and demonstrate her innocence once and for all. Although he himself is convinced of her innocence, he demands a public ordeal in order to convince his subjects. Sita agrees, but it seems that she no longer relishes life; she asks, on the basis of her purity and loyalty to Rama, to be taken back into the bosom other mother, the goddess Earth. She says: "If, in thought, I have never dwelt on any but Rama, may the Goddess Madhavi receive me!" As she finishes this act of truth, a throne rises from the ground supported by serpents. Earth embraces Sita, seats her on the throne, and then the throne and Sita sink back into the ground. Although Rama angrily demands Sita's return, the earth remains silent and closed, and Rama lives out his life in sorrow.

He does not marry again and has a golden image of Sita made, which he uses in her place at religious rituals requiring the presence of a wife. Sita's self-effacing nature, her steadfast loyalty to her husband, and her chastity make her both the ideal Hindu wife and the ideal pativrata. In a sense STta has no independent existence, no independent destiny. In all things she sees herself as inextricably bound up with Rama. Apart from him her life is meaningless. Throughout the Ramayana she constantly thinks of Rama and his welfare and always remains faithful to him despite provocations on his part. Although Rima is considered the ideal king, he is not a very good husband to Sita. He would be perfectly willing to leave her behind for fourteen years during his exile, he entertains doubts about her chastity while she was under Ravana's control, he allows her to undergo an ordeal by fire, he exiles her from his kingdom to stop the gossip of the citizens and to protect his own reputation, and finally he demands that she undergo a public ordeal.

Throughout all this Sita remains steadfast and usually tries to blame herself instead of Rama for events that cause her suffering and separation from Rama. In her loyalty and chastity, furthermore, it is understood that she supports and nourishes Rama's strength and reputation. A common Hindu belief is that a man is strengthened, indeed, is made nearly invulnerable, by his wife's chastity, whereas he is weakened and endangered by her faithlessness. Thus when Ravana shows Sita Rama's head and bow, she immediately blames herself. Although she cannot remember being faithless in act or thought, she assumes that she must have been at some time (perhaps in a past life) in order for Rama to meet such an untimely end. It does not occur to her that some fault of Rama's own might have led to his misfortune. Although in Hinduism there are differing marital-role expectations and traditions concerning where brides are expected to live after marriage, it is generally true that the good woman and ideal wife should express submission and docility to her in-laws. Speaking of the training of girls in Mysore, M. N. Srinivas says:

It is the mother's duty to train her daughter up to be an absolute docile daughter-in-law. The summum bonum of a girl's life is to please her parents-in-law and her husband. If she does not "get on" with her mother-in-law, she will be a disgrace to her family, and cast a blot on the fair name of her mother. The Kannada mother dins into her daughter's ears certain ideals which make for harmony (at the expense of her sacrificing her will) in her life."

In the Hindu tradition a woman is taught to understand herself primarily in relation to others. She is taught to emphasize in the development of her character what others expect of her. It is society that puts demands on her, primarily through the agents of relatives and in-laws, and not she who places demands on society that she be allowed to develop a unique, independent destiny. A central demand placed on women, particularly vis-a-vis males, is that they subordinate their welfare to the welfare of others. Hindu women are taught to cultivate an attitude that identifies their own welfare with the welfare of others, especially that of their husbands and children.

In the bratas, the periodical days of fasting and prayer which unmarried girls keep all over India, the girl's wishes for herself are almost always in relation to others; she asks the boons of being a good daughter, good wife, good daughter-in-law, good mother, and so forth. Thus, in addition to the "virtue" of self effacement and self-sacrifice, the feminine role in India crystallizes a woman's connections to others, her embeddedness in a multitude of familial relationships'

In inculcating the nature of the ideal woman in India, Sita plays an important role, perhaps the dominant role of all Hindu mythological figures. The Ramayana, either in its original Sanskrit version or in one of several vernacular renditions, is well known by almost every Hindu. Many of the leading characters have come to represent Hindu ideals. In the context of the Dasa Puttal Vrata, for example, Bengali girls wish that "I shall have a husband like Rama, I shall be sati like Sita, I shall have a Devara [younger brother-in-law] like Lakshman. I shall have a father-inlaw like Dasaratha; I shall have a mother-in-law like Kousalya."

Sita represents all the qualities of a good woman and ideal wife Although other goddesses, such as Parvati and Lakshmi, and othei heroines from Hindu mythology, such as Savitrl and Damayanti, express many of these qualities, Sita is by far the most popular and be loved paradigm for wifely devotion, forbearance, and chastity.

From earliest childhood, a Hindu has heard Sita's legend recounted on any number of sacral and secular occasions; seen the central episodes enacted in folk plays like the Ram Lila; heard her qualities extolled in devotional songs; and absorbed the ideal feminine identity she incorporates through the many everyday metaphors and similes that are associated with her name. Thus, "She is as pure as Sita" denotes chastity in a woman, and "She is a second Sita, " the appreciation of a woman's uncomplaining self-sacrifice. If, as Jerome Bruner remarks, "In the mythologically instructed community there is a corpus of images and models that provide the pattern to which the individual may aspire, a range of metaphoric identity," then this orange, in the case of a Hindu woman, is condensed in one model. And she is Sita.344

Ideal Devotee And Intermediary

After Valmiki's Ramayana, Rama increasingly ascended to a position of supreme deity for many Hindus. Today in India he is one of the most popular deities and is the recipient of fervent devotion from millions of devotees. The shift in Rama's status from that of a human hero or incarnation of Vi$nu in Valmiki's Ramayana to that of the lord of the worlds is evident in the sixteenth-century Hindi work of Tulsl Das, the Rarncarit-manas, an extremely popular devotional work in North India. Although the central narrative remains the same, even in most particulars, Tulsi Das frequently alters the story in such a way that opportunities are afforded to express devotion to Rama as the Lord. Throughout the text it is clear that the central point of the narrative is Rama's descent to the earth in order to provide his devotees a chance to worship him. In the process of Rama's elevation to divine supremacy, Sita also underwent certain changes.

Her status becomes similarly elevated when Rama becomes identified with the highest god. In his poem Kavitavah Tulsi Das refers to Sita as the world's mother and to Rama as the world's father. Elsewhere in the poem Rama and Sita are praised in fervent, devotional language by village women who see them walking along the road. The two are compared to various divine couples, and the very sight of them has redemptive effects. In another of Tulsi Das's works Rama and Sita are worshiped and addressed in devotional tones: "My mind now tells me that save for Rama's and Sita's feet I shall go nowhere else. In his invocation to his Ram charitmanas Tulsi Das invokes several deities and includes this verse to Sita: "Hail to Rama's own beloved Sita, victor o'er all suffering, / Mistress of birth, life, death, and of all happiness the giver. In the popular folk dramas of North India, the Ram Lilas, in which whole villages act out the story of Rama over the course of several weeks, the actors playing the roles of Rama and Sita are worshiped by the spectators as deities. Consistent with her role in Valmiki's Ramayana as the ideal wife who subordinates herself to her husband, Sita never achieves the position of a great, powerful, independent deity. Even compared to such goddesses as Lakshmi and Parvati, who in most respects are portrayed as ideal wives in Hindu mythology, Sita 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. Sita is rarely mentioned in such devotional works as Tulsi Das's Kavitavall and Vinaya-patrika.

Hanuman and Lakshmana, in fact, are mentioned more often than she is. And when Rama's consort is specified, Tulsi Das often prefers to identify her as Lakshmi, not as Sita.

In fact, Tulsi Das expresses devotion more often to Parvati and Ganga as goddesses than he does to Sita In popular Hinduism today Sita is revered as a deity, and in the numerous Ram Lila performances throughout the Hindi-speaking area of North India the actor who plays Sita (all actors are males) is worshiped as a deity. But Sita is rarely worshiped in her own right. It would be very unusual to find a temple dedicated to Sita alone. In Rama and Hanuman temples an image of Sita is installed alongside or between Rama and Lakshmana, where she receives worship along with her husband and brother-in-law. Though she is honored along with Rama, it is understood that she is not his equal.

If Sita does not assume the role of a popular, powerful goddess more or less equal to her husband Rama, she does play two important roles in the context of devotion to Rama: the role of intermediary and the role of ideal devotee. Addressing her as world mother, Tulsi Das petitions Sita to act as his advocate before Rama. She is not approached directly for divine blessing but as one who has access to Rama, who alone dispenses divine grace. Again, consistent with her subordinate position vis-a-vis Rama in the Ramayana, consistent with her role as one who always subordinates her will to his, Sita here acts primarily as a messenger between Rama and his devotees. In her loyalty and devotion she has gained the Lord's ear, and because of this she is sometimes approached by his devotees for help in seeking Rama's favor.

Sita also assumes the role of devotee in the later Rama cult and thus assumes a place as model to Rama's devotees. Although Hanuman is the most popular model of Rama devotion in the later Rama cults, Sita is often pictured as an ardent devotee. In the Ramcharit-manas, for example, she is typically pictured as intoxicated by the appearance of Rama and steadfastly devoted to him. Indeed, in the Ramcharit-manas Tulsi Das has sometimes altered the narrative in such a way as to emphasize Sita's devotion and love for Rama. For example, in the Valmiki Ramayana Sita pleads to accompany Rama to the forest by appealing to law and custom. She argues that a wife's duty is to be with her husband. In the Ramcharit-manas, however, Rama and others argue that religious custom and law dictate that she should stay behind and take care of her in-laws. Backing up these arguments are other reasons why she should stay behind, including the argument that someone as delicate as Sita could not endure the difficulties of the forest life. Sita's reply does not dwell on the social norm that a wife always be with her husband, as in the Valmiki Ramayana, but on the unbearable agony that separation from her husband will inflict. It is not her sense of duty but her love for and devotion to Rama which give Sita's plea its force and passion in the Ramcharit-manas.

Sita's role as devotee, like her role as intermediary, casts her in a subsidiary positon vis-a-vis Rama. He is the supreme deity, the object of devotion; she is the ideal devotee, the model for the human devotee. Wifely devotion has here become a metaphor for ideal devotion to God.

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