The following conversation occurred in the town of Darbhanga in January, 1996. The speaker is a Brahman woman from the region of North India known as Mithila. Readers of the Ramayana will recognize Mithila as the place where Vishvamitra takes Rama to pull the bow of Shiva which is in the possession of King Janaka. Whoever can pull this bow will win the hand of Princess Sita. This legendary story, written between the 6th and the 4th century BC, is considered history, not legend, by most Indians. In the following interview, a Brahman woman describes the questions she had about Sita when she was a young girl, reflects on Sita's hard life, and uses Sita's life to think about her own, presenting a very complicated and conflicted picture.
Yes, Sita was from Mithila. But since her marriage wasn't a successful one, we have stopped letting girls choose their own husbands. Everything that Sita did-- whatever she did---has been stopped for us.
People say that Sita chose her own husband! That's the theory that was given to me when I was young and questioning. But it was her parents who put out the word that whoever can pull the bow, Sita's going to marry. So where did Sita choose her husband?! No, she did not really get a choice. But she saw that her husband is capable of doing something great.
The second excuse that is given for not copying Sita is that Sita's marriage wasn't a successful one, therefore we stopped letting girls choose their own husbands. Mithila never preferred that. They say that marriage wasn't a successful one, or that Sita should have been stopped.
CB: Now, I don't know if Ramayana is real history or is mythology or is mythology and history all the same thing. But its not current sociology, it's not what's happening now. It hasn't happened for a thousand years.
No. No, there
is no system like this. Surely the custom was practiced in
those days, I do agree, but at present it's not being done.
Even we don't have that jermal, that is garlanding at
the wedding when the bride garlands the groom, you know. The
Kayasthas and all they have their jermal. We don't
have it. Rather, once again, we have started this
CB: I'm willing to believe she was. And I like the idea that she was from Mithila. And I was a little surprised when I raised this question, is Mithila proud to identify with Sita? And they don't! And why not? Because it wasn't a good marriage. So why would we even say Sita is a particular model for Mithila society when she has mostly been rejected?
Yes, she is mostly rejected. I have told you. Sita did this or that, Sita was married on this particular day? We forbid marriage on that day! Sita did like this....we don't do that. So she is not a model. Yes, she was from Mithila.
But then what was her fault? Why shouldn't I take her as a model? Her fault was nothing! If she was taken away by Ravan, she was a weak girl! She was only a weak girl! If her husband and her brother-in-law couldn't protect her, the people of Ayodhya should be blamed! Why a girl of Mithila be blamed?
CB: Yeah! Why?
Now Ram is being worshipped. Vishnu's avatar. He was Vishnu's avatar. Sita wasn't anyone's avatar. Sita was an ordinary girl. So Ram, who was Vishnu's avatar, the wrong that he did, he did it. He was god! And this poor girl, she didn’t do anything wrong! Even when she went to Lanka! But she's so pure, she didn't go to Ravan no matter what he did to her. She didn't go. Didn't allow him to touch her body. So strong she was in character! But you see, Sita was married on that day, so no marriage for us! So on the day Ram was married, why is it called Sita Panchami? Because Sita was married that day. It is an auspicious day. The date is always there in the panchang. The date is always there, it is an auspicious day, and marriages can be done, but we just won't do it.
CB: Is that everywhere in Inda, or just here?
Here they don't; I don't know about everyplace. Just this I am telling you, Mithila seems to be scared of Sita! The tragedy of the people, you know--and this is true even today with every Maithil family--I tell you, if there is some misunderstanding between wife and husband, the girl will be blamed. Every time! Knowing, even the parents knowing that my girl hasn't done anything wrong, still you can interview my mother in this case, I think she'll give you quite a lot of information. Suppose I have a difference with my husband or my sister has a difference---most of the time she has a quarrel [chuckles] with her husband---because she is quite outspoken. But my mother, she is going to be on the son-in-law's side. Her son-in-laws are always perfect. You know?
CB: In your case, too?
Yeah, yeah, my case too. Actually I don't want her to know about it. But my sister's all the time telling her, and Mummie's favoring husband. Mummie will say that its the fault of my sister. . . .
CB: How does she feel about that?
We understand our mother, you know.
CB: Doesn't it make you mad? Now I have another question about Sita. Sita was not a Brahman.
She wasn't. But she was from Mithila. Here all Mithila has a whole instinct, but we the Maithils, we the people of Mithila. . . . Sita was actually from Janakpur, she wasn't from Darbhanga. From Madhubani. Mithila is a vast area. The terai, that's Janakpur, that's also Mithila. So we take it as a girl from Mithila. I know, ok, she didn't have a happy married life, she lost everything, she lived in the forest. But sometimes you are more happy in a forest than in a palace.
CB: Very true.
Sita's father in law, Dasharatha, he had four wives. All four lived in the palace. Do you think all four were happy? No, of course not. But Sita, even living in the forest, she knew that my husband is here, too. He has not taken any other wife. And I think that Sita had a lot of happiness. I think that the exception is made that if I am suffering here alone, husband is, too; he loves me. And Sita might have been very sure about that. Sure! But eventually it was the duty of the king that separated them. Just like my husband, it's the duty [his job] that separated him from me. People cannot say that my husband doesn't love me, that's why he's staying in Purnea and I'm staying in Darbhanga, it's his duty. And duty is over family, at least you cannot simply live with you wife and leave your duty, you have to earn money. So actually it was his katavya, his "public image", as a king, that made him do that. It was the fault of Ram, because he was a very good king. And that was the only reason, not. . .
CB: That's right, everybody always talks about ramrajya, and yet look what he did to his wife?
Yes, and what he did to himself! What he did to his wife! His thoughts, his primary concern were his citizens. And they were really happy. Everyone loved Ram. But he wasn't happy. Neither could he forget Sita, even when Sita went into the earth, back into the earth, still Ram did not marry! All his life he lived without a wife. He was in the palace, Sita was in the forest.
CB: Now she did die before her husband, do people ever say she was fortunate therefore?
They don't mention that. But ... okay, they lived separately. She couldn't live with her husband. But that, you know, it is said she didn't have a happy conjugal life. She had two sons. Twins. So maybe whatever happened, it was in the forest. People compare, oh, in the palace! Here, even today, people say, "Oh, she is living a very poor life." "She is very happy'. I tell you this is the general impression of everybody. If you have lots of money, a nice house to live in, she is very happy. You just cannot think that happiness can come from ANYwhere!