Sita, whose name means “furrow,” is a Hindu deity who epitomizes the perfect wife and ideal woman. In her divinity she is worshiped as both a mother goddess and an earth goddess. She is the consort of Rama, who is an incarnation of Vishnu. Sita herself is an incarnation of Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu. The goddess Sita is one of the main characters in the epic Hindu tale the “Ramayana.”
In the myths of Sita, which are from the “Ramayana,” Sita is not entirely mortal, but not exactly a goddess either. She is instead an “ex-goddess”; more than a mortal, but slightly less than a full deity. She is still very much divine, but not in the same way that Rama is divine.
In one telling of Sita’s birth, she is considered to be the daughter of the Earth goddess. Sita’s mortal father, King Janaka of Videha, fathered his daughter on the Earth herself. Here’s an excerpt from the book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger, telling the myth of Sita’s birth:
One day in the sacrificial grounds, I saw the ultimate celestial nymph, Menaka, flying through the sky, and this thought came to me: “If I should have a child in her, what a child that would be!” As I was thinking in this way, my semen fell on the ground. And afterward, as I was plowing that field, there arose out of the earth, as first fruits, my daughter, who has celestial beauty and qualities. Since she arose from the surface of the earth, and was born from no womb, she is called Sita, the Furrow.
Much of Sita’s entire incarnation is primarily for the purpose of destroying the ogre/demon king Ravana of Lanka. This story is a major part of the “Ramayana.” Rama is exiled to the jungle by his father, who put Rama’s brother on the throne instead of Rama. When Rama left for his fourteen-year exile, Sita gave up her comfortable life in the palace and all its amenities to follow Rama into exile. During this exile, Sita is captured by Ravana and held for months until Rama is able to launch a rescue with the help of the monkeys and his half-brother. After Rama and Sita return from killing Ravana, they are made king and queen of Ayodhya. However, because of Sita’s capture by Ravana, there were questions about her chastity. She was made to go through an ordeal of fire (an agni pariksha) to prove that she was still a chaste, pure woman and fit to be queen with Rama. This ordeal would have killed a mortal woman. When Sita stepped through the fire and passed the test, she not only proved her virtue but also her divinity.
Sita was forced into another exile when rumors of her supposed impurity resurfaced. This time, she was pregnant with twins. Rama, unaware of her pregnancy, forced her to leave in order to appease his people. Sita goes to the hermitage of Valmiki and there gives birth to her twin sons, Lava and Kusha. Sita remains with Valmiki the hermit for several years, and her sons grow up not knowing that they are princes and sons of Rama. When the boys are teenagers, the boys go with Valmiki to attend a ceremony held by Rama, at which they recite the Ramayana composed by Valmiki. During the retelling of Sita’s exile, Rama openly grieves for his lost wife. At this point, Valmiki brings Sita forward, but before Rama could do anything about her presence, Sita asks her mother the Earth to receive her. Sita vanishes into a chasm of the Earth and returns to her wholly divine form, dead to the mortal world as the half-mortal princess Sita. This final exit of Sita is itself another kind of test like the agni pariksha–if Sita were not still pure and chaste, she would not have been accepted back into the Earth from which she came, and this was also further proof of her divine nature.
Sita is the ideal wife, ideal mother, and ideal daughter. She is dutiful and patient, loyal and gracious, virtuous and moral. She is also very intelligent. Throughout her half-mortal life she set an example for humankind of how to behave in a manner that is both right and virtuous, and remain gracious throughout hardships. She gave up some of her own choices in order to support her children or her husband, and did so willingly because it was the right thing for her to do. Sita is also brave and rather forward for a Hindu woman. In the end, she walked away and left her husband, in a final proof that she was in the right and he had wronged her not once but twice. She is in no way a doormat, despite being the supposed ideal of a wife and woman. She uses her intelligence, and this shows in her interactions with her husband and brother-in-law, and in her actions before the rest of the world.
The dark side of Sita could depend on your point of view. Some of the qualities that characterize her light side could also define her dark, if those qualities become too imprisoning. Sita’s graces do not make her a doormat, despite the surface appearance that she is subservient to Rama’s wishes, especially in the double banishment. She is in fact very composed and very much a decider of her own fate in many ways. But those qualities have the possibility of being too loyal to the point of blindness; too virtuous to the point of harm; too dutiful to the point of being inflexible; and too patient to the point of being a push-over.
Sita, even more so than Athena, is for me a major draw. I find her story admirable and worthy of retelling–in the face of hardships such as kidnapping, banishment, and a nearly destroyed reputation, Sita remained loyal, patient, and virtuous. She is not an example of turning the other cheek and just taking it. Instead, she is an example of riding the waves to find the peace after the trouble and having the strength to overcome obstacles set in the way in life and still remain a good, kind person who knows what is right and who is worthy of estimation.