"She stood perfectly still, and hers was a resonant stillness." This, the final descriptor given to Sita as she begins to speak for the last time serves as the ideal descriptor for the many women of color whose narratives have throughout history have largely been either ignored or wholly misunderstood.
In this post, I seek to interpret Sita (of the Hindu Ramayana) not as the dutiful wife or glorified sex object of previous scholarship. Instead, I will draw on the Womanist works and legacies of Alice Walker, Dr. Katie Cannon, Delores S. Williams, Rainbow Moon, Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Dr. Emilie Townes, and Dr. Layli Maparyan, to reinterpret Sita as a subversive Womanist, whose life exemplifies the power of the woman of color to, in her resonant stillness, move the very ground beneath our feet with just her voice.
Having a history that stretches back centuries to the continent of Africa, the term Womanist made its way into modern scholastic parlance in the 1980s through Alice Walker's work In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. Different from feminism - both white and black - Womanism has "given Black women the theological resources needed to see themselves and the world in ways that do not privilege whiteness or patriarchy."
Dr. Layli Maparyan presents the work of Alice Walker's Womanism as embodying a vision of liberation the does not "bootstrap itself from Cartesian Dualism." Instead, Womanism proceeds directly from "the recognition of humanity's underlying commonality and fundamental, if not woefully under-realized, oneness." Over the last 30 years, Womanist theory and theology have expanded beyond the scope of Black women to include all women of color. As such, one can feel justified in examining Sita's narrative within this theological framework.
Common to many Womanist scholars, Dr. Maparyan outlines five basic methodologies that Womanist use in their everyday lives to assert themselves fully as women. These five methods are Self-care, spiritual engagement, harmonizing and coordinating, dialogue, and mothering. There is perhaps no figure in the whole of Hindu mythology that personifies these methodologies better than Sita. However, to bring Sita's use of these methods to light, we must first understand the methods themselves.
In brief, Self-care hints at the interconnectedness many Womanists experience as the fabric of our world. Events which impact one sphere of existence too affect all other spheres. Spiritual engagement focuses one's communication between the material and spiritual realms. "For a Womanist, the invisible realm is a realm of power and information. Going to it is like going to a river to gather water that is needed for drinking and gardening; in the absence of water, the organisms wither and die."
Ultimately, the harmonizing and coordinating methodology is about moving into a new era in which "the politics of separation, struggle, battle, resistance, opposition, 'the enemy,' and all forms of us v. them are behind us. However, the harmonizing and coordinating methodology dooms itself to almost complete failure without the method of dialogue. It is understood that dialogue holds the "capacity to be the most fundamental vehicle for energy transformation and transmutation, as it carries the power of the word."
The fifth methodology - mothering - is not focused on the Womanist's biological offspring. Instead, in her use of the mothering method, the Womanist goes beyond her biological family to support, protect, and shape, a person or people within her community.
As, we attempt to reframe Sita's narrative, see if you recognize her use of these methods in this abridged recount of her narrative from the Ramayana. Words from the Ramayana are in italics.
Now, one time, as I was plowing a field, a girl sprang up behind my plow. I found her as I was clearing the field, and she is thus known by the name Sita, furrow. Sprung from the earth, she has been raised as my daughter, and since she was not born from the womb, my daughter has been set apart as one for whom the only bride-price is great strength. So, Sita's father calls forth many men of strength to see if any are fit to be his daughter's husband. Finding Rama, Sita's father blessed their marriage, and the Ramayana says, And so Rama passed many seasons with Sita, devoted to her and absorbed in her. And she kept him ever in her heart... Even their innermost hearts spoke clearly one to the other.
Quite some time passes, and Rama is banished to the forest. It is in Sita's exchange with Rama regarding his banishment that we discover her first notable use of a Womanist methodology. She says, if you must leave this very day for the trackless forest, Rama, I will go in front of you, softening the thorns and sharp grass. Seeking to protect Rama, Sita almost appears to be mothering Rama in this statement. Ultimately, she is permitted to go into the forest with Rama where she lives quite well and even interacts with several ascetics.
As the third book of the Ramayana begins, the reader discovers Sita engaging in an activity believed not to befit a woman. Sita is admonishing Rama for his unmotivated killing. Sita, speaking to her husband cautions, Acquiring great righteousness requires the greatest care, and only he who avoids deliberate misdeeds can gain it in this world... as I watch you setting my mind grows sick with worry... for I disapprove, my mighty husband,... I shall explain the reason why. You and your brother are going to the forest bow and arrow in hand, and I fear the sight of any forest-dweller might cause you to shoot your arrows. Only because I love and respect you am I reminding you - not teaching you - that on no account should you take up your bow and unprovoked, turn your thoughts to killing.
Rama listened to the words that Sita spoke in her devotion. Then he replied with first adherence to righteousness. In this exchange, two methodologies overlap. First, the method of Self-care is drawn to the fore in Sita's concern for all spheres of existence. Second, the method of mothering manifests itself in Sita's desire for Rama to live most fully into his great righteousness and in her unique way, she encourages him in that direction, and Rama listens.
Jumping ahead in the narrative and over many other examples of Sita's Womanist qualities. We find that Sita has been kidnaped by Ravana and tortured. Ultimately, Hanuman finds Sita, and war is waged to rescue her from under the control of the demon Ravana. After this war, Hanuman desires for revenge against the women who have colluded with Ravana in the torturing of Sita. However, with these words Sita grants their pardon, They were only servants of their master, and obedient to his will. They themselves are blameless...let us not judge them. Clearly, this is an act of harmonizing.
When Rama returns to fetch Sita from her captivity, he was not the kind Rama she once knew. Fueled by anger, he turns his face away from Sita and makes clear that his actions in rescuing her were motivated only by his honor and that he no longer desires her as his wife. Using the power of her dialogue, Sita admonishes Rama for abandoning her after this kidnapping. In this admonition, Sita makes clear that she had only ever desired Rama and had not, even for a moment, turned her thoughts to anyone else.
Overwhelmed by Rama's words and seeking to demonstrate her innocence, Sita asks Laksmana to build a funeral pyre. Asking the God Agni for protection as proof of her fidelity, without a trace of fear or backward glance, Sita walked into the fire. Again, Sita is engaging both in spiritual activity (asking for protection) as well as, mothering (in that without fear she walked into the fire for her husband and her community.)
Proven to be pure, Rama apologizes to Sita, and they live many happy years together before the rumors of her infidelity during the kidnapping begin to circulate through the community again. Unable to cope with the communities disdain for continuing his marriage to Sita, Rama has Sita banished, pregnant, to an island to live alone for 12 years.
Calling her back after more than a decade, Rama poses to Sita a simple request. Perform the act of purity again, this time for the whole community so that they will know you are pure and we can rule together. In her ultimate embodiment of the Womanist methodologies of motherhood, spiritual activity, dialogue, and Self-care; the Ramayana recounts the final moments of the Womanist Sita's time on earth this way:
She stood perfectly still, and hers was a resonant stillness. She spoke softly, but her voice was strong as the timeless wind. If I have never loved any many but Rama, even in my mind... may my mother Bhumi Devi (Mother Earth), who brought me into this world, now receive me back into herself. For all my life's purposes are accomplished, and I do not want to live in this world anymore.
A perfect silence had fallen; no one stirred. Even the wind had grown still. Then a crack of thunder erupted, the earth at Sita's feet parted, and a golden, unearthly throne rose from it. On that throne sat a Goddess, and she was the incomparable Bhumi Devi, the earth herself. She, the mother, took her daughter's hand and drew Sita up to sit beside her on her fabulous throne.
A petal rain of flowers of light, with the scents of heaven, fell from the sky. Slowly, the magnificent throne sank into the earth again, and the ground closed over it. Petal after petal of thunder echoed on high, and it seems the very sky would break into a thousand pieces. All the earth was still, dazed. Then silence, a complete silence. Just a single sound broke the profound silence, the sound of Rama sobbing.
As a Ramayana character, Sita accomplishes many things. She directs her narrative, nurtures her husband, his brother, and the community. Saves countless lives in the forest and her kidnapper's garden, and in the resonant stillness, before she speaks, Sita embraces her womanhood entirely.
Perhaps it is time for us to see Sita in her full color. It is time for us to examine her narrative with fresh eyes and envision her as the subversive Womanist she is.
As we sit with the narrative of Sita as subversive and not submissive, gazing at Sita in the fullness of her color, we find that even through all of her trials and challenges, Sita still stands. Still. However, her's is not an ordinary stillness. This is the stillness that comes from a life that in spite of its challenges persists. Sita's narrative can and perhaps should be reinterpreted in the modern context, for all women, particularly, women of color.
Because in Sita we discover that Woman in her fullness has the power with just her voice to move the very ground of our being.
She is woman and she persists.
The Corresponding Keynote Presentation