As India waits for the Supreme Court ruling on the decades-long Ayodhya dispute, the drumrolls have started. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Mohan Bhagwat’s RSS have appealed to the people to accept and respect the verdict with an open mind. Even as the Ram Janmabhoomi title dispute comes closer to a resolution, not too many people know that the birth of Sita remains shrouded in mystery to this day. Countless retellings of the Ramayana epic provide different stories of Sita’s origin, and even those that remain most faithful to Valmiki’s Ramayana depart from it.
This confusion is exacerbated because her origin story in Valmiki’s Ramayana itself remains obscure. Through interrogation of various books and articles written on the Ramayana, we will find answers to the gaps in the popular understanding of Sita.
The daughter of the earth
In Valmiki’s version of Ramayana, King Janak briefly narrates the story of Sita’s birth (Book I, Sarga 66, Verse 13-14). He says that he found Sita at a furrow and that is how her name came about. The same story is found in Kamban’s 12th century Tamil retelling of Ramayana. The story, however, is further expounded in north-western and Eastern versions.
The motif of Menaka is introduced in Kshemendra’s 11th century Sanskrit retelling Ramayanamanjari, and is also found in Upendra Bhanja’s 17th century Baidehishabilasa (in Odia). Janak spots her in the sky and expresses a desire to have a child. Soon after, he finds an infant on the ground. In Kshemendra’s work, Menaka tells him that the child is hers and will be his spiritual heir (S. Singaravelu, Sita’s Birth and Parentage in the Rama Story, Asian Folklore Studies 41, no. 2 (1982), page 235). Upendra Bhanja, however, uses the trope of the granting of a boon. These works considerably reorient the story of a ‘chance discovery’ in Valmiki’s Ramayana to that of ‘wish fulfilment’.
‘Cursed’ child of Ravan and/or Mandodari
Many composers have ascribed different parentage to Sita. The Jain Ramayanas of south India are possibly the first to trace Sita’s origin to Ravan’s chief queen Mandodari. It is possible that the similarity in their appearances, which makes Hanuman mistake Mandodari as Sita (Book V, Sarga 10, verse 51-54), may have provided a basis for these additions.
One of the earliest references comes from Sanghadasa’s retelling (no later than 609 CE). Mandodari bears ominous signs on her body – a foretelling that her first child will annihilate her family. The infant is put in a jewel-box and sent away, and Janak later discovers her (V.M. Kulkarni, The Story of Rama in Jain Literature, Ahmedabad: Saraswati Pustaka Bhandar, 1990, page 105).
The 9th century Khotanese Ramayana modifies the curse. Astrologers intervene and predict that she will cause her family’s ruin (S. Singaravelu, Sita’s Birth and Parentage in the Rama Story, Asian Folklore Studies 41, no. 2 (1982), page 236). A Tibetan version (between 787 and 848 CE) further adds that the infant is put in a box and set to sail (J.W. De Jong, The Story of Rama in Tibet, Asian Variations in Ramayana, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1983, page 164).
The Malay Hikayat Seri Rama (between 13th and 17th century) draws a rather complicated story. Mandodari is Dasharath’s wife, and is desired by Ravan. Fearing Ravan’s wrath, she creates her own clone, who gives birth to Sita (S. Singaravelu, The literary versions of Rama’s story in Malay, Asian Variations in Ramayana, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1983, page 281).
The Adbhuta Ramayana, however, offers the most unique retelling of Sita’s story. Mandodari drinks a sage’s poisoned blood (not heeding Ravan’s advice) and gives birth to Sita.
In a few other versions, Ravan gives birth to Sita. In south Indian oral traditions, for instance, Ravan eats a mango, becomes pregnant and gives birth to Sita through a sneeze.
In Kshemendra’s Dasavataracharita, Sita is born of a lotus and found by Ravan who takes her to Mandodari and they adopt her. Narad warns Mandodari that Ravan will fall in love with the child and therefore she disposes of the child in a gold box (Camille Bulcke, La Naissance De Sita, Bulletin De L’École Française D’Extrême-Orient 46, no. 1 (1952), page 112).
What is a curse for one is a treasure (signified by the box) for another is an important trope in all these retellings.
Of love and vengeance
The Southeast Asian versions provide interesting and creative solutions to this mystery. In U Maung Gyi’s Pontaw Rama and Lakkhana (1910), Sita was a Yakshi in her past life and deeply enamoured with Ram, who killed her with his arrow. She is reborn to marry him and fulfil her desire (U Thein Han and U Khin Zaw, Ramayana in Burmese Literature and Arts, The Ramayana Tradition in Asia, 1980, page 308).
The Laos Gvay Dvorahbi (possibly 18th century) uses vengeance as a motif. The story goes that Ravan takes the form of Indra (ironically) to consummate the marriage with his wife Sujata. When Sujata realises this, she decides to take birth as Sita to avenge the act (Kamala Ratnam, Socio Cultural and Anthropological Background of the Ramayana in Laos, Asian Variations in Ramayana, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1983, page 236). Both these stories give Sita’s birth a past-life agency, thereby avoiding the question of parentage.
In Valmiki’s version, Ram’s birth is elaborately accounted for but Sita’s is summed up in a couple of verses. One possible reason for this narrative gap can be attributed to Ramayana’s disparate origins.
Bengali writer and researcher of folklore Dinesh Chandra Sen compellingly argued that the Ramayana we know today might be a culmination of at least two distinct independent stories – tales from south India about the fight of the vanaras against Ravan and the story of Ram in Dasaratha Jataka (with no connection with Ravana). The latter, Sen argued, possibly preceded Valmiki’s Ramayana and unequivocally established Sita’s parentage. In Valmiki’s epic, the kinship structure is reoriented (for obvious reasons). The link, however, remains tenuous at best, leading to the mystery around Sita’s birth.
Sita’s birth continues to offer creative retellings. For instance, UP’s deputy chief minister Dinesh Sharma recently claimed that Sita was a test-tube baby. Although he received flak from the BJP leadership for his statement, can one really say that he was speaking outside of tradition?
The authors are graduate students of history and art history at Mcgill University and University of Wisconsin Madison.
Views are personal.