Who is Sita, and why is she singing the blues?
In the Hindu epic poem the Ramayana, we come across Sita. Born of the Earth, she was adopted by royalty, and wed to a prince named Rama. In classic folk-lore fashion, Rama is banished from the kingdom by an evil-stepmother; he goes into exile with his wife and brother.
As they attempt to lead their lives out in seclusion, Sita catches the eye of a demon king who abducts her to his palace on the island of Sri Lanka. This is where the story takes its strangest twist; Rama fights courageously to rescue his wife, enlisting the help of an army of human like monkeys, but he’s not really sure about her purity…
He has doubts…so many doubts that he forces her to undergo a literal trial by fire – a test that she survives (in the Thai version of the Ramayana, known as the Ramakien, the coals turn to lotuses under her feet). However, his trust issues persist…
That’s why Sita sings the blues.
In 2008, American artist Nina Paley wrote, directed, produced and animated her take on the Sita story, interspersed with the story of her own personal break-up, which happened when her husband took a job in India. Nina Paley’s story ends with her moving to New York and reading the Ramayana…so where does Sita go?
When Rama returned home – and was crowned king – Sita was pregnant. Even though she had passed the trial by fire and established her faithfulness, the locals were talking.
The demon king wasn’t a bad looking man (ten heads and all), and he did have a beautiful palace…was Sita really faithful? He had held her captive for a year; surely she must have yielded…
So how Rama respond? In the worst way possible: he banishes her, pregnant, to the forest.
During her exile, she gives birth, and through a little magical story telling, she ends up with two sons, who grow up into heroes in their own rights. In fact, they grow up to realize a key motif of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey: they confront and defeat their father. Upon being bested, Rama knows these must be his children, and goes looking for their mother.
Now, before demonizing Rama, it’s worth noting the Thai version of his story again; in the Ramakien, Rama is actually heartbroken. However, in the classical Hindu telling, he doesn’t come off as contrite; Rama’s lack of remorse is excused under the facade of appearing kingly, which is made all the odder given his earlier willingness to take exile.
So what does Sita do when Rama finds her?
She goes home.
Sita was born of the Earth; on Rama’s reappearance, she asks her mother to take her back, and the Earth obliges, swallowing her whole.
That’s how Sita’s story ends; that’s why Sita sings the blues.
Because life, even for divinities, doesn’t always come with a Bollywood ending.
To see the Nina Paley’s animated movie, visit sitasingstheblues.com