I've been studying Hindu mythology for many years now and there's one story that has always mystified me, baffled me, and given me all kinds of feelings!
In the Ramayana, the goddess Sita sprang as a baby from a furrow in the ground. She was discovered in the field by a king who raised her as his own, even though her mother was clearly the daughter of Mama Earth. Eventually she became the beloved consort of Lord Ram and what happens after that is a long and wild story, but I’ll give you the Cliff's notes.
Thanks to a curse, Ram was banished to the forest for 14 years. To everyone’s surprise, the beautiful and wealthy Sita declared that she was going with him. Her friends and family tried to convince her to stay, reminding her that if she went to the forest she would have to give up her fancy clothes, her jewels, and her privileged lifestyle. None of that mattered to Sita. She wanted to be with Ram, and I would also venture to say that she wanted the be with the forest, perhaps even more than with Ram!
Ram and Sita were living in the forest with Ram’s brother when Sita was kidnapped by the evil Ravana. Ravana took her to his island and eventually Ram gathered an army of helpers (led by the monkey god, Hanuman) to get her back. Upon her return, people began to gossip, whispering that Sita was unfaithful to Ram during her absence. She proclaimed her purity, her devotion, and her innocence. In fact, she was so strong in her beliefs that she instructed Ram’s brother, Lakshman, to build a fire so that she could show them all how very pure she was.
A raging fire was ignited, with flames so high and hot that everyone had to step back. Sita prayed to the gods, requesting to be burned to ash if she was unfaithful. She entered the raging flames. Moments passed and the tension was palpable. Soon the fire began to die down, and they could see Sita standing in the center of it, unscathed. The raging flames reduced themselves to ashes, and Sita stood there shining like a jewel.
Nice happy ending, right? Nope.
The story goes on. Days passed and people were still gossiping about Sita, so Ram asked her what she thought about doing another fire test. Sita said, "Oh my lord, there will always be some one who cannot be satisfied by any 'test' or any proof. Their convictions are hard-pressed in their psyche and no amount of genuine proof will convince them about the truth, for they do not want to get convinced. They are born to raise doubts about the Truth itself." Given that there would always be someone casting doubt upon her, she asked Ram if he thought the answer was to fire test her every day. She asked him to do what he thought was best.
Shockingly, Ram decided to desert her. He made his brother take Sita deep into the forest to live the rest of her life in a humble ashram. Not long after her arrival in the forest, Sita looked at the ground and asked Mother Earth to open up and take her back. The earth separated in two, Sita stepped in, and she was never seen again. The baby who had been found in the soil became a woman who endured more trials and tribulations than anyone should, and in the end she became the earth again.
Boy, was I mad at Ram when I first heard this story! And I still am, but I find so much to think about each time I revisit the tale. Sita is held up as the idea of the perfect wife - loyal, dutiful, and quiet in her suffering. The Sita archetype has been co-opted by culture, politics, and religion as a means of keeping women in their place. In essence, many who promote this idea insinuate that women should be like Sita: keep quiet and obey your man. Yuck, huh?
The more I think about it, however, the more I think that Sita was actually the one with the power. Sita made her own choices. She chose to follow Ram into the forest the first time. She chose to walk into the fire to prove her purity. Finally, she chose to disobey Ram when he asked her to walk through fire again, and as a result she ended up in her most natural, and I’m going to venture to say favorite, place - the woods. She realized she would never please everyone so she let go of trying. How powerful is that, right?!
I also like to ponder the idea of Sita being the personification of Nature. She came from the ground, she sought out the forest, and she returned to the ground. When we dishonor Nature, things don’t go well. In the end, Ram and the people of the kingdom suffered greatly without Sita. Don’t mess with Mama Nature.
Through all of the difficulties in her life (I mean, sometimes I think I had a bad day, but try walking through fire and then getting kicked out of your house!), through highs and lows, Sita never lost her grace. She took it all in stride, maintaining her independence and her power, and I truly believe she won in the end. She got to spend her last days in her beloved forest, and she returned to the waiting arms of her protective mother. I wish for myself and for all of us that amount of grace and steadfastness as we stumble through our own messy, beautiful lives.
Remember, too, that the characters in these stories can be seen as parts of ourselves. I like to think of them as energies that exist both within us and around us. We are all Sita. We are all children of the earth, made from the very same material as the stars, the moon, and the soil we stand upon. When we recognize and honor that connection our lives become infinitely more rich.
I will leave you with a simple meditation from the Buddha that you can recite anywhere, anytime, to remember who you are:
Earth inside, earth outside, same.
Water inside, water outside, same.
Fire inside, fire outside, same.
Wind inside, wind outside, same.