Updated: Feb 22
Most of us have at least heard about the Ramayan, one of the greatest Hindu epics. Maybe these stories were told to us during bedtime by our parents or introduced through the TV series our grandmother watched. We’ve probably heard of Kaikeyi’s two boons and Sita’s kidnapping before, and if nothing else, we definitely know about the final battle between Ram and Ravan. But all of these incidents have become routine to read about. It’s sort of like reviewing notes for an exam. Sure, the first two times we stay focused on the details, but after that we’re just skimming through. The thing with the Ramayan is that we’ve never actually gone back to the source to create our own perspective on it, like reviewing notes written by your brother without ever reading the textbook. What we know about the characters is based on interpretations of the Ramayan, whether they be by our parents, Ramanand Sagar, or Aniruddh Pathak. There are so many details that have been lost in the retelling, and we’re left with a shallow, surface-level understanding.
Naturally, our attention usually goes to Ram when discussing the Ramayan. But what might be forgotten is the equally important role Sita played. In looking at Ram and Sita’s relationship, a word that immediately comes to my mind is ardhangini. If we split the Sanskrit word apart, we get ‘ardha’ and ‘ang’, literally meaning ‘half of someone’. Hindus believe that each person is incomplete without their counterpart, not unlike the idea of soulmates. Accordingly, we never see murtis, or idols, of Shiv without Parvati, Narayan without Lakshmi, or Krishna without Radha. In Hinduism, God is always worshipped alongside his ideal devotee, who is respected just as equally. Swami Vivekanand, a renowned Hindu monk, said, “There may have been several Rams, perhaps, but never more than one Sita.” Sita serves as an epitome of virtues, and even today, her life holds just as many lessons as Ram’s does.
Growing up with a sister, I got into fights all the time over the smallest things: who ate the last cupcake, whose turn it was to unload the dishwasher, who would wear the new jacket to school. I was often told to ‘give in’ and let her have what she wanted because she was younger. If you’re an older sibling, I’m sure you’ll understand this frustration. As an eight-year-old, I always wondered why I had to compromise for my younger sister. Those rare times when I did listen to my parents, I would gloat over myself about how kind and generous I was being. But reflecting on those incidents now, I’m realizing that what I did came nowhere close.
When I come to think about it, doing something nice because I’m told to or because I have to doesn’t mean much in terms of my character. Selflessness means having no expectations for any sort of return for whatever I’ve done. It's a trait that initially seems hard to develop but can become a habit. Looking at Sita’s life, when she followed her husband into the forest, she did so out of genuine love and loyalty. Kaikeyi’s demand was for Ram to go into exile; Sita had no obligation to follow. In fact, she would have had luxuries, riches, and happiness beyond belief in the kingdom. For anyone else who had grown up in a life of comfort, it would have been unthinkable to leave everything behind for more than a decade. I imagine leaving the comfort of my home for more than a couple days, and find myself frowning at just the thought. Yet, for Sita, even though Ram urged her to stay back, she left without a single complaint and didn’t look back.
Now this in itself is such a selfless choice, but one might say that giving up everything for someone you love isn’t rare. So what makes Sita so unique? A lesser known part of the Ramayan is what happened once Hanuman reached Lanka to deliver Ram’s message to Sita. He had flown the whole way there and burnt down many parts of the kingdom, so one might wonder why he didn’t bring Sita back with him. Actually, when Hanuman entered the garden and showed Sita Ram’s ring, he also offered to rescue her. In fact, he begged her to end her anguish and come back to Ram with him. But having seen the miseries of the citizens of Lanka, Sita refused. She knew that if Ram himself came and fought Ravan, he would win, which would mean all the people of Lanka would finally be free from the evil ruler. And so once again, she gave up her own happiness for the well being of others. Sita chose to continue suffering in Lanka out of compassion for people who had no relation to her, people who would never even know the sacrifice she made for them. This was the extent of her selflessness.
Of course, Sita’s gestures are very grand, but we can learn to manifest selflessness in our own life through simpler ways. Reaching out to family members, especially the elderly, during hard times, listening to someone’s opinions and paying attention to them, and even just being there for a friend. What matters is the intent and thought behind your actions. Just recently, while AP exams were going on, my AP Language and Composition teacher drove around town to each of our houses, dropping off goodie bags. It was a small gesture, but it held so much meaning for me. Just knowing that this person took time out of their day for you for no reason but genuine care is such an amazing feeling. And as someone on the receiving side, I can assure you that these actions are unforgettable.
Contrary to what we might believe, selflessness isn’t an inherent trait. Just recently, researchers at Caltech created a model that captured generosity. They found that altruism doesn’t depend on self-control, but how strongly we consider other people’s feelings compared to our own. Sita embodied this exact quality of empathy, which translated into her selflessness throughout her life: whether it be for her husband or the people of Lanka, she consistently sacrificed for others. The more we, too, concentrate on others, the easier it will become for us to make selfless decisions. What matters in the end is our choice. We have to choose to try, to think of others before us. And at the very least, if we can’t do anything else to make someone smile, wish them well and give them one of ours.
A few resources for those who wish to learn more about Sita and the Ramayan in general:
The Ramayana (English Translation)
The cover photo was graciously obtained from Ruchi Patel (@artbyruchi).