Thursday, June 7, 2007

Hinduism: Sita

Previously, I posted about Rama, the incarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu. Sita, Rama's wife, is an incarnation of the goddess, Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and good fortune.

Although Sita was an incarnation of the goddess of good fortune, she faced many trials and difficulties in her life. She was kidnapped by the demon Ravana, and held captive by him until Rama was able to raise an army and rescue her. You can read a detailed synopsis of the plot at this British Library site.

Yet even after she was rescued, Sita faced a great trial. When she was restored to her husband, Rama, things were not as they had been before. Given that Sita had lived in another house, she had become suspect. Sita, however, insisted fervently on her innocence, and offered to undergo a test by fire, declaring that the fire would burn her if she has done anything wrong, leaving her unharmed if she were innocent of any wrongdoing. They kindled a fire, and Sita walked into the flames. As she entered the flames, she prayed to Agni, the god of fire, asking the god to burn her to cinders if she were guilty, but that he should protect her if she had told the truth about her innocence. Sita emerged, unharmed. As a sign of divine favor, the flames themselves turned into flower petals.

I was impressed by the coincidence that this was the week I had chosen to write about the three boys in the fiery furnace from the Book of Daniel, another example of a test by fire.

What is striking about the difference between the two stories is that in the Hebrew story, the king is trying to punish the boys by casting them into the fire, although through the power of God, they emerge unharmed. In the story of Sita, it is Sita herself who demands the test by fire, invoking the fire god in order to prove her innocence of the charges against her.

A couple years ago I saw a remarkable, and controversial, Indian film, Fire. As you can guess from the title, it involves Sita's test by fire, adapted to contemporary Indian life. The film is controversial because it is about a love affair between two sisters-in-law who are named, provocatively, Sita and Radha (just as Sita was the consort of Vishnu's incarnation as Rama, Radha is the consort of his incarnation as Krishna). You can read a detailed review of the film here, and it's definitely a film worth seeing, especially if you are familiar with the story of the Ramayana, which is alluded to, directly and indirectly, throughout the film.

There is also a suggestive similarity between the story of Sita's test by fire and the Indian practice of sati, when a widowed woman would immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre. You can read more about this topic at Kamat's Potpourri website, which is also the source for this image of Sita in the fire:

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