“Being very much aggrieved, sobbing and shivering and in a poor state, the very beautiful Sita of a sweet smile, who thought of her husband alone and was fully devoted to Him, placed a piece of straw in between herself and Ravana and replied:” (Valmiki Ramayana, Sundara Kand, 21.2-3)
duḥkhārtā rudatī sītā vepamānā tapasvinī |
cintayantī varāroha patimeva pativratā ||
tṛṇamantarataḥ kṛtvā pratyuvāca śucismitā |
There is no mistaking which “Sita” is referenced in this verse. In the Vedic texts it is not uncommon to find multiple people with the same name. For instance, the name Arjuna is famous to those who know Vedic literature, for he is the recipient of the profound wisdom of the Bhagavad-gita. He is also a central character of the greater storyline within the Mahabharata. He is the younger brother of King Yudhishthira and one of the sons of Kunti Devi. Yet there are still other Arjunas mentioned in the Vedas; hence there are also other names that can be used to address the great bow-warrior who was so dear to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. That Arjuna is also identified through his qualities and his famous activities. In the same way, here references are made to Sita Devi’s qualities. It’s not surprising to find mention of her chastity, as this quality more than any other is what defines her.
If I am a champion-caliber athlete, it is my dexterity in the field of play that defines me. At least this is the definition as it relates to my public persona. If I am a leader of a nation, it is my leadership that makes or breaks my success. For the wife of the Vedic tradition, it is her chastity that determines how well she handles her occupational duties. The rebellious woman is thus one who pays no attention to such matters. One who breaks out of their obligations and follows their own whims is considered a rebel. For the living spirit, the ultimate determination of character comes from how faithful one is to their ideal relationship. All other rules, regulations and identifying characteristics are derivatives of this defining feature. Interestingly enough, the relationship we speak of is the same one to which Sita was faithful.
In simpler language, we are all meant to always think of God and be faithful to Him. In Sita’s case, God is the husband and dear protector. The laws of dharma were a convenient bonus added for Sita’s pleasure. Not only did she want to serve her wonderful husband, but she was obligated to based on the laws of propriety. Under both lenses, she was faithful. Her guiding vow in life was to be faithful to her husband. In this verse from the Ramayana that vow has an added significance, as there was an outside party trying his best to break it.
That party was the king of Lanka. Named Ravana, he had taken Sita away from her husband’s side through a ruse. How can God be fooled in such a way? Actually, the celestials wanted to rid the world of Ravana, who was evil. He drank wine day and night, ate animal flesh, including of human beings, and had no regard for the property of others. Case in point his abduction of Sita, who had done nothing wrong. Rama hadn’t even crossed Ravana. The Lord was living peacefully in the woods, without any possessions. He had renounced His kingdom at the time, so there was no reason to even envy Rama. But Ravana was possessed by lust, and in that subjugated state the living entity is helpless in their actions.
By taking Sita, Ravana fell into a trap that would lead to his demise. Though Sita refused him again and again, Ravana kept trying to win her over. He kept her in a grove of Ashoka trees, where she was surrounded by hideous female ogres who were ordered to harass her. Ravana used every trick of argument in the book to try to convince Sita. He told her that she was very beautiful but that a woman’s beauty doesn’t last for long. Unfortunate are the ways of nature. The woman’s beauty diminishes much more rapidly with age than does a man’s. He basically tried to scare her into thinking that if she didn’t enjoy with him now, pretty soon no one would want to enjoy with her. Why not take advantage of the opportunity while it was there?
Ravana offered her the position of chief queen and openly admitted that he would be completely henpecked. Whatever she would want, he would do. He pretty much surrendered to her. Ah, but his is not the way to surrender to the Supreme Lord’s eternal consort. Sita is meant for Rama’s enjoyment alone. Others can enjoy her association when they view her properly. A clandestine warrior was watching these proceedings from his perch in a tree, and he knew how to view Sita properly. He continues to enjoy her association within the mind to this day. The difference is that he always sees her with Rama. Therefore he is allowed to keep Sita with him at all times. Though Ravana had her in such close proximity, he couldn’t even touch her.
Sita was in distress, sighing and crying and taking to the vows of asceticism, all because she didn’t want to have any personal enjoyment in the absence of her husband. Prior to responding to Ravana, she placed a piece of grass or straw in between. This would ward off evil spirits. Ravana was the very definition of evil, and so the straw as protection was appropriate here. The gesture was insulting at the same time. It’s almost like saying to someone, “Okay, I will respond to what you have asked, but first put this paper bag over your head. You are so disgusting that I can’t even bear to look at you. Only then will I be willing to speak.”
Hearing Ravana’s entreaties, any person would be somewhat tempted to give in. The concept of “selling your soul to the devil” has similarities to Ravana’s proposal. That is essentially what he was requesting. He was the devil in the sense that he was the greatest enemy of God. He wanted Sita to abandon all of her principles in favor of material opulence. She, of course, cannot be bought off so easily. Rama Himself once tried to sway her opinion by offering the option of material comfort in the kingdom of Ayodhya. Since it would come at the cost of His absence, Sita refused. She instead invoked every argument from shastra, or scripture, to support her position of accompanying Him. In that argument, Rama lost. And in going up against the same wise goddess, Ravana would lose as well. As no woman is more glorious than Sita, the pure-hearted souls like Hanuman never stop thinking of her.
Every material opulence to her to give,
As chief queen, leader of Ravana to live.
Citing influence of time he tried to sway,
Better to enjoy your beauty before it goes away.
These and other such tactics had no effect,
Her mind from her husband Rama nothing to deflect.
In between her and the fiend Ravana a piece of straw,
He a vile creature, she of fidelity to inspire awe.