Monday, May 26, 2014


She had to pass through fire to prove her chastity. That was Sita’s trial. At first, having followed her husband Prince Ram to exile for fourteen years, she was condemned to a life of austerity in the jungle. Then she was abducted by the demon King Ravan, and was incarcerated in the fortified capital of Lanka. Later, following the fateful battle when she was rescued, her husband publicly asks her to prove to the world that she was untainted while in enemy custody! Consequently she undergoes Agni-Pariksha, the ordeal of fire, to prove her chastity. In the Hindu canon, this event from the celebrated epic Ramayana presents one of the most deprecating and unkind examples in the annals of sexual bigotry. This is also perhaps the first instance you sincerely frown upon the instincts of Ram, the virtuous hero of the story, for his perpetual urge to demonstrate his impeccable righteousness to the world even when it came at the cost of openly humiliating his traumatized wife who was just salvaged from capture. That Sita agreed to undergo Agni-Pariksha, and that she walked out of fire unscathed as a proof to her purity still does not underplay the sheer callousness of his demand, and no justifications can make it go. But what if it was all a part of a divine plot? What if the fire stunt was to cover up an elaborate hoax by the gods? What if the lady who went into the fire was not the one that came out? It could be quite an unsettling detail, but the many versions of Ramayana that have divinified the characters and events of the epic tale over time, features a mysterious figure called Maya Sita, the illusory Sita, who replaces the original one during the ordeal of the kidnapping through the humiliation of the fire test!

Apparently, foreseeing the event of the kidnapping, Sita was replaced in time with a divine body double that was seized and imprisoned by Ravan. So it was this substitute called Maya Sita who suffered the teases, and the taunts, and the relentless love overtures of Ravan while in captivity, not Sita. This shadowy alter ego was allegedly created by the fire god, Agni, who subsequently also provides the real Sita a hiding place in the refuge of his flames. After the bloody battle of Lanka and the rescue thereof, Sita emerges from hiding and switches place with Maya Sita in the pretext of the ordeal of fire. So the infamous Agni-Pariksha actually provides the required smokescreen for the return of the original untainted Sita going by these versions!

When it was originally written, Ram, a mere human hero, refuses to accept Sita, “the property of another man”, as he was afraid of the gossips. He wished to satisfy his followers who he assumed wouldn’t be pleased if he accepted the “maligned lady”, which is why he mentions that he had waged the war in the name of righteousness and not to reclaim her. He gives her options to marry any other prince, or do what she liked. Here his actions are defended only in terms of the duties of an ideal leader, and there is no mention of a stunt-double whatsoever to clean up the mess.

It is well known that unlike Valmiki Ramayana, the acknowledged original, many of the epic’s diverse adaptations including the canonical Adhyatma Ramayana, emphasize on the divine undertones of the story in varying degrees thereby justifying the actions of the principle characters in the name of the higher purpose set by the gods. The events in the epic, as portrayed in these various divinified versions, become a mere execution of the conspiracy of the gods to rid the world of the atrocities caused by the ten-headed demon king Ravan. Here, Ram and Sita are heavenly incarnations sent to offer, in merely human terms, first the pretext and later the solution to end this evil force. Taking all the baits set for him, when Ravan seizes Sita and imprisons her, he was in fact facilitating a motive for the final clash in which his end was preplanned. The kidnapping was an integral part of the scheme, without which there would not have been a question of any altercation between Ram and Ravan (read Good and Evil) to begin with. But in the process of the hijack when Sita, the mother goddess, was going to be ‘defiled’ by the touch of Ravan, things did not seem all that divine. It also made the goddess look too powerless. This is the place where the motif of Maya Sita gains significance. She was annexed to both save Sita of the shame of violation as well as later justify Ram’s insensitive demand for the fire trial as a comeback vehicle for the divine fugitive. According to some versions, Maya Sita, the providential scapegoat, is an incarnation of Swaha, wife of Agni, whom he offers for the greater cause of the destruction of evil. In some other versions she is the rebirth of Vedavati, who, before self-immolation and death, had sworn to be the cause of Ravan’s destruction for violating her in a previous life. Both had ample reasons to be associated with Fire, the former being his consort and the latter’s soul having ended up inside his flames after she ended her life in it.

In addition to many versions of Ramayana, Maya Sita also occurs in various other Hindu texts including Kurma Purana, Skanda Purana, Brahma-Vedanta Purana, and Devi Bhagavata Purana. Here, an elaborate plot unravels to embrace the plausibility of this phantom character. It starts with the life of Vedavati, who according to some versions is an incarnation of Goddess Laxmi while in some other accounts she is Agni’s wife Goddess Swaha. She was born to Sage Kusadhwaja and his wife Malavati. During a penance to win Lord Vishnu as her husband she was taunted by the demon king Ravan, which resulted in her taking vow to be the cause of his death in her next birth, and her eventual suicide in the fire. Then as we know, during her term as Maya Sita in the next life, she emerges from fire, replaces Sita, and achieves her life goal of being the cause of Ravan’s end. Then she retreats into fire. What happens after that, also seem to have a few different versions. In Kurma Purana during the Agni-Pariksha, having done her job, she is destroyed in the fire, and it ends there. According to Brahma Vedanta Purana, there occurs a much more fascinating and interwoven sequence of events that connects Maya Sita to Draupadi, the firebrand heroin of the epic Mahabharata. Having retrieved her through the ordeal of fire, Agni takes Maya Sita to Pushkar where she performs penance for the rest of the eon. She is reborn as Draupadi from the sacrificial fire of King Drupad of Panchala, and marries the five Pandavas, the princely quintet of Hastinapur. Therefore the cult of Maya Sita is not just confined to providing a glorified surrogate to the consort of Ram, but ends up encroaching the events of neighboring stories adding layers to the complex network of lives in the Hindu canon.

The addition of Maya Sita is undoubtedly the highest order of any add-on that ever materialized in Ramayana, a book that has been subjected over time to innumerable and often tasteless modifications to glorify the virtues of the protagonists highlighting the iniquities of their adversary. Here, at the same time as providing a clever alternative to the thinness of the divine façade, it also offers a remarkable twist in the plot. The ambiguity regarding this enigmatic figure also opens up a plethora of imaginary possibilities within this epic poem that in its current shape is otherwise crowded with merely characters that are ideal human beings making trite statements about duties and virtues in every step.
Also from the Ramayana series:



  1. This was just such a lovely eye opener about the Maya Sita and also her possible appearance in the Mahabharata as well. Will surely have to do some more reading on this character.

  2. Superb, not only informative but i loved the dash of your perspective to the write up. Truely enjoyed it :) Tried following your blog or reaching out but didn't give me that option.


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