One of the two important mythological stories in Hinduism is from the Ramayana (रामायण),1 which was “told as an oral tale by Valmiki to Lava and Kusha, the two sons of Rama.” But, Ramayana is really just a product of folktales and imagination over time. Per the wikipedia, “The characters Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman and Ravana are all fundamental to the cultural consciousness of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and south-east Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. There are many versions of Ramayana in Indian languages, besides Buddhist, Sikh and Jain adaptations. There are also Cambodian, Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, Lao, Burmese and Malaysian versions of the tale.”
The following is the story of Sita’s trial by fire, all from my memory of the stories my grandmother used to tell me, so it is likely to have been modified by my own imagination. That is ok because there is really no true original since all mythology is just a collection of folklore over time. Anyway, here goes (a very short version)…
The king and queen of Mithila were unable to have a child so they prayed to Bhumi, the goddess of earth, to bless them with a child. One day, while plowing the earth on their land, an infant girl is discovered and brought to them. They raise her as their princess Sita.
Sita grows up and marries Rama, who is an incarnation of the god Vishnu. Because of inter-family politics, Rama, Sita and Rama’s brother Lakshmana are exiled to the forests for 14 years.
One day, Sita is abducted by the demon king Ravana who lures her to feed him as he is disguised as a deer. This results in Rama leading an expedition of war against Ravana, defeating and killing him, rescuing Sita, and returning to his kingdom to rule as the new king.
Rama strives to be a fair and involved king so he walks around in his kingdom in disguise so he can observe the people without being recognized, and so be able to serve them better.
One day he overhears a laundryman and his wife fighting. The laundryman accuses his wife of infidelity and says that “She is no better than Sita who spent a long time with Ravana, the demon king, and so was likely impure.” This causes Rama to doubt Sita’s fidelity and he confronts her.
Sita is really angry with Rama for distrusting him. She says to him that to prove her purity, she will walk through fire. If she is impure, the fire will burn her to ashes, but if not, she will come out fine. Well, of course, Sita is pure, so the fire transforms into a lotus on which Sita rests, and comes out unhurt.
Rama asks Sita for forgiveness. She forgives him but says that she cannot live with him anymore because of his lack of trust in him. So she goes and lives in a forest where she gives birth to two sons. A storyteller named Valmiki tells the young sons the story of their father and mother, and that is what actually becomes the Ramayana. (note: this is cool because the story is recursive as within the story itself is the origin of the story.)
Lava and Kusha are very angry with their dad for having distrusted their mother, so they fight with him, but eventually they are united with him.
Sita decides she can no longer live with Rama so she asks Bhumi, the earth goddess, to shelter her. The earth splits open and Sita goes inside, and then the earth closes. Thus Sita is reunited with her mother, the earth goddess.
Sita is worshipped as the symbol of purity, the daughter of earth, and her name is always taken before the name of her husband. Thus, Sitaram is actually a common name in India.
So, that is the story of Sita’s trial by fire. I am not religious at all, but as a folktale, I find this story quite fascinating. It depicts the female as ultimately being superior to the male, and it also depicts a god (Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu) as someone capable of making mistakes.