A friend of mine was reading a children’s version of the Ramayana and before reaching the end of the story, she asked me to tell her what happens to Sita, because she did not want to read a sad ending that evening. I told her, “it depends on which version you are reading.”
As illustrated by the graph of my ngram search done in 2012 (see the post here), of the Hindu holy scriptures, the Ramayana fills the most web pages.
I wrote a synopsis of the Ramayana here, but put even shorter:
Sita, the wife of the stories noble, royal hero, is abducted by the demon king, Ravana. Rama with his followers defeat Ravana and Sita returns.
As you can see by my diagram below, the Ramayana myth is very old — recorded around the same times the Jewish iron age hero stories in the Torah (see post here). And though the Torah (part of the Christian Old Testament) was edited and modified over the centuries, the Hindus are much more casual with their scriptures and today we have hundreds of versions of the Ramayana. A.K. Ramanujan wrote his controversial “Three Hundred Ramayanas” in 1987 which Delhi University later banned from their curriculum. For though the many versions were known, hard-line fundamentalist Hindus spoke out against versions which put the holiness Rama and Sita into the least bit of question.
When Sita is brought back from her long captivity with the demon Ravana her husband suspects that Sita had sex with Ravana during captivity. To prove her fidelity, Sita is the horrifically tried by fire, but in some versions even this is not enough for Rama who then banishes Sita. And the variations go on.
South Asians name their children after Sita. Sita’s is worshipped by many, and an important literary vehicle to all. The variations of stories about Mary in the Christian Bible also reflect a similar tension.
In fact, read my post here about how Ravana is viewed as noble in some versions.
It has been observations like this that has helped me to see religion myth making as a shared process across all traditions — even secular ones. Stories are always told in ways that match the desires of the story teller.