It is a sort of metaphor in India that if you tell someone a long winded story and they ask you a very basic plot/ character query, you roll your eyes and say “Well, who is Ram’s Sita??!” Meaning that she is the pivot for the Great War in Ramayana and you have clearly missed the plot.
Today is Vijaya Dashmi or Dussehra. It is celebrated as a triumph of good over evil and has two main stories: Ram killed Raavan in an epic battle and Goddess Durga killed Mahishasur. (more on him later).
Although the Mahabharat and Ramayan are probably a few thousand years apart, they do have some interwoven narratives. One of the timelines is also that on the day of Vijaya Dashmi, the Pandavas came out of hiding from their own 14 year exile and took their weapons back from the tree whose leaves we distribute as ‘gold’today. We worship our ‘tools and weapons’ on this day, which in our household translates into placing flowers on books, pens, the laptop and the wifi router 🙂
However, unlike the Mahabharat (which is the most amazing multi- layered story ever–forget Big Little Lies and Game of Thrones! This is the one you should dig into if you like your main characters flawed and you like seeing petty issues completely unravel people’s lives and you enjoy dark complicated plot twists), the Ramayan has always left me underwhelmed. Maybe even as a child I picked up on the serious patriarchal overtones, the strange injustices done to the women characters, the odd glorification of Ram despite some seriously questionable judgement calls, the odd devotion of Laxman among others.
Of course Ram is believed to be a God and one of the reincarnations of Vishnu sent to Earth and worshipped by Hindus.
Anyway, in the Ramayan, the key plot twists are around Kaikeyi, Manthara in the first half and Shurpanakha, Sita in the next. Kaushalya doesn’t get much of a chance to speak really. (But seriously, the entire point of being the lead queen is lost if your son gets sent off for 14 years AND loses the crown, right?? Speak out woman!)
We have been told that Dashrath married two more women after Kaushalya, because he could not have children. Well, it seems that he did have a child with Kaushalya–a daughter, Shanta. But he was so desperate for a son that Shanta was sent away to marry a celibate sage in order to ensure that Dashrath has a son ! http://devdutt.com/articles/indian-mythology/the-story-of-rams-elder-sister.html
If you don’t know your Ramayan in detail and didn’t grow up in my generation when the streets would get deserted when BR Chopra’s TV series was being telecast and women did puja of the screen before sitting down, then check out the plot and main story highlights here. https://www.importantindia.com/20551/story-of-ramayana/
So on to Kaikeyi—what was her deal ? A warrior Princess (from Afghanistan probably, like Gandhari from Mahabharat), she married the much older Dashrath because he promised her father that her son would be King. He also gave her two boons because she saved his life in the battle field. Pretty big commitments don’t you think? And then, as old powerful men are wont to do (recall Dushyant from Shankuntala ? Bill Clinton and Monica from the White House? Modi and Jashoben ?), he forgot about her and moved on with his life. But Manthara was looking out for Kaikeyi’s interests cos if your Queen’s son doesn’t get to be King, then she becomes just the sad old widow number 3 once the King is dead. So our folklore promptly makes her out to be a shrewish witch. Well, anyway, long story short, Kaikeyi demands her rights and Ram goes off to the forest.
Rewind a bit and before all this, Ram has gone for a Swayamvar (literally an event to ‘choose your own spouse’) and won the contest and married Sita. She is the daughter of King Janak. But wait, is she? She was ‘found’ in a buried casket in a field in the kingdom –female infanticide much?? Was she a docile passive princess or a warrior queen herself ?
But now they are on the extended forest staycation, 14 years, no glamping but they had able bodied Laxman to help out, lots of organic fruits and berries and the occasional golden deer and assorted tribals.
Cue Shurpanakha. Who is she? She is Raavan’s sister we are told. But then who was Raavan ? He was a tribal king, very strong, very learned and very powerful. According to one interpretation, Ravana performed an intense penance to Brahma, lasting several years. During this, he chopped off his head 10 times as a sacrifice to appease Brahma. Each time he sliced his head off, a new head arose, thus enabling him to continue his penance. Of course at the end of the day despite being a master of 64 types of knowledge, he became a slave to his feelings which finally led to his death. http://www.speakingtree.in/allslides/why-did-demon-king-ravana-have-ten-heads
Remember that the Ramayana is told from Ram’s point of view and from the Aryan race point of view. So the women from Surapanakha’s tribe probably were more empowered and able to negotiate relationships on their own (though the Swayamvar was also quite empowering. In principle. It seems to have been transmuted to some kind of a WWF with archery as the goal when marriage really does not revolve around those skills. Sigh)
Anyway, so Surapanakha approaches Ram, because she finds him attractive. He rejects her and suggest Laxman. Laxman laughs at her and ‘cuts off her nose’. Could this be symbolic rather than the real physical injury we have seen in our Amar Chitra Kathas? Did he sexually assault her maybe? In any case, she goes to her brother Raavan, horrified at the injustice and humiliation and he decides to do take revenge. Not really very evil is that? When he kidnaps Sita (ok yes, abduction is evil) and keeps her in the Ashok Vatika, apparently he never forces himself upon her.
Is it possible that the narrative is actually just racist and the darker tribal people have been branded as Rakshasas who are all born evil and need to be destroyed?
In a similar tale, we have the legend of Mahishasura: Apparently the king of Asuras was enticed by the beauty of a she-buffalo and eventually married her. (take that you ‘gau rakshaks’). The child who was born from this union was named Mahishasura. He wanted to wage war against the Devas and to make himself invincible, so he performed austerities propitiating Brahma to confer upon him immortality. Brahma refused him the boon of immortality but gave him a boon such that his death would happen only at the hands of a woman. Mahishasura imagined that this was the equivalent of immortality since he believed it was impossible for a woman to slay a person of his strength. Ok…Brahma really needs to sort out his boon giving judgement calls here but there is an interesting alternative take on this narrative also.
“To understand the politics of the Durga Puja, we may start from the idol itself. The goddess is fair-skinned (and hence, beautiful) and embodies all the virtues of life and is shown as slaying a demonic half-man-half-animal creature who is placed at her feet. The demon Mahishasur is dark-skinned, has a naked upper body and is attributed all “dark” (tamasik) characteristics. More than signifying the victory of good over evil, this very powerfully symbolises the subjugation of the dark-skinned indigenous inhabitants of the region, the adivasis, by the fairer Aryans.”
Sounds interesting? Read more here: http://www.dailyo.in/lifestyle/durga-puja-hinduism-lord-shiva-adivasi-mahishasur-bengali-ahalya-karl-marx/story/1/6904.html
And we are back to Sita. There have been myriad re-interpretations of her story, from her perspective, from that of the other women in Ramayan, even from Raavan’s point of view. Here is a fun subversive video called ‘Sita Sings the Blues’.
I happened to watch a TV serial recently, quite by mistake I assure you, called ‘Siya Ke Ram’. It actually had very empowered and dynamic and layered dimensions for the many women in the story. One of my favourite scenes is where Dashrath tells Kaikeyi that Ram is his older son and he will make him King. She sneers at him and says “None of these are YOUR sons! You are infertile! They are the sons of your wives, born from a yagna.” Yes!! Now that’s the way to tell truth to power. Salute!
The Ramayan will continue to be told, re –told and re –interpreted. It is a cultural and historical legacy we have to live with. Laxman’s rekha (line) is still used as a patriarchal symbol for limiting women’s options. “Minister Kailash Vijayvargiya was at the centre of a controversy on Friday over his remark that women must not cross the Lakshman rekha to avoid unwanted consequences” http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/dont-cross-lakshman-rekha-minister-tells-women/article4273131.ece
Ram will continue to be held up as symbol of the ultimate Good Son, Good Warrior, Good King (not so hot as a husband given that he abandoned his wife after rescuing her. Quite the passive aggressive relationship.
She had to walk through fire to prove her chastity. What about him?? He was also single and able to mingle while she was gone? Then when he did find her later, with her twin boys, she was again asked to prove her purity and she was kind of fed up of this asked her mother to take her back. She said NO to another Agnipariksha. Not a feeble no which could mean yes. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/26/a-feeble-no-may-mean-yes-indian-court-overturns-conviction.
A firm NO. The earth opened up and back she went, to her ‘mother’s place’, to a place of peace and non- judgement.) http://www.womensweb.in/2016/08/women-in-the-ramayana-if-valmiki-been-a-woman/
In any story always ask who is telling it. History is always written by victors. ‘Herstory’ is rarely told. And those who die in the wars never get to tell their tale…..
There is so much more to say and discuss but in order to keep the length reasonable, I am just going to end here with the recollection that it was the desire to ‘find’ Sita’s Temple and to ‘prove’ that Ayodhya was the birthplace of Ram, that led to the insane attempt to demolish the Babri Masjid and then the subsequent horrific Bombay bomb blasts of 1993. http://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/160617/1993-mumbai-serial-blasts-were-to-avenge-babri-demolition-says-cbi.html
Seeing the stories of the tragic stampede at Elphinstone Road station two days ago and the victims and injured being taken to KEM hospital reminded me so vividly of the day of the blasts when I was on duty in the casualty, and wave after wave of bodies started coming in. These were days way before the internet and even before mobile phones. We had simply no clue what had happened. We just took blood samples, started IV lines, eventually with bare hands when we ran out of gloves. We stuck plasters on the heads of the people brought it, wrote numbers on them and labelled the samples accordingly, since they were not conscious and there was no ID. We ran up and down from the Operation Theatres to the blood bank, from the casualty to the wards. The bodies started piling up outside as we triaged and took in only those who were still alive.
Today, as we worship Ram and Durga, symbols of the victory of good over evil, while simultaneously allowing citizens to die– due to corruption, poor urban planning and management, drown by falling into open manholes, be crushed to death for the crime of using public transport, tell women that the poor men who rape them get confused by a ‘feeble no which could be a yes’, tell girls who want to study to maintain the Laxman Rekha rather than become Kali and do a tandav demanding justice, what can one say better than this song does ?