A great work of literature has the ability to stir emotions across the divide of time, but the influences of the time in which it was written cannot be overlooked. Any contemporary reading must take into account the changes in social conditions and ideas that are past their sell-by date. This is especially relevant when reading the Ramayana today and attributing to the characters of this epic an exalted status in present political times. As the country gears up for the next general elections in 2019, the question on many minds is whether the BJP-RSS combine will push for the Ram mandir in Ayodhya and whether its call for a âRam Rajyaâ (commonly understood as a kingdom governed by Ramaâs codes) has the power to become its winning card. Time then to look at this epic with the reverence that any great work of art with the power to shape society deserves, but also the objectivity that anything that commands power should be subjected to.
It is essential to note that the Ramayana was adapted into different regional languages â I say âadaptedâ because it wasnât merely a translation or abridged version of Valmikiâs epic poem. It was recast to make it relatable to the time and region. The most notable is Tulsidasâs version, in which the clearly patriarchal colour he lent to Rama was presumably a reflection of the society of that time.
The several other regional adaptations are likewise relevant in understanding the local contexts. The Bengali versions moulded the epic with their own peculiarities, such as the inclusion of old ballads and transitions, some of which pre-date Valmiki. For instance, the stories of Bhashmalochana in Yuddha Kanda (the sixth in the seven-book epic series) and the battle between Rama and his sons in Uttar Kanda (final book) found in the Bengali Ramayanas borrowed elements from popular folktales to make them acceptable to the reader. This shows that an epic, no matter how great, must be read and evaluated in the contemporary context.
By the same token, in a democracy where women have equal rights and form a major vote bank, there is a need to look at the Ramayana through a womanâs eyes. This includes perusing versions written by women, many of them in the folk form.
Epics the world over are typically paeans written by men about the valour of other men. Women barely find representation beyond being objects of desire or the reasons for wars waged for honour. The Ramayana is not much different. So, how have women rewritten it differently and, importantly, how did the entrenched patriarchal society receive this?
Atukuri Molla in 16th-century Karnataka translated the Ramayana into a language that was easily understood by the common people. She, however, did not look at the characters or the epic with a different lens. Nevertheless, she was a rebel in her own right, a woman from the Sudra caste who wrote the epic as an act of defiance against the brahmins. Additionally, she did not dedicate her work to the king, as was the practice. She paid a price for it, though, as the brahmins prevented her from reading her Ramayana in the kingâs court. This smacks of patriarchal bias when one considers the fact that Valmiki himself was a dacoit-turned-saint, but found a far greater acceptance that transcended caste biases. Tellingly, in Mollaâs Ramayana, Sita was relegated to the periphery and there is no mention of the Uttar Kanda, in which Rama banishes a pregnant Sita into exile.
Around the time Molla challenged the brahmins, Chandravati from Mymensingh in Bangladesh wrote the Ramayana at her fatherâs behest. She remains one of the most illustrious poets in Bengal, after Krittivas, to have written the epic. Her songs are extremely popular in the villages of Mymensingh, while the urban educated are more familiar with the male poets of her genre. Dineshchandra Sen, in his Bengali Ramayana lecture series, says âthis ignorance of her poems among the learned people of the province does not at all divest her of that glory that attaches to true meritâ. Chandravatiâs Ramayana is unique, even revolutionary, as it revolves around Sita. She too, like Molla, does not dedicate her work to the king, and instead addresses it to her âSakhijanâ or female friends. She clearly knew her audience. She begins her story with the birth of Sita, and not Rama; she then intertwines Sitaâs life with that of another tragic female character in the epic â Mandodari, the wife of Ravana. In Chandravatiâs telling, the two women are mother and daughter â Mandodari gives birth to Sita, and their fates are linked by the apathy of their husbands. âSitaâs calendar is nothing but a tale of twelve months of sorrow,â Chandravati writes.
Unable to complete her work, Chandravati stops with Sitaâs exile. âTo heed anotherâs gossip is to bring ruin upon oneself,â she says, addressing Sitaâs husband. âOh Rama, you have lost your senses!â While her Sita does not utter harsh words to Rama, Chandravati takes it upon herself to do so. At various points she comments on Ramaâs foolishness and warns him of the devastation that awaits Ayodhya. Chandravatiâs Rama is not an embodiment of an honourable male â he is a jealous man who fell for gossip. Mandakranta Bose, professor emerita at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia, Canada, best describes Chandravatiâs treatment of the Ramayana: âWhat was traditionally a celebration of manliness, is thus turned into a depiction of womenâs inescapably tragic lives.â She may have paid the price of writing Sitaâs story by being rejected by the âeducatedâ class, but, as said earlier, Chandravati knew her audience â in the shadows of patriarchy, women still sing her Ramayana, especially in weddings.
In contemporary times, quite a few women have retold the Ramayana. The noted scholar Nabanita Deb Senâs Bengali collection of short stories Sita Theke Shuru uses satire, humour and pathos to etch the unjustified pain meted out to Sita by Rama. Through these stories we see Sita evolve from a naive young bride blind in love, to a woman in denial of her harsh reality and, finally, to a hardened single mother. Her Rama is one who constantly fails his wife. In another story, she calls out the injustice of Laxmanaâs act of slicing off Surpanakhaâs nose merely because the latter expressed her lust for a man, thereby breaking a patriarchal code that views women as passive receivers of male desire. And in a complete reversal of conventional patriarchal wisdom, Sen imagines a bond of solidarity and friendship between the women in the epic â Sita helping Surpanakha with medication and kind words; Sita comforted by Sarama, Vibhisanaâs wife, in Lanka.
How do rural women in the subcontinent sing of Rama and his Ramayana? They donât sing of Rama, actually â their folk songs are all about Sita and the denial of her rights. When he finds mention, Rama is not a mythical superhuman of ideal morality; instead, he is a harsh, stone-hearted, jealous husband who fell for gossip. According to Maharashtrian women, he is the kind who gave Sita his love in tamarind leaves â this was the extent of his love. Womenâs folk rendition, whether in Bengali, Marathi, Telugu or Maithili, focuses a great deal on Sita being exiled by Rama during her pregnancy and on the pain of giving birth alone. Bengali women mince no words: âPanchamasher garbha Sitar chhilo rajdhame/ pashanda hoiya Ram Sita dilo bon e (Sita was five months pregnant in the palace when the cruel Rama sent her into exile)â. In a Marathi folk song, Sita says, âRam has no compassion, I am five months pregnant.â The women relate to her pain and plight through their life experiences. Away from the prying eyes of patriarchy, when women retell the epic in their own space, they have no illusion about Ramaâs âgoodnessâ. While patriarchal brahiminical poems call Rama the redeemer of sins, the women call him a sinner.
It is interesting to note that while the sacrificial figures of Sita and Savitri are upheld as ideals for married Indian women, many mothers in the country refrain from naming their daughters Sita, as they see it as an invitation to the pain and misfortunes of that mythical woman protagonist. It is, in a way, a silent indictment that no woman wants a marriage like Sitaâs.
In the eyes of modern women, Rama fails the test of upholding womenâs right and dignity â as a husband, as a father, and even as a king. Letâs face it, he fails feminist rights and modern law on many counts, including several issues that women struggle with even today. After putting Sita in harmâs way by subjecting her to a test of fire, based on hearsay, he abandons her, forcing her to give birth in a forest; he is the absconding father who never comes in search of his children, and who demands a test of chastity all over again, based on street gossip, which ultimately pushes Sita to take her own life. These are serious offences that affect a womanâs rights, dignity, health, safety and life. In law-speak, it is called âabetment of suicideâ.
Stretching the argument further, it also reflects on his ability to be a just ruler. He pawned an innocent to save his throne, and by doing so he strengthened practices that rob women of their basic human rights. In the true spirit of justice, not just in a democracy but even a monarchy, he did not investigate, or give both sides a fair hearing; he upheld the subjugation of a woman as fair.
So let us just accept Rama, Ramayana and Ram Rajya for what they are. The story of a patriarchal mythical character set in a time and age far removed from the realities and sensibilities of modern women, and their quest for a life of dignity that is upheld by modern law. The Ramayana is a poem of epic proportions, but it is not a blueprint for a modern state. Let elections be fought on modern issues that demand logical, scientific and equitable actions and not blind passion driven by a mythological king who failed one gender.
Tanushree Bhowmik is a writer and food researcher based in New Delhi