Ask any Indian do they know “About” the Ramayana, and invariably they will shrug the shoulders at the sheer stupidity of the question. “Of course, I know of the Ramayana,” would be the most likely response. Query further if they actually “Know” the Ramayana, and their response will still be in the affirmative. Proceed on, and ask them if they have actually “Read” the Ramayana? There will be a long pause and in all likelihood the answer will be in the negative.
Strangely, we live in a weird time, where almost every Indian is pretty sure that he or she knows the Ramayana (in all its intricacies) and yet has not read it in person. And when I mean reading the Ramayana here, am talking about an unabridged version of it, say like Valmiki’s Ramyana, or Tulisdas’ Ramcharita Manas, Kamban’s Kambaramayanam, the Bengali Krittivasi Ramayana, or even the Jain Paumachariyam. There are many versions of the Ramayana that are readily available in many languages. In fact, the late AK Ramanujan in his erudite (and unnecessarily disputed) essay, 300 Ramayanas had spoken about how the narrative of Ramayana had percolated in various cultures and regions, transcending the boundaries of race or religion. Little wonder, there are a plenitude of Ramayanas for any person to choose from.
Yet, even with so many versions, so many forms of Ramayana, there are not many I know, who have read a single, let alone a few of these Ramayanas.
BTW, before you go eh–wait a minute, let me clarify, reading popular fiction by Ashok Banker, Devdutt Pattanaik, or even Anand Neelkanthan does not classify as reading the Ramayana. Neither does reading the Amar Chitra Katha Series. All these are derivatives and interpretation, at times very shoddy and unscholarly, of the Ramayana. And they don’t really count for much.
The essential trouble is, thanks to the popular Ramayana series, where you had the ever smiling Arun Govil as the Ramji and beatific Deepika as Sita maiyya (which almost all people of my age and time saw rather religiously every Sunday without fail) has given us a familiarity to the epic without us ever striving for. Add to it the fact that tales from the Ramayana are staple in any Hindu home, as say dal-chawal, only deepens the connect to the epic. We feel that we know the Ramayana like a back of our hand, without ever really knowing it.
I personally came across this weird dichotomy when I attended a lecture by Dr. Arshia Sattar when she was lecturing in Mumbai. It was there, that I suddenly realised that in spite of knowing Ramayana (at least believing to be so) quite well (and there being a copy of the same in the bookshelf), I had not got down to actually reading it. Of course, am aware of the characters, the narrative and even the intentions of all those, even so, I had not taken a serious effort to read the Ramayana in its entirety. Have started the process now, as I realised my inherent ignorance. So When Dr. Sattar decided to present to us a new facet of Sita as penned by Valmiki, it came as a rather pleasant surprise.
Sita, as we know her, is a genteel goddess of goodness, often presented as an avatar of Mahalaxmi. She is a docile and dedicated wife, who sticks by the husband no matter what is thrown at her. She is the epitome of Indian values, of domesticity. Yet, even so, she is not really the counter-weight to the Maryada Purshottama, she is not the Maryada Streeuttama. That is because that are a few chinks in her personality, which results in her suffering. There are many things that she does are actually meant to be a strict no-no for the rest of the ladies to do.
On the brighter side though, Sita goes through a whole ton of miseries that actually not of her making, yet she winces not, complains not, takes no offence. She is like that perfect wife that a man can wish for; loyal, faithful, obedient and yet so gorgeous that she could move a man down the path of ruin in his desires for her. She is always standing right behind her man — remember behind, not in line, a step behind.
In many ways, Sita was a creation of a masochistic and misogynist society that wanted to create a template for all the ladies to follow. Her character was crafted to send out a message, of monogamous-devoted-love towards the husband at whatever cost. This was the Sita that has been presented in front of us, and not surprisingly this is a Sita we all know; a frail woman who was a victim of her fate and could not ever stand up against the injustices perpetrated against her, especially by her beloved husband.
Yet, the original Sita, as penned by Valmiki, was anything but a weakling or a frail lady. She had a mind of her own, and stood her ground when needs be. While the narrative of the Valmiki’s tale is more or less the same. The essential difference is that Sita is here not merely a caricature or a shadow as we know her to be from the later renditions, but rather an impressive lead who influences the course of the events.
Sadly, this Sita, is not known too well known beyond the literary circles. And possibly, not many would like to have it so. Let me pick a few instances from Valmiki’s Ramayana to introduce you to the Sita as she apparently was, or rather, meant to be:
Outspoken and Equal
While Sita is indeed married to Rama, and that gives her a sort of lower stature in the Indian society, but that does not mean that she considers herself to be inferior. When Rama decides to proceed to the vanwasa, he decides to do so alone. He proceeds on to inform Sita of the decision, and almost orders her to stay back. His mind is made, and his manner is curt, “You stay back here and do your duties as my wife, while am away.” Sita outrightly refuses Rama’s proposal, and says that she is coming along come what may.
Rama yields not, and tries different tracks, even going to the extent of trying to scare her, by stating that the forest is a dangerous place full of wild animals and unknown beasts, not a place for a lady like her. Undaunted, Sita taunts Rama, “I always thought you were a woman in a man’s body, you can’t even take care of your wife. What sort of man are you?” Sita’s arrows find their mark and Rama has no option but to take her along to his banishment into the jungle.
A Wise Counsel
One day when Sita and Rama are in the Dandaka vana discussing things several things. In a candid moment Sita expresses to Rama her fear of his violent nature . She tells him that he is a perfect man in many ways, but yet because of his “kshatriya” or martial roots, he has a natural affinity towards violence be towards beasts or rakshasas or anyone else. According to Sita, there are three essential flaws that typical men suffer from, namely, “telling lies, coveting another man’s wife, and violation of dharma”. Since Rama has not these flaws, he is rather perfect except for his tempestuousness. Continue reading Fighting for Lady Sita, Whom we know Not