Literature is meant to compel original thinking; and few books serve that purpose beautifully.
Recently I got the wonderful opportunity of reading “Sita: An illustrated retelling of Ramayana” by Devdutt Patnaik. The book narrates Ramayan with a focus on Sita. It has taken references from thousands of folktales and hundreds of different versions of Ramayana across the country and times. For being so ancient, the Hindu religious scriptures have been a subject of multiple interpretations and frequent improvisations. Whenever the culture wanted its people to accept a change unquestioningly, it reflected that change in our scriptures and made it the command of our Gods, something that a common man found too big to not accept. The tale of Ram-Sita has been a silent witness of this brutal cultural expedience. So much have been the changes that in many locations, people are reciting different or contradicting tales all together! And most changes have been brought to manipulate the male-female equation in a particular society. The female characters of these scriptures have been portrayed in very different lights in different versions. The Sita of north will be a submissive, timid, silent domestic wife; and that of the west will be a curious, intriguing lady with a mind of her own – something that also reflects in what the communities expect from their women.
My first noesis of Ramayan comes from the legendary Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan. The calm and godly demure of Arun Govil and Deepika Chakhalia reinforced the inherited image of these two Gods. Despite being the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi and lady of royal lineage, Sita was so submissive, silently following Ram in everything, always smiling, never questioning, always crying at difficult times, and kept waiting for help to arrive and rescue her. The character was deftly crafted in relatively newer versions of Ramayan, to convey the women of those times, what all was expected from them in order to be eligible for complimenting honour, protection, and status. Of course, which women of that era would not have wanted to be a Sita, when Indian men had so successfully lived the fake pride of being the best Ram, ever?
When you know just one fact, you have no choice but to believe it. Because we do not read much, do not seek much, we believe and follow whatever that has come to us. The character of Sita is a wonderful example of that. A learned friend shared that there is no mention of any ‘lakshman-rekha’ in Valmiki-Ramayan anywhere. In fact, the Sita Haran episode in the ancient version narrates it to be a hostile abduction, where Ravan manhandled Sita and pulled her through hair and threw her into Pushpak Vimaan. Gradually, the Ramayans written centuries after the ancient one, manipulated the content as per their context. Some of them claimed that Ravan never actually touched Sita, he instead uprooted the entire patch of earth where she was standing and took it with him. Some claim that he always knew that Sita was her daughter, whom he had buried into earth at the time of her birth. Then comes the mention of Lakshman Rekha and how Sita crossed it and got abducted. The concept has been appealing and hit-on even now as a pure mention of how important it is for ladies to stay inside their protective limits, else they will become vulnerable and men will take advantage of them. Perhaps, the entire agenda of this tweak in the story was to instill this important concept of female vulnerability and their need to stay covered, into the minds of people forever.
While for few generations, these historical improvisations might have solved the purposes, but in longer run, they have only handicapped our thoughts, values, and perceptions. In most ancient scriptures, female Goddesses will be found very powerful, siddha, and invincible, challenging direct duo with strong and mighty rakshas males; but in the popular versions, they all will be domesticated, submissive wives, cooking, caressing, or caring their God husbands. We rejoice seeing Lakshmi pressing Vishnu’s feet or Sita sitting silently smiling beside Ram. Gauri, the Goddess prayed for marital bliss will again be found sitting with the entire family to give a picture perfect pose.
Worse, the mythological soaps have reduced the stature of these Goddesses even further. In a serial made on Mahadev, one would find Parwati flirting, fighting, cajoling, and getting explained by Shiva, every now and then. Like a pretty village damsel, she will ask stupid questions to Shiva and he would answer them making her feel very loved, wanted and respected. She lovingly cooks for him and the entire clan and gets upset if Shiva doesn’t not appreciate, who in return will win over her upset wife with praises of her beauty and qualities. I pity if people really think that Gods do all this!!
Mind it; Gauri is that element of Shakti who has created Shiva himself, which again comes from scriptures. How can she be any less knowledgeable, tactful, and mighty than Shiva? Why do we want our Goddesses to be so husband-serving and family oriented? Who knows?
So, Devdutt Pattnaik’s Sita comes as a sensible and genuine person, who reflects the godliness within herself. She knows the in and out of things and does not depend on petty emotional exchanges to understand the realities of relationships. She is far more mature, intelligent and inquisitive than Ram himself. Something that cannot be explicitly brought forward in the tales written in celebration of Ram. After all, these books have to justify the perception of Ram in commanding Sita’s exile, otherwise he might just lose the ground of worship. After all, most people remember him for his unbiased, fair and absolutely courageous stand against his failing wife, than anything else in the entire Ramayan. If asked five important decisions Ram took in Ramayan, Sita’s exile would be eagerly counted as one.
In fact, Ramayan is full of stories where the assumingly unfaithful wives were brutally punished by their husbands and sons. Also, there have been stories where the wife of one brother readily served herself for the other brother, when the first husband died, because woman, like empires, gets passed on to the next ruler. In fact, Sita has questioned the concept of fidelity in marriages and what grounds it holds, if the man marries multiple times. She also questions the purpose of culture, which could not accommodate the natural behavior of human being and expects them to tame its denizens for the want of order.
Sita, as the daughter of earth which she was, has been shown to enjoy the rawness of jungles, animals and environment. She looks as somebody who feels freer and truer inside a jungle than a palace. She has grown as a character, who in intelligence, vision and justice, stands at par with Ram and even exceeds him. In one of the instances in the story, Guru Vishwamitra invites Ram, Lakshan and all four daughters of Janaka family for a Yagna and following spiritual discourses. Wherein, he clearly identifies that Dashrath’s son are obedient and followers, while Janaka’s daughters are very inquisitive, curious and open minded. He pins that difference to the kind of upbringing the two families had provided resulting into different types of personalities of their children. Sita at most instances come as a learned lady who is so curious to know more, see more and experience more.
Imagine, if this kind of upbringing of girls in our society was promoted. Of course, it would have dented hard the typical and erstwhile patriarchy in our societies. How could anyone take a risk of this order? So, let’s kill our role-models and turn them into vegetables that could smile on everything and live satisfactorily in every situation. I think the original display of Sita in Valmiki Ramayan should be made the real benchmark of how a female needs to be groomed. It would then help us grow the real and a meaningful concept of equality in society, where everyone is complete as an individual and completes each other. As Sita replies to Lakshman when he brings her to the jungle for exile, “I am complete with or without Ram. He is the king; he has expectations and obligations to be met, for which he needs to be understood and supported by us. I do not have any such obligation. I was free and I am free. He is doing what he has to do. I do not get judge him. I just love him. Till he took me as his wife, I belonged to him. The moment he left me, I am a free bird. I can still belong to him, but for my sake, or I cannot belong to anybody.” – The true spirit of womanhood – the words of a pregnant lady, as she was left in a lonely jungle for being unchaste despite proving her chastity in a harsh test, no wailing, no pleading – the respect for self, the respect for the one she loved and the respect for the laws of nature – a Goddess indeed – and a Sita, we need in present times.