As 2020 unraveled, the wave of global humanitarian crisis landed at our footsteps. Being caged and confined within the four walls, some individual sought ways to cherish these quarantine times while others struggled to pull together their lives. Amidst all the chaos, the echoes of the epic tale reverberated in the ears with mixed emotions. Nevertheless, there was an unsaid happiness on being able to watch the epic story of Ramayana as it brought generations together on the same couch.
The Ramayana is a classic epic story narrated in Sanskrit language by Valmiki. It revolves around the life of ‘Maryada Purshottam’ Rama, who was exiled to live as an ascetic in forest for 14 years along with his wife, Sita and brother, Laxman. The villain of the story Ravana kidnaps Sita, after which Rama rescues her and they come back to Ayodhya. The epic that blankets candor, duty, righteousness and countless ideal virtues, like every other thing is contextual and ridden with the evils of society. With Ramayana breaking records in recent times, it is of utmost important to contemplate its relevance and impact in 21st century.
Sita And Her ‘Naari Dharm’
Before delving in the domain of questioning and challenging, it is important to traverse through the trajectory of irrelevant acts seamlessly portrayed in the epic. The most prominent ones were the preaching of Naari Dharm, the reflection of ideal woman in Sita, and the Agnee Pareeksha. Throughout the epic, ‘Naari Dharm’ is taught, preached, glorified, evaluated and practiced by all the female characters. Naari dharm entails endless loyalty and servitude towards her husband, who is an epitome of god in her eyes, abiding to all the rules designed by the patriarchs, devotion to household work, sacrificing herself for the larger good etc. Women, who are docile and execute the dharm assigned to them, by virtue of their gender, with pure dedication are pedestalised, celebrated and idealised like Sita.
Sita is an exemplary of the ‘ideal woman’, an inspiration to all. This elevated position was attributed to her for fulfilling and subscribing to naari dharm effortlessly. Sita was undoubtedly an epitome of grace, beauty and chastity. However, it is wise not to ignore the fact that her grace was concealed and shrugged aside owing to the aura and dominance of Lord Ram. In Indian households, the act of Sita is told and retold to remind wives, daughters and mothers how they should behave and act in order to win over a plagued society which otherwise treats a woman like a dirt stuck in a shoe.
It is sad that a woman is glorified and treated respectfully only when she surrenders her dignity and mind. The historical epochs echo with the chants of holy Sita, who is worshipped for her subjugated, obedient and submissive role and not because of her willed, strong personality. The episode where Sita is asked to prove her chastity and loyalty by Ram, through a trail by fire i.e. Agnee Pareeksha is particularly significant in contemplating the relevance of Ramayana. A woman who shows resilience and courage against an enemy, and upholds her duty in crisis, is asked to prove her purity not once but twice. The lack of apathy towards Sita who had undergone countless ordeals and hardships is appalling.
Female Characters In Ramayana
The portrayal of the female characters in the epic is startling as they are displayed as submissive and obedient wives, mothers and daughters, who lack a mind of their own, thus dictated by the male members. Certain dialogues like, “Main apki dasi hu; pati swami ka roop hai; stree swami ki charan hoti hai, etc.” are flawed and problematic on multiple levels. Worshipping husbands as god epitomises unequal relationship that is glorified and set as a precedent instead of questioning the inequality.
These ideas tacitly construct the foundation of our society. If the foundation is so unequal, how can the pyramid be equal? These events mirror to us the reality of the society that breathes patriarchy. Notwithstanding the fact that the Ramayana is an eternal epic that has been engraved in the hearts of thousands, however, it is daft to still see reflections of relevance in a postmodern society. The prescription of an ideal woman reiterated and reinforced throughout is irrelevant. It is more of an imposition than prescription.
The underlying concern with the display of Ramayana in contemporary times is its impact. The society is inherently patriarchal. The depiction of such submissive character in a time where women are challenging and smashing the shackles of patriarchy is not just regressive but it also defeats the purpose. Families and the patriarchs impose their problematic and unjust notions on a woman who they want to mirror Sita or preach the Naari dharm. A woman who already has to fight even for her breath is now put in a conflicting situation where her views are at odds with the family values.
Her miseries are aggravated. Her fight is exasperated. The problem confronting us is the portrayal of Sita as the only ideal woman who is an idol of all the virtues. Idealism is subjective, objectifying and appareling it with unequal patriarchal notions is a victory for the society, where a woman is again treated as a puppet. What is ideal is to be decided by an individual woman. Why are there no definitions for an ideal man? A woman can’t wear ire, she has to be docile and poignant. This is preached as normal in society and makes any woman deviant of the normal worthy of backlash. This is unjust.
Today Vs. Ramayana
In a world of #MeToo, where we allow victims to live with dignity and emerge as survivors and call out the perpetrators, the depiction of a woman succumbing to the societal perception and patriarchal values is a slap on all the efforts of the survivors. Instead of healing the wounds etched in the hearts of Sita, she is asked to prove her chastity in front of everyone. A victim who strongly resists her perpetrator is brought under surveillance. Ram is never questioned. This again reinforces that it is the woman only who is questioned, regulated and restrained while a man can do anything they want.
Also read: Durga Puja And Dussehra Meet Each Other At Their Patriarchal Best
The unequal and unjust nature of punishment makes Ramayana unjust with just a blink of an eye. We live in a world where every second a woman is harassed and sexually assaulted. Preaching ideas like this not just negates these everyday ordeals of a woman, it further aggravates it by instilling fear of being disowned and questioned in their hearts for a fault of a man. The Agnee pareeksha that Sita took without revolting is an icing on the cake for these patriarchs who will be like, ‘If Sita didn’t defy Ram, who are we? The stigmatisation and ostracisation of victims is exacerbated.
In a post-enlightenment world flooded with the ideas of gender equality, rationality and justice, the re-telecast of Ramayana with these events raises significant and harsh question on the design of Indian society. It would be delusional if we tend to turn blind to the epidemic of patriarchy that has strangled the society since ages. The reinforcement of such unequal and unrealistic notions is shuddery, primarily because of the devotion and importance attributed to Ramayana in the eyes of people. There is no intent to question the faith of the people, in fact it is the faith and worship that threatens the relevance of Ramayana, in contemporary times. .
The fundamental problem in telecasting Ramayana in contemporary times is its idealisation in the eyes of mortal beings. The genesis is if gods treated goddesses in such a way, who are we mortal beings to talk about equality, let alone be its application. The idea inseminated throughout the epic is that gender inequality is normal and divinely ordained; it is daft to even have a thought of challenging it. Feminism, both as an ideology and movement, suffers a setback, owing to this genesis, as it is compelled to start its battle on uprooting patriarchy from square one.
Moreover, all the success and achievements are blurred because of the dominating tincture of patriarchal serials. A battle which is long-drawn sees a debacle. The society has been patriarchal since time immemorial, by virtue of which gender injustice is already normalised and perpetuated. The Ramayana, though an embodiment of fairness, couldn’t escape the wrath of patriarchal norms solely premised on inequality. The impact thus impressioned is beyond repair.
Also read: Review Of ‘The Liberation Of Sita’: A Feminist Engagement With Ramayana
When episodes like Agnee pareeksha or Naari dharm are depicted, a precedent is set that is hailed in perpetuity. The last thing a woman would want are labels and precedents that thrive off unequal notions. It’s high time we allow woman the right to define herself on her own terms. It is sad that a woman has to already fight for her breath, her life and literally everything, which is further aggravated by the utopian notions seamlessly incorporated in epic stories that are as irrelevant as the ideas they preach.
Featured Image Source: Amar Ujala
Beautifully explained. Brings a new perspective for an age old tale!
I love this article. It is an objective analysis of the epic from a feminist lens without making the believer feel that their faith is invalid. Thank you for this ?
This is so amazing, I love it. It is an objective analysis of the epic from a feminist lens without making the believer feel that their faith is invalid. Thank you for this!
Ramayana is a guide for humanity, and how men and women should act. As you mention, Rama is the Maryada Purushottama- supreme being of dharma, and he, like Sita faces trials, tribulations and tests of his character, and at each stage, it is his own “agni pareeksha”- or trial by fire. The filial loyalty to his father’s promise, respect for his step-mother, enduring staying away from his people, and bearing the loss of his wife, and surmounting the strength to fight for her; is no different to the “pareeksha” that Sita bears in her duty as a daughter-in-law, faithfulness to Rama, strength and character in enduring the exile, and her character in maintaining her chastity in the face of overwhelming odds.
They say that the Ramayana has thousands upon thousands of retellings and meanings, and make sure you don’t oversimplify the epic into a purely feminist vs patriarchy view! It is so much more richer and involved than that.
Well said. I feel in today’s modernist era, it has become a sort of fashion to feminise our epics by reviewing it superficially. It looks cool, you know.
Wonderful article. Brilliantly explained. But feminism was not a concept during the age Ramayana was written. We can always choose to change the channel. Instead of burning the book don’t read it. All classics western, Indian or Korean are problematic according to contemporary contexts. What is appropriate for this era is feminism. Shakespeare was blatant misogynist, so was Plato but they don’t run the world. This is the era of women. Let’s view our epics more objectively. But to be honest as a feminist I think Ram was a brilliant character. A closer study would reveal an ideal created by an author for men if he created Sita for women. A man has no right to expect an ideal like Sita if he cannot be Ram. Pointless. Next time someone preaches about epics and Hindu texts one can put forward this argument. If I am not Sita are you Ram? Who the fuck are you? Conveniently religious?
To put in simple words it was Sita’s very own decision to accompany Ram to exile she was never asked nor compelled to do so ! It was her willingness to accompany her better half to wherever he lives !! Ram even tried to stop her from doing so !! Even later when she was in exile and her father came to meet her.. Ram asked sita to head back but she resisted !!! Secondly
It was much better of you have gone through actual book because in Valmiki Ramayan there was no Agni pariksha it ended when Ram is back in his kingdom !!!
Its much better if you guys actually read or watch Ramayan before pointing anything you have no idea of ! And if you think that using those extra dictionary words made you objections much more weighted then i think you should reconsider your decision of writting further blogs !!!
Please do revisit SAHIH AL BUKHARI -BOOKS OF MERITS OF AL ANSAAR VOLUME 58 HADITH 234 AND 236 narrated by Aisha through feminist lens
You are anyhow, for what-so-ever reason, ‘inferior’ is the notion we have to consume everyday. And if a man is threatened by her strength,then the person is not ‘womanly’ enough to receive his love and affection. I mean, a big salute to every religious book of this universe. Thank you for type casting every single woman out there. Entire series I got to know all my patni dharms,and no where I saw any pati dharm being explained. I say this irrespective of any religion, either it be testimonial of 1man=2 woman, or any other form of discrimination. No woman is interested in ruling and controlling man, her only wish is to be treated as an equal.
Feminism is not “cool” sir. It is a responsibility which each and every individual with proper idea and approach towards life needs to follow. It is an analysis and being offended seems to be highly superficial to the values taught by a mother how you should treat anyone.
And just for the record, feminism teaches not to treat women in superiority but just as equal one treats men in the 21st century and the upcoming time.
Because it is immensely unpleasant how a woman has to fight for her right for not being born as a man.
Exactly these guys just never read Ramayana and have been criticising it just based on facts they hear from irrelevant sources.
Rightly said .
In hindi they say,”अधजल गगरी छलकत जाए” and it is totally true in this case.If any of the editor/writer is going through ,i would like you to consider rewriting this blog after you have gone through Ramayana on your own.These bombastic words cannot prove your opinion to be true.
The very fact that a lot of men on this forum cannot respect a woman’s viewpoint or this opinion is testimony enough of the fact that men have a long way to go in dealing with women with empathy, compassion, respect and equality. When Rama takes the decision to unquestioningly obey his parents, he does not even for one moment consult Sita. I have read this book many times and reading it has nothing to do with putting a different spin on facts. Patriarchy in India is alive and well. This is an extremely well written article and demonstrates the author’s deeply analytical and intelligent processing of a very troubling societal fabric that tries in many ways to brainwash and diminish women. That it is being consumed without question and without analysis points to a tragic lack of intelligence and empathy.
He did even ask her to stay at the palace in Ayodhya but she didn’t agree to it and decided to join him on his 14 year long exile. He tried to stop her by all means but failed to do so.
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