The idea is not to justify Rama’s actions (the more conservative tradition has done that for centuries resulting in enormous damage to women and marginalised groups) but to examine these acts in a more existential light — what is the self that Rama is creating as he reacts to his numerous trials and tribulations? And to what end is he creating that self?
In the parts of the Introduction reproduced here, I state that Rama’s rejection of Sita is based in his adherence to dharma, the divinely sanctioned law that he must uphold as a righteous king. What I am exploring now is how Rama moved from being an exiled prince to becoming a righteous king — the physical and the emotional journey that he makes between these two points holds, I believe, the key to Rama’s transformation from besotted husband to mighty consort. In this journey, the forest where Rama dons the garb of an ascetic but carries the weapons of a warrior is critical. It is here that he meets the peaceful sages who show him another way to be in the world. He also encounters raksasas who challenge him in different ways as do the monkeys with their way of life and their willingness to help him. The early skirmishes with the raksasas and his deepening relationship with the monkeys force Rama to embrace the dharma of a ksatriya more and more fully. This dharma and his acceptance of it are fully realised when Rama has to fight a terrible war to reclaim his wife — for his honour as much as for his love.
It is the internal battles that Rama has to fight that interest me now, and there are many. Sadly, he loses the most important battle of all — the battle to be the person that he wants to be, irrespective of what his cosmic and public destinies have in store for him. It is this terrible dislocation of the self that gives rise to his anxieties about Sita and his treatment of her. And it is precisely this same dislocation of the self that provides us with the space(s) wherein we can examine the wellsprings of Rama’s actions.
As my idea of Rama changes, so, too, must my idea of Sita. She seems less and less a victim and more and more a woman of remarkable strength and fortitude. The larger classical tradition of the Ramayana has glorified Sita for her good-wifeliness, ie, her submission and her chastity, but as contemporary women we see a host of other much more interesting reasons to celebrate the challenges that Sita presents to the male universe by which she is bound. As her beloved husband battles his internal demons and the external raksasas to find himself, Sita too has internal conflicts that she must resolve. Rama and Sita’s final separation, after she is asked to prove herself again (this time for the people of Ayodhya) is at Sita’s initiative. She disappears into the earth without even a glance at the man she has loved, and it is Rama who is alone, abandoned to his public life and duties. At the very end of the story, we are left with the man — hero, husband, king, divine reflection — and his emptiness. Glorious Rama, destined for greatness and success from birth, ends up alone and lonely — that should be reason enough for us to read the text anew for our sake, and not his.
Women and kingship in the Ramayana
Women in the Ramayana
Just as the monkey brothers, Vali and Sugriva, play out an alternate option to the problem of disputed kingship, so too does the rakshasi Surpanakha, Ravana’s sister, provide a distorted mirror image of the chaste and virtuous Sita.
Sita and Surpanakha exemplify two types of women who appear almost universally in folklore and mythology: Sita is good, pure, light, auspicious and subordinate, whereas Surpanakha is evil, impure, dark, inauspicious and insubordinate. Although male characters can also be divided into good and bad, the split between women characters is far more pronounced and is always expressed in terms of sexuality.
Surpanakha comes upon Sita, Rama and Lakshmana in the forest. Rama has just fought off the rakshasa Viradha, who had grabbed Sita, a foreshadowing of the more serious abduction that will take place a little later. Surpanakha desires Rama for his good looks and suggests that he give up his ugly human female for her. The brothers proceed to tease and torment Surpanakha, eventually cutting off her nose and ears. Surpanakha’s mutilation in the forest echoes the battle the princes had with Taraka, in which Rama was reluctant to kill a woman until Vishwamitra assured him that it was all right. The assault on Surpanakha also moves the story into top gear — she complains to her brother Ravana, at which point he decides to abduct Sita in order to avenge the insult to his sister.