The Sabrimala controversies. The denunciation of celebrations of Valentine's Day, despite their totally commercial nature. The controversy over 'Choli ke peeche kya hai'. The ban against the film Fanaa. How much more narrow minded can we become?
The current waves of narrow mindedness sweeping India are a sharp trajectory from the ancient Hindu trend, both in the ancient past and in the fairly recent past, beyond the upsurge of the RSS and Islam fundamentalists.
In the ancient past, Hindu kings held great debates in their capitals at which all manner of religious leaders were welcome to participate. Debates may have laid down the parameters, yet anyone was allowed to hold a divergent view and practice his religion as he saw fit. It is believed that the young Jesus participated in one such debate during his growing years before he returned to preach in his land and again after he fled his homeland as an adult.
That the Hindu religion is eclectic is what makes it a unique religion in our universe. Unlike any of the monotheistic religions, it gives the individual the right to decide how he wishes to practice religion.
There are the agnostics who do not believe in a God; there are those who do not accept the reincarnation of God as is accepted by the Shaivites and the Vishnuites; then there are those who emphasize the Bhakti cult, again gives the individual the freedom to select the form he wishes to adopt and the manner in which he chooses to worship. And all those in between.
There are those who swear by the Bhagwad Gita and the Mahabharata, others the Ramayana, and yet others, the Veds, the Upanishads, the Puranas etc etc. and those who do not accept any of the ancient books or their various interpretations.
There are a hundred different variants and multitudes of gods and goddesses for every Hindu to chose from; and that system was handed right down, through the Victorian pruderies and missionary activities of the British; it is apparently only in our times that we have become so insecure in our religiosity that any open discussion of our ancient texts is taken as an affront and leads to riots and such like disturbances!
I have just reread a little book called 'Banishment of Sita' by Arvind Kumar, written in the ancient tradition of questioning what has already been written. The book is presumably an answer to the critics of his famous monologue Ram ki antardwandwa, a poem which evoked which strong responses.
The publication of this poem, Ram ki Antardwandwa in 1957 had raised a great social and pseudo religious storm from the rightists Arya Samaj, RSS etc, castigating the poet for questioning the morality of Ram and the enunciations on the Ramayana. They orchestrated such arson and violence that the state was drawn into the picture, the magazine banned and a suit filed. It is another matter altogether that the suit could not stand legal scrutiny, especially when it came out that some of the protagonists had not even read the Ramayana for themselves.
In his book, Kumar examines the Ramayana in some depth; all the different Ramayanas, as a matter of fact, as the Valmiki Ramayana has been rewritten all too often.
Note: rewritten not translated, over and over again by poets from different parts of the country and abroad; and this rewriting of the epic has been done in the light of the respective poet's genius, keeping the plot of the original but including the local legends and genius which make it relevant to his own people.
This is apart from the chapters in the Mahabharata and in various other books which also deal with the story of Ram and Sita, such as the Dasrath Jatak. Bhaskar's Ramayana, the Kashmir Ramayana believed to be developed from Katha Saritsagar and Bhagwat Puran, Hemchandra's Ramayana, the Bengali Ramayana written by Krittivas in the 15th century,, another written by Chandravati in the 16th century, the Seri Ram from Malaya, the Serat Kand and the Hikayat Maharaj Ravan from Indonesia are some of the other Ramayanas.
These other Ramayanas have a flavor not quite that of the ones of the Hindi speaking areas which have produced the Uttar Puran, the Valmiki and the Tulsi Ramayanas; the south has its Kamban and Gopalachari ones amongst others etc etc; and then there is Vinoba Bhave who is quoted to have declared ' It is possible to rewrite Ramayana'after all it is not a book of history. It is fiction.'
With his feet firmly on the eclectic base of the Hindu religion, Kumar examines the banishment of Sita episode to explain the basis of his poem, which examines the conflict of doubt within Ram's soul while taking the decision to banish Sita from Ayodhya.
In his Banishment of Sita, Arvind Kumar examines the differing facets of the various versions of Ram story, presented by different writers. Starting out with Dashrath himself and his morals, the stories of the conception of his four sons, Kumar moves on to differing versions of the paternity of Sita (one version, Dasrath Jatak has her as Ram's natural sister, another, Uttar Puran, as Ravan's daughter!!); he deals with the differing opinions held by different authors of different Ramayanas of the times, life and morals of Ram and even quotes from local folk songs of Ayodhya to remind readers that the people of his land accepted Ram's promiscuousness which stands at odds with theMaryada Purshottam model which has been popularized in recent times; but is entirely in keeping with other Hindu scriptures which depict deities with human susceptibilities and weaknesses.
Taking three perhaps most popular incidents of the Ramayan, the Sitaswayambar, the Ram banwas episode, Laxman rekha and Sita banwas, Kumar reveals the differing views of different authors; each has a depiction of the story which gives a twist to the tale.
Ram in the various versions of the Ramayana is not exactly the Maryada Purshottam he is made out to be in modern times. Valmiki's Uttar khand, canto 42, shlok 1-22 depicts Ram's later days as a pleasure loving king with a harem of his own'..the repeating of which by Dr. Ambedkar in one of his books, drew on him the ire of the traditionalists and the banning of his book.
In fact that Maryada Purshottam quality has been questioned since Time Immemorial, based on his behavior in the Surpankha incident, the killing of Bali from behind, his handling of Vibhishan, the brother of Ravan, to serve his own ends, rather than of maryada, and of course, the biggest question mark, the actual reason for the attack on Lanka.
Was Sita the cause or the excuse for that great battle? Wittingly or unwittingly? Why then did he reproach her and put her through the agni pariksha? And finally banish her again to further the political glory achieved with the conquest of the south and Lanka?
Unfortunately in most versions, Ram does come off poorly, in fact the typical MCP with his bravado after the battle, claiming that he conquered Lanka with the help of his friends and allies, merely to avenge the insult to his manhood; then actually offers Sita a choice of Laxman, Bharat, Sugriv and Vibhishan, to live with, as he cannot banish doubts, despite the agnipariksha !!
Sita has to remind Ram that he is behaving like an ordinary man towards an ordinary woman whereas she is an extraordinary person (harking back to her nebulous origin) and neither is he an ordinary person.
Rama's separation from Sita, traditionalists feel, from Sita will deny his very quality as God and the embodiment of Bhakti because the consort is inseparable from him. The whole Hindu tradition has a firm foundation in Bhakti and the belief that major gods have the dual inseparable aspect as male and female.
And perhaps unwittingly the demand for further proof of her innocence and her dramatic disappearance again makes Sita herself the first feminist, by choosing to go away when Ram demands another public reiteration of her purity even after hearing the rendition of the story by their sons, Luv and Kush.
Kumar's basic premise is that questioning earlier tracts is a tradition inherent in the Hindu religion. Instead of flying in the face of the Maryada Purshottam fantasy or reiterating the correctness of his stand, all that his poem, Ram ki Antardwandana has done is to present Ram as a mortal, a confused mortal not quite sure, in fact, quite devastated by the cancer of doubt over the chastity of his wife, Sita.
The poem depicts his confusion in its entirety; it dwells over the differing stories over whether Sita went with Ravan of her own free will or was abducted; whether she was actually violated by Ravan during her stay at Ashok Vatika; whether she retains a soft corner for Ravan in her heart even after the return to Ayodhya.
Questioning or rereading the interpretations of the written word has been a tradition which goes back. And Kumar's poem in the form of a monologue by Ram on the eve of the banishment of Sita, brings out Ram as a very human person, besot by very human emotions.
The Kumar monologue, Ram ki Antardwandwa:
Banish Sita to the forest? Impossible!
My Sita for whom I built the Setubandh,
For whom I gathered a Banar Sena,
And spilled my wrath on Lanka.
But did I kill Ravana for Sita's sake?
Or to defend my ego, my pride?
TO take revenge, to prove my masculinity
Which was bruised by Sita's capture?
True, Sita was the excuse, Sita the sufferer,
But Aryan blood must conquer demon blood...
Oh Sita, My Sita, How can I banish you?
Yet, How can I keep you by my side?
How can I know if this Sita is my own Sita--
Sita inviolate, Sita the divine, whom
Janaka found under the plough?
Sharer of my joys, my sorrows,
The Sita of Chitrakoot and Panchavati
Who had passed the test of devotion?
But is this the Sita the same Sita? Is she?
How then did she allow Ravana to take her?
Or did she herself decide to go with him?
Did she not act of her own free will?
Her every wish was my command
Her whim that I chase Maarichi,
Her command that Lakshman follow me
All a plot of the wicked Ravana?
Or, Planned by both together?
O, 10-headed monster of trickery and treachery,
Demon of deceit and evil powers.
Annihilated in the conflagration of my wrath,
And yet...who knows his handsome form
Still lives on in Sita's heart?
Oh, Sita! Were those trembling
Of Apprehension--or of passion?
In the beautiful bower of Ashokas dripping desire,
Did not the breeze of Indra's garden intoxicate you?
Did not the Cupid's arrow conquer you?
Did not all the grandeur and glory overwhelm you?
Did not his evil magic overpower you?
No, no! sinful thoughts arise in my mind
For my mind is weak, but Sita is strong.
She could not fall
Yet, who is above temptation?
The greatest sages, the purest virgins
Have been felled by Kama's fatal shaft
None, not even I, have vanquished him:
My heard had fluttered
Even by Ravana's sister--her frail beauty
Won without a war
By, her humble beseeching for salvation.
Fear was my salvation then: Fear of myself
And now too, the heart is constantly besieged...
But propriety must stifle passion,
Decorum must cloak desire,
For I am the king,
To be ideal, the idol
I must guard the ranks: rule with rectitude
For my lineage, my heritage I must fight.
And trample my desires,
Cover my father's drunken orgies--
His neglected duties,
With a great edifice: a shining example
Of righteousness and justice
Whose brilliance eclipses his hollowness...
So, would not Sita have fallen too?
I did not trust her then,
So she went through the ordeal by fire
But I do not trust her still...
The demon of doubt mocks me
For I do not trust myself either
I have no peace
I cannot eat, I cannot sleep.
My very life has become a hoax;
For I know I cannot live without Sita
And yet, how can I live with her?
There is no way out, no escape...
From this fire of doubt in which I burn...
So be it, The show must go on.
To the forest will I banish her
In her name with one more act of justice,
Will do her yet another injustice.
But after winning Lanka by subterfuge,
Killing Vaali and winning Vibhishan
With yet another ruse,
All in Sita's name--does it matter?
Today I will use the washerman for my excuse
So let Sita's exile be yet another stepping stone
To the edifice of rectitude, of Ramrajya,
Another tribute to the idol, the ideal...
In this alone will lie the good'
For me, my self-respect and for Sita.