The times in which we are living treat issues related to girls and women in a very superficial and temporary manner. Ramayana by Valmiki is a good text to understand the basic philosophical ethos of India regarding women and girls. Ramayana goes back to third century B.C. It is a fine example of the play of the female force. There is no doubt that the set-up is patriarchal. As scholars, we have to be unbiased towards the term “patriarchy’’. We have to acknowledge that both patriarchy and matriarchy are systems of running the society. Both the systems are human made and none of them is perfect. The present-day discourse almost treats the word “patriarchy’’ as an abuse. This bias is not correct for good or bad, up and down, dark or bright, fair or unfair, patriarchy has held the Indian society together for more than five thousand years. It has flaws. It might have degraded in certain aspects. It has problems of its own. As scholars, we should pin-point the problems of patriarchy and ways to wean them out.
Ramayana of Valmiki depicts a patriarchal set-up. Patriarchy of those days was different. It is a set-up of balancing the male and female force. When we look closely, we find that every single situation, twist, event, act, happening or reaction is caused by the female force. King Dasharatha, very much a patriarch, cannot move his hands unless and until motivated by Shakti.
At the face of it, Ramayana is the story of valor, kingdoms, thrones, battles, victories and defeats. It is about a king who had four sons. He became a father after elaborate puja, yagna, and penance. The eldest son is God incarnate and he is carrying out this leela on this earth in order to set an example for humanity. When we scratch the surface, go into details and unravel the narrative, we see the play of Shakti, the female force. At no point in Ramayana, women are unseen. Women are present in every situation, every frame and every turn of the immortal spirit. The female force is simply the driving force. It starts with Kaikeyi who is a courageous and ambitious woman. She is her own person. she is strong in every sense of the word. She had once saved the life of Dasharatha in the battlefield. Through her presence of mind and valor, she saved the life of the king. This is the reason why she has this extraordinary leverage over Dasharatha. When it came to inheritance, legacy, kingdom, throne and rule, Kaikeyi exercised that leverage in favour of her son, Bharat. This is how the plot of the epic is propelled. She starts the wheel moving. She is the cause of action. She creates an ordeal for God himself and thereby sets up the stage for him to showcase his capabilities.
Kaikeyi gives Ram to the world. The forest stay that is Vanavaas is the golden opportunity for Ram to exhibit who he is. His patience, goodness, his love and affection, his courage, his inclusive temperament, his warfare skills and his kindness come to the fore during this period. If Kaikeyi would not have asked the throne for Bharat, how the story of Ramayana would have progressed. Ram + Ayan, that is the journey of Ram is whistled by Kaikeyi.
The play of the female force is powerful. When it comes to Sita, she firmly refuses to be a silent, suffering daughter-in-law in the palace. She has decided for herself. She has taken a decision and Ram follows suit. It is Sita’s decision to venture into the forest along with her husband. She is not a silent spectator. She is fully participating in the events of life. She rejects the luxuries of the palace and in return, wins the companionship of her dear husband. Togetherness is important for her. The relationship between Ram and Sita is friendly and on equal terms. The best thing about Sita is that she never complains of any hardship. Her vision is clear. She holds her ground in a foreign land in front of an all- powerful king who is bent on breaking her mentally. She is firm in her resolve. As a woman, she will go only with the man of her choice. The swollen, red with lust, swinging in intoxication and surrounded by concubines, Ravana is not her choice. She prefers shim, dark boyish Ram who has a crown of hair. We cannot miss the romance between Ram and Sita. Sita flows with flow. She does not complain about anything. If we look at it, we will find that Sita is one of the strongest women ever depicted in words.
Indian ethos has always held the female force as the prime mover of creation. The male force denotes action. The female force denotes motivation. Even as we go through Prasthan Trayi, the fountainhead of Hindu thought, we see that at no point the value, the presence and the power of the female force has been denied. In all vital action in this world, in all important scenes played by humankind, the female force has always been present as the creator, the mother and the nurturer. She is the ultimate refuge for the Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. The Goddess has been manifested with all hues of human emotions. She is love, seduction, repulsion, destruction, creation, as also attraction. Most of the scholars study and describe the place of women in Indian society from a very peripheral, a very flimsy point of view. Those who understand the fountainhead of Indian thought know the female force to be fire and also rivers, oceans, energy and flowing flow of life. The undercurrent, the manifest, the electrified atom, the breeze, the fragrance, the heightening - all have been moved by the female force.
The Sanskrit words for talent, energy, capability, electricity all come as female. The male and the female have never been separated and that is why this concept of Shiva – Shakti prevails.
Sita along-with Parvati and Savitri happens to be one of the earliest manifestations of the female force in Indian thought. In the original Valmiki text, she comes out as her own person. She crosses the Laxaman Rekha the very day it was drawn, whatever the repercussions. To be afraid of aftermath of taking action is to be afraid of life. A human is required to do the best she/ he can do in any given situation to the best of one’s ability to think and act that is how life works. Sita’s strength comes from her capability to think clearly and then act accordingly. If we do not act, then life stagnates. For life to flow, we need to act. Sita ought to be seen as a human, a woman in a difficult situation. She has a whole army in front of her. Women have been deployed to sear, torture her and to break her mentally. Ravana is up for all Sama, Dama, Danda and Bheda. Sita works out her own way. She does it by sheer inner power. Her no means No. what we see in the movie pink, where this whole idea has been filmed, that was practiced by Sita. Sita does not lose her goodness, her spirituality and her soft feminine grace. Yet she is strong like a rock. Her crystal clear thought process is her biggest asset. She knows what she wants from life. Many scholars have rightly opined that Ravana was first defeated by Sita. Even before being slain by Rama, Ravana stood a defeated man. Sita defeated Ravana in the first place. Ravana presents Many options before her, many alluring scenes. Sita knows what she wants to do. We can see her capability to command when she tells Hanuman to tell Rama to come within thirty days. Her command is final. The messenger is the trusted Hanumana. From Sita’s courage, determination, and steadfastness start the progeny of Bharat, that is India. She rears up two strong children capable of facing any situation in life. Without disrupting family and society, without getting bitter and without losing the charm and beauty of her personality, Sita achieves all that she wanted. This is the way strong women raise strong families and societies. West taught us man-bashing. In the Indian ethos, the female and the male forces are always in a tandem.
Under the outer surface and outer action of Ramayana lies the real narrative. A wise reader is expected to feel the inner vibrations of the epic. It brings harmony and peace. The Sanatan tradition believes in creation, continuity and joy. It upholds the institution of family. Our ancient thinkers were very clear that a strong society is made of strong units. It is only when the family is one, strong and supportive that the society can be strong and productive. The family is held supreme. The Hindu view of life revolves around joy, around festivities in all phases of human life and in all phases of nature. It is basically festive in nature. Women are at the centre. As inherent carries of creativity and progeny, women are the carriers of our culture. No festival and no festivity is possible without active involvement of women and girls. It is not possible for the desecrating western world view to understand how women are the repository of the joys of life, of breath, of growth and of worldly bliss. We become what we contemplate upon. The nature of reality is an echo. Our thoughts finally become our reality. Hindu thought therefore focuses on the positive vibrations. Only the evolved soul can understand it. The presence and happiness of women and girls are the vital. There can be no home, no joyful place without the joyful, active participation of women and girls. The Hindu world- view is diagonally opposite to the dystopian where nothing grows in the barren mind. Thoughts of alienation, isolation, division, separation, depression and segregation are not present in the Hindu world view. Life has been viewed as a festival. Every moment is to be relished with family and gods. Spirituality has been woven into the fabric of life. Boredom has no place. Such tasks have been given where the family is together involved in performing them. This is the art of living. The creators of Vedas and Upanishads understood fully the energy brought by girls and women. Only a very perceptive observer of life after years of experience, and training can feel the blessings of this world- view. Everything in this world cannot be articulated. The blessing of the feminine energy is certainly one such thing. It’s absence will change life into an arid sphere.
The atmosphere depicted in Ramayana may not be perfect. It is still a patriarchal world. Men are at the helm of affairs. Men are important. Men are reversed. And yet women are happy. There are reasons behind the joy experienced by women. The society is cohesive. The institution of family is the psychological shield of the individual. This is the boon of the traditional wisdom. It makes life blissful.
As objective and unbiased scholars, we should evaluate the place and role of women as depicted in Ramayana by Valmiki. If we really look at it, we find that Kaikeyi is an extraordinary woman. She has been raised by her nurse Manthara. She had no maternal care in her childhood. She had no sister. She was the only sister to seven brothers. She is worldly and ambitious. She repaired the wheel of Dashratha’s chariot amidst a raging war and therefore she had an edge over all other queens of Dashratha. She always had Manthara by her side who always fuelled her dormant sense of jealousy and comparison. Her act of causing Rama’s jungle stay not only propels the action of the epic but it is also a very human action. This is how humans are designed. The desire for power is nothing new to humans. Human nature has many lurking elements. Great stories always bring those elements to the fore. Therefore, Kaikeyi’s behavior is nothing short of blessing. She gave Ram the wide stage. Her action furthered the epic. She was learned, intelligent and knowledgeable. She had an understanding of state craft. All that she is asking is sharing of power. so, we have to erase that sense of guilt when we look at Kaikeyi. It is in such moments of decision, destiny is shaped. We have a situation over which countless generations have cried. Our beloved Ram has been deprived the easy path, the luxuries of palace and the power. He has been sent to jungle because of Kaikeyi. The episode has been given pain to innumerable souls. It is time we change our perspective. There are so many sayings in Sanskrit which underline the value of hardship and bitter experiences. “Nectar or elixir must be extracted even from poison. A good thing must be learnt even from a child. Good character must be emulated even from enemies. Gold must be extracted even from trash’’. Even in Srimad Bhagwat Gita it is said that something which appears like poison in the beginning may end like nectar. Tough experiences of life teach us a lot. Hardships are inevitable. As humans, we have to draw lessons from adverse conditions and move forward. Joy comes finally to everyone.
Eti jeevuntmaanando naram varsh-shatadapi
“ It may take a hundred years coming, but joy surely comes to every man’’.
– (Sundara- Kand; the Auspicious Book, 34:6)
Therefore, Ramayana is to be studied with patience, peace and joy. The events described therein, are to be taken as necessary lessons of life. The bond between Kaikeyi and Manthara is strong. Manthara is loyal to Kaikeyi. Together these two women have a vital role to play in taking the story further. There are ample examples in the epic where the female represents the darker side of human nature. This is how it should be man or woman- a human always has a play of both good and bad. The two forces are always working within Sursa, the mother of snakes was sent to test the ability of Hanuman. When Hanuman is on his way to Lanka as a scout prior to the final battle, Sursa appears in the sea, entangles Hanuman and tests his wit and valor. Once Hanuman overcomes obstacles posed by her, even Sursa becomes a mother figure. We have Trijata amongst the female demons employed by Ravana to scare and subdue Sita. These women were instructed to threaten Sita and weaken her will power by some kind of horror show. Among these evil souls, Trijata comes out as a woman of sisterhood. She sees a woman in Sita and not an enemy. She sympathizes with Sita, consoles her, gives her correct advice, listen her with empathy and boosts her morale.
Surpanakha is an important character in Ramayana. Her personality, her behavior, her deep complexes, her troubled past- all play an important role in the immortal epic. Some scholars even suggest that she was taking revenge on Ravana for the murder of her husband. But apparently Surpanakha stands for fallen beauty, disfigured and scared body and mind and also intense bodily desires. She is vocal and open in admiring the sleek well-built beauty of Ram. She sees Ram as a man, as a human and admires him as such. She does not hide her physical interest in Ram. This again is quite revolutionary keeping the fact in mind that the epic was written 5th century BCE. We have to note that the desire of the female finds an expression. It is not forbidden. The fact that a woman is sexually attracted to a man is expressed. We have to mark the culture where such free expressions were possible.
Overall, Valmiki shows a very subtle understanding of life in Ramayana. For happiness and fulfillment a human being finally has to find something/someone whom one loves more than oneself. This is human nature and this is human destiny. The more self-encased a person is, the more unhappy she or he is. One has to give oneself away. We have to find something more important than ourselves. Therefore, the essence of life, creativity, creation, posterity, positivity, family and society- all lie in selflessness. Selfishness alone will destroy everything. For building something and for our inner peace, one has to go beyond self. Somehow, women imbibe this quality naturally. They seem to grasp the essence of life easily. Women are instinctively pro-creation. Women tend to build and sustain homes, families and societies. This is the world view of Ramayana. This is the important place which women occupy in the general scheme of things. Valmiki understood the creative force of women very well.
Maa Kaushalya, Laxman’s wife Urmila and so many other female characters add to this creative force depicted in Ramayana. We may talk about individual characters separately but the best approach would be to focus on the flow. Everything is not perfect in Ramayana and it is fine. The abnormalities, the anomalies, the gross violations of our sensibilities actually cause the story to grow. This is to be understood properly. Among women characters, there is a fair share of evil, selfish and aggressive women. But the cool, nurturing, creative breeze of the feminine force proves to be stronger led by Sita, the feminine force in Ramayana shapes the narrative in a decisive manner. For our terminology, we may categorize it as a patriarchal system but the female force is all powerful. In Ramayana, women are visible and they have a voice.
Note: The above commentary is based on The Rmayana of Valmiki, condensed from Sanskrit and translated into English by P.Lal. Tarang Paperbacks. Vikas Publishing House, 57, Masjid Road, Jangpura, New Delhi- 110014.1989.