Ramayana

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 01/01/2020

Last modified: 25/10/2020

The Ramayana (literally Rama's travels) is about the character Rama, prince of a kingdom called Ayodhya (and later its king), but Rama is actually the god Vishnu who has taken birth in a human form, or avatar.

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Introduction

The Ramayana (literally Rama’s travels) is about the character Rama, prince of a kingdom called Ayodhya (and later its king), but Rama is actually the god Vishnu who has taken birth in a human form, or avatar. The word should be familiar to internet users, who often have an online avatar to represent them, and of course the film by the same name uses a similar idea of becoming embodied and represented by a form not belonging to one’s true self.

Owing to his divine origin (though he doesn’t remember this identity initially), Rama is a model son, who is on track to become king after his father, but due to some family turmoil is instead exiled from his home and forced to live in the forest with his brother Lakshmana and wife Sita (who is actually the goddess Lakshmi).

During their exile in the forest, Sita is abducted by a demon called Ravana and taken to his kingdom of Lanka. Later, with the assistance of the monkey god Hanuman and his army, Rama is able to rescue Sita and return with her to his original home, where he is made king.

While this narrative ultimately works out well for Rama, Sita has a pretty rough ride through the story. The damsel in distress trope has occurred many times in different cultures, and rarely offers the female character an opportunity to speak for herself or challenge the events around her.

After her rescue, Sita is further troubled by suspicions about her romantic activities while imprisoned by Ravana, and is subjected to (or volunteers for) a literal trial by fire (agni pariksha) to prove her innocence; she steps into the flames and asks the fire god Agni to protect her from burning to death if she is telling the truth. This, Agni does, returning Sita to Rama, but unfortunately this isn’t the end of the story for Sita.

After some time, rumours of her infidelity remained, and Rama – for decency’s sake – decided to banish his wife to the forests in order to maintain an image of power and order. While there, she meets Valmiki (the author of the Ramayana) and gives birth to twins she conceived while still living with Rama.

When Rama eventually meets the twins, many years later, he’s unsure whether they are really his, and so summons Sita to question her fidelity (again). It’s easy to imagine that Sita might find this repeated suspicion too much, a final indignity after everything she had suffered, and so she asks the Earth goddess to receive her into the Earth if she has been faithful to Rama:

As she was still speaking, a miracle occurred: From the earth there rose a celestial throne supported on the heads of Cobra People [Nagas]; the goddess Earth took Sita in her arms, sat her on that throne, and as the gods watched, Sita descended into the earth.

Doniger, 2010, p. 227

Rama obtained certainty about his wife’s love, but it cost him the woman herself. He’s naturally upset by this final and irrevocable loss, but then again, his actions with regard to Sita had been somewhat counterproductive (to say the least) if he was truly concerned with keeping her around. Sita’s final, empowering act allows her to prove her honour and leave on her own terms.

The Ramayana is a text that has been told and retold numerous times, in many different ways, and while the focus is naturally on Rama as the star of the show (especially in the male-dominated world of Hindu Brahmins), it’s equally true that Sita makes for a compelling and sympathetic protagonist, and there have been versions of the Ramayana composed from her perspective which explore this.

In Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, the story is illustrated in the form of a graphic novel, told from Sita’s point of view, which explores her feelings and responses to the events of the tale. Interestingly, the agni pariksha is presented very differently – here, Sita is overcome with despair at Rama’s rejection of her, and plans to kill herself in the fire.

War, in some ways, is merciful to men.

It makes them heroes if they are the victors. If they are the vanquished – they do not live to see their homes taken, their wives widowed. But if you are a woman – you must live through defeat…

…you become the mother of dead sons, a widow, or an orphan; or worse, a prisoner.

I thought the end of the war had meant freedom for me. I had hoped for love, I had hoped for justice. That was not to be. Instead of love, I found suspicion. Instead of justice, I met with false accusation and distrust.

Where could I go?

What could I do?

I stepped into the flames of the tall pyre that Lakshmana had built.

But I felt nothing. The fire refused to touch me.

She was spared by Agni because, according to the deity, ‘Sita’s purity makes her burn more fiercely than any fire. I cannot bear her heat. Take her and do not doubt her!'. This is very different to the way the story is presented in traditional tellings, and gives Sita a real voice to challenge the injustice of the conventional narrative, and makes Agni’s unrequested intervention all the more significant.

We can compare this to the version produced by the traditional author, Valmiki, where Sita steps into the fire having first asked Agni to protect her and prove her innocence.

As my heart never moves off from Rama, so let the fire-god, the witness of the world, protect me from all sides.

As Rama apprehends me, though of unimpeachable conduct, to be spoilt, let the fire-god the witness of the world protect me from all sides.

As I have never been unfaithful in act, thought and speech to Rama, who knows all the virtues, so let the fire-god protect me.

Ramayana VI 116.25-27

These subtle differences highlight the benefit of exploring alternate voices in traditional narratives, and how these can allow new perspectives on significant religious events and characters. Writing in a postscript to Sita’s Ramayana, V. Geetha notes that…

Sita’s vision encompasses all those who suffer, endure, and ultimately bear the consequences of what kings and wars do - and this includes not only women, children and ordinary people, but also animals and birds.

Geetha, V., in Arni & Chitrakar, 2011, p.151

References

  • Arni, S. & Chitrakar, M. (2011) Sita’s Ramayana, Chennai, Tara Books.
  • Doniger, W. (2010) The Hindus: An Alternative History, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Image credits

Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

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