With the 2014 election of BJP’s Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, the Hindutva ideology was mainstreamed into the socio-political landscape of India. The Hindutva movement is a militant form of Hinduism that calls for cultural and religious homogeneity to create a ‘Hindu nation’. Recently, it has come to be associated with right-wing extremism and increasing fascist tendencies in the country. As with all such ideologies, Hindutva derives its power from a sort of essentialist claim of cultural and societal purity and ‘authenticity’. A major part of this is the co-option of the Hindu god Rama, and the myth of Ramayana. This can be seen in the highly controversial ground-breaking ceremony of the Ram Mandir (Ram Temple) in Ayodhya on 5th August 2020. This temple is to be constructed on the same land where, in 1992, a Hindu mob demolished the Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque. The site has a long history of being deeply contested but in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Hindu organisations and allowed a temple to be constructed, while an alternative site was allocated for the reconstruction of the mosque. Thus, Rama and his mythology is being actively used as a political and ideological tool for the Hindutva narrative.
The story of Rama, however, is not monolithic, and certainly not as narrow as defined by the Hindutva project. On the contrary, there is a continuous discourse and a long and prolific literary as well as oral tradition of retelling alternative versions of the Ramayana. Apart from the Valmiki Ramayana, which is regarded as the pre-eminent version, numerous Ramayanas exist across languages, cultures, geography, and religions – both in classical and folk narratives. In fact, scholar AK Ramanujan counts up to three hundred versions of the Ramayana. In classical Sanskrit itself, there are more than 25 versions. There are also meta-Ramayanas that acknowledge the existence of numerous other Ramayanas. Even if the Valmiki Ramayana is taken to be the ‘original’, and the same structure of events are followed, the differences in style, narration, tone and texture result in varying import and treatment of events and characters. For instance, Valmiki’s Rama is ultimately only a man – an ideal man with god-like qualities, but a man nevertheless, with all the implications of mortality. On the other hand, 12th century Tamil poet Kampan’s Rama is clearly a divine being, whose morality and judgement are beyond reproach. These different interpretations influence the subsequent Ramayanas that are written. Further, folk and tribal narratives, which are mostly oral, present a radically different version altogether which is often subversive. For example, the focus shifts to Sita, Rama’s wife – the battle scenes are mentioned in passing while Sita’s banishment is regaled in detail. Ramanujan argues that so radical are the differences between the narratives that “one conception is quite abhorrent to those who hold another” and that they are only similar in name, if that.
There have also been versions of the Ramayana written by women which offer a divergent perspective. Most famous of these narratives include that of Chandrabati in Bengali, Molla and Ranganayakamma in Telugu. Molla wrote a perfect classical Ramayana, in terms of structure and form. However, being a Shudra (lower-caste) woman, it was not allowed to be read in the Royal Court.
Chandrabati’s Ramayana told the story of Sita and heavily criticised Rama. In this narrative, Rama comes across as harsh, weak-willed and uncaring – a far cry from the purushottam (ideal man) he is supposed to be. Apart from these literary texts, the tale of Sita also exists in the folk songs sung across India. In this context, Sita comes to embody every woman and her suffering. These songs are connected with different moments of a woman’s life, and here Sita is the name of the woman who attains puberty, gets married, gets pregnant, is abandoned and gives birth.
Adding to this long tradition of retelling, there are several modern retellings of the myth as well, which demonstrate the substantial hold that Ramayana has had and continues to have on popular imaginings and narratives. Here, I look at two modern, feminist retellings of the Ramayana, and the way they critically engage and challenge Valmiki’s version. These retellings accomplish this by firstly, shifting the focus to Sita rather than Rama. They shine a light on the oppressive nature of the institution of marriage and Brahmanical patriarchy. Finally, these feminist retellings call for an independent identity for Sita, separate from that of a pativrata (an ideal wife), and question the portrayal of Rama as the purushottam (ideal man).
The first text is the short story, ‘Forest’, written by famed women’s studies scholar, C S Lakshmi, under her pseudonym, Ambai. Forest focuses entirely on Sita. The story begins after her banishment to the forest by Rama after her chastity came under suspicion again. The entire tale of the Ramayana is referred to only in passing, as a mere prequel to Sita’s solitary exile. It is Sita’s ayanam (ayanam is a Sanskrit word with multiple meanings, depending on the context. Literally, it can be translated to ‘movement of the sun’ or ‘shelter’. In this case, however, the meaning is such as to refer to Sita’s ayanam (life-story) as opposed to Ram-ayanam.)
There is also a meta reference to the multitude of Ramayanas that exist, and the consequent alternative narratives, apart from the canon. It is directly addressed by Sita in the following exchange:
‘Isn’t the Ramayana that I wrote sufficient?’ he [Valmiki] asked.
‘No. In the ages to come, there will be many Ramayanas. Many Ramas. Many Sitas.’
He picked up the palm leaves in his hand and asked, ‘Is this not the same Sita I wrote about?’
‘You were a poet of the king’s court. You created history. But I experienced it. I absorbed into myself all manner of experiences. My language is different.’
‘And where will this story be launched?’
‘In the forest. In the minds of forest-dwellers’.
The above excerpt brings out the question of language and women’s lived experiences. It opens up the possibility of an alternative account that is distinct from the one espoused in the canon. The portrayal of characters in the text is also unique. Firstly, Sita is not the passive, servile, ever-submissive pativrata. Sita’s oft-ignored strength is emphasised. She is the one who lifts up Shiva’s bow with one hand as a baby, and thus has to find one who is stronger than her to marry. Rama is definitely not the ideal man, and Sita repeatedly questions his motives and his treatment of her.
The text thus brings out the inconsistencies and the injustices in the canon. Rama waged a war not to rescue Sita, but to protect his honour. This notion has its underpinnings in the structure of Brahmanical patriarchy.
The purity of women was integral to Brahmanical patriarchy, as the purity of the caste was founded on it. Indian historian Uma Chakravarti argues Hindu social organisation is founded on the preservation of land, women, and ‘ritual purity’ and this is maintained by strictly controlling female sexuality. The honour and respectability of men are hence protected and preserved through their women.
Women’s sexuality came to be seen as a threat, and cautionary tales about its dangers were propagated through religious texts, stories, myths, and customs. The Ramayana too, associates most women being essentially weak and sinful.
Finally, the story also weaves a parallel between the story of Sita and the story of Chenthiru, a contemporary woman from Mumbai who has left her husband to find herself in the forest. This theme ties into the tendency of women, either in their folk songs or their stories, to identify with Sita and her character, and the way Sita’s story becomes the story of the suffering and liberation of every woman.
A second modern feminist re-telling is Nina Paley’s 2008 movie, ‘Sita Sings the Blues’. Told in the form of an animated musical romantic comedy, and liberally peppered with 1920s jazz numbers, ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ mocks the monolith status that the Ramayana has obtained in the Hindu mythos by cleverly bringing out the inaccuracies and the misogyny, and by questioning the notions of the ‘ideal man’ and the ‘ideal wife’.
The film tells Sita’s tragic tale of abandonment and suffering in a way that is anything but tragic. Mocking and quirky in its employment of a variety of animation styles, the movie frequently breaks into wildly anachronistic 1920s Annette Hanshaw’s jazz songs. Interwoven with Sita’s story, is Paley’s own story of her divorce when her husband leaves her after moving to India. She deals with her grief by fiercely sympathising with Sita, as millions of other women have done across centuries. The movie constantly critiques Rama and his actions – stripping him from his exalted position of the purushottam. For instance, at one point, Lava and Kusa, his sons, are singing praises of Rama in a nursery-rhyme-esque fashion, which quickly dissolves into:
“Sing his love, sing his praise,
Rama set his wife ablaze.
Got her home, kicked her out,
To allay his people’s doubt.”
Paley’s light-hearted jabs at Rama are acts of resistance towards the male-dominated narratives of the Ramayana that uphold and reinforce the monolith of patriarchy. The beautifully animated feature not only offers viewers a visually and musically appealing retelling of the story, but also encapsulates a considerable body of critique, both academic and societal, about the gendered and spiritual work that the epic performs within Indian culture. As the story progresses, the audience is introduced to new layers of animation encompassing everything from Mughal-type miniature paintings and Bollywood-style close-ups to collages of brightly coloured calendar-art images. This treatment is exemplified most poignantly through three Balinese shadow puppets, whose modern Indian voices relay Sita’s tragic tale to Paley’s character. These shadow puppets are unreliable narrators – constantly interrupting and contesting one another on plot points. They also pause to debate particular conflicts that do not sit well with them such as the motivations of the characters like Ravana (the main antagonist of the story, who kidnaps Sita in the beginning, which leads to Rama’s quest and eventual battle with Ravana), along with certain plot points such as Sita not agreeing to fly back with Hanuman (Rama’s devotee and messenger who finds Sita and offers to rescue her), Rama’s banishment of Sita due to qualms about her ‘purity’, and so on. Thus, both storytellers and audience members become embedded within the act of storytelling itself, and this narrative technique invites the audience to examine the myth and its ‘reality’ all the more critically. This again hints at the possibility of multiple and conflicting narratives and interpretations of the myth.
Over the course of this article, I have attempted to critique the notion of the Ramayana myth as a singular or a rigid entity, and by extension, the fragile underpinnings of the Hindutva project. Rama and the Ramayana have many interpretations and retellings, often in conflict with each other. These non-canonical retellings vehemently oppose the ‘ideals’ espoused by the dominant narrative and open up the possibility of a more inclusive and feminist understanding of the text. Furthermore, the counter to the machismo of the Hindutva’s Rama can be found in Sita. The identity of Sita undergoes so much debate and change in each version, that the pativrata Sita offers only a shallow, superficial, one-dimensional understanding of the character. Even in the canon, Sita ultimately paves her own identity, independent from that of a man, and goes back to the Earth in the end. In more radical retellings, her identity is entirely separated from her roles as a wife, a daughter, or as a mother. Her social worth is no longer tied to questions of purity, chastity, honour, beauty, and loyalty. Sita becomes a symbol for the every-woman, or for everyone who has suffered loss and abandonment. However, her strength and her virtue do not lie in her mute acceptance of her suffering as the canon would have us believe, but rather in Sita’s ability to rise above the suffering. As Telugu poet Volga writes, when asked ‘Who will save us?’ Sita and her stories give us the strength to answer, ‘We ourselves.’
Sharayu is pursuing a Masters in Development Studies from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. She is interested in political theory, culture and human rights, and aspires to pursue a career in academia in the future.
Ambai. (2006). Forest (L. Holmstrom, Trans.). In In a Forest, A Deer: Stories by Ambai(pp. 145-178). Oxford.
Chakravarti, U. (1993). Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State. Economic and Political Weekly, 28(14), 579-585.
Paley, N. (Director). (2008, June 29). Sita Sings the Blues[Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/
Ramanujan, A. K. (2004). Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation. In The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan(pp. 131-160). Oxford: Oxford University Press.