When Ramanand Sagar made his Ramayan, he had loud music to mask a particular dialogue between Sita and Laxman, perhaps because he did not want to court controversy. The episode is fairly well known yet few people like to talk about it. It happens in the forest in the final year of Ram’s 14-year exile.

Sita is so smitten by a golden deer that she begs her husband, Ram, to get it for her. After a long chase, Ram manages to shoot it down only to discover that it is no deer but a shape shifting demon who before dying mimics Ram’s voice and shouts, “Help Sita! Help Laxman!” Hearing this cry, Sita begs Laxman to go to Ram’s rescue. Laxman refuses since his brother had ordered him to protect Sita and not leave her side under any circumstances. Annoyed by his reticence,  Sita says, “….You wish his death in order to secure me. It is clear to me that just for me you have refrained from going to your brother…” These are the exact words of Makhan Lal Sen who translated the Ramayana of Valmiki in 1927.

Even as he translated these lines, Makhan Lal Sen was so embarrassed that he added the following footnote: “Sita was no doubt mad with anxiety and there was every justification for her fears for Ram; yet such a base insinuation against a brother like Laxman who had renounced his happiness and future and followed Ram like a devoted servant is at the least unworthy of Sita, if not anything else. Dramatic necessity for this tragic fate was indeed imperative and the poet found it hard to make Laxman disobey Ram’s injunctions unless there were such cruel imputations which sets Sita’s anxiety for Ram and Laxman’s sense of honor in juxtaposition.”

Laxman responds to the accusation with horror and to prove Sita wrong goes in search of Ram, leaving Sita unguarded. Shortly thereafter Sita is abducted by Ravan, the demon-king of Lanka. One can’t help but wonder if this is the poet’s attempt to make her, rather than any oversight on the part of the brothers, responsible for her abduction. If only she had some faith in Laxman… If only she had not let her anxiety churn out such vile accusations…

Later in the epic, as Ram searches for Sita a troop of monkeys show him jewels that they found on the forest floor. Ram recognizes these jewels as those belonging to Sita. Laxman looks at them but recognizes only the anklets. He says, “I do not know her bracelets or earrings; every day I bowed to her feet and so I know her anklets.” This is clearly an exaggerated attempt by the poet to drive home Laxman’s chaste relationship with his sister-in-law. He never even looked at her!

Implicit in these two episodes is the acknowledgement that sexual desires often transgress the laws of matrimony. In an ideal society sexual desire should exist only between a lawfully wedded man and his lawfully wedded wife.  But no society is ideal and so desires often transgress marital law. The man looks at other women beside his wife and the woman looks at other men beside her husband. Sometimes, the line is crossed. Different societies have responded to this transgression in different ways.

In the Ramayan, to prove that Sita did not even think of another man beside Ram, she is asked to walk through fire. The flames do not touch her because she is pure. A pure woman, a chaste woman, a woman who desires no one else but her husband is known as a Sati in the Hindu mythological world. This Sati is supposed to have magical powers, which includes her ability to withstand the heat of fire.

This mythic idea of Sati who is never affected by fire gave rise to the dreadful practice of Sati, where a woman was expected to jump into her husband’s funeral pyre. If she was ‘pure’ the fire would kill her without hurting her. And if she is ‘impure’, she would get the punishment she deserved. Thus was the practice justified.

In the Ramayan of Valmiki, neither the widows of Ram’s father nor the widows of the demon-king Ravan, kill themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre, suggesting it to be a later practice. The Mahabharat, however, does refers to this practice several times. Pandu’s wife, Madri, and many of Krishna’s wives do become Sati.

A woman’s chastity was clearly an issue for Valmiki. Earlier in the epic, we are introduced to Ahilya, wife of sage Gautama, who is turned to stone for having sexual relations with Indra, king of the gods. Later versions are divided on Ahilya’s innocence. Some versions claim she knew what she was doing while others claim she was innocent as Indra had taken the form of her husband. Either way, she is turned to stone until ‘pure’ Ram touches her.

Ram is the only hero in Hindu mythology who is given the title of ‘ekam-patni-vrata’, one who was faithful to one wife. He desired no one but her. Despite the many proofs of Laxman’s chastity, he is not given this title. And this makes one wonder. In the forest, before Sita’s abduction, before the golden deer,  Ravan’s sister, Surpanakha, approaches Ram and rather boldly declares that she desires him. He refuses on grounds that he is married but offers Laxman instead because he is alone in the forest. Scholars argue if this was done seriously or in jest. In jest, perhaps, because Laxman did have a wife called Urmila who he had left behind in the palace as  he followed Ram.

Curiously, Ravan’s wife, Mandodari, is considered a Sati, a holy woman, who remained chaste despite her demon-husband’s many shortcomings. In one folk version of the epic, one of Ravan’s chaste wife (Mandodari?) does looks upon Hanuman and as a result Ravan is no longer protected by the power of her chastity. This enables Ram to kill Ravan. Stories such as these are meant to inform society that a woman’s chastity is necessary to prevent her widowhood. This mythic idea was, and continues to be, a powerful tool to control women’s desires.

In the Mahabharat, there are many episodes where a woman co-habits with her husband’s brothers, sometimes for progeny and sometimes out of lust. When Vichitravirya dies, his mother asks his step-brother, Bhism, to go to Vichitravirya’s widows and give them children. When Bhism refuses, she sends for her eldest son, Vyas, born before marriage and asks him to do the needful.  This practice of letting a brother go to the childless wife was known as niyog. Another episode relates to Brihaspati forcing himself on his sister-in-law, Mamata. She rejects him not on moral grounds but on grounds that she is already pregnant! Unable to contain his lust, Brihaspati sheds his semen outside her body and thus is born Vitatha, an unwanted child, who curses Mamata that the child in her womb because of whom she rejected him will be born blind. Then of course there is Draupadi who is shared between the five Pandav brothers and not wanting to making anyone jealous goes to each brother one year at a time, passing through fire to ‘purify’ herself when the one year is over so she is a ‘virgin’ for the next husband. In Punjab there is a folktale that the Pandav brothers were expected to leave their footwear outside Draupadi’s bedchamber to indicate their presence inside. Once a dog stole Yudhishtira’s footwear and Arjun entered the bedroom embarrassing his wife and his brother. A furious Draupadi cursed the dog that henceforth he would copulate it public and be shamed before the world.

A reading of the Mahabharat suggests that the institution of marriage and the value given to fidelity went through many changes. There is reference to a time before Svetaketu when men and women went to each other freely and marriage existed only to formalize fatherhood. Then came a time when a woman who entered the household was shared between brothers as suggested in the tales of Jatila and Draupadi. The story of Oghavati and Sudarshan suggests that there was even a time when a husband shared his wife with a guest. Then came a time when great value was given to the chastity of women – perhaps to confirm paternity. At first she was allowed to have many lovers, then only four for the sake of children as in the tale of Kunti, and then finally one. Men were allowed to take many wives and many mistresses. But in an ideal society, personified by Ram, and elaborated in the Ramayan, even men were supposed to be as chaste as their wives. One man for one woman. Husband and wife. Perfect conjugal harmony.

Ramayan is about how men and women should be. It is about ideal fathers, sons, wives and brothers. Ram and his brothers are contrasted with other characters in the epic such as the monkey-king, Vali, and the demon-king, Ravan. Vali forcibly claims his brother Sugriva’s wife, Rama, and refuses to share the kingdom, against the express wish of their father. Ravan forcibly lays claim to Kuber’s Lanka and then rapes Kuber’s daughter-in-law, Rambha, wife of Nalkuber. Ram’s brothers, on the other hand, refuse to take his kingdom. They do not even look at his wife lest they be struck by desire. They are good boys. The way Valmiki felt Hindu men should be. Are they listening?