An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana
It is significant that the only character in Hindu mythology, a king at that, to be given the title of ekam-patni-vrata, devoted to a single wife, is associated with the most unjust act of abandoning her in the forest to protect family reputation. This seems a deliberate souring of an uplifting narrative. Ram's refusal to remarry to produce a royal heir adds to the complexity. The intention seems to be to provoke thought on notions of fidelity, property and self-image.
And so the mythologist and illustrator Devdutt Pattanaik retells the Ramayana, drawing attention to the many oral, visual and written retellings composed in different times, in different places, by different poets, each one trying to solve the puzzle in its own unique way.
This book approaches Ram by speculating on Sita: her childhood with her father, Janaka, who hosted sages mentioned in the Upanishads; her stay in the forest with her husband, who had to be a celibate ascetic while she was in the prime of her youth; her interactions with the women of Lanka, recipes she exchanged, emotions they shared; her connection with the earth, her mother, and with the trees, her sisters; her role as the Goddess, the untamed Kali as well as the demure Gauri, in transforming the stoic prince of Ayodhya into God.
Outstanding! There can be no other adjective for this book. It is not easy to woo readers to the Ramayana, an epic which every Indian knows by heart. But Devdutt Pattanaik – a medical doctor by education, a leadership consultant by profession and a mythologist by passion – succeeds admirably, by retelling the country’s most popular story through the eyes of Sita.
Without doubt, Sita is the greatest victim of Ramayana, unless you end the saga, as our annual Ramlilas mostly tend to do, with the triumphant return to Ayodhya of Ram, Sita and Lakshman along with Hanuman after vanquishing Ravana. But Sita’s torture continues even after Ram starts to rule Ayodhya. He is perturbed by gossip that Sita is not “pure”, having spent months in Ravana’s custody.
So the ‘Maryada Purshottam’ banishes her, asking brother Lakshman to dump Janaka’s daughter in the forests. Lakshman cries when he carries out the order, only to hear Sita’s soothing words: “You feel your Ram has abandoned his Sita, don’t you? But he has not. He cannot. He is God – he abandons no one. And I am Goddess – I cannot be abandoned by anyone.”
That of course is no consolation to anyone. Nor is Ram’s adamant refusal to marry anyone again. The fact that Ram lives like a king, in royalty, while the pregnant Sita languishes in the wild is a commentary on fidelity and self-image. Sita’s renewed life in the jungle helps her to turn a bandit into becoming sage Valmiki who goes on to write the epic – while helping Sita to raise her boys Luv and Kush. The boys’ musical talents as well as bravery ultimately bring them in contact with Ram. Now Ram wants Sita back in Ayodhya but with a rider – she must again (she did it once) prove that she is “pure”.
This is too much for a woman who at the first place chose the forest and its hardships only to be in the company of her husband, getting caught in the process in Ravana’s clutches. Sita decides not to return to Ayodhya; as Ram watches in horror, she prays to Mother Earth – King Janaka had found her as a baby in a field – to take her back. The earth splits open, and Sita sinks before anyone can react. “By refusing to return to Ram, Sita turns away from the rules of the society. She does not need social structures to give her status. She chooses the earth, where there are no boundaries and rules.” Her disappearance eventually forces Ram to plunge himself into the Sarayu river.
Pattanaik’s Ramayana is not a simple retelling of Valmiki’s account. That would have still made this work attractive but it is much more. The book has taken into account all the Ramayanas starting from the 1st to the 19th centuries including versions popular in Southeast Asia. So you get to read stories that are not widely known. But despite the complex bibliography, Pattanaik tells a straight story, each brief chapter ending with a box giving varying accounts of a particular incident. Pattanaik’s Ramayana is as informative as it is gripping.