In world of patriarchal epics, Sita had extraordinary powers, says mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik

sitaTuesday, 26 November 2013 – 7:06pm IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: DNA

By Manisha Pande

In his latest book, Sita: An Illustrated Retelling Of The Ramayana, mythologist and illustrator Devdutt Pattanaik retells the epic with a focus on Sita. While it’s easy to look at Sita as a passive victim of patriarchy, Pattanaik says that Valmiki’s heroine has in fact been given a lot of power and voice. In an interview with dna’s Manisha Pande, he dwells on the nuances of the epic, how we perceive it and what it tells us about us. Edited excerpts:

dna: A common reaction to the tale of Sita is: “how unfair!” Many would even say that Sita was created to ingrain values of sacrifice and subservience to a husband in women.
Devdutt Pattanaik: True. But which epic in the world treats women fairly? Not the Iliad, not the Odyssey, not the Bible, not the Mahabharata. All these stories exist in a patriarchal set-up and are written by men. Let us never forget the context of the epic. God, in most religions (except Hinduism to a degree), is projected with male forms and male pronouns. That is also not fair, is it?
Shakespeare was not kind to women. Remember Taming of the shrew? But we don’t call him a patriarch, do we? Marx was unfair to women. Socrates was unfair to women. Buddha abandoned his wife and child to find ‘freedom from suffering’. Shankara and Ramanuja and other Vedanta acharyas saw women as temptations. Confucius saw women as subservient to men. It is only in the 20th century that this patriarchal trend is being questioned. And nowhere in this patriarchal world of patriarchal epics is a female character given such power as in the Ramayana.

dna: Then why expect Sita to prove her purity? Ram was also by himself for a long time and no one questioned if he had been with other women. Also many would argue that whether or not Ram considered Sita to be pure is irrelevant because it places the burden of acceptance on him, which is discriminatory.
Pattanaik: That is the story. We have to ask Valmiki why he created this character. Why should its re-tellers be lawyers or judges? I would rather ask why is this retold several hundred times, in several hundred ways, by our ancestors. Were they fools? Or were they seeing the epic differently from today’s readers?
Imagine asking the Pope for an explanation on why Jesus did not marry, or a devout Muslim to explain why the Prophet Muhammad had many wives or ask Americans why Thomas Jefferson, who wrote about freedom, had slaves or why a woman did not write the American declaration of independence? Was it patriarchy? If we look around, we will find discrimination in every policy decision and every religious order. Society discriminates by various means, one of them is gender, another is caste. Everyone yearns for a fair society, not just women. The idea of ‘purity’ itself is discriminatory as is the idea of ‘meritocracy’. The idea of purity discriminates using unmodifiable parameters like birth, while meritocracy discriminates using modifiable parameters like skill. But both remain discriminatory.

dna: There’s a generation of young people out there who were introduced to Sita not through Valmiki’s Ramayana but through movies like Sita Sings the Blues and popular culture. Naturally, for them, Sita is a passive victim of a patriarchal society. Your book differs on this opinion.
Pattanaik: Sita sings the Blues focuses on Sita being abandoned by Ram. It does not focus on Ram not remarrying despite social pressures to do so. Nina Paley’s view of the Ramayana transforms the epic into the story of the abused-heroine and the abuser-hero, and informs the world that Hindus worship a wife-abusing patriarch as god! Such a strategic narrative empowers an American/modern/Western audience to feel like a saviour, who must rescue passive female victims of India from the horrible patriarchs.
It is a valid point of view. But it is based on incomplete information. To be fair to Nina, even traditional Indian narratives give incomplete stories to project Ram as perfect; they edit out, for example, uncomfortable stories like Shambuka and Sita’s banishment, to project Ram as ideal.
I don’t think Indian women are passive or victims. And I don’t think Indian men are brutes and louts. And I think Ramayana is not just a piece of literature designed to celebrate gender oppression as many Western academics seem eager to project. It is a vast narrative that has shaped the Indian mind for 2,500 years. I wanted to draw attention to the whole story to the best of my ability. And it means locating Ramayana in the vast jigsaw puzzle of Indian thought. Hence, my retelling, Sita.

dna: How has Sita’s character and her personality been perceived over the centuries? What are some of the key changes in the way in which we look at her?
Pattanaik: Valmiki saw her as a heroine. Tulsidas saw her as the one who completes Ram as god. Adbhuta Ramayana of unknown authorship sees her as goddess Kali. Twentieth-century commentators see her as victim and symbol of oppression.

dna: Of all the gods, Ram perhaps has the least fan-following. Krishna with his flirtatious ways and Shiv with the culture of bhang are far more popular. But we have seen Ram being raised in political discourse: Ram Rajya and so on. Yet Ram was the only God that was given the title of ekam patni vrata (devoted to a single wife). If the idea was to present Ram as the ideal husband, it has clearly not worked. What do you make of this conundrum?
Pattanaik: It is the way the story has been told. Ram is faithful to his wife, never remarries, despite being unfair to her since he is bound by social rules that he, as a king, cannot break, but we hate him. Krishna has many wives, but does not marry Radha. Shiva keeps Ganga on his head and Gauri by his side. Strange how we are not fans of fidelity. What does it say about us?
Ekam patni vrata does not mean ideal husband. It means true to one’s wife. He [Ram] is maryada purushottama, ideal follower of rules, not ideal man as is popularly understood. Rules by definition are unfair to one or another. Here the rules he upholds are unfair to his own wife. And he sacrifices her. He chooses his professional role as king over his personal role as husband. Maybe that was exemplary in Valmiki’s eyes.

dna: In popular culture the chant “Jai Siya Ram” has been replaced by “Jai Shri Ram”. The chant “Radhe Krishna” remains intact. Does that tell us something about the way we look at the romance between these two couples? Was there a deliberate attempt to look at Ram as a righteous, aloof king and not as a loving husband?
Pattanaik: Gujaratis do say “Jai Shri Krishna” while there is no mention of Radha. Krishna temples in Puri, Orissa; Guruvayoor, Kerala; Udupi, Karnataka and Nathdvara, Rajasthan have no image of Radha. So, the data is not comprehensive. But all imagery of Ram depicts Sita, except political posters. It reveals a lot about our politics not about our faith. Politicians like to see Ram as a righteous man who saves his helpless wife from demons. Feminists like to see Ram as an abuser and Sita as the victim. Everyone has an agenda. No one, I feel, really wants to read the Ramayana.

dna: How much of Ramayana and the way in which the text has evolved is a reaction to the rise of Buddhism? Can we look at the early texts as a response to Buddhism, which focused on moving away from worldly affairs and ritualism?
Pattanaik: Yes, we can. Buddha leaves his wife to find freedom from suffering. Ram rescues his wife and then abandons her in order to uphold rules of a society in his role as king. One speaks of monasticism and the other speaks of having the moral courage to take up social responsibilities with all its shortcomings.

dna: You have also retold the Mahabharata in your book Jaya. Which of the two texts was more challenging?
Pattanaik: Ramayana, without doubt. In Mahabharata one has to deal with width. In Ramayana, one has to deal with depth.

dna: If the central idea of Mahabharata was “karma”, what is the one key idea around which the Ramayana revolves?
Pattanaik: Dharma, defined as human potential, not righteous conduct. The best of what humans can do in a world where context is always changing, standards are always changing and everyone has diverse views on the same issue.