Art by Devdutt Pattanaik
By Devdutt

Published on 5th June, 2021, in Mumbai Mirror.

The Ramayana has been seen differently by different people. It’s a story rooted in Vedic culture that thrived in 1,000 BCE, in the Gangetic plains. But it was put down in writing only 2,000 years ago, in classical Sanskrit. There are many Sanskrit texts claiming to be the original Valmiki Ramayana, but there are many differences between them. Besides written texts, a whole bunch of oral traditions exist, that bypassed Sanskrit texts and appear in regional versions, in written, visual and oral form, a diversity that disturbs politicians who seek homogeneity.

One written retelling tells the story of Kaikeyi’s mother who insisted her husband tell her what the birds were saying. ‘I can understand bird language. But I have been told if I share what I heard with anyone, I will die,’ said her husband, Ashwapati. Still, Kaikeyi’s mother insisted, revealing she cared more for her satisfaction than for her husband’s life. Upset, Ashwapati abandoned his wife, a tale that foreshadows Sita’s abandonment by Ram.

The Odia Ramayana elaborates the tale of Rishyashringa, born of a rishi and a deer, who is made aware of a woman’s body by courtesans. They entice him into performing the ritual that enables Dashrath to become father of four sons through three wives. Tribal lore from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat tells the story of Surpanakha’s son who is accidentally killed by Lakshman, and the story of Surpanakha’s role in sowing the seeds of doubt in the mind of Ram regarding Sita’s relationship with Ravana. The whole war in these retellings becomes Surpanakha’s elaborate plot – first against Ravan, who killed her husband on false promises, and then against Ram, who did not stop Lakshman from disfiguring her. The Adbhuta Ramayana tells how Sita is actually Kali, capable of killing Ravana, but allows Ram to do so, for his fame. Women with agency are found in many retellings of the Ramayana. Indrajit’s wife (Mahiravan’s wife in other retellings) is ready to betray her husband as she is in love with Ram. Mandodari secretly wants to sprinkle her husband’s corpse with nectar to revive him. Tara marries Sugriva after Vali’s death, and manages to pacify an angry Lakshman with her oratory skills. These were intertwined with patriarchal themes, where demure and domesticated wives such as Anasuya and Arundhati, were praised, and adulterous wives like Ahalya were punished. The tension between feminism and patriarchy is there for all to see. With Right wing groups appropriating Ram in the 20th century, it became fashionable in many Left-leaning academic circles to imagine the Ramayana as a patriarchal narrative of Brahmins. American scholars wrote how the Ramayana tale was designed in regional versions to stoke hatred against Muslims by associating them with Rakshasas. These scholars would not clarify why Ravana’s Brahmin roots is part of every retelling of Ramayana.

Taking the cue from influential Western academicians, feminist writers highlighted how Ram and Hanuman are constantly attacking women: Tadaka, Simhika, Surasa and Lankini. How women like Kaushalya, Urmila and Mandodari are admired for staying true to insufferable husbands such as Dashrath (who marries two more women), Lakshman (who gets his wife to sleep for 14 years so that he can stay awake) and Ravana (who sleeps with the wives of married men) are valourised. How the celibate Hanuman, who shuns contact with women, becomes the symbol of integrity, purity and nobility. Kaikeyi, Surpanakha and Sita are painted with the same brush.

With such a political gaze, many things change in the story. Kaikeyi’s cupidity at the cost of the household is recast as royal ambition. Surpanakha’s disdain for male consent is viewed as woman’s power. Ram’s fidelity and Ravana’s infidelity are both seen as patriarchal values. Hindutva’s cynical adoration of Ram is reframed as an endorsement of misogyny, which therefore justifies feminist opposition of Hindutva.

Bias is not restricted to feminist retellings of the Ramayana. Influenced by 19th Century theories of racism, Ram (described in all Sanskrit texts as one of dark complexion), was recast as a white Aryan invader of the Dravidian south. Vaishnavas saw the epic as a story of how Vishnu’s avatar kills Shiva’s devotee, Ravana. In response, Shaivas insisted that Hanuman was actually a form of Shiva himself, without whom Ram could not have succeeded. Kshatriyas saw this as a tale of restoring Brahmin pride with Ram defeating not just Ravana, the son of a Brahmin, but also Parashurama, the Brahmin killer of kings.

Everyone wants to see the Ramayana their way. That becomes a problem only when one political version is seen as the one and only truth.