Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

January 6, 2010

First published January 5, 2010

 in Parabola Magazine

Threshold of Chastity and Civilization

Published in Parabola Magazine in Spring 2000 issue.

She was told not to cross the threshold of her husband’s house. She stepped out, nevertheless, and ended up being rejected by society. The story of Sita’s rejection forms the controversial conclusion of the much-revered Hindu epic Ramayana (so much so, that a few versions of the narrative edit out the episode altogether). At the heart of the plot is the concept of Laxmana-rekha, the line that must not be crossed, the line that circumscribes Hindu ideas of duty, decorum, chastity and civilization.

The narrative The Ramayana is an extremely popular epic that encapsulates values most Hindus hold dear. First written in Sanskrit almost 2000 years ago, it has since been adapted and translated in over 300 languages and dialects by bards and minstrels who have taken the tale to every hamlet in India, allowing it to inspire beliefs, customs, rituals, art, music, theatre and dance. Rama, the protagonist, is the noble prince of Ayodhya who sacrifices personal happiness to perform deeds that are expected of him as a son, husband and king. His selfless deference to social obligations transforms him into a manifestation of the divine. He attains the status of maryada purushottam, rectitude exemplar, an incarnation of Vishnu, the god who establishes and maintains cosmic order.

On the eve of Rama’s coronation, Rama’s father Dasharatha – who plans to retire into the forest – is summoned into the chambers of his junior queen Kaikeyi. She demands the two boons he had promised her long ago, on the day she had saved his life in battle: “Tell Rama to live in the forest as a hermit for fourteen years and crown my son Bharata king in his place.” Bound by his word, Dasharatha orders Rama to abandon his crown, wear clothes of bark and leave Ayodhya. Rama obeys without remorse or resentment. Neither the arguments of ministers nor the pleas of his people make him question his father’s decision. Rama’s wife Sita follows him into the forest because as a wife she is duty-bound to share her husband’s fate. Rama’s younger brother Laxmana also joins him as the two have never parted company. For years, the trio endures the harsh wilderness – the unrelenting weather, the hostile tribes. In the fourteenth year of exile, Sita sees a golden antelope and asks her husband to catch it. Rama runs after the antelope, leaving Laxmana behind to watch over the hermitage. Hours pass. There is no sign of Rama or the antelope. Afraid that a mishap might have befallen her husband, Sita forces Laxmana to go and look for him. Before setting out, Laxmana traces a line – the Laxmana-rekha – around the hermitage with an arrowhead. He warns Sita never to cross the line or let anyone in.

No sooner does Laxmana leave than a mendicant comes to the hermitage and asks Sita for food. Sita does not invite him in. Instead, she stretches out her hand and offers him some fruits, taking care not to cross the line traced by her brother-in-law. Her behavior angers the mendicant. He chides her rude behavior. Ashamed, Sita crosses Laxmana’s line and places the fruits in the mendicant’s hand. To her horror, she discovers that the mendicant is no holy man; he is Ravana, king of the Rakshasas. Ravana grabs hold of Sita and carries her off to his island-kingdom of Lanka, determined to make her his queen. The narrative proceeds to describe how Rama raises an army of monkeys, launches an attack on Lanka, kills Ravana and rescues Sita. The story, however, does not end here. Before accepting Sita, Rama orders that she prove her chastity. Sita goes through a trial by fire. The flames do not touch her. She is deemed pure. Still, when Rama returns to Ayodhya, his subjects refuse to accept her as their queen. How can a woman who has lived under another man’s roof sit beside him, they ask Rama. It stains his family name, they tell him. To uphold family honor, Rama is obliged to abandon Sita. He sends her back to the lawless wilderness that lies across the threshold of his kingdom. Had Sita not crossed Laxmana’s line, she would not have been abducted by Ravana and her reputation as a chaste wife would have remained intact. This message is driven home every time the Ramayana is narrated in Hindu households. All girls are warned never to cross the Laxman-rekha that has come to represent the threshold of social propriety for women in Hindu society. Stepping out brings dishonor, shame, and ultimately leads to social ostracization.

The threshold of civilization Laxmana’s line circumscribes all that is culturally acceptable. It keeps out that aspect of Nature that is undesirable within society. It is the line of dharma, the law that ensures social stability. In a patriarchal world, the law upholds what men, not women, consider proper. Dharma is different from ritu, natural law of seasons. Dharma changes with time and space. Ritu does not. Social law discriminates between man, woman and animal; natural law does not. Seen symbolically, Ramayana is a conflict between Nature and culture. Laxmana’s line separates civilization from the wilderness. Within the line, there is society. Without, there is the jungle. Within, the rule of man tames the animal urges. Without, the beast is unbridled. Within, the strong have duties and the weak have rights. Without, there is no right or duty; only the fit survive. Within, the dignity of marriage is upheld. Without, fidelity holds no meaning. Within, earth is domesticated. Without, the earth is wild. Within, Sita is Rama’s wife. Without, she is a woman for the taking. Ravana – a learned man well-versed in the ways of culture – does not cross the threshold. He chooses to stay out of Rama’s hermitage for he knows that within the island of civilization marked by Laxmana’s line he is bound by ethics and morality. He tempts Sita to come out. Outside, she is at the mercy of the elements. Rama’s rules hold no meaning. Ravana can claim what he wants by force. Earlier in the narrative, Ravana’s sister Surpanakha solicits Rama and Laxmana. Both reject her amorous advances. Enraged, she behaves like a creature of the forest and tries to take what she wants by force. She tries to kill Sita hoping that with her out of the picture the brothers will look upon her more favorably. Laxmana stops her by cutting off her ears and nose (and the tips of her breasts, in some versions). Ravana decides to avenge his sister’s humiliation by abducting Rama’s wife. He uses guile, not force, to get what he wants. He sends a golden antelope to lure Rama and Laxmana away. But, he is taken by surprise when Laxmana traces the perimeter of the hermitage and declares the space within as Rama’s realm. Suddenly, the rules change. Ravana cannot force his way into the hermitage without breaking the code of civilized conduct. So he disguises himself as a mendicant and compels Sita into shedding the mantle of protection granted by Laxmana’s line. Thus, the narrative holds Sita responsible for her miserable fate. Yet, unlike the Biblical Eve, Sita has no choice. As the wife of a prince and the daughter-in-law of a royal and respected household, she is bound to feed every hungry person who comes to her doorstep. The rules of hospitality form part of the laws of civilization. She does not want to taint her husband’s reputation or insult a guest. As the mendicant cannot enter her hermitage, on grounds that it is improper for him to enter her house while her husband is away, she is obliged to cross the line.

Stepping in and stepping out The main doorway of a Hindu house is the physical manifestation of Laxman-rekha. In an orthodox setup, a woman is expected to remain within the doorway at all times. She could ‘cross the threshold’ only twice in her life: once as a bride on the way to her husband’s house and the second time as a corpse on her way to the crematorium. If she had to leave the house to visit relatives or to go to the village well, she had to be chaperoned. ‘Stepping out’ for any other reason brought disgrace to the household. It indicated that the woman was of loose character and that the men of the household were incapable of taking care of her needs. It was even considered bad luck for a woman to stand on the threshold with a foot out. ‘Stepping out of the house’ has over time become an inauspicious phrase. It is a phrase that until recently led to the internment of women in the inner courtyard, restricting their social growth and movement. When a woman crosses the threshold and enters the house as a bride, conches are blown. The bride’s feet are decorated with anklets and lined with red dye. In Maharasthra, a state in Western Indian, a jar of rice is placed on the threshold and the bride is told to kick it in. As the rice spills into the house, it is hoped that the in-coming bride will usher in prosperity and fertility. ‘Stepping into the house’ is an auspicious phrase that is pregnant with hope. Events that occur following the entry of the bride into the house decide her ‘pi-goon’ or ‘quality of her feet’. If after her entry, good things happen, she is seen as the harbinger of good fortune. If after her entry, bad things happen, she is seen as the harbinger of bad fortune. For centuries, the Hindu woman has been seen as a diminutive double of the Laxmi, goddess of wealth and fortune. Her entry into the household is a much-desired event. It marks a turning point in the life of a man and his household. He ceases to be a brahmachari, a celibate student preparing to be a member of society. He transforms into a grihasthi, a householder who has to shoulder family and social responsibilities. With his bride by his side, he is allowed to perform sacred rituals. With her support, he can bring children to the world and keep the cosmic wheel of rebirth rotating – thereby fulfilling his obligation to his ancestors. The doorway of the house is the entrance into sacred space. Through it, with the bride, come the benevolent forces of the cosmos. The bride therefore is expected to stay within the house and make it fruitful. Should she leave, the benevolent cosmic forces leave with her and the household faces ruin.

Laxmi’s footprint Having entered the domestic sacred space, it is the duty of the Hindu bride to perform rituals that help harness benevolent energy from the environment around. Special attention is paid to the doorway of the house. It is bedecked with charms, talismans and sacred symbols to ward off negative energies and to attract positive energies. The goddess Laxmi, dressed in red and seated on a lotus, represents Nature’s positive energies. Wreaths of marigold flowers and mango leaves are tied to the doorsill and colorful diagrams are painted in the frontyard during festivals to attract her into the house. Her footprint, the Laxmi-pada, is commonly painted on the threshold using rice flour paste. Care is taken to make sure that the footprint is painted pointing inwards. For her entry brings good luck, her departure heralds misfortune. The story goes, a merchant had turned his house into a den of vices. The merchant’s wife Srimati was a pious woman. One day, at dusk, Srimati noticed a strange but beautiful woman dressed in a red sari and holding a pot leaving the house. On inquiry, the stranger identified herself as Laxmi and said that she was leaving the house as the man of the house did not value her. Srimati tried hard but failed to make Laxmi change her mind. Finally, she said, “Please don’t cross the threshold until I make you an offering of flowers.” The goddess agreed and waited in the house while Srimati went into the garden to fetch flowers. In the garden was a well. The merchant’s wife jumped into the well and killed herself. The goddess of fortune who had promised not to leave until she had received Srimati’s offering of flowers was thus forced to stay in the house for all eternity. In another story, Laxmi, the goddess of fortune and her sister, Alaxmi, the goddess of misfortune, visited a shopkeeper and asked him who was more beautiful of the two. Knowing the consequences of angering either goddess, the shopkeeper said, “Laxmi is beautiful when she enters the shop and Alaxmi is beautiful when she leaves the shop.” By this wise judgement, the shopkeeper ensured his prosperity. To keep Alaxmi out, shopkeepers in the city of Mumbai tie lemons and green chillies to the doorsills of their shops. It is said that the goddess of misfortune likes sour and pungent food. When she finds it at the threshold, she turns around satiated without bothering to cast her malevolent eye into the shop.

Divine Doorkeepers In a traditional Hindu household, since women are confined to the house, the men have to cross the threshold repeatedly to bring home the abundance of Nature. Stepping out results in pollution; stepping in necessitates purification. Hence, every time a man is about to cross the threshold, either to enter or leave the house, the women of the household wave lamps around him. This ritual – the aarti – purges out negative influences before a man enters the house and creates a protective shield around a man before he leaves the house. The perimeter of a house, a temple, a village, a town, a city has traditionally been seen as the fence between the sacred and the profane, the auspicious and the inauspicious, the wild and the tame. Beyond the picket fence of society lurk wild forces and dark spirits. In villages, idols of viras or ancestral heroes – riding a horse and brandishing a sword – are placed on the edge of fields facing the forests to screen out hostile forces of Nature that cause disease and drought. In temples, idols of fanged and armed doorkeepers scare away the undesirable. In the Ramayana, when Kaikeyi forces her husband to banish Rama, she sends him into the wild, profane, inauspicious and inhospitable wilderness hoping that he succumbs to the malevolent forces there. What she does not realize is that while she can drive a man out of civilization, she cannot drive civilization out of a man. Wherever Rama goes, he takes the law of man with him. The jungle does not make a savage out of him; he tames the wild. When Rama comes upon Sugriva, a monkey driven out of orchards and deprived of his mate by the alpha male Vali, he raises his bow and becomes Sugriva’s champion, refusing to accept the law of the jungle. He kills Vali, makes Sugriva king and earns his friendship. Friendship – a relationship that forms the foundation of civilization – commits Sugriva to help Rama find his wife. In Sugriva’s minister, the monkey-god Hanuman – who though animal adopts the greatest human discipline of celibacy – Hinduism found its mightiest doorkeeper.

The faithful husband And yet, this man who personifies civilization abandons his wife because his subjects consider her impure, unworthy of queenship. How does one reconcile Rama, rectitude personified, with Rama, the man who abandons his wife? This is and has been a contentious issue amongst Hindu intellectuals and feminists. By abandoning Sita, Rama does what his patriarchal society expects of him. Is that just? That’s a difficult question to answer since justice is a social term and society with all its constituents is a cultural construction, not a natural phenomenon. What is just at one time, in one place may not be just at another time, in another place. The civilization-generating law of man, upheld by Rama, is based on discriminating between what a particular society deems to be fit and unfit, good and bad, right and wrong. Nature does not make such arbitrary distinctions ever – everything always has a place in the grand web of life. Rama’s society is undoubtedly patriarchal, demanding fidelity to the point where  a woman who has had even a casual contact with another man is deemed ‘unchaste’. While no such demands are made of Rama, he insists on remaining ‘chaste’. This is a significant point. Even after abandoning Sita, Rama never remarries. In a polygynous society, his behavior is highly unusual, so unusual that Rama is the only character in sacred Hindu lore to have the distinction of being identified as ekam-patni-vrata, he-who-was-faithful-to-one-wife. Rama’s father Dasharatha has three queens. But Rama chooses to be with only one. While he agrees to abandon the woman his people do not accept as their queen, he never rejects the woman who is his wife. To testify to his eternal fidelity, he performs his religious and stately duties by placing an effigy of Sita besides him. He uses gold – the metal of purity – to mould the image of the woman his subjects have declared unchaste. Years later, when Sita disappears into the earth, he refuses to carry on alone. He walks into a river and abandons his mortal body. While there were laws preventing Rama from disobeying his father and from rejecting the will of his people, there was no law preventing Rama from taking another wife. By remarrying, Rama would have crossed no Laxmana-rekha. Rama’s fidelity therefore goes beyond the call of dharma. It overcomes biological urges, withstands social pressures and towers over patriarchal whims. It takes the threshold to its limit. In a society that thought less of women, this display of self-imposed chastity has made Rama, in the opinion of ancient and modern Hindu bards, the acme of civilization, worthy of worship.

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