I have decided to publish a personal correspondence - just as a means to show how one can protest democratically against perceived defamation by an artist. One should not resort to arson, hooliganism or legislation to curb the freedom of speech of an artist. Art and culture require no patrolling of policemen. Instead, we should always remember the famous adage "Satyaméva Jayathé - truth always wins".
The following is my correspondence with Nina Paley, a brilliant illustrator from USA. She is the creator of Sitayana - a very cute comic on the story of Sita. I urge all of you to visit her website. My contention was against her portrayal of the character of Rama.
I am very glad to see this perspective on ramayana. Your drawings are also super-cute.
But I've a fear that your impression with the character of Rama may be premature. Do write to me if you have any questions.
Ramayana is filled with idealism. Each character has a specific ideal attribute. As you have rightly pointed out, Hanuman is the ideal servant and Sita is the ideal wife. Lakshman is the ideal brother (which you did not mention). Now, is Rama the ideal husband ? Definitely not. Living with such a husband is an ordeal.Most women would use stronger terms than "jerk" to such a husband. :)
Rama is the ideal son. He has unparalleled devotion to his parents. Also, in ancient India, the motherland is considered to be the same as the parents. So, Rama has an unparalleled devotion to his motherland (Ayodhya) Rama lives his life, not for the sake of himself, but for the sake of his parents.
All his actions are explicable from this point of view. His exile in the forest, his battle with Ravana and his estrangement with Sita. The final episode of leaving Sita doesn't make sense unless you look at it from the point of view of Ayodhya (citizens) asking Rama to leave his wife.
For the record, Rama has always deeply loved Sita. He never took any other woman for his wife. After his estranegment, Rama's suffering is as equally harsh as was the suffering of Sita.
In ancient India, women longed to have a husband like Rama - somebody who is a devoted son, even if he is not a devoted husband. These values are changing with the modern times. Nothing wrong with that, but please look at Ramayana with the right perspective.
To this date, I have never heard a story which is sweeter than this- the most ancient epic.
PS : Please exercise your creativity, and do not sacrifice your freedom for the sake of offending some hard-religious nuts.
Just wanted to say thanks for your comment! I agree with what you wrote - from Rama's point-of-view, he was genuinely following his duty, genuinely following a right path. That's what makes the story so tragic.
I think most people are genuinely trying to do right from their point-of-view. I think Valmiki's message was, among others, that life is hard; even gods suffer when incarnated on the human plane. There's a poignant scene in Valmiki wherein Sita assumes she committed a terrible sin a previous life to deserve such suffering. Surely she (or someone) must have done wrong, she thinks (like Rama, she is unaware of her own divinity). But no, it's just human life. Suffering is as much a consequence of right action as it is of wrong.
Here's a question: if Rama had to banish Sita out of duty, could he have done so differently? Could he have told her he loved her and explained why she had to go? Could he have driven her himself instead of ordering Laxman?
Or, could Rama have considered his duty to Ayodhya inclusive of women? Sita's banishment was predicated, after all, on a dhobi's right to beat his wife for taking shelter in a male relative's house. That cause was made explicit by Valmiki; that is the righteous order Rama saw as his duty to preserve. What if Rama had, instead of banishing Sita, protected the dhobi's wife? Could Rama have decreed that abusing an innocent woman is wrong? What limited Rama's sense of duty to just men? Was it his humanity, or his divinity? (I'd argue the former)
Here are a few Manushi articles about Sita and Rama you might like:
I think you are missing the central essence of Ramayana. I find it
very strange that something so important could be missed.
Ramayana is not just "a" tragedy, it is "the" tragedy. To understand
this, you should first grasp the Hindu way of understanding God. In
Hinduism, God is not the holy father. Instead, he is understood as the
holy son. There is a saying that "God resides in small children".
Most of the gods in the Hindu pantheon are represented using childhood
images. When you do something wrong, Hindu ethics say that your
children suffer because of it. If you love your children, you should
lead a honest and ethical life.
In Ramayana, Sri Rama is the ideal son and he obeys everything that
his parents command. He undergoes a lot of suffering because of his
parents' misdeeds. It is not because of his own volition that Raama
goes to the jungle. I mean, imagine him saying "Dad, Are you crazy or
what ? I just got married to a beautiful girl, about to rule a rich
kingdom. Now you want me to go to the jungle and live my entire youth
there ? " He just obeys his father and leaves. If you are a christian,
you can connect this image with the passion of the Christ. Why did
Christ not say "Dude Pontius. You are a blood sucking monster. I will
rather go organize guerilla warfare against you than get crucified
like a dodo" ? So why did Christ suffer for the sins of the others -
because he knows that by doing so, he appeals to the divine spark
inside each human being. This is the same principle with which you
should understand Ramayana.
The sufferings of Sita and Rama are not consequences of their own
will, they do it as a direct consequence of the misdeeds of the
people. Imagine Rama just getting back after suffering in the jungle
and winning his wife back after a brutal war. (The wife he loves so
dearly) He still lets her go because of what an evil citizen says.
Instead of punishing him, he obeys his command. The entire citizens of
Ayodhya are appalled to see their king and his loving wife separated
because of this. They knew that their king was suffering because of
their own misdeeds. It is the Indian way of retribution. Even in
modern times, why do you think people like Mahatma Gandhi are
venerated in India ? Nobody in India thinks of that washerman as "Man,
here is a macho dude. He put his wife in place. How cool". They revile
him because he is the cause of the separation of Rama and Sita.
Now about the way Rama treats Sita, it cannot be done in a more humane
manner. If he takes her himself and ditches her, do you think she'd
have beared that pain ? She wouldn't have agreed in the first place.
But, the greatest sacrifice Rama has done is to let his twin sons go
with Sita. Being the king, shouldn't he be conscious that he should
have a heir ? Imagine him doing the donkey-job of governing and
getting back to a solitary life at home. But he left his twins to the
care of Sita because he knew that the children are necessary for the
mother and vice versa.
If you would like to feel empathy behind these scenes, I suggest you
listen to the music of Thyagaraja. His lyrics are in Telugu (my
language) but I think you can find translation in English. Thyagaraja
thinks of Rama as his son and his music-lyrics are about the repenting
of the misdeeds he has done in his life. This is the right way of
In Hinduism, seperating Rama and Sita is considered as one of the
greatest sins. So much, in fact, that the name Rama should not be
uttered in isolation. It should be uttered "Sri Rama" or "Sita Rama"
where "Sri" is the name of Sita/Lakshmi.
Now, I'd like to confess that I am not a believer. I am just 24 years
old (a graduate student) who is more of an atheist. I do think that
there are several male chavunist ideas embedded in Hindu epics. Also,
the epics were constantly rewritten throughout history. But, please
don't take my word and consult with real historians about these
I really appreciate your thoughtful explanations.
> To understand
> this, you should first grasp the Hindu way of understanding God. In
> Hinduism, God is not the holy father. Instead, he is understood as the
> holy son. There is a saying that "God resides in small children".
> Most of the gods in the Hindu pantheon are represented using childhood
In case you think I am a Christian - I am not. But, since you use
Christ for both comparison and contrast, let me add that Jesus, like
most Hindu gods, is often depicted as a baby or child.
> So why did Christ suffer for the sins of the others -
> because he knows that by doing so, he appeals to the divine spark
> inside each human being. This is the same principle with which you
> should understand Ramayana.
Ironically, that is how I understand it - but for me the central
character, the primary sufferer, the hero, is Sita. Her infinite
suffering combined with her infinite love makes her a goddess.
> He still lets her go because of what an evil citizen says.
> Instead of punishing him, he obeys his command.
Again I ask: what about the dhobi's wife? Why didn't Rama hear her?
Why didn't he consider her wishes? I would greatly appreciate a
sincere answer to this question.
I do like the moral message your interpretation implies, that every
citizen must behave morally because if even one man misbehaves, the
king/god will respond, and not in a good way. (I think Catholics have
a similar idea, which has filtered down into jokes like, "every time
you tell a lie, the Baby Jesus cries" or, "every time you touch
yourself, god kills a kitten".) Nonetheless, "blame the dhobi" only
goes so far - a king's responsibility is to lead as well as to obey.
> Now about the way Rama treats Sita, it cannot be done in a more humane
> manner. If he takes her himself and ditches her, do you think she'd
> have beared that pain ?
If Rama had taken Sita himself, it would have been more painful for
Rama. Your excuse is akin to a man abandoning his woman without
explanation and saying, "if I'd done it in person it would have been
more painful for her." If Rama's behavior were isolated to Rama - if
men hadn't been abandoning their women like cowards for millennia -
then I'd consider the possibility of Rama's decision being "humane."
But your rationalization is the oldest trick in the book (literally)
and it's common to billions of men; nothing godlike about it. That is
why those old blues songs fit so perfectly with Sita's story.
> She wouldn't have agreed in the first place.
Sita loves Rama completely. She's demonstrated over and over she will
do anything for him. She'll suffer in captivity, she'll kill herself,
anything. That is the point of the first 2/3 of the Ramayana. Sita is
tested over and over, her love is pure. If she'd known Rama's wishes,
she would have walked back into the forest on her own. But instead of
telling her, Rama leaves Sita to imagine she has committed a terrible
sin in a past life. Nice.
> But, the greatest sacrifice Rama has done is to let his twin sons go
> with Sita.
I'm not arguing that Rama didn't suffer - he did. He made decisions
that made everyone suffer: Sita, himself, Luv and Kush, and all his
female subjects. Rama did what he thought was right. He did his duty.
His story gives us an opportunity to examine the meaning of duty,
what right and wrong really mean, and especially our human limitations.
Primarily, you would ask me why did Rama not take the complaint of
Dhobi's wife into consideration. As I look at it, it is not a dispute
between two parties. It is a wish of the society towards Rama and he
takes it as a command. Let me not get into the defensive posture of
trying to validate everything that is written in scriptures. I have no
It is true that the position of women in that time is way worse than
it is currently. The impression that "Rama is sheltering a defiled
woman" was a collective judgement of that society. Taking his subjects
to be equal to his parents, Rama obeys their command. The issue was
not that of a dispute - I wouldn't be surprised if there were several
women in that society who took the side of the washerman. Through the
suffering of Rama and Sita, the society learns that they have done a
terrible wrong. It is Rama's way of ruling his kingdom. If you think
it is too idealistic or stupid, well, that's it.
About your impressions on past life, maybe you understood the idea of
Karma in a wrong manner. Sita never has any doubt that she is the one
inside the heart of Rama. The question is only about their separation
and she's pained by it. She also knows that this separation is
inevitable. Hindu logic says that every situation has a cause, so what
Sita was doing was an introspection of the journey of her soul. Both
Rama and Sita "know" that they love each other and also that their
separation is inevitable. Also, Sita was never "tested by Rama" for
the purity of her love. She was tested by time on her own character
and she emerges victorious.
About why Rama asked Lakshman to leave Sita instead of doing it
himself, I am too young to answer that question. Maybe, he was a jerk,
or maybe he was wise. I don't know. If you have understood Ramayana
from the right point of view, you wouldn't think the sufferings of
Rama and Sita as separate, and that they suffer due to society and not
due to each other.
Please look at my blog post which I think will clear a few
misconceptions on the ideas of Karma. I do not have much information
beyond that, I am afraid.
> If you have understood Ramayana
> from the right point of view,
Is there only one right way to understand the Ramayana?
I am not trying to negate the interpretation you share. I am familiar with it, and I think it's a good one.
But there are other ways to look at the story, as those Manushi articles I sent point out. There are also the academic compilations Many Ramayanas and Questioning Ramayanas. My interpretation isn't even particularly original:
I genuinely appreciate your explanations though. You have taken more trouble than most to describe your point-of-view lucidly, and that helps me.
> you wouldn't think the sufferings of
> Rama and Sita as separate, and that they suffer due to society and not
> due to each other.
Well, I think they suffer due to the mere fact of being human. It goes beyond even "society." We can say that Rama and Sita lived in a more misogynistic era, that the will of Rama's subjects today might not be so cruel. Yet men and women still break each other's hearts, even as they struggle to do right. It doesn't matter how enlightened our laws - our collective or individual will - become. Heartbreak remains part of the human experience, no matter how "right" we are.
There are 10 kinds of people: those who read binary, and those who don't.
Ramayana is a work of art. And thus, the freedom of appreciating it is
completely upon the beholder. When I say the "right way" to understand
Ramayana, I mean understanding the right Ramayana. It is a text which
was edited multiple times. What is the Ramayana you want to
appreciate/criticize. Is it the work of Valmiki or the interpretations
attributed to it in the middle ages ? (500 AD - 1000 AD). What
happened in India was that the position of the women got much
deteriorated during the middle ages.
The manushi article has all the fervor but I think it is missing the
mark. Valmiki didn't say that Rama is the ideal "male" (what is such a
thing anyway). The closest thing to such a conception is expressed in
the character of Krishna in Mahabharatha.
I will try to rephrase the Karma principle in non-binary :) Imagine
the numbers 1-2-3-..9-10-11-.. Now imagine your vision was cluttered
to look only at the last digit. What would you see
1-2-3-..9-0-1-2-3-.. This looks like a circle right ? That is the
problem with several western criticism about the Karma principle.
What Karma principle says is that, when you got to a "0" from a "9" it
is actually a "10". Even though you may be totally ruined in one
aspect of life, there is another new dimension that just got added to
your life. Also, in due time, you would reach "19". Without going to
"0" this would not have been possible.
When Rama got separated from Sita, this is exactly what she was
thinking. You are definitely at freedom to importune the emotions of
heartbreak etc to the story of Sita and Rama, but Valmiki didn't have
any such meaning. As far as his Ramayana is concerned, Rama and Sita
never got divorced. They never even had a difference of opinion (think
Have you read the Penguin India Ramayana translated by Arshia Sattar?
I have read several Ramayanas (unfortunately I'm limited to English
translations) and it is by far the best, the most authoritative.
Sattar found the oldest Valmiki manuscript available and translated
directly from Sanskrit to English, omitting her own opinions and
commentary except for her outstanding introduction.
I admire Valmiki. He was no sexist. He was a genius. The Uttara Kanda
is extremely sympathetic to Sita.
> You are definitely at freedom to importune the emotions of
> heartbreak etc to the story of Sita and Rama, but Valmiki didn't have
> any such meaning.
I beg to differ. Here's an excerpt from page 667-668 from Sattar's
Penguin India Ramayana:
"Sita was overwhelmed with grief when she heard Laksmana's cruel
words and she fell to the ground in a swoon. When she recovered, her
eyes filled with tears and she said to Laksmana in a sad voice, 'This
body of mine must have been created for grief, Laksmana! You can see
that I am overcome with sorrow today, that I am the very embodiment
of pain! I must have done something really terrible in my last life.
I must have caused the separation of husbands and wives.
"'How could the king have renounced me when I have always been so
good and virtuous? I even lived in the forest and bore all kinds of
hardships because I have always served at Rama's feet. How can I live
in a hermitage now, separated from all the people I love? Who can I
talk to about this terrible grief that I must bear? What shall I say
to the sages when they ask me what I did wrong? What reason can I
give for the king forsaking me?....."
This is an explicit description of heartbreak. If you don't recognize
it as such, consider yourself fortunate - it can only mean your
heart's never been broken.
> As far as his Ramayana is concerned, Rama and Sita
> never got divorced. They never even had a difference of opinion (think
> about idealistic)
Indeed, Rama and Sita never divorced. Sita loved Rama until the end
of her life. The moment she detached from him, her human incarnation
Legal divorce and "difference of opinion" are irrelevant to the
story. Heartbreak isn't about difference of opinion. It is about a
failure of courage and love.
> I will try to rephrase the Karma principle in non-binary :) Imagine
> the numbers 1-2-3-..9-10-11-.. Now imagine your vision was cluttered
> to look only at the last digit. What would you see
> 1-2-3-..9-0-1-2-3-.. This looks like a circle right ? That is the
> problem with several western criticism about the Karma principle.
No need to explain the digital cycles - I understood them the first
time, my line about binary was a joke.
I'm not criticizing the Karma principle. I am pointing out that Sita
was so heartbroken she imagined she'd sinned in a past life. She was
so limited by her humanity she forgot she was in fact a goddess.
My knowledge of Ramayana is limited to the endless stories told during my childhood. I have not read any formal version of Ramayana. I have however read "Raghuvamsa" of Kalidasa in original sanskrit with english translation. But again, that work is purely the genius of Kalidasa. I do not believe there is an original manuscript of Valmiki. Most probably, there was never even a Valmiki. I may sound blasphemous, but I think the original Ramayana is a collective work of multiple bards.
I also think you did not understand the Karma philosophy yet. It is a must before you appreciate the Upanishads, Ramayana or Mahabharatha. Secondly, Indian philosophy does not create a distinction between men and gods. Each person is on a journey : men->gandharvas->devas->prajapathi->brahman (God) I might have got my order messed up.but Indian philosophy says each individual soul is the same as the universal soul (you might have already known this). So, Sita is no different from any other woman. Each woman is a goddess.
About the dialogue between Sita and Lakshmana, it is the surface level dialogue of a mother to her child (lakshmana is like a son to sita). In Freudian terms, I think it is called displacement mechanism. As humans, no person is compelled to behave like a saint, even though she knows the depths of philosophy. In your language, you might call this being human. But as I said, Indian philosophy makes no distinction between being human and being divine.
Sita and Rama did not get divorced. Not only did Sita love Rama till forever (not only till the end of her life) but even Rama did not cease loving Sita. After all, they are the personifications of the male and female energies of the universe.
Please try finding a verse from Ramayana in which Sita complains "Why did Rama stop loving me ?" Renouncing her company is not the same as stopping to love her. Renunciation is a sacrifice.