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So how would the Ramayana be if Valmiki had been a woman? A feminist look at the themes that speaks of strong women in the Ramayana.
We all know the epic written by Valmiki glorifying the life of a king named Ram. But the characterization of women in the Ramayana makes me uncomfortable sometimes.
Many people insist that the Ramayana would not have happened had there been no Kaikeyi, Manthara, Sita or Surpanakha. While the jealousy, vengeance, lust of a few women has been cited as the basis of Ramayana, the thoughts and opinions of others are never expressed.
Women are symbolized as the epitome of sacrifice who accept their fate and bear the consequences humbly. I agree that Valmiki being a learned man of high wisdom must have done his research well before writing this story. But I often imagine what would have ‘Ramayana’ been, had it been written by a female author who could portray the emotions of women as if it was happening to her.
This led me to write this set of different situations in ‘Ramayana’ with the women being vocal about their thoughts and views. With no intention to hurt anybody, this version is totally a figment of my imagination and I believe, things would have been different for women today had they spoken out at that time.
The story begins with Koushalya, wife of Dashratha King of Ayodhya. The couple was blessed with a daughter named Shanta but the queen was unable to conceive again. The king then married another princess Sumitra as he desired for a son, a heir to his throne.
Furious at this disgraceful act of Dashratha, Koushalya confronted him and demanded the rights of his daughter. Dashratha was willing to keep both of his wives happy and loved his daughter. But bigamy was a crime and that too, for a son. Koushalya could not accept that and decided to end the marriage. The King gave half of his kingdom to his daughter as her birthright being the first born. Thus, the story moved on to how Koushalya single-handedly brought up Shanta to be a bright and confident crowned princess who later on ruled her kingdom and was known as a just and kind queen. Ram was never born.
The story states how a young prince named Ram went to the swayamvar of Sita where famed kings and princes gathered to compete with each other for King Janaka would marry his foster-daughter to the one who could lift Lord Shiva’s bow. Of all the royal men present, Ram was the only one who could not only lift the bow but break it too. The winner was declared and Sita was supposed to marry Ram.
But Sita was in turmoil. How could she decide just by the strength of somebody’s arms that he is the right person for her to spend the rest of her life with? She shocked everybody wishing to have a conversation with Ram before accepting him as her husband. Ram being the charming, good-natured person agreed to Sita and they had a talk.
Sita asked Ram to give three reasons why she should marry him. Ram replied saying he would provide for her, protect her and take good care of her. Sita said she could do all that herself. Why does she need him for that?
She then asked why he wanted to marry her. He didn’t have any answer other than to say that she was beautiful and well-known as the daughter of King Janaka. Were those reasons enough for him to marry her? What if their frequency never matched? What about her life after marriage? What if she didn’t want to be just the sweet queen of the king? Thus, the story ended with a baffled Ram hurriedly leaving the court. The marriage never happened.
The story narrates how trouble started when Kaikeyi, instigated and aided by her wet nurse Manthara, forced Dashratha to declare her son Bharat as the future king instead of Ram. She also wanted 14 years of exile for Ram lest he overpowers Bharat and reclaims the kingdom.
The ever-obedient Ram accepted her decision and was happy to get a chance of standing on his own feet without the support of his father’s wealth. He had Sita’s full support for they could make a life of their own away from the chains of royalty.
Ram, however, suggested Sita not to accompany him to the forest as life would be hard and he didn’t want her to suffer for him. Sita, on the other hand, was looking forward to an adventurous life together pursuing their dreams.
Lakshman, Ram’s brother, wanted to accompany them for the exile but the couple declined his request saying Lakshman should also try to build his own life with his family. And, both newlywed couples were entitled to have their own respective honeymoons. Lakshman never met Surpanakha.
The story introduces Surpanakha, the beautiful princess of Lanka, who was besotted by Ram and how her proposal of marriage was rejected because Ram was loyal to Sita.
Surpanakha accepted his decision praising his honesty and on hearing his story, her heart filled with admiration for all three of them. Ram introduced her to Sita and Lakshman and thus, Surpanakha became a very good friend of the trio often visiting them in the forest. She couldn’t fathom when she fell for the charming Lakshman and the friendship transformed into love. Aware that Lakshman too was married and would never marry her, she confided in Sita about her feelings.
Good friend Sita advised her to think about her own life and that a relationship with Lakshman would not lead to happiness. When Lakshman got to know about this, he was quite distressed as he could not fulfill her wish nor did he want to spoil their friendship. For the sanity of all, Surpanakha decided to move to Lanka and start life afresh. Thus, the story ended with each of them treasuring their friendship and the beautiful moments spent together as wonderful memories in their hearts. Ravan never knew about all these.
The story describes how Surpanakha was insulted by Lakshman and she went to her brother Ravan, King of Lanka, asking him to avenge her humiliation. Ravan was furious to see her sister’s bleeding heart and when none of his tactics worked, he planned to kidnap Sita. He thought she would fall for the golden deer and ask Ram to fetch it for her. In his absence, he could abduct vulnerable Sita.
When Sita saw the golden deer, she loved it and Ram said he would bring it for her to keep as a pet. Horrified Sita requested Ram not to do so. Animals in captive are not happy animals and the golden deer was better off free in the jungle than tied down in her lawn. And moreover, if Sita really wanted the deer, she was capable of getting it herself. She didn’t want the deer as a gift from him. To win her heart, he ought to think of some out-of-the-box ideas. Ravan never got a chance to kidnap Sita.
The story turns to how Ravan disguised himself as a hermit and came begging to Sita’s door in the absence of Ram and Lakshman. As Sita stepped out of the Lakshmanrekha, he grabbed her hand and showed his real face.
Spontaneously, Sita reached for her saree pallu and blew the pepper powder tied in it into Ravan’s eyes. Taken aback, he loosened his grip on her and taking advantage, she kicked him so hard he fell on the floor moaning. By this time both Ram and Lakshman were back with Sita. On cross questioning, Ravan told Surpanakha’s story and Sita was so moved that she confronted Lakshman to find the truth.
She stood up against the injustice done to Surpanakha and vehemently opposed such inhuman act against her. She rightly cited that such cruel act from members of royal family would pave way for similar reactions in common men. She saw to it that Lakshman paid for the crime he committed so that no man would ever dare to disrespect a woman either physically or mentally under any circumstance. Sita gained Ravan’s admiration and friendship.
The story revolves around how Ram with the help of Hanuman and Sugriv fought a ferocious battle against Ravan to rescue Sita. On meeting Sita, Ram asked her to give the agnipariksha as a proof of her chastity.
Sita was shocked and refused to do any such thing and that it was an insult to her. If she was to go back with Ram, it would be without question or doubt. If not, there was no point in continuing the relationship. Moreover, she wanted to know how Ram would prove his purity for all the time he stayed away from her. The rules were same for both of them.
With no sane answer, Ram just stated that she should comply with her husband’s wish without any question. Disgusted with such act of injustice to humiliate her, Sita filed for a divorce and parted ways with Ram who was adamant not to take her back with him unless the test was done.
Later, she started a new life on her own, living with her head held high. Abandonment was out of question.
The story unfolds how Ram abandoned a pregnant Sita because a washerman reinstated the doubt on her chastity. After the initial shock and disbelief, Sita took shelter in Valmiki’s ashram where she gave birth to twins Luv and Kush.
A single but confident mother, Sita brought up her sons to become sensible gentlemen and never shied from telling her children about their father nor did she hide them from Ram.
While Ram pined not only for Sita but also his children, Sita went on to become a wise and learned Rishika under the guidance of Valmiki. She devoted her life towards betterment of women in the society especially victims of marriage. She even led the campaign to institute laws abolishing harassment and violence against women which was supported by Mandodari (wife of Ravan), Surpanakha, Koushalya, Urmila (Lakshman’s wife), Tara (Vali’s wife), Ruma (wife of Sugriv) and Ahalya (Maharishi Gautama’s wife). The feminist movement began in India.
Image source: free photos