Back in Chicago! I’m taking a break from unpacking to write this quick blog post on the occasion of Rama Navami, the Hindu festival dedicated to the god Rama. I’m working on a longer, more in-depth piece on Rama and the Ramayana, but I thought I’d just share a couple of thoughts today.
Rama today is a polarizing figure in South Asia and in the diaspora: deeply revered by many, but now also reviled by a growing number of people. On one level, he is essentially the “Eagle Scout of Hindu mythology,” as Philip Lugendorf wittily writes in his essay “The Secret Life of Ramcandra of Ayodhya”: he is “courteous, kind, obedient, brave, clean, and reverent.” Especially in contrast to Krishna, the rule-breaker, love-maker, and fun-haver, Rama is generally seen as the “god of the status quo.” The ideal son, brother, husband, king, friend — for many devout Hindus, Rama encapsulates them all.
At the same time, Rama is seen by many as representing some of the most oppressive and violent aspects of Hindu society. Rama’s treatment of his wife Sita in many versions of the Ramayana — in particular, his repeated testing of her “purity” — has been widely criticized by both modern feminists and authors dating back many centuries. The mutilation of Shurpanakha has been critiqued by some Dalit-Bahujan feminists, who identify the asuras/rakshasas of the Ramayana as representing the lower castes and indigenous people of South Asia. For many Dalit-Bahujan thinkers, Rama is also an embodiment of caste violence and Brahminical supremacy, embodied in Rama’s killing of the shudra Shambuka. In contemporary Indian politics after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the very phrase “Jai Shri Ram” (“Victory to Lord Rama”) has become a symbol for a violent Hindu nationalist movement. I can’t list all the objections to Rama and the Ramayana here, but you get the idea.
So, is Rama a figure to be worshiped, or an oppressive relic of India’s past, to be cast away? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, in the context of religion, politics, and culture. Simple good/evil binaries do not make sense in most cases, unless we ignore the complexities inherent in every culture. With this mind, I want to share a few examples of literature and scholarship on Rama and the Ramayana that complicate the good/evil binary that we, as humans, instinctively seem to prefer.
1. Rama’s Smile
First, I want to share a brief excerpt from the Ramavataram, the most well-known Tamil retelling of the Ramayana, composed by the 11th-century poet Kamban. I came across this charming stanza on Twitter, in which Sita describes seeing Rama for the first time:
இந்திர நீலம் ஒத்து இருண்ட குஞ்சியும்
சந்திர வதனமும் தாழ்ந்த கைகளும்
சுந்தர மணி வரைத் தோளுமே அல
முந்தி என் உயிரை அம் முறுவல் உண்டதே.
indra nīlam ottu iruṇḍa kuñjiyum
chandra vadaṉamum tāzhnda kaigaḷum
sundara maṇi varai-t tōḷumē ala
mundi en uyirai am muṟuval unḍadē
“His hair was dark, like a deep blue sapphire
His face radiant as the full moon, his arms long and lean
His shoulders, dark and strong, like massive gems, but—
it was his smile that captured my soul.”
To me, this stanza highlights a Rama which is often neglected: a gentle, loving, compassionate Rama. Instead, the image of Rama we are so often confronted with today is an unsmiling, martial figure, with bow and arrow in hand, ready to slay his foes at any second. Sita’s description of Rama doesn’t shy away from describing his his strong shoulders and long arms, but she adds that what truly captivated her was his smile, nothing else. In my opinion, this image of Rama as a lover — as someone whose most captivating trait is his smile — is rarely, if ever, highlighted.
One reason for this, of course, is that Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) groups have made a concerted effort to make Rama the poster boy for violent, muscular, Hindu nationalism. This wasn’t always the case, though, as this anecdote narrated by Ashis Nandy illustrates:
Once, in course of his only visit to a RSS shakha (branch of a major Hindutva organization), Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi looked around and found on the walls of the shakha portraits of some of the famous martial heroes of Hindutva such as Shivaji and Rana Pratap. Being a devotee of Ram, Gandhi naturally asked, ‘Why have you not put up a portrait of Ram as well?’ Those were not the days of the Ramjanmabhumi movement and the RSS leader showing him around said, ‘No, that we cannot do. Ram is too effeminate to serve our purpose’.
Perhaps what we need in order to counteract Hindutva’s Rama is this more “effeminate”, compassionate, loving Rama. This is the Rama who is loved by some hijras as a symbol of acceptance. This is the Rama who is worshiped by the Rasik Sampraday, a small esoteric sect which worships Rama and Sita as a symbol of ultimate love, just as Radha and Krishna are often worshiped today. This is the Rama who, according to a popular South Indian folktale, expresses his love and gratitude to even a small squirrel who helps build his bridge to Lanka.
Also, if you liked that stanza, you can read more ancient and medieval Tamil poetry here.
2. Three Hundred Ramayanas
I’ve also been revisiting A. K. Ramanujan’s seminal essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” which is now notorious for being banned from Delhi University’s history curriculum under pressure from conservative Hindus and Hindutva groups. Nevertheless, Ramanujan’s essay is definitely worth a look: it’s an eye-opening introduction to the sheer diversity of the Ramayana tradition. Today, when so many of us have grown up with the idea that there is just one, authoritative Ramayana story, whether it’s communicated through Amar Chitra Katha comics or through an anime film, Ramanujan’s essay is a reminder that there is so much more out there! This is one of my favorite anecdotes:
To some extent all later Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are meta-Ramayanas. I cannot resist repeating my favourite example. In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana, sixteenth century), when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, ‘Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?’ That clinches the argument, and she goes with him (Adhyatma Ramayana 2.4.77-8; see Nath 1913, 39). And as nothing in India occurs uniquely, even this motif appears in more than one Ramayana.
“Three Hundred Ramayanas” shows us that the Ramayana tradition has always been evolving to answer new questions and remain relevant in new contexts. Today, when we ask so many questions of past Ramayanas, and when so many previous retellings of the Ramayana contain material we would rather not pass down to future generations, I think Ramanujan’s essay prompts us to ask: what is stopping us from recreating, reinterpreting, retelling a new Ramayana? If we have a retelling of the Ramayana story that emphasizes values of inclusivity, love, equality, empathy, and justice — does that make it any less of a Ramayana? I think Ramanujan’s answer would be “no.” Check out the essay here.
3. Arshia Sattar on the Ramayana vs. Mahabharata
Arshia Sattar is an Indian translator and author who has written prolifically, and almost exclusively, on the Valmiki Ramayana. I’ve been listening to a few of her lectures on YouTube, and something that struck me recently was her comparison of the Ramayana with South Asia’s other great epic, the Mahabharata:
“In the Mahabharata, you know there are problems. You know that dharma is sukshma (subtle), they tell you that right off the bat. The characters are always talking about dharma, endlessly, and… they’re always doing the wrong thing. Right? They think, think, think, think, think… and then they do the wrong thing. Right? And it’s like, “Well, why did you spend so much time thinking? You bored me!”
[People say] “The Mahabharata has so much moral ambiguity, it’s so difficult to know what is right…” Fair enough, but I think for me why the Ramayana is actually much harder to deal with, and [why] it’s also a much more profound text, is because everybody in the Ramayana does the “right thing,” and it still goes wrong. So what do you do then: when you act from the best part of yourself and you hurt the people you love most? That, to me, is really, really, the challenge of being human. That, to me, expresses the human condition far more poignantly than the idea of “I don’t know what is right and what is wrong.”
In the Ramayana, everybody knows what is right, everybody does the right thing, but it just doesn’t work out! And that, to me, is the life lesson. We can always say, “I did what I thought was right, but then why is the world such a bad place?” So, in that sense, I think the Ramayana is much more profound than the Mahabharata.
For Sattar, the Ramayana’s main dilemma is: what happens when you think you’re doing the right thing, but you end up hurting the people you love most? This, to me, is a very appealing way of viewing the Ramayana. I don’t have a whole lot more to say on this, and I haven’t read any of Sattar’s work yet, but I hope to do so soon.
Like I said, I hope to have a much more coherent piece on Rama and the Ramayana published soon — these are just a few semi-connected thoughts of mine. Let me know what you think!