I was introduced to the tale of Sita when I was hardly eight years old, thanks to my mother. She serialised the entire Ramayan for me, vividly describing the epic to the best of her knowledge. Since then, I have been intrigued by it and have come across multiple narratives of the epic over the years. While Ramanand Sagar’s tv serial is what caught the imagination of the nation, I was most fascinated by Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya, where he reprised the concept of a welfare state by retelling the Uttara Kanda. I spoke to Devdutt Pattanaik, eminent writer on mythology and he came up with several interesting viewpoints on the epic and its characters. This appeared in The Times of India.
You have mentioned that the Ramayana cannot be seen in isolation in the Hindu context. Can you please elaborate on that?
I think of every Hindu text as a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Each one makes sense in relation to another. Thus, the Ramayana cannot be seen in isolation. It must be located as part of the wider Vaishnava tradition, which in turn is part of the Vedic tradition. To appreciate it, we have to see its relationship with Shaiva and Shakta traditions too.
Ram appears as the upholder of dharma in various texts over the ages. What makes the character so adaptable?
As a character, there is nobility and regal grace attributed to Ram right from the earliest Sanskrit kavyas. He is a king with integrity. In Buddhist Dashratha Jataka, he keeps his word to his father and stays in the forest even when he can come home earlier. In the Jain Paumacharya, he is the non-violent Baladeva. In the Hindu texts, he is the avatar of Vishnu. These stories began emerging when the Mauryan Empire had collapsed and the Gupta Empire was yet to rise. These were times when poets were projecting the ideal king.
Do you believe in the idea that the Uttara Kanda is a later day appendix to the main epic, as suggested by many scholars?
The incidents in the Uttara Kanda were necessary to build Ram’s character. If we see Ram as an ideal man (purushottama) then yes, these stories do not fit. But if we see Ram as ‘he who ideally upholds rules’ (maryada purushottama), then these stories fit perfectly. As a king, he upholds rules (kings are not allowed to make rules) and in upholding unjust rules he demonstrates the dark side of rules and the burden of kingship that he bears stoically. This is complemented by Krishna who bends and breaks rules, but is never a king. Unlike the Western narratives, sages of India were wary of rules. As we see in our society today, we have many laws and penal codes that are unfair and unjust but that the courts have no choice but to uphold.
Why did Valmiki have to write another Ramayana, if there was a version of Shiva in existence? Why did he make himself a character in the epic?
This act of being both observer and participant of the epic is seen in Vyasa’s Mahabharata too. It projects a philosophical point – we are all participants and observers of our lives. In Hindu tradition, stories always have a divine source. By making Shiva the source of Ramayana, authors shed all proprietorship. With each retelling, new ideas emerge.
How is it that the version of Valmiki got prominence over the versions of Shiva and Hanuman?
Most Indians have never ever read Valmiki’s Sanskrit version. Except a few translations in the 21st century, it was restricted to Brahmins for the past 2,000 years. The average man heard local stories, in local languages. All of them were composed by local authors, like Kamban in Tamil, Buddhareddy in Telugu, Balaramadas in Odiya, and thousands of nameless authors in the form of village tales and songs, and these were attributed either to Shiva or to Hanuman or to Valmiki.
Sita’s characterisation in Valmiki’s epic is very different from the way she is presented today in popular culture. How did she undergo this transformation as a meek figure, as seen in today’s popular discourse?
In Valmiki’s Ramayana, she is shown as confident, fiery and meek, in various situations. In Adhyatma Ramayana, she is a form of Kali. Around the same time, Tulsi presents her as gentle and demure – words that modern feminist discourse prefers to see as meek and weak. I feel this amplified projection of Sita as meek and weak is a very 21st century modern discourse that constructs women as ‘victims’. It perhaps has roots in the freedom struggle where many freedom fighters saw Mother India as Sita who has been abducted by the demons. We are increasingly in a culture where silence is associated with weakness not strength.
Why did Ramayana become the biggest moot point for rationalists, feminists and caste politicians, over say, the Mahabharata?
Because it is a relatively simpler narrative and it has many more retellings that the Mahabharata. The right-wing movement turned Ram into its poster boy and projected him as purushottam and not maryada purushottam. There is a desperate need to reduce India into a single narrative and there is funding available in Western universities to project India as a land that needs civilizing.
Would it be wrong to call the Ramayana as Sitayana, as it is very much her journey as it is of Ram?
It is also the journey of Hanuman. It is also the journey of Ravana. It is also the journey of Lakshmana. We can make it whatever we want. It is the 21st century prerogative. But traditionally, it is Ram’s story. Nothing else. Journey presupposes that Ramayana is like a Greek epic where the characters go through transformation. In Hindu epics, divine characters like Ram and Krishna do not transform. There is wisdom embedded in each step of their action. But yes, if we see this as mere literature, we can say it is the story of Sita, also. But in doing so, it ceases to be a religious text – that is like saying the Gospels are no different from Shakespeare’s plays, which many do, and in doing so miss the point of Christianity.
How did Valmiki justify the unbelievable transformation in Ram during the trial by fire of Sita? Isn’t it very inconsistent with what Ram has been?
Valmiki does not need to justify. He is an observer. He is describing his hero, who has to decide if he is husband first or king first. Ram chooses to be king upholding laws that Ram knows to be unfair and cruel, but he is bound by his role as yuvaraja to uphold. We want him to be husband first, and abandon the demands of kingship, but then he would not be Ram. And the story would not be Ramayana.
Which version of the Ramayana has done the best justice to the character of Sita?
The question presupposes that someone knows who she ‘actually’ is. Sita is a creation of male authors.. How do you expect male writers to be sensitive and sympathetic to a woman’s angst? Even the Devi Bhagavatam is written by male authors, as are the Tantras. The purpose of a story is not be true to the characters, but to get the characters to provoke thoughts in the reader. That is the essence of Indian aesthetics (rasa shashtra). But most modern literary critics are trained in the Western way and seek the ‘ideal’ based on Greek school of aesthetics or see Ramayana as some kind of a didactic text with a purpose or an expressive narrative. That is the tragedy of the Ramayana today. Our lens is firmly Western. So we really don’t see what is being shown. I hope my book will make the implicit more explicit.
Brilliant questions and interesting answers! 🙂 The purpose of a story is not be true to the characters, but to get the characters to provoke thoughts in the reader.
After reading this interview… I so want to read the book!
Thanks a lot Haresh! Very true… The reason why epics like the Ramayan and Mahabharat seem so relevant even today is because they are so open to interpretations and something new emerges from them after every reading. Of course, for the devout, the joy never ceases
Thanks Namrata! You needn't buy the book. I know what to give you now 🙂
I have already read this book and it is surely is a fantastic read. During the time I read it I got so emotional at some places, that tears came out of my eyes. The essence of the book is that you can try and see the world through ram's eyes, hanuman's eyes, sita's eyes, lakshman's eyes and then do read the JAYA. It is another awesome read.. and if you don't read JAYA, the ongoing TV serial is almost the same because Mr.Pattanaik is an advisor in that show too..
I have just started the book Bharat and I am enjoying it. Gives new perspectives to the great epic. As for the TV serial, I feel it's a little overdone. But Pattanaik's Jaya seems to be a good work
Read the books Jaya and Sita. Very interesting. Your narration makes me feel now that Sita is not just a victim, but the protagonist in Ramayan.
Ram is incomplete without Sita, just as Shiva is incomplete without Shakti. Ram leads a happy life only in her presence. Whether it is after her abduction or her exile, he remains unhappy. Sita sets the course of the epic with her decisions at many points
Arjun, I have been aware of Devdutt Pattanaik's scholarship from my occasional reading of his articles in the popular press. But I was not aware of your deep interest and insight into our epics. I enjoyed your questions as much as Pattanaik's answers. I am impressed my Friend!
Sir, I have always been interested in Indology and history. Our past shapes our present. I have absorbed these epics from umpteen sources – grandma tales, television, cinema, books, research papers, Bhagwat kathas at temples and private discussions. The more I discuss, the more I feel the urge to dive deeper. And I feel I have just started! Thanks for your comments!