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Playing fast and loose with Ramayan

Controversies and public spats can indeed be very educative. What was characterized as a “right-wing troll attack”  was actually a spontaneous uprising of dharmic certainty among a people who may or may not know their Sanskrit, but certainly know their revered Ram and Sita well enough to stick it in no uncertain terms to a self-proclaimed “scholar” pushing a scurrilous agenda.

Why should it be okay for an “academic” outsider to denigrate an adored Hindu deity as “an uncouth, misogynistic pig”, but not okay for the Hindu devout to take umbrage and reply in like terms? Civilized debate is certainly desirable, but that must be a pre-requisite on both sides. For an outsider, the Ramayana is also capable of being appreciated as sublime poetry rather than scripture, but even from this relatively secular standpoint, there is much that is offensive about that lackadaisical phrase coming from an academic who ought to know better, and the smugness of the reaction that followed. There are “loose, colloquial” translations, but there are also lazy, erroneous translations and bigoted, misleading translations – and it doesn’t take a PhD to be able to tell them apart. These same academics are capable of being notoriously circumspect and measured in handing out criticism to personalities of other religious hues, but that is another matter.

In any case, all this brouhaha aroused my curiosity, and so I headed for the Yuddhakanda of the Srimad Valmiki Ramayana. I have read the Balakanda and Sundarakanda in the Sanskrit original a few times, but confess that I had never ventured into the Yuddhakanda beyond hunting for a few stray slokas here and there.

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After skimming through a few of the preceding cantos, I dived straight into Canto 116, which picks up the narrative after Ram has expressed his suspicions about Sita’s chastity and harshly rejected her. This is quite a problematic section for modern readers, although the narrative rights itself eventually.

In this situation, any modern girl worth her salt would doubtless have responded to her mate as Truschke describes. But this is Ram, the ideal man, the embodiment of human perfection, in search of whom Valmiki had set out after he had discovered his wonderfully new poetic metre. And Sita is divine because she is born of the earth, and like Sarvamsahaa her mother, she too is all-enduring. Between Ram and Sita is a love that runs deep and wide, one that Valmiki has described in lush and lyric fullness many, many times over by this point in the narrative.  So Ram’s rejection, though stinging and deeply wounding, is in itself insufficient to dam the river of that love, and this is the standpoint from which Sita responds.

The Canto is short at thirty-six verses, and Sita’s reply takes up most of the Verses 5 – 28, but even translating each of these would make this article too long, so I shall focus on just a few relevant highlights. There are numerous commentaries that also enrich our perspective, but I am not including these here. Valmiki’s verses are sufficiently rich and remarkable to stand on their own and are the basis of a “personal interpretation” that I have provided after each verse.  Hopefully, this will aid in the edification of certain professors who seem to have forgotten to do their homework during their student days. I also add that this is a loose, colloquial translation that aims to retain complete fidelity to the original.

ततो बाष्पपरिक्लिन्नं प्रमार्जन्ती स्वमाननम् ।

शनैर्गद्गदया वाचा भर्तारमिदमब्रवीत् ॥ ४ ॥ 

(Then wiping her tear-stained face, she addressed her husband in timid, faltering tones.  4  )

Here Valmiki brings out the steadfastness of Sita’s love, for she does not feel anger, only hurt and pain. Just as a mother might be wounded by a child’s insensitivity, but would be not be angered to the point of repudiating her love for the child, Valmiki’s picture of conjugal love rests on a similarly rooted foundation. And before the female brigands come out with their usual chants of protest, let it be noted that Ram’s love is also presented in similar fashion elsewhere in the epic.

किं मामसदृशं वाक्यमीदृशं श्रोत्रदारुणम् ।

रूक्षं श्रावयसे वीर प्राकृतः प्राकृतामिव ॥ ५ ॥

(Why do you, eminent as you are, speak such harsh words that are so hurtful to hear, and so unbecoming of you? You speak words by which a common man might address a common woman.  5)

And this is Sita’s core – she upbraids her husband while holding him up to the highest standards that she knows he embodies. Nor is she afraid to show her sorrow, her pain. Sita questions Ram’s actions by elevating him, and herself in the process, above the common run.

पृथक्स्त्रीणां प्रचारेण जातिं त्वं परिशङ्कसे ।

परित्यज्यैनां शङ्कां तु यदि तेSहं परीक्षिता ॥ ७ ॥

(Based on the conduct a few wayward women, you appear inclined to distrust all of womankind. If I have previously been tested by you and found trustworthy, then give up this doubt of yours.  7)

What is interesting here is that Sita is standing up not just for herself, but all of womankind. With her reputation on the line, she could easily have said, “You distrust me” instead of “You distrust all women.” Why did Valmiki choose those words for Sita? If we consider our epics as embodiments of dharma, then this is not so much Sita’s message to Ram, but Vamiki’s counsel to the Prakrita men mentioned earlier in Verse 5. As far as Sita is concerned, she is परीक्षिता, tried and tested already, and known to be true to Ram. Why then does he stoop to generalize, she asks him.

Valmiki’s comments are delightfully relevant even today. Because of the conduct of a few wayward academics, we must not condemn all of academe. There are many scholars that bind themselves to a higher standard, even in the wild and wayward West!

मदधीनं तु यत् तन्मे हृदयं त्वयि वर्तते ।

पराधीनेषु गात्रेषु किं करिष्याम्यनीश्वरी ॥ ९ ॥

(My heart, which I control, forever beats for you alone. But when my body was under another’s control, what was I to do, helpless as I was?  9)

Sita’s words are breathtaking really, in the assumptions on which she proceeds and the issues she refuses to address. She makes no mention of her purity. She will not answer Ram’s doubt as to whether anything happened in Lanka. We hear nothing of what Ravana did or did not do. She holds herself above that. What’s more, even though Sita is the one in jeopardy here, she holds Ram to his ideal of perfection and demands that he understand her from that perspective and not with the prejudices of a commoner. She will only attest to the single-minded devotion in her heart. I am the mind and not the body, she seems to say, an early echo of a sentiment that is destined to develop in much greater depth in dharmic philosophy.

सह संवृद्धभावेन संसर्गेण च मानद ।

यदि तेSहं न विज्ञाता हता तेनास्मि शाश्वतम् ॥ १० ॥

(In all the time that we have spent together and grown together, if you, who confer honour on others, have not understood me, then I am truly lost.  10)

Ram is addressed as मानद, one who gives honour to others. Yet he has not honoured Sita. She has been publicly dishonoured. Who is Sita blaming here? Is she even blaming anyone? Ram? Herself? The time they spent together? The quality of their interactions? It is hard to say. But it is important to understand that Sita is not beating around the bush here, for we have seen on many occasions that she can clearly speak her mind. If her words are nuanced, it is because it must be so. Because she believes Ram is perfect, she will not and cannot criticize him. It is the subtlety of Valmiki that he has Sita say this almost in passing and does not beat us over the head with it, for Sita’s next words quickly move on to her time in Lanka. She then requests a fire to be created, for she does not wish to live any longer in the absence of Ram’s affection.

As the narrative continues, Sita enters the fire. The gods appear before Ram, but they too do not proclaim Sita’s purity. Ram has faltered, and Sita has been unable to help him recognize who he is. He needs divine help to be restored to his state of perfect equilibrium, because he is, after all, a mortal, and subject to human fallibility, as he himself candidly admits. The gods then proceed to acquaint him with his real nature, and upbraid him for behaving like “a common man.” They reveal to him the divinity that resides in him and reminds him of the purpose of his human incarnation. It is then left to Agni, the fire-god, the intermediary between gods and men, to return Sita to Ram, to affirm her chastity, and to admonish Ram that he never hurt Sita again.

And very unlike common men in such a situation, Ram rejoices at this command, and happy tears running down his cheeks. He is overjoyed and reveals that he acted with a larger purpose in mind, and of course, everyone who knows the Ramayana in one form or another is well acquainted with that part of the story.

In the verses quoted above and some intervening ones that have been omitted, Sita addresses Ram variously as, “वीर – O great one! महाबाहो – O mighty-armed one! प्रभो – O lord!  मानद – O giver of honour! राजन् –   O king! नरशार्दूल – O tiger among men!  वृत्तज्ञ – O knower of right conduct!” And later as सर्वधर्मज्ञः – knower of all the dharmas. So claiming “uncouth, misogynistic pig” as a “loose translation” can be more correctly interpreted as being loose so as to be completely untethered to reality.

A highly regarded Indian manual of poetics states (loosely translated) that the purpose of poetry is not to ordain like books of scripture, or to command in the manner of a surly boss, or even to advise like a trusted friend, but rather like a lover to lead one down the secluded alleyways of the imaginative spirit and there to ravish the mind with the choicest of words and images so that one’s soul is roused to the pinnacle of aesthetic bliss. And Valmiki’s Ramayana delivers, as it has done for centuries and will doubtless continue to do.

It is with good reason that the Srimad Valmiki Ramayana has traditionally been accorded the status of ‘Adikavya’, the first literary poem. It is Valmiki’s poetic vision, his gift for language and description, and the fullness of enjoyment that he gives us that makes reading the Ramayana in the original Sanskrit such a deeply satisfying experience. Not for him are the gender wars and casteist agendas, for he was gifted with divine sight in order to perceive something that mere mortals were unable to see. There is so much treasure in the Ramayana that often we can only see so much, and in seeing what we choose to see we hold a mirror to our own sensibilities. Valmiki soars above all this, attainable yet sublime, ever patient, ever willing to reward with his genius both the student and the connoisseur of Sanskrit poetry.

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