Nilanjana Roy’s Business Standard piece on Jan 08, 2013 entitled A woman alone in the forest is just the latest in what has become a much-lauded fad. A fad whose staple diet consists of a distorted reading of Indian epics, misinterpretations aplenty, sleights of hand, concealment, and open falsehood. We’ve seen the disastrous results of what happens when such untruths come to be accepted as truth—simply put, they multiply and over time gain such wide currency that even when the truth is pointed out, people simply dismiss it as propaganda or ranting or both. This problem is made worse in a country like India where the English media refuses to give voice to opposing and/or honest viewpoints.
Nilanjana Roy’s piece tries to do two things at the same time: it tries to pin the blame for that Delhi lady’s brutal rape on our epics and like a corollary of sorts, tries to show that “if you hurt the wrong woman, prepare for war.” Among others, a key message of her piece is the fact that our epics have fashioned the way Indians regard and treat women, which includes condoning rape.
Factual Errors and Falsification
However, an honest reading of our epics in fact yields the exact opposite conclusion: treat women badly, and you will suffer horribly. Which is why Nilanjana’s piece abandons honesty and indulges in the aforementioned techniques of deceit in plenty. Let’s examine them, one by one, starting with the very first sentence.
‘tis true, we need to turn to our epics in times of trouble: to seek solace, inspiration, and to learn lessons that are applicable to our own times. However, it’s interesting that Nilanjana chooses to see only bloodstained lines, violence, and rape in them instead of a wealth of learning, high philosophy, a harmonious worldview, a divine view of women, and a solid value system they contain and espouse.
There’s a reason our epics have stood the test of time: they deal with fundamental human impulses and aren’t written with any ideology or theory in mind. As such, they will remain relevant and revered as long as humankind exists notwithstanding however they are interpreted, notwithstanding how much mud is slung at them. Nilanjana herself accepts this albeit in a different, negative light while committing a factual blunder simultaneously:
Over the centuries, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have become India’s default epics, eclipsing the Rajatarangini, the Cilappatikkaram and other equally powerful legends in the mainstream imagination. While this is a loss…
One wonders on what basis Roy puts Rajatarangini and Silappadikaram in the same bracket as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Rajatarangini is a historical chronicle proper and not a legend while Silappadikaram is a longish poem written employing a metre that’s used in epic poetry. That alone doesn’t qualify it to be termed a legend at the same level as our epics. These are shocking, factual bloopers for a veteran Business Standard columnist.
Nilanjana omits the fact that Silappadikaram was written in Tamil limiting both its appeal and reach to non-Tamil parts of India. Indeed, Krishnadevaraya’s Amukta Malyada is still one of the most widely read long poems but it’s little known outside Andhra Pradesh. So is Kumaravyasa’s Karnata Bharata Kathamanjari, a classic that is still a blockbuster in terms of book and audio sales, research, and public recitation in Karnataka. The same goes for any celebrated literary work in regional languages in India. Besides, Silappadikaram was composed around the 6th Century (or maybe slightly later), and bears influences of and contains references to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It’s pretty clear that by the 6th Century both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata had already left indelible imprints on the Indian social, cultural, and civilizational consciousness. But going by the tone and tenor of the piece, it’s clear that Nilanajana is irked by the endurance of India’s only two epics because she characterizes the relatively less popular Rajatarangini and Silappadikaram as a “loss.” One wonders why. There have been dozens of translations of Rajatarangini so far because it is a proven primary source for studying the history and culture of Kashmir. Second, the enduring popularity of Silappadikaram is evidenced again by its innumerable translations, and its value as a source for studying Sangam Tamil politics, culture, language, and literature. Indeed, both Kannagi and Poompuhar have been superhits in Tamil cinema, a testimony to Silappadikaram’s sustained popularity. Given all this, we wonder where Nilanjana Roy’s “eclipse” and “loss” come from.
Do our Epics Contain Only Rape?
Nilanjana’s piece is chiefly concerned with how “both epics offer an insight into the way rape works in India.” In her own words,
Five stories of rape and sexual assault from the epics are particularly useful. The Ramayana has the abduction of Sita by Ravana, and, running parallel to it, the disfiguration of Surpanakha by Rama and Lakshmana — two atrocities, not one, that trigger a war. The Mahabharata has the public assault on Draupadi at its heart, the abduction and revenge of Amba, and the sanctioned rapes of Amba and Ambalika by Ved Vyasa…The tale most often cited in the aftermath of assaults on women, such as the tragedy of the young woman who died this December after being gang-raped and injured by six men, is Sita’s abduction. This is raised explicitly by pseudo-Hindus, usually as a warning to women to stay behind a Lakshman rekha, an arbitrarily drawn line of protection. It echoes the widespread views of many who blame women for being sexually assaulted, saying that they should not have gone out in public.
The first thing to notice here is the choice of words: “rape” and “sexual assault.” However, a reading of the primary texts reveals that none of the five stories that Nilanjana quotes have elements that come anywhere near what can be called “rape” and “sexual assault” as we shall see. Like I said, it’s clever word play so the question we need to ask is: how does Nilanjana Roy define “rape” and “sexual assault?” Without a clear answer to this, it’s easy write what she does.
Nilanjana Roy characterizes the five stories as such because she employs that other classic trick: imposing the morals and values of today to a period in the ancient past, a classic illustration of Seneca’s “What once were vices are manners now.” What Roy also tries to do is hold the views of a few “pseudo-Hindus” as representative of most (“widespread views”) Hindus. Indeed, if that were true, we need to look at the number of women in urban India who step “out in public” to go to work. That number as Nilanjana knows, is quite high. Doesn’t that mean the menfolk in the family of these women are okay with their women crossing the Lakshman Rekha? Do these men fall under Nilanjana’s “pseudo-Hindus” and “widespread views” category? If not, exactly who are these “pseudo-Hindus?” If not, exactly how widespread is “widespread?” Also, what about those Hindu men who regard women as worthy of worship, a conception higher than respect? Are they also pseudo-Hindus because the same epics have shaped this view of women in them?
Justice to Sita
But before we go there, we need to look at how Nilanjana characterizes Sita.
Sita, though, is not a passive victim, as Namita Gokhale, Arshia Sattar and others argue. Ms Gokhale points out that Sita is the first single mother. Ms Sattar sees Sita as a woman who exercises complex choices, leaving a marriage where she is no longer treated with respect. (This episode, Sita’s rejection of Rama and her building of a life without him, is seldom raised by guardians of the purity of Indian women.)
As we see, she doesn’t characterize Sita but borrows the misguided opinions of Namita Gokhale and Arshia Sattar. In other words, can we conclude that Nilanjana has no original opinion of Sita?
Now, what exactly are Namita and Arshia’s credentials to hold forth on Sita? Because an honest, objective reading of the Ramayana does not yield the characterization they have put forth. Of all the things I’ve read about Sita, characterizing her as a single mother is both the funniest and the most ridiculous one. One wonders if Namita Gokhale time-travelled, toured all of India in Sita’s era, did a census of all mothers and found that Sita was the first single mother. Needless, like Roy, Gokhale too tries to retrofit today’s social and moral notions to the past. Which is why it is quite illuminating to examine this paragraph at length.
The sentence “leaving a marriage where she’s no longer treated with respect,” is pretty revealing. Let’s see what the primary source, the Uttara Ramayana says, in the sequence of events. Rama in his position as a king—and not as a husband—first abandons a pregnant Sita in the forest. By Arshia and Roy’s reasoning, this means Rama did “leave the marriage” first. If that’s true, was he treated with disrespect by Sita, following the same reasoning? Then the sage Valmiki takes her to his hermitage. Lava and Kusha are soon born. Now, by Namita Gokhale’s reasoning, this supposedly makes Sita the “first single mother.” And then, after the lapse of much time, Rama and Sita meet each other whereupon Rama asks her to get back with him. She rejects him and reverts to her mother, the Mother Earth, which means she leaves her mortal life. This in turn means that Nilanjana’s claim that “building a life without [Rama]” is false.
And so, in the final reckoning, we get the following when we stick to their reasoning: by the time Rama and Sita meet again, it is Rama who has already “[leave] the marriage,” Sita is already a “single mother,” and she leaves the mortal world, leaving no scope for, as Nilanjana claims, “building a life without [Rama].”
In other words, Namitha Gokhale, Arshia Sattar, and Nilanjana Roy, have all falsified the epic so that it fits into their tailored conclusions about Sita. The truth is that Sita, throughout the Ramayana, has no word of reproach for Rama. The truth is that Sita encouraged her children to learn, sing, and disseminate Ramayana. Would she do this if she had felt that Rama treated her with disrespect? Would she do this if she had rejected Rama?
The truth also is that Nilanjana Roy et al are obsessed with delivering justice to Sita in whom they see as the first/earliest Indian (?) Woman to be wronged by Man. This is less about Sita than it is about Woman and it comes straight from a juvenile strand of feminism that holds Man to be the oppressor of women till Eternity. Anything is fair game according to this strand: epics, novels, poems, movies, even porn. A Nation of Victims is a classic that brilliantly explains how this phenomenon works. And so, Justice to Sita at any cost, even if it means falsifying the Ramayana, even if it means reading the Ramayana selectively, and even if it means indulging in intellectual dishonesty.
An honest reading of the original Ramayana reveals that Sita held Rama in the highest esteem throughout the epic. Consider this: Rama lived in a time where polygamy was socially accepted. Indeed, Rama’s father had himself taken three wives. Despite this, Rama married just one woman. He discouraged her from accompanying him on exile. But when that failed, and throughout the period that she was in exile with him, he protected her, pampered her, and treated her like a baby. After Ravana abducted her, Rama made it his life’s mission to get her back, and pined for her every moment. He didn’t as much as look at any other woman. Indeed, the verses in which he describes his life without Sita are heart rending and must be made mandatory reading for any man who wants to learn how to treat his wife. Equally, Cantos 25—40 of Sundara Kanda show exactly how highly she regards Rama, and how intensely she loves him.
Even if we ignore all this, what does the fact that Rama kills a hugely powerful king and destroys his empire in order to rescue his wife tell us about Rama? What does the fact that mere monkeys formed an army and staked their lives to quell this powerful king who had coveted another man’s wife tell us? What value system does this impart to us? More importantly, what does that tell us about a culture which continues to emulate him as the ideal man, king, and husband—a culture that includes millions of men who emulate him thus?
Yet what are the only things that people like Nilanjana Roy find in the epic? Stains of blood, violence, rape, sexual assaults, dead bodies, and the supposed injustice meted out to Sita by Rama. What does that tell you about how the minds of the Justice-Deliverers-to-Sita work?
Be that however it may, given all these facts, the real point is that Nilanjana Roy fails to show us how Sita’s abduction by Ravana and her abandonment by Rama qualify as “rape” and/or “sexual assault,” which is what her piece sets out to do among other things.
Continued in Part 2