Devdutt Pattanaik’s recent book Sita combines many versions of The Ramayana, with a sprinkling of his own imagination

There are many uncomfortable questions that linger at the end of The Ramayana. Why did Ram banish Sita? Why was he such a stickler for rules? “He was a true professional,” said Devdutt Pattanaik, at a recent interactive session held in association with Apparao Galleries at Rain Tree, Anna Salai. “People mistake him to be a purushotham, an ideal man. But he was a maryadha purushotham, one who implicitly follows rules. We must understand that to understand Ram in The Ramayana.” Devdutt was in the city to promote his new book Sita — An Illustrated Retelling Of The Ramayana.

Sita is a book that combines many versions of The Ramayana, along with some amount of Devdutt’s imagination. “In some places, I have used my imagination, contributing to the long tradition of adding stories to the epic — such as the chapter where Sita’s recipes are used in Lankan kitchens to feed those weary of war. There is another chapter where Sita leaves the palace when Ram banishes her. This is inspired by folk songs that women have sung for generations — they sound so evocative and painful it seems they completely understand Sita’s pain. I’ve tried to bring this out,” says Devdutt.

Greek structure

He was moved to write the book when he realised that the epic was being told in a way that fuelled anger and hatred. “It’s been more than 2,000 years, and these characters of a narrative have been enshrined and prayed to as gods, even though they are flawed. Why?” he asks. He set out to find answers through this book. “Nowadays, every story seems to have a hero, a victim or a martyr and a villain. This structure is primarily Greek. Indian stories have no such characterisation, nobody is an oppressor or an oppressed. They present human characters, but don’t judge them as positive or negative, only as wise and less-wise.”

Devdutt also spoke in detail of how different parts of the epic were changed by their authors, in accordance with the time they lived in. Sometimes, some parts of the narrative changed and sometimes, a new story was added. “Many versions that were written post the 15 Century talk about Ravana being Sita’s father. The intention was perhaps to create sub-plots to say that Sita was not violated. If you see Kamban’s Ramayana, Ravana doesn’t touch her but picks up the ground beneath her, whereas in Valmiki’s version, she was surely grabbed physically. There are other versions that refer to a Maya Sita — that Ravana did not abduct the real Sita, but her shadow. When notions of pollution by touch came into society, the narratives changed,” he explained.

But at the end, he asks a pertinent question. “In my story, I ask, ‘what if she was violated? Sita is innocent, but what if she wasn’t? Does that justify the punishment she receives?’ The epic, in a way, tries to tell us that a world governed only by law and not by emotions is not an ideal world. Ram has only Sita (he is eka patni vrata) and yet he banishes her. He upholds the law even when it is unjust. In that way, he is dependable and predictable. Whereas Krishna is the leela purushotham, who goes through life breaking rules. But he is never a king and all the women in his life face heartbreak. And yet, Ram and Krishna are seen as the same person, reborn,” said Devdutt. “When Ram is king, he has to uphold laws, whether it is right or wrong. The ending is tragic as what is sacrificed are emotions.”

This theme recurs in the book, where he constantly points out incidents where the stoic Ram does not give in to his emotions. “Only in the Indian context is a god always seen with a goddess. This is because the balance between both is important. Ram as god is dependable and Sita as goddess is independent. Isn’t this what we all try to be? Dependable, but independent.”

Sita is available in bookstores for Rs. 499.