Two recent episodes demonstrated for me the troubled equation we have with our gods. One was when historian Audrey Truschke said in an online discussion that in Valmiki’s Ramayan , Sita calls Rama ‘a misogynist pig’. Truschke used the phrase colloquially, as in the phrase ‘male chauvinist pig’, but it was nevertheless a daft choice of words. Equally daft, her detractors did not just fiercely disagree, but threatened her with rape and mutilation.
True, that particular phrase isn’t used, but Sita does call Rama “a feeble man” in Valmiki’s epic, so getting mad at historians is a bit silly. Sanitised readings prefer to say that Rama believed in Sita’s fidelity but was merely following his Raja Dharma when he rejected her. In Valmiki’s text, though, Rama clearly says, “This war was not undertaken for your sake. It was done to keep up my good conduct.” Then, “You, with a suspicion arisen on your character, are extremely disagreeable to me.” Then, “Go wherever you like. There is no work to be done for me by you.” “Set your mind on Lakshmana or Bharata....” “Or on Sugreeva or on Vibhishana the demon...”
If this is not misogyny, I don’t know what is.
Equally, however, I find it rather pointless to take these characters out of their context and judge them on present-day sensibilities. If Rama was a male supremacist and Sita a devoted slave, so be it. Let them be what they are in the epics. But let them stay there.
The problem arises when we make Rama an exemplar for today’s generation. Or when we hold up Sita as ideal womanhood and demand that women must follow their husbands devotedly to the ends of the earth. Or be set on fire if their chastity is suspected.
The gods — whether Indra cheating to sleep with another man’s wife or Rama using guile to defeat Bali or Narada spreading mischievous gossip — work well within the confines of legend and religious metaphor, but when people want these personas emulated in real life, the results are catastrophic.
Which brings me to the second episode I mentioned. Why did countless female devotees fall prey to former bootlegger and self-anointed ‘guru’ Asaram ? Because he brainwashed them into believing he was Krishna’s reincarnation and the women all gopis whose salvation lay in submitting to his sexual assault.
The belief that god will be reincarnated again and again in human form has proven very convenient for charlatans, who promptly become Krishna Redux and demand multiple women and many wives with whom to perform ‘leela’. Every second ashram has someone claiming to be “ sakshat Krishna bhagwan ”.
Conveniently, women aren’t allowed to make like gopis and frolic with men outside of their marriages. For women, Sita becomes the role model, and her banishment is considered dharma.
If the typical reaction to rape today is victim-blaming and shaming, there’s ample precedent in the epic. A bewildered Sita tells Rama, “It was not my wilfulness when I came into contact with the person of Ravana. I was helpless.” And here is Rama: “How can I accept you again, who were harassed in Ravana's lap and who were seen by him with evil looks." The responsibility has been neatly shifted to Sita.
One needn’t be offended by the misogyny of an earlier age. Or attack faith in the light of modern readings. And anyway, ample work has been done to reimagine the epics from different viewpoints and power structures. These efforts are often attacked — there was a ruckus, for instance, about A.K. Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three Hundred Ramayaṇas’ and it was removed from the Delhi University syllabus — but they must and do continue.
What’s unacceptable is using myths to create false moral equivalences today, when progressive thought has created far more just societies. Quoting Manusmriti to justify the caste system is as ridiculous as quoting the Quran to justify triple talaq. Or going on and on about Ram Rajya, which is likely to be nightmarish for women, for example.
Let me end, though, with something that puzzles me most: How come people so ready to viciously troll anyone they think is slighting their gods are so quiet when a fraudster commits rape in their god’s name?
Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark