The Ramayana is one of Hinduism’s most holy texts, and one that all Hindus, including myself, certainly respect. But any type of idea or faith is only made stronger through constant questioning and challenging of orthodoxy, and so I’d like to discuss some aspects of the Ramayana that give me pause. To preface, I am by no means a textual expert on the Ramayana (or any other Hindu text), and am not looking for a textual debate, but rather a debate about ideas and themes. The few ideas and themes that I find disenchanting in the Ramayana are those of obedience and of the treatment of women.
Rama’s obedience to the rules of family and law is certainly admirable, but at times can be disconcerting. As a member of the ruling family who clearly garners the most praise and respect from his people, Rama’s decision to travel to the forest because of his father’s bad judgment decades earlier, despite the fact that his brother, Bharat, is ready to restore him as King, and the fact that Rama would certainly have the public support to take back the throne if he desired, poses the question of which is more important: a responsibility to the people and a moral duty, or a responsibility to misguided laws and wishes made long ago (in this case, by a stepmother, Kaikeyi)? One of Rama’s character marks was his will to always, without fail or exception, obey the laws and norms of his society and family. As a contrast, in the Mahabharata, Krishna encouraged and told Arjun he had to fight against members of his own family, even if it meant that he would be breaking societal norms. Arjun had a greater moral duty to fulfill. This is not to say the rule of law is not important; the last eight years have shown us that obeying the rule of law is of utmost importance in a democratic society. But the Ramayana does not discuss the rule of law in a democratic society; it discusses societal and family norms that are many millennia old.
The most disconcerting element of the Ramayana is the general treatment and portrayal of his wife, Sita. Sita is nothing if not a good wife and friend to Ram; she goes with him to a dangerous forest for 14 years, after all. And to his credit, Ram (with the help of Lakshman, Hanuman, and a formidable monkey army) goes to Lanka recover his wife from the demon, Ravana. The trouble starts afterward, when Ram has his wife, Sita, march through a fire to prove her faithfulness to him through her years in captivity. The logical justification for this is fairly light, at least by my progressive standards: if Sita was possibly unfaithful to Rama during her captivity by a huge, ugly, demon, it probably was not by choice, and in this case, Ram is looking to punish her for being raped by a demon during his absence. Not only this, but why is Ram’s faithfulness never questioned? Between a highly eligible heir apparent to the throne and a woman imprisoned by a cruel demon, it seems sensible that one would worry slightly more about the faithfulness of the crown prince.
Despite the humiliating nature of the very action, Sita does walk through the fire and proves her obedience to Rama. Yet because people of the empire spread rumors about her supposed infidelity, Rama sends her on a second exile to the forest to live with the sage Valmiki, where she lives briefly before re-entering the Earth. The message that Rama’s action sends about the treatment or image of women is very sad. Sita did nothing to deserve a second exile and a depressing and lonely end to her life, and what does it say about a man when he values the pristine image of his royal throne above his wife’s well-being and happiness? Many will argue that Rama was just following the societal norms of the time, to which I would argue, if Rama was one of the greatest figures in our entire religion’s history, why did he not break convention for principles (women’s equality, general fairness) that are almost universally respected by good people in today’s world?
Many counter-arguments will be proposed to the points I make here, and I hope they will be. A common one might be that the Ramayana must be read in the context of the time period it was written in; I will agree that human society has definitely become more progressive since the time of the writing of the Ramayana, but I would also say that it is then necessary to change our views of the story for the times. There are still a multitude of worthy lessons to learn from the Ramayana; Rama is no doubt a good person, Lakshman is a very loyal and admirable character, Hanuman is courageous and unbelievably brave, and Bharata is a wise and kind brother to Rama. The Ramayana, however, just as the Bible is in Christianity, must be viewed with a critical eye as well; our faith and culture must promote gender equality and flexibility of thought and doctrine if Hinduism is to stay relevant in the future.