What does Sita really say in Valmiki’s Ramayana?

A still from Sita Sings the Blues, a film my Nina Paley. Portrayals and interpretations of Sita have become a lightning-rod for controversy in the current political climate. Valmiki’s Ramayana is often held up as a standard for comparison, but few are familiar with his original text.
09 July, 2018

Every act of translation encodes something political, and, regardless of whether we like it or are even aware of it, all translators are political commentators. As such, to translate in today’s polarised political climate is delicate work, especially when translating the Indian epics.

Audrey Truschke, a professor of South Asian history, tweeted in April that in Valmiki’s Ramayana, “(I’m loosely translating here): During the agnipariksha, Sita basically tells Rama he’s a misogynist pig and uncouth.” Later, writing for The Wire, she described this characterisation as a “colloquial summary of Sita’s admonishment of Rama” during her trial by fire. The tweet elicited serious backlash from the Hindu right. Sadly, many of her detractors exhibited a poor understanding of the material in question, and, even worse, a deplorable tone that, as Truschke pointed out in a piece in this magazine, reinforced the very misogyny they could not tolerate to see Rama accused of. The irony of the situation seemed to have been lost in translation, so to speak.

As a translator and student of classical Indian literature, I believe it is critical to return to original sources. In that spirit, I present below the three relevant verses from Valmiki’s Ramayana in Sanskrit, along with literal, word-for-word English glosses. The verses—shloka numbers 5, 7 and 14 from the Yuddha Kanda (Book Four), sarga (section) 104—capture Sita’s response to Rama’s characterisation of her chastity during her imprisonment in Lanka. Further, I have collated four English translations spanning more than a century’s range of translation styles and idioms, so that readers may clearly see the variations in translation—sometimes subtle, sometimes gross—from a comparative perspective. These are taken from Ralph TH Griffith’s colonial-era retelling in rhymed verse, published in the 1870s, Manmatha Nath Dutt’s prose version of 1893, Arshia Sattar’s widely read Penguin edition, from 1996, and a recent annotated translation, completed in 2017, by a team led by Robert Goldman.

We begin with verse five, in which Sita reacts to Rama’s hurtful reproach. She says:

किं मामसदृशं वाक्यमीदृशं श्रोत्रदारुणम् |

रूक्षं श्रावयसे वीर प्राकृतः प्राकृताम् इव ||

how / to me / unfit / speech / such / ears / harsh

cruel / you cause to hear / hero / common / to common / like

Canst thou, a high-born prince, dismiss

A high-born dame with speech like this?

Such words befit the meanest hind,

Not princely birth and generous mind. (Griffith)

Why dost thou, O hero, like a common man addressing an ordinary woman, make me hear those harsh and unbecoming words painful unto ears? (Dutt)

How could you say such things to me, the kind of things a low, common man would say to his woman? (Sattar)

How can you, heroic prince, speak to me with such cutting and improper words, painful to the ears, as some vulgar man might speak to his vulgar wife? (Goldman)

The critical word here is the noun prakrta, meaning a common man. The term is related to the adjective prakrta, meaning anything from natural and ordinary to unrefined and vulgar. The plethora of meanings that any one Sanskrit word can convey makes for a wide array of technically permissible interpretations, and thus demands a judicious translator to be both scholarly and sensitive. Griffith chooses the archaic word “hind,” meaning a peasant, to contrast it with Rama’s royal lineage. Dutt, the most accurate of the four in my opinion, chooses “common” and “ordinary,” while Sattar adds the qualifier “low,” along with the colloquially resonant “his woman.” Goldman chooses “vulgar,” which has its roots in the Latin word vulgus, meaning common people, although in modern English its adjectival form has come to mean unrefined, unsophisticated, coarse, rude and even offensive.

Next we have verse seven:

पृथक्स्त्रीणां प्रचारेण जातिं त्वं परिशङ्कसे |

परित्यजेमां शङ्कां तु यदि तेऽहं परीक्षिता ||

of common women / on account of conduct / group / you / suspect

abandon / this doubt / but / if / to you / I / tested

If some are faithless, wilt thou find

No love and truth in womankind?

Doubt others if thou wilt, but own

The truth which all my life has shown. (Griffith)

Seeing the ordinary women thou art distrusting the whole sex. Do thou renounce this suspicion since thou hast tried me. (Dutt)

You judge all women by the conduct of a few. You should know better than to reject me like this! (Sattar)

You harbor suspicion against all women because of the conduct of the vulgar ones. If you really knew me, you would abandon your suspicion. (Goldman)

Here, the operative word is prthak. It means separate or different, but, following VS Apte’s widely cited Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, when attached to a noun such as jana, meaning a man or a person, it can mean “a low man, an unenlightened, vulgar man, the mob, low people … a fool, a blockhead, an ignorant man … a wicked man, sinner.” In the context of this verse, where it applies to women as a group, Griffith chooses “faithless,” while Dutt and Goldman continue with “ordinary” and “vulgar,” respectively. Sattar, on the other hand, chooses to omit the term altogether. The second part of the verse is harder to translate, with Dutt taking the most literal option and Goldman the more literary. Sattar is again looser in her interpretation, while Griffith is effusively poetic.

And now the last of the three verses, in which Sita invokes the term stritvam, or womanhood. Here again, Dutt and Goldman remain quite literal, while Sattar is more interpretive. Unfortunately, Griffith’s lyrical pen seems to have skipped over this verse.

त्वया तु नरशार्दूल क्रोधमेवानुवर्तता |

लघुनेव मनुष्येण स्त्रीत्वमेव पुरस्कृतम् ||

by you / but / tiger among men / anger / only / guided

by lesser / only / by man / womanhood / only / placed in front

O foremost of kings, being subject to ire—thou dost not perceive anything but womanhood in me, like an ordinary man. (Dutt)

But you surrendered to your anger and acted like a common man and you have treated me like a low and vulgar woman! (Sattar)

But now, tiger among men, you have given way to anger like some lesser man, taking into account only that I am a woman. (Goldman)

Variations, great and small, are inevitable in any set of translations, but all four of these renderings confirm that Truschke’s interpretation was extreme. She read much more into the verses than is actually there, and she added an unfortunate idiomatic colour to her summary. Later, in The Wire, she conceded that her characterisation of Sita’s words was, “arguably, a failed translation.”

Perhaps part of the tension here is related to the way translation functions in India. When premodern Indian writers took up the story of the Ramayana, they retold Valmiki in their own voices—as in Kamban’s Iramavataram or Tulsidas’s Ramacharitamanas. This is why many scholars prefer to deem their works “transcreations” rather than translations. For modern translators working in a Western paradigm of translation, there is arguably less freedom, and more of a responsibility to faithfully represent the original author. This is why modern translations are not “so-and-so’s Ramayana” but “Valmiki’s Ramayana translated from the Sanskrit by so-and-so.”

For most Indians, the Ramayana is not an object of academic analysis, nor a text written in a dead language. It is a living story that—through recitation, performance, interpretation and, of course, translation—continues to give new meaning to life by engendering a sense of identity. Translators and academicians, be they from India or abroad, would be wise to bear this in mind when they carry over Valmiki’s poetry to new generations.

Indian literary tradition is replete with Ramayanas, and many of them are quite critical of Rama’s behavior, particularly his treatment of Sita. As Truschke noted in this magazine, “some premodern retellings of the Ramayana found revering Rama to be fully compatible with depicting his behaviour as heartless.” Clearly, critique and reverence need not be mutually exclusive. And perhaps this is one important lesson that we can learn from India’s rich and intertextual literary culture: that sometimes conflicting ideas can coexist and even flourish in a truly vibrant intellectual milieu.

I believe that we, as scholars and translators, can choose a tone that is more productive than polarising, one that bridges rather than sharpens divides. Truschke might be right in insisting, as she wrote in The Wire, that “reverence is not and should not be a requirement for describing or analysing a religious text,” but I believe respect should be. If we are to truly encourage a diversity of perspectives we must adopt a less divisive voice, and, more importantly, a more sympathetic ear. As the noted Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock recently acknowledged, “The Ramayana has a life in the hearts of Indian people. I think I have been, to some degree, insensitive to that, and I’m trying to learn.” I appreciated this admission, and I hope his critics will too.

Valmiki’s Ramayana is a classic because it has never ceased to offer new interpretations and viewpoints. There are sure to be many more translations of the adikavi in years to come, and we can only hope that they inspire healthy, productive debate and dialogue. I end here with my translation of verse 35 from the second sarga of the Bala Kanda, in which Brahma encourages Valmiki to compose an epic poem for the benefit of the world.

यावत्स्थास्यन्ति गिरयः सरितश्च महीतले |

तावद्रामायणकथा लोकेषु प्रचरिष्यति ||

As long as mountains stand and rivers flow upon the earth,

The story of the Ramayana will flourish throughout the world