Silencing Sita

Why the Ramayana’s many voices provoke outrage

01 June 2018
Sita’s censure of Rama in Valmiki’s Ramayana finds no place in the Doordarshan version of the tale, or in many other popular adaptations.
Sita’s censure of Rama in Valmiki’s Ramayana finds no place in the Doordarshan version of the tale, or in many other popular adaptations.

From the beginning, the Ramayana resisted singularity. Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana is the earliest extant version of Rama’s story, written 2,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. Thousands of handwritten manuscripts of Valmiki’s text survive today, and no two are identical. Like the Mahabharata, its sister epic, Valmiki’s Ramayana was an “open” text, subject to alterations and additions with every new handwritten copy in premodernity.

Over time, the thousands of editors substantially changed Valmiki’s epic. Valmiki, or at least some single individual, likely authored the bulk of books two through six of the seven-book text, and most of the first and seventh books were added later. Notably, for Valmiki, Rama was probably more a man than a god. His deification was grafted onto the epic—or at least seriously amplified—in later centuries, transforming Rama into Lord Ram, an incarnation of Vishnu, as he is known to Hindus today. But, whether he was viewed as human or divine, Valmiki’s Rama was never beyond reproach.

Valmiki could pack quite a punch in his poetry, and he used derisive language to admonish Rama at times, often voiced by other characters in the tale. For example, when Rama shoots Vali in the back, a blatant violation of the rules of war, the monkey king upbraids him for being two-faced, treacherous, vile, and cruel. When Rama tries to leave Sita behind in Ayodhya while he goes to the forest, Sita likens him to a śailūṣa. In a 2004 article titled “Resisting Rama,” the scholar Robert Goldman, who has devoted his career to studying Valmiki’s text, translated the term, a bit zestily, as “pimp.”

During the fire trial to test her chastity on her return from captivity under Ravana in Lanka, Sita calls Rama prākta, meaning vulgar or uncouth, and smears him as laghuneva manuyea, which the scholar David Shulman has translated as “like a little man.” Sita also accuses Rama of prejudice against women or, more succinctly, misogyny. In her words, “pthakstrīṇāṃ pracārea jāti tva pariśakase”—“You suspect all women because of the vulgar ones’ behaviour.” Valmiki himself appears uncomfortable with Rama’s treatment of Sita during the fire test, and the poet describes his speech as rūka, or cruel, and, in some north Indian versions, as ghora, or horrible.

All of this is little remembered today. On Twitter, I recently colloquially summarised Sita’s criticism of Rama during the fire test, as narrated by Valmiki. An explosion of anger—predominantly from men—followed. Many expressed their rage about a perceived insult to Lord Ram—articulated in a woman’s voice—by threatening to rape or kill me. In a sick twist of irony, the grotesque language these men employed displayed the very misogyny that, in their minds, Lord Ram, the ideal man—maryādā puruottam—could never harbour. When I called attention to these hateful threats, many critics accused me of just playing the victim and refused to themselves describe the attacks as misogynistic. This was again a patriarchal tactic—the dismissal of gendered threats of violence—designed to intimate and silence women. Unsurprisingly, most of my critics focussed on the perceived insult to Lord Ram, without much consideration for Sita and her point of view. Such is the logic of modern misogyny that it demands female voices in the grand Ramayana tradition remain subordinate to male feelings. In order to understand Valmiki’s text it is important to recover Sita’s voice, and to resist any soft-pedalling of it despite our own prejudices.

Audrey Truschke is an assistant professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. She is the author of Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court and Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth.

Keywords: gender Ramayana Sita Valmiki misogyny