A petition has been filed against Lord Ram for abandoning his wife Sita in the aftermath of her return from Lanka. The petition was filed against both Lord Rama and his brother Laxman, in a Bihar court, by a local lawyer Thakur Chandan Kumar Singh, seeking justice for Sita, since she was the daughter of Mithila and came from Bihar.
The case was heard by a Chief Judicial Magistrate in Sitamarhi on 1 February 2016 who asked the petitioner why he was filing a case on an incident that supposedly took place in ancient times? He also asked who would be the witness in the case and sought the date when the incident happened.
While the case will take its own legal time and turn, it does raise two important issues – should the courts allow cases to be filed for mythological stories, characters, incidents and issues? The second issue pertains to the potential debate and polarization that such cases may generate in contemporary society.
In Hindu mythology there are over 25,000 gods, with all kinds of related stories, incidents and interpretations associated with each god. Therefore, any number of cases could be filed on any number of issues and by any number of communities or sections of society that would interpret them in their own way.
Just as this case is likely to take up precious time of the court in lieu of other cases that need urgent attention, if not rejected outright, courts could soon be flooded by similar cases, each filed to serve their own agendas.
But the case does open us to an academic debate on the interpretation of the epic and on the ethics pertaining to Lord Rama’s decision to send his wife Sita to live alone in the jungle, just because one washerwoman happened to make an unsavoury remark regarding Lord Rama’s decision to take back Sita.
We first need to understand that the Ramayana was written a very long time back when society was very different from what it is today and therefore, the value systems were based on social conditions that were prevailing at the time. To take up an incident or decision taken during that period and try and find justification in contemporary times, may not be entirely fair, though many lessons can be taken and interpreted to serve as a guide in our lives today. That choice of interpretation must be left to each individual.
However, for the sake of debate, let’s look at the Ramayana. There are several versions with different interpretations, but I have taken C. Rajagopalachari’s English translation of the Ramayana as a reference.
Lord Ram’s response on seeing Sita after the death of Ravana
When Sita presents herself before Rama for the first time, Sita alighting from the palanquin sobs and is able to just utter “Aryaputra”. Addressing Sita, Rama said “I have slain the enemy, I have recovered you. I have done my duty as a Kshatriya. My vow is now fulfilled.”
And then with a grim expression he said, “It was not for mere attachment to you that I waged this grim battle, but in the discharge of duty as a Kshatriya. It gives me no joy now to get you back, for doubtfulness envelopes you like a dark cloud of smoke.”
From the above, it is clear that even in those times, as it is now, a woman who has stayed away from her husband was viewed as unworthy of being taken back. Unfortunately, a lot has not changed since then.
In the world we live in, a woman who is molested or raped is judged to be ‘unworthy’ of social fairness and equality, and this was recently proven true when a young teenager who had been raped, killed herself in shame. In her suicide note, she mentioned that it was the only way to prove that she was not at fault. This incident forces us to ask ourselves how we can have a society today where a victim is forced to prove her innocence in order to be accepted back. And if she is raped, is that her fault or any reflection of her character?
Rama, as the Lord, faced a dilemma, too. While, his heart wished Sita back, the society that he ruled over did not accept such a woman. So what can we learn from the Ramayana? Would we like any girl or woman to go through what Sita did back then?
In the Ramayana, Rama is caught between his personal feeling of love for Sita and his duty as a King in upholding the social values of his society. So which should he have followed? Should he have ignored the washerwoman’s comment, who also happened to be his subject and thus, his responsibility, and continued to live with Sita, or was his decision to put her through the test of fire before accepting her back, only to have her sent off to the jungle again, the right decision? The issue pertains to the conflict of ethics in our personal life versus that in public life. It also questions the values and judgement of society.
Sita’s response to Lord Rama casting aspersion on her character
Sita looked at Rama. Her eyes flashed fire. “Unworthy words have you spoken!” she said. “My ears have heard them and my heart is broken. The uncultured may speak such words but not one nobly born and brought up like you. Your anger, it seems, has destroyed your understanding. My lord does not remember the family from which I come. Janaka, the great seer, was my father and he brought me up. Is it my fault that the wicked Rakshasa seized me by force and imprisoned me? But since this is how you look at it, there is but one course open to me.”
In her response, Sita comes across as a normal but strong woman who reacts as one should have, in anger and in defence of her character and rights as a person. She comes across as a strongwilled person, as any girl or woman today must be, when it comes to defending her own character and rights.
The fact that society back then, as now, held the woman responsible for defending her character and not the man, in a similar situation, speaks volumes of the ‘inequality’ that existed back then, as now, between sexes.
Men and women together form a society and therefore the rights for both must be equal. Unfortunately, in the world we live in today, women are still struggling to be treated equally and with fairness.
If we hold the Ramayana with reverence, we must absorb the positive lessons from it. The epic has depicted evil in Ravana and we must learn from his character on what we must never be.
Similarly, we must learn from Rama’s dilemma. The reason behind his dilemma was the society that he ruled over at the time. It simply shunned women who stayed away from their husbands, voluntarily or involuntarily. Rama would not have faced the dilemma had his society been more liberal, understanding and fair. That is the learning that we must take away from the Ramayana. We need to recognize that our society on several occasions forces certain people into a dilemma similar to what Lord Rama faced, but should never have to face.
If the story of Rama is an inspiration, it must also serve as a reason for introspection. For, are not all epics meant to impart a lesson or two?