Is it a story, or history? Is it fiction, semi-fiction or non-fiction? The Ramayana, despite being an epic with a relatively straightforward plot, has always spawned complex debates in Indian society. But there exists another significant debate which perhaps began right after its last lines were written/narrated: Ram's ostensible "idealism", especially when it came to his own wife Sita.
This discussion raged only in the fringes of the society (read: women) as Indians, like just about everyone else, have historically been patriarchal. That is also the reason why most Indian men have no idea about how enormously uneasy this aspect of the Ramayana is: I myself grew up considering Ram as the "perfect" man -- level-headed, kind, respectful and brave. For a long time I had no inkling that many Indian women considered him to be anywhere between chauvinistic and downright evil. "Sita bhi yahaan badnaam hui", sang Rajesh Khanna soulfully in Amar Prem, and only recently I realized the gravity of that line.
"If one really delves into the themes of the epic, there is surely evidence of what could today be crudely termed as woman-bashing."
If one really delves into the themes of the epic, there is surely evidence of what could today be crudely termed as woman-bashing. Dasharath remarries twice and has three wives because he wanted a son. The most important negative characters after Ravan are Manthara, Surpanakha and Keikeyi, all women. Ravan is persuaded into kidnapping Sita mainly because Surpanakha is jealous of her and describes her in a somewhat titillating way. Sita's actual kidnapping is described in quite a misogynist manner, suggesting subtly to the reader that "she brought it on herself" because of her obstinate demand for a shining deer and her poor judgement in crossing the Laxman Rekha that spelled her doom. Finally, her "character" is ruthlessly questioned. Apologists have tried their best to explain Ram's supposedly ideal actions, but I was never convinced. It was an egregious act to abandon Sita, especially coming from a man who defended his own dubious actions like deceitfully killing Vali.
The concept of female "chastity" is one of the most preposterous ideas in all history. We hear of parents of a girl burning or shooting her just because she willingly went out with a man they didn't approve of, but we never hear of them doing the same with her brother even if he assaults or rapes another woman. There is no popularly accepted rekha to specify a virtuous man, but there is a prominent one for women. Most religions, in their traditional form, show a much lower regard for women than men. Since it was almost always men who wrote (with "divine help", many believe) ancient scriptures and the holy books, women have been discriminated against in a cunningly institutional and formalised manner all through history. The Ramayana does that too, and its influence is surely a huge reason why Indians still attach so much significance to a woman's "purity". In sum, India's phenomenal epic has epically failed its women and rational minds.
"What we need to do is expand our minds and together transform the Ramayana from a fundamentally flawed love story to the most glorious tale of devotion ever..."
But then the Ramayana, just like Khajuraho temples, Mughal architecture and colonial-era railways, forms an inextricable fibre of the fabric of India. We need our own stories and tales to narrate to our children, and we need our own heroes and heroines. We need the love story of Ram and Sita too, because there's a lot of beauty in it as well (skillfully depicted by Alfonso Cuaron in his touching 1995 movie A Little Princess).
It must be remembered that Sita, though abandoned by her husband, did not lose heart. She lived her life bravely and even went on to become India's (and perhaps the world's) first single mother! Ram was awful in banishing Sita, but he never married another woman or women as most kings of his time routinely did.
I won't suggest we altogether stop narrating the stories of the Ramayana (or Mahabharata or Panchatantra, etc) because it would be criminal to deprive future generations of the majestic heritage bequeathed by wise ancient Indians. However, we need to put a final stop to this female purity business which many of our stories inherently support. While some countries have had a special minister for gender equality for years, the world's largest democracy can at least start having a gender-equal bed-time story.
Like a true vibrant epic, the Ramayana has seen countless revisions, a phenomenon which Shanta Rameshwar Rao describes beautifully in her version of the Mahabharata): "Stories told by word of mouth will naturally change in the telling -- an addition here made by one teller with a vivid imagination, an omission there made by another with a bad memory."
To make the Ramayan more gender-equal and universally appealing, we thus need to employ our imaginative skills. For example, parents, grandparents and school-teachers can add to or edit their telling of the story to make it more acknowledging of the independence and equality of women. Maybe when Ram asks Sita to prove her chastity, she can retort sharply by saying she'll do it only if he has the courage to prove his own "purity" (as famously shown in the film Lajja). Or maybe when "society" starts casting doubts on Sita, Ram declares that he loves his wife dearly and that he will go with her wherever she goes. Or maybe something else!
What we need to do is expand our minds and together transform the Ramayana from a fundamentally flawed love story to the most glorious tale of devotion ever: one where the husband braves all odds to destroy not only Lanka's demons, but teams with his wife to also vanquish society's hidden demons.