Doniger delves into a new epic and new empire in chapter nine, analyzing the interconnectedness between women, animals, sexuality, dharma, politics, and ogres within the Ramayana. As North India further develops between 400 BCE and 200 CE, new distributions of labor give rise to new economic and political classes resulting in tension among classes as well as other religions. The first Indian Empire, the Mauryan Empire (p. 215) had a good run between 321 BCE and 183 BCE, until a Brahmin overthrew the last Mauryan Kshatriya ruler, establishing the Shunga dynasty and with it, a hot-and-fresh new Vedic order.
With this shift in politics came a shift in texts, as the Ramayana marks a transition from classic Vedic canon (shruti) to those focused on human tradition (smriti). This transition makes the texts more approachable and accessible and begins to include non-Brahmin authors, lower class issues, and most shocking of all: women. The Ramayana primarily details the tale of a prince named Rama who is the avatar of the god Vishnu, his wife, Sita, who is the daughter of Earth, and Ravana, an ogre who stole Sita from Rama and was the cause of this whole situation.
Throughout the remainder of the chapter, Doniger methodically describes the context, relevance and conflicts created and attributed to each of these characters and their actions. Vishnu exists on Earth in the form of Rama in order to slay ogre Ravana, although Rama often forgets he is more than man, indicative of the bhakti movement depicting a god as simultaneously supreme and constrained. In spite of his godliness, Rama seems to have some tough luck with the ladies: a hunchback woman convinces his queen Kaykeyi to exile him to the forest, where his wife is stolen by an ogre, who’s sister eventually takes her turn in harassing Rama as well.
To avoid looking lustful, upon regaining his wife, Rama proceeds to banish her four times just to ensure she was loyal to him and did not engage sexually with the ogre. The theme of giving into pleasure ties together the five major themes of this tale and the analysis of this chapter (pg. 243):
- Giving into the pleasure of hunting without necessity
- Killing an “animal” that is actually a human
- Interrupting a sexual act
- Understanding and communicating with animals
- The creation of poetic language
As much as Wendy Doniger has been criticized for her seemingly sex-specific renditions, this chapter is undeniably tied centrally around sex. The entire plot is driven by Rama’s continual rejection of Sita out of fear that she had engaged sexually with the ogre Ravana. His decision to test her so frequently, first sending her to the fire, then forest, then earth, is directly out of his ranking of artha and dharma over kama. While he feels endangered by sex (kama), in reality it is politics that endangers him, driving him to make the sexual mistake of banishing his beloved. He hyper-analyzes the political risk he is at due to his father’s lustful tendencies, for it was his father’s obsession with Kaykeyi’s beauty that had led to this mess anyway.
Interestingly, Rama frequently seems to forget that he is more than mam, for he is an avatar of Vishnu sent on Earth solely to banish Ravana. The gods attempt to remind him that he is “mistreating Sita as if [he] were a common man” (pg. 226), advice to which Rama turns a deaf ear to. In a vision, Visny attempts to provide a reality check to both Rama and Sita, instructing Sita to avoid anger and understand that her chastity test will result in her fame because Rama is the supreme god. A loyal wife- although no pushover- Sita returned a final time with Sita’s twin sons. Rama’s stubborn rejection of Sita and the twins provides an interesting commentary on the role of male identity and fidelity versus female identity and fidelity. Clearly, male identity reigns over that of female’s, while female fidelity is held to a much higher importance than male’s. In Rama’s choices to continually test Sita’s fidelity, he is regarded as a king of a golden age, a wise and brave man, while Sita seemingly receives little recognition.
The commentary on women provided through Sita, much like many other aspects Doniger writes about, has a certain duality to it. In earlier texts, she had been portrayed as a nuanced character, rich with passion and sexuality. However, later texts begin to edit her character, depicting a subservient and obedient wife. This is where the role of ogresses comes in: when a woman acts out, this problem is not that of the woman or her behavior, but rather a sign that an evil ogress is hiding within her. The idea of this ‘possession’ creates a perfect scapegoat, allowing for the continual repression of women as an effort to keep the ogress at bay. One of the most blatant examples of blaming women’s negative behaviors on evil ogres is that of Shurpanakha, sister to Ravana and foil character to Sita. When Shurpanakha sexually comes on to Rama, he teases her and his brother mutilates her. Her sexualization is an inverse of Sita’s chastity, and their relation is evident in Shurpanakha’s attempt to replace Sita in bed. This raises the question of Sita’s own sexuality, and whether she feels sexual desires on her own accord or due to the possession of an ogress or other evil entity, and leads to a broader question on whether a woman’s sexuality is something to be shunned and afraid of.
Sita’s power is most evident in her final moments, when upon returning with Rama’s son she is still put to the test. After saying, “If… I have never dwelt on anyone but Rama, let the goddess Earth receive me” (pg 227), and at this moment the mother Earth swallowed her and placed her on a celestial throne. Sita gets the last word, and Rama is left alone, although with the comfort of the fact of his wife’s fidelity once and for all. This ultimate ending raises a variety of mixed views in the treatment and understanding of women in relation to fidelity, sexuality, and other “bad behaviors.” Clearly, Sita had been loyal the whole time, yet no one seems to blame Rama for questioning her so relentlessly or forgetting he truly is an avatar of Vishnu. This creates just the beginning of a strict dichotomy between the expectations of men and women.
- How could have different portrayals of Sita impacted the lives of real women in India? What is the connection between the role of this goddess and the role of a wife?
- What commentary on fear, vulnerabilities and desires is being made? Are these feelings portrayed as good or evil things and what general message is the Ramayana conveying to readers?
- Knowing that Sita is an earth goddess, does that make her seem less of a “doormat,” as someone with a higher plan and knowledge, or is she still a doormat and prone to distraction by worldly vices such as sex and riches?