Chapter 9- Women and Ogresses in the Ramayana

Tess

Summary:

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):

  1. Giving into the pleasure of hunting without necessity
  2. Killing an “animal” that is actually a human
  3. Interrupting a sexual act
  4. Understanding and communicating with animals
  5. The creation of poetic language

http://lordrama.co.in/sita-rama-vivah.html

 

Analysis:

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.

 

Discussion Questions

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
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4 thoughts on “Chapter 9- Women and Ogresses in the Ramayana

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  1. With regards to your first question, I think that the various portrayals of Sita, have definitely had an impact on the lives of women in India. I think that these impacts have manifested themselves in several ways over time, however, the most overt of these impacts might revolve around the parallels drawn between Sita and the role of a wife. As Doniger mentioned, and as you pointed out, the portrayal of Sita changes over time in different versions of texts. However, in each version there is always an emphasis on Sita “exemplifying” the societal and culturally defined roles of a wife. Furthermore, the emphasis highlights Sita’s loyalty to her husband and the lengths that she will go to serve him and prove her own piety (even to the point that it’s oppressive). The role of this goddess and the traditionally defined role of a wife, have much in common. For example, it appears that both often require that the goddess/wife be subjugated to the rule of the god/husband, with little say in most matters. As a result, I think that real women in India have been impacted by Sita’s portrayals because of the parallels that have been made of her, have a particular cultural significance and connotation.

    To address your second question, I think that one possible commentary regarding fear, vulnerability and desire; is a cautionary one which warns that these emotions must be controlled in order for one to reach their full potential. In the case of Rama, his struggle with his own fear/vulnerability/desire leads him to forget parts of his own godly aspect. In general, it appears that these feelings (when uncontrolled and ruminating) can lead to negative cognitions and eventually negative behaviors/outcomes. Hence, the Ramayana may be conveying a kind of warning about how these emotions can lead us to act like baser and more impulsive versions of ourselves.

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  2. In the tale of the “Ramayana”, many details pertaining to Sita portray her as a powerless character — like a prize of some sort. The manner in which the story is written makes Sita seem as though she lacks agency, such as when it states that, “…Rama killed Ravana and brought Sita back home with him” (Doniger 221). Rather than “going home” with Rama or even “joining” Rama on his journey home, Rama is the one who is credited with Sita’s return. Although Sita is a goddess, she is still treated as secondary, thanks to her identity as a woman.

    While Sita is portrayed as a Princess-Peach-type (up until the end), other women in the “Ramayana” seem to be quite troublesome. For example, “…the youngest queen, Kaikeyi, uses sexual blackmail (among other things) to force Dasharatha to put her son, Bharata, on the throne instead and send Rama into exile…” (223).

    It seems as though women in the “Ramayana” either lack agency or are evil. Women like Sita, who lack agency, are thought of as ideal. The other type of women are bad and serve to cause trouble for the protagonist. Thus, the story gives the impression that being a good woman means being treated as secondary, and that women who do not fall under this category are bad. Over time, women characters have been treated as less important or “less good” than men. In fact, sexism in older tales could attribute to the attitudes people have held (and possibly still hold) about women. Religious literature can hold a type of legitimacy that may lead people to think that it’s okay to view women as secondary. Therefore, it’s important to look at tales like the “Ramayana” with a critical eye while also keeping in mind the context from where the story comes.

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  3. To answer your third question, I agree a lot with what minkusr is saying, that there seems to be this sort of absolute view of women in the Ramayana with having no agency or being evil. I believe there could be a way Sita had controlled herself and her worldly vices of “sex and riches” by being an Earth goddess. I think it worked the same way with Rama and him sometimes forgetting that he was in fact Vishnu, she was an Earth goddess yes but she would be depicted as less until the end when she needed to be seen as this higher version of a woman, with agency.

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  4. The role of the women in today’s India, to my limited knowledge, is still one of inequality and oppression. Your line “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” adds to the idea that women are supposed to be items of possession. Even though Sita is an Earth Goddess, and she may have the power to rise above the chains of earthly things, women probably do not portray their own self-images onto her very much. I feel that the constant sexual struggles between all of these characters is one of the reasons that systems of inequality and carelessness still exist in Indian relationships today. Again, I am speaking from the little knowledge that I have, and it is hard to say these things without justifying them. But, in order for members of a society to live in harmony with one another, in terms of relationships, it is important to have moral standards that are at least sort of grounded in goodness. I don’t know if the sexual “testing” adds anything positive for us to grasp onto as readers and potentially followers of this religious tradition. I hope that made sense!

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