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Which Narrative Is The Truth?

Quite some time ago, there was a discussion on Google+ about a blog post by Mr. Sandeep in response to an article in the Business Standard by Ms. Nilanjana S Roy. And today, +Praveen Kulkarni again posted the original article and further discussion ensued. Going through my original comments, I felt it would make a good blog post and so here it is. It is my original comment (I know, way too long for a comment which is why it is now a blog post!) with just some minor changes.

(Reading the original Business Standard article and the post by Mr. Sandeep is necessary to better understand what I'm talking about)

Which explanation is the truth?

An honest reading of the original Ramayana reveals that Sita held Rama in the highest esteem throughout the epic.

The author criticizes Namita Gokhale by asking if she time-traveled and saw Sita being a single mother. Then did he also time-travel and confirm that what the epics say about Sita's feelings are really true? He says the fact that Sita held Rama in the highest esteem prove that she wasn't angry with him or still in love with him or whatever. Couldn't there possibly have been no other explanation for it? 

Could it perhaps be that as a woman who was abducted from her husband, rescued by him only to be questioned about her chastity, made a queen but cast out into the forest when she was pregnant with no one to question her husband's decision because he was king, made her feel afraid? Could it be that in Valmiki's ashram (which would have been part of her husband's empire even if it is in the forest) she felt fingers would be pointed at her if she spoke ill of her husband? That it might be taken as a sign of her dishonor

Sandeep says Sita taught her children songs about Ram and the Ramayana, which shows how intensely she loved Ram or at the very least didn't think herself to be wronged. But what if that was only because she realized that to not teach them about their father/king would be viewed suspiciously by the ashram inmates? Even if they didn't realize who Sita was, speaking ill of the king would be considered treason I'm sure. 

And finally what would her protector Valmiki think of her if she conveyed a wrong picture of Rama to her sons? Maybe even then she realized that her sons would eventually inherit the kingdom and return to their father (maybe she felt it was wrong to deprive them of their patrimony for no fault of theirs) and to turn them against their father would serve no purpose. Because when Rama meets his sons and magnanimously offers to take Sita back, she prefers to die than go back to him, saying her job is over by handing his sons back to him.

I'm not claiming that this is exactly what Sita felt, but to conclude that Sita had to have loved Rama because that is the only explanation for the events which happened is very illogical. I just want to show that there exists an alternate explanation, in fact even multiple explanations which can fit with what we know of the Ramayana. Yet, how many people think of these alternate explanations? Or how many bother to tell this to their kids? 

My mother's version of the Ramayana didn't have any of this. Over the years, we've had many arguments about the actions of Rama and all she can say is that Rama was the perfect husband/Sita was the perfect wife because that's what the traditional narrative tells us. 

All I say is, if there are multiple explanations for a set of events, neither of whom can be proved/disproved, then neither can be considered the definitive truth. 

Yet, popular narrative still portrays Sita in such a way that it justifies patriarchal norms and reinforces negative stereotypes about women. How else could a High Court judge get away with saying that women should be like Sita accompanying Rama to the forest? (in a recent divorce case where the woman refused to accompany her husband when he was transferred). 

By that logic, all men should be like Rama and fight for their wives. Why do women in India need rape laws when their husbands are ready to die for them? After all we see news stories all the time about men who revenge themselves on their wife/sister's rapists right?

Again, the author says Consider this: Rama lived in a time where polygamy was socially accepted. Indeed, Rama’s father had himself taken three wives. Despite this, Rama married just one woman.

This is one of the most oft-repeated arguments I've ever heard showing Rama in a good light. Sandeep himself says, in a later paragraph, that to apply our generation's morals to other historic times is not right. Then why do we apply our standards of monogamy to Rama? Why is it considered good that he only married one woman when the socially accepted norm of those times was polygamy? 

It is funny especially because I've seen many people try to justify polygamy (in those times) by saying it was to ensure progeny or male heirs for the kingdom etc. By that logic, having abandoned one wife, Rama should have married someone else, if not for himself, but for the sake of the same kingdom for which he abandoned the first wife. And before anyone says that 'aha! so the fact that he didn't marry anyone else proves how virtuous he was' stop and consider if there couldn't possibly have been any other explanation.

Could it be that living in an age where a husband was supposed to protect his wife, being unable to stop her from being abducted reflected poorly on him? Maybe the fact that Sita, who was destined to be a queen, had to spend more than a decade in the forests in exile, made other kings pause before offering their daughters to Rama. (and who else but a princess can marry a king?) 

Far as I can tell, in those times Rama wouldn't exactly have been the ideal son-in-law candidate after abandoning a pregnant wife in the forests. Besides there wasn't exactly a lot of time when Rama could have contemplated marrying another woman. Before the coronation, he was exiled. After coming back and being crowned king, Sita becomes pregnant and shortly afterwards is sent away to the forests. After all this, how many kings would have come forward to let their daughters be married to Rama? And if we pretend that women actually had some say in who they were going to marry, in those days, how many women would want to marry Rama?

Later on, Sandeep has this to say about the practice of Niyoga as shown in the Mahabharata. Niyoga was a perfectly acceptable social practice for continuing a lineage whereby the husband—who cannot impregnate his wife because of impotency or whatever other reason—gives consent to his wife to have sex with another man for the express purpose of bearing a child. The sexual relation with the other man would stop as soon as the wife became pregnant.

All right, so the husband gives consent. What about the wife? Is she the one who asks her husband for consent to have children with another man? What if she prefers to remain childless rather than have sex with another man? Or did it happen that in the particular case of Ambika and Ambaalika, there might have been a lot of pressure to have children using this practice for the sake of the kingdom? If both these woman really wanted kids by Niyoga, then why, when Satyavathi asks Ambika to go a second time, she sends her maid instead? (Vidura was the son of Veda Vyasa and Ambika's maid). 

In fact, unwillingness/fear of the two women is given as the reason for Dritharashtra being born blind and Pandu being sickly & weak from birth. Is this really the decision of two women on their own, with no pressure/force, made of their own free will? Force doesn't necessarily mean someone holds a gun to your head.

Mr. Sandeep, you cannot have it both ways. If a practice being the social norm of the day is enough justification for it to be considered moral/right, then Rama was in the wrong for practicing monogamy. (Whether that was voluntary or not, we'll never know!) If we are going to apply today's morals to those times, then the practice of polygamy and Niyoga were not justified.

Saying that our epics also have Kali who placed her foot on her husband's chest does not mean that what we learn from them is that women are to be worshiped. Who is more frequently referenced, Kali or Sita? No one ever tells a woman she should be brave and stand up for herself. You always hear 'be careful, ignore it, it'll go away.' Sita is supposed to be the role model for a woman to emulate, certainly not Kali!

Trying to categorically say our epics gave rise to the rape culture of today is just as wrong as pretending that our epics and mythology do not perpetuate negative stereotypes of women or are not used even today to justify continued discrimination against women.

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