If I start telling the story of my misfortunes/ A blazing fire is ignited somewhere – Sita in Chandrabati’s Ramayan
Sing his love, sing his praise/ Rama set his wife ablaze./ Got her home, kicked her out/ To allay his people’s doubt. — Sita Sings the Blues
Since I’ve finally tired myself of dragging you all around my local museums, this week I thought I’d drag you instead into my other favorite space: the bookshelves of my personal library and what I’ve been reading (past and present).
Around this time last year, I heard of Sue Monk Kidd’s new historical fiction novel The Book of Longings and thought it sounded very promising (full disclosure: it was pretty good, although I enjoyed the first half of the story more than the second). But even as I added it to my TBR shelf, I was preemptively disheartened on her behalf as I suspected that its premise and heroine (Ana, a young Jewish woman who becomes the wife of Jesus) would ruffle some feathers.
It made me think of the multitudinous approaches to writing about the sacred and two of my favorite books, Salman Rushdie’s horrifically unjustly maligned The Satanic Verses and the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana. I won’t spend a lot of time here rehashing the Satanic Verses’ fatwa years (which are technically ongoing — major Iranian media groups added $600k more to the nearly $3 million bounty on Rushdie’s head as recently as 2016), but the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued the proclamation calling for Rushdie’s death because a part of the book speaks of a historical moment in early Islam where the prophet Mohammed supposedly considered incorporating several Arabic polytheistic deities into the revelations of Islam, most notably the goddess, Al-Lat.
Later, it was decided these revelations had been placed in the Prophet’s mouth by the Devil as a temptation, hence why they’re called the Satanic verses, and they were struck from the Quran. But this part of Rushdie’s novel, told as a dream sequence outside the main narrative, is only a fraction of the plot, which is mostly about the alienation of the immigrant experience. I suspect that the part the Ayatollah really objected to was another outer dream sequence depicting a character called “The Imam”, who is pretty obviously a caricature of Khomeini himself.
But the Satanic verses are a common type of heresy, for lack of a better word, that are a natural part of establishing a new religion as its followers figure out what the “rules” are going to be. They seem more prevalent in the world’s monotheistic religions, which is not to suggest that the (mostly) older polytheistic religions didn’t have rules (or, as we saw with Phryne, legal charges of blasphemy). Rather, the amorphous nature of the polytheistic pantheons admitted to a wider array of forms and interpretations (as we’ve seen with the Trojan myth cycle multiple times). As befitting India’s Iliad, this happens often with the Mahabharata — two modern interpretations I’d wholeheartedly recommend are Karthika Naïr’s Until the Lions and Arun Kolatkar’s long poem Sarpa Satra, which maybe I’ll get around to covering here eventually — but as my title suggests, I’d like to spend this entry on different versions and interpretations of the other great Hindu epic, the Ramayana. And specifically the late poet Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s English translation of the medieval Bengali poet Chandrabati’s Ramayana, which tells the story from the point of view of Sita, the hero Rama’s wife.
For a story that has a remarkable diversity of versions, it is perhaps fitting that I came to the Ramayana through an alternate lens first. Namely, Nina Paley’s 2008 animated film Sita Sings the Blues, a cross-cultural look at the Ramayana also from Sita’s point of view. While I acknowledge one must careful when approaching cultural art produced by someone outside that culture, Paley brings in a number of Indian artists to perform music and frame some of the larger story setting. And because Paley is devoted to license-free distribution, you can watch the entire film here. But either way, it made me want to learn more and so was born my interest in the many Ramayanas.
We believe the canonical Ramayana was written sometime in the 7th century BC at the earliest, with later edits dating as late as the 3rd century BC. It is said to have been written by Valmiki, one of the many legendary Maharishis that populate the great Hindu epics. A rishi is an enlightened sage, and they figure as counselors and powerful deus ex machinae for the course of earthly plot matters. And like Vyasa, the rishi who is said to written the Mahabharata, Valmiki plays a direct role in the story as well as being its author. This strange author/character dichotomy makes more sense in the internal logic of the epics, where the incredible austerities the rishis perform give them a wide array of superpowers, including sometimes the control of time and space.
There is a tradition that Valmiki received an even earlier version of the Ramayana from the sage Narada, who is often called by the epithet Rishiraaj — King of Rishis. Unlike the mortally-born Valmiki, Narada is a parthenogenetically born son of the god Brahma, and is so knowledgeable that the Supreme Godhead (from which all of the millions of Hindu deities spring) became afraid that he would interfere too much in the designs of the universe. He is therefore cursed like the Trojan princess Cassandra to always speak the truth, but to never be believed. In spite of this, he is viewed as a wise counselor in the epics, and more importantly for the Ramayana, as a devotee and messenger of the god Vishnu, of whom the hero, Rama, is an avatar.
Avatars in Hinduism are manifestations of a particular deity, the gods occasionally taking semi-mortal form for a variety of reasons to participate in human events. As one of Vishnu’s avatars, Krishna, relates in the Bhagavad Gita, as the preserving creator god, he takes on an avatar “whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases.” Vishnu’s avatars are among the most famous, in part because of the idea, springing from a passage in the Mahabharata, where Vishnu implies to Narada that there are a fixed number of his avatars, and he names them: “Appearing in the forms of a swan [Hamsa], a tortoise [Kurma], a fish [Matsya], O foremost of regenerate ones, I shall then display myself as a boar [Varaha], then as a Man-lion [Nrisingha], then as a dwarf [Vamana], then as Rama of Bhrigu’s race, then as Rama, the son of Dasharatha, then as Krishna, the scion of the Sattwata race, and lastly as Kalki.” This in turn implies that after the appearance of the tenth avatar, Kalki, there will be an apocalyptic event that will take away any necessity of Vishnu returning to earth to right injustice again. Much like the role of Christ in the Christian end times, Kalki will come as the righteous judge to punish the wicked and uphold the good as he ushers in the Age of Dharma. However, because as I’ve said, Hinduism is a religion of many ideas, some hold that Vishnu has had hundreds of avatars, and they don’t necessarily hold with this apocalyptic vision.
The Ramayana concerns one of these avatars, Rama the son of Dasharatha. Dasharatha is the king of Ayodhya, a mythic kingdom in what is now Uttar Predesh. Like the setup for the Mahabharata that we’ve already discussed, the story begins with a childless king desperate for an heir. Additionally, the god Vishnu wishes to assume an avatar so he might vanquish the demon king Ravana, a rakshasa so powerful he has conquered the gods and holds them in his power, including Indra, the king of the gods, and Yama, the god of death. Valmiki says that in order that his three queen might conceive, Dasharatha performs a fire sacrifice (Putra-kameshti Yajna), while in her poem, Chandrabati says that a rishi gives the king a mango that the queens share amongst themselves and they conceive that way. Rama is born to Dasharatha’s chief queen, Kaushalya, as a beautiful, dark-skinned child with all of the auspicious signs of righteousness and justice.
At the same time, Vishnu’s consort, the goddess of wealth, love, and prosperity, Lakshmi, also takes an avatar and is born from a furrow in the earth uncovered by a neighboring king, Janaka. Although sometimes called Janaki (literally, “Daughter of Janaka”), she is best known as Sita (from the Sanskrit for “furrow”). This is actually a somewhat common motif among Lakshmi’s avatars— while Vishnu’s are often born as royal princes who may be conceived in unusual ways, but are born from mothers, Lakshmi’s avatars, perhaps because she is the essence of Devi, the supreme mother spirit, are usually born spontaneously from nature. Sita appears out of the ground, and her Mahabharata avatar, Draupadi, is literally born from the sort of fire ritual that merely makes Dasharatha’s queens pregnant.
Like Arjuna’s winning of Draupadi in a royal archery trial, Rama wins Sita in a similar contest, and they live in Ayodhya for a while happily. But like many good folktales, Rama has an evil stepmother, one of Dasharatha’s other wives, Kaikeyi. Wanting the throne for her own son, Bharat, she is constantly scheming to be rid of Rama. In another folklore motif, she gains a boon from Dasharatha, who unwisely promises her anything she wants. She demands Rama’s banishment from Ayodhya for fourteen years, and the heartbroken Dasharatha must keep his word. As the most righteous of men, Rama obeys this decree without protest, and tries to depart for the wild forests alone. But Sita won’t allow him to leave her behind and demands to share his exile until he agrees, as does one of Rama’s other brothers, Lakshman.
For thirteen years, the three of them live contentedly in the forests, where Rama hunts the rakshasas that menace the holy sages who practice their austerities there. And it is either for this, or through the goading of his sister Shurpanakha, whom Rama refuses to leave Sita for, that brings the trio to Ravana’s attention. Sending one of his minions disguised as a golden deer, he is able to lure away Rama and Lakshman, and kidnaps Sita, taking her to his island kingdom of Lanka.
The bulk of the Ramayana is concerned with Rama’s marshaling of a great army (mainly of monkeys led by the monkey hero Hanuman, an avatar of the god Shiva) to defeat Ravana and rescue Sita. After many hardships and an epic, bloody battle, Rama is triumphant, the gods are freed from Ravana’s thrall, and the prince is reunited with his beloved Sita. But having lived so long in Ravana’s palace, doubt enters Rama’s mind that the beautiful Sita could have preserved her chastity all of that time, and the perfect ruler cannot return to Ayodhya with an impure wife. So Sita agrees to undergoes a Agni Pariksha, a trial by fire, to prove her innocence. She is protected by Agni, the god of fire, emerging victorious from the flames, and the happy couple return to Ayodhya, where Rama is finally crowned king.
This seems like a good place to end the story, but in Uttara Kanda, the last and sometimes disputed chapter of the Ramayana, after a while, the common people begin to murmur against Sita, saying it wasn’t possible for her to have remained untouched for almost a year in Ravana’s palace, and once again the queen’s chastity is called into question. As the perfect king, Rama knows his queen’s reputation must be above suspicion (you know, the whole ‘Caesar’s wife’ thing again), and he puts the good of his people ahead of his own desires by banishing Sita to the forest. Again.
Sita leaves without complaint and is taken in by our author-sage Valmiki at his ashram. But Sita had been pregnant when she left Ayodhya, and in time she gives birth to Lava and Kusha, Rama’s sons. She and Valmiki raise the boys in the forest, where they are taught to be excellent warriors with nothing but veneration for their father. Eventually through circumstance, Rama learns of the boys, and when he sees them for himself, he acknowledges them as his sons and invites them home. He wants Sita to return as well, but he cannot do so without subjecting her to another purity test. Sita, however, has had enough of this malarkey, and announces that if she is truly pure in body and mind, she asks her mother, the earth, to swallow her. The ground opens up and Sita is returned into the earth in her own triumph, leaving Rama and her sons to rule peacefully until it is time for him to die and be reunited with Lakshmi as her lord Vishnu.
For masculine Hinduism, Sita is venerated as the chaste, virtuous wife who follows her husband without question and sacrifices herself for his needs. But for feminine Hinduism, Sita is a goddess who has experienced the trials and disappointments of being a woman and is perhaps even more venerated as an understanding friend. And this is the Ramayana Chandrabati relates in her poem, the world of medieval Bengali village women reciting the epic to one another orally.
Chandrabati (often written as Chandravati) lived in Bengal during the mid-16th century, the era our friend Salman Rushdie calls “one of those exceptional periods, not unlike our own, when the whole world seemed to be changing rapidly, a ‘hinge moment’ in history.” In the West, this was the High Renaissance: Elizabeth I ruled England; Shakespeare and Cervantes were revolutionizing theater and bringing the novel to Europe; Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, and Titian, his voluptuous blondes. In India, this was the era of the great Mughal rulers, and of perhaps the most famous of their number, Akbar. Akbar the Great presided over an empire known for a cultural flourishing that was every bit as dramatic as the Renaissance. It was a classical period for Indian painting and architecture, fueled by Akbar’s wide-ranging intellectual interests. Deeply interested in philosophy and theology, Akbar is famous for welcoming Buddhist and Christian monks, Hindu priests, Jain scholars, and clerics from all branches of Islam to his Muslim court to engage in religious dialogues and debates at a time when medieval sectarianism was still potent.
Like many female artists of the time, we don’t have an extensive biography for Chandrabati. We know she was born around 1550 AD in the village of Patuyari in East Bengal, now in Bangladesh. She came from a family of traditional Bengali oral poets and singers— her father was a well-known composer of Manasar Bhasaner Gan, hymns to the snake goddess Manasa, who is especially revered in this part of the subcontinent. Chandrabati is accredited with being the first poet to write in Bangla (Bengali), and much like Sappho in Greece, her poems were not written for Akbar’s courtly audience, but rather the women in her village, the distillation of centuries of women’s songs and stories.
There is a tradition that Chandrabati is the subject of a popular ballad, the Jay-Chandravati, in which she is the beloved of a Brahmin boy, Jaychandra, who eventually abandons her for a Muslim girl. Eventually, Jaychandra regrets his actions, but when he tries to return to her, Chandrabati rejects him and he drowns himself in despair. Chandrabati is distraught at her lover’s death, and her father suggests composing a Ramayan to raise her from her grief, and her poem is supposedly the fruit of her tragedy.
Certainly her Ramayana, a mere fraction of Valmiki’s page count, is more interested in Sita and the women of the epic than the men. By stripping out the marshaling of Rama’s demon-slaying army and the great battle in Lanka, the Ramayana is stripped down to its interpersonal essence. Sita’s side of the story is smaller, but it is also far more intimate. The second book of the poem is the part that Sita narrates herself, told to a circle of female companions at the palace in Ayodhya and divided into the twelve months and six seasons of the Bengali year. The audience and its deep ties to the rhythms of the natural world mark this as a woman’s narrative meant for women. The palace girls delight in Sita’s loving descriptions of Rama’s celestial beauty and mourn with her sorrows, just as a group of women in Chandrabati’s village would do amongst each other.
Sita’s girlfriends, unlike some of her male chroniclers, also never lose sight of Sita’s divinity in her adversities. She is a good, obedient wife, but she is always Lakshmi in her heart. She chooses to follow Rama into his exile, it is her strength to repels Ravana’s futile advances for the year of her captivity, and it is her self-assured virtue that frees her from mortal doubts in the end. And Chandrabati constantly reminds her listeners that as the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Sita/Lakshmi’s presence (or absence) has consequences.
Rather than being born from a furrow in the earth, in Chandrabati’s poem, Sita is born as an egg in a golden casket that is caught by a humble and virtuous fisherman. The man brings the casket to his equally pious wife, who has shared all of his poverty with uncomplaining devotion, and she immediately gives the casket a place of honor in their home and venerates its obvious divine provenance. The unborn Lakshmi rewards their care with wealth, and when she appears to the wife, Sata, in a dream asking to be given to the king, Janaka, upon her hatching, she grants her foster mother’s wish that she be named in her honor — Sita as a diminutive of Sata. When Rama is compelled to banish Sita a second time, Chandrabati is quick to point out that banishing the goddess of prosperity from Ayodhya brings a slow ruin to the city that is only lifted by Sita/Lakshmi’s forgiving death and return to her divine form.
But Chandrabati’s world of women is holistic, and she echoes the experiences of her audience by acknowledging that other women can be the most damaging adversaries as well as a woman’s greatest support in a patriarchal world. Worse for Sita and Rama than the jealous Kaikeyi is a new character introduced by the poet: a daughter of Kaikeyi named Kukuya. As I said earlier, in Chandrabati’s version, Dasharatha’s sons are born from a rishi-blessed mango. The four princes are born from the mango’s sweet flesh, but greedy Kaikeyi has one of her maids steal the mango pit and grind it up for her mistress. The queen consumes it and Kukuya is born from the bitter pit. Chandrabati identifies Kukuya as Alakshmi, literally anti-Lakshmi, and she performs this role as the dark twin of the divine Sita. In this Ramayan, it is Kukuya, rather than the people of Ayodhya, that sows the seed of doubt in Rama’s mind as to his wife’s purity the second time and brings calamity on them all.
It is an elegant solution to the bad taste Rama’s decision leaves in many readers’ mouths. Rather than Rama/Vishnu compassionately bending to the mortal doubts of his people in an act that wrongs perfect Sita/Lakshmi, he is a god influenced by another powerful immortal force, namely, Alakshmi. While Valmiki’s version has an almost Christian theological flavor, that kind of mercy upon the undeserving is not exactly how Hinduism tends to project its worldview, so a Western philosophical reading like that is probably anachronistic. Chandrabati’s version fits better into a world where the gods can be forced into slavery to a rakshasa-raj, and has the added benefit of doing a better job of keeping Rama a sympathetic hero. Chandrabati is able to be affronted by Sita’s trials without diminishing her veneration of Rama/Vishnu, which is a balance perhaps impossible for a non-Indian artist like Nina Paley, whose concluding portrait of Rama is decidedly more bitter.
To finish up by returning to The Book of Longings, the reaction to Sue Monk Kidd’s novel falls somewhere between the extremes of The Satanic Verses and the Ramayana. While I doubt anyone is sending Sue Monk Kidd death threats, Christianity’s historical insistence on a single, orthodox narrative under which deviations and alternative points of view are generally discouraged is much closer to Islam’s hard line than Hinduism’s more pluralistic approach. That said, international sectarianism is a growing problem again, and perhaps nowhere is that more threatening than in India, where the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has grown increasingly mistrustful of opposing religious viewpoints. While its Hindu-centric policy bent is more aggressively anti-Muslim than anything else, it is conservative about religion generally and quicker to call out books and media it deems blasphemous to Hinduism than most previous governments in India’s post-colonial era. Their particular interest in Rama, as the perfect Hindu ruler and as a symbol of India’s golden past, seems ominous in regards to the future of the Ramayana’s diverse narratives. One can only hope that the deep roots of this tradition can outlast the bigots of the present in order to continue to nourish India’s many talented artists who make the Ramayana and the other classical epics their own.