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My Response to: Ramayana
In the Ramayana, Sita is supposed to represent the ideal wife. Whether or not she is the ideal wife is a separate question, but it certainly speaks to the cultural norms and expectations of India at the time. If Sita is the ideal wife, then, based on the plot of the Ramayana, wives in India are expected to be loyal, have unconditional devotion for their husbands, and to be purely and permanently monogamous.
Loyalty towards your husband is apparently prized in Indian wives, since Sita goes with her husband, Rama, into the forest for his fourteen-year exile. Just before departing, Rama goes into Sita’s room, and finds her “already dressed and laid aside, although she had decorated and dressed herself as befitting a queen a little while ago” (53). This shows how, on a moment’s notice, a woman should be ready to do anything to stay with her husband. This isn’t s as controversial as some of the other ideals, as it merely says a wife should place priority on not separating from her husband, even in extreme or unusual circumstances. I say it’s not controversial, because here, Sita is not being forced into anything, and Rama even discourages it, saying, “You have your duties to perform here, my father and mother being here. I’ll be with you again,” but Sita only re-affirms here previous statement, where she said, “I’m coming with you; my place is at your side wherever you may be” (53). So, clearly, Sita is showing loyalty to Rama. I distinguish this from unconditional devotion, which she also demonstrates, and which I’ll cover separately, because in this case, Rama had not wronged her, and instead she is just showing loyalty as a matter of principal, and not in spite of anything.
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Another ideal for wives portrayed by the Ramayana is monogamy. However, it goes beyond simple monogamy as the Oxford dictionary defines it, “the practice or state of having a sexual relationship with only one partner”, and instead extends as far as expecting women to never even be in the same house as another man, even if they’re not in the house under their own will. Sita is kidnapped by Ravana, and forced to stay in his house, but after rescuing her, Rama says, “I must tell you that it is not customary to admit back to the normal married fold a woman who has resided all alone in a stranger’s house. There can be no question of our living together again” (148). This seems quite controversial, for a few reasons. For one, Sita did not willingly go with Ravana; she was kidnapped. Secondly, it was Rama’s fault she was kidnapped—or at least he should accept half the blame. When, in the story, the golden deer appears and Sita asks for it, Narayan writes, “Normally, Rama would have questioned Sita’s fancy, but today he blindly accepted her demand and said cheerfully, ‘Yes, of course you shall have it’” (82). It was his “blind acceptance” which led to the kidnapping. Third of all, Sita never had sexual relations with Ravana. Of course, Rama couldn’t have known for certain whether or not she did, but it seems not to matter to him, as, once she was kidnapped, the decision was apparently already made. Rama does eventually take Sita back, but in some versions of the Epic, he then decides he can’t be respected that way, and leaves her to die in the forest, which reinforces the ideal of a nearly unattainable form of monogamy for wives.
Thirdly, there’s the ideal of unconditional devotion. As I stated before, I distinguish this from simple loyalty, based on the context of the story. I also intentionally avoid saying “unconditional love”, because it’s difficult to tell if whether or not the wives still feel love in all scenarios, or if their simply determined not to leave their husbands. In the case of the Ramayana, I’m specifically referring to the scene where Rama says he cannot take Sita back because she’s been in another man’s home. By the standards of any modern society that treats women with any sort of respect and dignity, this would be something entirely unacceptable for Rama to say. In such a society, Sita would be foolish not to leave Rama after being so utterly disrespected, especially considering everything they’d been through together. Instead, Sita says, “Light a fire at once, on this very spot” (149), and proceeds to jump in. This is unconditional devotion, which, on its own, isn’t an inherently bad thing, but to cling so closely to someone who you only met because he was able to snap a mountain-sized bow, seems degrading. Yet, what seems that way in one culture is apparently an ideal in another. What’s more, is that this idea of a sort of unconditional devotion seems to persist in India, with between sixty-two and eighty-three percent of Indian women, depending on education level, staying married despite abuse because they find the treatment justifiable (Kalyani, Kumar ,75). It is this sort of justification that leads to the unconditional devotion we see from Sita.
Have You Read Ramayana? (Did You Enjoy it?)
The Ramayana also seems to stress beauty, which implies that it is ideal for a woman to be physically attractive. To be fair, they give Rama the same treatment, but nonetheless, it is present. When Rama first encounters Sita, the first thing mentioned is her appearance. “He stood arrested by her beauty” (23). Later, when Rama is describing to Hanuman how he will find Sita, he merely describes her beauty, with one line offering particular insight: “I will not describe to you her waist, which is, as it should be, delicate and unseen” (116). Here, the Epic just comes out and declares not only that it is ideal for a woman’s waist to be thinner than humanly possible, but also that it should be that thin—implying a wife is not ideal, and not worthy, if that is not the case. While it’s acceptable to promote physically fit people within a society, it seems a step too far to promote unnaturally good looks.
Perhaps Sita is best summarized by award winning Indian actress in a conversation she had when she was a young child. Her cousins tell her to play Sita, since she is a girl, but she does not want to, saying, “Sita does not do anything. She is only, well, good” (Knott, 45). Sita’s character as the ideal wife is defined only by how well she serves her husband. So the Ramayana, by attempting to portray ideal people, lays this out as a cultural norm. When applied to gender, such as Sita being the ideal woman, it also serves to create gender roles. The ideals that the Ramayana stresses for wives, as seen through Sita, appear to be loyalty, monogamy, unconditional devotion, and beauty. Some of these are controversial however, as the Epic arguably subjugates Sita, and therefore implies a subjugation of all women.
Knott, Kim. Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. PDF.
Menon-Sen, Kalyani, and Akshiva Kumar. Women in India: How Free? How Equal? [S.l.]: n.p., 2001. PDF.
Narayan, R. K. The Ramayana. New Delhi: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989. Oxford Dictionaries. Web. 15 Sept. 2013.