by Ali Valdez
As a bibliophile, I love to read all types of things. When selective, I tend to gravitate towards stories that empower women, those tales that do their best to tell our side of the story. But as a yoga teacher and educator, I constantly am reading and revisiting yogic texts . The portrayal of women, especially Sita, in the Ramayana sits heavy on my heart. Can ancient traditions, especially from one steeped in goddess worship, ever fully allow women their due? Like Eve in the garden, the fall is quick to be attributed to the female wile, her wanton ways and lax restraint, readily seduced by her limited rationality. Why in ancient story-telling are women portrayed in ways that deflect their superior qualities?
The ancient legend of the Ramayana is a story steeped in strong female characters. I admire this about the text. None of the women are weak, portrayed as mere play things; they are each keepers of defining points in the plot.
The main female protagonist is the stunning Sita who can capture the complete love and devotion from deity and demon at the first glance of her perfected visage and angelic nature. The eponymous namesake, Rama, is the beloved son of the King of Kosala. The king possessed many wives, producing children amongst his harem including the mighty Rama and a son named Bharata.
The king assigns the kingdom over to his god-like offspring: Vishnu (Rama) in human form representing everything fortified, right and true in man. Upon hearing the news, scheming inside the palace begins and he is deceived by his wife, Kaikeyi, mother to Bharata who wants her own boy occupying the throne. Wisely, the queen cashes in a favor made many years back and gets the king to banish Rama, making her son the heir apparent. All of this coaxed on by Manthara, her handmaiden.
Rama, the good a devoted son, leaves for fourteen years of exile. Sita, in loyal devotion, follows him into the ominous forest. She is encouraged to stay behind, deemed unfit for life in the harsh wilderness. But this is a woman avatar from the deity Lakshmi, from puja to swimming in an ocean of milk, there is nothing she will not do for her beloved.
What a magnificent storyline of love, devotion and sacrifice, right? Not really.
This is not a tale that highlights the miraculous love and devotion in women, the revelation of the Goddess. In some circles the Ramayana is viewed as a bit of a misogynist tale. But Lakshmi is a goddess, commanding a regard that is not really afforded to her increasingly with each turn of the page. The other women that play crucial parts in the story, although strong, are also vilified.
The force behind the Goddess archetype is alluring, mysterious and meaningful. In a way, each female character illustrates a different dimension of the Goddess at play in human form. Each is an abundant wealth of archetypal wisdom, but their potency is reduced by being represented in their shadow forms.
The characters we will discuss are: Supanakha, the Femme Fatale, Fatal Attraction with its boiled bunnies through the lens of saris and spells. Then the role of the Wife acted out in Sita. Next we have the Queen Kaikeyi, mother of Bharata, and as Trickster the lowly Manthara, a wily handmaiden to Kaikeyi who manages to get the queen spun up in this insidious plot to usurp Rama and kill the old King.
Let’s first consider the subplot of Supanakha. Can you feel sorry for a hideous she-demon who is all but trying to rape the male protagonist of the story? His defacement and rebuke of her licentious affections deemed an act of self-defense more than vengeance. She is wildly and passionately in love with his near perfect manliness like the obsessed fan to a superstar.
Should One Direction fan bugs not desirable as backstage groupies be so slighted? No, because then records won’t sell.
Is she punished, her nose sliced off once her disguise is revealed, because she loved Rama with too much passion, or because she had a true demon nature? Is passion demonic when it swells from the heart of a woman? Ironically, by not taking pity on Supanakha, Rama inadvertently sets forth a series of events that puts the purity of the perfect Sita at risk. But it’s not his actions, but those of Supanakha and Sita that take the blame. The she-devil by mutilation, castration of the most masculine organ on her body, and the Goddess-Wife, afflicted by an inner mutilation of her virtue as she is imprisoned then outcast into the forest.
The Trickster in myth uses cunning which often ends up driving the higher good even when the initial intent may have been the opposite. Using her influence in a deceitful way, the handmaiden reasons the queen into gaining passage for her son Bharata’s succession. Manthara is strategically enabling the Queen with the ammunition, making claim for something that was granted to her by the King many years past.
In the story she is shadow cast as beguiling and manipulative, but the handmaiden, a lowly position, has influence to present the queen in the light as the ultimate general in the game of chess for the kingdom (Warrior), or the blindly loyal and protective mother advocating for the rights of her son over his rival (Mother).
Treason aside, all ends justly for Rama even with her determination to undermine the king’s wishes. Her son, Bharata, honors the king’s desires and instead offers to watch over the kingdom until its rightful ruler returns. Bharata demonstrates an elevated goodness, transcending the birth of deceit elicited from his mother.
The most unfortunate archetypal treatment is that of the Wife. Sita, who is illuminated in light as devoted Wife on par with the warrior leadership nature of her husband, gets a raw deal. Her problem comes in perception when she is kidnapped by Ravana, the multi-headed demon. Once rescued, Sita is subjected to the critical eye of society.
Attempt after heartfelt attempt to prove her love and loyalty to her man, the majestic dance between God/Goddess in human form, she is still outcast as unfaithful and abandoned to the woods. She stands up for herself, demonstrates her chastity and loyalty by immolation only to not be burned, a sign that she is honest before God. And still, Rama remains a man of doubt.
He does not know that Ravana was cursed and forbidden to touch a woman against her will; therefore having to scoop up the earth beneath her feet to steal her to Lanka. She is taken against her will, refuses rescue lest she be alone with another man in the absence of her husband, walks through fire to prove her innocence and in the end, the seed of doubt, initiated through Rama’s own actions, is the death of her. Rama is not faulted in the book but revered as a great hero and remains in that light now.
Sometimes the distance of place and era keep myth and ancient story telling at arm’s length. To take in the experience of abduction through the lens of modern political times brings Sita’s story to light in a richer way. To return home and be shunned by the one person that gave you the greatest hope of good in the world is heartbreaking. We never really feel Sita’s pain, because the story revolves around Rama. Some modern versions of the story omit this part of the story because it feels like it goes against everything you see and want to believe in Rama. People theorize it was Sita’s lack of focus that created the folly of distraction with the golden stag. Either way, the woman returns in tears and is abandoned.
After failed attempts at reassuring her love of her chastity, she returns to the Earth, the benchmark of Goddess energy and is devoured by Gaia.
Her legacy lives in through her two sons and in the heavenly form of Lakshmi, model of feminine grace and beauty that we should all appreciate and respect.