This is a long post. I started it a while ago. I finally finished it.
So we're reading the Ramayana in my English class, this big Indian epic that's been shrunk to about a 20th of its original length so that our tiny freshman brains can take it all in without freaking out and never approaching literature again. In India, it is still a well-loved folk tale, which makes sense, considering there are (though these are not its only attributes) some really great battle scenes between gods and demons, and the language is beautiful.
Considering it was written approximately 2000 years ago, it is unsurprising that there are sexist and classist overtones. But the fact that these are components of a different culture does not mean that they are beyond critique. It does mean that critique aimed at the book is not a criticism of India or its people. And really, I'm not even criticizing Indian culture. I think that as a Westerner I don't have that privilege. What I am criticizing is an epic that both influenced and was influenced by that culture, one that reflects beliefs held by many other societies at many other time periods, and one that has many positive attributes as well. Some of the sexism and classism in this book is overt, some is subtle, almost none of it has been discussed in my class, and I feel like ranting.
But before I begin my thrilling expose into this book's seedy underbelly, I would like to share one thing that makes me claw at my skull in despair: the fact that simple syllables, when strung together into medium-length names, are beyond the grasp of some of my peers (and the fact that my teacher finds this cute). Suddenly, "Dhasaratha" is no longer the syllables "da," "sa," "ra," and "ta" put together, but a big scary non-English thing.
Another frequent complaint: that in the drawing of Rama and Sita on the cover of the book, Rama looks like a girl. He has long hair, makeup, and ornate jewelry, like Sita. His clothing is opened at the front. Obviously, he is not a woman, because in the drawing his chest is completely flat. But people in my class pretend to be SO CONFUSED, because which one is supposed to be the guy??? This inevitably results in much guffawing. You mean, different cultures have different standards of beauty? Oh, my aching sides.
Now that that's out of the way, discussion of the actual book will commence. Early in the story, Rama, the hero, starts his initiation and has to prove himself by killing some demons and restoring peace to some tortured souls. One of the latter is a woman named Ahalya, who, after being raped by the god Indra, was turned to stone by her husband for being impure. Indra's punishment: his body is covered with one thousand vaginas. He is filled with shame and no longer gets to party with all the other gods and demi-gods.
So, you rape someone, and you lose your popularity. Someone rapes you, you are turned to stone possibly for all eternity. Also, on two levels, this is not the right way to change a rapist. First, giving him more vaginas than he could possibly know what to do with: not the best idea. Second, teaching a rapist further that women's body parts are separate from them (and their humanity) and that what makes them women is dirty and shameful hardly inspires more respect for women.
Another demon Rama must kill is one named Thataka, who used to be a woman but was turned into a demon when she got mad at this sage for killing her husband. Rama is conflicted about killing her: on one hand, she is a horrible demon who is destroying the land, on the other, she's a woman. Hooray for chivalry. Also, the reason she is so evil is less because she's destroying the land, and more because she isn't being womanly and nurturing.
Later, Rama has to string the bow of Shiva in order to win Sita as a wife. He does it. And they get married, thus uniting their two kingdoms. Ah, love.
After Rama and Sita are married, they go back to Rama's kingdom. There, an evil hunchback named Kooni (yes, another eeeevil, hideous person with disabilities....it's would seem as if ableism is a recurring theme, oh, EVERYWHERE) convinces Rama's half-brother's mom, Kaikeyi, that she should convince her husband the king to make her own son Bharatha the next king instead of Rama. Kaikeyi falls for it. Then, she tells Dhasaratha that he owes her two promises, and they are 1) to make Bharatha king and 2) to banish Rama for 14 years. The king has no choice but to accept, even though he is distraught. When Bharatha finds out, he declares that Kaikeyi is no longer his mother.
Lots to deconstruct there, not including the overt ableism. In this story, Woman is both the seduced and the seducer. Kaikeyi is two horrible dichotomous roles in one.
But the main event in the story is that, after Rama goes to live in the forest with his brother and Sita, she is abducted by the antagonist, Ravana. Not only does this create the ever-popular damsel in distress who needs to be rescued scenario, it also presents an interesting conundrum. Rama, as we know but he doesn't, is the god Vishnu in human form. Because he is actually a god, in his human form he is more than a man. He is stronger, more just, and more holy than an ordinary person. But Sita, too, is a god: the goddess Lakshmi in human form. And yet, because she is a woman in her human form, she is less than a god. Completely unable to defend herself or do anything on her own without Rama with her, her godliness does not make her any stronger than a human woman. In fact, it seems totally irrelevant.
Another interesting thing is that before she's abducted, one of the plots Ravana comes up with to distract Rama from protecting Sita is to send his sister Kamavalli to marry Rama. When she arrives, she tells Rama how much she loves him, despite the fact that it is improper for a woman to state her feelings so vehemently (the first hint that she is a demon). Rama declines. But not for the obvious reasons, which would be "I'm already in love with someone" and "You are an evil demon." Instead, he can't marry her because they're of different castes. She's of the asura class; he isn't. She is a higher caste than him. Etc, etc, blargh.
So that's pretty much it, just wondering if other people have noticed the same things in reading the book, or different things. It is still a good story, so if you haven't read it, you should. I just wish, somewhere amidst all the talk in class about basic plot facts and the obligatory "good vs. evil" discussion, ANY of the above was mentioned at all.
5 years ago