Portrayal of Women in Ramayana-A Different Perspective

  • Women are invariably portrayed, now days, in the Ramayana using contemporary and probably colonial mind sets. The author uses examples from Valimiki’s Ramayana to state that women were free to express their views and accorded an important status.

There are innumerable versions of the Ramayana and myriad interpretations of these versions across India and other countries. Many of these popular versions, both in text form and depictions on stage and television, have created strong impressions of most of the principal characters of the epic among people. Even some of the minor characters and their stories evoke vivid imagery in our minds and we tend to paint rather stereotypical sketches of their personalities that we have over time come to believe and accept as definitive.


In the light of these numerous versions, a study of the original composition by Sage Valmiki gives refreshingly different perspectives about many aspects of the story and the characters. What is striking is that these characters – major and minor ones – are far from the often one-dimensional depictions that they are subjected to and are able to hold their own ground, giving momentum and direction to the turn of events constituting Shri Rama’s epic journey.


The description of some of the well-known events by Sage Valmiki is not only surprising in the way these are presented but also clearly bring out the finer nuances of the characters and their interpersonal dynamics along with the attendant socio-political framework.


Ramayana is not generally talked about in the context of women’s empowerment and many instances in the epic are typically viewed through the prism of patriarchy. However, Valmiki presents a rather contrarian picture and a few instances described in Ayodhyakaanda and Aranyakaanda provide illuminating perspectives about the status and influence of women.


Let us take two such interesting instances that present entirely different perspectives compared to what is ordinarily assumed or understood.


Firstly, despite being selfish and unjust in nature, Kaikeyi’s wishes were upheld by both Emperor Dasharatha and Rama, who very strongly emphasised the need to fulfill the promises made to her, irrespective of the consequences. After all these boons were granted to her by Dasharatha as a reward for the help she rendered to him during war.

But what is even more remarkable is another episode in this context with reference to Sita.


When Rama is exiled and is about to leave Ayodhya with Sita, the royal preceptor, Sage Vasishtha angrily chastises Queen Kaikeyi saying that she had exceeded all limits of decency and her behaviour did not conform to the standards (of righteousness) and says the following:


न गन्तव्यं वनं देव्या सीतया शीलवर्जिते।

अनुष्ठास्यति रामस्य सीता प्रकृतमासनम्।।2.37.23।।

“O woman dead to (all) decorum! Princess Sita shall not proceed to the forest.

Remaining here she will occupy the throne which was offered to Rama.” (Source: Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Gita Press, Gorakhpur publication)


Sage Vasishtha goes on to further add:


आत्मा हि दारास्सर्वेषां दारसङ्ग्रहवर्तिनाम्।

आत्मेयमिति रामस्य पालयिष्यति मेदिनीम्।।2.37.24।।

“A wife is the very self to all householders. As the (other) self of Rama, she will rule over the globe.” (Source: Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Gita Press, Gorakhpur publication)


Coming from Sage Vasishtha, these were strong statements and made with considerable authority. Both royalty and society were therefore, open to the idea of Sita occupying the throne, should she have wished to do so. Moreover, this also meant Sita would have had the training to be crowned the ruler, as this was an important prerequisite even for the male heirs to the throne.

Cover image of Valmiki Ramayan, Gita Press Gorakpur. 

Surely Sita chooses to follow Rama into the forest. Sage Valmiki beautifully summarises her influence over all the subsequent events of the Ramayana through the thoughts of Hanuman described in the Sundarakanda, when he perceives Sita for the very first time.


Hanuman says to himself that it was indeed for this Sita that fourteen thousand demons of Janasthana along with their commanders, Khara, Trishira and Dushana, were killed by Rama and so was the demon Viraadha. For her sake Kabandha was killed and subsequently, Vaali too was killed by Rama. It was because of her that Sugriva attained the throne of Kishkindha and the ruler ship of all the Vaanaras. And she alone was the cause of his own leap across the ocean and arrival at Lanka. (Source: Summarised reproduction of Slokas 7-12 of the Sixteenth Chapter of Sundarakanda of Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Gita Press, Gorakhpur publication)

The ultimate destruction and killing of Ravana and his forces at the hands of Rama was brought about by Sita.


In Aranyakanda, Valmiki highlights another interesting aspect – that of women, especially those belonging to royal lineages- of being well-versed in the Shaastras including statecraft and governance.


The instance connected with Surpanakha is very interesting and provides food for thought.


Surpanakha, is usually portrayed in popular media as a rakshasa-woman of terrible appearance, who complains to Ravana about how she was badly treated by Rama and Lakshmana and instigates him to abduct Sita to avenge her humiliation by the two princes.


While she does instigate Ravana to kidnap Sita, what is very interesting in Valmiki Ramayana is the manner in which she convinces him to do so. It is not merely an emotional appeal by a sister made to her brother. The arguments she presents reflect a deep knowledge of statecraft and administration. What is even more noteworthy is that she chides Ravana about his ‘inaction’ in response to the threat posed by Rama, in front of all his ministers and counsellors very boldly and without mincing words!


An entire chapter of the Aranyakanda (Ch. 33) is dedicated to her speech to Ravana, which centers upon the duties and responsibilities of a monarch and the nuances of managing law and order and the security of his territories.


Speaking about the responsibilities of a ruler, she says that a monarch who does not personally attend to his affairs gets ruined without doubt, along with his kingdom as well as those affairs. Narrating the plight of an inept ruler, she says that just as elephants keep away from a muddy river, people will keep distance from a king who does not employ spies, does not give audience to his people and is not independent. She further adds that those rulers of men who do not reclaim a territory, which is no longer under their control, do not shine through prosperity any more than mountains submerged in an ocean. (Source: Summarised reproduction of Slokas 4-6 of the Thirty-third Chapter of Aranyakanda [Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Gita Press, Gorakhpur publication & Sloka & Translation | Valmiki Ramayanam (iitk.ac.in))


This line of reasoning cannot be from one who does not understand governance or who does not have prior experience in debating and discussing such topics.


Surpanakha also nonchalantly questions Ravana’s ability to continue as king saying:


त्वन्तु बालस्वभावश्च बुद्धिहीनश्च राक्षस।

ज्ञातव्यन्तु जानीषे कथं राजा भविष्यसि।।3.33.8।।

“You are undoubtedly childish of disposition and devoid of intelligence and do not know what ought to be known, O demon! How (then) will you continue to be a king?” (Source: Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Gita Press, Gorakhpur publication)


Driving home her point she then enumerates what a ruler should guard against and how he must act. She calls a king dislodged from his kingdom worthless, even if he is capable, like a piece of cloth that is worn and discarded and similar to garlands that are used and crushed.


About the qualities of a respected ruler, she says that the king who is vigilant, knows everything (about himself and his enemy), whose senses are fully controlled, who recognises the services of others and is pious by disposition continues on his throne for long. She adds that the king, who remains prudent and whose frown and favour are manifest in the form of punishment and reward, is honoured by the people. (Source: Summarised reproduction of Slokas 19-21 of the Thirty-third Chapter of Aranyakanda [Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Gita Press, Gorakhpur publication & Sloka & Translation | Valmiki Ramayanam (iitk.ac.in))

Surpanakha finally admonishes Ravana severely saying that he was utterly deprived of all these virtues and warned him that he would lose his sovereignty and perish soon if he continued to ignore the realities of the situation they were faced with. For his part, Ravana does reflect upon her words quietly before questioning her further about the events preceding her arrival at his court.


It is quite a fascinating account given that even in a society (such as that of the rakshasas), where ‘might was right’, Surpanakha could express herself frankly and publicly and hold her own in front of Ravana, her all-powerful brother and king. That Sage Valmiki chose to present even a character like Surpanakha, who has a relatively fleeting albeit impactful presence in the epic, with so much depth speaks volumes about why Ramayana resonates across the subcontinent and around the world, among all sections of society.


Even as later versions of the Ramayana may have inadvertently incorporated the impact of socio-political influences of their times (i.e., when they were composed) as regards the status of women in the story, the societies depicted by Sage Valmiki in his Ramayana – be it those of humans, vanaras or even rakshasas – had strong women influencing the course of events, having their say and also providing useful counsel to the menfolk.


Far from a one-dimensional perspective, he has presented the epic in a way that demands a more layered understanding of the events and the characters. Trying to compartmentalize the characters and their roles into pre-defined narratives and opinions can be very misleading, while taking away from the essence of the itihaasa.


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