A Study on women characters portrayed in the Rāmāyaṇa
1. Introduction and scope
Rāmāyaṇa is one of the first works in the history of Sanskrit literature to have introduced such a wide all-encompassing vision into life through family and societal ideals. With specific study of women characters, it is observed that none of the values or ideals that should not be left unnoticed is left unsaid. Irrespective of the angle from which the work is studied, it presents a completeness of human thought, emotion and existence, thus widening its effect on the populace of India as well as the entire world. It is through the acts and speech of his characters, the poet reaches the audience and imparts those ideals to be emulated. The women characters can be classified in a number of ways, since there is no barbed line dividing the characters as such. The impact of the characters is multifold depending on their presence in the long story encompassing a long period in time with many generations and many races. For ease of study, a five-fold classification has been made –
a) Characters that stay throughout the story. The only one in the Rāmāyaṇa in that sense is Sītā. No other character spans the entire storyline. “Sītāyāḥ caritaṃ mahat”[1.4.7] is proof enough for that. b) Characters that stay for some part of the story. Their impression on the story is made and the character exits. But their presence could be one to change the entire storyline (For e.g. Mantharā) or that they might appear as a welcome change of mood from an existing intense storyline. Or it could be akin to groundwork done to the storyline – making its presence felt while building the story but not seen again in the story (For g. Kausalyā, Sumitrā, Kaikeyī). c) Characters that bring no major twist in the storyline but exist with a life of their own and cause an impact deep enough to be universally associated with the story (For e.g Śabarī, Ahalyā). d) Though not explicit characters in the main story, there are some that appear within the work as part of stories narrated by the characters. They play a certain role – in either reinforcing or opposing the character’s actions, thus influencing the characters in the main storyline or just as part of incidents narrated in the main storyline. e) Some are just mentioned with no story or incidents attributed to them. They are mentioned just for the ensuring completeness of the story. But for their names and relationship to other characters and some location in time and space where they lived, nothing is explicitly stated.
Each of these characters (with the exceptions of those that have not played a role but for their name mentioned –e.g. Ūrmilā) is not just one-sided “characters” with a set list of few traits, but they, with multidimensional traits, cannot be labeled as one wholly evil or one with no blemishes. It is interesting yet important to note that these characters have not been painted with any prejudiced notions based on a status in the society or a class of people but on human nature. Thus the story line is set with complex entwinements, which should be analyzed without prejudices. The purpose of this study is to get a glimpse of the range of human nature conveyed through these women. What needs to be taken or rejected is evident from the outcome of the events in the story as it progresses. Coming to the aspect of finding a common ground between the “characters” as depicted in the Rāmāyaṇa and the life of a common woman in current society, these characters are not that far away, either in an Indian setting or at a global level. Though the physical situations as such might differ, the questions and challenges faced at different stages of one’s life, whether it is pursuing one’s own ambitions, or finding a common ground while interacting with one’s family and friends or whether it is making an impact on the society around, these characters when assessed in comparison with one another and having recognized the similarities, the modern woman can not only learn from the blunders, but take right decisions at the right time. The characters of the rākśasīs or ascetics or queens or goddesses, etc is not just meant to be a source of enjoyment (that being a valid and ultimate purpose), but when viewed as depictions of magnified versions of shortcomings or strengths in human nature, the story turns didactic. Thus there is something to learn from and enjoy at the same time, making it possible to materialize them in one’s own life.
Rāmāyaṇa, having a multifaceted impact on the culture of India, it becomes fundamental to make clear that this paper looks at only those aspects of the characters which are as described by the poet, with the impact caused on the storyline without the undertones of other philosophies attached while trying to learn from it. It is out of purview of this study to looks at the other aspects – as incarnations of the characters, as gods with ulterior motives to have behaved in a manner. That is another aspect for another time and place.
2. Characters in the storyline
This section lists the characters since the factual details are readily obtainable. An enumeration at a precursory level will assist in comparison and analysis at the next level. Numbers within brackets classify these characters that can be categorized as indicated earlier. Śāntā(5), Tataka(2), Kanyāśata(4), Somadā(5), Satyavatī(5), Diti(4), Gangā(4), Umā(4), Menakā(4), Rambhā(4), Ahalyā(3), Sītā(1), Ūrmilā(5), Māṇḍavī(5), Śṛtakīrtī(5), Kausalyā(2), Sumitrā(2), Mantharā(2), Anasūyā(4), Ayomukhī(2), Śūrpaṇakhā (2), Śabarī(3), Tārā(2), Rumā(5), Svayamprabhā(3), Surasā(2), Siṃhikā(2), Laṅkānagarī (2), Trijaṭā(2), wives of Rāvaṇa along with Manḍodarī and Dhānyamālinī(2), rākśasīs guarding Sītā(2), Saramā(2), Analā(2), Vedavatī(4), Sālakaṭaṇkaṭā(2), Devavatī(5), Sundarī(5), Kaikasī(2), Kumbhīnasī(5), Narmadā(5), Vasudhā(5), Añjanā(5). Certain combinations have been considered owing to the similarities in situations and/or exhibiting similar or contrasting reactions to comparable situations.
3.1 A woman, being the exploiter and exploited in contrast is illustrated – Tataka’s episode throws light on forces afflicting the equilibrium of a healthy milieu. Despite her strength and beauty, when her very existence turned two flourishing towns into dark woods, she had to be checked, in spite of her being a woman (slaying a woman being a forbidden act)[1.24.17-1.25-15]. Two earlier stories of Kāvyamātā and Mantharā, daughter of Virocana are cited to buttress the point of those threatening the existence of the world ought to be taken care of, for the greater good [1.25.20-1.25-21]. A later incident from Sundarakāṇḍa is the episode of Siṃhikā – the Cāyāgrāhakī who would relive that section of the ocean of life forms by consuming them. She is seen in a similar light and shown the abode of death by Hanumān [1.5.182-1.5.189]. A contrasted situation is seen when a helpless Sītā’s kidnapping is underway, even a bird would step in to try and protect her.
3.2 On the same thread of women with wrong intentions, are the famous Śūrpaṇakhā and Ayomukhī. They have been portrayed as they are, without any disguises or masks applied. While Śūrpaṇakhā is infatuated with Rāma’s attractive grace and demeanor, Ayomukhī tries to woo Lakṣmaṇa. Lakshamana is quick to protect himself from an indulging Ayomukhī [3.69-14-3.69-18]. With Śūrpaṇakhā, Rāma tries reason, initially. It is imperative to note the seriousness of the situation – Śūrpaṇakhā’s qualities are given along with Rāma’s qualities. There is no common ground between them. Whether it is the physical features or their qualities, the poet describes them in detail to indicate the blunt disparity. Yet, she approaches and forces herself on him. When directed towards Lakṣmaṇa, she readily changes roles and tries to woo him accordingly. When redirected back to Rāma, she does not realize the sarcasm in their behavior but shifts her concentration between the brothers. Upon deciding that Sītā is the reason for Rāma not falling for her, she attacks, with an intention to finish her, Rāma is forced to get serious and thus Lakṣmaṇa relieves her of her ears and nose [3.18.5-3.18.24]. Also, it is worthwhile to notice her status in this event. She is a widow; with her own brother Rāvaṇa doing away with Vidyujjihva, her husband, yet she is ready to turn Rāma into a widower. Here we have a smitten rākśasī “apparently in love” yet ready to switch partners as it suits her and when rejected, ready to get them killed. Her further actions in goading the brothers Khara, Dūṣaṇa and Triśiras to battle by stating that she would like to drink the blood of the brothers as they are alive [3.19.19] shows the profundity and sincerity of her love.
3.3 The scenario with the Kanyāśata shows the ideals of children. Having gotten an opportunity to obtain divine bodies and getting wedded to Vāyu, they reject, citing the reason that they would wed someone accepted by their father [1.32.15-22]. In a day where choosing one’s better half is almost no business of the parent and it is in one’s control to make or break bonds, this incident and its further developments (the Kanyāśata, are wedded to Brahmadatta, the king at Kāmpilyā and are cured of the dwarfism inflicted by Vāyu in his anger, when they reject his offer) [1.33.20-1.33.24] throws light on an ideal contrary to modern times.
3.4 The history of Gangā and Umā the two daughters of Himavān come as part of a narrated story and not as explicit roles in the storyline. Gangā, the river (also the woman) proceeds to the heavens to serve the cause of the entire world [1.35.17]. Umā on the other hand, through severe penance, wins the hand of Rudra and weds him [1.35.19-1.35-20]. Gangā, being self-possessed when asked to descend the earth to help Bhagīratha bring peace to his ancestors, with pride, thinks that she would forcefully carry away Śiva to Pātāla (who is requested to be the regulator of Gangā’s forceful waters) [1.43.3-1.43-6]. But she is shown her place when Śiva binds her in his locks with no way out for the waters. Another narrative of Umā elucidates her anger when she curses the gods as well as the earth for having deprived her of motherhood [1.36.21-1.36.25]. A question might arise if cursing is the only pastime of all these divinities. But another incident shows the motherhood and kindness of Umā in all its glory and also answers any lurking doubts. When Sukeśa the son of Vidyutkeśa is left all alone thanks to his parents, with no one to turn to and being just a infant, Pārvatī who happens to see him along with Īśvara, pities the infant and grants him the boon to immediately grow as old as his mother, and grants boons (it is questionable if it is a boon or a curse) to all the rākśasīs – their fetuses would have no gestation period and as soon as they give birth, their children would grow as old as them thus depriving the rākśasīs from witnessing the childhood of their children.
3.5 The episode of Kaikeyī and the exile she insists on can be viewed in light of Diti begetting the Maruts as sons. Kaikeyī with appropriate goading from Mantharā, instead of using her own judgment, comes to a conclusion that her son will be put to death by someone like Rāma (as said by Mantharā [2.8.27]), whereas Diti who begins [1.46.3] a penance to beget a son who would slay Indra finally blesses that let Indra and her sons live together in peace [1.47.4 -1.47.6]. On one hand, we have a mother (Kaikeyī) who despite knowing her sons’ (Bharata and Rāma) brotherhood tries to bring separate them, whereas another (well known to be the mother of the evil ones) blesses her sons to live in harmony. The of Kaikeyī also brings forth the ideals of a wife in contrast to various other characters. Being a queen, she lets herself be influenced by the flawed logic of Mantharā [2.7.14-2.9.2] and with no concrete proof (whether Rāma would do away with Bharata, once on the throne) asks Daśaratha for the two boons. When he tries to convince her quoting the accepted traditions, resorting to logic, beseeching her to kindly reconsider and finally hinting at his own death if she is adamant with her plan, she remains a solid rock [2.12.12-2.14.22]. Sītā on the other hand, despite being banished from the kingdom by Rāma (king and husband) in the end, shows her nobility in adhering to the royal decree and wishes of her husband, despite being aware of the adversity (life alone in the forest) and pain (being separated from Rāma) she might face as a result.
3.6 The three mothers of the princes of Ayodhyā depict motherhood in all different shades. All three of them act with utmost filial love and their actions are proof. Yet, Kaikeyī’s love is mixed with an ounce of self-preservation and it directs her actions. Only when understanding the true intentions of her son, is her veil of ignorance removed and she sees the light of the situation. On the other hand Kausalyā, in addition to being devoted to her son, though willing to follow him [2.20.32-2.20.55]; when reminded of her duties to the king, accepts Rāma’s exile, wishes his best [2.25.31-2.25.43] and remains back. Despite speaking harsh words to the king while under pain [2.61.2-2.61.26], she makes amends [2.62.13-2.62.14] and becomes a final source of hope in his last days. Sumitrā on the other hand, in addition to the filial love and affection exhibits a higher, more mature mental propensity when it comes to her children and her duties. She is shown to say the right things at the right time, granting leave to the devoted son headed to the forest [2.40.8-2.40-9], also filling hope and courage in a depressed Kausalyā [2.44.1- 2.44.29], thus acting as a leveler, at times of extreme sorrow. On the same aspect of motherhood, two characters stand at loggerheads with respect to ideals. Sītā, when finally exiled at the end, being suspected by the public of Ayodhyā, says that despite the sorrow, she will live for the only reason of her unborn child. In contrast, Sālakaṭaṇkaṭā, the wife of Vidyudjihva, seeing the then born infant as an interference, eschews the child in the forest and goes on a gala ride [7.4.24-7.4.26].
3.7 The episode of Ahalyā can be viewed from multiple angles. She was believed to be a unique creation in the entire world. In the storyline of Rāmāyaṇa as well, she has a unique role. She is one of the few roles that have a lofty beginning, a total fall to the very abyss and then a journey back to the top where she is held in high esteem. When compared to Sītā, on one end we have Ahalyā falling for Indra and cheating on her husband [1.48.17- 1.48.22], while Sītā confined to Aśokavana and being constantly agonized by the rākśasīs and Rāvaṇa to wed him, displaying total indifference to his advances and verbally vituperating his actions. If the role of Ahalyā is analyzed further, what could have triggered her to do what she did? There is no valid reason. She is stated to have been the wife of a great sage Gautama with a happy home (he son Śatānanda being the Purohita at Mithilā). It is a loss of judgment and an unwarranted titillation towards the unknown “Devarājakutūhalāt” [1.48.19]. In Sītā’s case as well, the unknown factor is common, but the way she carries herself in every single encounter of torture from Rāvaṇa (her treatment of the rakshasa as a mere grass among others) shows the mental strength and the commitment she had to the bond of matrimony. Moving ahead, should Ahalyā be judged on these grounds only and shunned? No, the poet does not stop at her fall. He shows something, which any human would feel; she repents her lapse in judgment and gets ready to atone. And the magnanimity of Gautama shines forth. He tells her the means of absolution and after a penance for thousands of years, he accepts her with the same affection as before this incident [1.50.14-1.50-20]. (For clarity, it is not only Ahalyā that performs penance, but Gautama is also said to perform penance in the Himalayas for the same period of time, so there is gender equality all right, irrespective of the mistake being committed by the lady under question [1.48.29-1.48.33]) The foibles of Ahalyā should be seen in light of her redemption to truly understand the character.
3.8 The two noticeable ascetic characters are Śabarī and Svayamprabhā. Śabarī though not a major player in the events of the story, she makes her presence felt by the sheer devotion and patience to meet Rāma. By her very name, one from a hunter clan, through penance and devotion she rises to a great height, so much that after giving up her mortal coils, she is described to gain a divine form [4.74.32-4.74-35]. Not giving much weightage to the physical impossibility of the episode, it depicts the prerequisites of achieving seemingly hard things in life. Also the words spoken by both Śabarī and Svayamprabhā shed light into the grace and eloquence of a host, bringing joy in the guest, making him forget the travails of the earlier journey.
3.9 Saramā and Analā (family of Vibhīśaṇa) rise above their nature and show presence of mind and kindness in filling courage in a miserable and depressed Sītā. With so much psychological torture from all directions, these two ladies along with a few unnamed wives of Rāvaṇa give hope to Sītā to hang on, being well aware that this, if known to Rāvaṇa would make them meet bitter ends. Thus, belonging to a race known for cruelty, selfishness and violence, these characters are shown to behave unlike their base nature, thus hinting that characters are not water tight compartments with a set of predefined virtues and vices but a middle ground with a shade of both. Looking at some of the other rākśasīs, it is Trijaṭā, one among the guards at Aśokavana, who fills courage in a woeful Sītā who is looking to end her life [5.27.5-5.27.46]. When Rāvaṇa is at his usual self threatening and pleading to Sītā to accept him, some of his wives assure her with facial and lip signs to have hope and be courageous. Also it is Dhānyamālinī one of the wives of Rāvaṇa who distracts and carries his attention away from the task at hand of tormenting Sītā. In divergence from these characters, we have a number of rākśasīs mentioned as company of guards overseeing Sītā – to keep her from mischief and also to torture, manipulate and get her to see Rāvaṇa’s way. A clear picture is given in a comic setting by giving their names as synonymous to their physical features. E.g.Ekākṣī, Ekakarṇā, etc.
3.10 Some characters despite good intentions become victims of their time or their natural weaknesses. They would include Manḍodarī, Tārā (Vāli’s wife) and many of the wives of Rāvaṇa. These women, though wanted Rāvaṇa to stop his rampage on women and be contented with his lot, had no say over him. When all of them mourn him at the end of the war, they express all the bottled up emotions. Even if they had expressed them when he was alive, it is clear that he paid a deaf ear to their pleadings. These women in a sense, despite being materially well fed and taken care of, were unable to make an impact in driving Rāvaṇa to walk the right path. That is their failure. What is the use of being able to satisfy the husband, but be unable to redirect him from a path of total ruin? Dissimilar to this, the conversation between Rāma and Sītā in the Aranyakanda is memorable where she speaks out her mind against his oath of killing the rākśasās in the Daṇḍakāvana. Rāma’s respectful, soft-spoken, yet firm retort is equally enlightening. Despite being spouses and very close to each other, their elegance in speaking their mind with no tone of condescension reflects on the respect between them and the acceptance to the other viewpoint [3.9.2-3.11.21].
3.11 Rāvaṇa had wooed many of his wives with charm; but he had forcefully seized a significant number of them from various worlds on his conquests. He had forcefully brought them under control and had transgressed many of them before being finally cursed by Nalakūbara upon transgressing his partner Rambhā [7.27.40 – 7.27.59]. Yet, there is mention of two women who did not fall prey to his charms. Sītā, is one; Vedavatī, is another. Sītā was successful in not only evading him, but also being instrumental in bringing an end to him. While Vedavatī, ended her life in response to Rāvaṇa extending his arm to her hair [7.17.26-7.17.33].
3.12 The difficulties that faced by a woman again forced by situations are also depicted in episodes of Kaikasī and also the daughter of Tṛṇabindu. Kaikasī is asked by her own father to approach the sage Paulastya and request for children. Here, how the ulterior motives of the father desiring power and revenge can transform the life of a daughter is well depicted. This again in comparison with the Kanyāśata throws more light on parents and how decisions taken by them can shape their daughters’ lives. While the Kanyāśata are stated to live happily, Kaikasī begets Rāvaṇa, Kumbhakarṇa and Śūrpaṇakhā whose tyranny hampers peace in the world (Though she did get in Vibhishana a solution for the terrible trio, the damage caused stands out) Another tribulation of sorts is faced by rājarṣi Tṛṇabindu’s daughter who finds herself to be pregnant having committed nothing. Just by looking at the sage Pulastya and listening to the Vedaśruti (as result of a curse from Pulastya), she finds herself change physically. Though the episode ends well with Pulastya marrying the rājarṣi’s daughter and she becoming the mother of Paulastya [7.2.25-7.2.31], the poet describes incidents, which are beyond human logic, reason and control.
3.13 Few characters act as means for the poet to convey ideals, that surface through conversations between characters. One such is Anasūyā. She advises Sītā in the duties of a wife [2.117.22-2.118.12]. Who else better advice Sītā than the one, who with her pātivratya reduced even the trinities to mere infants?
3.14 Some appearances test the mettle of the characters. One example is Vishwamitra whose steadfastness to penance is tested by the appearance of Menakā [1.63.5-1.63.10] and Rambhā [1.64.10-1.64-15], the heavenly courtesans. Though he fails to both of them (falling for the former and cursing the latter), they serve as stepping-stones that prod his perseverance. In another episode, Hanumān’s wit, strength and consideration is tested during confrontation against Surasā [5.1.140-5.1.160] and Laṅkānagarī the personification of the city of lanka who protects the city [5.3.19-5.3.50].
This analysis has only but explored a small section of various possibilities, with many unexplored venues where the values shine. A person who has understood the Rāmāyaṇa would think twice before committing the impropriety of Ahalyā or the cruelty and selfishness of Kaikeyī, be strong enough as Sītā and Vedavatī, patient as Śabarī, etc. But the essence intended is – the characters in Rāmāyaṇa are not mere characters in an old poem of kings and queens, demons and sages, birds and vAnaras, gods and goddesses meant to be kept within the locked doors of temples and safe houses, or “only” topics of adoration and worship on set days in the year, (the intention here, is not to condemn or do away with devotion or worship), but to bring each of these characters to our daily thoughts and deeds, try to become these characters, in nobility and chivalry (not in wickedness and self-indulgence), and attempt to bring to fruition the true purpose with which the work had been composed.
- Ramayan of Valmiki with three commentaries called Tilaka, Shiromani, Bhushana with numerous readings and notes, Published by Parimal Publications (1983)
- Srimadvalmikiramayanam (with Kannada translation). Translated by N. Ranganatha Sharma. Published by Ramayana Prakashana Samiti
- Lectures on the Ramayana by the Hon.V.S.Srinivasa Sastri. Published on behalf of Madras Samskrit Academy by S Vishwanatha
- Ramayanada Patra Prapancha by K.S.Narayanacharya
The author is deeply indebted to the following people/institutions/websites for giving the material and inspiration to undertake a study on the ādikāvya śrimadramayaṇa
- http://hareraama.in/ – HareRaama : Official website of Sri Sri Raghaveshwara Bharati Swamiji, Pontiff – Sri Ramachandrapura Matha Hosanagara – for conducting and live-streaming “Ramakatha” – a culturally rich retelling of the Rāmāyaṇa during the period 2012-2014 on ustream.tv
- Shri Shrivatsa B who started teaching Rāmāyaṇa to interested students with the sole intention of disseminating Sanskrit through Rāmāyaṇa through the blog http://learn–sanskrit–through–ramayanam.blogspot.in/ and Skype classes
- srī śatāvadhāni Dr. R. Ganesh – for having suggested the author to study the works of the Rt.Hon.V.S.Srinivasa Sastri and Dr.K.S.Narayanacharya – without whose study the author would have a crippled understanding of the Rāmāyaṇa
- To my mother – Smt. Shubha Prakash who told stories on the Rāmāyaṇa as a toddler to make me sleep.
This paper was presented in the National Conference on Role of Women as Reflected in Samskrit Literature in September 2014.
Featured Image: News Nation