Lord Ram, the seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu and the king of Kosala, is one of the most revered gods in Hinduism. The central character of the major Hindu epic, Ramayana, he is considered the ‘ideal man’ and a model to emulate by many. According to the epic, Ram overcomes great adversities and upholds his dharma till his last breath. He is respectful, loyal, brave and humble. In short, he is a maryada purushottam, the man who follows all the rules.
Admirable though his reputation is, preserving it costs him the most important relationship in his life–the one with his wife Sita. At one point in the story, when his wife’s chastity is questioned by his subjects, Ram decides to abandon her. The king’s wife should be above all doubt, he is told. And he succumbs to the pressure.
Through the ages, Ram’s treatment of Sita has been deemed unfair by devotees and scholars alike. And in the recent times, several writers have attempted to retell the story of Ramayana from Sita’s point of view. Among them is Devdutt Pattanaik with his version–Sita’s Ramayana. Blending his knowledge of the various versions of Ramayana with his own imagination, the author has put forth an illustrated retelling of the epic for the modern reader.
Pattanaik starts with a few brief chapters talking about Ramayana itself, the time period in which it is set and the preceding and succeeding events described in the epic. He explains how the Ramayana came to be written and talks about the many different versions. With illustrations and tables containing facts about the epic, Pattanaik sets the backdrop for the book.
Then, Sita’s story begins. From the highly unusual ‘birth’ of the princess (she is dug out from the earth by King Janaka) to her marriage to Ram, from her abduction by the demon king Ravana to her eventual rescue and the bitter aftermath, Pattanaik manages to keep the reader hooked. Even the smaller stories that form the jigsaw of the massive epic are a delight to read.
In the course of the book, the reader gets a brief insight into the mind of Sita. The young woman is courageous, adventurous, strong, and honourable. She follows her husband into exile for 14 years even though he insists that she stay back in the safety of the palace. She crosses the lakshmanrekha (the protective line drawn by Lakshman to keep her safe) to serve food to whom she thought was a starving old man. She remains ardently loyal to Ram even as she is relentlessly pursued by Ravana during her imprisonment in his kingdom. And when Ram is plagued by suspicion, she is unafraid to walk through fire to prove her chastity.
In good times and in bad, Sita walks with her head held high. And even when she is abandoned by the king of Kosala in the end, she accepts her fate with dignity and says: “I am a Goddess–I cannot be abandoned by anyone.” Sita takes refuge in sage Valmiki’s ashram, gives birth to twin boys and raises them on her own.
Upon reaching the end of the book, however, the reader is left with one nagging thought: Where is Sita’s perspective? Where is her rage, disappointment, and grief? After all, what happened to her was very unfair. Perhaps, in trying not to upset any orthodox readers, Pattanaik has missed out on the opportunity to take a more critical approach to the epic. As a result, what we get is a repeated justification of the actions of the maryada purushottam and not what could have been the thoughts and emotions of the scorned queen.
Sita’s Ramayana attempts to tell the story of Ram through the eyes of Sita, but somehow, along the way, falls short of that aim. The modern reader may expect the princess’ courage and conviction to translate into rebellion. However, all one is left with is the image of Sita quietly walking away, not challenging the injustice meted out to her. Perhaps, what we are supposed to emulate is the dignity with which she lives the rest of her life, away from the man she had given her heart to. Perhaps, therein lies her courage.