Understanding the human side of Rama

Updated on: Aug 15, 2011
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This is Ms Arshia Sattar's third book from the Penguin stable. Ms Sattar had published an ‘abridged' translation of Valmiki Ramayana and also teaches it as a part of classical Indian literatures course in various universities.

Lost Loves is a set of seven essays which explore and imagine the thoughts and feelings of Rama and Sita during their years of trials and separation. The author does this by “approach(ing) him as a literary character…” who (sic) “kills without justification and twice abandons the woman he loves most.” Ms Sattar assures that the essays stay located in Valmiki's composition declaring that it is the “furthest” from the “all-encompassing bhakti universe that renders Rama's deeds unquestionable and beyond reproach.”

Existential conflicts

Indian epics, ithihasa , do narrate, as if a running commentary on an as-is-where-is style. Several oral and subsequent written narratives too have retained the spirit of that tradition without whitewashing the flaws in the characters. That has not diluted the bhakti bhava nor has it stopped critical study of existential conflicts faced by Rama or Sita even by the devout. The reviewer wishes to cite here a series of thirty lectures delivered by V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, in 1944, in the Sanskrit Academy in Chennai, “with a professed object of presenting Rama in a purely human aspect, ignoring His place among the Great Avatars…”

Ms Sattar too recognises “the indigenous tradition of interpretation… commentary and opposition…is as old as the text itself.” However, in her introduction to the essays she underplays this tradition and even asserts that, “…interpretations and retellings have been prompted by those aspects of the text that have made tradition uncomfortable when Rama appears to violate dharma .” For her, Rama's story “cannot be ignored because of its hero's remorseless transgressions from the code, the dharma that he was born to uphold.”

In the seven essays after the introduction, Ms Sattar's narrative thankfully, is in the spirit of the “card –carrying feminist” now being “more involved with Rama” — reflecting through “inclusion rather than rejection of Rama”.

Interesting analysis

Ms Sattar's analysis of the code of living in the three cities of Ayodhya, Kishkinda and Lanka is interesting. Dharma it may be in Ayodhya, but is it the same in the other two which are vanara and asura domains? Are the conflicts and the resultant transgressions of dharma by Rama due to super-imposing of his dharma where they may not be appreciated? Ms Sattar's pertinent questions, which Sastri and his likes had answered: “we must judge Rama not by the light of modern theory or modern aspiration but by the standards of his time. La Gloire was a kshatriya's creed and he was expected to extend his dominion.” Ms Sattar is lucid in her narration of Sita as a woman of “courage and defiance in her final act on earth.” Her analysis of how love lives in the shadow of public lives and commitments gets reinforced in the fifth essay. “Lost Loves”.

The essay on “Remembering in the Ramayana” elaborates on Rama's innermost thoughts as expressed in three different occasions. This essay also draws a lot of comparisons from Kalidasa's Abhijyana Shakuntalam ; comparisons of Sita and Shakuntala.

Sattar claims that the essays are “rooted in the modern quest for individual fulfillment .” It is an eternal quest. Ms Sattar's essays are a welcome addition to addressing this quest.

(The author is a spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party.)

Published on August 18, 2011

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