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Wisdom from Ramayana

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(By Chaitanya Charan. Nominated in the category of English Non-Fiction for the REC-VoW Book Awards, 2019)

Excerpts from the interview with Chaitanya Charan:

By SHWETA KAPOOR

Q: The Ramayana has been criticised for being patriarchal and misogynistic. How would you respond to that? Would you agree with the statement that the epic objectifies women at various instances?

A: Patriarchy and misogyny are two significantly different things: patriarchy is a longstanding social structure; misogyny is a reprehensible mental disposition. Patriarchy was prevalent throughout the world for most of human history. Undoubtedly, it has been sometimes misused by oppressive men, who incidentally oppressed not just women but other men, too. Still, the very fact that humanity has survived for millennia with patriarchal social structures suggests that the structure had some functional utility. Women have exclusive monopoly on being the wombs for humanity. If patriarchy had oppressed women relentlessly throughout history, as is fashionable to depict in some circles nowadays, humanity’s wombs would have been choked to death; the human species wouldn’t be existing today. Having said that, regrettably, misogyny has occurred repeatedly in history. And wherever misogyny occurs, it deserves to be condemned in the strongest terms; everyone, irrespective of gender, deserves opportunities for developing their God-given gifts and fulfilling their destinies. Given that we humans are all vulnerable to vice, all human hierarchies tend toward tyranny. But that doesn’t mean all hierarchies are intrinsically tyrannical; many can be functionally useful, even essential. Like any other hierarchy, patriarchy can degenerate into misogynism, but that doesn’t mean patriarchy is misogynism. Ramayana is patriarchal but not misogynistic. And even when it is patriarchal, patriarchy is not its central message – spirituality is. In many ways, women are treated differently in the epic than how they are treated today. Whether that difference is objectification is debatable; a strong case could be made that objectification occurs equally, if not more, in today’s sexualised depictions in various multi-billion- dollar ad and entertainment industries. After spending several decades trying to understand the Ramayana’s mood and appeal, I am convinced that its essential Ramayana, I have explained how the incident that seems outrageously misogynistic – Sita’s banishment – is actually sublimely sacrificial. When earlier in the epic, Rama is exiled by Dasharatha, Rama is not the victim and Dasharatha the victimiser; both father and son are co-participants in a difficult sacrifice that duty demands of them. That they both stay steadfast in duty shows their strength of character. Similarly, in the end of the epic, Sita and Rama both participate in an extremely difficult sacrifice demanded by duty – and their dutifulness amid duress reveals their glory. Due to lack of space, we can’t go into the rationale of the duty here. But suffice it is to say that to reduce the profound sacrificial incidents in the Ramayana to misogyny is like reducing complex cartographic notes by experienced sailors to senseless scribbling. For sailing through life’s turbulent voyages, Ramayana has served as a map for millions through the millennia. Historically speaking, India ranks high up in the list of the world’s most resilient countries. Hardly any other country has been subjected to as many invasions throughout history, and has continued as a living culture from ancient times till today. For this remarkably resilient culture, Ramayana has been one of the foundational texts. To dismiss such an epic by labelling it as misogynistic is to deprive ourselves of an immense treasure of empowering wisdom. The epic’s wisdom strengthens our spiritual muscle and infuses us with the spirit of service. When we become thus selflessly motivated, we can root out misogyny and figure out how the genders can best synergise in today’s world.

CHAITANYA CHARAN is a monk, mentor and spiritual author. He gives talks on spiritual subjects all across the world. He is the author of the world’s only Gita-daily feature, wherein he writes everyday a 300-word inspirational reflection on a verse from the Bhagavad- Gita. For the complete interview, log onto www.valleyofwords.org