Thursday, May 15, 2014

Hindu Texts on Women II: The Ramayana

Back from China yesterday, I'll try to put up a few posts during my visit to the US.  (China blocks BlogSpot, for some obscure reason.) 

Here we continue our ongoing series on "How Jesus Liberates Women."   Since this series has now been spread over several years, it may help to recap the argument to date before continuing it, and provide links. 

I began the series by describing the challenge, from John Loftus this time as it happens, that precipitated it.  I then told the story of how I became interested in the subject, as a missionary confronted with forced prostitution in Southeast Asia.  We looked at the strong sociological correlation between the influence of Christianity on a society and the high status of women in that society, around the world.  I described historical evidence that it was in fact the Gospel that changed things for the better, and not just in "Christian" countries.  We thoroughly examined the gospels, and found the life and teachings and example of Jesus in fact provide a very plausible  cause of that effect.  Then we looked at Acts, and found that while not quite as revolutionary as Jesus' own teachings, early Christians tended most of the time to further the revolution that he had set in motion in liberating women.  (We have not yet gotten to the letters of Paul, though I intend to analyze them as well.) 

The first several arguments above having generated hundreds of responses on various sites, we took a pause and amused ourselves by looking at ten amusingly lame "rebuttals" to my arguments, including by John Loftus and Anne Rice.  (Not many very good responses have come yet, but I do plan to get to those eventually, as well.)

The conversation then shifted to what other religious texts say about the status of women, or their role in society.  First, I read the entire Qu'ran, and cited and analyzed every single important passage related to women, and almost every minor passage, first in answer to Karen Armstrong, then a second analysis, then a final one, in which I concluded that traditional Christian criticism of Mohammed and his book was on the money.  It turned out that Mohammed was even a greater cad, and a more shameless and selfish manipulator and abuser, than I had realized before reading the Muslim holy book.  Then I offered a similar analysis of the Hindu Rig Veda, which turned out to reserve for women quite conventional roles of highly subservient wives and seductresses.  The gross abuse of later centuries had not yet been justified, but neither can one find in the sections analyzed (I did not read the entire text, which is quite long and often boring) any special compassion or liberation for women.

How Jesus Liberates Women: The Ramayana

Retold by Krishna Dharma

Now we turn to the great Indian epic, the Ramayana.  This is a story about Rama and his wife, Sita.  Briefly, it tells how the god Vishnu, the greatest god among a panoply of divine figures, incarnates as the son of a king of vast and wealthy state.  His goal is to defeat the great demon, Ravana.  The demon, who already has a huge harem, and who easily defeats the gods in battle, kidnaps Rama's wife, Sita, and demands that she marry him.  She refuses, and Rama goes to war, aided by an army of humans, monkeys, and some bears, on the demon stronghold across the ocean. 

Not surprisingly, there is quite a bit about relations between the sexes and the role of women in such a tale.  While women are still allowed to move about to some extent -- Sita accompanies her husband to live in the forest when he is banished by his father -- hints of increasing oppression, perhaps even justification for such oppression, is liberally scattered about the text.  It is made clear that a woman's only good is to look to her husband with starry eyes.  Several times it is even suggested that if he should die, the best she could do would be to go ahead and roast herself to death to follow him. (Though this is never carried out.)

(Note: apparently it actually was carried out in the oldest extant version of the tale.  Here is a feminist and secularist take-down of the influence of The Ramayana on women in India which goes into more scholarly detail than the more naïve present piece will do.)

Here's the play-by-play, and commentary:

2. "As Ravana sat idly . . . he suddenly noticed a lady sitting in meditation.  This was most unusual.  Women were rarely seen in those mountains.  Sometimes the rishis would have their wives with them."  

"She would make an excellent addition to his other consorts."

Ravana, as a demon, can perhaps be allowed a bit of sexism.  But notice the background assumption: it was still possible for religious ascetics to bring wives, but rarely done.  Of course, in Buddhism it would become impossible.

4.  "Looking down in shyness she said, 'I was born as an incarnation of the holy Vedas.'"

So women can also be divine -- that is never doubted -- though even divine women should express a kind of public deference, should not assert themselves.

Mother's Day

83.  "The greatest piety lies in serving one's father.  Indeed, O gentle lady, greater still is service to the mother, according to sacred texts." 

Treat your women with love.

48.  Janaka loved his daughter Sita, raised her with love.  

53. Janaka: "My dear Rama, I now give to you Sita, my own beloved daughter . . . She will always remain exclusively devoted to you ad wil follow you like your own shadow."

54.  Gives daughter 100,000s of cows and elephants, horses, chariots, and foot soldiers as a dowry.  Millions of pieces of silk, cotton, also carpets, gold, silver, jewels, "and hundreds of richly adorned maids for each of the brides."

Good men in the Ramayana thus do love their daughters and wives, more or less.  However, this is perceived as very much the love of a superior to an inferior:

General subservient role of women

19. "His senior wife, Kaushalya, gently massaged his feet, while Sumitra and Kaikeyi fanned him with snow-white chamara whisks."

These are the king's three named women, fulfilling their roles.

21. "Dasareth was perturbed that he had no son."

He did not, apparently, worry about daughters.

136. "Sons would disobey their fathers and wives their husbands."

156.  "Beautiful young maidens attended upon the soldiers, washing them and massaging their feet and bodies with fragrant oils."

176.  The god Indra is fanned with whisks by two beautiful young girls.  

206.  "The nature of women is to be fickle and given to sentimentality."

However, women should not be treated with violence, but be protected: 

Don't do violence to women.

36. Yaksha woman named Tataka, "as powerful as a thousand elephants and able to assume any form she desired."  "Virtuous Rama was hesitant to attack a woman."

The impropriety of attacking a women is mentioned several times in the Ramayana, though this reluctance is in this case rightly overcome, the woman in question being a deadly demon.

150.  "Even when sinful, women should never be slain." 

386.  Ravana advised, "No good can ever come from killing a woman, for it is condemned by everyone."

Rape is Wrong!

6. Parvati's eyes turned red as she replied to her powerful husband.  'As this wretch has frightened a woman by his violence, his death shall be caused by a woman."

"Ravana was not at all concerned whether she was married or not.  He had stolen the wives of gods, Gandharvas and demons everywhere . ."

10.  "But this beautiful girl did not reciprocate his advance . . . (He rapes Rambha)  "If he ever again rapes another maiden he will immediately fall dead."

Rape, then, is a recognized evil.

Sex Happens

249.  "Even great sages in the forest were sometimes overcome by lust."  

250.  "Even the great Vishvamitra had once lost himself in sexual pleasure for a hundred years, thinking it to be a day."

Polygamy and its consequences

61-73.  Hunch-backed maid Manthara appears to be the only commoner in the book.  She's the villain who precipitates all the troubles.  As senior maid to king Dasareth's beautiful younger wife, Kaikeyi, she "enjoyed special privileges." "Kaushalya had long been snubbed by the king in favor of Kaikeyi."  She would get revenge when Rama became king, the maid argued.   Dasarath: "I have always neglected that godly lady in favor of you.  Remembering my acts now gives me great pain."

86. "That pain will be compounded by the cruel words of a junior wife - What could be more painful for a woman?" . . . "Kaushalya thought how she had always been neglected by her husband in favor of Kaikeyi."

So even in the ideal kingdom, it is recognized that polygamy cannot help but result in quarrels and in-fighting and misery, afflicting the next generation.   No hint it given, however, that it is therefore wrong or ought to be discontinued.

If both sages and sagely kings will grab when they can, and women should be protected, one should one do to protect them?  Well, you might try keeping them inside the house.

Guard Your Women -- by shutting them indoors?

Given that any man may give into lust, and given the apparent dearth of protections against rape

213.  Ravana kept his wives in an inner section in Lanka, with Rakshasas guarding them.

276.  "Protecting one's wife was always the duty of pious men."

The central dilemma of the Ramayana is that the divine wife of the incarnation of Vishnu has been kidnapped by the ruler of the demons, and has stayed in his home for a year.  In fact, she has adamantly refused his advances, and repined in sorry by herself, despite many cruelties visited upon her by his attendants.   But the appearance of evil is enough for him.  He cannot even be perceived as trusting his wife to refuse a rival's advances, because his people will not forgive him for being so weak. Therefore:

408.  Rama: "The people desire to see her and that is not condemned by scripture.  A house, a veil or a costume are never the protection of a chaste woman.  Her character alone is her shield. "

But that, apparently, was not enough.  The demon had held Sita at least in the act of kidnapping her:

409.  "I have not undergone this endevour out of a desire to again have you as my wife.  You have long dwelt in the house of another.  How then can I take you back into my house?  Your good character has become suspect.  Ravana clasped you in his arms and lookd upon you with a lustful eye.  Therefore, my attachment for you has ended."

So a wife need not actually commit adultery for her husband to ditch her.   She needs merely to have the possibility or suspicion of adultery.  And then he MUST get rid of her, or the neighbors will begin to talk, and he will lose their respect.

From which it follows, that the only solution is to lock women indoors.  And if you can afford it, have men who have been mutilated and cannot have sex with them guard your women.

Husband = God

92.  "So long as the king lives you should render him service, for this is the eternal moral code.  For a married woman the husband is her deity and her lord."

"The queen listened in silence as Rama, invoking the ancient religious codes, described the fate of a woman who does not serve her worthy husband . . . A woman who devotedly serves her husband, even without any other religious practices, will reach the highest heaven."

95.  She had been trained in all the arts of service.

96.  You have always instructed me that a wife can never be independent from her husband, O Rama, indeed she is half of his very self.

The husband was the wife's supreme deity.  Sita quoted the scriptures. 

107.  Whether wealthy or without any means whatsoever, he is always your worshipful deity. 

"As a lute is useless without its strings or a chariot wihout its wheels, so a wife is destitute when separated from her worthy husband . . . the husband is a veritable deity."

426.  "For a chase woman the husband is the master, deity and preceptor." 

The moral of perhaps India's most influential epic is clear, here: wives should serve their husbands as gods.  That's how to get to heaven.  Now I wonder which gender thought up that rule? 

A Good Woman should not want to live after her husband is gone!

136.  "Only Kaikeyi, casting all propriety to the winds, could live happily after seeing her husband die in agony."

148.  Although they both longed to ascend the pyre and follow their husband . . .
317.  Sita: "The death of a husband before his wife is declared to be a catastrophe."

318.  "Kill me at once, O demon. Lay my dead body on top of Rama and unite a husband with his wife."

242.  "I too shall enter the fire along with Vali.  I have no desire for life without my husband."

403.  Ravana's wife: "When I was always your devoted servant, why did you long for Sita?  Alas, my life is useless as I could not satisfy my lord."
"As my husband has renounced me in a public gathering, I shall enter fire and give up my life."

Sita does just that.  But the fire god Agni protects her, and she emerges from the fire hale and hearty.  However, her divine husband then dumps his innocent wife for the sake of propriety.


The status of women in the Ramayana is not, then, utterly black, with no chinks of light.  Men should not be violent against women, even evil women.  They should, rather, be kind to their daughters and wives.

However, women are clearly inferior to men, and should serve them in just about every way.

Furthermore, the good principle that women should be protected, is easily manipulated into a desire to control, enslave or abuse them.  Just the appearance or possibility of betrayal by their wives is enough for even a great incarnation of Vishnu to ditch his beloved wife, even after she has suffered great pains for her love for him.  The obvious solution is to follow the course of the demon Ravana, and keep one's women locked up indoors -- as the Indian upper classes would come to do.  Then one can love them (if that's really what one wants to do -- incentive is lost without a market economy in love!) without fear of betrayal.

Meanwhile, the influence of the Law of Manu, or similar texts (which we may analyze later), is already strong upon the Ramayana.  A truly faithful women, it is said again and again, will throw herself into the fire upon her husband's death, or even if he ditches her, or even just doubts her.

This is not liberation, it marks the course of enslavement that women would undergo over some two millennia, until the Good News of Jesus arrived in the subcontinent.

As we have already seen, Jesus treated women in an entirely different way.  And Jesus' teachings and examples would liberate women enslaved by the increasing degradation of women in the evolving Hindu tradition -- of which the Law of Manu provides even clearer evidence.


Anonymous said...

Dear D. Marshall,

Good to have you back! I missed your posts! Hopefully we will be seeing more soon.

Take care,

RD Miksa

David B Marshall said...

Thanks, RD. I don't know how controversial I'll have time to be -- I have a long list of "chores" to accomplish while I'm home, too.

"I don't give a damn apologetics?" About what?