Ramayana – Really Regressive?


As you would probably know, I don’t much write about about things being discussed or debated (of late I don’t write much on any topic, but specifically …), but a topic which came up some time back, with some people referring to the incident from the Ramayana where Lord Rama asks for Agni-Pariksha for Goddess Sita as being regressive. Given that this didn’t quite make sense to me, I delved a little deeper, and tried to reason things out.

Now, this post is meant for people who find this incident regressive. There are a number of ways we could relate to the Ramayana. Lets look at these ways, along with where they lead us.

  • Ramayana as Literal History: One could take Ramayana as a literal telling of history, where a king asks his queen to walk through fire. Indeed, this would be regressive, but if one takes Ramayana as literal history, then one must also take a number of things, including Mareechh turning into a golden deer, Ravana abducting Goddess Sita in his Pushpak Viman, of Jatayu fighting Ravana, of the construction Ram Setu, of Lord Hanuman carrying the Dronagiri mountain, and many more, as being a literal telling of history. If one isn’t treating the Ramayana as history, then what exactly is regressive?
  • Ramayana as Social Commentary: One could on the other hand, take the Ramayana as a commentary on social norms and values of a given time. Again, if one does so, one must try to include very diverse societies, including humans, asuras, gods/demi-gods, astral beings and so on into a coherent social fabric. If one is to reject the existence of all of these, then one needs to be able to describe what each of these ‘social units’ stands for. If one isn’t even doing that, what does one find regressive here?
  • Ramayana as Fiction: One could treat the Ramayana as purely fiction, but if one were to do that, then there is only a story being told, and whats regressive about stories?
  • Ramayana as Philosophy: Many commentators have written that epics/scripture are written at multiple levels. There is a literal level, and one which is the deeper level, which actually deals with the philosophy of the scripture. The literal level is the first aspect addressed above. At the deeper level, there is immense symbolism to be found. For instance, one interpretation defines Lord Rama as the Self, the soul, the individual seeker (if you may), and Goddess Sita as the Mind. The self and the mind are in a state of perfect harmony until the mind is “abducted” by the tendencies and activities of the world (Ravana, who is defined as representing Rajo-guna, that which defines the tendency of unabashed participation in the goings-on in the world), and the mind and the self can be united only through the mind passing through a process of “cleansing” in the fires of spiritual contemplation, or meditation. Now, if one were to accept this interpretation, where does the notion of regressive come from?

So, as we can see, whichever way one looks at the epic, there doesn’t seem to be a way to define something as regressive. Unless, of course, one chooses to believe in bits and pieces from each such interpretation, and making a cocktail of beliefs. If thats what one believes, then one needs to articulate that.

Please do shed some light if you believe I missed out something.

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