Valmiki's Ramayana comes to closure on Dussehra as far as the annual round of conventional celebrations are concerned. Ravana is vanquished, Ram is victorious and begins his journey back to Ayodhya, taking Sita with him, only to persecute her more.
The above social advertisement in 'Times of India' dated dt. Oct-3-2014 caught my eye for its blatant misuse of the metaphor of Ravana. In spite of being printed in one of the most prestigious papers of India, its inability to rise above the mundane bothers me. The complete concept of this advertisement is entrapped in a flawed stereotype of Ravana. It makes the usual fallacy that many advertisers and mass communicators make, i.e. adhering to the status quo of popular beliefs. In this advertisement, Ravana is just ‘the bad guy’, and since people's perception is usually limited to this, no one takes trouble to break the stereotype. After all, does it make any difference, how the common men and women of India perceive Ravana, as long as the annual drama goes on providing the requisite dose of thrill, entertainment and commercial profits? The following video made me realize that it makes a bigger difference than anyone imagined and we have got to put the record straight.
Was Ravana a rapist ? Had we been burning the effigy of a rapist every year we would not have been where we are right now in rape statistics. Ravana never raped Sita. He believed in human rights for women and his revenge was also for upholding his sister Surpanakha’s right to express admiration for a man without having her face permanently disfigured. If today, Lakshman had done what he did, he would be behind bars for assault, battery, physical harassment of a woman, disfiguring a victim, criminal trespass to person and more sections of the Penal Code than I would care to list here. I am sure Ravana would have hired the best lawyers to ensure Laxman be sent in for a long haul. May be he would had hired Ram Jethmalani to fix Ram Laxman!
The problem is that in our mythology villains have upheld women's rights but remained villains in spite of that and our heroes have disregarded them but continue to be heroes. Take for instance Mahabharata where in an assembly of exalted figures including Bhishma, Dronacharya, Vidura and many others, it was only Vikarna, a Kaurava, who questioned the act of disrobing Draupadi. Maharishi Ved Vyas exposed the impotence of the heroes in his epic and deliberately did not pass the honour of saving Draupadi's honour to anyone less than Lord Krishna. The irony is that before setting the stage for this gruesome drama he made Draupadi commit the 'sin' of having a good laugh at Duryodhna for his flawed perception. Duryodhana's actions have ben interpreted by many commentators as a response to this thoughtless provocation. Did Draupadi's satirical laughter deserve a revenge as harsh as public stripping? If this be the state, it is easy for common man to believe that rapes and acid attacks mostly are punishment meted out to the victim for some or the other of her own fault such as dressing boldly, laughing around with friends or going for a late night movie with her husband, boyfriend or brother ? For his act of attempting to disrobe Draupadi, Duryodhana was killed by his legs being split apart by Bhim. Can the Indian legal system play Bhim today, or will it continue to stand and stare like the mute Bhishma ?
We all should be aware that in our law today, if a woman complains of having been raped, the burden of proving his innocence lies on the man. The victim cannot be harassed or subjected to repeated interrogation and humiliation. Though this law empowering women came after a long drawn battle by legal and social activists, the common man on the street is not aware of it. Yes, he knows the annual Ramleela well in which he sees Sita walking through fire to prove her innocence. So if today’s Sita has to pass through fire of hellish and lecherous police interrogation and repeated courtroom visits to helplessly plead again again that she is not fabricating a story, its not considered a big deal. Why? Well Did Lord Rama also not think that the onus of proving her innocence lies on woman, the victim, rather than the perpetrator of crime ?
To ensure a practical reduction in crime against women this mindset embedded as deeply as the characters of Ram and Sita themselves, must go. There is dire need to reorient and redefine our approach to our literature, folklore and popular metaphors. At least the next generation should know with certainty that the deeply philosophical stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata are in fact brilliant learning tools rather than idols for blind faith and worship. There are a million beautiful lessons to learn from these epics in terms of philosophy, wisdom, understanding of life, interpersonal relationships etc. Let the new generation also know that the gods we worship were not perfect. They have their own failings from which we are meant to learn. Had Valmiki's aim of telling the story of Ramayana just been to present a banal tale of good versus evil, he wouldn't have gone into intricacies of Ravana's character in such detail. He wouldn't have presented so vividly his being a great ruler, an able administrator, a yogi, a warrior and of course a man ten times more intelligent than a common man. Ramayana like Mahabharata is about the greys that we encounter in our daily life and how we can handle them, what are the places where the best amongst us go wrong and the wisdom to navigate the quagmires of life. In order to truly pay respects to our scriptures we need to rise above blind faith and approach them with a respectful desire to learn. Our 'gods' would want us to do so, because they were our past but we are their future.
... Divya Gurnay