Saturday, February 19, 2011

Forgotten Women of the Ramayan, by Aparna Garg

Forgotten Women of the Ramayan, by Aparna Garg: "

One of the oldest epics in the world, the Ramayan has guided people along the path of dharma for thousands of years. Though Ramayan literally means “the path of Ram,” many of its messages are illustrated through the words and actions of other characters, particularly the women. When asked to name exemplary women from the Ramayan, most people would stop after Sita. However, in addition to Sita, there are several other characters who exemplified the principles of dharma. These women set examples for generations to come, and they serve as ideals for men and women of the 21st century.


Mandodari was the virtuous wife of Ravan who had the courage to stand up to her husband when he abducted Sita. Despite being born into a rakshas family, she had the astuteness to distinguish right from wrong and the foresight to see that Ravan’s actions would bring destruction to Lanka. She could have simply ignored this and just enjoyed the luxuries of the palace, but instead she tried arduously to bring Ravan on the right path. Because of her virtuous nature, Mandodari is considered one of the pancha kanya, a group of five women who are especially venerated in the Hindu tradition. She illustrates the importance of being able to stand up to even our family and friends when they are in the wrong.


Sumitra, the mother of Lakshman and Shatrughna, exemplified ideal motherhood. Bearing absolutely no sense of selfish personal ambition, she encouraged her sons to humbly serve their older brothers, teaching them that there is no greater dharma than that of a servant. When Ram was exiled to the forest, and Lakshman insisted on accompanying him, Ram told him that he could only do so if he had the permission of Sumitra and his wife Urmila. Without Lakshman even having to ask her, Sumitra immediately instructed Lakshman to go with Ram. She told him to take such good care of his brother and bhabhi that they would never miss home. Sumitra did everything to ensure that her sons followed their dharma. She shows that sometimes it’s necessary to give up our personal happiness for the greater good of humanity.

अवध तहां जंह राम निवासू तहें दिवस जंह भानु प्रकाशू ||

जौ पै सीय राम बन जाहीं अवध तुम्हार काजु कछु नाहीं (Ayodhya Kand, 74)

Sumitra said to Lakshman, “Ayodhya is there where Ram dwells, just as day dwells only where there is sunlight. If Sita and Ram are really proceeding to the forest, then you have no business here in Ayodhya.”


Trijata was one of the rakshasis whom Ravan ordered to guard Ashok Vatika and torture Sita. However, Trijata was blessed with a virtuous nature and devotion to Shri Ram. She defied her king’s orders and provided Sita with love and friendship. She kept Sita’s spirits high, arranged saatvik food for her, and took care of her just like a mother. When the rakshasis were troubling Sita and Sita’s hopes were falling, Trijata told everyone about her dream in which she foresaw Ram’s triumph over Ravan. This prompted the rakshasis to beg forgiveness from Sita and raised Sita’s hopes once again. Trijata proved that it is one’s actions and not one’s birth that defines a person.


Of all the women in the Ramayan, Urmila made one of the greatest silent sacrifices. She initially wanted to go with her husband Lakshman to the forest, but she realized that with her presence, Lakshman would not be able to completely fulfill his responsibilities towards Ram and Sita. So she instead stayed in Ayodhya and bore the pain of separation from her husband for 14 years; all the while, she took care of her mothers-in-law with love and affection. Lakshman asked Urmila not to shed a single tear when he left, so that he could carry in his heart the image of her face which would keep him inspired for 14 years. It was because of Urmila’s strength that Lakshman was able to serve Ram and Sita day and night as he did. Rather than entrap her husband in snares of attachment towards her, she inspired him to fulfill his dharma.


The very personification of bhakti, Shabari was a tribal woman who reached Ram through her sincere and pure devotion. In her youth, she left home and began serving the sages secretly, as she was afraid they would not accept her services if they knew that she was the daughter of a hunter. However, one sage, Matang, found out and accepted Shabari as his disciple. Before he attained samadhi, Matang told Shabari that Ram would one day come to her ashram. Everyday Shabari would pluck berries for Ram, first tasting them to make sure they were sweet, and lay a path of fresh flowers leading up to her ashram, in anticipation of Ram’s arrival. When Ram finally arrived, he happily ate Shabari’s half-eaten fruits at a time and said that they were so wonderful that they reminded him of his mother’s food. Touched by Shabari’s simplicity and devotion, Ram told her the nine types of devotion and blessed her with his divine darshan.

These women and others earned their greatness by placing Dharma before all else. Their accomplishments and sacrifices set high ideals for generations to follow.

Aparna is a student at Boston University, doing her bachelor’s and master’s in economics. Her interests include karate, reading, and writing.