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Review: Maryada: Searching for Dharma in the Ramayana by Arshia Sattar

ByAshutosh Bhardwaj
Feb 12, 2021 06:05 PM IST


224pp, ₹499; HarperCollins

It is commonly believed that while the Mahabharata is marked by various dilemmas that contest and complicate existing notions about dharma, the Ramayana, led by the great idealistic man, prescribes a specific code of conduct. Its characters mostly live a riddle-free life and, in the occasional event of self-doubts, quickly come to follow the defined code.

In the pursuit of dharma: A kecak performance at a temple in Bali. Based on the Ramayana the dance is an enactment of the great battle in which the vanaras led by Hanuman help Ram fight Ravan. (Shutterstock)

Arshia Sattar questions this perception in her new book, Maryada: Searching for Dharma in the Ramayana, and demonstrates that the characters in the Valmiki Ramayana face multiple and conflicting choices in the pursuit of dharma at crucial junctures. In seven profound and creatively titled essays — Ayodhya’s wives, The Women Outside and Lakshamana Seeks the Limits — Sattar peels open the various layers of the epic to establish that dilemmas are “the narrative spine of the story” and hence Valmiki’s text “cannot provide us with a single template for right action”.

Of all the books Sattar has written on the Valmiki Ramayana, a text with which she has been working for the last 35 years, this one is perhaps the most insightful. It examines the nature of maryada, the limits that influence the actions of characters and shapes the narrative.

The first major challenge arrives with Rama’s exile, and begins Sattar’s enquiry: on what grounds can Dasharatha and Kaikeyi be held responsible for the exile? Dasharatha had to choose among his conflicting dharmas as a father, as a husband, and as a king. Not only had Dasharatha married Kaikeyi on the condition that her son would be king, he had also given her two boons. Kaikeyi’s dharma as a mother lent some justification to her demand. The responsibility of both Kaikeyi and Dasharatha rests on the premise that they choose their individual dharma over their greater duty as king and queen.

At the heart of Sattar’s endeavour is the profound distinction she makes between being right and being just, a distinction that recurs through the epic. One may be right without necessarily being just. Rama may be right in killing Shambuka because, as a king, he had to perform his duty but he was certainly not just. Almost every character of the epic undergoes this duel between two choices that they often find situated on opposite poles.

Rama is conscious of the injustice of which he becomes, both, a victim and a carrier. Though he accepts his father’s decree, he can clearly see the wrong that his father has committed and can speak about the “disaster that has befallen me as a result of the king’s infatuation”. On his first night in exile, he tells Lakshmana, “Even an ignorant man would not renounce his son for the sake of a beautiful woman… He who abandons wealth and dharma and chases after pleasure shall soon destroy himself, like Dasharatha did.”

The ideal of kshatriya dharma has now come to acquire an inviolable space in cultural memory but it is repeatedly contested in the Valmiki Ramayana. Rama is aware of the moral hurdles inherent in his pursuit as he describes kshatriya dharma as “fundamentally unrighteous”. Both Sita and Laskshmana urge him to give up his kshatriya code on several occasions.

Sattar insightfully terms Lakshmana as Rama’s “alter ego” who “acts out the more troublesome aspects of another character’s personality”. It was perhaps in the pursuance of this trope that the younger brother, who strongly opposed Rama’s idea of dharma, decides to kill himself by drowning in the river, perhaps to demonstrate that the “unmitigated righteousness” can lead to self-destruction.

The narrative gains more complications upon entering Dandakaranya. The forest’s code is different from that of the city. The liminal zone offers a space where multiple dharmas can co-exist. Sita advises Rama to follow the dharma of the forest but he cannot avoid evaluating the monkeys of Kishkindha and the rakshasas of Dandakaranya by the code he had learnt in the city. The idea of dharma gets further contested in Lanka. Many rakshasas recite vedas; Ravana is described in majestic terms. And if it’s the innate nature of rakshasas to be cruel and wicked, one cannot perhaps call them adharmic for following their svabhava.

But Rama knows only one dharma, which takes precedence over others. Characters like Vibhishana and Sugriva will have to abandon their innate traits and aspire to the code Rama offers. Sattar wonderfully observes that Rama is the ideal man not because he doesn’t commit mistakes, but “because it is he against whom all others are judged”.

Arshia Sattar

A great text is as much about its actuality, as its unfulfilled possibilities. After capturing the spirit of the epic in words that resonate for long: “Dharma is what Rama does”; Sattar also underlines that adherence to “a dharma rooted in truth rather than in social status and roles could have made Rama’s choices very different.”

In the pursuit of dharma: A kecak performance at a temple in Bali. Based on the Ramayana the dance is an enactment of the great battle in which the vanaras led by Hanuman help Ram fight Ravan. (Shutterstock)

Sattar is compassionate and empathetic to the characters. She avoids moral judgment on their lapses and even when she examines the apparent conflict in their stance and the injustice it causes, her attempt is to understand them. This wise commentary that deeply enhances our understanding of the Ramayana should be an essential read for our times that insist on a monochromatic interpretation of the epic.

Let me end with what I believe is the most profound perspective Sattar offers. Hanuman, she argues, embodies the greatest philosophical challenge to the authority and ideal of Rama. Whereas Rama is always bound by a range of duties, the liminal being Hanuman is the only character in the epic who doesn’t have any conflicting familial or social obligations, and hence can subjectively choose his dharma without any constraint. Despite realising that kshatriya dharma “attracts the base, the cruel, the greedy and those inclined to be wicked”, Rama cannot abandon it because he cannot avoid being the maryada purushottam. Lakshamana can at best confront Rama, but he has to follow the elder brother. On the other hand, Hanumana can choose his actions freely and aspire to be both righteous and just. A monkey who enters the tale of the great Ikshvakus midway goes on to become a standalone revered deity in subsequent eras. That perhaps speaks about the aspirations of the civilisation that the epic wanted to represent.

Ashutosh Bhardwaj is an independent journalist and writer. His recent book, The Death Script, traces the naxal insurgency.

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