Ramayana 2: Feminist Horseshoe-Politics

Horseshoe-politics is a theory that suggests that the further one moves toward a political extreme, the more one resembles those at the opposite end of the spectrum. Thus the political spectrum bends into a horseshoe shape. No doubt the theory has its limitations, but it is perceptive. During the presidential campaign, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, for example, opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Furthermore, Bernie was no pro-immigration stalwart. In one interview he described open borders as a “Koch-brothers proposal,” which would do away with the “concept of a nation-state,” language strikingly similar to that of some far-right nationalists.

I can’t imagine you’re reading my blog for contemporary politics, so forgive me. I bring this up because I have never seen a stranger moment of horseshoe politics than in the Ramayana. (I know, Ramayana is millennia old, but spoiler alert.)

Rama’s story really begins in book two, “Ayodha Kanda,” the kanda (book) set in Ayodha. Rama’s aging father king Dasaratha wants to anoint him as the Yuvaraja, the crown-prince regent. Dasaratha’s lesser wife Kaikeyi uses an old oath to force the king to disinherit and banish Rama in order that her own son Bharata should become king. Dasaratha must stand by his word, so Rama is banished to the Dandaka forest for a period of 14 years.

The Ramayana will never let the reader forget that it was composed in a deeply patriarchal society. Kaikeyi acts with “unwomanliness,” and her behavior exemplifies the poem’s misogyny. She is a virtuous queen before her handmaid, a “deformed… sinful hunchback,” manipulates her. Once she has been led astray, the queen’s ambition nearly destroys the entire state. Here are the dangers polygynous (or even monogamous) rulers have faced throughout history: women may be necessary for reproduction, but they can destroy you on a whim. Nor have we today yet abolished this nasty trope.

But once we note the fact of Ramayana‘s misogyny, we are free to explore its marvelous nuance. Through Rama’s flawless wife Sita, the Ramayana ironically allows for more female agency than many of today’s tired stories about “strong female leads.” Once he has learned that he is to be banished, Rama tries to tell his flawless wife Sita to take heart and wait for him while he is gone. “Remain here since I say so and you must accede to my wishes.” She will have none of it. “Her gentle looks vanished as though by magic.” Her eyes flash as she rebukes him.

She refutes him point by point: she is as educated in dharma as he (even as she suggests he is ignorant); she rejects that idea that the forest’s dangers should dissuade her—she is not a child; she wants to explore the forest and see the animals; she accuses him of unmanliness for abandoning those who love him. Even as she nods to patriarchal dharma, “In childhood a woman is protected by her father, in her youth by her husband and in her old age, by her son. Woman is never free. I will be your wife in the next world too,” Rama is the one with no choice: “I have made up my mind to be with you in the forest and I will not allow you to try and dissuade me from my decision.”

There is a curious, maybe insidious moment when Rama relents. He suggests that telling her to remain was all a test: “I am not hesitant to take you with me to the forest. I am capable of protecting the entire world and that was not the reason for my refusing to take you with me. I wanted to know for certain what your desire was, and without knowing it, how could I make up your mind for you?” Perhaps Rama has been somewhat manipulative. But does it matter than he has not been totally forthcoming? He acknowledges that it is her decision either way, and she is getting what she wants.

There seems also deeper reason to question how real Sita’s choice is. Would others condemn her if she chose to stay? If so, then her choice is an illusion, for only one of her options is acceptable.

The kingdom’s kulaguru Vasishtha, the “household guru” and the wisest man in the realm, thinks not. When Kaikeyi cruelly forces Sita to put on the valkala, the rough tree-bark clothes of forest hermits, Vasishtha bursts out in anger:

“Kaikeyi, you are a blot to the name of Dasaratha and to the name of Ashvapati [Kaikeyi’s father]. You have over-reached yourself in unwomanliness. You deceived the king and you are secure in the anticipation of being the queen-mother. You do not seem to set a limit to the atrocities you have been committing. Sita does not have to go to the forest. Let her be seated on the throne meant for Rama and rule the land of the Ikshvakus. It is said that a wife is one’s own self taking another form. Accordingly Sita has every right to rule the kingdom. But this goddess among women is determined to live in the forest since her lord, Rama, is leaving for Dandaka. … At the moment, you must immediately give costly gems and ornaments to Sita, your son’s wife and make her take off this hideous valkala. Only Rama has been asked to wear them in the forest since that was what you asked for. Sita will live in the forest since she wants to. But she need not wear anything else but the silks she is accustomed to.”

So Sita could stay behind. Except that the throne has been promised to Bharata, she would be well within dharma to do so. She could even rule in Rama’s stead! Sita is going because “she wants to,” and her choice really is a choice.

It is the horseshoe-politics of this hypothetical queen-regency that is so astounding. Vasishtha’s commitment to patriarchal gender hierarchy pulls him around to something weirdly feminist. Just as “negative” temperatures are “hotter” than any positive temperature could be, the restrictions of Sita’s dharma have become so extreme that they have folded in on themselves. The yoke around her neck is now so big and heavy that it is a pencil above her ear, forgotten as she busies herself with empire-altering decisions. To top it all off, the voice in her favor is another character—the royal guru, who ought to be as Tory as they come!

Again, the Ramayana is not a feminist work, but I am definitely not the first to note that the ancients often wrote better women than we do. Perhaps there is an invisible, Weinsteinian hand here. For Hollywood, the “strong female lead” (this is her only adjective) is a patina. Her role is not to empower but to erase our society’s failures from the collective consciousness. The more simplistic she is, the more effectively she allows us to self-congratulate. The fall of the many Weinsteins has made such self-congratulation much harder, and so the window for interesting women is widening, as surely is the window for those outside the gender binary. Perhaps Hollywood will one day again choke on self-satisfaction. Until then, may it breathe the clear air of a thousand Sitas.

I hope you are liking my continuing thoughts on the Ramayana! If anyone knows of any similarly strange examples of this kind of “horseshoe” thinking in myths, leave me a comment! I don’t know of any similar examples and would love to!

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