An alternative version of the story of rama and sita - original boloji version
An alternative version of the story of Rama and SitaThis version begins at one of the inconsistencies in the sequence of events in Valmiki’sRamayana, in this case, an inconsistency to do with Rama’s mother Kausalya:“Kausalya” translates to “daughter of Kosala”. If Kausalya was the daughter of a king ofsome other kingdom, she would not be called “Kasusalya” – she would be addresseddifferently. Of course, Kausalya is not her given name, but her given name is nevermentioned anywhere. Why would a young prince Dasaratha, who expects to be the king,marry as his first and senior wife a local girl? I know of no such case in other ancientIndian stories.For instance, in the Mahabharata, Draupadi is called Paanchaali, but never Aindraprasthi,or Hastinaapuri (infelicitous though these names certainly are). Kunti is never calledanything other than Kunti.Another inconsistency, this time to do with Dasaratha’s childlessness:Dasaratha, we are told, was childless. But this childless king, had many years ago, giftedhis daughter Shantha to the unfortunately childless King of Anga. “Hold your horses!”,you might be tempted to exclaim. “Where did you get that story from?”. Well, it is partof Valmiki’s story. As you might know, Shantha marries the sage Rishyashringa, who isinvited by Dasaratha to perform the Putrakameshthi yagna so that the childless Dasarathacould have children.Now for a piece of plot silliness on the part of Valmiki:Valmiki represents Kausalya as a nervous queen, who has been constantly praying to thegods to ensure that her son become King. Granted, Valmiki says that Kaikeyi was thefavorite queen; but, nowhere is there an implication that Dasaratha might plan to hand thekingdom to Bharata. In fact, Kausalya’s nervousness makes no sense. Unless, of course,there was something else going on and Kausalya had reason to be nervous.The King’s inexplicably collapses when Kaikeyi makes her demands. Granted,Dasaratha is at least 58 years old. But he is not presented as a doddering old king, butsomebody who wants to crown his heir apparent. He wasn’t planning to make Rama theKing – he was planning to make him Crown Prince. Kaikeyi might have been beautiful,but kings have always had access to beautiful women and Dasaratha had a large numberof concubines. So, his weakness in the face of Kaikeyi’s demands is inexplicable.Unless, of course, there was something else going on and the story of collapse has less toit than meets the eye.To understand what that something else could have been, we should take a peek at theJain Ramayana in which Rama and Sita are not husband and wife but brother and sister.That would make them both children of Kausalya. But then Sita’s rationale for going to
the forest with Rama is meaningless – she is not his wife. The only reason Sita wouldhave had to go into exile with Rama is if the order of exile included her!Why would Kaikeyi want to exile Sita? In Valmiki’s story, this makes no sense.There is one explanation that ties these strands together. To understand it, one mustunderstand how royal inheritance works in a matrilineal family. The rulers ofTravancore-Cochin are a recent example; more ancient examples include the Pharaohs ofEgypt. The matriarch is the “Queen”. Her brother is the “King”. The matriarch may bemarried (as with the Pharaohs) or may have a visiting consort (as in Travancore). Inappears that in some ancient matrilineal tribes and nations, the matriarch had lovers butnever married. The Queen’s children inherit the power – her eldest daughter becomes thenext matriarch and one of her sons becomes the next King! From a patrilinealperspective, the Kingship goes from the King to his sister’s son.As an aside, note that the Egyptian Pharaoh legitimized his rule by marrying his half-sister and thus inherited from his father. It appears that the Egyptians found a way tomake matrilineal and patrilineal systems work to ensure patriarchy!So let us make the assumption that Kosala is a matrilineal kingdom. Dasaratha the kingis the brother of the Queen. Who could be this Queen, except Kausalya (the “daughter ofKosala”). That explains her name!It also explains the story of Shantha, another daughter of Kosala, who is married to asage. There is no puzzle if Shantha is Kausalya and Rishyashringa is her spouse.Valmiki, and any other redactors of the Ramayana, could not comprehend Kausalyabeing married to Rishyashringa while being Queen of Kosala, so they invented a daughterfor Dasaratha who was gifted away. The story of Rishyashringa’s marriage to Shantha isa pretty common fairy tale that has been grafted on to the Ramayana but adds very littlenarrative meaning to the story.In Valmiki’s story, Rishyashringa performs the yagna that produces the payasam thatmakes the Queens pregnant. One can imagine Valmiki struggling with the problem ofcasting Rishyashringa as being somehow responsible for Rama; he resolves it by makingDasaratha childless, invents a yagna, and payasam that is split between the wives ofDasaratha.In this version, no yagna is needed. Sita and Rama are Kausalya’s children and thereforeshould have been the next Queen and King.Kaikeyi is from Kekaya a kingdom in the far northwest of India. The assumption that Imake here is that matrilineal traditions were common in much of India but patriarchy andpatrilinearity were coming in from the Northwest along with nomadic settlers. We do notneed to call these settlers “Aryans” – they were probably better described as “Shakas” or“Scythians”.
Kaikeyi comes from a patrilineal culture. When Dasaratha wooed her (and the story ofher prowess in battle and the chariot is a charming one) and married her, she thought shewas marrying the King of Kosala and that her son would be the next King. Dasaratha letsher believe this (or maybe even lies to her) so that she marries him.When Kaikeyi discovers the truth, she is initially upset, but as time goes by and Kausalyadoes not have children, she begins to believe that her son could still inherit the kingdom.It is even possible that Bharata was born to her and she encouraged him to act as thoughhe would be crown prince.Kaikeyi’s behavior explains Kausalya’s nervousness. She probably felt suspicious ofDasaratha’s loyalty to her. As the Queen, she had some powers; but as the leader of thearmy, Dasaratha could easily get rid of her. After Sita and Rama were born, Kausalya’snervousness increased.Dasaratha did not bring matters to a head until it became time to crown Sita as theQueen-elect and Rama as the King-elect. At this point, if Kausalya died, Rama and Sitawould inherit and Dasaratha would lose his title and Kaikeyi would lose her position andBharata would be just another royal hanger-on.Dasaratha planned a coup that would change the system to patrilinearity, but he musthave found that this was not going to fly with the people of Kosala or the army. It ispossible that respect for tradition was too strong; it is possible that Dasaratha did notactually control all of the army and that Kausalya had her own forces. In any case, hemay have threatened to start a civil war.With civil war looming, Rama and Sita made a decision to avoid a conflict or civil warfor the moment. It is possible that Bharata had taken over operational control of the armyfrom his father. Maybe he had even put his father and Kausalya under house arrestbecause he was unsure of their commitment to the proposed change, especially if it leadto a civil war. Valmiki describes Rama and Sita as escaping at night and of Bharatafollowing them with a great army. Possibly, Bharata realized that killing Rama and Sitawas likely to be more trouble and came to an agreement with them that they must leavefor a different part of the world they knew. That would explain their decision to hike toPanchavati – not a short or simple hike by any means.It is not clear why Bharata would agree to rule in Sita and Rama’s name. But it ispossible that the tradition of a matriarch was not something easily abandoned. (Note:Even in ancient Egypt, some Pharaohs married their half-sister to become Pharaoh butdid not always have any children with them. Instead they changed the tradition slightlyso that any daughter of the Pharaoh and “the Great Queen” could be the next queen). Butin any case, it appears that part of the settlement that sent Rama and Sita to exile requiredBharata to rule with a pair of sandals as symbolic Regent. Valmiki describes these asRama’s sandals, but they could as well have been Sita’s footwear.
We know very little about how matriarchies functioned in the ancient world. Sometantalizing clues include a fire ceremony; an annual sacrifice (or maybe every 18 yearscoinciding with the eclipse cycle) of the consort; bacchanalia (like Holi but lessrestrained). We don’t know what was entailed in getting a consort for the matriarch. Wedon’t know what happened when or if the queen went on a trip – was she even allowed toleave, especially if there was any risk that she might be kidnapped. In any case, it musthave been unacceptable for her to go and live with her consort – that risked alienating herfrom her people.In a ritualistic society (and there is reason to believe that matrilineal societies were asritualistic as patrilineal ones, or maybe even more so), the queen could well leave somerepresentative object. This is speculation, but Sita’s sandals could easily represent herabsence due to a trip.So why, you might wonder, did Lakshmana go with Rama and Sita. There are somealternatives, not all of which reflect well on his motives. There is no reason to suspectthat he was not Dasaratha’s son and Bharata’s brother or half-brother. He may have beensent to ensure that Rama and Sita fulfilled their part of the deal with Bharata, and, inaddition, did not conspire with other rulers to come back with an army. (It is alsopossible that he was attached to Rama, though this seems unlikely).Lakshmana’s role as a guard puts a very different perspective on his actions inPanchavati. He does not mutilate Surpanakha to prevent her from attacking Sita.—instead, he acts to prevent Rama from forming a liaison with Ravana throughSurpanakha.Ravana does not need to kidnap Sita – she is not Rama’s wife. In the classical matrilinealsystem, the consort of the Queen visited her in her land. The Queen did not visit herconsort. From both the King’s and the people’s standpoint, the Queen’s possibleattachment to a foreigner was a risk. Her children could not be raised in a foreign land asthat might make them less attached to the land they inherited. So when Sita goes to livewith Ravana, she is violating tradition. Possibly Ravana does abduct her because shemay not have wanted to go to his home. In any case, Sita living in Lanka is not just athreat to the traditions of Ayodhya and to Bharata’s illegitimate rule there, but also toRama’s legitimate claim to be king of Ayodhya. Thus, when Sita disappears, both Ramaand Lakshmana must find her and get her back, out of Lanka.As in any good epic, there are elements of fairy-tale and adventure story and even poetrysprinkled throughout the Ramayana. Rama and Lakshmana’s excellent adventure in thewoods with Viswamitra is one; the tale of the hero breaking the bow to get the hand ofthe princess is another. The poetry of Rama and Sita’s life in Panchavati and Rama’sdeep sorrow and despair as he wanders through the forest looking for Sita is another.These episodes are exciting, fun, beautiful, and so on, but they do not need to beexplicated – they are poetic license.
Rama and Lakshmana make an alliance with Sugreeva of the Kishkindhans. But beforedoing this, Rama kills Vali the king of Kishkindha. The reason for this is hinted in whatVali’s wife Tara does after Vali dies – she marries Sugreeva who arranged to kill him.We are told that in an earlier episode, when Vali had disappeared, Sugreeva had madehimself king and taken Tara as his wife. Once you realize that the Kishkindha tribe isalso matrilineal, the changes that Valmiki made to a story that he did not fully understandis clear.Tara is the matriarch/Queen and both Vali and Sugreeva are her brothers. Vali istyrannical and arrogant and Rama realizes that Vali probably wanted to emulateDasaratha and abandon the matrilineal system. Rama needed help not just to get Sitaback out of the control of Ravana but also to return to Ayodhya. He needed an ally whowould see the justice of his claim to the throne of Ayodhya and not interpret that right asa rebuke to Vali’s own ambitions to establish patrilinearity among the Kishkindhans.Sugreeva, on the other hand, is presented as a less ambitious king, one more inclined tofollow the traditional model. Thus, Rama judges him more likely to support Rama’sclaim and not be threatened by it. That is why Rama kills Vali. The mechanics of thekilling (from hiding and so on) do not matter – they make for good drama and a goodadventure, but simply obscure the point of the killing.Rama with his army confronts Ravana and demands the release of Sita. Ravana does notsee the point – he sees that Ayodhya has become patrilineal. There is no longer anyreason to demand that the Queen never travel. Sita may have been the Queen-elect, butshe isn’t one anymore. He refuses to let Sita go. Rama needs Sita to legitimize his claimto being King of Ayodhya and the longer she stays with a consort, the more compromisedshe will appear.The resulting standoff results in a war in which Ravana dies. Note how Vibhishana, hisbrother, becomes king of Lanka – Lanka is also matrilineal! Inexplicably, Valmiki doesnot make Mandodari marry Vibhishana; however, he simply drops the ball leaving it tous to speculate.When Rama gets Sita out of Lanka, he makes her perform the fire ceremony. This isrepresented by Valmiki as a demand that she prove her “innocence”. However, the fewhints we have about the fire ceremony in ancient matriarchies is that it was an annualritual that re-established the right of the Queen and Queen-elect. As usual, sleight-of-hand (magic, if you will) ensured that the Queen survived the ordeal. There are a numberof places in Indian myth where the fire ritual is described – Holika, for instance, mighthave died in one such.At this point, I must point out that this is not a happy ending for Sita – her consortRavana has been killed. In Valmiki’s story, she had to resist Ravana because she wasRama’s wife. In this version, there is no reason to resist Ravana as a lover or as aconsort, but to the extent that Sita had not given up her desire to return to Ayodhya as
Queen, she could not accept is offer to stay with him. Once Ravana is dead, returning asQueen-elect remains the only viable option for her and she has to swallow her pain.Having defeated Ravana and established an alliance with Kishkindha and Lanka, Ramaand Sita return to Ayodhya. Lakshmana had not expected that Ravana would be killedand that Rama would emerge as the head of a strong alliance, and so Lakshmana switchessides. Lakshmana’s goals had been much more limited to getting Sita back. Faced with astronger force, Bharata is also forced to abandon his claims to power. Valmiki hasKausalya still alive at this point, but she must have died as Sita and Rama are crowned asQueen and King (and not husband and wife).The relationship between Rama and Sita continued to be tense – he was, after all, thekiller of her consort/lover Ravana. It is possible that Sita resisted liaisons with any futureconsorts; it is also possible that Rama did not trust her and did not allow her to have anymore consorts. It is also possible that Rama developed Dasaratha’s disease and wantedhis own children, Lava and Kusha, to inherit.In a matrilineal system, if the Queen does not have daughters, her sister’s children arenext in line. Sita’s sisters are Urmila, Mandvi, and Shrutikirti, and are usuallyrepresented as married to Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrugna. The Ramayana does notname any daughters in the next generation and Lava and Kusha appear to be the onlymales. It is not clear what the truth might have been.Rama’s fears about Sita and desire to ensure that Kosala passed on to his sons lead him toexile Sita – he asks Lakshmana to abandon her in the forest. Valmiki uses this exile tocreate a frame story for the self-referential recitation of the Ramayana for the first timeby Lava and Kusha at Rama’s Ashwamedha yagna. The frame story is artifice and wemay assume that Sita perishes in the forest. Valmiki represents this as Sita returning toher mother the Earth when confronted with a demand for another fire ceremony.Some loose ends – undoubtedly there are many more:What about Janaka, Sita’s father in Valmiki’s story? My speculation is that he isKausalya’s consort after Rishyashringa disappears. That makes Rama half-brother to Sita– the Egyptians would not have looked askance at their being married, but I do not knowabout the ancient Indians, so I do not assume that they were ever married to each other.Actually, in the Egyptian model, both parties would have the same father (the previousPharaoh) while Rama and Sita have the same mother. Genetically, this makes nodifference, but I don’t know that they were considered the same. Janaka’s plowing is oneof the traditional functions of a consort of the matriarch – his discovery of Sita in thefurrow of the plough is a metaphorical description of his role as consort of the matriarchand father of her daughter.What about Jatayu, Kumbhakarna, Hanuman, and so on. I think that these episodes weresplendid leaps of imagination on the part of the poet. Not to mention Hanuman’smultiple leaps across the Palk Straits.
What about Rishyashringa? He does not reappear in the story. He does not need tobecause he played out his role as consort of Kausalya. However, there is another possiblesignificance to his name, that I think explains why Rama is such a revered piece of Indianmythology. That is the subject for another article.