Student Research: Complications Within a Feminist Sita

This post originally appeared on the REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions blog. An explanation, introduction, and justification for my class’ final research project can be found here (and also here).

Complications Within a Feminist Sita
by Kathryn Meader

Sita is often heralded as the ideal woman, the ideal wife, and the ideal mother. A monumental and intimidating character, she is almost more central to the Ramayana than Rama himself. She is the mother of Rama’s children, and cares for them as the poet Valmiki recounts her story. When Sita arrives on the banks of the Ganga, Narada says to the poet, “Get up, save her life, and let her live here with you and your companions; and make in measured words the song of Rama”(Buck, 6). She frames the story, and she sculpts the story, all while still maintaining an outward appearance of a demure, submissive wife. The image of an ideal wife as dependent upon her husband is an attractive one to a mainly misogynistic society, but what happens when women take ownership of Sita as a role model? Do they see a demure, restrained woman, or is she transformed? In feminist readings of the Ramayana, Sita is still seen as an ideal for every woman to strive for, but she is far from quiet. She is fierce as she endures a trial by fire to prove her faithfulness, and is strong as she defies her husband when he asks her a second time to walk through the flames. In many ways, this moment within the text can be used as a focal point from which to see the various ways in which her image is manipulated popularly in both feminist and traditional reads of the text.

In Madhu Kishwar’s article, “Yes to Sita, No to Ram” she explores the popular understanding of Sita as a woman “whose sense of Dharma is superior to and more awe inspiring than that of Ram – someone who puts even maryada purushottam Ram – the most perfect of men – to shame”(Kishwar,1).  This deeper read of Sita’s character is much more compelling than the simple, surface level understanding. She is not a meek woman who allows herself to be enslaved and mistreated by her husband. She is a fierce creature with a sense of pride and duty, whose rejection of Rama is the ultimate representation of dignity.

Looking at her actions within the Ramayana, one can open up the possibility for a feminist read of Sita that is at once empowering and quite complicated. It is complicated simply because if she is the ideal woman, and he the ideal man, how can the reader comprehend and rationalize the horrid mistreatment that Rama puts her through? In Linda Hess’s article “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife” she goes into an analysis of the various versions of the Ramayana and how these versions betray the cultural attitude towards Sita’s treatment, and what we can learn from these variations. She attempts to understand the issues involved with using such a complicated character as an image of empowerment, while she is simultaneously being used as an image of oppression.

Today more than ever before, Sita is a site of contestation. The Sita who clung to the dharma of worshiping her husband and bowing to his will, even when he repeatedly and cruelly rejected her, is still embraced as the ideal woman by many Hindus of both sexes. But others, increasingly, are describing that ideal as concocted by and serving the interests of dominant males from ancient times to the present. (Hess, 27-28)

The culminating moment of Sita’s story in the Ramayana comes during her trial by fire when she and Rama return victorious to Ayodhya. Her devotion to Ram is so complete that she is willing to walk to fire to prove that she had not touched or been touched by another man during her absence. His lack of faith in her, and unwillingness to prove to his people her innocence is what causes her eventual exile. This moment of Sita within the flames has been depicted countless times. Images have many layers of meaning, and every character in these depictions is giving us insight into the commentary of the artist. Sita is often shown serenely within the flames, with Agni by her side as Ram and Lakshman look on coldly. Hanuman is sometimes turned away from the sight. Each character is giving an opinion of the trial, as well as their opinion of Rama’s actions, through their body language.

“Sita’s Ordeal by Fire” (c.1895) from the British museum

In this popular depiction of the scene from c. 1895, Sita is as serene as ever, and the god Agni is faithfully by her side, but what is going on in the audience is very interesting. Rama is being restrained forcefully from entering the flames to save his love, while Hanuman shields his eyes (whether in aversion for the sight or disapproval of Ram, one cannot be sure). This version of the image is interesting because it illustrates the mixed feelings that Ram must have had about the ordeal for Sita. This image emphasizes the popular belief that Rama was wrong to exile her from the palace after she had proved herself to him, not to mention the fact that she was pregnant with twins. These opinions are not found within the text, and are a clear example of popular understanding of the story working its way into more widespread imagery.

Another important arena where a more feminist read of Sita flourishes is within the folk tradition of songs. In Rashmi Luthra’s article she goes into the connections between main female characters in the epics and the way they are represented in popular folk songs. The re-articulations within this setting create greater space for the elaboration and positioning of post-colonial Indian feminisms. The epics continue to be an important part of the cultural field and these appropriations are placed within the debate over the use of traditional narratives, in order to garner insight into the potential of the narratives as a resource for feminist projects. (Luthra, 35). Usha Zacharias is engaged in the same project of examining post-colonial feminisms in her article “Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation.” Zacharias moves between the development of Indian feminism and various instances of Sita’s character within the Ramayana, and serves to illustrate how Sita’s image is used to create the modern ideal of female citizenship. The ideal being pushed is that of a strong woman who stands up for herself, but also understands her place within the larger scheme.

Sita is a character that does not receive the development that she deserves within the text of the Ramayana. When she is understood in the hearts and minds of the readers, her personality and actions are elaborated in ways that are not always the way that the text intended. She can be used by the most traditional of men to set forth an example of their perfect, subordinate wife, while simultaneously being used as a rallying point for women who have had enough of their husbands. All who read her story carefully witness the strength within her character, but the way her image is employed in the popular arena illustrates the variations to be found within this ancient text.

Works Cited:

Buck, William, and B. A. van Nooten. Ramayana. Third Edition. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press, 2012.

Hess, Linda. “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 67. No. 1 (March, 1999).

Kishwar, Madhu. “Yes to Sita, No to Ram: The Continuing Hold of Sita on Popular Imagination in India,” in Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Luthra, Rashmi. “Clearing Sacred Ground: Women-Centered Interpretations of the Indian Epics,” Feminist Formations 26, no. 2 (2014): 135–61.

Zacharias, Usha. “Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation.” Social Text 19, no. 4 (2001): 29–51.

“Sita’s Ordeal by Fire.” British Museum. (Click on image above for link)

Student Research: Rama and Ravana’s Divine Antagonism

This post originally appeared on the REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions blog. An explanation, introduction, and justification for my class’ final research project can be found here (and also here).

Rama and Ravana’s Divine Antagonism
by Celia DeLago

Standard depiction of Rama and Ravana's divinely antagonistic relationship.

Standard depiction of Rama and Ravana’s divinely antagonistic relationship.

Through this post, I will be exploring both the mystical relationship of Ravana and Rama; as well as how their characters were viewed moralistically at the time through the use of Tulsi’s views on society; to explore how Ravana and Rama’s relationship affects how we view the deeper messages that Valmiki gave us within the Ramayana.

The symbolism of Rama and Ravana’s relationship within Buck’s Ramayana, as well as through the lens of Tulsidas’ Ramacaritmanas, conveys complex philosophical concepts, such as the nirguna (supreme formless reality) and saguna (manifestation of god in form) aspects of reality through their, at times, antagonistic guru-disciple relationship. The multifaceted relationship of Rama and Ravana is not covered in every version of the Ramayana. However, William Buck’s retelling of this epic allows us to explore their deeper relationship through poetic language.

The potential guru-disciple relationship between Rama and Ravana shapes our perception of the philosophical concepts presented within the Ramayana. The narrative of the nuanced relationship between “good” and “evil,” encapsulated in Rama and Ravana’s feud, attempts to shape our views of reality. The acknowledgment of the ambiguity of “good” and “evil,” accentuated and played with by an eternal, infinite timeline, encourages and, at times, forces the reader to open their minds to a deeper understanding of reality. The infinite change that occurs as a result of the infinite timelines of the various deities leaves much room for the changing and developing of characters. The use of themes like telepathic communication, divine powers and mystical experience among the deities gives the readers a glimpse into the deeper, “true” reality beyond the epic of these characters. Ultimately, Ravana is defeated by Rama. Suka delivers a stone from Ravana to Rama, and we learn that Ravana is actually Rama’s devotee. Ravana lauds Rama as Lord Narayana, as the Supreme, and reveals that even while Rama is unaware that he is secretly a deity, Ravana has been aware all along, because his bhakti towards Rama and his desire to attain moksha through devotion to Rama has allowed him to always see Rama’s true form. Rama dismisses this revelation out-of-hand; and through this seemingly simple gesture, the dharma of Ravana is perfected and completed, as Rama lives on as king of Ayodhya (Buck).

As an interesting cultural observation: I decided to Google search phrases like "Rama's negative qualities" while doing research for this paper. Many people have posted questions such as, "Why is Ravana considered evil?," "What are some of Rama's negative traits?," etc. Here were some interesting responses (perhaps of Rama devotees and traditionalists) that I found.

As a cultural observation: I decided to Google phrases such as “Rama’s negative qualities” while doing research for this paper. Many people posted questions previously such as, “Why is Ravana considered evil?,” “What are some of Rama’s negative traits?,” etc. Here were some interesting responses that I found.

We can acknowledge the goodness within Ravana, and the lack of moral integrity and humanity within Rama; And ultimately, we must acknowledge their deeper relationship. Ravana’s goodness is highlighted and emphasized at important times (often before he is beaten down by humility once again). Ravana earned his boon through engaging in austerities for almost 10,000 years to Lord Shiva; was released from Lord Vishnu’s mountain-cage for his beautiful songs; and, ultimately, confessed his sincere guru-devotion to Rama (12, 35, 350-351 Buck). On the other hand, Rama engages in mutual deformation of Surpanakha and disrespect to Ravana; and continually treated Sita in reprehensible ways, requiring her to undergo Agni Pariksha (trial by fire), and ultimately banishing her while she is pregnant with two children (Buck).

The morality (and amorality) of both Rama and Ravana shapes the applicability of these concepts to our own lives: we may be intrigued by Ravana’s asceticism or beautiful singing, but his actions, such as killing the virtuous, saintly Vulture King Jatayu, may make us question the efficacy of, say, certain rituals, or moralistic beliefs and alliances. These multifaceted characters exist as animate representations of important archetypes and symbols found, for example, within various religious traditions: the duality of the yin-yang, as well as the tomoe; the boisterous behavior of the Greek and Roman gods, etc. Humans can relate to characters that have many facets, who fail and act in evil ways but also strive for goodness.

It is also important to investigate the ethics and morality of Ravana and Rama, informed by Tulsidas’ approach to society and his views on ethical, spiritual and social qualities found within Savitra Chandra’s article on Hindu social life (49, Chandra). Evaluating the characters of the Ramayana through the lens of the cultural attitudes of the time, we can gain a better understanding of how norms shaped the epic and thus informed cultural attitudes. It is easy to display some of the strange cognitive dissonance that seemingly comprises most of the characters in the Ramayana: Rama is held as the ultimate, the Supreme, but still performs actions that are deplorable. Ravana is a rapist, a misogynist and a murderer, as well as being a previously-devout ascetic for almost 10,000 years. The complexity of these characters affects how we interpret the philosophical concepts of Buck’s Ramayana by giving us these messages through questionable characters.

In Chandra’s “Two Aspects of Hindu Social Life and Thought,” we learned that, although Tulsidas was a bhakti devotee of Rama, a man considered a saint, he also held worrisome views about his basis of qualifying members of society (49, Chandra). Through Chandra’s description of uttam, we can conclude Rama falls within the high first category, and had obviously lorded over Ram-Rajya (the kingdom of Ram; the greatest kingdom in history before the fall into Kali Yuga): “The ethical and spiritual qualities…include humility, absence of arrogance, straightforwardness, equanimity, lack of attachment to worldly things, and above all, a sense of discrimination or understanding of good and bad” (49, Chandra). Chandra goes on to say that “Tulsi includes good rulers and their agents in the category of uttam” (Chandra, 50). Rama also committed negative deeds, towards Ravana and his sister Surpanakha, in a way that was lacking in humility. To summarize: “He seems utterly unaware of having done Ravana any harm” (97, Goldman).

It is also hard to decipher where Ravana belongs within Tulsi’s view of society. Chandra "Depiction of Satan," Gustave Doré c. 1868discusses nich, a person of low quality or status who needs to be kept firmly under control (Chandra, 52). We may very easily draw this parallel to Ravana, who is portrayed as the lowest of the low throughout the epic. We, as the readers, are encouraged to hate Ravana from the beginning solely based on the title of the epic. But Ravana is not evil through and through; Ravana is more akin to Satan, a fallen angel capable of goodness but prescribed by the fates to committing negative deeds until his death. At the same time, however, Ravana, like Rama, ruled over a kingdom (Lanka), and had devoted servants. He was born a Brahmin, and was an ascetic devotee of Lord Shiva.

Interestingly enough, those who would be considered nich by Tulsi have come to express sympathy for Ravana, often as a political gesture against oppression:

“Glorification of Ravana is not unknown. According to a minor tradition, the demons of Vishnu are successive reincarnations of his attendants, who take this form in order to be near him…In modern times, Tamil groups who oppose what they believe to be the political domination of southern India by the north view the story of Rama as an example of the Sanskritization and cultural repression of the south and express their sympathies for Ravana and against Rama.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Ravana has been utilized as a cultural, political symbol that extends beyond his original intended purpose within the myth, and for good reason. If we cannot clearly decipher the moral integrity of the designated antagonist, it is fair to say that we cannot trust that the appointed protagonist is worthy of our admiration.


1.Eck, Diana. Darśan. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

2. Buck, William, and Vālmīki. Ramayana. Berkeley: University of California, 1976.

3. Velchuru Narayana Rao,“Rāmāyaṇa,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Edition, ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 7616-7618.

4. Rama and Lakshmana Fighting Ravana (India, Pahari, Bilaspur School). 1750. Painting. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Edward L. Whittemore Fund, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

5. Savitri Chandra, “Two Aspects of Hindu Social Life and Thought, as Reflected in the Works of Tulsidas,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Feb., 1976), pp. 48-60.

6. Goldman, R., and J. Masson. “Who Knows Ravana?–A Narrative Difficulty in the Valmiki Ramayana.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 50.1/4 (1969): 95-100. JSTOR. Web.

7. McCrea, Lawrence. 2010. “Poetry beyond good and evil: Bilhaṇa and the tradition of patron-centered court epic.” Journal Of Indian Philosophy 38, no. 5: 503-518. ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost (accessed October 24, 2014).

Hyperlink Bibliography:

8. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Ravana.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

9. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Rama (Hindu Deity).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

10. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Tulsidas.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

11. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Ramayana (Indian Epic).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

12. “Ramcharitmanas.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .












Student Research: Hanuman, a Pop-Culture Icon

This post originally appeared on the REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions blog. An explanation, introduction, and justification for my class’ final research project can be found here (and also here).

Hanuman, a Pop-Culture Icon
by Dory Cooper

In modern media Hanuman, the beloved half-monkey god, stars in popular comic books, saturday morning cartoons, and feature films targeted toward children ages 3-8. He is a rebellious, tounge in cheeck,“bad guy fighting” superhero that all children want to be like. He is an icon and role model for boys young and old. However in traditional tellings of the Ramayana, Hanuman is presented as a devotee of Rama, the original star of the epic. Are these two contrasted characteristics given to Hanuman to attract young boys to the positive characteristic of the role model and story of the Ramayana, or are the positive characteristics lost in the crime fighting action?

Hanuman is featured and praised in Buck’s Ramayana as a devotee and hero for saving Ram through several brave acts. In Buck’s Ramayana, Hanuman is characterized as calm, collected, brave, strong, all knowing, modest, and a problem solver. Because of his actions, Hanuman joins the “good guy” side of the epic battles along with Ram, Lakshmana, and Sita. However, Hanuman’s characteristics contrast boldly from the other “good guys” of the story. Ram is presented as flaky, unreasonable, selfish, focussed on his strength, and often makes rash decisions. Lakshmana is a dedicated brother who follows Rama’s every command and rarely disagrees.  On the contrary, Hanuman boldly shows his disagreement with Ram’s character and is never presented as acting for himself.

Wolcott’s article “Hanuman: The Power-Dispensive Monkey in North Indian Folk Religion” discusses the importance that Hanuman has on popular traditons and that he is the most celebrated/significant character of the Ramayana. Many see Hanuman as a doorway to God because he helps Ram/God in ways that he couldn’t do himself. For example, Hanuman is  the only one who is able to find Sita and Ram then  becomes dependent on him to complete his mission.  There are a lot of side stories that go along with the Ramayana and the most popular feature Hanuman. Wolcott  notes that there are also more temples and shrines dedicated Hanuman than for Ram or Sita. Wolcott argues that this is because Hanuman is more relatable and seen as more of an everyday hero.

In order to understand how Hanuman is understood by modern children, I took a look at media commonly consumed by children in India. Comic books, morning cartoons, and big screen movies are largely consumed by young children as they are highly accessible and quite entertaining. As anyone can remember from their own childhood, the movies and TV shows we watch as children are remembered and idolized through adulthood. This media is and highly imfluencial on children’s behavior and interests.

Amar Chitra Katha’s comic book version of the Ramayana is widely distributed and is  presented in an accessible and exciting way to children. This version of the Ramayana is

“Then Hanuman assumed a huge form… and leaped into the sky!”

fast-paced and focused on the battlesand adventures between Ram, Ravana, and Hanuman. Hanuman is depicted as a large and strong figure who saves the “good guys” from the “bad guys,” a common comic book storyline. This depiction of Hanuman as stronger hero than Ram, puts Hanuman’s importance in the Ramayana on a pedestal over Ram. It shows young boys that if you are brave, strong, and a little cheeky, you may outsmart “evil” and do your role in saving the “good.” This sets the standard that risky, rebellious, sneaky behavior that shows your strength is seen as positive in young boys. In this version his calmness and modesty, two important characteristics to instill in young boys, is little seen.

When researching modern images of Hanuman, I came across this ad for a film titled “Hanuman Returns.” The image was alongside an article published by Animation Xpress in 2011 discussing the release of a spin-off television show to the movie.The movie and television show are produced by POGO, a popular channel for children and families. According to their website, POGO is available in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan and in 5 different languages. The movie and television series is reaching many children, and is pretty obviously targeted at young boys. This image and other modern portrayals of Hanuman are the most useful materials for getting a glimpse of how young boys interpret both Hanuman’s interactions in a religious context and how his behaviors may impact their behaviors.

The ad depicts a reincarnation of Hanuman in the center with several characters from the Ramayana behind him, including Ram. Hanuman is depicted as a young boy, which attracts young boys and sets him as a role model for behavior. He is dressed in modernclothing, but his monkey features, mouth, ears, and tail, are apparent. Hanuman is drawn to be larger than the other characters showing his importance in both the storyline of the movie, but also reflects his role in the Ramayana as young boys will interpret it. Hanuman stands with his arms folded and at a casual pose to be understood as feeling calm about the “bad guys” and gods standing behind him – he is not afraid or nervous to be in their presence, but standing in a position as if he is above the other characters. A lightning bolt and color change divides the ad, categorizing the “good” and the “evil.” The producer summarizes the plot as Hanuman “using his superpowers to vanquish evil and protect the innocent.” It is obvious that the right side of the ad represents the evil and that Ram and Laksmana represent the good. This gives the message to children that some people are always good while others are always bad. As we mentioned in class, the Ramayana itself does not make such a clear distinction.

The Economic Times draws attention to the fact that children, specifically in India, are heavily drawn to animation and animated movies. Using animation, similar to the comic book depiction, makes the stories of the Ramayana more desired, accessible, and relatable to young children.

The article also points to POGO, the home of the Adventures of Hanuman cartoon series, as one of the largest and growing childrens television channels. Since lot of children in India are watching POGO and The New Adventures of Hanuman, his portrayal in this series is very influential on their behavior. The New Adventures of Hanuman depicts the Hanuman boy avatar as the leader of his friend group and problem solving hero. He is fast, strong, brave, takes risks, and acts as a good friend. The children’s television series is fast paced, colorful, full of exciting music, and seems like it would keep any child under the age of nine entertained.

Setting Hanuman as a beloved children’s character makes the story of the Ramayana extremely accessible to anyone and becomes imbedded in pop-culture. As a pop-culture icon, Hanuman becomes the star of the Ramayana. Creators of mass media featuring Hanuman have a lot of power in fostering children’s understanding of religion as they grow older as well as their behavior. In general the produced mass media of Hanuman portrays him as strong, brave, risky, and always willing to help a friend to save the day from the “bad guy.” After consuming media glorifying Hanuman boys’ will most likely perceive the story of the Ramayana in a different light. Instead of seeing it as Ram’s story, they may instead view the series of events as an explanation of Hanuman’s character and more depth of the stories they learned to know and love.

Monks, Politics and anti-politics

What do you do when religion and politics get mixed up? In Thailand, this has happened recently, largely in the midst of the larger conflict that has been going on in society for the last decade.


In the last few weeks, there have been three different stories in the English media in Thailand involving Buddhist monks and temples. The first two, from the English-language branch of the “Khaosod” (“Fresh News!”) website, had a distinctly “yellow” – as in yellow shirt (royalist) – hue. The first was about everyone’s “favorite” firebrand monk, Buddha Issara. Luang Puu Buddha Issara was one of the protest leaders from January to May of this year which aimed to “shut down Bangkok,” prevent elections in February and generally make things miserable for the caretaker government led by Yingluck Shinawatra. These protests, ostensibly about the corruption of the Thai government, ultimately precipitated the coup in May. In mid-November, Buddha Issara delivered a letter to the legislative and reform council of Thailand providing several proposals about how to reform Thai society and get rid of corruption. The article is not about the letter he delivered, but about the warm reception he received from the lawmakers who said that they appreciated his letter, and that his proposal is “very beneficial to the administration and economy of [the] nation.” Buddha Issara is a fascinating monk, in part because (at least when I was in Bangkok last spring) he was something of a bell weather of people’s political stance. With some interesting exceptions among monks, people who were generally “reds” (red shirts – pro-democracy/Thaksin/anti-royalist party, though not anti king) disliked him and said he was “not a monk,” and those that were generally “yellow” appreciated what he was doing in leading the protests.

The second article is about a monk, Phra Papakaro (receiving alms in picture above), giving a decoration to a high-ranking police officer in Surat Thani, one of the Southern provinces of Thailand. Phra Papakaro was, until recently, also a protest leader, and former politician, named Suthep Taungsubal. Suthep is a former deputy prime minister, and leader of the Democrat Party, and was the principle leader of the protests that took place starting in the fall on 2014, precipitated by the amnesty bill put forward by Yingluck, which was opposed by most Thais on the grounds that it would have pardoned her brother (on the Red side) and the leaders of the Democrat Party that ordered the clearing of central Bangkok in 2010 which led to the deaths of some 70 protesters and another twenty or so members of the police/military. These leaders were primarily Suthep and Abhisit, the Prime Minister at the time. Suthep was the leader of most of the protests from January to May 2014, but Buddha Issara was an aligned figure, a fellow traveler in the yellow movement if you will, rather than a follower of Suthep’s (and indeed, throughout the spring, there were various moments of tension between these two figures; the first picture is the two of them talking). In the immediate aftermath of the coup in May, Suthep crowed a great deal about his close relationship with General Prayuth (the leader of the coup, and now the prime minister). While the coup-led government has worked hard to institute reforms that resemble what the protesters were calling for, particularly in June, it also wanted to call itself independent and Gen Prayuth did not appreciate Suthep’s general demeanor. And so right about a month later, Suthep ordained as a monk. In this he has followed a well-worn path of politicians seeking to avoid political troubles in the monkhood.


This brings us to the last piece, an op-ed in the Bangkok Post by Sanitsuda Ekachai, is about the need to keep Suan Mokh free of politics. Suan Mokh is a temple that was established by the important reformist monk, Buddhadasa, in the early 1930s as a place to reform Thai Buddhism and “return to the roots of Buddhism.” It has been an important place over the decades for meditation movements in Thailand (as well as reflective of Buddhadasa’s fairly eclectic architectural vision) and middle class Thais and foreigners interested in meditation programs have flocked there over the decades, though by most accounts it’s been fairly quiet since Buddhadasa’s death in the early 1990s. It is also where Suthep/Papakaro, the erstwhile leader of the protests leading up to the coup in May has gone since he ordained this past summer. As Khun Sanitsuda notes, hundreds of people come to visit Suthep each week, not so much disturbing the peace of the place as giving it an overtly yellow-shirted cast that it had not had before. Moreover, while monks are forbidden by an order of the Supreme Sangha Council from participating in politics, Suthep bestowed a decoration on a Surat Thani policeman, described in the article as a “hardcore yellowshirt” activist. This he did as a monk.


Here’s the thing that I think is interesting about the coincidence of these two events: the play of politics, or rather the way that “politics” becomes a problem for monks to address. As noted above, monks are not supposed to be involved with politics because they are supposed to be learning, preserving and teaching the dhamma. Good/pure/original Buddhism is free of politics,

just as Khun Sanitsuda suggests Suan Mokh should be. The opposite is also true – Buddhism which is not free of politics is necessarily tainted. And indeed one of the critiques that one occasionally hears about monks like Buddha Issara is that they are tainted by politics, they are “political monks”. Yet in many ways this is an anti-political discourse, in which Thais (among others) fail to acknowledge or perhaps better specifically refuse to acknowledge how monks are engaged in politics. Khun Sanitsuda talks about Suan Mokh under Buddhadasa as a place that was free of politics but then she notes that he was critical of capitalism and urged inter-faith understanding with Muslims (who are a much larger part of the population in the southern part of Thailand). These are of course highly political acts and being accused of being a communist in Thailand during the Cold War potentially had serious consequences (just as reading 1984 in public or using the Hunger Games salute can be in this post-coup moment).


Ironically, when I interviewed Buddha Issara in June, he told me that he was not involved with politics. Rather there was a crisis for the people and what he was doing was because there was no one else that was speaking for the people. Just to bring it all back together, when I asked Buddha Issara if there were any monks that he admired, he paused and said Buddhadasa, the founder of Suan Mokh.

Primary Sources: Reading President Carter’s talk at the AAR

Every year, over the weekend before Thanksgiving, scholars of religion gather for the annual American Academy of Religion (and concurrent Society of Biblical Literature) meetings. It is usually a zoo: networking, papers, panels, interviews, plenary sessions, reunions, and more for nearly 10,000 scholars, whose expertise varies from Biblical hermeneutics to critical theories to Islam to post-secular ritual and more. Despite a long history, and many important moments in scholarly production, this year marked a true first: a former president of the United States addressed the conference attendees. As a historian who deals, in bulk, with archives and documents, President Jimmy Carter’s talk turned out to be a fascinating, rich, and valuable primary source.

President Carter has a new book out–A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power–and ostensibly, found the AAR/SBL annual meetings a good place to talk about (and sell the results of) his findings. He presented a talk entitled “The Role of Religion in Mediating Conflicts and Imagining Futures: The Cases of Climate Change and Equality for Women.”

As a scholar of Islam, I was suspicious of this talk, to be honest; I wanted to see a former president speak, but I wasn’t sure what, if anything, would come of it. After all, a Sunday school teacher, an active and evangelical Christian, and, yes, former POTUS talking about religion and violence against women (with an addendum of climate change) reeked of a certain paternalism, perhaps even a lurking Orientalist set of assumptions–we Americans know about the appropriate treatment of women; those (Muslim?) foreign folks, in far-flung lands, do not.

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POTUS Carter, as seen on screen from the crowd.

My suspicions weren’t entirely grounded, it turned out. Carter did espouse a particular set of paternalist and patriarchal assumptions–i.e., he called for the protection of women by men, and called for men to step up to this specific challenge, without citing women or girls who already do this work or whose movements we might look to for models.  And, yes, he opened his talk by discussing violence against women “over there,” by an assumed Muslim population: genital mutilation, the Taliban’s ban on girls attending school, child marriage. But then, bluntly, he addressed this crowd of scholars by saying: “If you think these aren’t our problems, you’re wrong.”

With that and what immediately followed, he proved that I was wrong to have assumed a monolithic dismissal of non-American or non-Western cultural practices or an abundantly rosy view of America or the West. He listed statistics about sexual assaults on university campuses and in the military. He cited women’s unequal pay for equal work. He blasted Atlanta, where his own center is located, as the nation’s largest hub for human trafficking. He lingered on human trafficking, though Carter refused to call it by its “euphemistic label,” and instead called it slavery. And then, President Carter claimed that there are more slaves–more trafficked humans–in today’s America than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. With oratory aplomb, he let that sit; and then, he continued on to link what he called the degradation of women and girls to issues of race and racism, briefly mentioning the then-unfolding decision in Ferguson.

While Carter did not address climate change or the environment at length in his prepared (though, for the record, extemporaneously delivered) remarks, the Q&A that followed focused on his (religious) sense of environmentalism, highlighting policies he created in office and asking him to reflect on the relationships between violence against women and nature. He suggested that women and girls would be hardest hit by climate change, as they tend to be in most natural or man-made crises.

Women, girls and the environment. But, what about religion, you ask? That’s the most fascinating part of all. President Carter asked for action not on the basis of American superiority, though that was part of it. He asked, in this talk anyway, for action on the basis of reading scripture correctly. His talk was a primary source document: it demonstrated world problems, to be sure, but then asked the audience to solve those problems using appropriately read and meaningfully interpreted theology. It was a lived exercise in progressive evangelism and liberal theology. To use the language of pedagogy, President Carter described problems but prescribed (generally) a solution: rereading scripture and correcting misinterpretation.

To his eye, misinterpretation of holy scriptures–Christian, Jewish, or Islamic, here–was at fault for systems that support violence against women, girls and the environment. Carter was asked if religion might be an obstacle to achieving his stated goals; couldn’t religion and religious texts be used to prop up the systems he critiques? And in reply, he offered classic theological interpretation, saying, “They [opponents] can find some verse in the Bible to support their misinterpretation.”

Of course, he doesn’t see his own interpretations–that women and girls are equal, that the environment is entrusted to humanity by God–as misinterpretation. He sees them as accurate, based upon deep reading, deep commitment, and, as he put it, his sense that he “serves the Prince of peace.”

His talk begs countless questions. What Christianity or textual interpretation does he envision as especially correct–is it just his, is it his community’s, or something else altogether? Does he envision limitations in non-male, non-white, non-Christian settings to an approach that values (Christian) liberal theology? If climate, gender, sex, race, class, and religion are so imbricated–as he suggested at various points–how might his solution(s) address these both various and intersecting sets of issues? How might his suggestion of “reading better” work against his calls for peace, environmentalism, equality, and justice?

It was a scholarly treasure trove, as primary source texts often are, which is why his talk was exciting: as a scholar of religion, I had the opportunity to listen to the former leader of the United States actively offer biblical exegesis in light of current issues, and do so in such a way that critiqued various (American) political administrations, (largely Christian) textual interpretations, and ethical and moral commitments (of political and religious institutions and persons). And reading his talk as a primary source is crucial. By doing so, analyzing what he says in its contexts leaves room to critique issues in his comments like paternalism, heavy-handed prescriptive Christian religion, and privilege of various stripes, while also preserving his talk as an example of a set of discourses.