Hanuman, the Pop-Culture Icon

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.

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Hindu Images; Use and Misuse in Western Culture

Western fascinations with Hinduism’s “exotic” culture extends all the way back to the very first European colonizers, and is just, if not more prominent now that globalization is on the rise. We live in a world of constant cross-cultural exchange. Hindu religious imagery is mobilized into U.S. media and fashion and as a result taken out of their intended context; specifically Ganesh and Shiva have been prominent in their recent use reimagining in American pop culture. The significance of the original Hindu images stems from its ritualized creation and use, both with a highly complicated set of meanings and sacrality. For Hindus, “seeing” is a complex and vital act. Does placing these images out of a religious context turn the sacred into the profane? Are Americans, in a sense, appropriating cultural property?

Jas Elsner’s theories on categories of images will at first be helpful in identifying the types of images being discussed. For Elsner, there are two types of art: There is the naturalist form, which places the viewer in the position of a somewhat voyeuristic and disconnected third party, and there is the ritual centered, of which devotional imagery falls under the latter category. He says of ritual centered imagery, “In the reciprocal gaze of divine confrontation, there is a form of visuality in which the image does not just look back at the viewer, but in which the viewer has specifically made the journey in order that the image should look back “ (Elsner, 61); a concept that in Hinduism is known as darshan. The seer here is also the seen, and is to be incorporated into the divine world of the deity. Hindu imagery, for this reason, in inherently interactive.

What makes Hindu images in particular so ‘special’, is that they were made specifically as sites of divine interaction. Religious images in India are so versatile, that, “it is not only in temples and homes that one sees the images of the deities. Small icons are mounted at the front of taxis and buses. They decorate the walls of tea stalls, sweet shops, tailors, and movie theatres. They are painted on public buildings and homes by local folk artists. They are carried through the streets in great festival processions.” (Eck, 16). But what is really significant about these images is not their great abundance, but their believed containment of the deity they depict. In order that a statue is transformed to not simply a sculpture but a divine residence, “from beginning to end the fashioning of an image is governed by ritual prescriptions…For the Indian artist, the silpin, the creation of an image is, in part, a religious discipline.” (Eck, 52). In the final stage of an image’s creation, an eye-opening ceremony takes place. “Even after the breath of life (Prana) was established in the image there was the ceremony in which the eyes were ritually opened with a golden needle or with the final stroke of a paintbrush…The gaze which falls from the newly opened eyes of the deity is said to be so powerful that it must first fall upon some pleasing offering” (Eck, 7). All of this care is taken for a specific and sacred purpose; to make contact with the deity and receive a blessing. Known as darshan, the concept of reciprocal vision between the image and worshipper, transforms the seer into the seen and vice versa. The contact can be seemingly trivial, like stopping at a roadside shrine on a persons way to work (which Eck does not discuss extensively in her book, Darsan). Beholding the image is an act of worship, and through the eyes one gains the blessings of the divine.” (Eck, 3).

ganesh socksganesh

One such example of cultural appropriation that created a large outcry within the Hindu community was the use of Ganesh on a pair of socks, so much so that it caught the attention of Rajan Zed—He has long fought the misuse of Hindu devotional imagery in pop culture and mass media for some time now, and said about the Urban Outfitters socks, “Lord Ganesh was highly revered in Hinduism and was meant to be worshipped in temples or home shrines and not to be wrapped around one’s foot” (Huffington Post). Religious imagery in this instance has been commodified, and completely divorced from its reality.

Adding another layer of appropriation to this example, of all the taboo places to place a deity, the feet are among the worst. Ramdas Lamb, who studied the Ramnami sect of Hindu society in depth, says, “Traditional Hindu purity/pollution restrictions prohibit the inscribing of the name of a divinity or other sacred mark below the waist, whether on the body or clothing, because pf its possible contact with bodily secretions or other polluting substances. To wear a sacred symbol on the feet or shoes amounts to blasphemy in the eyes of many traditional Hindus. The Ramnamis see such regulations as contrary to the omnipotent and transformative power of the name of Ram.” (Lamb, 89). The Ramnami people are partially asserting their independence from ‘traditional’ Brahmin Hinduism and society, and partially putting forth an argument as to what they think is acceptable religiosity. “Ramnam tattoos have become, for many members of the samaj, the epitome of their individuality, freedom of expression, and willingness to visibly manifest and display their personal and collective commitment to Ram, to their beliefs and practices, and to eachother.” (Lamb, 84). Hindus with full knowledge of their own culture criticize, alter, and erode Brahmanical rules as a statement to attest to their own form of belief. This is not what Urban Outfitters is doing. Ganesh socks have divorced a religious symbol from its religious meaning and gone one step further by placing it onto a person’s feet.

The fashion industry is not the only place where we see cultural appropriation taking place-

obama shivashiva

Even highly regarded magazines such as Newsweek are guilty of such offenses. In 2010, Newsweek printed a cover depicting Obama with six arms, all balancing political responsibilities, and one leg raised, with the title “God of All Things,” in a clear attempt to bring to mind the Hindu deity Lord Shiva in his dancing Nataraja form. This November 22nd cover outraged the Hindu American Foundation (HAF). HAF has released numerous statements on this topic; they are among the “who” that western cultural sensitivity applies to. The HAF website states, ””Hinduism’s sacred images are too often appropriated in popular culture without understanding their spiritual relevance to Hindus,” said Sahug Shukla, HAF’s Managing Director and Legal Counsel. “For Hindus, the iconography gives insight into the divine realm, and each aspect of representation is replete with profound symbolism that is lost and even debased by such attempts at Humor.””

As Rachel Fell McDermott says, “Much of the New Age writing on Hindu goddesses is based on erroneous knowledge of India and Hinduism…and says more about the fertile and wounded imaginations of its western authors than it does about deity veneration in India.” (McDermott, 726). Personally, I think this applies to not just writings on the goddesses, but to depictions of Hinduism as a whole. Since the British first colonized the region in the 18th and 19th centuries (Lorenzen, 654), the orientalist view of Hindu culture has been frequently reimagined and appropriated into a number of different contexts.


David Lorenzen, “Who Invented Hinduism?” in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Oct,1999), pp.630-659.

Ramdas Lamb, Rapt in the Name: The Ramnamis, Ramnam, and Untouchable Religion in Central India (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002)

Diana L. Eck. Darsan, seeing the divine image in India. (Columbia University Press, 1998). Chichester, West Sussex. 3rd Edition.

Jas Elsner, “Between Mimesis and Divine Power: Visuality in the Greco-Roman World,” in Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance: Seeing as Others Saw, ed. Robert S. Nelson (Cambridge University Press, 200).

Rachel Fell McDermott, “New Age Hinduism, New Age Orientalism, and the Second-Generation South Asian,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 68, no. 4 (2004): 721–31

Shiva as Nataraja. Web. 1100. The British Museum. Trustees of the British Museum. 14 Oct 2014.

Obama God of All Things. Web. 16 Dec 2010. Coverjunkie. 5 Nov 2014.

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The Uses and Meanings of Color in the Ramayana

The use of imagery in any great epic is not accidental. Especially in such a visual and tangible culture as that of India, the use of any color was carefully chosen for the sensation it would induce in the reader or listener. In this project I have examined the importance of the color of Rama’s skin in the Ramayana, and why it is described in the ways that it is. The depiction of Rama is so vast and diverse, it is important to point out the impossibility of fully understanding the complexity of Rama’s skin color. Any understandings of color meanings can be used to interpret the character of Rama. This is a character with quite an extensive history, and a seemingly infinite number of different portrayals and interpretations, all of which are completely valid. To say that there is one explanation of Rama’s skin color would be to erase the vast majority of opinions mentioning otherwise.

Rama battling the demoness Tataka. 19thC. Murshidabad district, West Bengal, India.

Rama battling the demoness Tataka. 19thC. Murshidabad district, West Bengal, India.

The use of color in Hinduism is not just a visual experience but also a spiritual and sensational experience. The Sanskrit words for color can also refer to more general qualities, making the use of color very symbolic. Perspectives of color in Hinduism are much more complex than simple western visual experiences. In the west, Patti Bellantoni suggests “it is not we who decide what color can be. …it is color that can determine how we think and what we feel.”5 Regarding the experience of color in Hinduism, Jessica Frazier writes that “color is part of the complex of ideas, including modification, disposition, taste, and shape, that express the notion of a distinctive tangible quality or mode of something, whether that thing is a medium, a person, or reality itself.”³ Hinduism is presented as a “kaleidoscope of images”, not simply for visual pleasure but with purpose.¹ This is clear in the Ramayana, where upon reading, one faces the scrupulously detailed descriptive imagery and is invited deeper into understanding the experience of the story, with all imaginary senses, inducing emotions, perspectives, and states of mind. In the Rig Vedas, colors were rarely mentioned as their own words, but rather epithets, which “are not designations of color at all, but simply imply or suggest it.”6

The theory of the aesthetic experience of rasa is also important to note in this discussion. G. B. Mohan Tampi writes that “the word rasa denotes, apart from the reader’s aesthetic experience, the creative experience of the poet and the essence of the totality of the qualities which make a poem what it is.”7 Thus, there is no color or visual description that becomes canonized without significant reason or background.

Sri Andal Temple Car, Srivilliputtur, India.

Sri Andal Temple Car, Srivilliputtur, India.

I am primarily concerned with the depictions of Rama’s skin color. Sometimes it was portrayed as green, other times it was blue. Rama’s skin was depicted as green in William Buck’s translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, and a painting on the Sri Andal Temple Car in Srivilliputtur, Tamil Nadu, India, as shown above. In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Rama is depicted as having “colorful green eyes; his skin was cool soft green … his wavy hair was dark green”.² But in Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas, he is described as having blue skin.

Surpanakha offering marriage to Rama and Laksmana. 1800-1805. Pune District, Maharashtra, India.

Surpanakha offering marriage to Rama and Laksmana. 1800-1805. Pune District, Maharashtra, India.

According to the color-mood correlations of the Bharata Natyam dance, Rama could be described as either passionate or disgusted/disgusting, depending on where you are. Laksmana’s golden skin could be interpreted as being heroic and/or amazed, most likely by Rama. Hanuman, the white monkey, is known for being a clever trickster. The comic mood of white suits him. More popular sources, such as zeenews, sanskritimagazine, and empower-yourself-with-color-psychology.com could tell us that Rama’s skin is green because he represents happiness and is a manifestation of God, or that his skin is blue because he is a symbol of power and life. Or, that Rama’s skin was green until green became synonymous with Islam, and thus it was changed by popular practice to blue, to be associated more with Visnu. The variability is seemingly endless.

The use of color in South Asian traditions usually indicates something much deeper than just color. These traditions have created “a worldview that sees color-coded dispositions as pervading the phenomenal world and offering hints as to the rules that govern it.”³ All colors are up to interpretation, but different colors signify different dispositions, qualities, or moods, depending on the audience. For instance, green is the color of the passionate mood. White is for the comic mood, gold is for the heroic mood, and yellow is for the mood of amazement. The mood of disgust is blue. These are how the colors are used in the dance of Bharata Natyam, but they were carefully chosen because of their significance and background with other similar emotions.³ Certain popular websites4 suggest that green is the color of happiness, nature, and new beginnings, and could even be a manifestation of God. White could be the color of serenity and separation from the materialistic world. Blue, the color of power and life; yellow, the color of healing and holiness. Neither of these interpretations is incorrect. The variability of interpretation is something that cannot be escaped in the study of religion, and all interpretations are valid and should be considered. Ultimately, the answer will always be yes and no, but an increase in research on the subject could give valuable insight on the visual and aesthetic experience of rasa, of Hindu performance art, and of Indian epic poetry.


Works Cited:

  1. Eck, Diana L. “Image, Temple, and Pilgrimage.” Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. 59-75.
  2. Buck, William. Ramayana. Berkeley And Los Angeles, California: University Of California Press, 1976. Print.
  3. Frazier, Jessica. “Colors.” Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by: Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Brill Online, 2014. Reference. University of Vermont. 23 October 2014.
  4. Bellantoni, Patti. If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: The Power of Color in Visual Storytelling. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2005. Sfx.uvm.edu. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. p. xxvii
  5. Hopkins, Edward W. “Words for Color in the Rig Veda.” The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1883), pp. 166-191. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 
  6. G. B. Mohan Tampi. “‘Rasa’ as Aesthetic Experience”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 24, No. 1, Oriental Aesthetics (Autumn, 1965), pp. 75-80
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Human Animals

The, Ramayana, by Valmiki is a sacred Hindu text that is known throughout the world for a multitude of reasons, but the main reason being that it is entertaining for both Hindus and non- Hindus to read. In numerous Hindu texts such as the Ramayana, animals are often portrayed as the main characters as well as deities. For example, one of the most widely written about animals in Hinduism is the monkey, and monkeys are portrayed as wise, strong creatures. Some of the other praised animals include cows, birds, and snakes; each of these animals denotes special symbols. These animals not only play a pivotal role in the outcome in the ancient Hindu epics, but these stories also affect the daily lives of Hindus; many people will try to live up to these characters’ roles and follow their actions. In Valmiki’s, Ramayana, one of the main heroes of the story is a monkey named Hanuman, and he changes the outcome of the entire epic. Even though the story of the Ramayana is globally acknowledged as the story of Rama, it could be recognized as the story of Hanuman; in my opinion, he ultimately is the main character, and if he was not present the outcome of the Ramayana would be completely different. Hanuman affects characters both in and outside of the story, and that’s why I think he should be considered the hero.

Robert Johnson and Patrick Young. 20th century, ARTSTOR,

Robert Johnson and Patrick Young. 20th century, ARTSTOR.

Hanuman’s bravery and courageousness are characteristics that set him apart from the other characters in the Ramayana. Unlike many other characters, Hanuman can be trusted with any task and never disappoints, and this characteristic influences how Hindus worship him. Philip Lufgendorf has written widely on Hanuman and his role as a deity.   He describes Hanuman by stature,

“There is no task in the world he can’t accomplish…Young and old feel themselves safe and secure by remembering him. Although he is incomparable in the realms of courage, valor, heroism, splendor, and intensity, Hanuman is very simple-hearted, compassionate, and detached. He had no desires of his own” (Lufgendorf 25).

Lufgendorf thinks Hanuman is highly praised because he is heroic and very selfless; he willingly puts himself in danger in order to protect others. I agree with Lufgendorf’s thoughts because in order to rescue Sita, Hanuman had to take many drastic actions, such as crossing the ocean to Lanka. His actions are described clearly: “Then without pausing to think he drew in his neck, laid back his ears and jumped” (Buck 225). When William Buck describes the actions of his ears pulling back, it reminds the audience that even though Hanuman obtains human like characteristics, ultimately he still is an animal. Jumping across an entire ocean is a very brave action, but since Hanuman is Rama’s devotee, he willingly puts himself in danger to make Rama happy. Therefore, to me, this action ultimately changed my opinion about Rama being the main character. I feel like Hanuman puts himself at risk much more often than Rama does, thus providing him with heroic qualities.

Furthermore, he contains an immense amount of physical power, which is why Rama called upon him to rescue his wife, Sita. When Hanuman leaped across the ocean, the power of his jump is clearly stated: “That white monkey was like a comet, pushing the sky from his way and bumping clouds aside” (Buck 225). His speed from the jump was so strong and fast that it allowed him to move the clouds. I wonder if the Hindus who read this epic view his actions in this scene, as not only being physically strong, but also mentally strong?  In real life, statues of Hanuman are often very large to signify his divine strength because he contains so much power (Jacobsen 1). In most visual representations of Hanuman, his stature is often depicted as being gargantuan.

Eric Lessing.Hanuman, King of the Monkeys.  1653. ARTSTOR.

Eric Lessing.Hanuman, King of the Monkeys. 1653. ARTSTOR.

In the image above, Hanuman’s physical power is clearly represented; he is wounded yet still willing to fight the enemy (Lessing 1). Even though he has numerous arrows stuck in his body, he continues to fight, representing once again, his heroic qualities. Similar to the book, this image depicts Hanuman’s bravery when it comes to facing an enemy.

Therefore, to me, Hanuman ultimately is the hero of the story because he saves the main characters, Sita and Rama. Rama calls upon Hanuman to help rescue Sita because he knows Hanuman will not disappoint him. As such, Hanuman is most popularly known for his devotion to Rama and for being a leader (Wolcott 653). If Hanuman was not in the Ramayana, then no one would have been able to rescue Sita, since no one obtains enough power to destroy Ravana and his army. Even though Hanuman had been captured, he never forgot that his initiative was to rescue Sita.

Cambodia, Koh Ker Style, 10th Century

Cambodia, Koh Ker Style, 10th Century. ARTSTOR.

Due to the fact that Hanuman has such a significant role in the Ramayana, he inspires many people who have read this epic. He shows physical and emotional strength at all times during this story, and some readers may look to Hanuman for guidance when they are in times of need. More specifically, Hanuman connects very well to children. Moussaieff Masson describes this thought when he says, “As an imaginary companion he is addressed, as it were, to children (Masson 356)”. Children have an easy time connecting to Hanuman because he is a superhero in the form of a monkey.

These animals are not portrayed as being completely animalistic; moreover, Alf Hiltebitel describes animals as being humanlike when he says, “Male animals also frequently figure in combination with human males in composite animal forms” (Hiltebitel 3989). Thus, animals and humans can be mixed together, and in some representations of Hanuman, he is described as having a monkey face with a human-like body.

Considering that Hanuman affects all the main characters in this story in various ways, the Ramayana would be an entirely different story if Hanuman was not present. In fact, the entirety of the Hindu tradition would be drastically different if it were not for animals. There would not be specific places of worship devoted to the animals, and certain animals would not be praised in society. Although the animals in Hindu literature are not human, their characters are undeniably humanlike. Thus, Hanuman’s actions in this epic ultimately make him the main character and hero because he affects all the other characters and even affects the lives of people outside of the epic.


Works Cited

Buck, William. Ramayana. Berkeley And Los Angeles, California: University Of California Press, 1976. Print.

Hiltebitel, Alf, “Hinduism: An Overview,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Edition, ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 3998-4009

Knut Axel Jacobsen. “Sacred Animals.” Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by: Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Brill Online, 2014. Reference. University of Vermont. 11 October 2014

Lessing, Erich. Hanuman, King of the Monkeys. 1653. Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts     Archives, New York. Art Rescource. N.p.: British Library Board, n.d. N. pag. Artstor. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

Lufgendorf, Philip. “Five Heads and No Tale: Hanumān and the Popularization of Tantra.” JSTOR. Springer, Dec. 2001. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.

Masson, J. Moussaieff. “Hanumān as an Imaginary Companion.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 101.3 (1981): 355-60. JSTOR. Web. 04 Nov. 2014.

Wolcott, Leonard T. “Hanuman: The Power-Dispensing Monkey in North Indian Folk Religion.” The Journal of Asian Studies 37.4 (1978): 653-61. JSTOR. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.


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Using Sita to Identify Ideal Behaviors in Women

The original portrayal of Sita in the Ramayana is from a very different era of time, yet the role of Sita has been able to move across these differences to still connect with people. Sita’s applicability to women is not limited to India, but rather Sita connects with women all over the globe, especially those who have a connection to Hindu traditions.

Sita’s outward reactions to the many indignities imposed on her are seen as dignified and appropriate. She does not go against Rama in anger, nor does she try and turn others against Rama. When Rama is banished to the forest for fourteen years Sita is not upset at losing the comforts of the city and palace, but only speaks up to ensure she stays with her husband. This is viewed as proper devotion to her husband, and a fulfillment of her duties as a devoted wife. When she is brought to the forest by Rama’s brother at the behest of Rama she does not return to the city to try and make a public reversal of his decision, rather she stays and lives in the forest where she was left. She does not bring shame to Rama by contesting his decrees, and as such this is viewed as her again honoring her husband. This is used to remind women the ideal is to not bring shame on their husbands for any reason.

Sally Sutherland addresses this in her piece comparing Sita with Draupadi titled “Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-Models in the Sanskrit Epics.” Sita models turning the anger felt towards her husband inward, which Sutherland argues is seen as the culturally correct way. Sita models the preferred method for dealing with anger according to society. The many ways Sita was wronged by Rama is both typically and popularly believed to not be her fault, and even while she does not deserve the treatment she receives, she does not turn on Rama. For Sutherland, Sita’s unwillingness to return a wrong with a wrong shows her admirable strength of character. This understanding of Sita becomes something to be emulated by women over the course of history who have knowledge of the Ramayana story.

Even the artwork and imagery portraying Sita is used to show her as a strong woman. In this statue of Sita she can be seen as a strong, beautiful individual. This image helps to highlight the importance of Sita throughout history for women. According to other sources, such as Sutherland, Sita has been held up as the ideal all along because the cultural ideal of handling anger has not shifted. Sita is viewed as the ideal wife and woman, and considered to be beautiful and important in those roles. This image shows how she was thought of and imagined long after the original telling of the Ramayana, and yet still well before now. Sita is still considered to be a paradigm of the beautiful and ideal wife, her image as such hasn’t shifted, even as society has.

C. 1100, Granulite material, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, originally Tamil Nadu.

C. 1100, Granulite material, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, originally Tamil Nadu.

For women who are descendants of Indian culture located on the outside of that culture, Sita takes on more meaning. Not only is Sita dignified while directing her anger inward, she has experienced the impact of living outside her culture, first in the forest, then in her exile. Sita is not only able to survive this, she maintains her dignity giving multiple generations of emigrants a model. Anju Bhargava is one such person, and she addressed this in her talk “Contemporary Influence of Sita.” Bhargava relates the experiences of Sita to the experiences of immigrants with this quote,

“The immigrant parents are perceived to be a product of a society which calls for harmony of the entire community, not necessarily at the individual level. Ram sent Sita away sacrificing their personal happiness to do his duty as a king. So, many parents try to teach their children to adjust and adapt and accept what life brings because it is dharma.”

The message is that Sita can guide one in the process of adaption to and acceptance of whatever life may bring. Sita is a source of hope for these women.

While Sita is held up as an example of how to roll with life’s punches, she is also held up as the ideal wife. She exhibits signs of being both a good wife and an ideal woman by her willingness to sacrifice herself on the funeral pyre for Rama, her trial by fire. For Hess the relationship between Sita and Rama demonstrates Sita being the worshiper and devotee to her husband’s lord of the relationship. Hess argues that this relationship between Sita and Rama is used to encourage this model to be followed, the wife is meant to become the devotee and worshiper to her husband.

Not all agree this is the lesson to be learned from Sita. Like Sutherland, Kishwar believes that Sita is important today for the way she reacts to actions and events around and against her. She remains dignified throughout the Ramayana, doing what it takes to stay with her husband, but other than that going along with his decrees. Her final rejection of him is seen as the final act of dignity. Sita is held up as an example that different situations require different reactions for the individual to maintain their own dignity. Sita’s actions in the Ramayana show women that it is important to stay dignified, to forgive and make concessions for one’s husband, but that it is also important to stick up for yourself.

Others view and classify Sita’s actions as something else. They identify her actions that are the reason for the differing view. “Sita’s reaction involves both lament and protest… then she criticizes Rama… finally she has a pyre built and crawls on it to die” (Grottanelli, 7-8). Cristiano Grottanelli is making the argument about the process Sita goes through reacting from the failing of the solution to her original crisis, the exile of Rama and Sita into the forest and Ravana stealing her away. Sita laments, protests, openly rebukes and criticizes Rama’s devotion to his people over her, and then finally plans to die on a funeral pyre. In “The King’s Grace and the Helpless Woman: A Comparative Study of the Stories of Ruth, Charila, Sita” there is not a discussion on Sita’s dignity or her method of dealing with her problems through her life. Rather, he is looking at her actions. If others hold up the actions and reactions of Sita as admirable and to be mimicked, Grottanelli sees these actions from a different perspective. While Grottanelli is not looking at the intentionality of Sita’s actions his piece is still important to the understanding of Sita’s applicability to women now. For those who make the argument that Sita is viewed and should be viewed as the ideal wife and woman for her reactions there is often the theme that Sita can be viewed this way because of her way of reacting to the various transgressions against her. Yet Grottanelli shows that there are actions that bring this into question.

Sita is not the main character in the Ramayana, in fact she is given far less time than many of the other popular characters in William Buck’s translation. Yet the lasting importance of Sita to women is undeniable. She has been influencing and informing the ideals concerning the roles of women and wives since her conception in the Ramayana.

Works Cited:
Bhargava, Anju P. “Contemporary Influence of Sita.” Presentation at the Infinity Foundation, 2000. Preston, New Jersey.
Buck, William. Ramayana. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Grottanelli, Cristiano. “The King’s Grace and the Helpless Woman: A Comparative Study of the Stories of Ruth, Charila, Sita.” History of Religions 22, no. 1 (1982): 1-24.
Hess, Linda. “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67, no. 1 (1999): 1-32.
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), 285-308.
Sita as Goddess. Photograph. c.1100. ARTstor Collection, Artstor.
Sutherland, Sally J. “Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-Models in the Sanskrit Epics.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 109, no. 1 (1989): 63-79.
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God, Plant and Preparation

Soma: the Lost Hindu Entheogen in a Social Context

For centuries, soma has been a compelling mystery to Western scholars and, drawn by the allure and mystique stemming from their conception of the religious purpose of intoxicants, they then proceeded to set down accounts of this bizarre drug of the Hindus. The fascination with this ritual narcotic is typical to the Western tradition of rejecting the potential religious properties of biological substances, of gaping at the natives with their strange, “ungodly” practices, while deifying an alcoholic liquid made from fermented grapes as the symbol of their dogma’s redeemer.

But what is soma? Where did this term and concept originate? When explored deeper than surface level, the clarity of the term soma becomes elusive and related to manifold Hindu traditions and experiences. Soma is seen as a god in some legends, while being lauded as a miracle substance in the Ninth Mandala of the Rigveda. A pervasive idea in Hindu religiosity, soma is both a mystery and a very real part of spiritual life in India. The trinity of somatic theory, in the form of godhead, a naturally occurring life form and strictly prepared substance is the relationship that remains unexpanded upon and, for the most part, ignored.

The idea of entheogens is not as foreign as many modern subscribers to myriad sects feel it may be; almost every culture has its own biological source that can induce godly interaction. An entheogen is simply a substance that may evoke or directly cause religious experiences. From peyote and auyhuasca, to Moses’s divine interactions atop Mount Sinai—a fertile ground for psychoactive flora—entheogens are present in nearly every incarnation of spirituality, and soma functions in this capacity. Alternatively described as hallucinogenic, stimulative or simply a source good fortune, soma is therefore treated in many different ways in Hindu practice.

According to the section of the Mahabharatha concerning the “Churning of the Seas of Milk”, Soma is not a substance at all. The Soma of this legendary epic is a god, a rare masculine lunar deity, counterpart to the many cultures who view the moon as inherently feminine. The concept of a male moon god is contained in Indo-European, with the moon still being viewed as masculine in Germany. Soma as a moon god is viewed as a powerful and high-ranking deity in the Hindu cosmology and is present in many epics, myths and religious observances.

This brings us to the very real, very tangible soma that is consumed or used in a ritual function throughout various Hindu practices, stemming all the way back to the Rigveda. The Ninth Mandala, or Soma Mandala, is a portion of the Rigveda devoted to praising the properties of soma. This refers to the plant used in a ceremonial context, specifically in the practice of soma yajna. Yajna refers to a broad class Vedic sacrifice, proscribed in the Vedas and observed by certain brahmin priests. The ceremony has changed over the years, but still preserves the historical or mythical traditions of yore. Only select members of the priest class would be authorized to perform a soma yajna in orthodox Hindu belief systems, as this offering to the gods must be kept unpolluted by using the dharmic idea of the brahmins’ purity. For this reason, the orthodox Vedic ritual is led only by those whose caste identity is deemed acceptable. The first soma yajna performed outside of India occurred in London in July of 1996. The sacrificer, or “yajamana” selected to officiate over the proceedings was Gosvami Gokulotsavaji Maharaj, a proponent of a movement to share Vedic ritual with cultures outside of India, and was selected by a committee; the organizer of the event was a famous Vedic scholar, Agnihotram Ramanuja Tatachariar. Gokulotsavaji Maharaj is the head of a Krishna devotee sect with large numbers of practitioners currently living in Britain. Obviously, these men are considered authorities on the subject of soma yajna as performed in this context, and were specifically vetted and chosen to be the face of this classical ritual performance in a highly public light.

While these strict traditions tend to hold sway, interesting examples of the laxation of this ritual have occurred: for example, monetization of this ancient practices have emerged, such as Vidwan Krishna, who offers to perform soma yajna in your name for a nominal donation. Due to the apocryphal nature of the exact biological identity of the species used for this practice, restrictions have slackened until soma can be any yellow hued plant. One famous traveller and scholar, Swami Rama, had the opportunity to visit Vaidya Bhairavdutt, a herbalist of high repute considered the last traditional expert on soma. In his autobiography, he discusses taking part in the consumption of what Bhairavdutt declared to be the original biological soma plant. Swami Rama recounts that shortly after imbibing a preparation of the plant, Bhariavdutt “started chanting and swinging, and ultimately threw off all his clothes and started dancing. But I had a severe headache…as though my head were going to blow up” (Rama 261). This experience is interpreted as signs and side effects of ephedrine overdose by many contemporary somatic scholars, which aligns with certain theories of the true biological identity of soma.

Care must be taken to elucidate a confusing dichotomy in the somatic concept: that the nectar of immortality, or amrit, is a very different substance than the soma drink associated with Indra or mortal ritual. This is made extremely clear in the mythic text, as amrit emerges before and separate from the god Soma. Indra’s soma is thusly recognized as distinct from the nectar amrit and is used as a strong identifier of the god of rain and thunderstorms. In Buck’s Ramayana, we can see Indra’s soma treated as a godly beverage reminiscent of the Greek concept of ambrosia, with seemingly alcoholic connotations. For example, during the Battle of Heaven, when Indra and Chitraratha are preparing to charge Ravana and his rakshasa troops, Indra “drank soma of his Soma” (Buck 44) and releases a fearless battle cry. Chitraratha is not feeling as confident as Indra, so he says, “‘Give me some of that juice.’ [and] he drank Indra’s Soma bowl dry in one swallow” (Buck 44). This is reminiscent of the amphetamine-esque properties described in parts of the Ninth Mandala, as Indra here is using his soma in a similar context to the warriors who would imbibe the preparation before entering a melee.

The duality of Indra’s soma and the practice of soma yajna can be explored through common religious artwork motifs. Below is a reproduction of an image on display at La Biblioteque Nationale in Paris entitled “Indra, King of the Gods, Being Anointed with Soma.”


Notice the two sources from which the eponymous soma stems from: on high, a host of deities emerge riding their heavenly mounts, scattering drops of golden liquid from their lofty domain; and the collection of crowned noblemen and brahmin priests preparing a soma drink from vessels depicted overflowing with a green herb, the soma plant, which has been transmuted into a gleaming offering of their own in the course of the sacrifice. This is part of a tradition of clear distinction between the two separate forms of soma. The Vedic soma prepared by priests is imbued with different purposes and characteristics than those attributed to Indra’s drink of choice in the great Hindu epics.

Sharing the name of the biological source and the preparation seems to reference the word haoma, a ritual drink and species of similar importance in the religious sphere the Avestan-speaking ethnic group of the area that is now Iran. Avestan is the language used in the holy manuscript of Zoroastrian practice, and haoma plays a similar role in sacrifice and divine enlightenment or understanding as does its Hindu counterpart in the Rigvedas This is yet another example of the widespread history of entheogenic practices in religion of the region.

When examined in a modern, unbiased perspective, soma is much less like the mysterious intoxicant written about by hundreds of years ago Western scholars agog at a religious observance considered taboo or different from their own. While their research was not constructed in the same social context as this study, we must never the less give them credit where it is due, as without Western scholastic interest, we would most likely know far less about Hinduism today than we currently do. As a salute to their quest for biological identification, several links to popular theories will be included at the bottom of this blog.

Soma is an extremely pervasive and functional concept in Hinduism, no matter which incarnation the term refers to. Beyond the concept of the dual identity of the soma preparation is the trinity of somatic idea. This is the relationships and differences between the god Soma, the plant soma and the processed liquid of the same name. The socio-religious context of soma is a rich ground for gleaning insight into the every day mechanisms of social factors in Hindu traditions.

Selected References on Biological Identity:

Works Cited:

  • Buck, William. Ramayana. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976.
  • Rama, Swami. Living with the Himalayan Masters. Honesdale: Himilayan Institue Press, 2007.
  • Smith, Frederick. “Indra Goes West: Report on a Vedic Soma Sacrifice in London in July 1996.” History of Religions, 247-67, 2000.
  • Indra, King of the Gods, Being Anointed with Soma. Digital image: Art.com. La Biblioteque Nationale, n. d. Web. 14 Oct. 2014
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A Bow Strung ‘Round the World

Epics serve as a cultural foundation for those cultures that have embraced this tradition. Their continued modernized retellings and archetypal characters promote a homogenized culture. In the Hindu epic The Ramayana, Rama himself is often understood to be the archetypal king and Sita the archetypal wife, granting readers models by which to base their actions. Greek tradition has Odysseus and Penelope filling those roles with the epic The Odyssey.

The relationships of these two archetypal couples share many similarities among their obvious differences. The scene in each epic where the man has to string a bow to win his woman is begging for comparison with so many artistic renditions of this particular scene from both cultures, as well as the obvious plot similarities.

From a perspective that includes the theologies of the cultures involved, both men are participating in a test to win their wives back. Also, this test is urged by gods who know the outcome beforehand, causing many mortals to participate in this competition with no chance of success.

Though comparable, these scenes inform us of striking differences between the two couples, as well as between the two cultures. We see from the Hindu epic that Sita peacefully sits by and awaits her fate that has been assigned to her by the men in her life. The Greek Penelope, contrary to the woman in waiting that Sita represents, actively fights the decisions of the men that flock to her location and attempt to subvert her will. Penelope, as the archetypal Greek woman/wife, demonstrates much more personal power and agency than Sita does in The Ramayana, pointing to the different roles for women in the different societies.

From the way that Sita sits and waits to accept her husband, we see that women are expected to be subservient to the men in their lives in Hindu culture. Even beyond the apparently unimportant decision of who she is to spend the rest of her life with, Sita takes no actions to preserve her life or to better her situation. We even get multiple references of Sita refusing to save herself, as if it is her husband’s job to do so. (Buck)

The cultural impact of having such a subservient model for Hindu women would, from the perspective of one who grew up with Greek epics, seem to lead to a culture of subservience among women. Paula Richman points out in the introduction to her book The Diversity of the Ramayana Tradition there are many tellings of The Ramayana for all sorts of political/social/religious purposes. Some of these versions of this epic paint Sita in a very different light, and, as Richman discusses, the Valmiki version of the text that we get is the male version of the story, told by men to men for men, and that this text likely wouldn’t have as much of an impact on women of the culture as the women’s tales would. (Richman)

Homer’s telling of Odysseus’s tale has generally been accepted as the authoritative version of the text and has, consequently, a much greater impact on the social norms of the inheritors of Greek culture than Valmiki’s tale of Rama on its cultural inheritors. It seems as if this single authoritative text has granted a larger amount of cultural cohesion, and therefore a clearer cultural identity, than the multiple tellings of Rama’s tale. From an outsider’s perspective, it would be easier to get a sense of Greek culture from reading The Odyssey than it would be to get an idea of Hindu culture by reading The Ramayana.

This quintessential scene of bow-stringing could be used as a prime example: we see how women from different cultures are portrayed in comparable situation, and thus can gain a better understanding of the motivations of women from those cultures. Taking just this one scene informs readers that women of Greek culture were expected to be more active than women of Hindu culture in the preservation of themselves. Such comparison, at the very least, suggests more power rested in the hands of Greek women than of Hindu women, and offers academics a basis for such a belief. From there, it might be possible to discover why women were expected to take a more active role in Greek culture than in Hindu culture, or what other cultural norms are tied into this expectation of action.

Rama Breaks The Bow, from a Ramayana manuscript (Bala Kanda).

A manuscript illustration of immediately after Rama strings the bow to win Sita. “Rama Breaks The Bow,” from a Ramayana manuscript (Bala Kanda).

The affect of these epics has not been diminished over time, even though societies change, languages change, and story-telling mediums change. That artists in 1640 CE dedicated their time and resources to create this manuscript illustration of Rama stringing the bow to win Sita is a clear indicator of the importance Hindu culture places on this scene. It also is a prime example of the repeated creation/retelling of this epic throughout the ages. The mural in Genoa is equally such an example for The Odyssey.

As technology, availability of resources, populations, and languages change, so too must the medium of the epics change if they are to remain an active part of society. Amar Chitra Katha published a comic-book telling of The Ramayana in the mid 20th century, allowing traditional Hindu folklore to be consumed by various audiences in an inexpensive portable form, from young children who could look at the pictures and follow along to learned scholars who now have access to a large collection of stories from Hindu culture. It is important to remember that this is one version of the epic among many and that it builds on earlier traditions, like the inclusion of illustrations in manuscripts.

This step in modernizing the epic of Rama is only one of the ways The Ramayana has managed to continue influencing a Hindu understanding of what it means to be Hindu. This proliferation has been realized in the production of comic books, translations into many languages, television series, movies, and even web series. In 1987 Doordarshan, a Hindu government broadcast network, released a television series of The Ramayana that was so popular it caused nationwide labor strikes when it was scheduled to end. This televised, government sponsored version of The Ramayana was so influential thousands of years after the story was first told that entire villages pooled their resources to be able to view it.(Richman) Clearly, there is still a power to move the populations built into the epic.

In 1997, a miniseries depiction of The Odyssey that would go on to win Emmy awards was first aired on US television. This 176 minute televised program portrayed in a modernized medium the ancient Greek epic. I, for one, remember many Saturday afternoons wiled away watching this miniseries and many others like it. This early exposure to the epics of my culture in such a readily digestible format as a television program has given me a foundation upon which to judge the culture around me. Even now, out of all of the many hours of film and television I’ve seen of my cultural inheritance, the scene that stands out the most in my mind is the dramatic revealing of Odysseus before he slays the suitors.

A salon mural of immediately after Odysseus strings the bow to win Penelope. Odysseus Slays the Suitors in His Palace at Ithaca. http://library.artstor.org.ezproxy.uvm.edu/library/secure/ViewImages?id=8CJGczI9NzldLS1WEDhzTnkrX3ogdVp7eiI%3D&userId=hDJDdDcl&zoomparams=

A salon mural of immediately after Odysseus strings the bow to win Penelope. “Odysseus Slays the Suitors in His Palace at Ithaca.” http://library.artstor.org.ezproxy.uvm.edu/library/secure/ViewImages?id=8CJGczI9NzldLS1WEDhzTnkrX3ogdVp7eiI%3D&userId=hDJDdDcl&zoomparams=

These epics have had a marked influence on the populations that endorse them, even into the modern era. By comparing similar scenes from two different cultures’ epics, we can gain a clearer insight into the forces that move people, notably where different cultures share values, and why there might be disagreement between others. Further analysis of epic literature from across multiple cultures could lead to people realizing that they share more culturally than they might have previously believed, and understanding the origins of their differences could ultimately lead to reconciliation thereof.

Legal stuff

Disclaimer: I do not endorse the authenticity of any of the websites linked to this page and deny any responsibility for the information therein presented.

Works Cited:

Genoa: Villa Pallavicino Delle Peschiere: Salon: Odysseus Slays the Suitors in His Palace at   Ithaca.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar Straus Girous, 1961. Print.

Katha, Amar Chitra. Rama. Amar Chitra Katha, 2009. Media

Rama Breaks The Bow, from a Ramayana manuscript (Bala Kanda).

Richman, Paula. “Introduction: The Diversity of the Ramayana Tradition,” in Many, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 3-21. On BBR?m?ya?as

The Odyssey. Dir. Andrei Konchalovsky. Perf. Armand Assante, Greta Scacchi, Isabella Rossellini. NBC, 1997. Miniseries.  (for more information: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118414/)

Valmiki. Ramayana. Trans. William Buck. University of California Press, 2012. Print

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Hanuman: The “Every-Man” of Contemporary Hinduism

In recent decades there has been a widespread proliferation of Hanuman— the monkey deity— worship and iconography throughout India. While he is perhaps most famous for his role as a loyal Rama-devotee in the epic Ramayana, Hanuman is also the subject of numerous Bhojpuri folktales, songs, and poems, and has thus evolved to embody the ideals of the elite and the folk, the traditional and the contemporary, the hero and the sidekick. It is in this way that Hanuman has successfully become the symbol of two fundamental, and arguably conflicting, concepts— bhakti (devotion) and shakti (power) —that are central to the teachings of Hinduism. A multitude of stimulating arguments have been made attributing Hanuman’s growing popularity to one of a number of different factors (politics, socioeconomics, gender, etc.) However, it is important to recognize that it is precisely this variation in factors that may itself explain why Hanuman is so widely celebrated in contemporary Hinduism.

Calendar Print. Hanuman Lifts Mount Govardhan. From ARTstor.

Calendar Print. Hanuman Lifts Mount Govardhan. From ARTstor.

In the context of the Ramayana, we see Hanuman—also commonly referred to as Son of the Wind— as defined by his intense and undying devotion to Rama, the protagonist of the epic. As leader of the monkey army, Hanuman plays a crucial role in the battle against Ravana, the demon king who kidnaps Rama’s beautiful wife, Sita. Hanuman leaps one hundred leagues across the ocean, burns down the city of Lanka, saves Sita, and even moves mountains with his bare hands. Still, despite possessing many praise-worthy attributes, Hanuman is first-and-foremost depicted in the Ramayana as “a devoted servant of Rama, motivated and empowered by the fixity of his love” (Wolcott, 654). In the final chapter of the Ramayana, Rama thanks Hanuman for his service and rewards him with a priceless gem bracelet, to which Hanuman replies: “Lord, though this bracelet looked expensive it was really worthless, for nowhere on it did it bear your name” (Buck, 426). Then, in an act of unconditional devotion, Hanuman rips open the flesh of his chest to reveal that, “written again and again on every bone, in fine little letters [was] Rama Rama Rama Rama Rama” (Buck, 426). It is in this way—through spectacularly selfless acts of passionate servitude— that Hanuman takes on the role of the “perfect Rama-bhakti” and becomes a symbol of devotion in popular Hinduism (Wolcott, 655).

In contrast to his character in the Ramayana, the Hanuman of Bhojpuri folklore tends to be a central protagonist, often characterized by his superhuman strength, rather than by his servitude. This view of Hanuman as a strong heroic figure, separate from Rama, works to inform the emergence of Hanuman as a symbol for shakti, which is extremely important to the lives of Bhojpuri men— everything from “the growth of grain in the fields [and] the produce of cattle, [to] the strength of oxen are all dependent on this energy” (Wolcott, 658). Thus, through Bhojpuri folklore, Hanuman evolves into a symbol of attainable strength in everyday life— in contrast with the seemingly unattainable concept of brahman that governs the broader teachings of Hinduism (Wolcott, 658). Another characterization of Hanuman as a symbol of shakti can be found in the veneration of Hanuman among Shiva ascetics. In the folktales of this tradition, “Hanuman receives shakti from Shiva and Parvati, and thereby becomes an incarnation thereof, giving it identifiable form and personality” (Ludvik, 11).

In the past few decades, many researchers have speculated about the reasons for Hanuman’s growing popularity. In Philip Lutgendorf’s book (Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey), he posits that there exists a correlation between growing Hanuman worship and the growing middle class — a group that is “in-between and notoriously hard to define”— in India (Lutgendorf, 371). Lutgendorf argues that through his role as “a liminal immortal who delivers both the gods and the goods, Hanuman embodies the moxie and resourcefulness required to get ahead, paradoxically coupled with the reverence for order and hierarchy that often signifies having arrived” (Lutgendorf, 375). This plasticity in Hanuman’s character seems to mirror the heterogeneity of the Indian middle-class and thus, allows him to appeal to such a diverse population.

Alternatively, in his article “My Hanuman Is Bigger Than Yours”, Lutgendorf posits that the phenomenon of Hanuman worship can be attributed to the growing influence of Hindu militants—whose “rhetoric glorifies assertiveness, aggressive masculinity” and physical brawn (Lutgendorf, 243). The iconography of Hindu militants portrays Hanuman as extremely muscular and hyper-masculine, suggesting that his popularity may be attributed to the increasing emphasis on masculinity and strength within the sociopolitical environment of India.

Photograph. Statue of Hanuman outside of the Hanuman Dhoka in Kathmandu, Nepal. From ARTstor.

Photograph. Statue of Hanuman outside of the Hanuman Dhoka in Kathmandu, Nepal. From ARTstor.

A third explanation—and perhaps the most compelling— explains Hanuman’s growing popularity in terms of the simplicity of Hanuman worship. “Modern devotees praise [Hanuman] as an easily propitiated god, who is satisfied with a hurried Calisa recitation or a few rounds of Ram-nam” (Lutgendorf, 243). This is important because it is accessible to all Hindu’s—regardless of caste, class, or status—while other forms of worship, namely darsan, are often exclusively reserved for the elite Brahmin caste (which makes up only a small minority of all Hindus).

Hanuman is indeed able to embody the ideals of all Hindus. In practices surrounding the Ramayana, Hanuman is the symbol of Rama-bhakti, devotion, and servitude. For Bhojpuri men and Hindu militants, he represents masculinity and strength in everyday life. For the Indian middle-class, Hanuman is an identifiable and relatable “middle-man”. For low-caste Hindus, Hanuman provides a simple and inexpensive avenue for worship that does not require the status of a Brahmin. Hanuman’s multifaceted role in popular Hinduism seems to be one that transcends politics, gender, socioeconomics, and even religion. Perhaps, it is the collaboration of all of these different factors, which may explain the proliferation of Hanuman worship and iconography in recent decades. Hanuman is able to appeal to a vastly diverse audience while remaining exclusively legitimate and enduring in each different representation. Hanuman is, indeed, the “every-man” of contemporary Hinduism.



Buck, William. Ramayana. 35th Anniversary ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

“Hanuman Statue”, David Spink: Photograph. American Council for Southern Asian Art. Accessed from: ARTstor

“Hanuman Lifts Mount Govardhan”, Mitra, B.K.: Calendar Print. American Council for Southern Asian Art Collection. Accessed from: ARTstor

Ludvik, C. “Hanumān in the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki and the Rāmacaritamānasa of Tulasī Dāsa” Motilal Banarsidass (1994). Pp. 1-15.

Lutgendorf, Philip. Hanuman’s Tale: The Messages of a Divine Monkey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 371-379.

Lutgendorf, Philip. “My Hanuman Is Bigger Than Yours” History of Religions Vol. 33, No. 3 (Feb., 1994), pp. 211-245.

Wolcott, Leonard T. “Hanuman: The Power-Dispensing Monkey in North Indian Folk Religion.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 37, no. 4 (1978), pp. 653-61.

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Colorism Within Ramayana Traditions

Although colorism within Ramayana traditions was not a unit our class covered extensively, a few articles and some class discussions mentioned issues of colorism in the epic.  Below, I will speak to colorism within the Ramayana as well as some of the social implications around colorism in India today.  To do this, I will reference both the Ramayana comic and the Ramayana book.  I am not interested in the determining if the Hindu epics like the Ramayana have influenced colorism in India over time, but rather, interested in the connection between colorism in both written text and stories as well as in social practice.  Additionally, because there has been much more research of how colorism affects women in India, I make a point to address this.  This does not mean, however, men do not experience colorism in India.

To look closely how both the Ramayana comic and the Ramayana translation have instances of colorism, first, colorism needs to be distinguished from racism.  Both are discriminatory social constructions (Jones, 2000, 1493; Hunter, 2007, 237).  Additionally skin color can be an indicator for race (Jones, 2000, 1497), however, colorism is about one’s “…actual skin tone, as opposed to racial or ethnic identity” (Hunter, 2007, 237).  Instead of having different treatment based on another’s perceived race different from the discriminator (“racism”), colorism is based on prejudice against people with darker skin, usually within one’s ethnic or racial group (“colorism”; Parameswaran and Cardoza, 2009, 222).

Even though the term was coined in the United States (Jones, 2009, 1489), colorism is prevalent all over the world.  Within India, there are a number of theories as to exactly where colorism began (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009, 32-33), but we can see it is integrated within a number of other social factors, like gender, class, caste, and more.  Comics like the Amar Chitra Katha series can teach and influence children at an early age to value lighter skin along with other social hierarchies (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009, 21).  Radhika Parameswaran and Kavitha Cardoza’s “Immortal Comics, Epidermal Politics: Representations of gender and colorism in India” (2009) studies extensively 30 books within the Amar Chitra Katha series and found that of the 960 pages, only 345 pages, or 36%, had dark-skinned characters, either human or animals (23).  Within parts of the article, the Valmiki’s Ramayana comic is discussed.  Within this comic, and the shorter Rama comic, Rakshasas are the only characters depicted with darker skin, and they are portrayed as aggressive, scary, and hideous (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009, 26; Pai, 1980).  Lighter-skinned men are usually shown to be strong, healthy, clean, handsome, and often, noble (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009, 24-25; Pai, 1980).

Women in the Ramayana comic, and in the Amar Chitra Katha comic series in general, also have contrasting characteristics between those depicted with light skin and those with dark skin.  Light-skinned females generally have high status like light-skinned males, are pure, loyal, and loving (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009, 29). Additionally, these women are beautiful, slim-figured, and young (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009, 29).  In the Ramayana, Sita is a great example.  Dark-skinned females in the comics are even more marginalized than their male counterparts, and when they do have roles, the low-status women are almost always depicted as monstrous, hypersexual, brutish, and evil (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009, 30).  Shoorpanakha is one such example of a depiction of dark-skinned women (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009, 30-31; Pai, 1980).  Another instance of dark-skinned women being violent and monstrous is in the image below.  A page from the Ramayana comic (Pai, 1980) shows Tataka, a Rakshasi, violently throwing rocks at Rama and Lakshmana.  As seen, she is drawn much darker than the other heroic characters (Pages from Valmiki’s Ramayana, Amar Chitra Katha, 1975).  Coding of skin color and gender in the Ramayana comic promotes colorist ideas’ of light skin having ‘superiority’ over dark skin (Parameswaran & Cardoza, 2009).


Pages of Valmiki’s Ramayana from Amar Chitra Katha comic series, Los Angles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Not only can colorism be seen in the children’s versions of the Ramayana, but it can be seen in more adult versions of the Ramayana as well.  In the Ramayana, we can see a number of instances where again Rakshasas are usually depicted with dark skin and monstrous.   One depiction of colorism and femininity shows the guard of Lanka as violent towards Hanuman who looks to enter the city disguised as a cat.  “Suddenly, a dark-skinned women appeared from no-where before him, her face crooked in an unlovely smile, flames for her hair and a bleeding tigerskin for her dress, standing there in a halo of glowing lights and moving colors that looked like the burning clouds at the destruction of all three worlds” (Buck, 229).  Here, destruction and chaos are invoked when describing a dark skinned woman.  As seen before in the Ramayana comic, this woman is unfriendly, violent, and repulsive (Parameswaran and Cardoza, 2009; Buck, 1976; Pai, 1980) comic.  Both the comic and the translated book of the Ramayana show colorism toward those with darker skin, particularly women.

Connecting the Ramayana to cultural values within India today, lighter skin is highly valued.  The perceived superiority and value of lighter skin creates a market, especially for women (Parameswaran and Cardoza, 2009, 216-217).  Skin color, particularly lighter skin tones, indicates beauty and higher status in many cultures, including India (Hunter, 2007, 246-247; Parameswaran and Cardoza, 2009, 226).  Products like skin lighteners are used in many post-colonial countries like India and are used to whiten the skin (Hunter, 2007, 248).  Below is an image of a popular skin lightener (L’Oreal, 2012) that describes white complexion as “perfect”.  Even despite dangers of these lighteners like mercury poisoning, societal hierarchies create more benefits for those with light skin than dark skin, making women weigh whether lower status or physical risk is more detrimental (Hunter, 2007, 249; Jones, 2000, 1498).


L’Oréal skin whitening kit ad found on Teah Abdullah’s article “Skin Lightening, Racial Identity & Beauty Standards: Stop the Madness!”

A multitude of factors relating to the issues of colorism that have not been discussed are extremely important and pertinent to consider: gender (though this is mentioned above), class, caste, religion, and ethnicity are just but a few of these issues.  Unfortunately, there is not a lot of research around colorism in India in general; most of the research on the topic of colorism speaks of African Americans in the United States (Parameswaran and Cardoza, 2009, 226).  Hopefully, when colorism in India becomes better researched, masculinity and colorism will also be looked at.  More research on colorism within epics, scriptures, and storytelling may produce more information about colorism within society (Indian or broader) as well, and in turn, the research on colorism within India may show new ways of reading and interpreting these religious texts.



Abdullah, Teah. L’Oreal. Digital image. Feminspire.com. Feminspire Media Network, LLC, 12 Nov.             2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Buck, William.  Ramayana.  Berkley: University of California Press, 1976.

Colorism“. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

Hunter, Margaret. “The Persistent Problem of Colorism: Skin Tone, Status, and Inequality.”             Sociology Compass 1.1 (2007): 237-54. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.

Jones, Trina. “Shades of Brown: The Law of Skin Color.” Duke Law Journal 49.1487 (2000):                        1487-557. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Pages From Valmiki’s Ramayana, Amar Chitra Katha, printed comic book, 1975, reprint 2007 (Los              Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Los Angeles, CA).

Pai, Anant. Vālmīki’s Ramayana. Bombay: India Book House, 1980. Print.

Parameswaran, Radhika E., & Kavitha Cardoza. “Immortal Comics, Epidermal Politics:                             Representations of gender and colorism in India.” Journal of Children and Media 3.1                     (2009): 19-34. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.

—.  “Melanin on the Margins: Advertising and the Cultural Politics of Fair/Light/White Beauty             in India.”  Journalism & Communication Monographs 11 (2009): 213-274.

Racism“. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

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Rama and Ravana’s Divine Antagonism

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. http://www.jstor.org/stable/416942

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. .

13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guru-shishya_tradition

14. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/653297/yinyang

15. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/585989/telepathy

  1. http://symboldictionary.net/?p=1660

17. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/244670/Greek-mythology

18. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/507866/Roman-religion

19. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/63933/bhakti

20. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/387852/moksha

21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surpanakha

22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanka

23. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/90/GustaveDoreParadiseLostSatanProfile.jpg


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The BJP: Politics, the Ramayana, and the Construction of the Muslim ‘Other’

Ethnic and religious violence in India, between Hindus and Muslims, has increased in since the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid. Also, during this time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other right-wing groups emerged into the Indian political sphere. However, what has lead to this increase in animosity and violence? Is it a continuation of historical mistrust, rivalry, and hate? Or is it a new phenomenon that is created independent of historical relationships? Using various sources and scholarship on the BJP, other right- wing groups, and hindutva ideology, I will argue that political tools, such as media, history, and modern interpretations of the Ramayana, are used to socially construct a Hindu identity in relation to the Muslim ‘Other’. This has lead to an increase in anti-Muslim violence perpetrated by the BJP, other right-wing groups, and hindutva activists.

I would like to first draw attention to Matthew Cook’s “Reconstructing “Ram Rajya”: Tradition, Politics, and the Bharatiya Janata Party”. Cook’s article examines the BJP’s promotion of Ram Rajya, the idea of the “Golden Age” of Rama’s Kingdom, or an age of prosperity and Hindu unity. A large number of people, specifically media, believe that Ram Rajya will signify a return to the past and to the social systems that no longer have a place in much of modern India. However, Cook argues that media constructions of Ram Rajya as ‘regressive’, “fails to recognize that the BJP’s talk of Ram Rajya has little to do with returning to the past, but everything to do with gaining political power in the present” (Cook, 42). The BJP is using Ram Rajya and the Ramayana as a unifying agent for Hindus, and through Ram Rajya politics, the BJP aims to gain political power and Hindu hegemony over the Muslim ‘Other’. This requires a strong unified body of Hindus, whose identities are constructed in relation to this Muslim ‘Other’.

I would now like to turn to an article written by Susanne and Lloyd Hoeber. Their article examines Hindu-Muslim hate and animosity as a modern construction. For them, the Ramayana mega-series, as well as other events, plays, and accessible media act as a catalyst for the BJP’s rise to power and for promoting the Muslim ‘Other’ message. They argue that the Ramayana mega-series, among other things, operate in a new space [mass media, television, etc…] to promote Hindu unity and create a Muslim ‘Other’. “In this space a new public culture is being created and consumed. Distant persons, strangers, create representations of public culture for anonymous viewers. Values and symbols, meaning systems and metaphors, can be standardized for national consumption” (Hoeber, Susanne and Lloyd, 26). Through this socializing lens, identities, and values are internalized by the masses. Thus, inherent in the Ramayana is the ability to influence peoples’ actions and alter their perception of other people. In the context of violence, the 1992 destruction of the Babri Majid, plays a large roll in identity construction.


The Destruction of the Babri Masjid. Photo by: Sanjay Sharma

The destruction of Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid by a mob of roughly 300,000 Hindus was an extremely controversial event in recent Indian politics. The mob was organized by the BJP as well as other right-wing political groups, and its destruction resulted in riots that killed roughly 1500 people (Shuja, 39). The Babri Masjid, built by the Mughal Emperor Babur 430 years ago, stood on a site believed to be the birthplace of Rama. Thus, it is a location of extreme significance to Hindu nationalists and hindutva culture, and its destruction is a symbolic rejection of Mughal erudition and “the modern, liberal, educated, well-informed Muslim who has an open mind and cosmopolitan outlook,” the Muslim ‘Other’ (Shuja, 41).

In “The Violence of Security: Hindu Nationalism and the Politics of Representing the Muslim as a Danger,” Dibyesh Anand argues: “Hindutva is targeted at transforming the Indian state and controlling the Muslim and Christian minorities. At the same time, the primary goal is to transform the Hindus, to ‘Awaken the Hindu nation’ (See Chitkara, 2003; Hingle, 1999; Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, 2003)” (Anand, 204). I would argue that this image is, in a sense, a manifestation of this aspect of hindutva ideology that Anand discusses. The fact that the event was somewhat swept under the rug in terms of a political response demonstrates the power that a unified group of Hindus hold over the Muslim minority. Furthermore, this event only helped to increase Hindu nationalism, which subsequently strengthened hindutva sentiment in general and support for the BJP in particular.

Anand continues to explore the identity politics of the BJP and how the Muslim ‘Other’ is constructed in order to promote Hindu Security: “Security is closely linked with identity politics. How we define ourselves depends on how we represent others. This representation is thus integrally linked with how we ‘secure ourselves against the Other… The Other gets reduced to being a danger and hence an object that is fit for surveillance, control, policing and possibly extermination” (Anand, 206). Creating the Muslim ‘Other’, in this light, allows for acts of violence to be legitimized and perpetrated by the Hindus who have been subject to the socializing agents that construct their “righteous” identity in opposition to the “dangerous” Muslim ‘Other.’ However, there is more at play beyond identity construction. State institutions also play a big role in facilitating and allowing for violence to take place.

Ward Berenschot details the role of state-institutions in violence and rioting. He points out how politicians, police, and other figures associated with the state promote anti-Muslim ideologies and violence: “The political networks that facilitate the interaction between state institutions and citizens are to a large extent the same networks engaged in the instigation and organization of communal violence” (Berenschot, 415). This argument points to various ways in which the idea of the Muslim ‘Other’ is promoted by the state: It highlights one of the political tools that can be used to construct the identity of the Muslim ‘Other’, and it allows for acts of violence to be perpetrated by Hindus.

The image of the Babri Masjid’s destruction works well with both Berenschot and Anand’s critiques. State institutions allowed for the destruction of the mosque, and they were also very slow in responding to the violence that followed. Furthermore, it also represents the rejection and marginalization of the Muslim ‘Other’ in relation to the Hindu. These factors have not only allowed for violence to take place but also have legitimized that violence.


Anand, Dibyesh. “The Violence of Security: Hindu Nationalism and the Politics of Representing ‘the Muslim’ as a Danger,” The Round Table Vol. 94, No. 379, 203-215 (April 2005)

Berenschot, Ward. “Rioting as Maintaining Relations: Hindu-Muslim Violence and Political Mediation in Gujurat, India,” Civil Wars Vol. 11, No. 4, 414-433 (December 2009)

Buck, William. The Ramayana (University of California Press, 2012)

Cook, Matthew. “Reconstructing “Ram Rajya”: Tradition, Politics, and the Bharatiya Janata Party,” Hinduism and Secularism: After Ayodhya, ed. Arvind Sharma

Hoeber, Susanne and Lloyd. “Modern Hate,” The New Republic, March 22, 1993.

Pollock, Sheldon. “Ramayana and Political Imagination in India” The Journal of AsianStudies, May, 1993, Vol.52, p.261(37).

Shereen Ratnagar. “Archaeology at the Heart of a Political Confrontation,” CA Forum On Anthropology in Public, Vol. 45, No. 2, 239-259 (April 2004)

Sharif Shuja. “Indian Secularism: Image and Reality,” Contemporary Review 287.1674 (July 2005): 39

Image: www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/in-the-name-of-the-people/article91762.ece

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Interpreting the Ramayana as a Means of Creating and Defining Tradition

Illay Cooper. The Ramayana. Print. British Museum.

Illay Cooper. The Ramayana. Print. British Museum.

A reader of Valmiki’s Ramayana stumbles upon instances of questionable moral behavior from each character with alarming frequency. Yet these same characters obtain the absolute devotion of countless Indians across Hindu traditions. How do we as readers outside of the Hindu tradition make sense of this?

The Ramayana is held as “a mirror of the highest ideals in Hindu culture and civilization,” (Hess, 2). The problem is that there exist many traditions within Hindu culture that have incredibly differing ideals and morals. Moreover the ideals of these cultures are always changing as social issues become more or less prevalent. For the Ramayana to continue to be a guide across Hindu culture it needs to constantly be updated and re-interpreted so it can continue to address the issues and lessons prevalent to its readers. The story of Rama is reinterpreted through text, orality, media, and propaganda to acquiesce to the beliefs and morals of those who partake in its tradition. (Hess, 1-32)

Valmiki’s Ramayana is filled with moral ambiguity. Each character partakes in actions that make the reader question if they are indeed worthy of the absolute  loyalty from their devotees. This moral ambiguity cannot satisfy the ever changing and diverse ideals of the individuals that are devout to their specific deities across the Ramayana tradition. Yet this haziness also spawns re-interpretation of the text and oppositional tellings of the story in order to assuage the developing ideals of the traditions and the individuals within them. By looking at the ways that individuals and traditions have re-interpreted the story of the Ramayana, we can see how they make it their own by molding it to their own ideals, ultimately bringing them closer to their faith. (Richman, Many Ramayanas, 3-21)

One way that the Ramayana has been reinterpreted is through oppositional tellings within the text. By observing the ways in which Medieval Bengali society poet Krttivasa changed the text, we can see how he molded it to cater to the ideals and needs of the people. Bengali society was in disarray after Turkish invasion and was in need of cultural rejuvenation. In a society that was predominately patriarchal, Krttivasa’s Ramayana needed to produce a strong Rama figure that was worthy of emulation. In a tradition that believed that saying the name of Rama would bring even the worst sinner salvation they needed an interpretation that solved Rama’s moments of moral ambiguity. One way that Krttivasa does this is by introducing Taranisena and Viravahu, who are absolute devotees of Rama, and want nothing more than to die at his hand. When their heads are severed they continue say the name of Rama. He also emphasizes Rama as the reincarnation of Vishnu and promotes his infallibility. Krttivasa writes over Rama’s imperfections, which suits the patriarchal tendencies of Bengali tradition, making the Ramayana their own. (Mukherjee, 45-51)

Although the Ramayana has become largely a literary tradition, it still exists as a prevalent oral tradition. Through observing Tamil folk tales, poems and plays we can see how these cultures have made the Ramayana their own by incorporating stories and explanations into oral versions of the Ramayana and by doing so make it their own. By observing these changes we can infer their lessons and purposes.

Telugu folk versions of the Ramayana explain Mantara’s motive for convincing Kaieyi to banish Rama to the forest. They say that in Rama’s childhood he used humiliate her by shooting clay balls at her back and making everyone laugh at her. This story could work as a lesson that teaches respect to elders, or ramifications for ones actions. (Pandurangan, 58-65)

Tamil folk dramas often include Rama accepting that he has acted against the warrior code in his killing of Vali, and offers life back to Vali. Although this shows the fallibility of Rama, it also shows the virtue in showing remorse and attempting to right ones wrong actions. (Pandurangan, 58-65)

Instead of the bridge between India and Lanka just being built by the Vanaras people, Tamil folk tales often describe the squirrel that did its part by getting wet in the ocean and rolling in sand to help seal the bridge together. It is told that Rama patted the squirrel on the back, giving it the two white marks that squirrels have.  This detail teaches that even the smallest effort towards helping a noble cause is appreciated and rewarded by the Gods.  (Pandurangan, 58-65)

By introducing new details to Valmiki’s Ramayana, these folk traditions create their own Ramayana to extoll the perception virtue that exists in their culture. Equally as important, these slight variations and explanations of the text in oral traditions allow the Ramayana to be particular to the culture by promoting the ideals that specifically concern them.

The need for the Ramayana to always be adapting to fit changing ideals of cultures can be seen in contemporary media. In the 1987 a nationwide television series rendition of the Ramayana was to be released by Ramanand Sagar. By observing how he altered the story we can see where he feared that Valmiki’s Ramayana sparked contemporary sensitivities. Sagar altered the story of Sita’s fire test slightly in order to paint Rama in a better light for a nation largely composed of Rama and Sita devotees. He has Lakshmana insist that this test would be an injustice to Sita. Rama explains to Lakshmana that he trusts Sita’s purity. When the Rakshasa’s attacked them Rama summoned the Vedic fire God and asked him to protect Sita, so the Sita that Ravana was holding captive was a false Sita. The fire ritual was merely a necessary means for bringing back the real Sita. The fire ritual was not shown as the image of a burning Sita was too strong for many Sita devotees. For the purpose of cultural sensitivity Sagar changed the story so devotees of Rama and Sita could be appeased. By changing this detail we can see how Rama’s treatment of Sita mirrors the contemporary issue of gender inequality within India . The harsh depiction of this scene within Valmiki’s Ramayana would have upset the vast population of Sita devotees. The story needed to be changed so it could be a success and be shared amongst the Indian population. (Hess, p. 1-32)Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan Episode 01 Full [HD Quality]

Interpretations of the Ramayana have implications that spread beyond India’s civilians and into its politics. Historically, varying political interpretations of the Ramayana have caused great consternation in India. Two political adversaries, E.V. Ramasami (a non-Brahman) and C. Rajagopalachari (a Brahman), had differing ideas as to the message of the Ramayana. Rajagopalachari saw the Ramayana as a national epic, and a guide for social and moral behavior and Ayodhya as the ideal city to be emulated. Meanwhile Ramasami was writing pamphlets for Tamil readers about his completely contradicting interpretation of the text. He attacked the Ramayana on the basis of seeing Rama and his people as the Aryan Northern Indians who were oppressing the Dravidian Southern Indians. He saw the Rakshasas as Dravidians, and the Ramayana being a tale of their obliteration. He believed that the typical Aryan view glorified Rama, reinforced Brahmanical oppression, and promoted subjection of women to male dominance. Ramasami’s movement was widely supported, especially in southern India where protests and plays were held and the image of Rama was publically burned. Ramasami as well as the protestors and actors were arrested in the mid 1950’s and India took the form of Rajagopalachari’s conception upon Indian independence from the British. The differences in interpretation of the Ramayana had huge political implications, and swayed the direction of the country. Ramasami came to a contrary conclusion of whom and what is good in the Ramayana than most while reading the same text. His political understanding of the events started an uprising that almost changed the social and political structure of an entire country. Ramasami’s political interpretation is yet another example of how a reader of the Ramayana can use the text to create an understanding that fulfills the needs of the people. The Southern Indians needed the Ramayana to support them in their fight against oppression and they were able to find this support through their interpretation of the moral ambiguity within the story. (Richman, Epic and State, 631-54)

The Ramayana serves as a mirror for the highest ideal of Hindu society, but it cannot do that if it is not specific to a culture and its ideals. The story needs to constantly change and be reinterpreted to keep up with the changing ideals of the many traditions of India. For many devotees seeking darśan, Valmiki’s version of their God would have too great of moral imperfection. The reinterpretations and alternate tellings allow them to have a religious experience that fits their ideals, and allows them to see their God and have their God see them back. (Eck, 6-7)

Work Cited:

Eck, Diana L. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. Print.

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 (Mar. 1999), pp. 1-32.

Mukherjee, Tapati. “From Valmiki to Krttivasa; A Journey from Elitist to Popular Literature.” Critical Perspectives on the Ramayana. 1st ed. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons, 2001. 45-51. http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=QQRkuduNXTkC&oi=fnd&pg=PA104&dq=rasik+tradition+ramayana&ots=WIvDUnlOU4&sig=GpR2v5Zi9yT0puY06uOWObEz8mA#v=onepage&q&f=false

Pandurangan, A. “Ramayana Versions in Tamil.” Journal of Tamil Studies (1982): 58-65. http://www.ulakaththamizh.org/JOTSpdf%5C021058067.pdf

Richman, Paula. “Epic and State: Contesting Interpretations of the Ramayana.” Public Culture (1995): 631-54. Duke University Press. Web. .

Richman, Linda. Introduction: The Diversity of the Rāmāyaṇa Tradition. In Many Rāmāyaṇas. ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1991.) 3-21.

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Dharma: Traditionalism in Modern Hindu Culture

Religion as a human creation seeks to answer questions of life as it is, was, and will be. The argument of predestination versus free will has proved to be a metaphysically succulent food for thought, of which many religious lenses have attempted to grasp alas have been unable to prove. Hinduism addresses the concern of predestiny versus free will within the concept of dharma. As researchers, we are concerned with the concrete and real-world effect of dharma and as such the question remains: How does dharma as a traditional value shape modern Hindu ethics?

Dharma, defined as “law plus religion plus morality” (Davis, Jr., 2007), has vast influence on the way in which people form connections through social bonds in order to create society. Traditionally, dharma functioned as a reasoning behind the social hierarchy of castes, or “‘categories’ within which to assign a basically unlimited variety of heterogeneous social entities” (Hiltebeitel, 1987). Modern Hindu social structure continues to explicate the extent of dharma‘s function in terms of caste cohesion and complacency.

Dharma is rooted in Hindu law and ethics as a functional value established by sacred Hindu texts, primarily in the Ramayana. Hess (1999) discusses the relationship between Rama and Sita, key figures in the Ramayana, noting that “the Sita who clung to the dharma of worshipping 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.”

Banerjee, an academically trained artist, painted “Kakaye and Manthara,” a scene from the Ramayana in which Kaikeyi, a supporting character, convinces Manthara, mother of Rama, to exile Rama for fourteen years.


The image illustrates the key moment in which dharma is seen to be counterintuitive to Rama’s betterment. Rama, having godlike moral perception, willingly undergoes such in order to fulfill his dharmic duty of defeating Ravana. The importance of dharma as a moral compass in times of difficulty is a motif in the Ramayana and frequently functions as a method of moral law. Characters who find themselves in times of difficult decisions often act in accordance to their dharma. It is paramount to note that dharma had been historically used to justify caste designation as it is believed that acting in accordance with one’s dharma allows one to “move up” in the next life.

Analyses of dharma in modern Hindu ethics found that dharma as a “tradition is no longer self-evident and [doesn’t have] sufficient justification” (Creel 1975). Lamb (2002) builds upon this, noting that the duty and functions of caste “have gone through a variety of changes during the last millennium, and distances and relationships between the various elements in the hierarchies have changed, [but] the basic structures have not altered significantly.”

Despite the fact that its function in social interactions is no longer instilled nor required, dharma still affects the perception of social caste designation and generates a sense of belonging amongst caste members. Modern Hindu ethics have been operationally defined by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the case of its censorship of film production, recognized as a “pursuit of the…voluntary moral standard for the media and the protection of dharma … (in which the BJP) acted both as an instigator and a catalyst for moral panics that served its reactionary cultural agenda of homogenization” (Bose, 2009). In terms of modern legal effects, dharma plays an influential role as a fluid definition which became especially prominent in post-Colonial India:

“The legal side of dharma [had] ironically been lost precisely because the artificial colonial focus on Dharmasastra as legal codes could not be sustained in light of either further investigation of the texts themselves or in the practical context of British colonial courts, both of which demonstrated that Dharmasastra was not a promulgated legal code. …Rather, Dharmasastra contains the theological jurisprudence of Hindu law and the only reasonable basis upon which local legal systems in India can be called Hindu at all.”

(Davis, Jr. 2007; 246)

The effect of dharma and its influence on modern social structure is thus irrefutable. In regards to Hindu ethics and law, dharma must still play a role in the formation of the cultural norms and values and thus Hindu social values, including that of social hierarchies and the implicit nature of such. Hacker (2006) poignantly summarizes modern dharmic influence as “no longer useful because it contains so much that people no longer want to adhere to today, for example, the fundamental commitment to castes, life-stages, and geographical places. …a new meaning is being given to the word dharma.”

Works Cited

Banjaree, B.P. (1906). “Kakaye and Manthara” [image]. Retrieved from:


Bose, Nandana. “The Hindu Right and the Politics of Censorship: Three Case Studies of Policing          Hindi Cinema, 1992-2002” The Velvet Light Trap, No. 63, Spring 2009, pp. 22-33.

Creel, Austin B. “The Reexamination of Dharma in Hindu Ethics.” Philosophy of East and West.   (25:2) pp. 161-173.

Davis Jr., Donald R. “Hinduism as a Legal Tradition” Journal of the American Academy of                           Religion. June 2007, Vol. 75, No. 2, pp. 241-267.

Hacker, Paul “Dharma in Hinduism” Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 34, No. 5 (Oct. 2006),                   pp. 479-496.

Hess, Linda. (1999). “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His         Ideal Wife”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion. (67:1) pp. 1-32.

Hiltebitel, Alf. “Hinduism: An Overview” Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Edition, ed. Lindsay                      Jones  (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 3998-4009.

Lamb, Ramdas. Rapt in the Name: The Ramnamis, Ramnam, and Untouchable Religion in                        Central India (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 1-23.


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A Crime of Passion for the Sake of Honor: Using the Ramayana as a Source

Recently in the news: a father in New Delhi, India surrendered to the police because he tortured and then proceeded to murder the man who allegedly raped his 14-year-old daughter; he took matters into his own hands, as opposed to leaving the alleged rapist to pay for his actions according to the legal system of India.  The reason might (or might not) surprise you; the father was concerned with tarnishing his family’s honor. It turns out, that this idea of honor is very important in India. Honor determines societal status, and rape is a symbolic demonstration of power that can make or break it  (Gangoli,113). This is a motif strung throughout the history of India; from ancient texts, such as the Valmiki Ramayana to news listings on CNN. Because of the prominence of rape in India, I would like to look at what causes it to happen, why it happens, and how it continues to happen.

 The judicial system of India defines rape as a gender specific crime in which men can only be perpetrators and women can only be victims (Gangoli,103). There are several factors that constitute this crime:

“If defined sexual acts occur against the victim’s will, occur without the victim’s consent, or when her consent has been obtained by putting her in fear of death or harm. If they occur with her consent, when at the time of giving such consent she was intoxicated, or suffering from unsoundness of mind and unable to understand the nature and consequences of that to which she has given consent, and (or) occur when she is under 16 years of age”  (Flavia,53).

With the exception of  defining a rapist as only male, and a victim as only female, this law sounds a lot like the one put in place by our United States government. Yet, rape in India is about twice as common than in the U.S. (Gangoli,101). 

In my opinion, the issue of honor is deeply dividing. It separates the upper class, upper caste women whose sexuality is controlled by their families, from poor, low-caste women who are independent in matters of marriage, divorce, and cohabitation; women of low-caste are continuously seen  as dishonorable, causing women of such status to have a higher chance of being raped, and a very unlikely chance of winning a prosecution against their rapist in a court of law. There is a clear patriarchal notion of women that is conveyed here; if a woman does not belong to a man, the damage is less, however if a woman does belong to a man, the measure of damage increases significantly. This is because women who have been raped are seen as damaged property that had once belonged to a man. This ‘property damage’ is symbolic of a loss or incompetence of power; and thus, when one man loses power, another gains power. Because of this, rape in India is thought of as a crime of passion; being that the motive is for one man to show supreme power over another man (Barua, 80).

While class and caste impact women, there are other logistical factors as well. Overall, the prosecution of rape cases tends to fail because the victim is unable to prove or convince the court that she did not consent to sexual intercourse. In addition, the legal system requires that a victim’s sexual history is used during a sexual assault trial; and it is almost always used against the plaintiff. The facts here suggest that the concern with defining rape as a legal offense was to regulate the sexuality of women, not her bodily integrity (Ghosh, 250). Because of this notion, in a court of law, alleged rapists are being proven innocent, even when guilty.



This image depicts Ravana kidnapping a vulnerable Sita and taking her back to his kingdom.

Demonstration of power is historically how men obtain high societal status; often by dominating other males (which constitutes stealing a man’s most prized possession). This idea is demonstrated in the Ramayana when Ravana kid-naps Sita (Buck,133). By doing so, Ravana exemplifies his power over Rama, leaving him feeling vulnerable, and eventually questioning his own honor (Hess, 18). The act of kidnapping is powerful here because it catalyzes the questioning of a woman’s honor by the man that she belongs to; such as what we see when Rama rejects Sita out of the fear of losing honor and respect.(Kishwar,290).

Overall, honor and rape are connected in a way that deeply reflects Hindu cultural values. This idea of honor is important in India because it is seen as a straight and narrow path to high social status. If a woman is raped, it is considered to be an act that takes away her honor and that of the man that she belongs to; essentially dishonoring a woman is equivalent to dishonoring a man as well (Bhattacharjee,15). The Ramayana is an appropriate source to refer to here; after Rama wins the battle and Sita is returned to him, Rama rejects Sita because she spent time with another man; meaning that she could not possibly be pure. Sita is rejected because Rama fears tarnishing his honor (Buck,390). This is the case because a woman is viewed as a male’s prized possession. When a woman is raped, a man’s possession is taken from them; and being the protectorate of their possession, they should be able to take care of it and maintain it. The inability to be powerful enough to do so is seen as embarrassing, and thus, there is a loss of honor and power that occurs here. Overall, it is the ideals of a woman’s purity and sexuality, honor of the family, and of the community, that makes them targets for rape (Bhattacharjee,16). Thus, most women are sexually assaulted with the intention to tarnish these values.

It is obvious that the male gendered need for high standing societal status has had serious negative effects on Hindu women in India. This issue is one that will be hard to fix, as it’s ideals are ingrained in the fundamental ideas and understandings of generations of Hindu Indians; so, could Hindu society remain functional if the people chose to leave behind such intrinsic values? Or, will women continue to remain in the cross-fires of battling men, serve as property, and continue to suffer for the sake of a man’s honor and for the sake of cultural ideals?


Works Cited:


  1. Agnes, Flavia. “Sexuality, Ideology, and Legal Reform” in A Unique Crime: Understanding Rape in India (Ed. Swati Bhattacharjee, Golabazar Kolkata, Amina Biswas 2008), pp 53-78.
  2. Barua, Arunabha. Rape and Consent: “A Socio-Legal Perspective” in A Unique Crime: Understanding Rape in India (Ed. Swati Bhattacharjee, Golabazar Kolkata, Amina Biswas 2008), pp 79-91.
  3. Bhattacharjee, Swati. “Introduction” in A Unique Crime: Understanding Rape in India (Ed. Swati Bhattacharjee, Golabazar Kolkata, Amina Biswas, 2008), pp 9-52.
  4. Buck, William. The Ramayana: Valmiki’s Ramayana (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp 1-432.
  5. Gangoli, Geetanjali. Internatinal Approaches to Rape. ed.Nicole Westmarland (Policy Press, 2011), pp 100-125.
  6. Ghosh, Saswati. “Why Did You Go There? Gender and the Public Place” in A Unique Crime: Understanding Rape in India (Ed. Swati Bhattacharjee, Golabazar Kolkata, Amina Biswas 2008), pp 240-259.
  7. Hess, Linda. Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 67. No. 1 (Mar. 1999), pp. 1-32.
  8. 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), pp 285-308.
  9. Unknown Artist. Ravana Abducts Sita, folio from the Ramayana. 1775. Himichal Pradesh, Kangra. New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art 78.256.3.
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The Role of Skin Tone in the Ramayana and Indian Culture

The Ramayana is a widely acknowledged holy text in India with many new interpretations, adaptations, and depictions arising throughout the years, including children’s books, comic books, films, and television programs, each of which have audiences spanning from thousands to millions of individuals. The Ramayana has thus had a significant impact on Indian society and how caste and skin colour have come to be understood over time. Modern adaptations of the Ramayana, while indeed serving as useful and important retellings of the tale, simultaneously perpetuate discriminatory standards that deem dark-skinned individuals as impure and inferior to the light-skinned Brahmins.

The caste system in India is thousands of years old, dating back to 1200 BCE, and is composed of four groups of people: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Outside of the caste system are the Dalits, or the untouchables, who are considered to be on the lowest level of the social ladder. Today, there are laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination based on caste, but the system’s effect on Indian society is still apparent. For example, untouchables are still the primary handlers of feces and sewage, and “face violence, eviction and withheld wages if they do not take on the hazardous job of emptying private and public latrines” (Campbell 1). This large group of Indians, roughly one hundred and sixty million in number, are widely mistreated. However, the abuse of inferior castes spans beyond the physical. In the media, the Shudras and the untouchables are widely discriminated against and have fallen victim to colorism and offensive portrayal. Specifically, such treatment occurs in modern adaptations of the Ramayana, such as children’s books, comic books, films, and television programs. It is no surprise that adaptations of the Ramayana have had a significant impact on Indian society, for the text was once described as having an “absolute and all-commanding sway and influence of literature” (Hindery 288). The troubling portrayal of lower castes perpetuates notions of colorism, or discrimination based on skin tone, and feeds into India’s societal standards of what constitutes purity.

In India, light skin is synonymous with purity. Lighter skin tones are considered pure and valuable while dark skin tones are associated with impurity and immorality. Such notions can be found in many branches of the Indian media. Advertisements attempt to persuade Indian consumers into buying products to make their skin lighter. This standard of beauty runs rampant in India, and advertisements for fairness creams are “about the dark-skinned girl failing to get the guy, get the job, and get the life of her dreams” until the cream is purchased, giving her complexion the glow it needed to be deemed beautiful and worthy as a woman (Nithya 1). The idea of light skin representing purity and dark skin representing sin is present even in historical images of the text, such as a painting in the British Museum of Art that depicts demonic dark-skinned individuals ferociously attacking the light-skinned and pristine Ram and Sita (Museum). These notions of purity continue to be fueled by modern adaptations of the Ramayana that reach millions of Indians regularly.

Museum #1926,0301,0.1. Painting on paper. 1850. The British Museum.

It is not surprising that the demons and royalty in modern adaptations of the Ramayana are depicted with skin tones that match their caste. In the 2010 animated film Ramayana: The Epic the evil demons are dark green and dark purple, strikingly dark when seen next to Ram and Sita’s creamy white complexions. On television, the 1986, 2008, and 2012 retellings of the tale portray light-skinned characters as godly and royal and dark-skinned characters as demonic, lowly, and savage. For example, one demon speaking to Sita when she is being held hostage by Ravana is dark green and grotesque, the exact opposite of the light and radiant protagonists. All three Ramayana television programs have generated large fan bases composed of millions of viewers, and the 2008 program won “The Most Promising New Show of the Year” Award, demonstrating the show’s prominence and impact on the Indian audience (New 1). The 1986 television program had one million viewers alone (Cusack 1). These messages about color and caste are viewed and internalized by millions of Indians, perpetuating the notion that some skin tones are superior to others.

However, even more troubling is the depiction of color in Amar Chitra Katha’s comic book Rama, published in 1999. This comic book is meant for young English-speaking readers. In India, English is the “’common’ language among most educated Indians today” and “the language of all businesses, government and education” (India 1). In addition, English skills are regarded as “part of the social hierarchy… Practically every person in the higher and upper middle class section of the Indian society is fluent in English” (India 1). Since English speakers are primarily those in higher castes, this comic book is geared towards children of such castes, meaning that the images and ideas presented in this book are meant to shape the way the higher castes think about color and caste. Rama shares similar imagery with the aforementioned pieces of art. The only dark-skinned characters are the hideous demons who try to trick Ram and Sita in an evil, conniving way (Katha 3). They are dark green with black hair, monstrous next to the fair-skinned Ram and Sita, the couple that is worshipped and representative of all that is good and pure. Children who read this comic book are meant to associate dark skin with the lowly demons and light skin with the royal family. In short, this comic books says that it is best to be fair-skinned.

Fair-skinned Laxmana and Sita attacked by the dark-skinned Shoorpanakha. Excerpt from Amar Chitra Katha’s comic book, Ram, page 13.

These notions are not present in the Ramayana alone. Other important Indian scriptures “for example, the Vedas, which date back to 1500–1000 B.C., portray the evil characters as black-skinned and the good ones as light-skinned, an idea that carried into the caste system, still somewhat prevalent in India today” (Krishen 1). Clearly, these notions have been a part of Indian culture for quite some time. The notions of skin tone in regards to caste has been prevalent for decades and continues to influence society and modern media, perpetuating a culture that views light skin as pure and ideal, rendering the use of dark skin in the media as representative of sin and impurity.


Works Cited

Campbell, Charlie. “India’s ‘Untouchables’ Are Still Being Forced to Collect Human Waste by

         Hand.” 25 August 2014.

Chandra, Savitri. “Two Aspects of Hindu Social Life and Thought, as Reflected in the Works of

         Tulsīdās.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Feb.,                  1976).

Cusack, Carole M. “The Gods on Television: Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, Politics, and Popular

         Piety in Late Twentieth Century India.”

Hindery, Roderick. “Hindu Ethics in the Ramayana.” The Journal of Religious Ethics.

“India: World’s second largest English-speaking country.”

Katha, Amar Chitra. Rama. 2009.

Krishen, Anjala. “Asian Females in an Advertising Context: Exploring Skin Tone Tension.”

Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising. Volume 35, Issue 1, 2014

Mayell, Hillary. “India’s ‘Untouchables’ Face Violence, Discrimination.” 2 June 2003.

Museum #1926,0301,0.1. Painting on paper. 1850. The British Museum.

“New Talent Awards.” Website. 2008.

Nithya, R. “Growing Up Dark-Skinned in a Color-Conscious India.” 19 June 2014.

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Managing Sita


7. Sita’s Ordeal by Fire, From a Ramayana. Ink and color on paper. 1600. The American Council for Southern Asian Art Collection at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. ArtStor http://www.umich.edu/~hartspc/acsaa/index.html. October 12, 2014.

Sita (popular heroine of the Ramayana), as I understand her, is no more than a woman who is desperately in love with her husband. Personally, I think we have all seen the consequences and joys that come to those who will do and/or sacrifice anything for love. Two of the most powerful forces in our world are love and faith and Sita happens to be wrapped up in both. With power comes manipulation, however, as is seen across the world in most political arenas and as I intend to demonstrate, happens to Sita.

A brief and straightforward example is the use of Sita as inspiration for women to enter into Indian politics during the nationalist movement circa 1930 (think Gandhi). As explained by the scholar, Stephanie Tawa Lama in the International Review of Sociology, what she calls the “Hindu Goddess” (used here as a blanket name for the “main or typical” goddesses of Hinduism) is manipulated to suit many situations. In the case of Sita, Lama explains that Sita is “deliberately construed as a role model for women to engage in the nationalist movement”(7). But instead of acting solely as a guardian for strong females, she is portrayed as having strength by fulfilling her dharma as goddess, wife, and princess. To quote Lama once more, “the invocation of the Goddess legitimizes people’s participation in the movement”(8). While the cause of incorporating women into all spheres of life is admirable, the submissive and passive aggressive nature of Sita may prove to be less than ideal for women hoping to stand up for themselves politically. However, it is exactly within the manipulation of Sita (i.e. ignoring her passive and accommodating personality and to focus on her ability to fulfill dharma) that causes her to become a  role model for Indian women interested in entering the political forum.


Rama and Sita with Lakshmana and Hanuman. Ink and opaque watercolor on paper. 1765. The American Council for Southern Asian Art Collection at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. ArtStor http://www.umich.edu/~hartspc/acsaa/index.html. November 20, 2014.

As the pendulum swings so does the portrayal of our dear Sita. On this occasion we are presented with a case in which Sita is employed as the epitome of docile womanhood (an application that I can readily understand having read Valmiki’s Ramayana). In this article by Devdutt Pattanaik, he explains a literal interpretation of Sita’s encirclement upon Lakshmana leaving her in the hermitage to follow Rama’s cry from the forest leading to Sita’s kidnapping by Ravana (I would want a golden deer, too, Sita). In the scenario exhibited by Pattanaik in “Threshold of Chastity,” he demonstrates the way in which some use Sita’s “indiscretion” (i.e. feeding a starving beggar who approaches – as her dharma commands) as a warning to all young brides to never cross their threshold. In an interpretation almost too extreme to understand, I can only quote the author, “[A bride] may ‘cross the threshold’ only twice in her life: once as a bride on the way to her husband’s house and the second time as a corpse on her way to the crematorium” (22). If you, like me, are shocked and thinking, “No one stays in her home all the time,” there is still some glimmer of hope. The author goes on to explain that any other outing must be “chaperoned” and that “’stepping out’… brings disgrace to the household!” If this is not startling enough, an analysis of the situation might conclude that according to Sita’s dharma, she has to feed anyone who approaches her begging for food. This makes her fate impossible to avoid (damned if you do, damned if you don’t – literally). How is it then, that Sita can be blamed and even condemned for crossing the line Laksmana made to feed a hungry hermit? This manipulation of Sita’s story seems so far from Gandhi’s manipulation of Sita’s persona. We’ve gone from the nationalist movement using Sita as an example of strength to masogonists using Sita as a warning for all insubordinate women.


Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita Cooking and Eating in the Wilderness. Gouache with Gold on Paper. 1820. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Artstor. www.mfah.org. November 20, 2014.

It appears that even translations or the way that one reads the text can lack consistency in the portrayal of Sita as well. Sally J. Sutherland writes in an article entitled Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-Models in the Sanskrit Epics statements that do not exactly match my read of Valmiki’s Ramayana. For instance, in reference to the moment in which Sita encourages Ram to retrieve the golden deer for her (again, it is a golden deer, who can be expected to only watch it run by?), Sutherland exclaims that the consequence is that we are reminded of Sita’s “strong will” as “her most striking trait” (75). However, as I expressed previously, I find Sita’s character to come across as submissive and only find her to be passive aggressive with the conclusion of the epic, though Sutherland acknowledges this as a significant moment of passive aggressivity, she expresses feeling that way elsewhere in the story. Sutherland and I interpret differently again in reference to the end of the epic when she considers Sita and Ram’s relationship as feeling “resolved” (78). On the contrary, I find it difficult to come to any understanding or settled feelings with the conclusion of the epic. Sutherland also goes on to explain that Sita’s action of essentially killing herself is “one socially acceptable manner of expressing [disaffection or disloyalty]” and describes it simply as “masochistic actions, actions turned against the self as a form of revenge against the aggressor” (78). I find these statements to be unnerving and a little far-fetched. Would Sita’s final act be as impressive if this was just something that passive aggressive people did generally? However, Sutherland concludes her paper with a feeling that masochism is a normative part of society.

While no person, figure, character, or idea is straightforward and clear cut, there is a way in which religious figures can be disassembled and then put back together to suit someone’s momentary needs. So, I pose the question in conclusion, how do we truly understand Sita when so many factors are biased? How do we sift through all of the manipulation to find the true person/goddess?


Lama, Stéphanie Tawa. “The Hindu Goddess and Women’s Political Representation in South Asia: Symbolic Resource or Feminine Mystique?” International Review of Sociology Vol. 11, No. 1 (2001): 5-18. Web.

Pattanaik, Devdutt. “Threshold of Chastity: The line that must not be crossed.” Parabola (Spring 2000): 19-26. Web.

Sita’s Ordeal by Fire, From a Ramayana. Ink and color on paper. 1600. The American Council for Southern Asian Art Collection at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. ArtStor http://www.umich.edu/~hartspc/acsaa/index.html. October 12, 2014.

Sutherland, Sally J. “Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-Models in the Sanskrit Epics.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 109, No. 1 (Jan-Mar., 1989), 63-79. Web.

Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita Cooking and Eating in the Wilderness. Gouache with Gold on Paper. 1820. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Artstor . www.mfah.org. November 20, 2014.

Rama and Sita with Lakshmana and Hanuman. Ink and opaque watercolor on paper. 1765. The American Council for Southern Asian Art Collection at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. ArtStor http://www.umich.edu/~hartspc/acsaa/index.html. November 20, 2014.

Valmiki. Ramayana, trans. William Buck (Berkeley: University of California Press), 1997, 363-366.

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Complications Within a Feminist Sita

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)

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The Legitimacy of Same-Sex Love in Hinduism

Many of the major religions that have been largely active and influential in the world have heteronormativity and heterosexism as written and working inner parts. Hinduism cannot be fully be included, though within its myths and literature such social constructions are found; these are far from the sole beliefs. Other, equally legitimate religious writings and images make it stand out as also being accepting of LGBT+ identities. A Shaiva priest sums his conclusion of what the Hindu scriptures express about same-sex marriage is that  “marriage is the union of spirits, and the spirit is not male or female” (Vanita, 56). This is made possible by the fact that Hinduism has consistently functioned on a myriad of different and coexisting beliefs, with local cultures and individual people interpreting texts to suit them. This makes it so that same-sex love and relationships, as well as marriage, are legitimate within Hinduism, despite the current ruling party, the BJP’s, contrary beliefs.

There is a large portion of Hindus who see one’s life as having four goals, success (atha), social righteousness (dharma), pleasure (kāma), and renouncement (mokṣa) (Doniger, 2005). While pleasure isn’t held in as high of a light as the other goals, it is seen as necessary, especially as it pertains to reproduction. It is also not just seen as pleasure but passion and love. “Kāmasūtra,” a guide addressing the kāma goal, includes non-heterosexual sexual acts (Hiltebeitel, 2005; Anderson, 2005). Written works that lay out laws also take homosexual acts into account. “Arthaśastra” is one such piece, and while it lays out punishment for both sexual acts between two men and those between two women, the latter is seen as meriting a lesser fine (Anderson, 2005). Within the 11th century stories of the “Kathasaritagara” same-sex male attraction is dealt with. It is explained as something left over from a previous life, such as the individuals were different sex lovers before (Vanita, 55).

Sandstone Carving. Seattle Art Museum.

Sandstone Carving. Kama, God of Love. Seattle Art Museum.

Writing is not the only way in which LGBT+ identities have been expressed in Hinduism, images also play their part in informing culture. A carving given the title “Kama, God of Love” shows that the god’s passion/love arrow pointed at a couple, consisting of two women, sitting at his feet. As you can see, while the women’s hands are clasped above their heads, they are seated intimately close, their faces are alight with happiness, and Kama is smiling benevolently down upon them. All this implies they are much more than onlookers of a god’s deed, but that they instead a couple receiving the benefit of said act. This is just one image, there are also more explicate ones found on surviving Khajuraho temples depicting homosexual acts. These temples are covered in carvings of all acts of life, because the culture from which they originate believed in dealing with such things frankly (World Heritage). As other Khajuraho temples have been destroyed, it is unknown what they might have depicted, but those that remain suggest that during the time homosexuality was considered just another part of life.

Kama Zoom in

Closer Look at Kama, God of Love

It is hard to know exactly what pre-colonial views were on the existence of LGBT+ people and acts. The text and images mentioned above suggest they were an acknowledged part of society. It is equally hard to know what was destroyed, hidden, wrongly translated, or stolen by the occupying British government who came from a much more outwardly homophobic culture. Ruth Vanita in her paper “Same-Sex Weddings, Hindu Traditions and Modern India” examines this, as well as how lower-income families respond to their daughters marrying other women. Vanita finds that parents’ issues with their daughter’s marriages is less due to them being same-sex and more because they are love unions instead of arranged (49). There is near equal stigma for different sex love unions, but it is just that same-sex unions are always chosen by love and not parents. The range of acceptance by families of their daughter’s choices range from adapting and accepting to rejecting, usually causing the involvement with the police, which can turn violent (Vanita, 49-50). If the women are separated they will usually be married to male suitors. Because they can’t be with the partners they love and chose, female couples may enact a double suicide. The fact that these Hindu women are marrying each other, many times with no contact to LGBT+ rights groups, shows how they believe their religion allows it (Vanita, 48). Added to this that some families come to accept these unions (Vanita, 51), it is interesting to think that the culture may shift to either be more welcoming of love marriages or incorporate same-sex preferences into arranged ones.

On the flip side, in October 2014 a man was arrested for Section 377, after his wife caught proof of him having sex with male partners (Qureshi, 2014). Section 377 has been the focus of LGBT+ rights groups due to its threat to their communities, who are afraid to be out because they worry that the police will be able to arrest them on this charge (Lalwani, 2009). It is a 153-year-old law instituted by British colonizers, and what Vanita labels an attack on India social morals (Vanita 48-49). The Supreme Court ruled that it is up to the parliament to decide whether this law stays in effect, but that they deem it to be unconstitutional (Qureshi, 2014).

The problems come when the law is involved, which goes back to political views and decisions. If it is the parliament that decides if laws like Section 377 stay in effect, it is problematic that the current party, the BJP, is on the political right and opposed to LGBT+ rights as they see them as unnatural and unsocial (Vanita, 50). When talking about why they oppose same-sex love, the BJP quote the Qu’ran and the Bible (Lalwani, 2009), and not Hindu scripture, which goes against the usual political rhetoric supported by the use of such scriptures as the epics (Cook, 2001).  Modi’s election as prime minister has caused fear in the LGBT+ communities. He has remained rather silent on the issues since his election (Biwas, 2014), but his party has consistently been outspoken against such identities and marriages.

As in the rest of Hindu society, religious leaders hold many different views. Some religious leaders are happy to give the weddings to the same-sex female couples, while others side with the BJP that LGBT+ individuals and acts are unnatural. Many do not even agree with other’s within their linguae about validity, and this is because of the range of opinion within Hindu texts and local interpretation (Vanita 51-53, 56-58). It comes down to how they read texts and what texts they choose to believe are valid. Linda Hess in her article “Rejecting Sita” talks about how the popular character Sita, who is treated poorly by her husband, has now been left behind or radically changed by women, who want someone powerful to represent them (Hess, 1999). Like women with Sita, LGBT+ individuals and groups can create their own interpretations of existing Hindu texts about themselves, or to find themselves within the texts, thus reclaiming stories and characters.

From LGBT+ groups to the families of same-sex couples to religious leaders, people can find legitimacy within Hinduism for same-sex love, making Hinduism stand out among other major religions.

Activist with sign

Activist With Sign. BBC News.

Work Cited

Vanita, Ruth. “Same-Sex Weddings, Hindu Traditions and Modern India.” Feminist Review.91 (2009): 47-60. ProQuest. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.

Ishikawa, Chiyo. “Kama, God of Love.” SAM. Seattle Art Museum, 2010. Web. 9 Oct. 2014.

Lalwani, Sheila B. “Coming out in force: the rise of the gay rights movement in India.” Kennedy School Review 9 (2009): 65+. General OneFile. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.

Anderson, Carol S. “Lesbianism.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 8. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 5413-5416. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 9 Oct. 2014.

Linda Hess, “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of HisIdeal Wife,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 67. No. 1 (Mar. 1999), pp. 1‐32.

N/A. “Khajuraho Group of Monuments.” World Heritage Centre. UNESCO, 2014. Web. 05 Nov. 2014. .

Biwas, Soutik. “Will Narendra Modi Change India?” BBC News. BBC, 4 Nov. 2014. Web. 05 Nov. 2014. .

Qureshi, Imran. “Indian Man Arrested for Being Gay.” BBC News. BBC, 29 Oct. 2014. Web. 05 Nov. 2014. .

Doniger, Wendy. “Indian Religions: Mythic Themes.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 7. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 4437-4445. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 9 Oct. 2014.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. “Hinduism.” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 6. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 3988-4009. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.

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Images of Sita Empower Contemporary Sitas

by Maeve Herrick

The treatment and portrayal of Sita throughout the Ramayana is troubling. Sita is devoted to Rama, but at the end of the epic, Rama mistreats Sita by doubting her chastity and exiling her (Buck 390-394). The end of the Ramayana is especially difficult for readers because Rama’s treatment of Sita is overwhelmingly understood as unjust and cruel (Kishwar 1997, 24). Contemporary Hindu women often understand Sita’s strength and pride in reaction to her mistreatment as a source of strength and power. Images of Sita in contemporary Hindu society show her to be both the ideal woman and a source of empowerment.

A review of the passages in William Buck’s translation of the Ramayana in which Sita is mistreated is necessary to contextualize Sita as a source of empowerment. After being rescued from Ravana, Sita must endure a trial by fire to ensure Rama that she is pure despite having been captured and imprisoned by Ravana (Buck 363-366). During the trial, Agni the Fire Lord and Indra the Rain Lord protect Sita from the flames (Buck 364-365). Rama understands Sita to be pure because Fire was the witness (Buck 365). Later, Rama hears that there have been whispers within his kingdom concerning the chastity of Sita (Buck 391). Although Sita is pregnant, Rama proceeds to banish her in order to fulfill his dharma as king (Buck 390-394). At the end of the Ramayana Rama throws a party where his sons recite the epic which has been taught to them by Valmiki (Buck 409). When they finish, Rama realizes who they are and decides that he wants Sita to come back to him (Buck 411-415). Sita proves her innocence to Rama by being swallowed by the earth, her mother (Buck 415). She says, “‘Mother Earth, if I have been faithful to Rama take me home, hide me!’” (Buck 415). In a final act of defiance, Sita leaves Rama as he left her. Rama’s mistreatment of Sita and Sita’s strength and defiance has led to modern, empowering images of Sita.

The image of Sita in the Ramayana is potentially problematic because Sita is constructed as infallible as a result of her undying loyalty to Rama, despite his poor treatment of her (Kishwar 1997, 23). Madhu Kishwar shows that while some feminists view Sita as a negative image for women, her character cannot be changed and it is necessary to be tolerant of the ideals that women have adopted for themselves (Kishwar 2004, 3).  Sita’s actions throughout the Ramayana have positioned her as the ideal wife within Hindu society because she is the character who best followers her dharma (Kishwar 1997, 22). While Rama is revered in Hindu society, he is understood to be a poor husband (Kishwar 1997, 29) This positioning of Sita against Rama helps Hindu wives to emanate Sita and assert power over their husbands within a patriarchal society because no husband would leave or mistreat a wife who is as flawless in behavior as Sita; to do so would be to act like Rama (Kishwar 1997, 28-31, 2004, 3-5). Emanating the image of Sita as a flawless woman who follows her dharma in the face of adversity empowers contemporary Hindu women.

There have been numerous adaptations of the Ramayana (Hess). People, especially women have written literature which describes Sita’s side of the story. These discourses range from modern poems, stories, and plays, to folk songs, and sixteenth century poems (Hess 16-23). The poet Shankaradeva, who wrote around the year 1600, conveys Sita as scolding Rama for his mistreatment of her before returning to the earth (Hess 21). Another sixteenth century female writer, Chandrabuti, told the Ramayana from a female perspective (Luthra 138-141). Women also use folk songs about Sita to give voice to their own feelings and emotions (Luthra 138-144). Sita is understood as an orphan, a concept that many Hindu women can relate to as they must move between the home of their family and the home of their husband’s family (Luthra 140). Women also relate to Sita’s suffering and are not afraid to call Rama bad names in their songs (Luthra 140-141). Women also imagine Rama to have banished Sita as a result of jealousy (Luthra 141). More recent female writers connect Sita’s suffering to woman’s suffering in patriarchal societies (Luthra 147-148, 153). Sita’s protest of the trial by fire may be understood as a protest of the male-dominant society (Luthra 153-154). These understandings of Sita focus on the parts of the Ramayana which speak to women and how the patriarchal system has marginalized them (Luthra 153). By connecting to Sita’s suffering and addressing it through song and writing women protest the system which subjugates them, and are then able to become empowered. While the patriarchal view dominates in society, many contemporary women are “rejecting the Sita of patriarchy” (Hess 28). The reinterpretation of the patriarchal images of Sita, placing her as a source of strength and courage is empowering to contemporary Hindu women.

The image to the right is a deviation from a similar image of Hanuman depicted in the Ramayana. In the epic, Hanuman is wholly and solely a devotee of Rama, and he exhibits this through numerous acts of valor which save Rama’s life and help Rama to kill Ravana and rescue Sita (Buck 211-277, 305-319, 361-388, 405-414, 425-427, 431). There is a striking image of Hanuman where he is opening his chest to reveal inscriptions of Rama covering his bones, indicating his deep devotion to the deity, “Then with his sharp fingernails Hanuman tore open his breast and pulled back the flesh. And see! There was written again and again on every bone, in fine little letters – Rama Rama Rama Rama….” (Buck 426, 431). The image is a reflection of the image from the Ramayana, but it has been adapted to include Sita. This adaptation is significant because it places Sita as the equal of Rama in Hanuman’s heart. Darsan is the way through which Hindus worship; they experience the divine through gazing at images of gods (Eck 3). Sita and Rama are often depicted together, and their images are the media through which Hindus may experience the divine (Kishwar 1997, 24-25, Eck 3). Sita is thus depicted as powerful and worthy of devotion and may appropriately give darsan. The image above shows that Sita is equal to Ram in her ability to give and receive darsan,  which is empowering to women.

Images of Sita may also be drawn upon in order to motivate men to contribute to the empowerment of women. The Shetkari Sangathana leader, Sharad Joshi, fought for gender justice among farmers in Maharashtra, and in doing so equated the wives of farmers to Sita (Kishwar 2004, 3-6). Joshi showed that the Sitas of Maharashtra worked very hard and that the husbands of the area were being as undeserving as Rama (Kishwar 2004, 4). These images of Sita helped to motivate the husbands to transfer land to their wives as payment of debts to Sita, and to the Sitas (Kishwar 2004, 3-6). The men recognized that Rama was not a good husband to Sita, so they were motivated to act differently towards their wives. The image of Sita as a good, hardworking wife is associated with the modern women of Maharashtra in order to motivate men to justice. Thus, the image of Sita as a good wife and a strong woman who is embodied by modern women may be empowering.

The mistreatment of Sita in the Ramayana is used by women to assert control over their husbands as they emanate the ideal woman and wife (Kishwar 1997, 30-31). Images of Sita in literature are also adapted to highlight her strength despite the hardships she is forced to endure (Hess 16-28, Luthra 138-154). The literal image of Sita seated beside Rama inside Hanuman’s chest shows that she is Rama’s equal. The image of Sita in Hindu society may also be used to motivate men to aid in the empowerment of contemporary Sitas (Kishwar 2004, 3-5). These images of Sita in modern Hindu society show her to be both the ideal woman and a source of empowerment.

Works Cited:

Buck, William. Ramayana. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1976.

Eck, Diana L. Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. Columbia University Press. 1998.

Framed paper print of Hanuman standing, opening his chest to reveal Rama and Sita. Mace       resting on the floor before him. Digital image.Collection Online. The British Museum,              Web. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/  collectionobject_details.aspx?searchText=sita&from=ad&fromDate=1950&ILINK|34484,|assetId=1215690&  objectId=550553&partId=1

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 (Mar. 1999): 1-32.

Kishwar, Madhu. “The Power of Mother Sita in Modern India.” Hinduism Today, (2004): 1-7. ProQuest.

Kishwar, Madhu. “Yes to Sita, No to Ram! The Continuing Popularity of Sita in India.” Manushi, no 98 (1997):20-31

Luthra, Rashmi. “Clearing Sacred Ground: Women Centered Interpretations of the Indian Epics.” Feminist Formation, 26:2 (2014): 135-161. Project Muse.

Painting from the Ramayana of Sita’s trial by fire watched by Rama, Lakṣmaṇa, and Hanuman. Painted on paper. Digital image. Collection Online. The British Museum, Web. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=233576&partId=1&searchText=sita&page=1

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REL131: Ram, Ramayana, and a Blog

by Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst

Our class on the Ramayana focused on intensive reading (1,200+ pages) and genealogies, which is to say, how the Ramayana is read, translated, retranslated, and applied in popular practicepolitical movements, and in local vernaculars.

As the professor for REL131, I’m proud of the work that this blog contains. Each post is the product of a semester-long research project, which started as a question, moved toward a full bibliography drawing upon in-class and outside sources, multiple drafts, and finally, what you see here. You’ll notice, of course, that most students have written on differing subjects, and even those that chose the same topic (Sita was a fan favorite!) do not approach it in the same way.


Textile. Painted cotton-cloth textile showing the battle between Rama and Ravana. From British Museum.

I’ve asked that students write short blogposts, instead of long research papers–though, admittedly, while they’ve produced the former, they’ve done the work required of the latter. The truth is, learning to be engaging, be pointed, and be finished in one’s writing is–in my experience as both a professor and a writer–far, far harder than learning to stretch, to fill, to offer more sources and more data. I’ve asked students to do high-level research, but keep their comments brief; their work reflects what research projects look like beyond academia: lots of work, lots of details, lots of data, and a short presentation.

Pedagogically, I’ve not only been impressed by the quality of questions, I’ve been impressed by the ways in which students have revised their ideas. Robert Graves quipped that there is no great writing, just great rewriting–and while many faculty members come to know this (sometimes painful) truth as part of our publishing process and obligations, it is a hard lesson to impart to our students. Or, I should say, the value of the rewrite, despite its pain and inherent demand of humility, is a hard lesson for me to teach. But a valuable one, both in and outside the college classroom. I must say, REL131 has swallowed lessons of multiple drafts, peer review, and rewriting with surprising poise. To boot, I’ve noticed students’ in-class contributions reflect their ongoing research projects, and discussions have been richer for it. Our blog-as-research project is a success for these reasons.

With that opening, I invite you, dear reader, to click around. Welcome to a slice of REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions.

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