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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