’… lead me, O my hero, hence —
I know not sin—with confidence.
Whate’er his lot, ‘tis far more sweet
To follow still a husband’s feet
Than in rich palaces to lie,
Or roam at pleasure through the sky.
My mother and my sire have taught
What duty bids, and trained each thought,’” (542).
These lines from the Ramayana illuminate a critical context for the role of women in the practice of the ancient Indian epic. At first glance, Sita’s words may seem strange to the progressive modern reader: a woman tends to follow a man and be behind him. This lowers civil and human freedoms and even seems unacceptable. However, one need only read more carefully, and especially pay attention to the line “’tis far more sweet,” to realize that the outcome described is the personal choice of Sita, the ideal wife (Griffith 15). It is in her best interest to follow her man “whate’er his lot” than sit in palaces suffering from idle loneliness. Understanding this fact allows us to appreciate a deeper foundation in the perception of women in ancient India — through the state was strictly patriarchal, the woman in love remained sacred.
However, despite the sacredness of the woman in the Ramayana, she is still objectified as a wife. The female characters of the epic have no personal freedoms and tend to play the role of a tool in the hands of an overbearing man who wants even more. One of the most striking episodes confirming this is Kaikeyi’s use of two gifts from the king. Kaikeyi indeed saved Dashratha during the war, thereby setting an example of a militant woman. However, when she was allowed to spend the gifts on anything and to secure her life, the ideal solution, according to the Ramayana, was to sacrifice them for the sake of men:
“She spoke her shameful speech <…>
<…> With thee, O Queen, the care must rest
That Bharat hear his sire’s behest…” (Griffith 10)
Kaikeyi gave two gifts for her son to become king, and Rama was banished for fourteen years. Once again, this episode seems to show the instrumental role of the woman in the political games of the epic, which alludes to her inferior, subordinate position compared to that of the man.
Griffith, Ralph T.H. The Ramayan of Valmiki. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.