We often see Ramayana as an exposition on ideal brotherhood where the inherent affection among brothers and respect and regard for the elder siblings are never totally sacrificed for selfishness, power or greed; the theme of which runs across through four sets of brothers: Rama and his three brothers, Vali and Sugriva, Jatayu and Sampati, and finally Ravan and his two brothers. And against this grand symbolism of brotherhood, are interspersed the little stories of women and the subtle stream of sisterhood, mostly relegated to be buried under the massive heft of the larger themes in the Ramayana, while struggling for cognisance as they refashion the narrative to reveal a series of stories of women.
While the Ramayana provides an in-depth and multi-layered exploration of brotherly love, there is a nuanced undercurrent of the theme of sisterhood and women’s solidarity, lest we forget that Ramayana is a story not essentially of Rama and heroism, but also of Sita. And through Sita, we meet a brave world of remarkable women: some gritty, some gracious, some maleficent – all minor characters playing major roles. And through each one of them in their relationship with Sita, is told a story of sisterhood.
Through Sita, we meet a brave world of remarkable women: some gritty, some gracious, some maleficent – all minor characters playing major roles.
It starts with Sita and her sisters: Urmila and her two cousins Mandavi and Shrutakirti, all brought up together in the lap of love and luxury but more importantly, under the tutelage of a sagacious man called King Janak, a raj-rishi, the philosopher-king, who used to hold annual philosophical conferences in his court. It is in such a world of scholarship and intellect, debates and reasoning that the four girls are brought up in Mithila. They are sisters by blood, Sita being an adopted child notwithstanding, and their sisterhood holds a certain significance as these four girls later get married to the four princes of Ayodhya. The four weddings brings them closer while immediately altering their equation: from little girls into little wives, from sisters they become sisters-in-law as well. But like the four brothers, this sisterly love too is unique. As the four princesses get slowly enmeshed in royal intrigue, power and politics, the bond between them doesn’t disintegrate but gets stronger. As Sita leaves for the forest to join Rama in his exile, so starts a private fourteen-year exile for each of the sisters as well. Urmila awaits Lakshman’s return, Mandavi remains in the palace of Ayodhya as her husband Bharat resides at a hut in Nandigram, waiting to return Ram his throne. Shrutakirti stays in the royal palace, living a life of celibacy like her husband Shatrughan. Though a mere mention but it delicately depicts the evolving nature of the sisters’ relationship as they grow and mature.
The four weddings brings them closer while immediately altering their equation: from little girls into little wives, from sisters they become sisters-in-law as well. But like the four brothers, this sisterly love too is unique.
As Sita moves from the palace of Ayodhya to the forest, she starts a new life, meeting a range of new people, situations and experiences and most importantly, different women who help form the stories in her narrative of self- discovery. As Sita meets one woman after another – the ‘minor’ women characters of the Ramayana – she questions her own situation, her identity and the complexities of the idea of love and loyalty, duty and doubts. Both Lopamudra, the wife of rishi Agatsya and Ansuya, the wife of Maharishi Atri, caution her on the life and responsibility she has taken on. While Ansuya gifts her an ointment to maintain her beauty and gives her advice on satitva and chastity, Lopamudra informs Sita about different spices and herbs for cooking, health and healing wounds – a glimpse of the very feminine camaraderie between women. Their voices, speaking to one another, powerfully reinforce a spirit of sisterhood that contrasts from the Ramayana of rivalry and revenge.
As Sita is hurtled from a life of serenity in the forest to war and violence in Lanka, she meets Mandodari, the queen and wife of Ravan, her abductor. In Mandodari, Sita finds a silent but strong support which she needs to survive in her golden prison. It is Mandodari who uses her skills of persuasion and eloquent speech, love, caution and reprimand with Ravan while lending dignity to Sita in her imprisonment and to also in due course, save Sita’s life. Between them, is a strange but strong connect of shared conditions, experiences and concerns, unaffected by the material concerns and corruptions that define women’s characters and lives otherwise.
The demoness guard (in some versions, Vibhishan’s daughter) Trijata, for Sita, is her saviour in her worst moments of captivity and over time, she becomes Sita’s confidant and the only close relationship she develops in her seemingly endless days of confinement. Though cast as Ravan’s agent, Trijata is the one friend and loyal companion of Sita in her adversity: from offering words of solace and wisdom to being a messenger of news from the world outside to the lowest moments when she dissuades Sita from killing herself. In some versions, besides Trijata, Sarama and Kala, are other rakshasi benefactors Sita had, each molding a bond of unusual companionship and safeguarding.
In each of these associations and interactions, Sita forges a sisterhood with other women; their solidarity is an imperceptible link, a journey of her self-discovery from self-effacement to selfhood, of a certain emancipation and rebellion of different kinds. It is not merely a connect, it is an interconnect, developed with love and support, patience and interest and reciprocity.
Sita forges a sisterhood with other women; their solidarity is an imperceptible link, a journey of her self-discovery from self-effacement to selfhood.
We need to talk of sisterhood between women just as we glorify brotherhood between men. It should be a strong, recurring notion and experience around us. Women are not women’s enemies: again it’s a convenient narrative cultivated through centuries and cultures. Of course, women can coexist peacefully. But it is this thought of sisterhood and solidarity that has never been encouraged but treated as an alien concept.
Women are not women’s enemies: again it’s a convenient narrative cultivated through centuries and cultures.
Deep sisterly love (Urmila, Mandavi, Shrutakirti) can pave the way to conflicts in troubled times (Mandodari) but there are strangers who become friends, even protectors (Trijata, Sarama, Kala) and some who are wise counselors (Lopamudra, Ansuya) until all is reconciled. In other words, perhaps the different shades of sisterhood in the Ramayana remind us of the different dimensions of solidarity, unanimity and harmony that can exist among women; a loyalty, a connect greater than friendship which is unconditional and forever.
Kavita Kane writes a monthly column named Goddess of All Things for SheThePeople. Views expressed are the author’s own.