I was first introduced to Ramayana when my grandfather told us post dinner stories from it. The second introduction was of course the serial Ramayana on television on Sunday mornings ( something not to be missed at that time). The first book on Ramayana that I read was C. Rajagopalchari’s Ramayana. This book is a must have on the reading list if you want to know the story without any religious baggage that comes with this story. Being a practicing Hindu, Ramayana is a big part of my life and I have read Tulsidas’ ShriRamcharitamanas too, but more as an extension of my faith rather than for any literary pursuit. So one wonders what is new about this book Sita written by Mr.Devdutt Pattnaik. The author has picked a topic about which almost all the Indians know something about and a few have very strong opinion on it too. So what new dimension can the author add to the topic??
Ramayana’s story is not new; it is about a young Prince Ram, beloved of his parents and his countrymen of Ayodhya. The prince is exiled to the forest for fourteen years on the orders of his step mother Kaikeyi who wants her son Bharat as the King. The loyal brother Lakshman and Ram’s loving wife Sita accompany Lord Ram in his exile. The lovely Sita is abducted by the demon king Ravana and taken to Lanka. Lord Ram then raises an army of monkeys helped by Sugriva and the ever faithful Hanuman. The traitor Vibhishana tells the secret of Ravana’s long life and thus helps Lord Ram in defeating Ravana. Lord Ram returns victorious to Ayodhya to be crowned as King. Sita however is cast out of Ayodhya later by the Lord Ram after aspersions were cast on her reputation. Sita finally returns to the bosom of Earth leaving her two sons Luv and Kush with Lord Ram. It is a tale of love, of brotherhood when one brother gives up the throne for the other brother and he also refuses to accept it. It is a tale of loyalty, of following the elder brother, come what may. It is a tale of the victory of good over evil. Above all it is a story of Dharma. Dharma must be followed irrespective of the circumstances or personal feelings. Ram as a son followed his Dharma by accepting Kaikeyi’s demand to go to exile. After the war Ram, the King, following Dharma asked his wife to prove her chastity even though Ram, the husband, loved her. Ram , the King, cast out Queen Sita , as he understood that his Queen had to be unblemished, even though the husband Ram was always faithful and true to his wife Sita.
This is book is an illustrated book (Mr.Devdutt is quite well-known for adding them to his books). There are small drawings on almost all the pages, almost like folk art. These depict scenes from the narrative in a rather simplistic manner. Even though it doesn’t add anything more to the narrative it does make it visually quite appealing.
The language used in the book is simple and easy to understand without losing any of the complexities of the characters or the situations. Rather than black or white, the characters are portrayed as humans with human emotions. Even though the core story is the same with a few new sub plots the end of each chapter has a few notes giving the source from where the author has taken a particular incident or situation from. Some personal observations are also included which gives the author’s perspective and interpretation. Some readers might find these notes a bit distracting and might break the flow of narration but since they are given in a bullet-ed box my recommendation is to skip if you don’t like the interruptions. These notes make you realize how many times this simple tale has been told and re-told; each region and narrator adding their nuances to the story. I found the idea of notes really good as they are not as cumbersome as foot notes. We already do know the story but now you know the source of a particular story. Mr.Pattanaik’s interpretation to some of the situations also gives a fresh perspective to some incidents.
The author has done a commendable job by narrating the story in a matter of fact manner. He has shown Lord Ram to be a morally upright man for whom upholding the dharma is very important. Even when Lord Ram was cruel in casting out his wife he somehow does not come across as a villain. Sita on the other hand, contrary to the weepy, wailing lass shown on television, is shown as a strong protagonist. Considering Sita is the embodiment of Shri, the female goddess, this avatar is more palatable to me.
The book had many incidents and sub-plots taken from folk sources or regional re-telling and not only Valmiki Ramayana. These added a different flavor to the book. Especially Sita’s imprisonment in Lanka, rather than being morbid and weepy has been shown in a more positive way. So even though Ravana is trying to woo and seduce Sita, Sita on the other hand is visited by the ladies of the royal household and taken care off. The story of Shanta lord Ram’s sister was also new to me (in fact Shanta has more than a passing reference in the book). Even when Sita is cast out by King Ram, she is not portrayed as weak and helpless. Rather she is shown as a strong woman who understands the actions of her husband and even chooses to forgive him.
There are many incidents when this book picks the regional retelling than Valmiki’s version and hence it is more comprehensive. This is not a religious book but just a re-telling of a story which is now a divine epic for the Hindus. (The book actually has lots of references from the Jain re-telling too). Lord Ram is not portrayed as god per-se in the book, but the book does talk about dharma and the difference in the approaches of Bhrahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (that theme is recurrent in Mr.Devdutt Pattanaik’s books).
Final verdict? Read it if you want a different perspective to the tale, specially if you have never read the Ramayana this is a good book to start. It is also a good read for those who want to know the sources behind some of the stories in Ramayana .