Several days ago, I pointed out on Twitter that Valmiki’s Ramayana contains episodes where Sita criticises Rama, whereas representing Sita as chiding Rama today – as did a recent cartoon – often leads to extreme controversy. I soon found out that many now find intolerable even criticisms preserved within Valmiki’s text, especially when rendered into idiomatic English.
After offering a colloquial summary of Sita’s admonishment of Rama during the agnipariksha (fire test) episode, I found myself engulfed in an avalanche of hate. I received – on Twitter, Facebook, and private e-mails – death threats, rape threats, anti-Semitic messages, misogynistic comments, racially-charged attacks and so forth. Some of the death threats were notably graphic in their detail.
Alongside such malevolent attacks came an Internet campaign spearheaded by members of the Hindu Right for Rutgers University – my employer – to take punitive actions against me. As part of that campaign, an IT professional in Tampa reached out to Robert Goldman, Catherine and William L. Magistretti Distinguished Professor in South and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California-Berkeley. Professor Goldman has had a long, distinguished career as a Sanskritist. He is an expert on and respected translator of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Professor Goldman sent an e-mail that is critical of my translations to the IT professional; the e-mail was then forwarded by the IT professional to the Rutgers administration and subsequently published by Swarajya magazine.
Scholarly disagreement is a normal, healthy part of the academic tradition. Professor Goldman and I agree on much about Sita’s speech to Rama at the agnipariksha, such as that she accuses him of “harbouring feelings of misogyny” (Goldman and Goldman, introduction to Yuddhakanda, 2009, p. 53). That Professor Goldman and I have different opinions on how to further succinctly encapsulate Sita’s remarks is not a cause for surprise but rather fodder for productive discourse and debate. Professor Goldman’s e-mail was a private message to an individual, and, as such, its content and tone were perhaps not well calibrated to express the view that divergent interpretations are a matter of scholarly disagreement.
Criticising Rama’s actions in the Ramayana is a well-established part of Hindu traditions. Many pre-modern and modern thinkers have offered harsh assessments of Rama and his behaviour. Moreover, the moral ambiguity of the fire ordeal of Sita has led authors to explore questions of gender in the Ramayana tale in both the premodern period (such as the 16th-century female Bengali poet Candravati’s Ramayana) and the modern world (such as Gudipati Venkatachalam’s 20th-century Telugu play, Sītā Agnipraveśam). I am not among those who have offered an opinion on Rama or sought to retell the story. Rather, my alleged sin was to relay Sita’s criticism of Rama during the fire trial, and to do so by offering what I termed a “loose translation,” meaning a non-literal rendering, of Sita’s sentiments into contemporary English speech.
Many have questioned my approach to translating this passage. Some of my critics have argued that – no matter how accurate – a translator should not use colloquialisms, such as the well-worn American English idiom of calling a chauvinistic man a pig. My intention in using this expression was not to cause offence, but to attempt to use contemporary language to bring the text alive to modern English-speaking audiences, including sections that admonish Rama. Other translators have similarly sought to use modern terms to communicate the original sense of the Sanskrit text. For example, in a 2004 article titled “Resisting Rama,” Professor Goldman describes a moment in Book 2 of Valmiki’s Ramayana when Sita objects to Rama’s plan to leave her behind in Ayodhya while he goes to the forest. Professor Goldman notes: “She even lashes out provocatively at Rama, accusing him, in proposing to leave her in the city, of acting like a pimp (śailuṣa)…” (Mandakranta Bose (ed.) Ramayana Revisited, p. 32). Whether or not I agree with Professor Goldman’s translation in this case, this example shows that stilted and formal English is not the only way to translate Valmiki.
Much of the anger regarding my interpretation of Sita’s criticism of Rama stems from my perceived irreverence. The argument here goes that even if I am interpreting the Ramayana reasonably, I should limit myself to a watered-down version of Valmiki out of respect for contemporary religious feelings on Lord Ram. This perspective does not take into account the widely accepted scholarly view that the deification of Rama is a rather late development in the Ramayana tradition and not original to the core of Valmiki’s text. Moreover, arguing for academics to be restricted by devotionalism cuts to the heart of scholarly approaches to religious and literary materials. Reverence is not and should not be a requirement for describing or analysing a religious text; to argue otherwise is to say that only the faithful – and perhaps only a narrow band of the most conservative among them – can define the parameters of acceptable discussion concerning the broad, long-lived Hindu traditions.
My characterisation of Sita calling Rama a “misogynist pig” was, arguably, a failed translation. People saw all sorts of things in those two words that I did not intend, perhaps, above all, my own voice and opinion. I did not and do not endorse Sita’s criticism of Rama, but many – including Professor Goldman – thought they glimpsed my own views within the translation. Upon seeing such blunt language, many got angry. In this sense, however, perhaps my translation was at least partially successful. In Valmiki’s Ramayana, Sita’s words at the agnipariksha evoke anger, sparking a strong reaction from Lakshmana (6.104.20). The difference is that Lakshmana directed his wrath at Rama (briefly, before he calmed down), whereas, in the last few days, my critics have villainised the interpreter of the story, namely, me.
Hindu traditions have long been tolerant enough to encompass a range of critical perspectives against Rama. Modern-day Hindutva seeks to narrow the parameters of discourse, however. There has been pressure on Indologists for some years now to bite our tongues, and this is only the latest of several recent controversies concerning scholarly views on the Ramayana. This most recent episode demonstrates the unfortunate success of the Hindu Right in restricting the possibilities of how to read and discuss Valmiki’s Ramayana, not just for themselves but for everyone. My hope is that this episode ultimately directs our attention back to the continuing vitality and beauty of the Ramayana, and the ability this ancient text still has to stir our imaginations and challenge our perspectives on the world.
Audrey Truschke is Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.