Vedic woman

Women in Ramayana

Question: I have two questions concerning Rāmāyaṇa.

1)    When Vālī defeated Sugrīva, he threw him out of his kingdom and took his wife away.

2)    When Lord Rāma was ruling Ayodhyā, He sent Sītā away when a man questioned her character. How can we understand this in today’s modern context? What’s the Vedic view on these matters? It appears that women had little or no rights in Tretāyuga. They had little or no choice but to obey their husbands or captors. Why is it that no one voiced their concerns when Vālī took away Sugrīva’s wife? They were no courts where they could file a complaint for harassment, etc.

Sometimes I am challenged by my peers, but I don’t have an answer to their questions. One of the explanations that I have come across is that such events were līlā. The Lord was cursed to stay away from Sītā, so they endured the curse. What is the correct explanation?

If we set līlā aside, how do I understand Vālī’s actions? How do I understand Sugrīva’s actions when he marries Vālī’s wife?

An acquaintance stated that she does not like Sītā because she was portrayed as a weak character in Rāmāyaṇa. How could Sītā not attempt to fight off Rāvaṇa? Why did she depend upon her husband?

These questions confuse me, so I am seeking some answers.

Answer: The problem with such questions is your approach. We are trying to map the scriptures onto our modern lifestyle. Why should we do that? If you want to understand scripture, you need to understand it in their setting, not in the 21st-century setting.

If we try to map the 21st-century lifestyle onto a Vedic setting, we will look like crazy people. Everything that we do now will be seen as adharmic in a Vedic setting. So, unless we change our approach and try to understand a scripture like Rāmāyaṇa on its own merit and in its own setting, then we will only find flaws with it. Similarly, if we try to understand our modern lifestyle from the Vedic perspective, we will only see gross flaws.

As for your first question, what Vālī did was wrong, and he was punished for it. Why did no one voice concern when Vālī took away Sugrīva’s wife? Vālī was powerful; for someone to correct injustice, he must be more powerful than the wrongdoer. And how do you know that no one voiced any concern? Regardless, voicing concern has no meaning unless one can actually bring about change.

Now the Taliban has banned women from working, driving, going to school, etc., and there are many superpowers in the world. Why is no one doing anything? You can sit in your home and talk against injustice but that does not help the women of Afghanistan.

SitaRegarding your second question: Rāma sent Sītā away so that people would not become corrupt. Both He and Sītā made great sacrifices to set the standard for dharmic behavior. Who could do such a thing? Modern-day leaders and citizens are corrupt. In fact, we are so corrupt that we cannot even appreciate the sacrifice of Rāma and Sītā. We can only find fault. Now a leader in such a situation would punish or harass the washerman.

Sītā herself was very powerful but she did not complain because she understood the higher purpose. She could have gone to her father’s palace or refused to stay in Vālmīki’s āśrama. But she was of one mind with Rāma. This is called love. Now, we whose minds are obsessed with sex desire cannot understand the minds of such pure people.

A king’s main job was to protect dharma. They believed in karma, rebirth, and dharma. Now, rulers are not concerned about dharma, karma, or rebirth. Their only focus is the economy.  There is so much disparity in our thinking.

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Question: Can you elaborate on the term “sacrifice?” Sītā was known for her purity and dedication. Agni himself could not burn her due to her purity.

Answer: Her sacrifice was to endure the austere life of Vālmīki’s āśrama instead of living in Ayodhyā as the queen. She accepted this austerity so that people would not criticize Rāma and to ensure that people did not become adharmic.

Question: How is it sacrifice when she was accused of something she didn’t do? Did they do it to set certain standards of morality within society? I fail to comprehend this.

Answer: Unless you understand the principles of dharma and the duty of a king to uphold dharma, then you will not be able to understand. I already said that we, who are only looking for artha and kāma, cannot understand the behavior of people whose ultimate goal is not artha or kāma but dharma and mokṣa.

If your goal is to go to the North Pole and you think that everyone’s goal is the same as yours, then you will not be able to understand the activities of people whose goal is to go to the South Pole. You will think that they are moving in the wrong direction.

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Question: Does a woman belong to a particular varṇa as a man belongs to one of the four varṇas? Please provide śāstric references.

Answer: There are numerous relevant verses in Manu-smṛti. Here are two such references:

guruṇānumataṁ snātvā samāvṛtto yathāvidhi
udvahet dvijo bhāryāṁ savarṇāṁ lakṣaṇānvitam

“After a dvija (brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, and vaiśya) has undergone the smāvartana ceremony and has taken the ceremonial bath, taking permission from his guru, he should marry a girl belonging to one’s own varṇa and endowed with appropriate characteristics.” (Manu-smṛti 3.4) 

savarṇāgre dvijātīnāṁ praśastā dārakarmaṇī
kāmatastu pravṛṭṭānām imāḥ syuḥ kramaśō varāḥ

“For a dvija (brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, and vaiśya), the first wife belonging to one’s own varṇa is considered the best. But accepting a second wife out of kāma, the following is considered as good sequentially.” (Manu-smṛti 3.12)

Then in the next verse, it is described that a brāhmaṇa can marry a girl of the other three varṇas, a kṣatriya can marry a vaiśya or a śūdra girl, a vaiśya can marry a śudra, and a śūdra can marry only a śūdra.

In the verses that follow in this chapter, the varṇas of women are mentioned in many verses. See Manu-smṛti 3.14–18.