Danielle DeLano: Dharma in the Age of Justice

Written by Danielle Delano. Danielle is a guest writer for NonProphet News 
and is currently attending the University of Chicago Divinity School 
while pursuing a graduate degree in Religious History. 
She also graduated from Northern Arizona University with pretty good grades 
and is a foot smarter than most of the people who you will read today. 

For the Sanskrit terms, such as names of characters or creatures, I have included the diacritic marks to note proper pronunciation.

Bihar, a northeastern Indian state which borders Nepal, has a storied religious history. With a number of Hindu temples, it is also home to one of the largest Buddhist pilgrimage sites, the Mahabodhi Temple. The temple claims to be on the grounds where the Buddha of this world, Gautama Śākyamuni, attained awakening, underneath a Bodhi tree. Characters of the Ramayana were said to have lived here as well. The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit poem that became extremely important to Hindu mythology, as well as other literary traditions and forms. It is centered around the prince Rāma, who is exiled from his city at the behest of one of his father’s many wives, who wishes to have her own son on the throne. It is also home to a substantial Muslim population. As of 2008, it is also having one of the highest state populations in India. Just a few days ago, Bihar also held the beginnings of a hearing against Rāma, the figure made popular in Hindu mythology in the Ramayana. If you’re confused, don’t worry. The judge was as well. Kind of.

The plaintiff brought the case again Rāma, who in the Ramayana, exiles his wife Sītā into the forest after a dispute of purity. According to the Ramayana, though there are many versions, Rāma, who was a prince, is denied the throne he is to take and his father subsequently exiles him. Being a dutiful son, and not wishing to violate dharma , he left according to his father’s wishes. In an unorthodox move, both Rāma’s wife Sītā and younger brother, Lakṣmaṇa, went into exile with him as well.
The story is quite long, often filled with smaller fables and reads like an epic, though it has often been considered a great poem. Various adventures happen, until one day, the king of demonic ogres, Rāvaṇa, sees the beautiful Sītā and decides to kidnap her for himself. It is thus up to the warrior Rāma to retrieve his wife. Assisted by his brother, and an army of monkeys lead by Hanuman, Rāma defeats Rāvaṇa at his home on the isle of Lanka.

After saving his beloved wife, however, Rāma makes Sītā perform the “fire ordeal”. So after going to great lengths to save his wife from a demonic figure, he questions whether or not she had been faithful to him. The woman, whose purity is in question, is to step into a fire. If she burns, she was with another man and is impure. If she is saved by Agni, the fire god, she is pure. Naturally embarrassing, as Sītā assumed her great love of Rāma should have him convinced, she completes the fire ordeal, is saved by Agni and determined to be pure. trialbyfire
Conveniently after this, Rāma’s period of exile is over and he returns to his city to rule, with his wife and brother by his side. After Sītā becomes pregnant with twins, rumors circulate around the city again about her purity. Feeling societal pressure, Rāma ultimately exiles her into the forest.

Now flash to several centuries later, the Bihari man who was petitioning on Sītā’s behalf then, brought the case to the courts, wanting both Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa to be punished for Sītā’s exile. This is the “kind of” part I mentioned earlier: the judge did not simply throw out the case; he proceeded as normal, asking who should be punished in this case, and points out to the petitioner that he has no date of the occurrence and what crime was actually committed. The petitioner claimed he simply wanted justice for Sītā, believing her exile was unfair after she passed the fire ordeal. He also said he did not want his petition to hurt any religious sentiments.
Given the popularity of the Ramayana, and the figure of Rāma in particular, the petitioners pre-apology for backlash seems a necessary one. While hailed as a regular human hero, at different points in history Rāma has also been depicted and worshipped as a god. The god-like, or at least beyond-human nature of Rāma is part of what I find perplexing about this case, but that is certainly not the only thing.


At this point, if you’re interested, you may be wondering what the point is of the case or this article. Fair. The myth itself is quite old; the story is most often attributed to a poet named Valmiki, who composed (or more likely spoke) the story in Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-European language. It could have been told as far back at 1000 BCE. Very recently, there was a manuscript found dating back to the 6th century CE , so much later but it was not common to have anything written in the Sanskrit language at the time the Ramayana probably began to circulate. It was probably around during the high point the Vedic texts and traditions, which is a religious tradition that predates what scholars and the public would commonly refer to as Hinduism. It was polytheistic, even making mention to some of the popular Hindu gods, and relied heavily on sacrifice through fire. There are other issues of dating and textuality that may be of interest to some readers, but I won’t dwell on them here.

Given the age, why is it being brought to court now? Or really, why at any time would it be in court?

The Ramayana has been a highly politicized text. Rāma and Sītā are often cited in dharma texts as being perfect depictions (perhaps unreal, and just ideals?) of proper dharma. They obey the commands of their caste: Rāma honors his father, Sītā honors her husband, and so on. It deals with the very issue of caste time and time again as Rāma struggles with being a member of the warrior caste, and needing to rule, and yet being denied his kingdom and in some ways, being forced to live as an ascetic. The ascetic lifestyle itself conflicts in many ways to the traditional castes system (just ask the Buddhists and Jains in the area). A close reading of the story, in any of its versions (Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindu, and others) demonstrates the conflict over and over again.

In the 1950s, the text was used in anti-brahmanical protests. Pictures of Rāma were set ablaze and Rāvaṇa was depicted as the true hero of the story. It has also been used in anti-Muslim rhetoric. The book, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, outlines some of the modes in which Muslims are compared to these rākṣasa, the demonic ogres Rāvaṇa rules over. But also by drawing on the importance of the caste system and caste dharma, it allows for a justification of war and violence, when done in the name of duty.

The petitioner who brought this case to the court may just be a regular guy, with little to no influence or connection to Hindutva groups or the conservative political party, the BJP. But what he did do is reminiscent of a force that is moving through India now, both politically and socially. The effort not just to further connect Hindu mythology to the modern state, but to bring it into the realm of legal affairs and politics suggests that there is something to be wary of in this simple demand for justice. This effort for justice reads as a literalist reading of Hindu mythology, and a serious attempt to hold mythological characters to the modern legal standards of the state. And quite potentially hold modern citizens, Hindu or otherwise, to the same idealized standards of mythological figures.



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