Arshia Sattar astutely decodes dharma in her new collection of Ramayana essays.
In their effort to find audiences, Ramanand Sagar and religious right-wing forces rid the Ramayana of ambivalence. In their telling, Rama was never prone to doubt. His actions were dictated by a kind of moral certitude that divinity readily affords. Thinking of Rama first as man, Arshia Sattar has always sought to understand more fully the king who ruled from Ayodhya. With Maryada, Sattar forwards that project. She again rescues the Ramayana from that easy ‘good versus evil’ binary.
In the Mahabharata, the line separating right and wrong is blurred repeatedly. It becomes hard for its audience to clearly define dharma, the code that fashions conduct and cosmic balance. The Ramayana, Sattar says, makes dharma accessible to all. In its effort to make conspicuous that code which governs life, the epic, however, leaves its characters with a pressing problem: at any point, there is always more than one code to choose from.
By asking Dasharatha to crown Bharata, Kaikeyi ignores moral pressures to fulfil her dharma as a mother. By then sending Rama into exile, Dasharatha makes the pecking order of his dharmas clear, he is a husband before he is a father or king. With each of her essays in Maryada, Sattar leaves you pondering the difference between good and right, right and just. The Ramayana’s actors do struggle when balancing individual actions and social mores, but when Lakshmana disfigures Shurpanakha and Rama kills Vali, we see urban codes compete with those of the forest. One man’s dharma is often another being’s suffering.
Her chastity questioned time and again, Sita has become a mascot for many Ramayana critics. While Sattar does not offer absolution, she does persuade us to prize nuance over adjudication. She reminds us that Dasharatha’s judgement was clouded by his love for a woman. Rama was anxious about repeating his father’s mistake. “Rama,” she writes, “is the ideal man not in the sense that he does not make mistakes; he is the ideal man because it is he against whom all others are judged.” By searching for dharma in the Ramayana, Sattar does us all a favour. She makes Rama relatable again.