A box on the dining table has been piquing the entire household’s curiosity as it catches each one’s eye. A return gift from a recent wedding, a akhand jyoti diya. Having shifted through quite a few Delhi markets last month, I estimate the hosts probably paid around 200 rupees for it (approx. FJD$6 – even less in bulk buy) so I am not too impressed with it. Neither is Suruj (considering the extravagant kind of money she blew on presents for this wedding). The only person in the household dazzled by this exchange is the head of the household who feels the hosts had put extreme thought in the present considering the religious signifiance of the diya which money possibly couldn’t account for. In fact so impressed they are with it, it was declared much to Suruj’s dismay that the new akhand diya would be used in the upcoming Ram Navami prayers (not Suruj’s usual heavy brass and embossed diya).
Ram Navami. A spring Hindu festival that celebrates the birth day of Lord Rama (Ram). Ram is a major deity of Hinduism, seventh avatar of the God Vishnu and the very embodiment of chivalry and virtue. For the non-Hindu readers, Ram is the very same god who killed the evil King Ravana (Ravan) which we all get to rejoice and celebrate every year at Diwali.
In Viti, Ram Navami is widely observed in the Hindu communities particularly by those who belong to the Santan Dharam sect. Celebrated over a period of 8-9 days, Ram Navami is a communal affair usually organised by Ramayan mandalis. A mandali is basically a circle or group of members. A typical mandali can be made up from about 15 – 40 people who meet weekly to recite and sing the holy Hindu book, Ramayan which narrates the life story of Lord Ram and the teachings from his time on earth. Mandalis are formed within neighbourhoods or villages and normally extended members of a household belong to the same mandali (unless of course there’s some bush politics involved then you’ll have two mandalis in the same area on either end of the street, both trying to out-sing each other on Tuesday nights!).
Ramayan manadalis form an integral part of the Hindu community’s social structure in Fiji and also of the diaspora communities now migrated overseas. According to Gounder in Narrative and Identity Construction in the Pacific Islands, “Indo-Fijians specifically identify the practice of worshipping and singing in Ramayan mandalis as the connection to their girmitiya (i.e rural and devotional) roots that set them apart from their subcontinental Indian brethren. Indo-Fijians emphasise the necessity of dedicating time to religious devotion and self-improvement through the weekly recital of the Ramayan. Auckland alone supports dozens of Ramayan mandalis, most of which are composed of extended families, meet at home, and emphasise the religious and cultural education of their younger members. Partly through their ties of kinship, many mandalis in Auckland maintain a regional identity derived from Fiji. For example, the majority membership of one mandali may originate from the Tavua area of Fiji, whereas another mandali may hail from Nausori or Suva.” So pretty much like being part of a church group or a mothers club or soccer team, an association with a Ramayan mandali gives an individual a sense of belonging and an extended support system.
My own experience with Ramayan mandalis has been quite limited; in my adult life certainly by choice. Like most Indo-Fijian Hindu children, my earliest involvement with a mandali was through my parents. Now there’s only two kinds of kids I know when it comes to your weekly Ramayan baithak, those who cannot wait for Tuesday evenings to come around fast enough and those who just plain loathe those sessions. Having relocated a few times, my parents went to different mandalis over the years. And I absolutely detested going to every one of them.
They all seemed the same to me. I had to wear some really uncomfortable Indian wear (or a long frock – hemline way below the knees, of course) made from some scratchy fabric in shades of pink, orange or yellow. I was expected to sit cross-legged on the floor for 2-hours squashed between sweaty, exhausted women who wore tight blouses and spent the entire evening trying to cover their exposed mid-riffs and bosoms with their sarees, listening to a bunch of men sitting in front on a raised platform singing the same chupais, dohas and sorathas (Hindu hymns and poetry verses). A pracharak (storyteller) narrating the same 14-year exile story. The same jhinchik jhinchik sounds from the harmonium, dholak and manjera (indian musical instruments) never failed to grate my nerves.
The worst part of the evenings was after the final aarti when the men stretched around big grog basins (because singing for 2 hours is so exhausting, no) to yarn and debate about that day’s lessons and the women disappeared in the kitchens to sort out the prasaad (food) which then I was expected to serve to everyone because that’s what children are for, right (nothing like the fat kid in an orange dress, bobbing up and down putting cut bananas on everyone’s plates!).
While there are many mandalis now that have women as core members in their singing circles and sometimes even a female pracharak, the Ramayan mandali space has always been a patriarchal space. A space where the domestic order of a Hindu household can very distinctively be seen. And maybe it was for this very reason, where my younger self was made to feel somewhat second, I detested going to Hindu satsangs (gatherings) long before I could make sense of why. Eventually unable to keep their work/life balance, my parents fell out of all their mandalis – much to my relief.
Though the teachings and life lessons from the Ramayan mandali sessions never leave you. The virtues of Ram is embedded in every Hindu child’s brains and how following his path will lead you to your one true Dharma. In fact, Rama is also known as “Maryada Purushottam” – the perfect man who could do no wrong. Hindu parents drum their sons to be like Ram, mould their daughters to marry the likes of Ram.
And for three good decades of my life, I had no reason to question that.
In 2015, a television series – Siya Ke Ram was produced on a female perspective of the Ramayan; an account of Ram’s wife, Sita. In an episode it was revealed that Ram was not the first born to his parents but that he had an elder sister, Shanta who was ‘traded’ in return for a son. It probably was the first time many of us in my community had heard of this. When I asked a senior member of a mandali about the authenticity of that information, he dismissed it along the lines that it wasn’t written in the Tulsi Das’ version.
Not quite comprehending, I looked online to validate that information. What I found that while Ramayan was originally written by Valmiki in Sanskrit around 500 BCE to 100 BCE – there exists today more than three hundred versions of this epic tale. The Ramayan had spread to many Asian countries outside of India, including Myanmar, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam and China. The original Valmiki version has been adapted or translated into various regional languages, which have often been marked more or less by plot twists and thematic adaptations. Some of the important adaptations of the classic tale include the 12th-century Tamil language Ramavataram, 14th-century Telugu language Sri Ranganatha Ramayanam, the Khmer Reamker, the Old Javanese Kakawin Ramayana, and the Thai Ramakien, the Lao Phra Lak Phra Lam, and the Burmese Yama Zatdaw. There are also Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain adaptation of the Ramayan.
The Indo-Fijians mostly read from the Ramacharitamanas translation by Tulsi Das in the 16th century.
Singh from YKA compares, “Sage Valmiki, the author of Ramayana, portrays the epic in the soul of Rama himself. Tulsidas, notwithstanding, is excessively obsessed with saving Rama’s image, so that whatever he feels to be inconvenient to Rama’s ethical character, he has scrapped. Tulsidas has expelled from the Ramayana everything that may stain Rama’s image.”
Since then I’ve realised 2 things; one that Ramayan is just an epic story written and translated by men to glorify a king named Ram and two, there no longer should exist a space in 2019 for this narrative.
When it comes to religion, most of us have been conditioned to approach it from a place of faith; with blind unconditional devotion. And perhaps that’s why we never question the stories and teachings that are passed down to us of our respective Gods.
The account of Ramayan narrated in our madanlis today is still one of masculine supremacy. Women are portrayed as possessions who can be carried away on one’s shoulders, as subordinates who need rescuing and who still need to give proof of their chastity through a agni-pariksha (fire-test). Whether it’s the likes of the characters of Manthara, Surpanakha or Kaikeyi, women are mostly portrayed in negative shades in Ramayan recitals which is followed by a detailed glorification of men in saving the day and this narrative continues to this date whether it’s under a temporary madha (tin-shed) in peri-urban Nausori, Fiji or in the garage of a suburban home in Calgary, Canada.
Again for the non-Hindu readers, the story of Ramayan doesn’t actually end on the happy days at Diwali. After Diwali, Ram succumbs to town gossip that his wife, Sita having spent months in the another male’s company is now not pure enough to be their queen and hence abandons and banishes her from his kingdom while she was pregnant with their twins. Sita spends rest of her life living as a hermit while Ram gets to keep his Maryada Purushottam title. The days after Ram returns from exile and takes over rule of his kingdom is fondly remembered as “Ram Rajye” days when everyone lived happily ever after. Well everyone except Sita. Perhaps a more accurate account would be that the patriarchy lived there happily ever after.
Usually when mandali men greet each other, most of them holler a rather boisterous long drawn “Jai Shri Ram!” at each other as if a battle cry. Perhaps a reminiscent of the “Ram Rajye” days.
The marriage of Ram and Sita has also been quite romanticised in many Ramayan adaptations illustrating their marriage as the “ideal perfect union” between man and woman. It is quite common during Hindu weddings for people to bless a new couple with a “Ram-Sita jodi” wish. It’s probably time Hindus realised that Ram-Sita weren’t an ideal couple. Any man who abandons their pregnant wife is far from being the perfect man.
There also has been certain translations written by women such as Atukuri Molla in the 16th century in Karnataka and Chandravati in Bangladesh whose adaptations include more of Sita’s plight however they were largely ignored by male scholars.
Last week when the imprisonment sentence for a martial rape crime in Fiji hit the social media circles, it was astounding to read comments from men who feel they ‘own’ woman. When you look at statistics around domestic violence and child abuse, it is evident that some part of our society is not functioning. A recent incident where a Sydney dentist, murdered and stuffed in a suitcase by her partner who was also a dentist critically highlights that domestic violence is not something limited just to the low-income or lesser-educated communities. In the words of a work colleague, “its just not the bogans.”
So I think it’s time we turned to our worship spaces and religious sermons to see what kind of narrations we are still preaching in 2019. Especially the Indo-Fijian Hindu community who need to re-evaluate their Ramayan mandali spaces to include a more inclusive, feminist narrative. While it maybe that mandalis have more active female participation today then in the past, our narratives still revolve around the glorification of “an ideal man” who really wasn’t so perfect.
Though we may have empowered our women in economical and political spaces, our mandali/religious spaces still remain a submissive space for women. Probably one of the last yet the most powerful of all spaces remaining where patriarchy still remains unquestioned. And it’s high time we addressed that patriarchy in our prayer houses which continues to feed so many of our current social issues.
Perhaps burning our Ravan during Dussehra is just not enough anymore. Maybe it’s time we burnt down our Ram, too.
Much later in his life to the horror of the entire household, one day my father decided it was time he took up reading Ramayan himself. So now once every year, he hogs Suruj’s prayer room for 9-days bellowing his heart out at Ram Navami. Perhaps also reminiscing of the days when the women of his household actually sat down to listen to Ramayan recitals.
This post is a personal opinion. No responsibility is taken for any misinterpretation of the Hindu texts & rituals nor meant as an offence to any religion or community. The writer has no intention of any hurt towards members of any Ramayan mandalis; female or male for that matter.