Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2
Bijaya Kumar Nanda
Gender Bias in Bhavabhuti's Uttara-rama-carita: A Revisionary Rereading
Bijay Kumar Nanda (PhD, Berhampur U) has published a book, War in American Fiction, and has edited The Eternal Pursuit: Essays on Lord Jagannath (SCS College, 1990). He is the editor of The Ravenshaw Journal of English Studies.
Bhavabhuti's Uttara-rama-carita, as the name of the play suggests, is the latter [half of] (Uttara) Rama's story (Rama-carita). It depicts the banishment of Rama's wife, Sita, from his kingdom on account of a scandal that Sita's character might have been polluted while she was a prisoner of Ravana in Lanka. The banishment leads to the intense suffering of both Rama and Sita. In fact, the play is an intertext which has assimilated the formal and substantive features of the original text, Valmiki's Ramayana. It participates in the common stock of linguistic and literary conventions that constitute its discourses. But, as with all intertexts, it provides the site for coming together of other extraneous materials and characters which do not appear in the original text.
Bhavabhuti's work has been widely studied, staged, and appreciated. It has earned encomium from scholars and critics. Govardhanacharya has referred to the height of pathos the poet attains in composing the Uttararama-carita (Aryasapatasati 1.36). Dr. S. K. De appreciates the work for its idealization of conjugal love (289-290). Karmarkar highlights the theme of love and shows how true love endures and triumphs over the sorrows of life (12). M. R. Kale notices a "high moral tone" in the play (19-20) and R. G. Bhandarkar comments on its felicity of expression and insights into human nature (qtd. in Kale 21).
These opinions will not sit well with western feminist critics. They will find a gender bias toward male-centered values built into the plot, structure point of view, and characterization in the play. This paper attempts a revisionary rereading of the play in order to bring to light the covert change in gender attitudes written into the literary text and show how far Bhavabhuti manages to rise above both gender and sexual prejudices of his time.
Before we proceed, however, it will be valuable to reiterate the basic concepts and assumptions of feminism. The most fundamental view of feminism is that civilization is "pervasively patriarchal—that is, it is male-centered and controlled, and is organized and controlled in such a way as to subordinate women to men in all cultural domains: familial, religious, political, economic, social, legal and artistic" (Abrams 234-35). From the beginnings of the Hebrew Bible, Greek philosophy, and post-Vedic Manusmruti to the present, the female has been defined by what Abrams defines as a "negative reference to the male as the human norm, hence as an 'Other,' or kind of non-man, by her lack of the identifying male organ, of male powers, and of the male character traits that are presumed, in the patriarchal view, to have achieved the most important inventions and L works of civilization and culture" (235). Women themselves are taught, in the process of their up bringing to internalize the reigning patriarchal ideology (that is, the conscious and unconscious presuppositions about male superiority) and are conditioned to derogate their own sex and cooperate in their own subordination.
Such patriarchal or 'masculinist' or 'androcentric' ideology, according to feminists, pervades writings that have been eulogized as great literature. These works are written by men for men. Typically, the most highly regarded western literary works focus on male protagonists. Prometheus, Achilles, Odysseus, Ulysses, Hamlet, Tom Jones, Ahab, Huck Finn embody masculine traits and ways of feeling and pursue masculine interests in masculine fields of action. Female characters, when they play any role, are marginalized and subordinated to the males and are presented either as complementary or in opposition to masculine desires and enterprises. Additionally, in traditional literature, women have assumed male values and ways of perceiving, feeling, and acting, all of which are gender biased.
A male bias is also encoded in the linguistic conventions of society. French theorists like Jaques Lacan and Ferdinand de Saussure claim that languages in all their features are "utterly and irredeemably male-dominated" (Abrams 237). Lacan asserts that discourse is "phallogocentric," that is, centered and organized throughout by implicit recourse to the phallus (used in a symbolic rather than a literal sense) both as its supposed 'logus' or ground, and as its prime signifier and power source. Phallogocentrism manifests itself in western discourse not only in its vocabulary and syntax, but also in its rigorous rules of logic, its proclivity for fixed classifications and oppositions, and its criteria for what we take to be valid evidence and objective knowledge. Phallogocentric language forces women into complicity with the linguistic features that impose on females a condition of marginality and subservience, or even of linguistic nonentity.
With such views in mind, we shall analyze Uttara-rama-carita in order to probe its overt and covert attitudes toward gender and sex. We shall concentrate on three important aspects of the text, namely the institution of marriage, the cultural construct with regard to a woman's place in society and her character, and the politics of language that perpetrates male domination and is thus inimical to the development of a woman's personality.
In a civilized society marriage is (or should be) a privileged place for the interaction of the sexes. Marriage can be viewed as the blissful coming together of equal voices speaking in harmony, or as an ongoing dialogue between individuals affirming in turn their differences. But in a patriarchal society, woman is understood as an icon of personal desire, thus exciting sexual and proprietary instincts, and as the means of binding others—two families or members of the in-law's family, for instance—through alliance with them.
Bhavabhuti's Sita plays the role of an ideal woman in a patriarchal society. Rama tells Sita, as he shows her the portrayal of his life history on the picture wall, "O fair-faced one, this your hand with the beautiful nuptial string fastened upon it, being joined with mine by the son of Gautama, thrilled me with joy" (6). Again speaking of their sojourn in Mount Prasravana on the banks of the river Godavari, he says: "While we talked at random on this thing and that in very gentle tones, resting closely together, cheek to cheek, and one arm of each engaged in a close embrace, the night itself ended without our noticing bow the watches flew" (8). When Sita sleeps, Rama says as he gazes upon her: "She is the very Lakshmi [goddess of wealth] in my house, and a pencil of nectar to my eyes, her touch is a thick sandal-paste to my body, this her arm twined round my neck is cooling and smooth as a pearl-string; what about her would not be pleasing is only separation from her" (11). One cannot deny the love and tender feelings expressed in such words, but what is also prominent here is Rama's personal desire as well as his proprietary instincts. In Rama's patriarchal society, Sita is an icon of Rama's personal desire. No other aspect of her personality has been highlighted here. She, with a countenance of lovely appearance and smooth limbs, has given delight not only to Rama but also to Rama's mother and stepmothers. She is "extremely charming, vying with moonlight and possessed of artless grace" (45).
Sita's subordinate status becomes obvious in Rama's response to Vasishtha's message that he, as a ruler, be intent on satisfying his subjects. He asserts that he would feel no pain to sacrifice affection, mercy, personal happiness, and even Janaki (another name of Sita), for the satisfaction of his people. Sacrificing personal comforts and happiness on the part of an ideal ruler for the well-being of the subjects is understandable. But the notion of abandoning one's wife for the satisfaction of the subjects is shocking. Thus, in Rama's patriarchal world, a woman is an object and can be abandoned for a good cause. Sita does not complain about Rama's attitude. She upholds his patriarchal values and responds: "Hence, indeed, is my lord the upholder of Raghu's race." In her case, marriage is not an ongoing dialogue between individuals affirming their differences. As a wife and a woman, she should be an equal partner in the marriage, but here her position in life is contingent upon her individual circumstances as well as society's expectations and limitations.
Sita's literary situation too has been defined through a masculine perspective. Rama's willingness to sacrifice Sita for the sake of the people reveals how, for him, Sita is not a person in her own right but an embellishment and a dependence—that is to say, simply a relational sign. We are reminded here of Simone de Beauvoir's statement: "She [a woman] is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her, she is the incident, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the subject, he is the Absolute—She is the Other" (xvi). Rama's intent here shows Sita's inferior status and expendable nature in their marriage relationship. Gender bias against women is very obvious here; Rama, extolled by all as an ideal ruler, is totally unaware of his moral and legal responsibilities toward his wife.
Here we find that the cultural construct of the patriarchal society is at the root of both the stigma attached to Sita's character and to the honor heaped upon Rama's. Everybody casts aspersions on Sita's character because she was forcibly detained in Ravana's palace but nobody questions Rama's actions. Typically, in this patriarchal society, women do not question the characters of the men folk, but both men and women suspect women and ask for proofs of chastity. Thus, when people gossip about Sita's detention in Ravana's palace, Rama decides to banish Sita in order to satisfy his subjects. Rama comes to believe in a typically masculine discourse regarding women's sexuality. In this masculine discourse, as Nelly Furman would say, "the female body is a social signifier" (73). While sex is a physical or anatomical fact, sexuality is culturally constructed. It is the manner in which society fictionalizes its relationship to sex and creates gender rules. In society marriage is the privileged locus for the interaction of two sexes, the agency that reflects and regulates our attitudes to sexuality. And once a woman is away from her husband, her sexuality is suspect.
The linguistic medium has all along been a means for propagating patriarchal values and exploiting women. As H61&ne Cixous points out, "as soon as we exist, we are born into language and language speaks to us, dictates its laws, a law of death: it lays down its familial model, lays down its conjugal model and even at the moment of uttering a sentence, admitting a notion of 'being', a question of being, an ontology, we are already seized by a certain kind of masculine desire, the desire that mobilizes philosophical discourse" (45). The order of language allows intersubjective communication and conveys the very values of the social system which it reflects, supports and contemplates. When we become intelligible, we do reflects, supports and contemplates. W so by adopting the values upon which communication is predicated.
In the prelude to Uttara-rama-carita, at the beginning of Act 1, an actor tells the manager that Sita's residence in Ravana's palace serves as a basis for the scandal attached to Sita's character. And this patriarchal code is well understood by the narrator, the narratee, and the audience. Many other patriarchal codes and values have been built into the language of common parlance in the play, such as the emphasis on "mother," "son," and "pregnancy"—ideas which define the role of women in this patriarchal society. The sage Ashtavakra blesses Sita with 'Mayest thou be the mother of a hero' (3). Rishyasringa, Rama's brother-in-law, wishes to see Sita with a son on her lap. Arundhati, the queen-mothers, and Santa (Rama's sister) send the message that whatever hankering pregnant Sita may have, it should be fulfilled.
The word 'destiny' has been used several times in the play. This word connotes the perpetual suffering of women in society. Sita never blames Rama for banishing her from the kingdom. She lays the blame on destiny and calls Rama kind. Thus Sita is depicted as a docile woman subservient to Rama's interests and emotional needs. When Rama swoons, Sita forgets her own suffering and says: "My dear, alas. I am undone, since on account of me, a luckless creature, you suffer" (34). When Vasanti, the nymph of the forest, charges Rama with cruelty, Sita calls Vasanti heartless, as she was "inflaming her Lord already burning with grief" (34). Thus Sita is unable to find fault with Rama because she is an idealized projection of a woman in a male-dominated society.
It is obvious that gender bias against women has been built into Bhavabhufi's Uttara-rama-carita. But what contemporary scholars should also notice is that, in spite of all this bias, Bhavabhuti has managed to rise above the sexual prejudices of his time and withstand the cultural pressures that had shaped the characters of women and forced upon them their negative or subsidiary social roles. Social prejudice against women was not resisted in Valmiki's Ramayana, which was the chief source of his play. But Bhavabhuti has changed certain situations, introduced new characters, and fought for the cause of women. A number of scenes in the play disclose the arbitrariness of patriarchal hegemony by focusing on situations of dialogic opposition to traditional models and values.
In fact, Uttara-rama-carita is a site for the dialogic interaction of multiple voices or modes of discourse, each of which is not merely a verbal but a social phenomenon. Here utterances owe their precise inflection and meaning to attendant factors—the relationship of the speakers to actual or anticipated listeners, and the relation of the utterance to the prior utterance to which it is a response, as well as to the specific social situation in which it is both spoken and interpreted. To the slanderous talk of people with regard to Sita, Rama's immediate response is, "By you the worlds are holy, but unholy are words of people with regard to you" (13). When Rama gives the command to banish Sita, Durmukh, his attendant questions: "How is that by hearing the mere words of wicked men, Your Majesty has decided to act thus ungenerously towards the queen who was purified by fire and in whose womb is lodged the pure progeny of the race of Raghu?" (13).
Sita never resists Rama's actions, but Vasanti, her alter ego, does. For banishing Sita, Vasanti calls Rama cruel and ruthless. She asks why that unworthy act was done by his lordship:
Rama: Because people would not bear it.
Vasanti: For what reason?
Rama: They themselves know something.
Vasanti: O, you hard-hearted one, fame is dear to you, as I hear, but what infamy, I ask, can be more dreadful than this? What became of the fawn-eyed maid in the wilderness? Tell me Lord—What do you think of her fate?
Rama: She must surely have been destroyed by beasts of prey. (34)
This dialogue shows two individuals—one male and the other female—affirming in turn their differences. There is no male domination; the male voice does not suppress the voice of the female. Here, the creation of Vasanti's character is a significant shift from the mythic material found in Valmiki's Ramayana. Bhavabhuti, here, tries to question the gender bias of the original text. He uses other voices to subvert the authority of the dominant voice. Vasishtha, the family priest, Arundhati, his wife, and the royal mothers silently protest Rama's action. Without returning to Ayodhya from Rishyasringa's hermitage, they come to the abode of sage Valmiki. We are told that out of anger for Rama's harsh decree in banishing Sita, Rama's mother, Kausalya, has long avoided the sight of the moon-like face of her dear Rama. janak, Sita's father, protests against the cruelty of the wicked citizens and the rashness of Rama. Prithivi tells Bhagirathi that Rama did not do the right thing. Thus in Uttara-rama-carita characters are liberated to speak a plurality of independent and unmerged voices in a genuine polyphony. In the dialogue between Vasanti and Rama, we hear two divergent and contending social voices which achieve their full significance only in the sustained process of their dialogic interaction, with each other and with the voice of the narrator.
Rama's contention that people are not wicked (in suspecting Sita's character and not believing her purification through fire) even though he has to sacrifice Sita for their satisfaction is clothed in phallogocentric language that forces women into complicity. Such beliefs that impose on females a condition of marginality, subservience, and nonentity. But the same Rama also says: "What has she, who is pure by her very birth, to do with other purifying things? Holy water and fire need no purification from other sources" (13). Addressing Sita as queen and as one who had sprung from sacrificial ground, Rama asks for her forgiveness. This dialogue between the patriarchal symbolic order and the instinctual serniotic order in Rama's deeds and thoughts, as well as the dialogue between Rama and Vasanti, unsettles and subverts the expected, normative forms of discourse codified in the male-dominated society. This subversive process undermines the patriarchal concepts of representation and rhetorical expression. Bhavabhuti's play challenges the cultural discourse of a patriarchal society.
Thus, we see that Bhavabhuti has withstood the cultural pressures of his time and has tried to elevate women from their passive and subordinate social roles. In Valmiki's Ramayana Rama insists that Sita declare on
oath before the populace that she is chaste. Sita does this, but sacrifices her own life by requesting Mother Earth to swallow her underground. But Bhavabhuti uses the device of a play within a play to narrate the completion of Rama and Sita's story. Here, Rama and Sita are reunited and people give consent to such union. In this context the words of Arundhati are significant:
Ye citizens and countrymen, here is Queen Sita, born of sacrificial ground and daughter-in-law in the solar family, who has now been thus praised by the goddess Ganga and Vasundhara, whose pure character had been formerly established by the divine Fire and who has been eulogized by Brahma and the other gods—made over to me, Arundhati. What do you think as to her being accepted now? (79)
At this the people of the city and the country and the multitude of heavenly beings pay their homage to Sita, while the guardians of the world and the seven sages honor her with showers of flowers. Rama then accepts his beloved wife and seats her in place of her own gold image that was scheduled to take her place at the time of a ritual sacrifice.
Bhavabhuti, the consummate artist, could see the social prejudices at work against women. In Uttara-rama-carita he shows that although it is impossible to escape completely from the hegemony of patriarchal structures, nonetheless, by unveiling the prejudices at work in society, it is possible to impugn patriarchal models and codes. His challenges, given way back in 750 A.D., allow for the possibility of sidestepping and subverting male domination in society, of viewing society as a site for the coming together of male and female voices speaking in equality and carrying on a dialogue affirming their differences.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Bangalore: Prism Books Pvt. Ltd., 1993.
Acharya, Govardhana. Arya-saptasati. (1300 A.D.) Ed. Durgaprasad and K. P. Parab. 2nd ed. Bombay: Nirnay Sagar Press, 1895.
Bhavabhufi. The Uttara-rama-carita. 750A.D. Tr. M.R. Kale. Delhi: MofilalBanarasidass, 1988.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Bantam, 1961.
Cixous, H616ne. "Castration or Decapitation?" trans. Annette Kuhn. Signs 7.1 (1981):36-55.
De, S. K. History of Sanskrit Literature. vol. 1.1947. Calcutta: Calcutta Univ. Press, 1975. Furman, Nelly. "The Politics of Language: Beyond the Gender Principle?" Making a D~fference: Feminist Literary Criticism. Eds. Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn. London: Routledge, 1985.
Karmarkar, R. D. Bhavabhuti. Dharwar: Karnatak Univ. Press, 1971.
Kale, M. R., ed and trans. The Uttara-rama-carita of 13havabhuti. Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1988.