The overlooked story of Diwali is actually about respecting women’s dignity

It’s time to reframe the Ramayana.
It’s time to reframe the Ramayana.
Image: Reuters/Jitendra Prakash
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Hindus around the world are celebrating Diwali this weekend. The holiday falls less than two weeks before the US presidential elections, making it a good time to remind ourselves of the lesser-told story of the Ramayana: that of a woman standing up for herself.

The Ramayana, the great Hindu epic at the heart of the Diwali celebrations, is actually an all-too-modern tale about a woman who refuses to suffer any more indignities after years of having her character questioned. As Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who was recently caught on tape making lewd remarks about women and is currently battling multiple allegations of sexual assault, is trying to woo Hindus in the US, perhaps he should acquaint himself with the full story of the Ramayana if he wants to win Hindus over.

Trump has been working hard to court the Hindu vote of late. Two weeks ago, at a Bollywood-themed event, Trump proclaimed, “I am a big fan of Hindu.” He also recently released an ad aimed at Indian-American audiences. “Ab ki baar, Trump Sarkar:” “This time, a Trump government,” Trump says in accented Hindi, unabashedly using Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign slogan.

The Republican presidential nominee is clearly seeking to bond with Indian Americans, more specifically with Hindus. It’s a rare moment in the political spotlight for a community that accounts for less than 1% of the US population, but is growing at an exponential rate. Hinduism is now the fourth-largest religious community in America, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report. And Diwali is our biggest festival.

During the Diwali celebrations, Hindus retell the Ramayana as the story of Prince Rama, the Hindu god Vishnu in human form, who obeyed his father and left his kingdom to live in exile for 14 years. While in exile, Rama’s wife, Sita, is kidnapped by a fearsome king named Ravana. (The Ramayana is also the cautionary tale of a leader who caused the destruction of his kingdom because he refused to accept that he was wrong—something that may also sound familiar to Republicans in America today). Rama fights for Sita courageously, defeats Ravana, and rescues his wife.

Diwali marks the day that Prince Rama triumphantly returns to his kingdom of Ayodhya with his wife. It is said that Ayodhya’s citizens welcomed their prince home with thousands of glowing oil lamps on a moonless night. The lamps symbolize the victory of good over evil, and Hindus celebrate this story every year by lighting millions of them all over the world.

But what we don’t commonly share or celebrate is the continuation of the story.

After returning to Ayodhya, Sita had to publicly prove she was untouched by her kidnapper Ravana by literally walking through a fire. She was not burnt, and therefore declared pure. Soon after returning, however, Rama is told that one of his subjects has been publicly questioning Sita’s virtue. Instead of defending his wife or discussing his concerns with her, Rama ordered his brother Laxmana to abandon a pregnant Sita alone in the forest. Rama’s twin sons, born in a hermitage, grow up hearing stories about their father, but do not meet him for several years.

Ravana, meanwhile, forces his allies and soldiers to follow him into battle, even though fighting over a princess has little strategic value to the kingdom and would only bring mass suffering. Vibhishana, the lone brother who questions Ravana and refuses to fight for him, is exiled. “Toe the party line or face being cast out,” Ravana essentially tells his allies and subjects, much as a modern-day Trump tells his party leaders to support him or face the consequences.

Up to this point, the Ramayana’s message of obedience is cloaked in a religious story that supports those with power, not those who question hierarchies. What we so often lose in the retelling is something much more powerful.

In the little-celebrated final chapters of the Ramayana, Sita is reunited with Rama after several years. Rama, though happy to see her, once again asks Sita to prove her virtue by passing a trial by fire. If she emerges unscathed, Sita will be welcome back to the palace. Sita, obedient as ever, enters the flames. They do not touch her.

Then comes the twist: After years of exile and the humiliation of repeatedly being asked to prove her innocence, Sita decides she has had enough. In an astonishingly bold move for a tale that stresses obedience, Sita chooses not to return to her husband. The earth then parts to embrace Sita, supporting her decision.

In the Hindu tradition, Mother Earth is the embodiment of endurance. In the Ramayana, the parting of the ground symbolizes the cracking of Sita’s patience. In this age-old epic, it is made very clear that even the most patient of women have their limits.

The stories Hindus tell our children are sprawling sagas of gods and goddesses who become mortals to fight demons—their power, their grace, their fights, their mistakes, and their mischief. Our deities are not always perfect, but good always triumphs over evil, just as the warm glow of the oil lamps pierce through the dark night. We tell comfortably familiar stories—but we don’t talk about the long years of silence that Sita endured.

The Ramayana is no fairy tale that ends with a prince rescuing a princess to live happily after. With Mr. Trump trying to win over American’s Hindu audience, this may be the time to reframe the Ramayana as not just a tale of masculine courage, but also as a story that emphasizes our very contemporary need to respect a woman’s dignity. At a time when Hillary Clinton is the first female candidate to be nominated for the presidency by a major political party, we must remember that the Ramayana is Sita’s story too.

Diwali, Mr. Trump, is not where this story ends.