Sexism in the Ramayana

I am delighted with the wonderful response to the essay on Rama. In complete honesty, I haven’t had that kind of readership for months on my blog; leave alone, a single day! And so, for everyone that stopped to read and share their thoughts with me, thank you for the effort and for extending the debate. Alongside the encomiums, I have also managed to garner the somewhat anticipated displeasure of women (friends and readers), in whose opinion I have given sexism and differential expectations of morality short shrift. This addendum explanatory essay is written to address the criticism and with the interest of influencing and furthering the debate.

The relationship between the sexes (sexual, socio-cultural, intellectual, financial and political) is dynamic and continuously evolving. Both sexes have made giant strides in achieving a more egalitarian partnership. Where we are in the 21st CE is nowhere close to where we were in the early 20th CE even; let alone the time of Rama. It is therefore, neither sensible nor rational to extend our modern sensibilities to the time of the Ramayana.

Since thought stems from context and from a personal one especially, I feel it necessary to fill in a little background detail. I have an abiding passion for and a deep involvement with the natural sciences. Medicine and the science of nature has taught me to view biology and sexuality in an abstract and holistic sense that transcends gender. I am not alone. Many who share these interests subscribe to this point of view. However, outside of this narrow spectrum and in the wider societal context, it is the social sciences that have framed the modern day understanding on gender, women’s issues, rights and the politics of sexuality. To my mind, the humanities have had control over the narrative of sexuality and gender issues for far too long. The time has long come when the stage must be ceded to Biology – time to make the shift from the analytic to the empirical. Because, while social sciences ‘interpret’; biology simply ‘is’. Biology defines gender and through that definition it teaches us to accept difference; to appreciate and respect it. It fosters an understanding between the sexes.  Whereas, the social sciences, on the other hand, have pulled them apart, interpreted them as separate and exclusive, disjoined them and created a terrible environment of discord.

Much of the ‘understanding’ of our spiritual and cultural history is in the realm of interpretation. We have been taught interpretations of events more than historical record. Neither you nor I nor any other person can dogmatically state with any degree of confidence that we are in the ‘know’ of the sexual/cultural mores of an ancient historical period. Inferences are formed from varied sources. They are subject to interpretations which in turn are informed by bias. Mainstream attitude and information is dominated by the view of historians and sociologists who oftentimes interweave their political and personal leanings into what strictly should be detached and bipartisan opinion. Within the framework of the current time; the past, quite naturally, seems ghastly and wretched. That does not make it so. To keep our period’s appalling gender discord as the standard for the interpretation of our epics is bizarre and retrogressive. If the frame of reference shifted, even for a little bit, it might reveal a very different result. Were men and women treated differently from us or, from how we would have liked them to be, in the epics (in varied contexts)? Indeed yes, they were. But it is we (modern day interpreters) who add the element of discrimination. Of oppression. Of subjugation. We add these with a generous sprinkling of common sense realism without really being in the ‘know’. Constant talk of discrimination in a sea of uncertainties only entrenches the feeling of victimhood in women. Worse, it covertly gives men the subliminal feeling that they indeed possess the power to dominate and oppress!

There is another aspect of history that is conveniently ignored in discussions of gender: War. Until very recently in our history, war was so commonplace that every generation experienced it. Men went to war; women rarely did. Men died. Most of them were young men in their prime. Gender ratios were skewed and polygamy was a consequence of that and of the geopolitical compulsions of war. Adultery and polygamy did not have the connotations they do today. How much of the gender relationship of the time was driven by war and/or violence and how much by sexual discrimination? How did war alter the marriage market or sex ratios? Do we know? Yet, we dogmatically proclaim, with not a hint of skepticism, that our culture discriminated on the basis of gender alone and nothing else.

How often in public discourse do we hear of the impact of war as a possible reason for the sociocultural behaviour of the past? Our culture is not unique. A simple reading of the history of most nations is enough to understand that war and political instability were an integral part of every historical age. In, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, Steven Pinker elucidates at length his thesis of how we are a far less violent species today than at any other time in our history. Yet, mainstream dialogue continues to focus on the historical oppression of women. It is my contention that an environment of violence and political instability promotes a cooperative interaction between the genders. In such crisis ridden situations, the focus of the race is on survival and genealogical transmission. Not on marital discord or sexual oppression. World War II is a case in point. Historical record of this terrible time richly documents many an instance of sympathetic cooperation between men and women both on the home front and on the battle lines.

The Naturalist’s perspective: Biology is not interpreted. Biology is raw, real and visible. A male cannot give birth; a female does. A female does not worry about gene transmission; with her, it is natural. A male does (worry, that is). He needs the vehicle of her body to transmit his genes and ensure their survival. This is a fundamental reason why both sexes view and treat sexuality differently. From a purely genetic standpoint, sexual fidelity in a female ensures the transmission of the male’s genes. Monogamy gives the male a certain assurance of transmission.  Given that the female bears the onus of responsibility with birth, nurturing and rearing of offspring, monogamy is the more evolutionary stable strategy for her. Parental investment theory has had its critics, but has survived as the commonly accepted adaptive response. Monogamy is the default that humankind aspires to. Polygamy, on the other hand, is a reaction to the circumstances (war, for e.g.,) of unfavorable genetic transmission. Interestingly enough, until recently, monogamy was considered a unique human construct. That has now been proved to be a myth. Other species exhibit the same proclivities. The overt uncoupling of intercourse from procreation and increasingly progressive attitudes have led to a more unconstrained sexual environment. It might have started with men; but women are fast catching up and that also might well be an evolutionary response. Sexual fidelity is no more the de rigeur norm. Contrariwise, marriage and partnership is now fraught with the apprehension of infidelity.

Understanding biology is not condoning gender inequality. It is only a tool to to view history and men with a benign eye. Not with a vision perpetually tinted by malice, affront and a sense of being wronged. Why do we revel in a victimhood when biology has so obviously imbued the feminine with the greater power. It is for us to recognize that power, use it wisely and well to steer ourselves to higher ground. It is not only women who would benefit from looking at history through the lens of biology. Men would gain equally by learning to accept that gender is a mere biologic difference; not an intellectual one. This bipartisan understanding will advance the regard for women as equal participants on the stage of life. It is under the guidance of biology that sexuality is cast as just ‘one’ of the varied spheres of interaction between the genders. It also happens to be the easiest! Debate on gender inequality should therefore be applied strictly to our time and ours alone. Because, that is what we truly know, experience, and comprehend. It will be a tribute to our learning and to the giant strides we have made as women in the last century, if we could transcend our expectations of history and demand equality from our men and our society. Not of, or from, Rama.


A feminist understands Rama

I am somewhat certain that this subject will interest Indians and Indophiles more and will therefore not annoy my primary audience by detailing the story of the Ramayana and the particular event in it that is my focus – the trial by fire (Agnipareeksha) of Seeta. However, for those not in the know of the details, here is the link to a synopsis of the epic since, further reading, from hereon, will necessitate knowing the story.

The Agnipareeksha is a much contested event in the Ramayana. Women of my mother’s generation were possibly, the first to publicly question the reasons for Rama’s implausible and inexcusable behavior with the virtuous Seeta. Every time this subject comes up in conversation; women lead the discussion with righteous indignation and men of all ages cower in uncomfortable silence. Those men that join ranks with the women are usually given withering glances for their unwelcome support and they too subside in collective silence. I too have been a stereotypical participant for the most part of my life; graduating from annoyed arguments with my grandmother, to hurt and disappointment with men and their deified ilk.

More recently, I have begun to wonder if our behaviour is more automatism and less reasoned synthetic thought. A vitriolic exchange between two strangers on Twitter, that floated into my inbox in the collateral exchange of information that social media excels at, jolted me out of my self-absorption with Rama to write the counterpoint to the popular telling of the tale. I am not being contrarian, though the title suggests otherwise. This is also not a third wave feminist attempt to right the imbalance of the narrative. I can best describe it as an exercise in humility from two starting points. One, our collective ignorance on matters concerning our culture, its literature, philosophy and religion (I am not interested in the politics of the why. To my mind, it is more important to accept that there is ignorance and to make every attempt to plug the gap with the advantages that post-modern and post-colonial thought has given us to command); and two, the uneasy paradox of a rich cultural tradition that revered, indeed worshiped, woman-kind and yet was accepting of its most noble Ram’s flawed treatment of Seeta; herself, a deified woman. The analysis of his actions in the Agnipareeksha is binary. It is either that he is Rama, beyond reproach and that our disquiet only reveals our deficient spirituality (a determined questioner is at best answered with a vague reference to Dharmic principle). Or, it reeks of a lazy reductionism. A telling of a man who did a good woman a grave wrong; an interpretation that is endlessly repeated in any and every discussion of women’s rights. Neither explanation satisfies any of my souls. Not the woman, the feminist, the ethicist, the Indian, the Hindu (by birth and by choice) and/or the spiritual seeker. While some part of my dissatisfaction might stem from my own arrogance; it can’t be denied that our history is replete with poor reasoning and lax analysis that cement doubt. By positing an interpretation that might serve as explanation; I join the old worthy warriors of our traditions in their defense of Rama. Because, I think, we have read our Rama wrong.

1. Rama, as the epic goes, was the ideal man. He was an avatar, taken in order to serve as example to mankind that we were not limited by the scope of our abilities. That, the human limits of nobility and virtue were elastic and could ever be extended in the striving for a good life. He was born to lead. By example. The Ramayana largely keeps his human dimension in the centre with fewer supra-human anecdotes than say, of Krishna in the Mahabharata. The point of the Ramayana is that boundless virtue can exist in the human condition. God does not need to be a higher ‘other’. God can be you. A human.

2. Oppression of the Indian woman is a much flogged narrative of our history. The Ramayana is a shining beacon of evidence to the contrary. This popular epic has Seeta choose her husband in a Swayamvara. A unique and elevating right given to women of the period. A man was put through an obstacle course to win over a woman’s heart; a useful exercise that taught men to earn the hand of the woman they sought in marriage. That, a wife was not an entitled right or a possession. (Both progressives and conservatives will agree that recent generations callously disregard these fundamental codes of gender conduct). Anecdotes of mutual respect abound in the Ramayana. It is not just in the Swayamvara episode that we see Seeta exercising her will. She makes her own (and unobstructed) decision in many instances – to accompany Rama in exile, to cross the Laxmana Rekha, her conduct of protest in Lanka, her decision to leave the palace for Valmiki’s Ashram and her final act of choosing to enjoin with the Earth over a material existence. Her character is that of a strong and powerful woman imbued with the power of mind, virtue and choice. The misinterpretation of Seeta as oppressed victim of a hegemonic patriarchy might well be a case of finding a problem to fit the solution.

3. As a husband, Rama was exemplary. Few are the narratives in real life or mythology, classical or recent, when a man takes himself to war for a wife. He did not have a ready at hand army and had to commandeer one in his defense. The Trojan War might seem like a historical correspondent; but it has many versions (Sappho’s probably, the most popular) that narrate Helen as falling in love with Paris and eloping with him to Troy on her own accord. The Ramayana has versions too. Yet, not one of them differ in their telling of the inglorious abduction of Sita and her haughty disdain for Ravana’s exhortations and/or temptations. In that, and in the detailing of the reasons for the Lankan War, there is no discord amongst any of its versions. This then is history’s greatest tale of the dedicated love and commitment of a man to a wife and to a marriage.

4. The Agnipareeksha: And so, the war is won coinciding with the end of the exile and Rama is now no longer just a husband. His responsibility extends to that of King and his actions determine the moral and social fate of his people. It is in the human condition to gossip about the personal lives of others. It is equally in our nature to judge.  A dissolute monarchy loses the moral authority to govern. Their royal and administrative responsibility as King and Queen would not allow either one of them to become the subject of malicious rumour (in the story it is Seeta who falls prey to slander) and so, enter the Agnipareeksha. A solution of the times to put wagging tongues to rest. A solution Rama would not have accepted unless he was aware of its outcome. A solution Seeta would also not have agreed to, without integrity at her command. Is this my subjective interpretation? Perhaps, but, it is no less subjective than the more common and critical ones. More importantly, if we must choose to interpret what truly cannot be (considering that we are evaluating the behavior of men and women from different Yugas, not just millenia); it is best to take recourse in Occam’s Razor and choose the simplest possible explanation that takes into consideration both human nature and the contextual circumstances of the time. Even though Rama himself had no doubt in his mind; his duty to quell the doubts of his people needed to be discharged. It was a decision of leadership.

Cut to modern times. Despite how far we have journeyed from that era, do we still not expect our leaders to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard? In the circumstance of a misconduct; our leaders step down from Office. Are expected to or are made to. In true democracies, at least, the flag-bearers of Office are the representatives of the collective conscience and are accordingly held to trial for lapses of rectitude. Our modern age has not yet diverged from these customary expectations; much of which is hardwired in the human condition. Thus, a Petraeus resigns, a Clinton is impeached and a Dominque Strauss Kahn is jailed and fired. All these men were made answerable to a judgmental and judging public. Do not so many of us (despite our great admiration and respect for her), wish that Mrs Clinton had taken a stance more in-keeping with ‘our’ sense of being wronged than her own?

The question is also asked as to why Rama did not abdicate? Would it not have been a more honourable thing to do? To sacrifice country for love. To my mind, he would have abdicated; ‘if’ he doubted she would pass the test. Abdication and resignation are not a route to anything but an escape from censure in the face of omission. That he did not abdicate is evidence of his lack of doubt and should be enough conclusion that the simplest interpretation is indeed the best.

What then does Rama teach us through the Agnipareeksha?

  • To honour, respect and believe (not doubt) your spouse.
  • To not succumb to public opinion but to be consciously aware of it and conduct oneself in a moral and ethical fashion in keeping with one’s own values.
  • To have the wisdom to confront public opinion only when in possession of the high moral ground.
  • That Dharma is contextual. That the life of the householder (Grihastha) incorporates many roles. That context and circumstance determine which role takes precedence.
  • To keep the personal separate and divorced from the professional. Rama adhered to the highest standard of professional conduct by not allowing his personal belief interfere with public perception. When he and Seeta put themselves through the most severe investigation of the time; they raised the integrity bar.

TS Eliot, in ‘Gerontion’, describes history as having contrived corridors. Our hoary history has yawning gaps in continuity and information with much lost in the telling and the retelling of a tale. As its descendants, we are left struggling to fill the void with explanations, interpretations and revisions; most of which are replete with bias that serves our own agendas. Despite these intellectual calisthenics; it is a testament to the literary and spiritual merit of the Ramayana that it still actively survives amongst us. In its countless daily recitations across the country, there is a reaffirmation of faith and love. Of the story, its characters, the land, and yes, of God.

The Electronic Health Record (EHR). A good augury for the doctor-patient relationship?

[This article is published in the October 2012 issue of Infomed; pgs: 58-59]

There is change happening in Health Care. In hospitals, and in neighbourhood clinics. The traditional method by which doctors and nurses recorded a patient’s visit in the outpatient or documented a patient’s progress in a hospital admission; using pen and paper, on sheets filed under the patient’s name and hospital number, and stored in the Records Department, is giving way to a new digitized method of record keeping called, Electronic Health Record or Electronic Medical Record (EHR/EMR). The terms are used interchangeably.

For decades now, computer technology has been slowly and successively integrating into traditional medicine at every stage of the patient-doctor-hospital system interaction – in the labs, radiology investigations, pharmacy and/ or nursing.  The change in documentation style happened early with labs and radiology because of the technological advances in diagnosis (lab reports, hospital summaries, and radiology studies are ‘printed out’ as hard copy or packed in CDs as soft copy). However, the actual physical interaction with a doctor, a physician assistant or a nurse continued to follow the traditional hand-written style and was stored as a paper file in storage rooms called ‘Department of Records’. With the introduction of interactive applications into computers within a hospital network; this last bastion has crumbled and pens and pencils on a doctor’s desk have been replaced by a mouse and a keyboard.

What are the advantages of this shift? Will all players and participants in the healthcare system benefit?

The US government recently invested 27 billion to incentivize and accelerate the transition from paper medical records to EHRs. The size and scale of this investment is a good indicator of the value addition of this technology. For healthcare providers, the immediately obvious advantage of the EHR is improved productivity and efficiency in workflow. Data entry is easy and there is greater confidence with data integrity and reproducibility. Medical records have now become potable and that makes them accessible from any location with an internet connection. Finally, the cumbersome storage methods of paper files have been dramatically condensed and transformed. However, the larger and more significant long term impact is in Data Analytics. The automatic accumulation of large volumes of data, that happens when records are digitized, can now be studied in depth across a host of areas that range from clinical research to behavioural pattern recognition and operational errors in the workflow of a hospital system. The transformational potential of Data Analytics is huge and will bring about a much needed streamlining of Healthcare delivery and costs.

Such potential for positive disruption is often accompanied by worries and medicine is no exception. Here too, the magnitude of the collected data volume has raised concerns about data security, mining and misuse. To address these concerns, it is now mandated by Law that all certified systems have inbuilt safety controls that include encryption and regular audit tracks (this is a list of who has accessed records and when). Further, patients too can access their records over the web and the access also includes both audit and encryption. Increasing transparency and inclusiveness in medicine is of direct benefit to both doctors and patients. Last week, the Annals of Internal Medicine1 published very heartening results of the success of the OpenNotes2 Project undertaken by three medical centres in the US. 70% to 80% of participating Primary Care Physicians and 92% to 97% of participating patients thought, patient access to a doctor’s notes to be a good idea and a welcome step forward.

These are well documented contributions of the EHR to the betterment of the clinical workspace. But how does a patient or as a user of healthcare services benefit?

1. Improved Care: By having all your medical records in one place, your primary care doctors and specialists, as well as nurses and paramedical staff can coordinate treatment and care better. By putting all information about a patient in one place, a cooperative interaction between doctors and treatments is automatically effected and repetition of tests and prescription errors erased

2. Access: By having access to records and doctors’ notes; a patient is transformed into an active participant in his/her own health

3. Inclusion and Control: EHRs foster the doctor-patient relationship by promoting patient participation and inclusion. Patients also feel a greater sense of control by being able to access their own data. A few hospitals in the US have launched OpenNotes – an interactive format that allows patients to contribute and access a doctor’s notes in an outpatient setting. These simple measures are a first step to rebuilding trust between provider and patient. By having access to information, patients also are motivated to assume more responsibility over their own health

4. System change: Fewer prescription errors, reduced time of information sharing and reporting, and better follow up

5. Patient tools for self-monitoring: Often, variations and swings in symptoms and metrics like blood glucose levels, heart rate and blood pressure happen at home. A doctor is not witness to these fluctuations. Smart Phone applications for monitoring health metrics (currently in use for: blood sugar, blood pressure, ECGs) are making a rapid entry into home-health. This form of healthcare that uses smart phone and medical app technologies to facilitate home monitoring by patients is called mHealth (short for mobile health). mHealth allows self tracking by a patient and can alert both patient and doctor to early signs of change in a medical condition. In addition an easy and simple form of record keeping (by and for patients), of all this tracked data is being introduced and is called the Patient’s Health Record (PHR).

The Industrial Revolution in the 19th CE and the Information Technology Revolution of the 20th CE leapfrogged civilization in a matter of a few hundred years to extraordinary heights of achievement and excellence. The last three decades have seen great strides in the technology of medicine in diverse areas such as, diagnostic methods, robotics in surgery and stem cells and tissue engineering, to name a few. While dramatically expanding treatment options and cure, the takeover of machine was seen as dehumanizing. Patients and their care-givers dropped into the wide-split chasm between technical wizardry they got and the human connect they sought. They bore the brunt of the struggle to comprehend the technology and its impact on their health outcomes. Patients have felt systematically excluded from the health system, as a whole, despite the fact that, ‘they’ were the consumers and in effect therefore, the drivers of the change. Happily, the more recent advances in computer applications like EHRs and mHealth are set to reverse this trend by promoting the very welcome change of greater inclusion and participation of patients with and in the system. That both doctors and patients are embracing the change is heartening and holds out hope for an industry that has been at the receiving end of much criticism in recent times.

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This article was published in the October issue of Infomed. Link:   (Pgs 58-59)