How I choose to celebrate Diwali as a feminist

A revised epic behind Diwali lauds the perfect subservient Indian woman, perpetuated by a society of extremist men

Published November 11, 2023 1:30PM (EST)

Ram, Lakshman and Sita statues (Getty Images/Stockfoo)
Ram, Lakshman and Sita statues (Getty Images/Stockfoo)

Stories are important. When I was a child growing up in London, the story of Diwali fostered a sense of pride in me. We used to dress up in glittery Indian costumes and pass around too-sweet sweets, delighted that our culture, too, had a sparkly, sugar-coated festival.

At school, we acted out the story of Diwali, embracing the roles of the perfect prince Rama and his perfect wife Sita, who are exiled to the forest for 14 years. One day, Sita sees a golden deer and asks Rama to capture it. Before he goes, he draws a protective circle around their hut and tells her not to step out of it. But she’s tricked by the 10-headed demon Ravana, who whisks her off to his kingdom. Rama fights to get her back and wins. Finally, the couple return to the city of Ayodhya, where Rama takes his rightful place as king.

Diwali commemorates this return. Lighting divas signifies the victory of light over dark, good over evil, civilization over wilderness . . . but the grown-up version is more complex than that.

Sita’s decision to remain in the forest . . . reflects her defiance of toxic masculinity.

In Maharishi Valmiki’s "Ramayana," the original text of the epic, Rama saves Sita but then renounces her because she’s been in another man’s abode. Sita eventually convinces Rama of her virtue by walking through fire, and the couple return to Ayodhya together. But Rama soon hears that his subjects are gossiping about Sita’s purity and banishes her to the forest once more — this time alone, while pregnant. Years later, Rama encounters Sita in the forest again and asks for her forgiveness. Crowds gather to see the couple reunited once more. But instead of returning to the city with Rama, Sita prays to return to mother earth. The ground opens up and takes her in. It’s a surprise ending, a magnificent twist, one that casts new hues over the whole narrative.

It affects the text’s treatment of dharma, or the right way to act. This is the text’s central theme as it was written in about 500 BC, when there was a shift from tribal multiculturalism to bigger settlements led by kings along the Gangetic plain. Certain rules, customs and laws had to be established so that these larger communities, or states, could function. Sita’s decision to remain in the forest encapsulates the text’s ambivalence towards these very foundations of statehood and reflects her defiance of toxic masculinity and rigid societal roles that prioritize duty and honor over human relationships.

However, this part of the story is rarely focused on today. Just as we were given the simple version of the story as children, today’s modern media landscape flattens out the complexity and depth of the text.

The most popular representation of the "Ramayana" today is producer-director-writer Ramanand Sagar’s serialization that aired on India’s national television channel Doordarshan in the late 1980s. It soon became the most watched television series in the world, with repeats on 20 different channels in 17 countries across all continents and time zones. As a child, I felt like it was on in every Indian household I visited. Women were perpetually weeping while men pulled back bow strings and arrows, their arm muscles flexing.

Not only did the show reinforce gender stereotypes, it erased Sita’s anger at being abandoned in the forest. Sagar adapted the plot so that Sita herself suggests that Rama banish her to protect his honor. The impact of this first mass consumption of the epic on women in India, who around that time had a literacy rate of 39.42%, and in the diaspora, where Hindu epics are rarely studied, cannot be underestimated. This became our model of the perfect Indian woman: subservient, self-sacrificing, silent.

It’s a model that will be embodied by many women at today’s Diwali celebrations all over the world. In my family, the men will sit around and talk politics, while women will nod in agreement, or else leave talk of politics to men while they cook, serve food, clean, tend to children or talk about other matters altogether.

However, as grown women, we need to embrace the complex version of the "Ramayana." The version where Sita disrupts the expectations of her gender, shakes up the story and rejects toxic patriarchy.

Today, this is relevant more than ever, since Indian politics has been taken over by toxic masculinity. The country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is an offshoot of an all-male paramilitary group inspired by Italian and German fascism called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a longtime RSS member. These roots can be seen in its current far-right Hindu-supremacist politics, and its maneuvers to turn India into a Hindu state. This national ideology, known as Hindutva and formed in 1922, opposes the idea of India as a secular democracy. 

Not only has the BJP eroded India’s democracy and systematically discriminated against minorities, it has incited violence and murder. All this has been enabled by a huge base of women supporters, whether it’s Modi’s wife, who has stayed silent, loyal and subservient, the actress Deepika Chikhalia who played Sita in the TV series of the epic then became a BJP politician, or the women who watched and participated in the violence as two Christian Kuki tribal women in Manipur were paraded naked through a village and gang-raped.

The violence against India’s Christian and Muslim minorities can also be traced back to Doordashan’s version of the "Ramayana," which linked Hinduism to the Indian nation through the mass dissemination of a Hindu myth on a national channel (one that was obliged, but neglected, to treat all religions equally) at a time when there was a consumerist boom that made TVs widely accessible. Furthermore, Sagar inserted RSS speeches into the show’s dialogue, helping to mainstream their extremist Hindutva ideology.

He also inserted motifs, such as Rama carrying around a clump of soil from his birthplace, that rallied the general population behind extremist movements, like one one calling for the destruction of a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya. Hindu hardliners claimed it was built on top of Rama's birthplace and demanded a Ram temple be constructed there instead. On Dec. 6, 1992, a mob attacked and destroyed the mosque, sparking violent clashes between India's Hindu and Muslim communities, killing at least 2,000 people.

As grown women, we cannot buy into the fairy tales spun by extremist men.

The violence occurred because the Hindutva ideology relies on a simple story about India. The story goes like this: India was always a Hindu land, and others – Muslims and Christians – are invaders. This frames anyone who doesn’t fit the confines of Hindu identity as prescribed by extremist men as enemies of the nation, instigating divisions and violence.

But as grown women, we cannot buy into the fairy tales spun by extremist men. We must use our eyes, our brains and our hearts to engage in what is going on in India, and express our views and anger. We must cease to believe that being agreeable and staying within the domestic circle will protect us.

That’s why, this year, I choose to dwell in the darkness of the forest. The forest is a metaphorical place, where we can cast off limiting roles and identities. So instead of helping out in the kitchen, I will discuss politics. Like Sita, I will express my anger and call out the horrors and toxic masculinity underpinning the ideas of statehood in India today. Because to engage in performative gender would be complicit, like the women supporting the male violence in Manipur.

Much of the "Ramayana" is set in the forest. It’s where Rama and Sita encounter different beings, belief systems and ways of living while in exile, reminding us that India was always a multi-ethnic land. It’s as rich in diversity as the "Ramayana" itself, which nationalists are trying to reduce to one, simple story. From the forest, you can view places you once thought of as "home" with distance and clarity. This means letting go of childlike pride and simple, shiny images. The world has changed; to be proud of our culture now is to engage in chauvinistic nationalism.

Most importantly, the forest is a place of depth and contemplation. In an age where image has replaced text, and ideology has replaced philosophy, I choose to return to the original spirit of the "Ramayana." This means focussing on dharma, or the right way to act so that our larger, global communities can work.

By Madhvi Ramani

Madhvi Ramani is a multidisciplinary writer interested in breaking established ideas, forms and structures. She was born in London, and currently lives in Berlin. Her children’s book "Whisper, Shout, Let it Out" (Macmillan) is our now.

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Bjp Commentary Diwali Feminism Hindutva India Patriarchy Rama Ramayana Sita