Home / Books / Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana By Devdutt Pattanaik | Book Review

Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana By Devdutt Pattanaik | Book Review

Indian, that is Bharatiya, literature is full of tales that are embedded with wit, wisdom and life lessons. Being the advanced most civilization of the ancient times, it has documented some historical incidents in mesmerising ways. Over the period of time these stories are traveled through various geographic areas via mouth and in text format. The stories and retold and retold by many generations and some elements of fantasy and segments reflecting the respective time and social norms are also added to them.

That made various versions of epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat (or Jaya – Jayasamhita) came to existence.

While some people are skeptical about their historical accuracy of the same, we keep founding more and more evidence proving it to be real histories.

For some it may be mythology, but no matter what your personal beliefs are, these stories share timeless life-lessons and no one can deny that fact.

As mentioned earlier, Bharatiya culture has a beautiful tradition of re-imagining and retelling this stories in a way, making it more acceptable and impactful in respective social and geographical environment. You can also view the Gods as a kid, as a friend, as a lover, as a friend, as a universal superpower,… And people do all these with utmost love, care and respect.

Probably, that is the reason these epics are timeless.

Book Title : Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana
Author :
Published by : Penguin India ( 20 October 2013)
# of Pages : 320 (Paperback) 340; 10569 KB (Kindle EBook) 813 Minutes (Audiobook)
# of Chapters : 7
Purchase Link(s) :

Today, we are going to talk about, renown mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik‘s exploration of Ramayana.

From our team, I got a chance to read Kindle E-Book version of this book, Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana, and here are my unbiased, uninfluenced and personal views and reviews for the same.

Book Cover:

The cover page serves as the gateway to the virtual world explored within the book. And thus, it is responsible for making its first impression. And, we humans, by nature, are attracted towards the beauty. So, despite believing in the fact, one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we must acknowledge its influence on a large number of book picking/reading/purchase decisions for sure.

Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana By Devdutt Pattanaik | Book Cover

Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana By Devdutt Pattanaik | Book Cover

Let us take a look at the cover page of this book, Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana.

As you can see the cover page is really attractive. The use of light green and yellow color gives it calm and composed look. It also reflects the joyous and challenging times in the lives of the primary characters. In addition, it serves as a good background giving enough room for contrast to the book title, tagline, author’s name and other elements. And yes, an illustration done by the author is found its place on the cover page.

I like the imagination and simplicity weaved together in the cover design.

The Book And What I Think Of It:

Usually, we talk about the book plot and our views and reviews for the same in two distinguished segments. This book is quite different. The story of Ramayan is known to almost all the readers. It is quite possible that the story is known to you from the famous TV Serial – Ramayan – by Ramanand Sagar and his team. The serial was majorly based on the Ramcharit Manas, by Saint Tulsidas.

The quest to find the absolutely original version of Ramayan (Ramayana), written by Sage Valmiki, is almost futile. As due to number of invasions, burning of number libraries, decaying of old books and various other events have made it almost instinct. The scholars, however, had gone through a number of scripts and versions of Ramayana found till date, including those written in regional languages and based on years long research have came to the conclusive elements that are probably belongs to the ancient most version of Ramayana. I am sure this research will keep going on.

The author, hee, keeps various versions of Ramayan as the base and when referring story elements in shorter (sometimes a little elaborative, and sometimes, summarized manner) format, adds specific source referring those element, wherever found necessary. Such notes makes the reader aware about various sources available, the hard research work done by the author, and inspires to be inquisitive and aware about how the story reflects the socio-geo-norms in different versions. Naturally, all the writes/re-tellers have tried to keep the central-thought as is, and convey the life-lessons to learn from the same in more time-specific manner.

The author has beautifully talked about this history/mythology conflict and its consequences in this book:

Ever since colonial times, Hinduism has felt under siege, forced to explain itself using European templates, make itself more tangible, more concrete, more structured, more homogeneous, more historical, more geographical, less psychological, less emotional, to render itself as valid as the major religions of the Eurocentric world like Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The fallout of this pressure is the need to locate matters of faith in a particular spot. The timeless thus becomes time-bound and the universal becomes particular. What used to once be a matter of faith becomes a territorial war zone where courts now have to intervene. Everyone wants to be right in a world where adjustment, allowance, accommodation and affection are seen as signs of weakness, even corruption.

or

It is significant that the great epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, reached their final form in the centuries that followed the rise of Buddhism, whose founder, born a prince, abandoned his wife and infant son, to start a monastic order. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are all about family; they strive to show how it is possible for a hermit to live a householder’s life; there is no need to become a monk. The struggle between the hermit’s way and the householder’s way forms the cornerstone of Indian thought. They manifest as Shiva’s way and Vishnu’s way.

He rationally talks about the timestamp when specific event could have happened at various places. For example:

According to astrological data found in the Valmiki Ramayana, the abduction took place in 5077 BCE, the thirteenth year of exile.

Based on astrological calculation, Ram’s date of birth has been identified as 10 January 5114 BCE, nearly seven thousand years ago.

The book starts with a very emotional scene. Lady Sita has just left the earth. The author illustrates this incident and its aftermatch with pen and words, quite interestingly:

Blades of grass!
Ends of her hair sticking out!
That is all that was left of Sita after she had plunged into the earth. No more would she be seen walking above the ground.

The people of Ayodhya watched their king caress the grass for a long time, stoic and serene as ever, not a teardrop in his eyes. They wanted to fall at his feet and ask his forgiveness. They wanted to hug and comfort him. They had broken his heart and wanted to apologize, but they knew he neither blamed them nor judged them. They were his children, and he, their father, lord of the Raghu clan, ruler of Ayodhya, was Sita’s Ram.

It also shows the impact of Sita’s leaving on Ram, and why he is referred to as Sita’s Ram. It also elaborates how the relationship of King and his kins should be. These line summrizes how Ram has to hold many fronts, take care of many responsibilities, and how Sita has contributed to the same. That is what it means to be “a couple” according to Bharatiya culture. It further elaborates:

Before your wife came into your life, you were a student with no claim over property. After your wife leaves your life, you must become a hermit, with no claim over property. Only as long as she is by your side do you have claims over wealth. Without her, you cannot perform yagna; you must only perform tapasya.

Marriage, since Vedic times, is not just the union of a man and a woman but an opportunity for two cultures to intermingle so that new customs and beliefs can enter an old household and revitalize it.

Wedding rites in India have symbols that are rooted in agricultural practices that the modern mind may consider distasteful, ideas that describe the man as the farmer who plants the seed and the woman as the field who germinates the seed.

When iterating the story of Ganga’s coming on earth, the author reveals many pearls of wisdom. For example:

Just as Ganga enables the rebirth of humanity and of vegetation, a woman enables the rebirth of a family, for she holds in her body the promise of the next generation.

To be a good spouse, wife or husband, the wilfulness of Ganga needs to be balanced with the serenity of Shiva. Only then will the river of marriage create fertile riverbanks.

Continuing the same policy, the author also elaborates the need of food, and why the way of food-preparation is quite important.

The kitchen is the first yagna-shala, for the kitchen fire turns raw food into edible cooked food that nourishes the body and prepares the mind for intellectual enquiry.

Thought may be God but food is the Goddess. One cannot exist without the other.

Through various after-wedding rituals, the author talks in detail about the deep meaning of them all.

The book talks about links between the way of living, way of finding the divine, fertility, domestic life and hermit’s life in quite interesting way.

The tale correlates drought with monastic practices. Celibacy affects the rains adversely.

This reflects the discomfort with rising monastic orders. Even the hermit Shiva is turned into a householder, Shankara, by the Goddess, to ensure that the snow of the mountains melts to create a river – Ganga – on whose banks civilization can thrive.

The association of women with fertility is one reason that in later times women were viewed as temptresses and distractions from spiritual activities that came to be increasingly associated with celibacy.

I found the definition of a “Tapasvi” quite interesting (and athentic too).

Tapasvi means fire (tapa) ascetic, and apsara means water (apsa) nymph.

Similarly when referring a character, with a specific title, the author clarifies, why he did so.

Vibhandaka was called a rishi, a seer, because he saw what others did not. He knew that food turns into sap, then blood, then flesh, then nerve, then bone, then marrow and finally seed. When seed is shed, new life comes into being. No living creature has control over the shedding of their seed, except humans, especially men.

The way author talks about various way of living, and how a civilized species can be different from those roaming free without any rules to follow, what makes humans different amongst species, and more.

Animals fight to defend their bodies. Humans curse to defend their imagination of themselves. This imagined notion of who we are, and how others are supposed to see us, is called aham. Aham constantly seeks validation from the external world. When that is not forthcoming it becomes insecure. Aham makes humans accumulate things; through things we hope people will look upon us as we imagine ourselves. That is why, Janaka, people display their wealth and their knowledge and their power. Aham yearns to be seen.

Animals compete for mates and fight over territory. Humans do not have to.
Rules ensure this.
Animals do not eat more than they have to. But humans do.
Rules prevent this.

Sulabha continued, ‘Humans are special. We have a mind that can imagine. With imagination we can, without moving, travel through space and time, conjure up situations that do not exist in reality. It is what separates humanity from the rest of nature. Such a mind is called manas, which is why humans are called manavas. You are a manava with male flesh and I am a manava with female flesh. We both see the world differently, not because we have different bodies, but because we have different minds. You see the world from one point of view and I see the world from another point of view. But our minds can expand. I can see the world from your point of view and you can see it from mine. Some, like Vibhandaka and Rishyashringa, instead of expanding the mind, use it to control nature through tapasya and yagna. They do not accept the world as it is. Why?

The book asks a lot of questions and tries to find answers to them. And, that is the best way to earn knowledge. When your mind is open to absorb right answers, you can start asking questions. Even uncomfortable ones. Because you are open to the answers, without any pre-condition. And, that makes you not only wiser but will help you going a few steps ahead in the journey of spirituality. Or journey of finding the ultimate truth.

The author compares the mindset of Dashrath and Janak. I found this comparision quite interesting.

The earth grants Janaka what he deserves. The fire grants Dashratha what he wants. I choose the destiny of daughters. He submits to the desire of sons.

The knowledge is the ultimate treasure, and its one’s responsibility to keep is spreading. Of course, to the worthy ones. And that’s why:

When no student comes to a teacher, a teacher goes in search of a student.

We often hear debates regarding theoretical and practical knowledge. The author nicely summarises it as:

‘Neither is better or worse,’ replied Ram. ‘The pursuit of theoretical knowledge develops the mind, while practical knowledge develops the body. Both have value and both come at a cost. It is aham that creates notions of better or worse.

Atma observes it all, and smiles.’

Even the comparision between Ravana and Kubera is interesting:

Neither is really different from the other. Ravana grabs, while Kubera hoards.

The book talks about spirituality:

Enquire into the human mind, Janaka, and you will better understand the flesh and the world around this flesh. That is veda, wisdom.’

Vedic hymns are used in three ways: in rituals, described in the Brahmanas; in solitary visualizations, described in the Aranyakas; and in intimate conversations, described in the Upanishads.

and practical skills, a ruler required:

‘How much punishment is fair punishment? Who decides what is enough? A king needs to intervene, balance his ruthlessness with compassion.’

And also acknoledges:

In every organization there are hierarchies which determine power. To rise, some use talent, others use loyalty and still others use connections.

Sita was a strong willed woman. She was no shy princess. Of course, her will power was her most prolific strength. But, remember, she was a girl who easily picked up the bow given by Parashuram to Janaka. It was no ordinary bow and not even the strongest of warriors were able to hold it or pick it. That shows her physical strength as well. At the time when Ram has to leave for 14 years exile, it was she, who insisted to go with Ram.

‘No,’ shouted Ram, taken by surprise. Then, toning down the sharpness of his voice, he explained, ‘The forest is no place for a princess. Wait for me here in the palace.’

‘I do not need your permission. I am your wife and I am supposed to accompany you, to the throne, into war and to the forest. What you eat, I shall taste. Where you sleep, I shall rest. You are the shaft of the bow that is our marriage; you need the string to complete it. My place is beside you, nowhere else. Fear not, I will be no burden; I can take care of myself. As long as I am beside you and behind you, you will want for nothing.’

And, the author beautifully summarizes it as:

She followed her husband to ensure he never felt incomplete.

In addition to acknolwedging attributes of all major characters, the author tries to show strengths of each of them. Of course, by remaining within the boundaries of the original tale (or the most authentic version of the same, so far), by sage Valmiki. Here is how he acknowledges the integrity of Lakshman’s character:

Lakshman sat with his back to her, facing the forest. Ram said, ‘Oh, who can resist the beauty of one who reclines so carelessly under the tree?’

Lakshman, sensing that Ram was referring to Sita, said, ‘He who is the son of Dashratha and Sumitra and brother of Ram and husband of Urmila can surely resist such a beauty who Ram says reclines so carelessly under the tree.’

Sita also came to learn that she shouldn’t doubt the characters of the fellows from Raghu-kul. As they are quite proud for that and lives by the pride. They will not hesitate giving their life, when it comes to the honor of the family.

That night nobody spoke. Sita realized making light of the integrity of the men of the Raghu clan was not taken lightly.

The book shares wisdom lines like:

Impatience is the enemy of wisdom; it propels us to jump to conclusions, judge and condemn, rather than understand.

And it also brings in many lesser-known or unknown stories from Ramayana and various versions of the same.

While the story of the ‘Lakshman-rekha’ fired popular imagination, the story of the “Vibhandaka-rekha” did not. Lakshman’s line seeks to secure a woman’s chastity.

Vibhandaka’s line seeks to secure a man’s celibacy. The former is necessary for social order. The latter threatens the very order of nature and culture.

If I had to quote only one segment from the book, I would settle for:

What is the greatest battlefield? The heart of a woman who is in love with someone else. To make her leave her beloved and come to your bed of her own free will, that is the greatest challenge. And so Ravana did everything in his power to make Sita fall in love with him.

These quotes must have given you a fair idea about the quality of the book. And, you already know the story, right?

Reading various lesser-known or unknown stories from the different versions of Ramayana, is quite an interesting experience. In addition to quoting those version, the author gives his brief comments about the same, wherever required. That makes this book even richer. The bibliography shows the extensive research done by the author for the same.

The book is written in simple, day-to-day language making it easy for readers.

To th inquisitive minds, it is a joyous experience to read this book. It will make you to search for more details about the side stories mentioned in the book. To me, that is the success of the author.

Summary:

It is not just another retelling of Ramayan or Ramayana. It is a well-researched, commented about, theisis like elaboration of this timeless epic by referring various versions of the same. It is a fantastic source to know a lot about Ramayana. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

ThinkerViews Rating:

Around 8.5 stars out of 10.

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Over To You:

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