Odia poet Upendra Bhanja’s retelling was cast aside by the middle class who grew up with the same morality that made Section 377 possible.
The debate on Section 377 is hopefully coming to a resolution, and significant Right-wing influencers are showing a favourable response as well.
So, what better way to inspect this newfound tolerance than to shine the light on and scrutinise instances of non-normative sexual acts in celebrated Hindu texts, especially one that has come to epitomise the Hindutva ideology – the Ramayana. Or better still, the Queer Ramayana.
The pre-modern Odia retelling of the Ramayana composed by the king-poet Upendra Bhanja and titled Baidehisa Bilasa, written in the ornate courtly fashion, paints a fascinating account of the desires of Rama and Sita that went beyond the ‘natural order’. Although popular in his time, the late 17th or early 18th century text was cast aside by the late 19th century middle class who grew up with the same morality that had made Section 377 possible.
When the sages desired Rama
In the narration of the Dandakaranya episode (Canto 21), the exiled Rama and Sita are wandering through the forest when a group of sages glance at them. The sages question their own celibacy as they look desirously at Rama (surprisingly not at Sita, which would have been heterosexually compliant). They even become jealous of Sita and wonder what she had done to deserve such a husband. They plead to the gods to make them women, and place earthen pots on their chests to mimic breasts and imagine their dreadlocks to be braids. However, realising that their wishes couldn’t be fulfilled, they jump into a fire.
Watching this from afar, Rama becomes upset and leaves the company of Sita and Lakshmana. He confers upon the dead sages the boon of being united with him as his lovers in Raslila in his next life as Krishna. This is not merely an act of kindness. The fact that Rama never castigates the sages alludes to his recognition and acceptance of homosexual desires.
Rama and Sita’s wedding night
The second such instance in this Ramayana text is narrated in the episode of Rama and Sita’s wedding night. Rama is described as a woman, a nayika waiting for her lover before the act of consummation. The nayika-bheda is a popular literary trope employed in pre-modern South Asian poetry to usually depict the emotions of women. In his initial phase of waiting, Rama is depicted as a Vasakasajja nayika, or a lover who prepares the bed, eagerly awaiting sexual union. However, Sita takes so much time to arrive that Rama becomes distressed and acts like an Utkantitha nayika, or one distressed by separation, and eventually his emotions make him a Khandita nayika, one who is enraged with the lover.
The poet never hesitates to use a female motif to describe the maryadapurusottama, and does not shy away from imagining his god as a woman. This attests to the fact that bending gender binaries and accepting fluidity of gender norms were acceptable facets in pre-modern South Asia.
The poet Upendra also makes Rama wonder in admiration about a particular part of Sita’s body, stating that its beauty was superior to the Siva linga at Varanasi (20:16).
The third instance alludes to Sita’s coming of age. Mid-way through the verses, there is an allusion to Sita experiencing desire for the first time. This is how the poet describes it –
Basare Jatane Ghodai Chol Kabach Dei
Basangi Smara Bhayoru Rati Sebane Snehi || (3:41)
Because of the problematic freedom of speech laws in India, we can only translate it in parts. “Smara” can be translated as cupid as well as sexual desire, “Bhaya” as fear, alluding that she was afraid of cupid/desire. And to assuage the fear (of desire), she performs “Rati Seva”. To paraphrase: what can Sita do to release her fears in a way that involves serving (seva) her “Rati”? At this point in the narrative context of Sita’s life (adolescence), she had not even met Rama. At this point in the text, Sita’s desire is independent of her husband. In a truly ‘feminist’ retelling, we encounter Sita’s desire outside of her role of an obedient wife. This is a radical move, unthinkable to most modern and even pre-modern retellings.
In fact, the agency that poet ascribes to Sita becomes apparent in the title of the book (Baidehisa Bilasa translates to ‘the pleasures of Sita’s husband’.)
Not everyone may agree on this exercise of locating notions of feminism to a text that was written largely under the rubric of patriarchy. But texts like these demonstrate that even under patriarchal pre-conditions, narratives like these were produced, which had room for feminism, homoerotic desire and gender fluidity. Applying these notions to religious icons is a leap few texts will dare to take even today.
Upendra’s Ramayana – or Queer Ramayana – is definitely the one we deserve. But it is difficult to say if we are ready for it yet.
The authors are graduate students of history and art history at Mcgill University and University of Wisconsin Madison. They are currently involved in the translation of this text, which has hitherto never been translated in full. They had published a translated snippet of one canto in 2017 for margASIA, a journal published from Odisha. They accessed copies of the manuscripts from the Odisha State Museum.