[Editor’s Note: We welcome our newest columnist Karl E. H. Seigfried. His writing will be appearing monthly on the fourth Saturday of every month. For more on Seigfried’s background and interests, check out his bio page.]
On January 30, lawyer Thakur Chandan Kumar Singh filed a domestic violence case in India against Rāma Dasharathi for mistreatment of his wife Sītā. This would likely have not made anything other than the local news, except for one fact: Rāma is the protagonist of the ancient Sanskrit text known as the Rāmāyaṇa, and he is believed by Hindus to be an incarnation of the god Viṣṇu.Composed in India between approximately 300 BCE and 300 CE, and attributed to the poet Vālmīki, the Rāmāyaṇa tells the story of Rāma across 20,000 verses. As a young man, he is wrongfully deprived of kingship and exiled to the forest, where his wife Sītā is abducted by Rāvaṇa, a ten-headed rākṣasa (shape-shifting demon) who wants to add her to his royal collection of wives. With the aid of an army of monkeys, Rāma eventually rescues Sītā from Rāvaṇa’s island kingdom.
However, Rāma doubts whether Sītā has remained chastely loyal to him while in his lustful enemy’s realm. After her lengthy suffering in captivity, she undergoes a trial by fire that proves her innocence and brings the gods to earth as character witnesses. Rāma regains his kingdom, and all is well until he asks one of his advisors to report what his subjects are saying about him. He finds out that conventional wisdom questions his decision to accept Sītā’s innocence and bring her home. Reportedly, the people ask:
How could he take Sītā back into his heart? How could he enjoy pleasures with her when she had been snatched from him by Rāvaṇa and had even sat on his lap? Rāvaṇa had taken her to Lanka and put her in the ashoka grove. She was at the mercy of the rākṣasas. How can Rāma not be repulsed? We shall have to treat our wives in the same way. For whatever a king does, his subjects must do the same.
In an echo of his own unrighteous banishment, Rāma exiles his pregnant wife to the forest. When he later finds out that she has had twin children, he brings her back to undergo another trial of chastity in front of the gods. Sītā has apparently had enough, and calls upon her mother, the earth goddess Mādhavi. The ground opens up, a celestial throne appears, and Sītā disappears into the earth to the applause of the gods.
The Rāmāyaṇa takes place during the Treta Yuga, the second of four declining ages of Hindu cosmology. We are now in the Kali Yuga, the fourth and final age of the time cycle.
Singh’s motivation for bringing the legal case underscores how vibrantly alive the ancient tales are in today’s India. He explained the initial inspiration for the suit to Catch News: “[A] few days back I was present in the court when [the] judge was hearing a domestic violence case. It suddenly struck me that by that logic Rama was the first perpetrator of domestic violence against his wife. If Sita didn’t get justice in [the Treta Yuga], how will women get justice in [the Kali Yuga]?”
When I asked Lavanya Vemsani, Professor of History and Religious Studies at Shawnee State University, about Singh’s case, she said, “I think he is asking the wrong questions here. Indian domestic violence law only came into being a couple of years ago. It cannot be taken back to apply retroactively to anyone who lived a hundred years ago, let alone thousands of years ago. The reach of the law is very limited. It does not even apply to marriages conducted under other religious personal law such as Islamic marriage law and Christian marriage law.”
Singh told Catch News that “Sita was the epitome of [the] perfect wife, [she] went to exile with him and endured all hardships with Rama.” Referring to Rāma’s spurning of Sītā based on the whispered gossip of his subjects, he asked, “How could he leave her on the words of spies who questioned her character?”Utkarsh Patel, Professor of Comparative Mythology at Mumbai University in India, stresses the importance of the ancient text in modern India yet remains suspicious of Singh’s motives. “The Rāmāyaṇa is an important epic in India, and has a strong relationship with the people at large,” he told me. “Such cases are only seen as attention-grabbing episodes and as aberrations. Besides, the majority of the people don’t even get to know of such cases, except for the few who get to notice it in the newspapers.”
On modern India’s relationship with the ancient text, Vemsani comments, “I think this shows that the stories are still considered part of a collective heritage. I think it was in the 1980s, a research scholar carried out a study asking young women about role models. Sītā still won by a large margin against other female characters of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata.” Asked by Catch News if his filing of the case was simply a publicity stunt, Singh replied, “I know there can be no action taken against Rama. But there should be a debate on it. All I want is justice for [Sītā].”
Patel comments, “While an insignificant percentage of people do question the idea of Rāma being a role model, not many go into such things beyond debates. It’s a curious mix of mythology with faith and belief system. Debates apart, faith exists and the people who question this generally do not matter in the larger scheme of things. However, such questions have always existed, and many different versions of the Rāmāyaṇa have tried to tackle these episodes in different ways. Views and counter-views on such aspects have always existed without affecting the following of the epic. Many authors, especially women, have written on this aspect of Rāma. Time and again, these debates are in the public space.”
Vesmani dismisses the importance of Singh’s suit: “I do not see too much impact. People understand the limitations of modern domestic violence law, and I think they also understand the futility of this case. So this might not have any effect at all other than to sensationalize Rāma and Sītā and provide fodder for media outlets.”
The judge of the district court did not simply throw out the suit out as nonsensical, but took it on its own terms and asked Singh five key questions during the hearing of the case: Who would be punished if the case were successful? Why had Singh only now filed a case for such a long-ago incident? Who will serve as witness? On what date did the offense occur? What is the evidence for the complaint? These questions being fundamentally unanswerable, the case was then thrown out as “not maintainable.”
Despite the judge’s declaration that the suit was “beyond all logic and facts,” there is actually legal precedent in India, including treatment of deities as owners of temples and receivers of temple wealth. In 2010, the Allabad High Court ruled that one-third of the city of Ayodhya belonged to Rām Lalla, the infant form of Rāma. One effect of this decision was that Rāma was officially declared a historical person. In other words, this figure of mythological poetry is now legally a person.
Writing for the Deccan Chronicle, Antara Dev Sen explains: “In Indian law, a Hindu deity can be recognised as a legal person with their own rights and duties, their own worldly possessions and their right to sue or be sued. Given this, it is not absurd that [Rāma] is sued for domestic violence.”
Legal arguments over personhood are familiar in the United States. The Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2004 addressed the harming or killing of unborn children during a violent crime, defining “unborn child” as “a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.” Although the act explicitly excepted abortion, it was seen as moving toward the legal granting of personhood to fetuses – a crucial step for the anti-abortion movement. In both the Indian and the American cases, religious beliefs come into conflict with and affect changes in secular law.
When I asked Vemsani how the Singh case reflects current Hindu ideas about the reality and immanence of deities in the world, she replied, “I think Rāma and Sītā are in a different category by themselves. They are seen as incarnations of Viṣṇu and [his wife, the goddess] Lakṣmī, but in their purely human form. So they exemplify humanity with human worries and concerns. However, as a permanent and final destination Brahma (universal soul) is consistent. The gods and goddesses are path breakers – somehow human in form to help humans reach their final goal (Brahma).”
Could a case like Singh’s be heard in the United States? A 2014 Gallup poll showed that 47% of Americans believe that “the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.” There’s not a lot of wiggle-room in that statement. Gallup also found that 42% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” A 2013 Harris poll found that 36% of Americans believe in creationism. If a Biblical character were put on trial in the United States, it is not completely certain that a grand jury consisting of randomly selected citizens would find the notion of legally historicizing mythical figures ridiculous.There have now been three separate suits brought against Singh for defamation of Rāma and for offending the Hindus who believe in him. Fellow lawyers have requested that Singh’s license to practice law be canceled. In response, Singh told the BBC, “I expected some objection but did not anticipate that my colleagues would turn against me. I was only talking about justice and had no intention of hurting anybody’s religious sentiments.” In a pattern familiar from overheated online dialogue on religious and political issues, Mr. Singh has received threatening telephone calls from right-wing groups furious at his filing of the suit against Rāma.
Relevant to these issues is Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which addresses “Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” It mandates fines and jail time for anyone who, “with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class.”
In 2014, the law made headlines when it was used to pressure Penguin Books to withdraw and destroy all copies of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. Patel says, “Such and many other laws are open to misinterpretation, and frivolous suits will always be filed in a democracy, whether we like it or not. However, in the case of Doniger’s book, Penguin did not even get into challenging the case. If they had challenged the ‘insult,’ the outcome could have been different. The book was simply pulped without a court order. The book has been published by another publisher and is selling in the open market.”
The issue with Section 295A is not whether any statement made is true or not, whether it is a quote from an ancient religious text or not, but only whether it outrages or insults the feelings or beliefs of a religious group. Try scrolling through Twitter or Facebook and counting how many times you see a post expressing the claim of a person of faith that their feelings or beliefs have been insulted. Then imagine what would happen if each of them brought a lawsuit against the individual they felt had caused this sense of insult.
Patel told me that although people in India “do have a lot of faith in such texts and many treat them as history (itihasa) and not mythology, it doesn’t go beyond debates and discussions, in certain news channels and on the Internet. Such cases are treated as mere gimmickry and nothing else, and nobody gives it any importance.” However, there are plenty of Americans who want their religion to have a stronger role in the secular and legal world. A 2015 study by the American Bible Society found that 51% of adult Americans felt that the Bible had too little influence on U.S. society. Also last year, Public Policy Polling found that 32% of respondents “support making Christianity the official religion of the United States.” 23% thought that “Islam should be illegal in the United States.”
According to Patel, secularism can withstand challenges from the faithful: “Secularism was a decision taken by the forefathers of the freedom movement more than six decades back. A section of people are of the opinion that it has only done harm, but the majority still feel that if there is a problem, then it needs correction and [they do] not question the idea of secularism itself. In the modern context, there does seem to be a dilemma of sorts.”
We have also seen members of the highest court in the United States express legal opinions perfectly in keeping with the key principle of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code: it does not matter whether a litigant is right or wrong about any given subject, as long as what they believe to be true is grounded in religious belief. This seems to substantially lower the burden of proof for the religious litigant. In practice, it removes it completely.
In the 2014 Supreme Court case of Sebelius v Hobby Lobby, a brief submitted by a large group of physicians and medical organizations unequivocally stated that “the scientific evidence confirms that the FDA-approved forms of emergency contraception are not abortifacients,” that, by definition, the drugs and devices in question prevent implantation rather than terminate an existing pregnancy. The brief also reminded the court that “First Amendment jurisprudence maintains a distinction between scientific facts which are verifiable, and matters of protected religious belief which are more personal.”
In contradiction to scientific fact, Judge Antonin Scalia accepted the assertion of Hobby Lobby’s Evangelical Christian owners that the pregnancy-preventing measures were abortifacients, and he referred to them as such. The court’s majority opinion begins by stating that “according to [the Hobby Lobby owners’] religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients.” Given that the case was decided in favor of Hobby Lobby, the court gave greater weight to religious beliefs about the categorization of a class of drugs and devices than to verifiable medical facts.
When I mention Singh’s case against Rāma to non-Hindu Americans, they usually react with the same sort of bemusement that they exhibit when I mention the belief in elves of modern Icelanders. “Imagine living somewhere we people still believe in this stuff!” However, in light of American beliefs regarding Biblical literalism and the role of religion in secular society, and given the Supreme Court’s preferential view of religious beliefs on scientific subjects, are we that far from serving court papers to Christ or bringing suits over outraged religious feelings? If an individual declares that God is “using” him to fight homosexuality through baked goods in a nation where 63% of adults have an “absolutely certain” belief in God’s existence, why not charge the deity with incitement in the resulting court case? 38% of Americans claim that God has told them what to do. Maybe it’s time for him to speak in his own defense.