S is for Shabari from the Ramayana

I could have told you the story of Shurpanakha, whose feelings were toyed with and her face mutilated at the behest of Rama, because she desired him. I could tell you the story of Shambuka, the hermit, who belonged to the most marginalized caste of the Hindu way of life, who Rama beheaded because he dared to challenge the social status that society had decided for him by virtue of his birth. He was supposed to be burning corpses and cleaning faeces but he had gone off to the forest to lead a life of prayer and meditation! I could tell you the story of Sita, the wife, who Rama put through the fire test twice, to check her chastity, and who he abandoned pregnant in the forest, without a word of explanation. But I will not do that. For I am trying to see the good in this man, that the family of my birth adores. So I will tell you the story of Shabari. A story that re-establishes my faith in Rama as a human, capable of humanity.

Sita, the wife of Rama is abducted by the ten headed Ravana. The two brothers, Rama and Laxmana search through the forest looking for clues as to where Sita has been taken.

One day, as they wander in the forest, dusty, tired and thirsty, an old Nishaad woman, a forest dweller (lower than the lowest in the caste hierarchy of Hindu society) by the name of Shabari offers them food. Under normal circumstances, this woman would have been allowed nowhere near the food of the princes.

Shabari brings out a basket full of wild berries. But then instead of offering the berries to the brothers, she bites into each of them. Some of the bitten berries she throws and some she offers to the brothers. Laxman, the younger brother, recoils in disgust, but Rama, the hero of the epic, accepts and eats the bitten berries joyously.

Laxman gets angry with Shabari for daring to bite into the berries and then handing them over to the great Rama, who is believed to be an avatar of Vishnu! But Rama stops him and explains, that it is the thought behind her action that is more important then the action itself. Shabari was only trying to ascertain the sweetness of the berries by biting into them. The ones that were the sweetest she offered to the brothers, the rest she threw away.

Later, well fed and rested Rama blesses Shabari, and the brothers continue their search for Sita.

There are many reasons given to explain Rama’s behaviour in the earlier three cases, and they make sense within the framework of the caste system and the position of women according to the law’s of Manu. Our current society still exhibits deep caste and gender inequality, extreme expressions of these are seen in the Khap Panchayats and honour killings that keep appearing in the news.

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