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Carl Jung


Other Jung Socs.


"The Ramayana and the Mother Archetype "


presented by Richard Barz


Canberra Jung Society

8 PM

Friday 5 February, 2016


Some twenty-six centuries ago in northern India a poet named Valmiki took skeins of legends and myths involving the hero Ram, wound them into smooth yarn of narrative in the Sanskrit language and wove them into a single coherent epic tapestry called the Ramayan


By the present day, Valmikiís Ramayan has become the standard version of Ramís epic and it is that version that Iíll draw upon in this discussion. Along with Valmikiís account, alternate oral and written descriptions of Ramís adventures have continued to survive with retellings in a multitude of languages. Over the centuries since Valmiki, various forms of the Ramayan have spread throughout south and southeast Asia and all over that area the Ramayan has been integrated into the core of local and national cultural traditions. In terms of length, these Ramayans can be as short as a set of folk songs sung in an evening or as long as the three substantial volumes that Valmikiís Ramayan fills in English translation.


In the course of its evolution the Ramayan epic has even become holy scripture for hundreds of millions of Hindus. They worship Ram and his wife Sita as the male and female aspects of the supreme being and revere Ramís loyal monkey lieutenant Hanuman as the divine intermediary between the transcendent and the mundane. Mirroring the deification of Ram, Sita and Hanuman, the villain of the Ramayan, Ravan the king of Lanka, and his henchmen have become demons with supernatural attributes. Ravan, for example, is depicted with ten heads. 


Interestingly, in those later Ramayans which are entirely devotional, the enmity of Ravan becomes the devoted centring of his full attention on Ram and his death at Ramís hands brings about his salvation. Single-minded devotion is the important thing. It doesnít matter to the devotee that that singlemindedness is achieved through hatred instead of love.


The power of the Ramayan as sacred text was beautifully illustrated by The Story of Rama, Indian Miniatures from the National Museum, New Delhi exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia between May and August last year.


What is the key to the Ramayanís remarkable success over such a vast region and in so many spheres of life including the spiritual? Carl Jung would have seen at once that the key lies in the Ramayanís roots in myth. By myth he would have meant not the dictionary definition of the word as ďan imaginary or fictitious thing or personĒ but, rather, myth as the expression of real- though unconscious- processes, primordial images of life or Archetypes. When the stories of the Ramayan or any other myths are told these processes come to life and, as he said, the connection between the conscious and the unconscious is re-established in the narrator and in the reader or listener. A myth lives and is true to the extent that it brings to human beings the consciousness of the Archetypes that they need in order to stay in touch with their roots in nature.


Among the Archetypes with which the Ramayan is so wonderfully laden is the Mother Archetype. Because it manifests itself in terms of reproduction and gender identity, the Mother Archetype is especially relevant to our era of wrenching social change in which the degree of distinction between male and female and the very nature of sexuality are matters of constant debate and revision. This ongoing debate and revision is a world-wide phenomenon, present as much in RamayanĖcentred cultures as anywhere else.


In recent years in India feminists and others interested in gender equality have been troubled by the pronounced subordination of the female characters to the male protagonists of the Ramayan. They have seen this as a symptom and perhaps also a cause of the actual inferior position of women in Indian society. In order to rectify this unsatisfactory situation attempts have been made to rewrite the Ramayan in a way more sympathetic to women, thus entering the epic directly into the debate about the place and nature of gender in modern life. One of the least revolutionary but most thoughtful and sensitive of these retellings is Devdutt Pattanaikís Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana (Penguin India, Gurgaon:2013). I would like to acknowledge Pattanaikís gallant, but not entirely successful, effort to relate the Ramayan not as it has always traditionally been told from Ramís point of view but from the standpoint of Sita. Pattanaikís book is one of the inspirations that has led me into this brief examination of how the Mother Archetype is expresssed in the Ramayan and how the interpretation of that expression is shifting under the pressure of social transformation. This is a matter that can have meaning outside the Ramayan community as well as within it.


My examination of the Mother Archetype in the Ramayan focuses on six episodes pivotal to the plot of the epic as they are illustrated by 19th, 20th or 21st century paintings. In each of these episodes the Mother Archetype has a role. Attention is given to the Ramayan as a devotional text, still with reference to the Mother Archetype, in the seventh painting.


Appropriately for this discussion of the Mother Archetype in the Ramayan, the events of the epic are set in motion by Kaikeyi, a woman whose role in the story is above all that of a mother. Kaikeyi is one of the three wives of Dashrath, the legendary king of a state in northern India. Kaikeyi is evidently a woman of valour for she rescues her husband from imminent death on the battlefield. In gratitude Dashrath offers her two favours. Kaikeyi says that sheíll let him know later what favours sheíll choose.


Meanwhile, the king of a neighbouring country, Janak, has discovered an infant girl hidden in a golden urn in a furrow that he was ploughing as a part of a religious rite. He names the baby Sita, which in Sanskrit means ďfurrowĒ. The finding of Sita is the subject of the scene in the lower panel of the first painting, a modern work in Madhubani or Mithila Style. Madhubani paintings are traditionally produced by village women on hand-made paper treated with cow dung in the Indian state of Bihar, though a woman, Vidya Devi, and a man, Dhirendra Jha, are credited with this picture.


In the upper panel Janak is presenting Sita to his wife so that she can be brought up as their daughter. In reality, Sita is the daughter of the earth goddess. When Sita grows up, Janak marries her to Ram, Dashrathís eldest son by another of his wives, and she goes to live with Ram in Dashrathís kingdom.


The story of Sita, daughter of the earth found in a furrow, is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Demeter goddess of the harvest and her daughter Persephone. Jung refers to Persephone as an example of a daughter whose feminine initiative has been paralysed by identification with her mother in one of the mother-complexes associated with the Mother Archetype. In the Ramayan Sitaís relationship with her mother the earth, on the other hand, is unclear and ambiguous.




When Dashrath feels it is time to think of his retirement, he decides to announce that Ram will be the crown prince and his successor. Upon hearing of this, Kaikeyi goes to Dashrath and tells him she is ready to claim the two favours that he had promised her long ago on the battlefield. The first favour is for her own son and Ramís half-brother Bharat to be designated crown prince instead of Ram and the second is for Ram to be exiled to the wilderness for 14 years. Although Dashrath is shattered by these requests, he cannot refuse to grant them as an Indian king who has ignored a promise cannot retain the loyalty of his subjects. Ram goes into the wilderness accompanied only by his wife Sita and his younger half-brother Lakshman.


At first sight, Kaikeyiís actions seem as much intended to control her son as to further his interests, which would fit well with at least one of the mother-complexes discussed by Jung. On more reflection, however, Kaikeyiís maternal concerns appear to be oriented much more toward her own self-interest since, in the circumstances of her life, her security would lie only in her own sonís holding royal power. It could well be disastrous for her if Ram or another of her co-wivesí sons should prove to be an apprehensive tyrant on the throne. 


While camped in the forest, Ram, Lakshman and Sita are seen by a woman named Shurpanakha who is the sister of Ravan, the ruler of Lanka, a kingdom to the south. Shurpanakha, whose name means in Sanskrit ďa woman with finger nails like winnowing traysĒ, is not by nature attractive but she has the power of shape-shifting. On seeing Ram, Shurpanakha is overcome by lust. In order to seduce him she assumes a beautiful body and makes erotic overtures to him. Ram, however, is faithful to Sita and tells Shurpanakha to go to Lakshman who isnít married. When Lakshman also rejects her, Shurpanakha is enraged and decides to murder Sita. In the second picture, an anonymous Hindu religious poster published in Mumbai in 1923, Lakshman has just defended Sita by slicing off Shurpanakhaís nose with his sword, an act that reflects the traditional Indian punishment of adultery by amputation of the nose.


In the picture Ram is coloured blue, which marks him as the supreme being. Sita wears red, the colour which in India symbolises passion and fertility. Sita stands so close to Ram that the two of them seem to blend together, a traditional way of depicting the unity of the supreme being and his feminine power, shakti in Sanskrit. The androgynous, rather immature features of Ram and Lakshman are typical of modern Hindu art and express both the freedom from aging and the mingled masculinity and femininity of divine beings.


Bleeding from her wound, Shurpanakha flees to the court of her brother Ravan and successfully implores him to avenge her injury by abducting Ramís wife. It is, thus, again a woman who incites a man to act in the Ramayan.


The actions of Shurpanakha bring to mind Jungís description of one of the expressions of the Mother Archetype in a mother-complex. In this mother-complex a daughter delights in seducing married men in order to demonstrate her superiority as a woman over her mother. The possibility that Shurpanakha was motivated by similar feelings in competition with her mother Kaikasi is reinforced by the fact that her mother had lured her father away from his wife before her birth.



Ravan must separate Sita from Ram and Lakshman in order to capture her. To accomplish this he has one of his followers who, like Shurpanakha, is a shape-shifter take the form of a golden deer and graze near the place when Ram and his wife and brother are encamped. Sita is thrilled by the deer and insists that Ram go to catch it for her. A short time after Ram has gone, Sita and Lakshman hear the sound of Ramís voice crying for help. Although Lakshman is certain that the voice is some sort of trick, Sita shames him into going into the forest to help Ram. Once again, it is a woman who sets in motion the flow of events in the story.


In the third picture, which is by an unidentified contemporary Hindu artist, Sita is shown asking Ram to get her the pelt of the golden deer. Sita and Ram share the same tranquil pose with left arms extended, reinforcing their identity as two aspects of the one divinity.



While both Ram and Lakshman are absent Ravan comes to the camp, seizes Sita and sets off in his chariot for Lanka.  Before he can go far, he is detected by an elderly vulture named Jatayu who is a friend of Ramís father Dashrath. Trying to rescue Sita, Jatayu manages to wreck Ravanís chariot and kill the mules pulling it and the demon driving it but is mortally wounded by Ravan, as illustrated in this water colour by Kailash Raj (born in 1957).  The picture also shows Ravan with his demonic ten heads flying off toward Lanka with Sita in his clutches. Without Ravanís knowledge, Sita is able to drop a piece of cloth and a jewel which are found by a group of monkeys.


This episode has further parallels with the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone which, as mentioned above, was one of Jungís examples of the expression of the Mother Archetype. Both Persephone and Sita are carried off by male figures, Pluto in the Greek myth and Ravan in the Ramayan, though Persephone is abducted from her mother Demeter while Sita is taken away from her husband.




When Sita resists all of Ravanís blandishments and refuses to marry him, she is told that she will be confined in one of his gardens until she agrees to the marriage. Through the months of her imprisonment Sita steadfastly continues to deny Ravanís desires.


Back at his camp, Ram is distraught at the disappearance of his wife and with Lakshman searches for her fruitlessly. In the course of his searching, Ram meets a monkey named Hanuman and Hanuman assures him that he will find Sita. Some of Hanumanís monkey followers show him the cloth and jewel dropped by Sita and, from that clue, Hanuman is able to trace Sita to Ravanís garden in Lanka. When Hanuman tells him where Sita is located, Ram organises an army which includes, along with Lakshman and Hanuman, troops of monkeys and bears. Ram and his army invade Lanka and Ram kills Ravan and recovers Sita.


Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman all return home where they find that Dashrath has died and Ramís half-brother Bharat, who has refused to be crowned king, is ruling as Ramís regent. The coronation of Ram and Sita is held with great rejoicing and the royal couple start their reign.


After a time Ram begins to brood that his subjects, thinking that Sita had sexual relations with Ravan while she was held in Lanka, will lose their respect for him and rebel against his authority. In order to prove her virtue, Sita undergoes an ordeal by fire and, as portrayed in this early 19th century mural from the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) near the Grand Palace in Bangkok, emerges from the fire unharmed. Fireís testimony to the honour of Sita is decisive as in Hinduism fire purifies human offerings and conveys them to the gods and fire is the witness in every wedding ceremony.


In Thailand, as in the rest of mainland and island southeast Asia, Sita, along with Ram, is exalted but not divine. The Ramayan epic was probably borrowed into early southeast Asian kingdoms from Indian sources as a pattern of ideal kingship and has continued to fill that roll until the present.




Despite having the testimony of fire, Ramís anxiety returns and he orders Lakshman to take Sita into the wilderness and abandon her there. Unbeknown to Ram, Sita is pregnant. In the forest she takes refuge with a hermit named Valmiki and gives birth to twin boys, the sons of Ram. When the boys reach adolescence Valmiki teaches them the epic poem that he has composed about the adventures of their mother Sita and father Ram. This poem is the Ramayan. Valmiki takes the youths to sing the Ramayan before Ram himself and Ram is so moved that he calls for Sita to be restored to him. When Sita returns, however, it becomes apparent that Ram is still suspicious of her. Sita is so disgusted she calls upon her mother the earth to receive her if her honour is unbesmirched. The earth then opens and Sita is swallowed up, as illustrated by this early 19th century miniature painting in the style developed in the Himalayan kingdom of Kangra. The artist has identified Ram, Lakshman, Hanuman and Valmiki with name tags. The two boys clad in identical garments standing behind Sita to her left are not identified, but are no doubt Lav and Kush, the sons of Ram and Sita.


In this episode, like Persephone in the Greek myth, Sita is recovered by her mother from her husband. Unlike Persephone, Sita is reunited permanently with her mother.


This episode brings the main storyline of the Ramayan to a conclusion with Sita reabsorbed into the Mother Archetype just as the story began with a manifestation of that Archetype in the appearance of Sita and in the machinations of Kaikeyi to make her son king.



This ending, however, doesnít suit the Ramayan as a devotional epic. For devotees of Ram and Sita, this last picture, painted by the south Indian artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), presents the enduring sacred image of the divine couple, Hanuman, Lakshman and Ramís two other half-brothers. Varma was a portraitist famous for his use of European artistic techniques to create Hindu religious paintings like this one which were reproduced as inexpensive lithographs popular all over India. Varma was no revolutionary. He portrays Ram and Sita, whom his clientele worshipped as deities, absolutely in accord with traditional Hindu iconography.


Enthroned and under a royal umbrella in the middle of the picture is Ram, identified as the supreme being by his blue colour. On Ramís right with a monkeyís head and a manís body is his loyal retainer Hanuman. To Hanumanís left are two of Ramís half-brothers, Bharat the son of Kaikeyi and Shatrughna, and to their left is Ramís favourite half-brother and constant companion Lakshman. Then, seated in his lap in the position of divine consort, is Ramís faithful wife Sita. In the picture the image of Sita and Ram blends together so that it constitutes the male and female halves of the one supreme being.  As the symbol of her nature as mother of the universe, Sita holds a red lotus in her left hand. The lotus is a particularly apt representation of the source of the universe as it grows out of and floats upon the depths of formless water as the universe emerges from and hovers over unformed chaos.


Outwardly, the Ramayan, whether in the form of a heroic saga or a devotional scripture, looks like an epic tale of a heroís overcoming of the enemy who has captured his wife. The inner workings of the Ramayan, however, reveal an epic account of the power of mother love and the overwhelming potency of women to motivate and determine the behaviour of men. It is this revelation that contemporary agitators for womenís equality in India struggle to make evident in the Ramayan.