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Listening to a Different Voice: Gendering Dharma Through Sita of the Ramayana

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Philosophies of Appropriated Religions


Dharma is one of the foundational concepts of Hindu philosophy and religion. Some recent scholars argued that a more nuanced understanding of it could be based on the Itihasas: the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Such an understanding moves away from dharma’s traditional cosmic and formalistic analysis. However, a closer examination of these recent efforts shows that this kind of analysis is more philological rather than philosophical. It returns to a formalistic understanding of the concept, defeating the analysis’s original purpose. In light of this, this paper aims to mend the nuanced understanding of dharma by focusing on the character of Sita in the Ramayana. Through Carol Gilligan’s ethics of care, Sita will be shown to have a different moral voice and a unique way of approaching her moral/dharma dilemmas, contrasting with how Rama approaches his own. This difference can pave the way for understanding dharma as a gendered concept, thus contributing to a more nuanced understanding of dharma.

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  1. 1.

    There is an on-going discussion among scholars regarding the inter-relationship of each Purushartha. The issue is whether only artha, kama, and dharma are Purusharthas; thus called trivarga, or all four remain as the Purusharthas or caturvarga. The motivation for the former is that scholars think that moksha can be achieved even by pursuing either artha, dharma, or kama alone. Thus, we can say that the issue revolves around the reducibility of Purusharthas to one another (Prasad, 1981).

  2. 2.

    Of course, karma is not without critics. Critics often claim that karma is said to be (1) “fatalistic,” (2) “immoral,” (3) “unduly egoistic,” (4) “unrealistic,” and (5) “objectionably naturalistic” (Potter, 2001).

  3. 3.

    Carol Gilligan’s ethics of care has received praise and criticisms from feminists, moral philosophers, and moral psychologists, especially during the intellectual debates in the 1980s and 1990s. Those who praise Gilligan argue that Gilligan is a forerunner of a new moral theory and that her work is a final blow to the masculinist tradition in moral philosophy (Hekman, 1995). On the other hand, critics argue that her work is methodologically confused, and theoretically unsound. Some further claim that it is anti-feminist because it emphasizes women’s traditional difference from men; hence perpetuates women’s inferiority (Hekman, 1995).

    Despite these criticisms, Gilligan’s framework is still useful since it guards against siding with any feminist or anti-feminist philosophy camp, especially concerning the Ramayana. Note that Gilligan did not frame her project as feminist since a feminist philosophy is critical of a bigger philosophical, intellectual tradition. The claim that her work is a feminist one is only a label attached to her work by readers and critics and is never hers. Moreover, her framework has not always been used to analyze literary texts such the Ramayana. As such, her work has insights that can shed light to understanding the idiosyncrasies of women characters, especially their moral dilemmas and personal journeys, which other frameworks might misinterpret or distort in their insistence of some feminist “ideals” or “propagandas.”

  4. 4.

    In philosophy, the existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1950) laments that the brokenness of this world is brought about by separation and detachment of people from each other, which in turn is brought about by a mechanical existence. Healing can only happen when relationships become mended.


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Correspondence to Joseph Martin M. Jose .

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Jose, J.M.M. (2023). Listening to a Different Voice: Gendering Dharma Through Sita of the Ramayana. In: Hongladarom, S., Joaquin, J.J., Hoffman, F.J. (eds) Philosophies of Appropriated Religions. Springer, Singapore.

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