Sita in Cultural Translation

The Use of the Rāmāyana to Educate on Perfect Womanhood by Annie Besant, Marie Musaeus Higgins, and Leelawathy Ramanathan

In: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society
Jessica A. Albrecht Doctoral candidate, Department of Religious Studies and Intercultural Theology Heidelberg Germany

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It is no longer a novelty in Religious Studies that translations play an integral role in questions of (inter-)cultural contact, comparison, and identity. But the question of what translation means, how it relates to interpretation, and the role of text, language, and practice has not been adequately addressed. In recent years, feminist historical research has published some ground-breaking work addressing this very question. This article uses a cross-disciplinary (literature studies, feminist translation studies and religious studies) approach to examine four different Ramayana versions in late colonial Ceylon and India (1900–1930) written by the Theosophists Annie Besant, Marie Musaeus Higgins and Leelawathy Ramanathan for the purpose of girls’ education. The differing portrayals of Sita as the “perfect wife” will be used to highlight the importance of theories of translation for the study of global religious history.


It is no longer a novelty in Religious Studies that translations play an integral role in questions of (inter-)cultural contact, comparison, and identity. But the question of what translation means, how it relates to interpretation, and the role of text, language, and practice has not been adequately addressed. In recent years, feminist historical research has published some ground-breaking work addressing this very question. This article uses a cross-disciplinary (literature studies, feminist translation studies and religious studies) approach to examine four different Ramayana versions in late colonial Ceylon and India (1900–1930) written by the Theosophists Annie Besant, Marie Musaeus Higgins and Leelawathy Ramanathan for the purpose of girls’ education. The differing portrayals of Sita as the “perfect wife” will be used to highlight the importance of theories of translation for the study of global religious history.

1 Introduction

The Rāmāyana is the story of Prince Rama, his wife Sita, his brother Lakshmana, and Hanuman; it is also about the fight between Rama and Ravana, the King of the “City of Lanka.” Throughout South Asia, the Rāmāyana has been translated into various vernacular languages, written as text, or performed as drama. In the last centuries, it has also been translated into English, first by the Indologist Ralph T. H. Griffith and later, as this article will focus on, by female Theosophists, such as Annie Besant, Marie Musaeus Higgins, and Leelawathy Ramanathan. Used as a model for Hindu or Indian identity, it is often said that the Rāmāyana portrays the best characters of a man (Rama), a brother (Lakshmana), a friend and follower (Hanuman) and a wife (Sita) – most commonly seen as the devote, Hindu wife. In the second part of the story, Sita is captured by Ravana who carries her off to the “City of Lanka,” his kingdom, to marry her. Rama then rescues her. The “City of Lanka” has been interpreted as the island Lanka since the fourteenth century in Indian and Sri Lankan texts.1 Today, Tamils and Sinhalese alike view Ravana as the oldest Sri Lankan King, which enables them to write a history of Sri Lanka independent of India.2 However, for Sinhala Buddhists, this is a very recent interpretation, not adopted into popular reception until the twenty-first century. Before, only the Mahāvaṃsa was seen as the historical source of the Sinhalese people, directly related to the Buddhist history of the country.3

In any case, translations of the text tend to directly or indirectly refer to their contemporary moral standards and aim to create a specific identity.4 Notably, gendered roles and expectations are a manifest and integral part of the story. Nevertheless, the image of Sita and the use of that image to create a specific notion of womanhood, has not yet been examined in the case of Sri Lanka. Therefore, this article will look at four English versions / translations of the Rāmāyana written around the same time and, as I will argue in this article, for similar purposes: to create a universal notion of womanhood through the image of Sita. Annie Besant’s Shrî Râma Chandra the Ideal King (1901), Marie Musaeus Higgins’ Stories from the History of Ceylon (1909) and The Ramayana (1924), and T. Leelawathy and Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s The Râmâyana (1930) have been written for the explicit purpose of using the texts for religious and moral guidance in the English language schools founded by them in India and Sri Lanka. Those Theosophists who came from the USA, Europe, and Australia were the first to found Buddhist and Hindu English language girls’ schools in India in Ceylon. They were supported by the Buddhist and Tamil elite who wanted an education for their daughters which did “not make their girls hate or despise their ancestral belief.”5 The most prominent of them in Sri Lanka today is Higgins (1855–1926) who came to Ceylon in 1891 and founded her own school for Buddhist girls, the Musaeus College, in 1894. Besant (1847–1933) was also active in girls’ education. Her influence in India is best known for her presidency of the Indian National Congress in 1917 and her involvement in the Home Rule Movement. Before that, however, she was active in establishing educational institutions for the Hindu youth as part of her efforts to revive Hinduism.6 In 1898, she founded the Central Hindu Boys School in Varanasi,7 followed by the nearby Central Hindu Girls School in 1904. She was in constant contact with her friend Higgins and visited the Musaeus College regularly. Besant is today, wrongly, celebrated as one of the co-founders of Musaeus College at the school. The last version of the Rāmāyana used in this study is the one by Leelawathy (1870–1953) and Ponnambalam Ramanathan (1851–1930). P. Ramanathan is much celebrated in Sri Lanka today by Buddhists and Hindu Tamils for his various efforts in education and creating a national identity. The couple had known each other since the late 1890s, at a time when P. Ramanathan was already thinking about opening a girls’ school modeled on the Musaeus College. It was founded in 1913, and L. Ramanathan managed the school together with her husband. Notably, all three schools still exist today and continue to be prominent schools in their region. Furthermore, the founders, Besant Higgins and Ramanathan, are celebrated within the schools as role models and religious idols and the schools proud themselves within having been founded by them. Most importantly, the Rāmāyana texts are still used as part of the school curricula.

There are various reasons why these texts should be part of a shared analysis of the gendered roles and religious identities that the authors/translators are seeking to establish. For one, those four Theosophists knew each other well and had been in direct contact for decades, also around the time of the publications. Furthermore, they were educated in the West and came to South Asia to strengthen the (religious) education of women there. All three have been beneficiaries of the changes in female education at the end of the nineteenth century and became powerful facilitators of this, now globally emerging, image of the school-educated girlchild.8 As Theosophists, their aim was to revive the traditions and religions of their respective area, Hinduism and Buddhist in India and Ceylon, a “revival” that has been debated in scholarship for decades.9 However, what they needed for this was educational material in their schools which combined local stories and narrations with contemporary norms and educational practices – which is why they produced the texts discussed in this study. All of them published versions of the Rāmāyana as well as other books, deemed culturally significant, such as the Mahabharata (Besant), the Mahavamsa (Higgins) and the Gospel according to Matthew (Ramanathan). However, this article is only concerned with the Rāmāyana and, to be more precise, their version of the character Sita.

As translations in a cultural context structured by colonialism, religious reform, and the contact and exchange between religions, e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, and Theosophy, these versions of the Rāmāyana can, as I argue, be used as an example to look at new approaches for global religious history and comparison, as proposed by Michael Bergunder. Theories of cultural translation, as used by current feminist translation scholars, can help us to explain the formations of cultural and religious imaginaries, meanings, and contacts. I will look at those four books, their contexts, and specificities in relation to their framing. Central is the key scene in which Sita decides to be burnt and saved by her so-called purity. The aim of this article is to use the shared analysis of these texts, which has not been done before, to illustrate key points about the cultural translation of texts, education, and gender at the time and to suggest a way of approaching the task of global religious history and comparative religious studies. For this, I will use contemporary theories of translation from a feminist, poststructuralist, and postcolonial perspective. This article argues that cultural and linguistic translations cannot be separated from one another but are inextricably linked. Moreover, translation always follows an implicit or explicit goal. In this case, it was the establishment of a religious and gendered identity of the pupils of their schools. Their impact on this cannot be understated. Being women from another cultural background trying to establish a tradition and identity for others, questions of legitimacy and authenticity arise. As I will show, the new perspectives opened up by looking at the texts through the lens of translation, allow us to reconsider the claims of authenticity, religious and cultural belonging, and history, as well as the importance of gender within these relationships as crucial aspects of global religious history. Thereby, this article proposes an approach to translation that centers the process of cultural meaning making and the construction of the universal, transcendental authenticity of the so-called original. Viewing the original and the translation in this way challenges and rethinks the possibilities of comparative religious studies.

2 Annie Besant and the “Great Hindu Women”

The Rāmāyana version which was published first is the one by Annie Besant. Interestingly, she envisioned a particular role of Indian womanhood that contrasted with her own political position, which can be considered quite progressive for her time. However, when it comes to Hindu girls, they should become mothers and wives, stay at home, and be devoted Hindus. Still, her efforts to educate girls, at least those of the “upper” castes, was in stark contrast to prevailing gendered expectations.10 For Besant, religious education was as important as any other education, especially for girls. The sources used for a specific gendered religious teaching were stories taken from the Rāmāyana, the Mahābhārata, and the Purāṇas. This was supported by other national leaders and educationalists who praised Besant for establishing a “religious instruction (…) as it should be” because the “two great Indian epics (…) irresistibly carry home to the youthful mind lessons of sublime moral grandeur and moral purity. The episodes of (…) Sita have always been the source of moral inspiration.”11 Besant’s vision for girls’ education was most clearly expressed in a speech given in 1905. In it, she praises the work of the previous year in educating “girls in the lines of pure Hinduism” so that they will be able to follow the “great Hindu women whose names shine as stars in the firmament of Indian literature.”12 Clearly, this refers to figures such as Sita. According to Besant, India can only take her “right place among the nations of the world” when and if the future mothers will be educated to become “noble and splendid women.”13 Besant explicitly refers to an imagined, glorious past, as portrayed in literature such as the Rāmāyana, to argue for female education so that the duty of women to their country and their home can be adequately fulfilled. To become a perfect Hindu woman and receive religious instruction, Besant said, is “vital” for the mind and the heart. The goal was not to teach religious dogmas, but to teach religion through the lives of “Hindu heroines of the past.”14 One such heroine is Sita.

The book Shrî Râma Chandra the Ideal King. Some Lessons from the Râmâyana for the Use of Hindu Students in the Schools of India (1901) is a compilation of notes of lectures given by Besant at the Central Hindu College, as the boy’s school was then called. In her version, Besant specifically refers to passages of an unnamed “original” text. However, it is unclear whether she quotes from a particular English translation of the Rāmāyana or whether she indirectly uses sentences from various sources. According to Besant, the Rāmāyana would be well-known and “wrought into the very life of every Indian” as it is, so she said, told by mothers to their children and by teachers to students: “Every child grows up knowing the heroes of these poems as familiar friends, having been moved to tears and laughter from earliest days by these loved names.”15 However, she remarks, the influence of these stories was not as it used to be, but much needed for lifting India upwards. According to her, the Rāmāyana holds up the ideals of husbands and wives, parents and children by showing the world in its simplest way: good is simply good, evil is simply evil. When Besant tells the story of Sita at the time Ravana is trying to persuade her to marry him, she accompanies the conversation with the following:

Yet her heart was strong, Her courage unbroken. For gentleness does not mean weakness, nor sweetness lack of strength. She was brave as She was tender, loyal as She was loving.16

Clearly, Sita’s character, in particular the “sweetness” and loyalty, shown by her actions, should be a model for Hindu girls. In a similar fashion, Besant tells the story of Sita’s conversation with Rama before she decides to be burnt:

Conscious of stainless purity, of all She had endured for Her husband’s sake, of Her long torment and unswervering (sic!) faithfulness, what shall Sîtâ say? The woman in her weeps for a few moments; then, the hero-soul of Her asserts itself.17

She was a “hero” of “stainless purity” who then entered “with meek but majestic dignity” the flames, so that she “shone as gold.”18 It becomes apparent that Besant’s Sita, even though confirming to many orthodox, conservative, high caste ideals of womanhood at that time, depicts an active (heroic) role rather than a passive spectator of her own destiny. The subverting aspects of this shift will be illustrated in contrast to the Ramanathan’s version below.

3 Marie Musaeus Higgins and Sri Lankan Adaptations

Higgins published two versions of the Rāmāyana, one as part of the Stories from the History of Ceylon in 1909 and the other in 1924 as a play, The Ramayana. Both were written to be used in education, for teaching and to be played out by the students. Stories from the History of Ceylon is still read in the Musaeus College today. Most probably, both books were based on Higgins’ own Pali translations as well as other available translations in Colombo, but Higgins never named a specific source. The framing and language of the two are very different, the first being written specifically for children, the second for a wider audience. For Higgins, the goal of education was clear. Like Besant, she wanted to create a religious and national identity, in this case Buddhist and Sinhalese. For this, literature was crucial:

Our efforts are dedicated not only to educate their children to think rightly and well, but also to train them up as worthy daughters of the Sinhalese Nation. We pay special attention to giving them a thorough knowledge of their own literature and history, and to inculcating a love for all that is beautiful and good in the manners of their Nation.19

The Stories from the History of Ceylon covers more than 300 pages and tells the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Higgins places the Rāmāyana as the “Pre-History” of Lanka, “which does not actually belong to Ceylon History.”20 In accordance with most Buddhists and Theosophists at that time, for Higgins, the history of Ceylon begins with the Mahāvaṃsa. The most striking feature of this book is its introduction. In it, Higgins describes that these were the stories that she used to tell her students who wanted to know more about the history of Ceylon. They call her “mother” or “white mother” throughout the introduction and the book.21 The book is written as if the older students had written down the stories that Higgins had told them, in the colloquial manner of telling bedtime stories.

Interestingly, the story of the Rāmāyana is attributed to Besant’s lectures examined above. As Higgins never travelled to India, it is unlikely that she attended these lectures. Instead, she probably read the book examined above and might have even discussed aspects of it with Besant in personal contact. However, in contrast to Besant, this book is used to educate Ceylonese girls. Therefore, Higgins stresses the relation between the Rāmāyana and the island Lanka, in the story and during their times. In particular, Higgins tells the fictional children in the book that there were several places in Lanka named after Sita, such as Sita-Eliya and Sita-Weva.22 Apparently, Higgins tries to relate the story of the Rāmāyana which she as a friend of Besant’s considers an important literary artifact of India, to religious places on the island Lanka and, therefore, to the lives of her students.

After each story, the girls ask questions or react to what they have just heard. For one of the girls, the Princess Sita is the bravest next to Rama and Lakshmana, as they leave for the jungle: “I am sure she must have been one of the sweetest women that ever lived to be contented in a rough house in the jungle-“23 One girl says that if she would have been captured by Ravana, she “would have made [herself] look so ugly by screaming and screeching, that he would not have wanted [her] at all.”24 When Sita goes into the fire-test to be purified, the girls are very frightened and angry with Rama, but Higgins tells them that Rama was sure of Sita’s purity all along and there was nothing to fear.25

In Higgins’ second take on the text, the play The Ramayana, she had asked her “old co-worker” Annie Besant to write the foreword. Besant, who maintained that “Higgins needs no introduction to a Sinhalese public, as her stories for Buddhist children are so well known in Ceylon” – giving Higgins legitimacy – wishes for this book to inspire the young to “heroism, truth and love.”26 This version is a play taking place in India (Jambūdwīpa) and Ceylon (Lanka). Therefore, Higgins addresses her Indian and Ceylonese readers alike. According to her, the story would illustrate “the ancient Eastern ideals of sacrifice, service, love, filial duty and respect to gurus,”27 and hopefully inspire the youth to act accordingly. Notably, after Sita passes the fire test and Rama explains why he had to let her do it, he refers to her as the “daughter of Lanka,”28 establishing just another link between the story and the island – India and Ceylon whose “cultural and spiritual unity”29 should be strengthened once again.

4 The Ramanathans and the Devote Tamil Hindu Girl

Ponnambalam and Leelawathy Ramanathan’s vision of an ideal womanhood was in stark contrast to that taught by Higgins. They saw woman’s life in the home only.30 With L. Ramanathan, who was his faithful devotee before their marriage in 1906, he had found, as his biographer wrote, a “true friend, an intelligent companion, and an able collaborator” whose “importance […] to his subsequent success and renown” is “impossible to exaggerate” upon.31 After learning Sanskrit and Tamil from him, she translated various works into English, including the Rāmāyana. In addition, she co-published her husband’s notes on the Gospel according to Matthew and John.

In order to establish a common ground on which to talk about religion, P. Ramanathan chose the Bible as the basic text for their discussion.32 Their combination of Christian and Hindu ideas and word usage is evident in the Rāmāyana.33 In contrast to Besant and Higgins, who describe the presumed author Valmiki as a sage, a wise man, and a divine singer, respectively, the Ramanathans call him a “Saint.”34 The conversation between Christianity and Hinduism as well as the one between the Ramanathans are evidences that cultural translations took place. In addition, they mention a presumed original Sanskrit version without referencing it adequately. Strikingly, they do not refer to available vernacular, e.g., Tamil, versions of the text. However, they use the Tamil words for specific teachings and ideas in brackets behind the English terms. Most probably, the reference to the Sanskrit text serves as a legitimisation. However, they knew of and used Tamil versions of the Rāmāyana. Their preference for the (supposedly authentic) Sanskrit version might explain why theirs differs from most Tamil versions, which even then favored Ravana as the great Dravidian king.35

Much like Higgins, P. Ramanathan refers to places in Ceylon which are named after the Rāmāyana. In this case, it is the Râvana Ella (Ravana’s rock) and the Namunakula, a high mountain who name he attributes to the term “Hanuman-kula-parvatham,” the place Hanuman landed after his flight.36 Notably, Higgins and the Ramanathans refer to different sites, highlighting the role they put on the different actors of the story, especially Sita. Throughout the book, Sita plays a minor role and only speaks a handful of sentences. In the scene proving her faithfulness, it is said that she is “overcome with shame,” “sorrowful,” and “weeping” “in silence.”37 She then orders Lakshmana to make the pit of fire and goes into it – without any mention of courage or bravery as it is the case in Besant’s and Higgins’ versions. This is striking, especially when considering that Ramanathans’ Rāmāyana is supposed to

hold up for reverent study our ancient traditions, and to give and opportunity to our boys and girls, wherever English is spoken, to estimate them at their proper worth, and so release themselves from the dreadful consequences of irreligion and vilification of sacred ideals.38

The version of Sita portrayed here bears many parallels to the image of womanhood that P. Ramanathan envisaged for Hindu girls and women in other instances such as articles by her in the school magazine illustrate. In accordance, L. Ramanathan, even though she translated the story and is named the author of the book – making it clearly a joint work – completely attributes the creation of the book to her husband.39

5 Sita in Translation

Since all four texts are written in English, the question might arise as to why we should look at them from the perspective of translation studies. As noted, there are no indications as to which sources Besant, Higgins, or Ramanathan used for their versions. However, the following will not be concerned with linguistic translation in its narrow sense, but with applying theories of cultural translation on the Rāmāyana, especially the image of Sita. I argue that the translation of texts works similarly to that of other cultural meaning, in this case gender and education.

Drawing from feminist translation theory in line with Derridaen and Butlerian thought, (cultural) translation is understood here as a basic tool of communication and understanding. It is the basis for understanding and creating the impression of a fixed meaning. In this way, translation is seen as a form of cultural contact, “a process of cultural transfer carried out by socially situated agents, who are embedded in and contribute to a broader process of locally meaningful resignification.”40 In the process of translation, resignification occurs; this resignification is inherent in all translations, but it can also be a deliberate strategy on the part of the translator, e.g., as a form of political, feminist, or religious practice. As pointed out by scholars of feminist translation, translation is the basis of the transnational flow of knowledge, embedded in global relationships of power, and a tool for positioning oneself within these relationships and even transform them.41

These scholars draw on the writings of Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Spivak, Homi K. Bhabha, and Judith Butler. As Derrida points out, a proper translation is assumed to have a specific meaning represented by signs that are then put into another system of signs representing a similar meaning.42 This, however, poses many problems for transcultural translations. Since language is in a constant process of transformation and only appears to be fixed when spoken or written, this conceptualisation of translation cannot work. The appearance of the stability of meaning is the retroactive effect of the translation itself. Because there is no stable meaning before translation, every translation produces a new meaning and transforms language. As Derrida and Bhabha have maintained, translation is not a process in which two languages or cultures meet and create a third space in which their languages/cultures are translatable. Rather, this third space is the only area available when speaking. The image of the two presumably preceding spaces, two languages/cultures, is established in this third space.43 This idea has been applied to the study of religion by Adrian Hermann, who argues with reference to Lydia Liu’s work, that “religion” is established within its global translation. Translation is the space in which the similarities and differences (of “religions”) are negotiated and, concomitantly, established.44

The theories of Derrida and Bhabha were adapted by Judith Butler who focused on the concept of the universal in cultural translation. For Butler, the universal is a specific meaning that presents itself and is experienced as if stable and universally shared, e.g., “religion” or “womanhood.” However, the universal is constantly negotiated within cultural translations, embedded in hegemonic power structures.45 This concept of cultural translation can be applied to the task of global religious history. As Michael Bergunder has already argued for comparative historical studies of religion, it is crucial to understand the dynamics of power that continue to underlie our definitions of “religion,” among other things, and thus the supposed universality as the tertium comparationis of all comparisons.46 What we understand as “religion,” he maintains, is the result of negotiations between those phenomena that are, now, understood as “religion,” i.e., Buddhism or Hinduism. There would not be “religion” as the presumed universal without that negotiation. Consequently, any comparison between Hinduism and Buddhism is only possible because of the existing historical and contemporary contact between them in their relation to “religion.”

In addition to what Bergunder has argued, I propose to rethink the relationship between the universal and the particular through translation. This means that not only is the universal (the original of translation) established through negotiation (translation), but the presumed previous cultures (languages of the translations) themselves only come into being retroactively through the process of translation.

Instead of looking at cultures as spheres of stable meaning, global religious history should be seen as the perspective that allows to see the third space of translation – where the universal is negotiated. Religion as well as womanhood are terms which are often seen as originating from a specific language and its context – imperial Britain – and being applied to other languages and contexts. But, talking about religion or womanhood, within global and local, English, or vernacular discourses, is doing translation. It is within this translation, that the image of “religion” or “womanhood” as being English is just being established.

As the examples have indicated, the meaning of a text does more than change within translation. Every adaptation aims at establishing a universal, often by concealing the very process of translation and transformation. Here, the image of Sita as Hindu, as wife, as woman, is apparently contested, even though all translations appear to be referring to one universal original that gives them their authenticity. It is not the Rāmāyana as the presumed ahistorical original text that creates gender norms and religious power, but the translations that legitimise themselves through establishing the notion of a universal. Comparing the three versions of the Rāmāyana, then, is not comparing two Hindu and one Buddhist version with each other but looking at the third space of translation that just then creates the religiousness of the text as such.

In Besant’s Rāmāyana, the introduction to the book makes it clear that Sita’s actions should guide the girls at Hindu schools as an example of a religious woman, devoted to her religion, her purity, and her husband. Chandra Lekha Singh maintains that using texts such as the Rāmāyana for teaching was to ideologically control (“upper” caste) female sexuality and to produce women who uphold the norms of patriarchy. Besant, Singh argues, aimed at “making wives and mothers of the Hindu type, representing the unique spirituality of the east.”47 In contrast, I would propose to see Besant’s actions as a political tactic to argue for the cause of female education, political power, and personal development. This would not stand in such a stark contrast to her political activism in England, a paradox pointed out by various scholars.48 Besant’s idea of girls’ education in India goes beyond the limitations she had to argue for to gain political acceptance – as apparent in her Rāmāyana translation: Besant’s reading of Sita reveals the tension of affirming the self-sacrifice of Sita in a conservative, high caste Hindu setting, depicting the devotion of the Hindu wife as the traditional role of womanhood in contrast to her efforts for girls’ education. Besant’s translation between “orthodox” Brahmanical Hinduism and contemporary female empowerment through education establishes a version of Sita as the universal exactly by concealing the process of translation being a transcreation.49 The translation establishes itself as the original, the universal. Describing Sita as an autonomous “heroine”50 rather than the sole submissive, faithful wife of Rama, who is usually described as the hero of the story, is a clear, subversive, shift of womanhood portrayed by Sita.

The impact of teaching on the reading and subsequent re-translation of the story is most evident in Higgins’ first version. It cannot be known to what extend the fictional girls in the story are based on Higgins’ real students. Nevertheless, this does not detract from the fact that the text is a translation made in conversation with Besant’s text and Higgins’ experiences as a teacher in her school. Most likely, Higgins did not make up all the conversations with the fictional girls, but even if she did, future students reading the book would have engaged with the interruptions, or rather translations, of the story. The interjections open up new possibilities to read oneself into the story, portraying different, but no less acceptable, reactions than those by Sita.51 Higgins’ translation is, at least fictionally, a translation that most clearly shows the possible transformations and shifts inherent in any translation. Still, they do not appear as transformations but are part of the fixation of meaning that the text strives for.

Even though Higgins mentions Besant’s version, there is one crucial difference: Higgins aims at placing the Rāmāyana in the context of her students, the history of Lanka and its relation to India. Doing so enables her to detach the story from the context of Hinduism. Without having to explicitly make it Buddhist, the story is now part of the students’ cultural history, because it is linked to the history of Lanka as its ‘Pre-History’. Sita as an ideal woman does not have to be Hindu anymore. Moreover, it is precisely because the Rāmāyana is no longer a Hindu myth, and no longer a Buddhist text with authoritative status, that Higgins’ fictional students are allowed to express criticism.

In contrast, the Ramanathans wrote a version of the Rāmāyana that depicts an entirely different religious, gendered subject. Whereas Besant’s Sita is an independent protagonist, theirs is not, just like L. Ramanathan herself. However, in all instances, the image of Sita is not considered an interpretation but the universal meaning of perfect womanhood. The message is told as if the meaning was (universally) fixed and the framing of the book renders the agency of Leelawathy in the shadow of her husband. As a translation, all versions of the Rāmāyana appear as the universal (the “true translation”) precisely to conceal their own controversiality and to establish the Rāmāyana as one true and authentic story.

6 Conclusion

This article has used four different versions of the Rāmāyana – translations – in order to illuminate the importance of using the theories of translation for the study of global religious history, especially in its relation to gender and colonialism. Drawing particularly on the notion of cultural translation, the examples were chosen to illustrate that the site of the universal is constantly contested as it strives to become the universal or conceal that it is not. The examples used for this study were translations of the Rāmāyana that were produced in order to be used in girls’ schools. They were specifically and explicitly aimed at establishing a distinct meaning of a religious or cultural identity, Hindu or Ceylonese, inextricably linked to gender.

The paper looked at Annie Besant’s Shrî Râma Chandra the Ideal King (1901), Marie Musaeus Higgins’ Stories from the History of Ceylon (1909) and The Ramayana (1924), and Leelawathy and Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s The Râmâyana (1930). It compared them in relation to their contextual framing as educational material as well as relation to each other. Focusing on the key scene in Sita walking into the fire pit, it was possible to examine the image of womanhood in the texts. Their notions of religion, culture and womanhood differ52 and, therefore, allow for an examination of the process of (cultural) translation.

The comparison of the three examples showed that although the texts by Besant and the Ramanathans tried to fix the meaning of Sita as a devout, Hindu wife, the instability of this meaning became apparent when looking at Higgins’ versions. In them, the religious identity of Sita was detached from the story to make it applicable to the Ceylonese, and even Buddhist, context of Higgins’ students. This shows that there is nothing inherent to the Rāmāyana making it a religious or a Hindu text – as Besant and the Ramanathans propose. That translation is the moment of transformation through which an original is produced became most apparent in Higgins’ Stories from the History of Ceylon. The voices of the fictional students highlighted the space created in dialogue, in translation. The character of Sita was opened to transformation in translation because of the reactions by the fictional students. This is an exemplarily illustration of what happens in any translation and what surely happened when “real” students in their schools read the texts, performed them, and talked about them in class.

This opens up new ways of thinking about global religious history, literature, and gender. It enables us to reconsider the claims to authenticity, religious and cultural belonging, and history, as well as the importance of gender within those relations as a crucial part of global religious history. There is no way to decide which version is the most “authentic” one, whether Higgins transformed a “religious” text into one in which religion did not play a role or whether Ramanathans’ Sita symbolizes true womanhood. Instead, what these versions have shown is that the meanings of “Hindu,” “womanhood,” or “culture” are being established in the translation itself. For this, translations do not need an original to function as translations, because by constituting themselves as translations, they create the original as a transcendental referent that does not need to be questioned. This became even more apparent by the lack of references to a specific original text in any of the versions in contrast to the notion of originality of “The Rāmāyana.” This can be applied to global religious history in general, where any link referring to previous meanings is made retroactively in the process – there is no original without a translation.


This paper would not have been possible without the workshop on “Global Religious History” held at the University of Vienna in 2022, organized by Julian Strube. Furthermore, I thank Judith Bachmann, Michael Bergunder and Frank Seiffert for their valuable feedback on earlier versions of this article. Finally, I would like to thank the audience at the seminar series Rāma Stories at the University of Heidelberg, South Asian Studies, for their comments and additions.


Jessica A. Albrecht is a doctoral candidate, research and teaching fellow at the University of Heidelberg, Department of Intercultural Theology and Religious Studies. In her thesis, she examines the history of religious (Buddhist and Christian) girl’s education in Sri Lanka, especially the influence of European women in late colonial times and their contemporary heroization. In addition, her research interests lie in the history of feminism, eugenics, and esotericism. After completing her bachelor’s degree in the study of religion, Jessica Albrecht completed a master’s in Gender History, University of Glasgow, as well as in modern South Asian literature and languages, University of Heidelberg. Jessica Albrecht is the co-founder of En-Gender, an interdisciplinary and international journal and podcast on gender studies and related fields.


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For a summary of the history of the Rāmāyana in Sri Lanka, see: Henry/Padma, Lankapura. Since the fifteenth century, Ravana has occasionally been interpreted as the ancestor of Tamils on the Island. Those interpretations depict him as the tragic victim of the story, solely avenging the rejection of his sister by Rama and her mutilation by Lakshmana without any personal interest by Ravana himself or any beastly or cruel characteristics. Instead, he is seen as a devote follower of Siva, see Henry, Explorations in the Transmission of the Ramayana in Sri Lanka.


Sanmugeswaran/Fedricks/Henry, Reclaiming Ravana in Sri Lanka; Witharana, Ravana’s Sri Lanka.


In contrast, the so-called “Hela theory” was developed and published in Sinhalese newspapers since the 1880s. This placed the Rāmāyana before the Mahāvaṃsa and therefore the Hela people before the King Vijaya coming from India. Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka in the Modern Age, pp. 95–97.


Notably, there have been feminist translations of the story: Shukla, Empowerment of Women in the Ramayana Sita.


Higgins, Sanghamitta Girl’s School, p. 339.


For an account on Besant’s activities around education, see Singh, Making “Ideal” Indian Women.


For an extensive account on the impact of Theosophical thought on the creation and history of the Central Hindu College, see Mühlmatter, Accelerating Human Evolution by Theosophical Initiation.


Burstyn, Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood.


See for instance Besant, Essentials of an Indian Education; Higgins, The Female Educational Work in Ceylon.


Singh, Making “Ideal” Indian Women, pp. 607–11.


Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in: Singh, Making “Ideal” Indian Women, p. 623.


Besant, Essentials of an Indian Education, p. 46.


Besant, Essentials of an Indian Education, p. 46.


Besant, Essentials of an Indian Education, p. 47.


Besant, Shri Rama Chandra the Ideal King, p. 1.


Besant, Shri Rama Chandra the Ideal King, p. 114.


Besant, Shri Rama Chandra the Ideal King, p. 156.


Besant, Shri Rama Chandra the Ideal King, p. 158.


Higgins, Report of The Musaeus Buddhist School for Girls, p. 15.


Higgins, Stories from the History of Ceylon, p. 3.


For a discussion on Higgins’ white motherhood, see: Albrecht, Motherhood, Religion, and Feminism. Colonial Encounters, Intersectional Identities.


Higgins, Stories from the History of Ceylon, p. 47 et seq.


Higgins, Stories from the History of Ceylon, p. 16.


Higgins, Stories from the History of Ceylon, p. 23.


Higgins, Stories from the History of Ceylon, p. 44.


Higgins, The Ramayana, i.


Higgins, The Ramayana, i.


Higgins, The Ramayana, p. 58.


Higgins, The Ramayana, i.


Vythilingam, The Life of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, p. 556.


Vythilingam, The Life of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, p. 504 et seq.


As early as 1898 they had published commentaries on the gospels of Mathew and John.


For instance, they write about the “Son of God,” in direct relation to Rama as the avatar of Vishnu. Ramanathan and Ramanathan, The Ramayana, p. xiii et seq.


Notably, all of them refer to Valmiki as the author of the Rāmāyana. Even though it is the most extensive early literary treatment of the life of Rama, scholarship agrees that it cannot be considered the original source material. Still, for centuries, it was regarded as the most “prestigious” version and is often used for the purpose of legitimization and authorization. Richman, Introduction, p. 5.


Sanmugeswaran/Fedricks/Henry, Reclaiming Ravana in Sri Lanka.


Ramanathan/Ramanathan, The Ramayana, p. xxix.


Ramanathan/Ramanathan, The Ramayana, p. 170.


Ramanathan/Ramanathan, The Ramayana, p. xi.


Ramanathan/Ramanathan, The Ramayana, p. iii.


Bracke et al., Reconsidering Feminism Since 1945 Through Encounter, Translation, and Resignification, p. 4.


Bracke et al., Reconsidering Feminism Since 1945 Through Encounter, Translation, and Resignification, p. 4; Castro/Ergun, Introduction. Re-Envisioning Feminist Translation Studies: Feminisms in Translation, Translations in Feminism; Tissot, Transnational Feminist Solidarities and the Ethics of Translation.


Derrida, Des Tours de Babel, p. 174.


Derrida, Des Tours de Babel, p. 186; Bhabha/Rutherford, The Third Space, p. 210.


Hermann, Unterscheidungen der Religion, pp. 227–31.


Butler, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, pp. 20 and 25.


Bergunder, Comparison in the Maelstrom of Historicity.


Singh, Making “Ideal” Indian Women, p. 623.


Singh, Making “Ideal” Indian Women; Nancy, Bridging Cross-Cultural Feminisms; Mortimer, Annie Besant and India 1913–1917. It must be noted, that Besant’s writings and speeches are much less progressive than those of other, Indian, women at her time.


As Horstmann and Mishra established for the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, one can also look at the translation between media, languages, and times as a transcreation. See: Horstmann/ Mishra, Introduction to Special Issue, p. 2 et seq.


It must be noted, that Besant may describe Sita as a heroine in the introduction to her book, but in the chapter of the fire test, Besant differentiates between the woman and the hero-soul, implying a gendering of the hero-character and that Sita is not a full heroine.


Whether and to what extent this form of dialogue is related to Buddhist monastic and other religious forms of education on the subcontinent, needs further examination.


These differences could and should also be examined in order to analyse the cultural context they were embedded in. However, this exceeds the scope of the article.

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