Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sita- deifying meekness and passivity

I was trying to help my thirteen year old daughter with her Hindi lesson-a play called "Raj Rani Sita". The entire play is about how Ravan the king of the island of Lanka tries to convince Sita to accept him as her husband. Set in the Ashok Vaatika ( the Ashok Garden) in the golden kingdom of Lanka the play is all about how Sita rebuffs his advances stating that he is no match for her husband and is ready to be killed rather than accept the demon king as her husband.

For the uninitiated, this scene is from the great Indian epic of Ramayan which is about Ram the prince of Ayodhya who is banished to the forest by their father to keep a promise made to one of his wives. Sita, the wife and Lakshman the younger brother follow Ram into the forest. While in the forest Shurpankha the sister of the demon king Raavan falls in love with Ram and tries to entice him. Ram defers her attentions to his younger brother who in a rage cuts off her nose. There are series of events during which the brothers run after a magical golden deer and during their abasence the demon king comes dressed as an ascetic begging for alms and Sita steps out of a the protective circle drawn by her brother in law Lakshman and in the process gets kidnapped by Ravan. Ravan is so charmed by Sita's beauty that what probably began as a revenge on his sister's insult now becomes an obssesive passion .

One of the  things that  I always wondered was what was Sita doing while Shurpanakha was trying to entice her husband? Was she just sitting there smiling and stringing flowers? Why did she not tell her - one woman to another to "lay off"? It would have probably been quite easy to do that. It would have ensured that the woman did not get insulted by her brother-in-law Lakshman.

The word "Lakshman Rekha" or ( Lakshman's circle) is often used as a euphemism to describe the controls on women's mobility. It is by stepping outside the circle that Sita got kidnapped..! So the message for all women is quite clear - dont go outside the boundaries defined by your traditional roles!

Going back to Ramayan, my daugther and I were wondering why Sita did not try to escape. Yes, she was heavily guarded but then she could have used some way to trick the demon king..! Infact even when Ram's emissary Hanuman offers to carry her on his shoulders and fly off across the sea to Rameshwarm where her husband was she refuses the offer. I guess all this  would have messed with the plot that was essentially about celebrating a man's valour- Ram's! The relgious texts interpret it differently -  the objective of Ram's birth as an avaatar of Vishnu on earth was to vanquish Ravan. But none of this explains the inconsistencies with regard to his very human like behaviour which I will explain in the coming paragraph.

Well, there is a war in which Ram emerges victorious . But instead of getting ready to release his wife and getting back to Ayodhya, he suddenly seems to develop doubts about Sita's chastity. So the poor woman has to attempt burning herself to prove her purity- an "innovative" practice that was later institutialized with a few modifications in the form of sati in Indian society! The man again ( Ram) later seems to be more concerned about what people think about his having accepted a woman who has lived away from him for a couple of years in the kingdom of a man who was trying to convince her to marry him. So what does he do? He banishes his pregnant wife into the forest..! Towards the end of the epic the poor woman probably had enough of all of this and asks the earth to swallow her up..!

Yet, Sita is the idol that most Indian women are groomed to aspire towards - the word "Pativrata" or devoted to one's husband is a very peculiar terminology in most Indian languages! An ideal wife is supposed to be like Sita, bearing all the injustices heaped on her by her husband. I am actually a little surprised that the Council for Indian School certitifacte examinations should select a play like this for children to read... There are a lot of contemprary works in Hindi that are about more assertive women than Sita. There are also stronger women than Sita in our mythology and history.. yet nobody has achieved her kind of distinction and fame.

I think this is a celebration of patriarchy... a tradtion that deifies meekness in women. The daughter of mother earth- one could have epected a more realistic potrayal of the princess of Mithila- a woman of the Kshatriya clan who in all probablility would have also been trained in war fare. A woman who would have not been contained inside a circle that restricted her movements. A woman who could and would have hunted for deer as well as her husband and her borther-in-law!

But I guess mythology and history is all about interpretations and in a society as patriarchal as ours the passivity of women is a virtue that is very priced! It helps to maintain status quo with regard to the power equations..!

The sad thing is that we continue to deify her qualities even in this age and times!

12 comments:

Emmy said...

hiii.... I really like this... the way you explained everything it was so clear and precise.. u sually when I read blogs about hinduism i am so confused but with your the story captured my interest from beginning to end and left me wanting more of your writings!

Libby said...

hi, meerasrajan!!
i'm libby, & here indirectly from doris the social workers blog, then to 'doc's' blog, then here!! i love to read about how people's lives are so different around the world...i'm never prejudiced...just nosey, i guess... ;-) this was a really interesting story! & this proves why i'm all over all the blogs...if i wasnt, it would be easy to think all stories begin & end in america...

KParthasarathi said...

The post abounds with ex-cathedra statements,pious assumptions,a host of non-sequiturs that it is difficult for one to share your views on the matter. You have failed to make a distinction between the different value systems in the two yugas.
While I agree with you that religion and its rules as made in a patriarchal society need to be intreprted anew by women,it serves no point in belittling the epics written long back or making fun of characters therein.The teachers who teach in the class the drama should hadle the subject suitably instead of making epics out of bounds for school syllabus.

meerasrajan said...

Emmy and Libby thanks so much for visiting my blog- yes I also do that - traveling into blogs that are not part of my culture- that way we get to understand how others think, feel and express themselves.You know what I like best about blogs- they are like an undiscovered world with so many travellers- a voyage of discovery that I embark in whenever I get the time...

Meera

dr.antony said...

Raavan was not such a bad person after all.The way I had heard during my childhood,he was always shown as a treacherous giant who steals someone else's wife.But in modern times,he would have been an example.Having taken a woman whom he cherished so badly,he didn't even try to touch her,and set her free in his garden.
Isn't he better than any of the modern saints?

meerasrajan said...

At the outset, thanks for visiting my blog Dr. Antony- Raavan has his points- I always believe that what one culture considers a villian may be a hero to another culture-it all depends on which side of the fence we are on. But then my problem is with the portrayal of Sita and the acceptance and deification of such a portrayal- the points hold true for her too- when the pen is wielded by a man - he would like to portray a woman as men would like women to be ( at least in those days) - just as Ravan is portrayed as a villian by the Aryan writers Valmiki and Tulsidas- he was a Dravidian king of immense power!

rama said...

Very interesting, I also always question the epics.
But i have realised that these are just man made stories to influence people to think and act in certain ways. Foe all we know Ram and Sita could have been totally different from what they have been depicted as.
For all the weird actions of all the mythological people there would be some explanation, to brain wash us into thinking everything is fair and correct.
I also like you, hop from blog to blog, and enjoy reading blogs of different people.

Deepa said...

@Partha: I think you have missed the point of this post. Are value systems really so different now as they were then? Arent the SAME things expected from women now as they were then? Chaste? Docile? Pati Vrata? The epics have a powerful hold on the Indian psyche. People are still influenced by them. So I see no reason why they should not be interpreted or used to promote justice and equality. Even if it is by highlighting the unjust and discriminatory aspects in them!

Meera: I read an article which said that we should look at some of the positive sides of Sita (in a non-pativrata way). Ram and Sita lived 13 years in the forest. (She was abducted in the last year I think). One would assume that they shared conjugal bliss on a fairly regular basis. And yet, she wasn't popping out babies. So the argument is that she must have been able to assert her reproductive rights to some extent. What say?

Deguide said...

My take is Ramayana is a novel written by Valmiki who was a dacoit and sought idealism in RAM, but suspicion nature created the doubt. So let us keep novel in the realm of novel and not carried away by its ethos.

indianhomemaker said...

I think Sita's rejection of Rama when he decided to ask her to come back to Ayodhya should be used as a role model for women of India. She did not buy his not marrying a second time (and thankfully that is seen as positive thing all over India) as a proof that he cared. The injustice and humiliation of being abandoned when she probably needed him the most - in her pregnancy couldn't be done away with by recalling her when he happen to changed his mind.

And even today people of Mithila (Sita's hometown) have wedding songs where the daughter asks her father to find her a husband from any direction but from the direction where the city of Ayodhya lies.

Also they only have Sita temples, no Ram temples!

Apart from this it's Shiva, not Rama who is seen as ideal husband by Hindu women. (Women fast on Mondays for a husband like Shiva). A son like Ram or Sravan Kumar- obedient and unquestioning might be an ideal son in our patriarchal joint family set up, but he is not any Hindu woman's idea of a good husband.

Raghav said...

Hey, you speak about the meekness of the Sita but you fail to define & even recognize the meekness of Lakshmana when he is harshly abused by his sister-in-law, Sita (ie. his brother Rama's wife) for no rhyme or reason.
He too left his mother, wife and the comforts of the palace to serve Rama and his wife. He spent each & every moment in the jungle to serve Rama and his wife, Sita. I don't want to narrate the entire incident here because I believe that readers here have some knowledge about it.
It's the event prior to the abduction of Sita by demon king Ravana when Lakshmana was standing to dutifully protect his sister-in-law, Sita while Rama, his brother/ Sita's husband was away looking for the mythical golden deer that Sita had asked him to capture.
It's then that both of them heard Rama's cry which Lakshmana' instantly understood was a work of a demon/beast who was simply mimicing Rama's cry to fool them.
Sita asked Lakshmana to go after him but Lakshmana replied that he is here to protect her and this is surely a work of a mythical beast since Rama, his brother is brave invincible warrior.

This is when Sita's true nature is revealed. Seething in anger with bloodshot eyes, she continously abused Lakshmana and even cast aspersions on his nature and character.
She questioned Lakshmana's brotherly love by saying that he secretly wanted his elder brother, Rama to die in the forests just like Bharat (you can google him to know more about him) who snatched away the kingdom. She further accused him of casting his lustful gaze on since he wanted to take Sita to be his wife even when he never had any such intentions.
His soul was as pure and innocent as it can be.

Can you believe it? Sita cast such strong aspersions on Lakshana's character who always considered her to be his sister.
Such a false claim and the innocent Lakshmana forgave her, he exercised great restraint while she was abusing him in the harshest terms and even stood with his palms folded during the entire episode.

Lakshmana comes across as an example of supreme surrender in this story and sadly, this entire incident is neglected or ignored on purpose since it would tarnish the image of Sita, the heroine of Ramayana.

Let's understand that even in this so-called patriarchal set-up, women can yield such power over men something that often goes unrecognized.
(nothing wrong with it but it's certainly wrong when it used for purposes of destruction of innocent souls)

Shravan Kumar was an obedient son (& that's great) and a bachelor even at the time of his death. There is NOTHING in Ramayana to suggest that he could/would have mistreated his wife if he got married.

On I think a woman would love to have Shravan Kumar as her husband for he was an extremely kind man who forgave his own killer, Dashratha unless she desires a cruel and heartless man to be her companion.

How many people can display such acts of exemplary kindness, generosity & forgiveness so as to excuse one's own slayer/tormentor.

And, how can even relate that a loving sone who respects his parents to an disrespectful or an unconcerned husband?
I don't see any connection between the two (nor should you) and love & respect of a guy for his parents is seen as as inconvenience to his wife, then we certainly need to examine our ideologies for there is no place for jealousy in our world.

Are you saying that men who disrespect or whose love for parents is not intense (read: unkind) make up for concerned husbands?

If so, happy hunting!










Nishtha adalja said...

this blog was really helpful ! im glad that people like you exsist in the world.it happens to simplyfy things to a great degree!

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