Sita is an integral part of our psyche. At every stage of an Indian woman's life her name is invoked. Certain aspects of a character have been emphasized more than others to suit the political and societal norms of the day. Most have focused on the negative interpretations of Sita, not the positive. Ramayan is rarely understood as Ram Charitramanas, a character study of humans and emotions. In a world where the role of women is still being redefined Sita's character teaches us valuable lessons for the contemporary society.
Some see Sita as a pati vrata, the ideal woman. Some see her as victimized. Yet, others see a more liberated Sita, a cherished wife of Ram. She was outspoken, freely expressed herself, was tempted by the material golden deer, spoke harsh words, repented, loved her husband, was faithful to him, served her family, did not get seduced by the glamour and material objects in Ravana's palace, faced an angry and suspicious husband, tried to appease him, reconciled her marriage, later accepted her separation and raised well balanced children as a single mother.
Sita revealed her greatness wherever she was placed. It was not that the lives of Ramayan characters were so pure, free from human weaknesses and so divinely protective that no complicated situations could arise to upset them. The greatness consisted in their strength that truth, sincerity, self sacrifice and other virtues gave. Sita's greatness was more pronounced, for she portrayed a greater power of endurance that any other character, except possibly Rama. Hers was not the endurance of the stone, with no outside expression for the inner workings. Hers was the special capacity, amidst the wailing and complaints to use her discrimination to face her challenges in a dignified manner.
In Ramayan, almost every great woman, after the initial calamity from outside or from within, did produce the normal human reaction of feeling desperate. But as the first effects subsided, every woman regained her balance, until she reached the highest values of life that humankind can ever manifest under similar circumstances.
It is a great honor to be here, among all the scholars, to share my perspectives on Contemporary influence of Sita. I want to thank Mr. Prasad for giving me the opportunity to be here. I am not a scholar but a lay person trying to understand the epics. My talk is focused from the perspective I am most familiar with - that of immigrant mothers and second generation.
I have come to realize, Sita is such an integral part of the Indian woman's psyche. At every stage of an Indian woman's life her name is invoked. I find it amazing how one great epic written by a poet, thousands of years ago has shaped the thinking of an entire culture. And, how certain aspects of a character have been emphasized more than others to suit the political and societal norms of the day. They have been understood or misunderstood to manage relationships through control and power. Most have focused on the negative interpretations rather than the positive. The power of external conditioning.
Writing this paper has taken me further along in my own quest of understanding Indian womanhood. In many respects I have come back full circle. I was ambivalent towards Sita, then I rejected her and now have come to accept her as a role model and use her in my activism.
Like many others in my generation, growing up, I pretty much ignored the Indian gods and goddesses. I did not see their relevance in modern life. Yet, unconsciously, they were so much a part of me. When I became an immigrant mother I realized I needed a cultural connection with my daughter. I also realized as a minority it was important for her to know her heritage and be proud of it. My search for Truth and my identity as an Indian woman led me to the Vedas and now the Puranas. It helped me understand some of the historical context in which many of these stories were written. I see them as important steps in the various stages of human development.
The world is at America's doorstep as never before. Yes! Sita is in the United States. She has raised a generation of Indian Americans. A new generation of Sita is emerging. One wonders how do the characters of Ramayan come into play in an Indian-American arena. Do we understand Ramayan as Ram Charitramanas, a character study of humans and emotions? Is Sita a relevant role model today? and was she ever a relevant role model? In a world where the role of women is still being redefined what does Sita's character teach us? I have often wondered what the impact of Ramayan would have been if we had not canonized these characters and focused primarily on the Sita agni parikshay. What, if we had understood them as the flesh and blood characters that Valmiki was attempting to bring to life in his great poem!
For many immigrant women, the name, Sita, conjures up an image of a chaste pati vrata woman, the ideal woman. Some see her as victimized and oppressed who obeyed her husband's commands, followed him, remained faithful to him, served her in-laws or yielded to parental authority, generally did her duty whether she wanted to or not. Yet, there are others who see a more liberated Sita, a cherished wife of Ram. She was outspoken, had the freedom to express herself, said what she wanted to in order to get her way, fell for the temptation of the golden deer, spoke harsh words, repented for it, loved her husband, was faithful to him, served her family, did not get seduced by the glamour and material objects in Ravana's palace, faced an angry and suspicious husband, tried to appease him, reconciled her marriage, later accepted her separation, raised well balanced children as a single mother and then moved on.
When we study Ramayan closely we see, Sita revealed her greatness wherever she was placed. When we call these characters great, what exactly do we mean? Do we mean that their lives were pure, so free from human weaknesses and so richly endowed with subtle protective forces that no complicated situations could arise to upset them. Far from it. The greatness of most of them consisted rather in their strength that truth, sincerity, self sacrifice and other virtues gave. If the test of greatness is the capacity to remain true to one's principles in spite of terrors and temptations, Sita's greatness was undoubtedly more pronounced; for she portrayed a greater power of endurance that any other character, except possibly Rama. It is not that Sita did not cry or complain, Hers was not the endurance of the stone or the wall, with no outside expression for the inner workings. Hers was the special capacity, amidst the wailing and complaints to use her discrimination and to face her challenges in a dignified manner.
In Ramayan, I saw, that in the case of almost every great woman, the initial stroke of calamity from outside or the surging up of greed from within, did as a matter of fact produce the normal human reaction of feeling desperate or of being tried. But as the first effects subsided, every woman regained her balance, very slowly in some cases, but steadily, until at last she reached the highest values of life that mankind or womankind can ever manifest under similar circumstances.
Analysis of Ramayan
Valmiki opened his conversation with Sage Narada by expressing his eagerness to know who among his contemporaries was considered the embodiment of all virtues. The list of qualities was exhaustive, including valor, truthfulness, self control, firm adherence to vows and a desire to secure the welfare of all creatures. In reply Narada gave him an account of Rama. So Valmiki with his yogic powers saw the life of Rama, Lakshman, Sita and others unfold before him.
Throughout the story Valmiki himself represents Rama as an avatar and everyone else subordinate. Many argue, if indeed God took shape among us, as one of us, he did so for the purpose of giving us instructions how to live, how to prepare our role in our life. I think, the epic is to be read with a view to benefit ourselves by its. It is only an ideal. In retelling the story as an Indian Americans I hope to show that the main characters played their part like human beings in circumstances that assail and confront human beings at every turn. And, from an advaitic point of view, are we all not avatars trying to realize our true nature?
In reading Ramayan closely, I realized Ram was not a man in whom there was all knowledge, all propriety, all virtue from the very beginning unfailing till the very end. We see him as a man who struggled, who was tempted, who had his weaknesses. His greatness was in overcoming and surpassing the weaknesses. He suffered and had human emotions like all. Ram's character portrayed the passion for righteousness, the passion for high honor and the passion for dharma.
The players had their moods. When Ram found he was not to be king, he returned to his quarters, the poet says, "controlling his unhappiness within his heart" which means there was unhappiness. He had merely conquered it. He was no Godhead. Sita saw his inner struggle, his human side.
When the poet describes the love of Ram and Sita he uses highly poetical and suggestive language. He says, "they read each other's thoughts readily; in fact these told each other what they wanted. The tongue and the lips did not play any part nor perhaps did the eyes; heart spoke to heart. Hridaya and hridaya commingled. The desire of each other was known to the other. It is difficult to say who loved whom the more".
Sita was outspoken and got her way with both Ram and Lakshman. Ram was persuaded to take her to the forest only when she said "What did my father think of you when he accepted you as his son-in-law? You are not enough of a man. You appear to be a man outside, but you are really a woman inside. Do you like an ordinary actor hand me over to another? I have not ever thought of a second person. I must accompany you.' So Ram relented and said, "I do not long even for heaven if gained through your affliction. I did not know your full intention till now".
In their marriage, Sita was not oppressed. And, there was no sphere of life in which Sita did not give council. For example, (a) Once, Sita warned him to not fight the rakshsas unprovoked. (b) When she set her heart on the deer, Ram went to get it to please her even though Lakshman warned him not to. (c) She forced Lakshman to go and help Ram who she thought was hurt. We see Sita was also aware of her beauty. Can we be so bold enough to say her sexuality? Sita implied Lakshman may have wrong intentions towards her, hence, did not want to follow Rama. She left Lakshman no choice but to go. She even threatened to kill herself. She later repented at her angry words and gave a true and glowing picture of Lakshman to Hanuman in the gardens of Lanka. Well, Sita knew what to say to get her way.
Ram was a disciplinarian. The very soul of obedience. He told Lakshman to not leave Sita alone. Lakshman was caught between disobeying his brother or seeing Sita kill herself. He chose the former. Ram passed a solemn censure. A woman is soft. She loves me so much, she will do anything to get her way. I am her very life. But you ought not to have come away. You should have stayed and protected her. For Ram duty was above all. The poet put all three in a desperate situation where they all reach the limits of their endurance.
Sita followed traditions. Ravana came to Sita in the guise of a mendicant. She was doing her duty in serving him. She was an intelligent woman. When Ravana kidnapped her, she had the presence of mind to throw her jewels to the monkeys. She repeatedly warned Ravana of his danger. She knew her husband as a kshatriya would avenge this act.
Ram was grief stricken without Sita. The poet describes in great detail Ram's anguish, thereby, demonstrating the depth of his feelings.
Ram's character had common qualities of human nature. The most striking proof is at the end of yuddha kanda where just after the battle, Sita is summoned to his presence. Then he gave expression to sentiments that shocked everyone. Sita did not come back to the warm bosom of a loving husband from whom she has been separated for a long time, but to an angry man who berated her. He knew she was untouched but he saw her surrounded by temptations. Afterall, Ravana's harem was full of women he had taken. At that time Ravan also had considerable wealth and knew how to seduce women. Ravan, himself, was portrayed as a strong character. So Ram swayed between the positive and negative feelings. And, no one murmured a word of protest. Perhaps no one approved. Yet, to his enemies, Ram had said no man shall seek my protection in vain. When it came to his beautiful wife who was coveted by others, Ram certainly was suspicious. He allowed sinister thoughts and then later repented. It is interesting to note: Ram freed Ahalya from her curse for adultery, yet, he was so harsh with his wife.
Many immigrant men and women see this as an example of rift in a marriage. Here was a man for whom his honor and keeping his word was everything. Maybe he felt betrayed. He had given up everything for his honor, to keep his word but his own wife, an extension of him, was not able to keep her word. Maybe he was jealous of Ravan and wondered if Sita could have had second thoughts about Ram. A fragile ego, when it came to his beautiful wife? And, once she was free from captivity, his anger and jealousy came out! Sita went through the agni parikshay. Yet, Ram was trying to do the right thing. Ram and Sita did reconcile and returned to Ayodhya for the coronation.
When Lakshman left her in the forest he added that "do not consider yourself guilty in any way. Ram has commanded me to leave you near the hermitage of Valmiki on the pretext of satisfying your desire in your present condition. When Sita asked him to look at her pregnant state, he said he would not look at her. He said Ram was suspicious of you once and could be suspicious again. Sita accepted the separation - the non-legal divorce. She faced the challenge of bringing up the children. And, she brought them up in a balanced manner. Reading Ramayan I came away feeling Sita did not see herself as a victim. If she had she would have gone back to face him and demanded her equal rights. She was not a docile character, she was unhappy and for her it was the loss of a husband who had loved and cherished her once, and possibly, still did. She rose above the situation. Ram, himself, was in a difficult situation. In some ways, whatever he did would not have pleased someone or the other. His duty was to his kingdom or his wife? Had he left with Sita he would have been branded "Bibi ka gulam". Sita was at peace with herself, Ram was not.
Some sages believe there was an advaitic message. If Valmiki, an ascetic devoted to tapas (austerity) and swadhyaya (study of the vedas) created this epic to help mankind understand human characteristics he must have used the vedic philosophy as the basis.
Indian mythology is full of symbolism. One view is that, Sita portrayed as an Ideal Woman reflects how Jiva should pursue its Spiritual Path to realize the Supreme Truth - the Godhead. Ram means, the One who revels in all beings and things, the Atman, the Self of all. Ram is wedded to Sita, the Mind. Ram is born in the bosom where there is Self control and no conflict (Ayodhya). When Ram, the Self, is wedded to Sita, the Mind, there is expression of life and its activities. We do not know from where Sita (mind) appears. From Mother Earth Sita came and into Mother Earth she disappeared. From where the mind came and where it disappears in Samadhi, nobody can say. As long as Sita, the Mind, remains in perfect attunement with Ram, the Self (the higher nature) there is only joy and happiness whether in Ayodhya or in the forest in exile.
The moment Sita desires the Golden deer, the Mind identifying with the lower nature, becomes extrovert and desires the sense objects. The fall of the individual starts. Sita forgets the might of Ram and forces Lakshman (tapas) to go to Ram's help. Sita becomes an easy victim of Dasamukha Ravana (the ten sense organs) and is carried away to Lanka, the Material World, away from the Land of Dharma and Spirituality.
Sita is penitent, regrets her action and prays with single pointed devotion to be saved. Ram (Self) destroys Vali (Lust) and organizes monkeys (thoughts) to cross the ocean and reach Lanka. The ocean to be breached is the delusory attachments and fascinations in a deluded Mind. The forces (Rakshasas) that fight against Ram are the negative tendencies.
So when Sita (Mind) is turned towards Ram (the Self), continuously and constantly such a mind is no mind at all. Ram the man of perfection allows the Mind to remain in him but is not affected by it.
Finally, when the inner personality is purified and rehabilitated and the Mind disappears to become One with the Self. Ram, thereafter, the Man of Realization rules over the Kingdom of Life. Sita, the mind, was banished, but having lived with her for sometime something must emerge. It did in the form of Luva and Kush perfected Masters of Wisdom emerge in the form of Books singing the Glory of the Lord.
So how does the story of Ramayan play out with here in America?
America, levels the hierarchical structures of all new entrants into the society. The immigrants create a new reality, a new conditioning with some aspects of the past and some of the new. Compared to their counterparts in India, immigrant mothers face not only parenting issues but also the sense of "Indian-ness" they impart to their progeny. Their conditioning is distinctively flavored by their own family cultural dynamics as well as the external cultural environment. In this context one sees how much of a stronghold the characters of Ramayan have on the Indian psyche. Indian immigrants have turned to religion and spirituality in a big way, perhaps more than their peers in India. Maybe because they need something to hold on to in a different land. Additionally, the aging population is turning within.
Conflict occurs not only between a parent and a child, but within the parent who is trying to figure out the best way of dealing with the "Indian-ness". Often, parents themselves do not know what norms to apply to the children. In America, they ask themselves, how much exposure to "Indian beliefs and values" should a child have? How much is enough? What values are we passing on? What society are we bringing up our children to deal with? Each family goes through its own search for the desired balance where the unit can function within its internal and external environment.
I too went through the process. I exposed my daughter to as much Indian-ness as I knew. Dance, music, history, fundamentals of language whatever information I could get my hands on. I wrote a Ramayan skit and, of course, caste her as Sita. At that time we did not have established Indian cultural centers. So we developed them as we went along. We also gave them exposure to ballet, piano, skiing, soccer and so on. I was able to expose her to culture for a while. When my daughter reached ninth grade, she turned to me and said her life was not India and Indian dancing. She was an American. So I have had to step back. A few years ago, Madras Doordarshan asked me why do so many NRI's teach their children Bharat Natyam? I answered because it is not only their way of exposing them to their ancestral heritage and culture, but also of helping them develop a sense of identity.
The immigrant parents are perceived to be a product of a society which calls for harmony of the entire community, not necessarily at the individual level. Ram sent Sita away sacrificing their personal happiness to do his duty as a king. So, many parents try to teach their children to adjust and adapt and accept what life brings because it is dharma. But the rules have changed and we need to adapt to suit our contemporary environment.
With the adult population of second generation, I see another internalized myth. Here, the notion of purity and chastity abounds at different levels. More Indian immigrant parents, here than in India, are afraid of the "immoral" American environment. Not having grown up here they do not know the system. They learn as the child grows. Their view of America is largely shaped through the television tube: drugs, alcohol, smoking, teenage pregnancy, pre-marital sex, poor grades in school, divorce, old-age retirement homes, et al. All the horrors of an "immoral" Western society!
In my opinion, the normal intergenerational tension is heightened by cross cultural issues. All problems become cultural. Whatever deviation from the "parental expectation" an Indian American person displays is automatically seen as cultural, that they are some how betraying their ethnicity, therefore, the parental identity and a sense of their own self. The negative stereotypes of the Sita message, that of a sugjugated woman, are often very internalized. Yet, many mothers want their daughters to have more freedom, something that they may not have had. And, if there is no societal change, daughters may find they become more like their mothers.
As I researched, I found quite a few second generation know about religion and the popular version of the Sita. First of all, Diwali is celebrated every year. And, in New York in a grand style at the South Street Seaport. The story of Ramayan is retold and seeps into the Indian American psyche. Misperceptions of the Sita message are internalized. This sometimes creates internal conflict with their image of womanhood. The popular message among both young South Asian men and women is that a wife must be pure like Sita. This places a woman in a double bind. If she does not date she will not be able to choose someone of her liking. If she dates or has sex with too many men she is dubbed a "loose" woman. The general perception is that men know they have the option to have an arranged marriage with a "pure" idealized woman from India. South Asian women know they cannot opt for what they perceive to be a freedom curtailed arranged marriage. In reality this expression of purity and chastity appears at odds with the surrounding culture. I say appears because I have come to realize that most American parents want similar protection for their children. The difference is that their threshold of acceptance differs from the Indian Americans'.
I want to also point out that in the eyes of the Indians an Indian American is seen to be some how sexually more freer. Many Indian men in India see the Indian American girls as less pure and chaste. These girls have been contaminated by the West.
Another message that the Second Generation men and women have inherited is the traditional version of Sita to obey the husband regardless. And, many younger South Asian women, the second generation, have seen transnational arranged marriages not work out. The culture around allows more of platonic physical contact than the traditional. A Namaste from afar is the normal Indian greeting. If a younger Indian American woman married to an Indian man hugs a male friend and kisses someone on the cheek, a traditionalist could consider her promiscuous. So the second generation women face a number of different beliefs: parents who want them to retain their culture - whatever that means, the overall culture around them which propels them to date and find their own mate and some Indian American men who don't want a "loose" woman.
The average adult second generation is in his or her twenties and thirties. There is enough of a mass now for like minded people to come together and explore issues. In the typical American way, they are forming their own support group. Recently a large group of South Asian men and women met to start a gender dialogue and understand the myths and realities of the stereotypes they hold of each other. I'll share a few quotes, "Women have moved ahead without our permission". "Women have moved ahead and we are not ready to handle their expectations." "Men think women should act one way and women want to reject it". "My parents don't understand dating".
And, there is a cross section of immigrant women and their daughters who see Sita as a cherished wife of Ram. In such a relationship a woman or a man is willing to sacrifice for each other. They recognize life has its cycles. Everything changes. They do not feel the need to rebel. They have the freedom to express themselves, so rebellion is muted. There is more of a balance of power. And when hardships come, like Sita, they want the strength to face them honorably.
So Sita is an integral part of immigrant Indian and Indian American womanhood. We either accept her or reject her. We can't ignore her. Ram and Sita, like most human beings, were portrayed as complex characters. Maybe, instead of demonizing Ram, we can humanize his weaknesses. I hope we can move beyond the negative stereotyping and see Sita as a woman who dealt with all challenging situations with dignity and grace.
1. Ramayana, Kamala Subramaniam, Bharat Vidya Mandir
2. Lectures On The Ramayana, The Rt. Hon. V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, Viswanathan
3. Sri Rama Jaya Rama - Jaya Jaya Rama, 1996 Yagna Souvenir, Chinmaya Mission, Madras
4. Sri Rama Gita, Swami Chinmayananda, Chinmaya Mission