Friday, March 12, 2010

Sita as an empowered Indian woman

Rajesh Singh

The other day Rahul Mahajan got married on a reality TV show. His marriage was of course for real, and one wishes him well in life. Some one remarked that the show was a tribute to the new Indian woman who had taken the unconventional path to choosing a life partner. He said that it was the coming of age of the Indian Woman.

As I watched the final scenes of the show, I was reminded of a comment a young woman had made some months ago in connection with the Ramayana. "I do not wish to be a Sita -- meek and submissive. I am the new Indian woman!"

Three 'new Indian women' stood decked in bridal finery, fluttering nervously and waiting to be chosen in the final episode. The 'new Indian women' felt nothing wrong in being commoditised and rejected in front of a live audience of lakhs across the country. As for the mythological Sita to whom our young friend had disparagingly referred, remember that she had chosen her groom on her terms. If this is not women empowerment, what is!

It should be clear to the reader, if he or she were under some illusion, that the character of Sita in the epic was never meant to be submissive in the face of injustice – to her personally and to the female gender. One must realise that she could not have become the icon she is by being a frail figure, forever manipulated and bent by a patriarchal system. And, as events were to prove, her devotion to her husband and willingness to be his partner through thick and thin could not be interpreted as a sign of subordination. Let us look at some of the instances where her dominance is undisputed.

 At her father’s home before marriage, Sita would routinely lift Shiva’s bow with her left hand while mopping the floor. It is the same heavy bow that several strong princes failed to move even an inch from the ground at her svayamvara. Only Ram succeeded and married her. Thus, Sita actually set the ground rule for choosing her groom. Is this a sign of a weak woman?

 When Rama was exiled for 14 years, Sita insisted on accompanying him. Her husband told her categorically that she should not do so as the exile order was only for him, but she overruled him in the presence of a number of people. Does this indicate her ‘meekness’?

 Abducted by Ravana and surrounded by adversaries, she successfully fobbed off his advances and threats made directly and through others. The Lankan king failed to persuade her despite using all means at his disposal. Does this not show her determination and resolve in the face of a grim situation?

 Banished from the kingdom by Ram, a then pregnant Sita later brought up her two children as a single mother, imbibing in them the qualities of valour and fair play. And when they in their boyhood captured her brother-in-law Laxman, she rushed to get him released, keeping aside her grief at having been wronged by his family. Surely, this is a sign of a strong and very mature woman.

 In large parts of north India, the standard greeting is: Jai Siya-Ram. Sita gets preference while Ram is the suffix. Again, most bhajans and kirtans end with the cry: Bol Siyavar Ramchandra ki jai!. Ram's identity is thus as the groom of Sita. Are these not indications of the prominence that Sita has, even in relation with her husband?

 Finally, it was her decision to leave the world as a rebuttal to a demand to prove she had not been ‘defiled’ while away from the kingdom. Given her wrath over the humiliation and determination, it is unlikely that Rama would have been able to persuade her to change her mind even if he had tried. In the end, Sita set and lived by her own terms. It is not easy to find a better example of determined womanhood.

The book, In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology/Edited by Malashri Lal & Namita GokhaleYatra Books/Penguin Books/Rs 399/- provides excellent interpretations of the mythological character. Sita has been in the country’s subconsciousness for centuries largely as the ideal Indian Woman.

What makes the book even more special is the ideological space it provides to writers with different bends of mind. So, if there is Meghnad Desai and Indira Goswami, there is also Tarun Vijay and Karen Gabriel – the latter weaving for the reader an interesting Sita-Draupadi syntax in a gender context.

In Search of Sita is, thus, in many ways a tribute to an ancient icon by modern India.

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