Anyone who grew up during the 80's in India, during the era of doordarshan (i.e pre cable tv era) , has definitely seen the epics of Hindu mythology, which were made into television shows on doordarshan, i.e the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Both were hugely popular shows, causing deserted streets, during the air times, because of their popularity. These epics have a very big significance in the Hindu religion, why I am not exactly sure, but I've been told that they are important. Recently I happened to come across a narration of the Ramayana, through a different angle, i.e from sita's angle. It is an animated satirical documentary film, by Nina Paley called sita sings the blues (warning : it is mature subject matter) . It explains the story of ramayana through the eyes of sita, while also having a parellel narrative of an American couple and their split, eventually relating the story of sita to the modern woman. It got me thinking about the story of Ramayana, and in turn about most of hindu mythology and it's treatment of women, from an angle I hadn't given much thought to before.
For the uninitiated, here's the story of Ramayana . This was the only version I found, which was relatively short while covering the most important aspects of the story, easy to understand, and closest to what is generally understood as the story, although it does have some errors, but it's not a bad starting point for the clueless, I would suggest that those who don't have any idea about the story read the story given in the link, because without the reference of the story this post will not be fully grasped.
Ok, since this topic involves religion, I'm gonna tread with caution here, since religion can be a sensitive subject matter, and can ruffle feathers very quickly . I firstly have to declare, that even though I am a hindu, and call myself as such, I am not a devout Hindu, I am not very religious, and have varying degrees of discomfort with almost all the organized religions. The only reason, I still follow hinduism (somewhat) is because, it is habitual, not entirely out of devotion. I do partake in most of the religious occassions, mainly as a means of social interaction and fun, instead of, pure devotion, like I don't really celebrate diwali to rejoice on Rama's homecoming to Ayodhya, it's more about the lovely colors, and food, and new clothes, and food, and meeting friends and family and did I mention the food.....so you get the picture...right...
I would've loved to write about my views on all religions, but I decided against doing that since :
a.) The other religions don't affect me personally, and to each their own, and more importantly
b.) I have near zero knowledge of any religion (including hindusim) other than what I know through conjecture, minor interactions with others and media projected versions of what those religions are like (which is rarely accurate) , so am no authority to speak about any of them, the only reason I can talk about hinduism, is because atleast I've seen it around me growing up, so have a slightly better idea of what it is supposed to be.
But, I digress, now back to the topic of sita. Sita sings the blues is a documentary film, even though it is one person's expression of what she considers to be sita's plight, it holds true for many women's thoughts, upon reading/seeing/hearing sita's story. Ramayan has been praised by many hindu scholars, and Ram hailed as the ideal man (Maryada Purshottam) by one and all, isn't it logical and fair for women to want to question the actions of the this ideal man with regards to his wife.
One of my favorite scenes, is from a movie I love, called Lajja . The scene is where a stage actress is playing sita, but is also romantically involved with her stage partner Ram, and in her real life, that partner has voiced some suspicions regarding her character, she then uses the Sita agnipariksha (trial by fire, for want of a better phrase ) scene in the play as a way to argue her side to her lover. She (as sita) questions him on his character, when her character is doubted. She tells him, that she has given up things for him, which she didn't have too, like living in a palace, after all it wasn't she who was exiled, he was, and like laxman's wife she too could've stayed back. Also she says, that while Ram and Laxman, fought with an army or monkey's, she fought with Ravana alone in the garden where she was kept, and had she given in to his demands, Ram would've lost the battle, without ever beginning the fight. She asks him point blank, whether he loves her, and whether he personally trusts her (as it was said that the agnipariksha was for the subjects of the kingdom, who had doubts, not for ram himself)
I was lucky enough to find the clip of scene online, unfortunately it doesn't have subtitles though. (Please excuse the poor quality) :
I love this scene for many reasons. The questions asked by the protagonist in the scene are very relevant, pinpointed, and hard hitting. These are questions that the Ramayan doesn't answer, but every women who reads the Ramayan is sure to ask herself.
I think Indian society has a major hangover of the 'Sita' phenomenon. We expect all our women to be like Sita, virtuous, pure, obedient, and submissive. Lack of any of these qualities in a woman, is considered bad, yes, these perceptions are changing, but it is a painfully slow change... A sita like the one shown in the clip above, who doesn't just grin and bear it, but opens her mouth to actually voice her opinion, and express dissent, would be considered a-sanskari (insolent) and promptly labelled a feminist even in today's India.
Indian mythology has always painted the women as the bad ones, the root of evil, whether it be kaikeyi asking Ram's father to send him to exile, or Sita not listening to Lakshman's advice of staying within the limits he drew out for her (which has deep meaning in many ways, as regards women staying within limits given to them by society or the men in their lives), or satyavati putting up a condition to marry king shantanu, about his son abdicating the throne, or even draupadi teasing duryodhan when he fell into the pond calling him blind like his father, in every case the blame is squarely put on the woman's shoulders and she is shown to be the reason that wars happen, people die and all evil unleashes.
In each of the above cases the men were equally participant in the outcome, in case of Kaikeyi, it was also Dashrath's fault to make such an open-ended promise in the first place, and also his fault, to ever agree to such a ridiculous demand of exiling his own son, in case of Sita, it was also lakshman's fault to cut off surpanakha's nose in anger, which in turn made her provoke her brother for revenge, and anyway wasn't it the case that Vishnu had reincarnated as Ram mainly to kill Ravan, so it was inevitable one could argue, in case of satyavati, king Shantanu was equally to blame for being unable to control his feelings for another woman, and also the actual condition of Bhishma abdicating the throne was made by satyavati's father, not her, in case of draupadi too, the kauravas were always looking to kill, eliminate the pandavas, as they did not like them, and duryodhan wanted to be king, so a small joke by draupadi was hardly the reason for the mahabharat war.
I guess somewhere as a society, our image of the ideal woman is stuck in the times of 'Satyug' or the noble era, expecting the women of today to be a modern adaptaion of Sita, i.e a Sita who can put on a business suit and enter a board room confidently and then upon reaching home serve a tray of hot tea to her in-laws with a smile, the only two categories of women we like to put women in are 'Devi' (Goddess) or 'Dayan' (witch) , there isn't much of a middle zone there for women, where we can just be human beings, flaws and all, we can't make mistakes (like dating the wrong guy just as an example, since any woman with multiple partners is immediately labelled as slut), have opinions, and a mind of our own, we are put on a pedestal and held to extremely or even impossibly high standards of virtous behaviour, and expected to live up to it, but we aren't given the freedom to commit our own mistakes and learn from them.
Ofcourse, men too are held to their own high standards, and they too have the huge burden of social expectations on them, no doubt, but in their case, a mistake or failure to comply to the high standards doesn't have as much of a bad reaction and judgement as it does for the women, and this is just a reality.
For eg : Many conservative families of India, who don't like their children having a love marriage, could possibly soften their stand if the child is a boy, especially if he threatens to break ties (not all parents, but some), but if the child is a girl, than the opposition is far stronger, and the struggle to convince the parents far longer.
I hope that future generation of Indian women manage to escape this Sita hangover of our society.
Coming to the documentary film Sita sings the blues, there is a website protesting the video, now they are fully within their rights to voice their displeasure by any peaceful means they want too. However, some of the objections and their explanations are just bizzare. Like calling the filmmaker anti-hindu for saying in the film that ravana was otherwise a good king, I dunno what's anti-hindu about that, and objecting to them showing sita wearing a ton of jewellery which she drops during her abduction, which is just meant to be funny, and isn't even really insulting to Sita.
Anyway, as I said, they do have a right to voice their protest if they find something insulting to their religious views, but as a woman I could see the point Nina was trying to make, which was actually through the parallel story, not sita's story. I don't find it an attack on hinduism, or on any of our multiple gods and goddesses, it's just relating sita's story in today's times.
How many women try to move their lives around, and give up everything for the man they love, or try to change themselves for the man in their life, be it clothing styles, haircut, food habits, whatever, and still could be left in the lurch by the man, for no apparent fault of theirs, whether it is the boyfriend breaking off the relationship to his parents disapproval, or because he decided he liked another girl better and decided to cheat on his girlfriend, and that there have been many sita's after the real sita, and there will be many more.....
That is why sita sings the blues in the video, it is not really Sita, but all the women, who were left by the man they love for no fault of their own, who are singing in the video, Sita is just the torch-bearer for those women.