Searching For Sita

[Guest Post: SOJ]

Picture Source : Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues

A comment by a distant uncle at a recent family gathering left me completely zapped. He said:

Indian women have a tough act to follow – the sacrifices made by Sita, Sati Savitri, Parvati.  These were the true great women of India, and they have set the highest standards of moral standing, self-control and moral behavior. Future generations of Indian women must idolize and compare themselves to their role models.

On second thought, his words aren’t such a shocker. They only reflect the mentality of the society we live in and its obsession with ‘Sita’. The wife must be ideal – the moral anchor in a marriage, which stays unswerving in her loyalty and righteousness no matter how opposite her husband, might be.

Everyone’s looking for Sita. Take a glance at matrimonial classifieds, every second ad in the ‘Bride Wanted’ section starts with a sentence like: “Wanted a fair, beautiful, cultured, educated and homely girl from a good family.” One would think that there was a sea change in the thoughts and attitudes of the modern Indian society. But such advertisements only prove otherwise. Families continue to look for a woman who can cook, sing and regard their laadla as her parmeshwar till death or divorce do them apart.

Ideal woman, ideal wife?

There’s a bit of an irony here. As young girls we are advised and inspired to look up to public figures like Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Indira Gandhi and Kiran Bedi as role models, but on reaching the threshold of a marriageable age, we are expected to follow Sita’s footsteps. At this point, the distinction between an ideal woman and an ideal wife gets blurred and the two images coalesce.

In today’s ‘modern’ society, would you consider ‘Sita’ to be ideal role-model for young women? Does it not, in one fell sweep, rubbish everything we have fought for and achieved to a certain degree– from equal rights in the workplace, to redressal of harassment charges, to regarding marital rape as rape and the domestic violence act?

For what reason must we act like Sita? If’ the answer is ‘to keep the family system going’, then I’m afraid that that argument holds no ground anymore. We are too far gone in accepting that women are human beings who deserve equal rights, and will fight for them if we must, even if it is at the cost of dismantling a marriage that regards one partner as a demi-god, and the other as a slave.

Depressing as it sounds it is a common sentiment among Indians that ideals set in mythology must be emulated in this day and age. We continue to perceive Ram and Sita not as remote figures of a distant past but as living role models who have raised the bar for us inhabitants of the “corrupt” age, the kalyug.

Interpreting Sita differently

I grew up thinking of Sita as a much-wronged woman – a slavish wife given neither a mind of her own nor any agency. And precisely for that reason she was for me not a symbol of inspiration, but a warning. She was all that I did not want to be.  To me her suffering was a product less of masochism, and more because of the complete lack of selfhood, patriarchy has enforced upon her fabled character. Fortunately, she was never held up as an example for me and, therefore, she did not seem an important reference point – positive or negative – in my life, until now.

Is it possible to read Sita differently? Can she be someone who does not endorse female slavery or validate a husband’s right to behave unreasonably and a wife’s duty to bear insults graciously? Can’t she in fact, be seen as a person whose sense of dharma was superior to and more awe inspiring than that of Ram’s – someone who put even maryada purushottam Ram – the most perfect of men – to shame.

It is interesting to note that while there has been a lot of discussion and analysis of the demands put on women in the Hindu tradition, the sacrifices expected of ideal wives, we have failed to evaluate the demands put on an ideal husband.

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