By Ram Puniyani
Women’s struggle to break the shackles of patriarchy and come of their own is a part of democratization/secularization process of society. In India while this equality has been granted right with the implementation of Constitution in free India, the social realities are far from those of equality. With the rise of cultural, religious and social norms, which accompany politics in the name of religion, the matters are worse off as far as struggle for gender justice is concerned. While women’s movement has been asserting the longing for equality, this process has got several obstacles and these obstacles, when couched in the language of religion become much more difficult to overcome.
The observation of Bombay High Court (March 2012) that married women should be like Goddess Sita and should give up their all to accompany their husband like Sita did, is what is desirable. The learned judges were opining on a case of divorce in which woman is not willing to join her husband, who has got a job in Port Blair and she is living in Mumbai. The judge’s observation and taking a cue from the mythological figures itself has lot of problems. On the top of that the analogy of Sita may be most painful as far as women are concerned. Despite various versions of Lord Ram story prevailing around the most common and well known in this part of the country is the one of Valmiki. This Valmiki version has been made more popular byMahrshi Ramanand Sagar through his serial Ramayan. Here the character of Sita is most servile and subservient to the Lord. For example when Ram faces the dilemma of banishing her to forest on the alleged rumors of Sita’s chastity, Sita in Ramanand Sagar’s version herself prods her husband to send her to forest, quite a retrograde fall over the version of Valmiki himself.
As such in most versions of Lord Ram Story what is common is that Sita is an abandoned child found by Raja (King) Janak while doing the ritual and ploughed the field. She is married off to Ram, who is exiled by his father Dashrath to keep the promise to one of his queens, Kaikeyi. From here the misery of Sita starts. Ravan, who wants to take revenge of insult of his sisterSurpnakha at the hands of Ram- Laxman duo, abducts Sita and takes her to Lanka, where she is made to live in Ashok Vatika. Ravan, himself shows a desire for him but she refuses. Her rescue is also full of insult for her. Lord Ram tells her that he has rescued her to save his own honor! Sita is made to give ‘Trail by Fire’, agnipariksha to prove her chastity. She passes the test and is brought back to Ayodhya to be coroneted along with her husband.
The misery intensifies. There is a rumor questioning the chastity of the queen. The King, Lord Ram, is witness to the agniparikshka. At this point instead of protecting his wife, who is pregnant, he asks his loyal brother Laxman to dump her in a forest. Exiling a pregnant wife can not by any standard be part of the justice at any time in the history. Years later when Ram meets Sita by coincidence, Ram hesitates to take her back and at this point Sita commits suicide. Probably amongst all the mythological figures, Sita’s is the most tragic tale.
While all this is part of the popular folklore, how come the learned judges give the advice to any married woman to emulate Sita? No woman can have a life worse than this. The other point is in the present society trying to march towards democratic values; can we think of giving the examples from mythology to be emulated today? The period of society depicted in mythologies is the one which was having values of kingdoms. Kingdoms had the values of ‘birth based hierarchy’ of caste and gender. While the claims are that in ancient India, women had a glorious and respectable life, the truth comes out from the values given in the Manusmirti, a book where the women has the status totally subservient and secondary to man. It was precisely because of the caste and gender hierarchy of this ‘holy’ book, that Dr. Ambedkar burnt it.
With women’s movement coming up and gender subservience being questioned, surely our laws and courts have to be sensitive to the aspirations of women. The very concept of woman losing her basic identity after marriage has to be consigned to the dustbin of history. The adjustment between couples has be more innovative, few examples of which one sees in the contemporary times more so in western countries and in good measure around here as well. Here in India also there are couples who chart their own course for togetherness, without losing their basic identities and choices. We need to bring our thinking in tune with the times, the democratic set up, away from the birth based hierarchies towards the concept of equality. The intrusion of feudal and other primordial values has been wearing the garb of fundamentalism, in various religions. Christian Fundamentalism, Islamic Fundamentalism and Hindutva are examples where the subordination of women is legitimized in the language of religion.
In India with the rise of religion based politics with Ram Temple movement, there has also been a religio-cultural accompaniment in the form of Godmen, modern Gurus, who are talking of status quo of social relationships in a refined language. Manu Smriti’s values are being dished out in the clever disguise by the five star Gurus, with massive following. Many a television serials are also playing a very retrograde role as far as the norms of gender equality are concerned. The TV-Baba combination is very lethal for values desirable in a democratic set up, in a set up where we create social situations to dump patriarchal norms for good.
The analogy of Sita in particular is very painful but as such any analogy from mythological and periods of history before the democratic culture starts coming in has to be shunned. One hope courts and legal structures think of the fate of Sita before ordaining such a life for women in current times.