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I recently watched Nina Paley’s gorgeous, funny, moving, and profound animated film “Sita Sings The Blues: The Greatest Breakup Story Every Told.” You can watch it for free, here, so you know what this entry is about. It’s also just a great, great, great film.
If you are uncomfortable with irreverence, critical discussion and/or interpreting the Hindu tradition in contemporary contexts, skip the movie and this post. Please. You will find both offensive.
I believe that any understanding we have of divinity is more about our personal relationship with that aspect of Spirit/archetype/whatever-you-want-to-call-it than any sort of representative truth. My relationships do not reflect on anyone else’s. And, as it so happens, many of my relationships –-with deity figures, real people, my pets, myself-- are often challenging, tumultuous and difficult. I question and worry and occasionally blame and swear (yes! I swear at the Gods! If that bothers you, stop reading now!). I can be critical and difficult to live with. It doesn't mean I love any less.
That being said, I’ve never liked Sita.
Huh? Who’s Sita and what did she ever do to you, Saum? Sita is (in no particular order) the loyal, beautiful, abducted, rescued, mistrusted, rejected and unshakably devoted wife of Rama.
Ok. Who’s Rama? Lord Rama is one of the incarnations of the God Vishnu, and hero of the well-known and beloved Hindu epic, The Ramayana.To many Hindus, Rama is the ultimate man, the perfect warrior prince who is wise, brave, dutiful, devout and also a total shit to his wife. I know that last bit is going to upset people. It upsets me, too.
I admit it. I don’t like Rama either. At all.
Why Rama? Why why why? When you are exiled, your wife follows you into the jungle where she will likely die. When she is abducted, she tells her captor that she will end her life before she breaks her wedding vows. When you rescue her and doubt her fidelity (Ravana was, after all, quite a charismatic, powerful, and persuasive fellow) she is so hurt that she tries to commit suicide by burning herself alive. According to some accounts, you help build the pyre. She throws herself in, but passes through this trial by fire unscathed. You take her back. You return home –-yay!-- and become king. After a few months, you tell her that this whole abduction thing has been terrible for your image. She is pregnant. You have her abandoned in the forest. Yet she raises your twin sons to sing your praises. She never speaks a word against you. Your wife would die for you, Rama! And not just in a dramatic, song-lyric kind of way. She would actually die for her love of you. And you treat her like crap.
Re-reading what I just wrote, I realize that all of that is backwards. I should be asking Sita these questions. Why, Sita? Why do you put up with it? You wimp. Stand up for yourself.
My dislike of Sita is actually so deep that it is evolving and multi-faceted. Here are some of the high points:
1. When I was a little kid, I thought she was whiny and boring. All she really does is get abducted and rescued. For that, I preferred Princess Leia, who could at least handle a blaster.
2. As a coming-of-age girl living in India, I resented that she was held up as the feminine ideal I was supposed to, but did not-in-any-way-shape-or-form, emulate.
3. As a teenager, I was, like, whatever. Bitch.
4. As a young woman exploring adulthood, she vaguely represented why I chose to live in the United States rather than India.
5. As a Women’s Studies scholar, my contempt became tinged with pity. I began to deconstruct her as a symbol of patriarchal cultural traditions that systematically strip women of their power.
6. She made me so uncomfortable that, like other stuff I dislike, I just stopped thinking about her.
7. I read Women Who Run With The Wolves and thought, there’s got to be a better Sita story out there somewhere. I found a few, and made up more, in an attempt to obscure the original Sita I knew.
8. As an occasional lecturer on Hinduism, I hauled her out as example of conflicting messages for women’s identity in contemporary India.
9. I watched “Sita Sings The Blues” and realized that while all of these things are true, none are complete. What I dislike about Sita is that she represents a part of myself that I am ashamed of. She is me. I am her, in all her archaic, submissive glory.
I have both been that woman, and seen that woman. You know her too: the woman who seems so strong but who loves a man so much she will go anywhere, do anything, put up with abuse, suffer his contempt, endure his rejection, and still defend him, raise his children and never let her kids hear her speak a word against their father.
We all know guys who are great people but awful to their spouses. Rama sacrifices his relationship for his career as a God-prince. And Sita is the woman who sacrifices everything for the marriage that he is throwing away. In Paley’s film, Sita sings the Blues, but it could as well be Country (Paley did the Ramayana so well, but I’d LOVE to see the Mahabharata as a Country & Western saga, with everybody in cowboy hats, preferably directed by Joss Whedon).
This isn’t just an oppressed woman/abusive man thing, you know. Men are as just as stuck when it comes to archetypes, maybe even more so than women. Who wants to be the warrior every damn day? Where do men turn for reassurance that it’s ok to give up control, that they don’t always have to be the one doing the rescuing. It must be exhausting. There are certainly many male Sita-types in the modern world, men who love beyond reason and are doubly dammed by being considered unmanly for it. At least women have lots of role models for suffering.
Some people say that Sita’s relationship with Rama --actually, all romantic stories-- are not about men and women but about our relationship with God. I don’t know if I entirely buy this. It’s certainly not any more satisfying to imagine that in addition to occasionally following indifferent and abusive men, we also follow an indifferent and abusive God (although it would explain some things).
In the end, Sita asks her Mother Earth to take her back: the ground opens and down she goes. There may be something about a return to Earth-based traditions for individual empowerment, although it’s hard to imagine that’s what the composers of the Ramayana had in mind.
Of course, sometimes it’s worthless to try and figure out what composers of religious, or any, text really had in mind. It often ends up being conjecture, influenced by our own biased attitudes and experiences, so I’ll just go directly to understanding it through my own biased attitudes and experiences.
I was raised, and still adhere to, the belief that the characters of the Gods/heroes are not (necessarily) intended to be emulated, but to present certain aspects of humanity in order for us to learn from them. I don’t think that anyone really believes that Zeus and Hera are a good example of how to run a marriage, or that because the Pandava brothers lost their kingdom in a drunken game of dice, we ought to follow their example. Huh? Who? Sorry, that’s another story…maybe with cowboy hats.
Does creation equal endorsement? Does representing a certain way of being advocate that it is a desirable way to be? Part of what makes me so uncomfortable with Sita is the implication that there is an admirable strength in this (feminine) endurance of (male) emotional brutality. Even worse, I believe there IS strength in it. Of course there is. But it seems exploitative to fashion a heroine to exemplify this quality.
If Ezili Dantor is the patron of single mothers, Sita is the patron of mistreated wives. I’d rather there was no need for either. But there is. Sita is considered the perfect wife. But her existence has also helped me (and presumably other women) define what I don’t want to be, or wish I wasn’t.
Any hatred is self-hatred. I’m sorry Sita. It was never about you.
I want to identify with the fashionable female archetypes: Kali, Ezili Dantor, Boudicca, Rani of Jhansi. But there’s a little –or a lot- of Sita in me. Just as I cohabitate with Erzuli Freda, a good dose of the Virgin Mary (hold the jokes, you know what I mean) and every weeping, martyred saint I can think of.
Think about what unconditional love means. I mean, really think about it. It’s a concept we elevate, but in action it is a terrible force.
The thing about Sita that blows my mind is that she is not only devoted and loving, she seems utterly free of grudges or resentment (this could just be evidence that the Ramayana was written by a man). How do we tell the difference between healthy forgiveness and being an enabler of someone else’s abuse?
There is an awesome power in not letting another person’s actions influence how we feel. No matter how crappy they are, we will not be changed, and part of who we are is loving them. But we might love someone we absolutely cannot live with. I once loved a man I couldn’t live with, and I left him. I didn’t stop loving him. He didn’t deserve my love but he had it anyway. I am ashamed that I couldn’t stop loving him. My inability to love conditionally still upsets me.
I’m also blessed (and dammed) to know crazy, epic-sized love. I am hopelessly devoted, wildly enamored and irrationally infatuated with my husband. This love, and my own romantic fantasies, make me feel needy. Part of me desperately wants to be rescued (from what, it’s unclear, but a ten-headed demon-king + numberless minions would work just fine). It embarrasses me. I’m supposed to be empowered or something.
The idea of unconditional love is terrifying. Love will fuck you up like nothing else. It can be painful and humiliating. But we learn from it…I believe we only ever learn things the hard way (although it’s very possible that’s just me). It’s easier for me to be angry than forgiving. I’d rather scream along to Rage Against The Machine than sigh with Bessie Smith. Kali is the overwhelming rage of the Goddess, while Sita is the Goddess who refuses the path of rage.
As appealing as it is some days, I can’t go blasting through life ripping people’s heads off and sticking my tongue out at everyone. (It did take me a little while to figure this out.)
But I haven’t made peace with Sita. She is part of me, and part of being human. I don’t have to be one or the other, violent/submissive, Kali/Sita…I’m striving for “assertive, but calm.” Ha. That’s why we have so many images of the divine. Because we are a collection of archetypes ourselves.
We all sing the Blues.
There is wisdom in our inner Sita: the selfless devotion of love, a refusal to let betrayal make us bitter or hateful, and the final surrender of falling back into into the source of our power. Kali draws that power up, Sita sinks down into it. Sometimes that’s what we have to do. Sometimes it’s all we can do. It doesn’t have to be the only thing we do.