Sunday, June 24, 2007

Being Sita?

When I was growing up in New Jersey, I had the privilege of attending a Saturday School where we were trained in the lore of ancient India, specifically Hindu India. I thank my lucky stars that, while the school was quite religious and pious in its focus, it never, Never followed the lead of such blind Hindutva-based, fanatical organizations as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Instead it based its teachings on the rather more all-embracing teachings of the 19th century Hindu mystic, Shri Ramakrishna.

I don't intend to get into the whole history of Saturday School here, but just to talk of one incident; actually, not even an incident, really... more like a moment.

Our Saturday School teachers tried to instill in us a deep-seated sense of morality and good character. To this end, they taught us the meaning of portions of the Vedas, the Gita, and also the grand old stories from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Not only were we taught the actual stories and shlokas (verses) but these were explained and elaborated upon in long discussions. In many senses, especially in the early years, this school really mimicked the old form of spiritual education in India - the gurukul.

Another way that values were instilled in us was through memorization. We were given excerpts of speeches and writings by great people such as Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda, Rabrinath Tagore, Saradamani Devi (the wife of Shri Ramakrishna) and so on. Our teachers called these excerpts "paragraphs" and each of us was often assigned a paragraph to memorize and recite at upcoming events, such as our (practically named) Annual Function, or other such gatherings.

Swami Vivekananda being a prolific speech-maker, most of the paragraphs were by him. I remember there was a very strong, bold one called "What We Want" because the starting line was, "What we want is muscles of iron and nerves of steel." "What We Want" was a much-coveted paragraph. See now, this is the thing, the heart of the matter. There were fun paragraphs, and there were not-so--fun paragraphs. We tended to like the ones that were rythmic and lyrical.... "What We Want" fell into that category, because we could apply a staccato, forceful rhythm to the words, "What we want is muscles of iron and nerves of steel..."

But then there were other paragraphs which were not memorable, but rather boring. We would dread being assigned one of these, as not only did they not lend themselves to the rhythms we liked, but they were difficult to stamp into the memory, leading to a lot of stumbling when reciting.

One time, our school was invited to another such school's event in New York City... Our teachers chose several students to recite some of the key paragraphs... One by one the paragraphs were assigned, and soon, there were only two paragraphs left... and two of us students left - my classmate Manish, a boy around my age, and I. The two paragraphs left were Swami Vivekananda's "Sita, India's Ideal" (hereafter referred to as SII) and the other was Rabrinath Tagore's "Let My Country Awake." (hereafter referred to as LMCA)

I prayed that I'd be assigned to LMCA, as I abhorred SII. The little budding feminist that I was, I didn't know exactly why I rebelled at the thought of Sita being my ideal, but rebel I did. So I rejoiced when I was assigned to LMCA. This was the creme de la creme of paragraphs, being a sublime poem rather than a paragraph.

I can't say I really understood either "paragraph" very well... (See below for the texts of both.) It's just that in the case of SII, it galled me that girls and women were exhorted to "Be Sita," while there was no mention of boys being required to do anything, as if all of India depended on girls to be obedient and ever-suffering.

While in the case of LMCA, it was the beauty of the words, the cadence, the concepts of freedom and truth that appealed to me. I surely had no clue as to what I wanted my country to awake to, or awake from. Come to think of it, I wasn't quite sure which country was my country - India or the U.S. - and yet Rabrinath Tagore's "paragraph" seduced my inner writer with its simple poetry.

To be fair, SII was also quite poetic, in retrospect, and strong in its rhetoric, which would have appealed to me if it were not for the sense of unfairness that raged within when I heard it. "Why do girls have to be stupid Sita," I remember thinking, rather bitterly, "and not boys?!"

Well. Life isn't always fair, and one of the teachers realized that the last paragraph to be assigned--SII-- and the last kid -- Manish, a boy -- didn't quite match. It would be a bit awkward to have that paragraph emanate from a boy's mouth, even though it was originally uttered by a man. (!!) And so... much to my chagrin, the paragraphs were reassigned. And I was, after all, assigned to my much-hated paragraph.

This may be somewhat of a non sequitor, but....
Recently, I read a book of short stories -- Shielding Her Modesty by Sita Bhaskar -- about whom I 'll be blogging shortly. I must say, that if I am to be like Sita, please let me be like Sita Bhaskar, who writes like a modern-day and less inhibited version of the great R.K. Narayan with a bit of her own unique spice and humor thrown in.

Sita, India's Ideal
Rama and Sita are the ideals of the Indian nation. All children, especially girls, worship Sita. The height of a woman's ambition is to be like Sita, the pure, the devoted, the all-suffering!

Sita is typical of India — the idealised India. The question is not whether she ever lived, whether the story is history or not, we know that the ideal is there. There is no other story that has so permeated the whole nation, so entered into its very life, and has so tingled in every drop of blood of the race, as this ideal of Sita.

Sita is the name in India for everything that is good, pure and holy — everything that in woman we call womanly. If a priest has to bless a woman he says, "Be Sita!" If he blesses a child, he says "Be Sita!" They are all children of Sita, and are struggling to be Sita, the patient, the all-suffering...
-Swami Vivekananda
NOTE: The above is an excerpt from a much longer speech. If you would like to read the speech in its entirety, go to this link and scroll down for a bit.

Let My Country Awake

Where the mind is without fear and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

-Rabindranath Tagore

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice post. swami vivekananda has so much wisdom. you can read some quotes by swami vivekananda at and what he has to say about the vedanta's message at