Friday, 2 August 2013

Teaching Morality To The Gods

One of the episodes of the Ramayana that has always disturbed me deeply was the infamous banishment of Sita by Rama.

For what crime, one might ask.

Well, she was abducted by the demon Ravana (no fault of hers except misplaced generosity) and spent a few months in captivity in his kingdom. When Rama finally rescued her, he asked her to prove her 'chastity' to all assembled by walking through fire, which was awful in itself. Even the great Rama didn't have the courage of his convictions and was afraid of what other people might think!

Then later, even after they were back in Ayodhya, crowned king and queen and everything seemed hunky-dory, some troglodyte of a subject cast his (presumably unfaithful) wife out of his house, adding for good measure that he wasn't like Rama, who would take back a 'fallen' wife. That incident, when reported to Rama, had the expected effect on the moral coward, who proceeded to evict his by-then-pregnant queen and bundled her off to the forest. The story goes downhill from there for Sita, and this shameful part of the Ramayana is appropriately rarely told, with genteel folk agreeing to end the tale with the couple's triumphant return to Ayodhya.

The earliest memory I have of this is from Amar Chitra Katha's depiction

A scene from the episode "Banishment!" of animator Nina Paley's work "Sita sings the blues"

I was reminded of Rama's conduct when I read this news item about a man who married his girlfriend who had earlier been gang-raped. What's so heroic about this, one might ask. And indeed, it is a shameful commentary on our society that this man's decision should even be considered extraordinary. We live in a society of moral cowards where victims are blamed and shamed, and 'decent' people prove their decency by joining in the stone-throwing. So yes, in such a society, this man is nothing less than a hero.

In a country and a religion where Rama is considered the perfect man and an example to follow, I think the tables have been turned. Lord Rama could take some lessons in morality from this mortal.

As the song goes,
kabhI kabhI bhagwAn ko bhI bhaktO:n sE kAm paDE
jAnA thA gangA pAr prabhU kEvaT kI nAv chaDe

(Sometimes even God needs the help of his devotees
When He wanted to cross the Ganga, Lord (Rama) climbed into the boatman's boat)
Yup, sometimes a human boatman has to help a god navigate those treacherous moral shoals!

Lovely song by Anup Jalota , another mortal who stuck by his wife in sickness and in health
(As philosopher Alain de Botton says in his speech on "Atheism 2.0", atheists should feel free to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of even the religious works they do not believe in!)

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