India is celebrating Diwali, the festival of lights. But Indian feminist author Rita Banerji is not celebrating it, because she does not like the Diwali story. She thinks the gods and the traditions people celebrate in India, contain the seeds of violence against women and girls. She says:
Diwali is the annual, Indian festival of lamps, and the Hindu god Ram is the hero of this festival. The story goes, that Ram’s wife, Sita, was abducted by the Sri Lankan king, Ravana, (who usually is portrayed as an ogre in Indian myths to contrast with Ram’s godliness). Ram collected an army and went to battle Ravana, defeating and killing him, and rescued his wife. When he returned to India with Sita, the Indians celebrated his victory and valor by lighting thousands of oil lamps. The lamps symbolized the victory of light over dark, i.e. the power of ‘good’ over ‘evil.’
So Diwali, with its lamps, lights and fire-crackers is a bright and noisy celebration of Ram’s victory and goodness. This is a man who went to war for his wife! Doesn’t that make him an ideal husband material for any woman? Young, unmarried Indian women are often told in blessing, “May you get a good husband like Ram.”
Recently an Indian politician—incidentally also with the first name Ram—Ram Jethmalani, took exception to this notion and said, “Ram was a bad husband.” His remark caused an uproar in the right-wing conservative circles in India (to which Jethmalani actually belongs!), that for long have nurtured a vision of India’s future as one that would resemble Ram’s kingdom – the Ram rajya.
Jethmalani’s contempt concerns what Ram did after he returned home with Sita. Reportedly Ram overheard a washerman’s remark doubting Sita’s sexual “purity.” During her captivity surely Sita was raped, which in the washerman’s , as indeed probably much of the public’s perception, rendered Sita “impure.” Eager to restore his exalted status in the public’s eye, Ram decided to banish Sita to the woods, even though she was pregnant at the time.
Sita’s years in exile are paradoxically reflective of the lives of thousands of women in India’s slums and villages today, who’re often abandoned by their husbands, and like Sita they live like outcastes, in poverty, struggling to singly raise their children. Ram’s attempt to have Sita prove her “purity” by stepping into fire (from which she apparently emerged unsinged!) is also evocative of the fate of thousands of young women, in the 21st century India, who are burnt to death for dowry by their husbands and in-laws, the so-called “bride burnings.”
Sita’s life has embedded in it one other tragic element of what it means to be female in India. And that’s female infanticide. Sita was found by her adoptive father, buried alive in a pot beneath the ground, a method still used sometimes for killing female infants. Every year, thousands of girls, within the first year of their birth, continue to be murdered in various ways in India, just because of their gender.
So it turns out that – the myths, the gods, the history, and the traditions, we continue to eulogize and celebrate in India, contain in them the seeds of violence on women and girls.
Do we have the conscience to say – Sorry Ram! But you are no role model for men in India today?
I think for starters, we need a major re-haul in the concept of Diwali as it stands. I propose we re-name it “Sita-wali,” and observe it as a day of confession and atonement for the wrongs done by society towards Sita and the women and girls of India.
Unless India learns to do that, it remains a spiritually hypocritical nation, stuck in the lies of misogynistic myths and traditions.
Religious or spiritual ceremonies are not only unscientific, unjust and unequal, most of the times they are anti-women. Gods and religions were created by men who strongly believed in patriarchy. We do not need to waste our times on gods. There is absolutely no need to make a bunch of patriarchal gods women-friendly gods. We do not live in gods’ weird world, because that world does not exist. We should rather inspire patriarchal men to be better men, to resist themselves from being influenced by misogynist gods and to stop harassing, torturing, abusing, killing women. The time has come to bury misogyny with mythology and return to reality.