Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sita and Ram and the Return of the Light

This past new moon marked Diwali, the Hindu festival which honors the return of King Ram and Queen Sita to the city of Ayodhya after their fourteen years of exile in the forest. Celebrated with the lighting of thousands of lamps (and these days, lots and lots of fireworks) to help guide the divine couple home, Diwali also honors Ram and Sita's return as a symbolic return of the light after a long period of darkness. Their reign represents a time of harmony, abundance, and social order and is cause for celebration and gratitude.

The Ramayana, the text in which Ram and Sita's story is told, was written down sometime between 200BCE and 200 CE. It was not until a 14th century translation that Ram and Sita were deified, that is, made God and Goddess, incarnations of Vishnu and Lakshmi respectively. Up until that point, they were characters in a great epic story.

Sita, however, was a goddess long before the Ramayana was ever written down. She was a fertility goddess of the earth who was worshipped as a source of abundance and plenty. Her name means "furrow," as in the furrow a plow makes in the soil. In the Ramayana, she is said to have been found in a freshly plowed field by her father. Although her name and the circumstances of her birth betray her ancient origins, the Sita in the Ramayana has, at least what seems at first, a very different role to play.

If you have ever read the Ramayana, you know that Sita is portrayed as the so-called "perfect wife," who does anything and everything for her husband Ram. She gives him all the credit and takes all the blame herself. She is unfailingly devoted and true to him, but Ram frequently mistrusts her, and causes her all kinds of hardship and suffering. The story, at least to the ears of a contemporary, non-Indian woman, is basically rife with misogyny and typical patriarchal oppression.

This Diwali, as I celebrated with friends, I realized that I needed a new understanding of Sita and Ram's story. How could I praise Ram, who let his wife be set ablaze because the demon Ravana who had kidnapped her might have raped her (although Sita insists he didn't)? How could I praise Ram who, when Sita doesn't burn because of her purity and utter devotion to Ram, decides to send her off to the forest pregnant with his twin sons, because the people of the kingdom are still gossiping about her fidelity? How could I praise Ram when, even today, in traditional Indian culture the dynamic between Sita and Ram is seen as exemplary and all wives are supposed to behave like Sita: submissive, self-blaming, and never questioning the authority or actions of their husbands?

For me, the first clue is Sita's origin in the soil. She is a thinly veiled Earth Mother. She represents the stability, dependability, reliability, and constancy of the earth. She is not afraid to go into the forest. When Ram submits her to one last test to see if she's really, truly, absolutely pure, the earth swallows her, affirming her innocence and her devotion to him only. She comes from and returns to the nourishing soil.

To me, Sita is Nature, and Ram is Culture. He represents all that is beneficial about social order, technology, and the structure and stability offered by human culture. When Sita and Ram are in alignment, just as when Nature and Culture are in alignment, there is balance, harmony, and abundance. There is order and peace and plenty on earth.

This Diwali, after a long Sita-Ram chant, I asked my teacher, Prem Prakash of Kailash Ashram, if he had anything to help further illuminate this story for me. He told me a story that he said is from the oral tradition. It goes like this:

Once Ram went off to battle a thousand-headed demon. However, he neglected to consult with Sita first, or even tell her where he was going. The battle went very badly for Ram (which was unusual) and he came home ashamed and humbled. He found his wife brushing out her long, dark hair. He told what had happened and before he could even finish the story, Sita transformed, before Ram's very eyes, into a thousand-headed Kali! She ran out to meet the demon and defeated him easily.

Whoa! This is not the Sita of the Ramayana! I don't really know the lineage of this story, but it helped me understand Sita a little better. Sita is Mother Earth. Starting with the Neolithic Revolution (the advent of agriculture) she has, for the most part, agreeably partnered with human-kind. Technology has gotten all the credit, but even the tractor manufacturers would agree that without the natural gift of the soil itself, their tools wouldn't be much good. Nature goes along with all this until a certain point. As long as the relationship between Nature and Culture is respectful, harmonious, and balanced, then Nature is dependable, reliable, constant, and steadfast, just like Sita. But when humans become arrogant with their technology, and forget to respect Nature as the source of all their power, then there's trouble. Mother Nature has a fierce side. She's floods, droughts, and hurricanes. She's oceans rising and fertile river valleys turning to desert.

Without his Shakti, the king is impotent. When humans forget to honor and live in alignment with the creative, nourishing, sustaining power of Nature, they can no longer survive. The harmony, order, and abundance for which Rams' reign was known, could not have been possible with Sita's devoted, supportive, and steadfast presence. And, it's when he doubts her or disrespects her, when he becomes uprooted from the devotion and steadiness of her love, that suffering ensues. Luckily, Sita never wavers, and thereby keeps the world in balance (though Ram, like modern technology, gets all the credit).

So, I praise Ram as all technology, simple and complicated, from spoons to computers, that brings order and ease into my life. And I praise Sita as the dependable, constant, and nourishing source that brings support and sustenance into my life in the form of the soil, my body, my very breath. Together these two forces bring balance and harmony into the world and their alliance is worth celebrating. Their festival is a time for me to be grateful for all the ordinary, mundane things that I might generally take for granted: my senses, my blood, my clothes, my house, the food I eat, the soil it comes from and returns to... and, as Mary Oliver says, "the reliability and the finery and the teachings of this gritty earth gift."

Taking these concepts into our asana practice, one could say that the body itself is Sita and the "technology" of the asanas, as applied to the body, is Ram. One could say that the natural breath, which come and goes dependably without our having to think about it, is Sita and the pranayama, the breath control designed to achieve a particular effect, is Ram. But, it is important to note, that without the natural body or breath, the poses and breath controls could not exist.

We learn in Anusara Yoga® to always apply muscular energy before organic energy. This is like honoring and taking into account the impact on the earth before embarking on some project using its resources. With reverence, we draw energy up out of the earth into our limbs; with devotion we root down into that constant source of support and nourishment. With gratitude allow ourselves to be held up and supported; with trust we allow gravity to draw us down.

Here is a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

How surely gravity's law,
strong as an ocean current
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it towards the heart of the world.

Each thing--
each stone, blossom, child--
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to earth's intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God's heart;
they have never left him.

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

And so, in praise of all that is ordinary and mysterious about our world, including gravity, including yoga, including soil, including poetry, including our bodies, including the light and the dark, I give thanks. I give thanks for the story of Sita and Ram, for helping to remind us of the profound importance of the harmonious alignment of Culture with Nature, and of the necessity for respect and trust to bring about a true "return of the light" on this earth. And I give thanks for the remembrance that that light is already within each of us and when we live reverently and respectfully on this earth and with each other, we welcome ourselves home again and again.

I bow to the "heart of the world," which resides also within each of your hearts. Namaste.

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