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Sita and sexuality
Indian mythology is replete with instances of violence against women, especially when they show a mind of their own.
In the hands of the patriarchy epics are weapons of mass deception. They are hurled in times of stress and change to bludgeon free speech and debate as the popular phrase, 'Lakshman Rekha - thus far and no further', suggests. They appear to underline certain values that are meant to validate a singularly myopic view of society - that of an increasingly shrill and despotic male dominated hierarchy.
At times, all it takes is the sound of an ankle bell tinkling in the dark to unravel the notion that epics and myths serve only to preserve the inalienable rights of a dominant male interpretation. The strength of the ancient epics is that they suggest multiple strands of consciousness, with every new generation adding to the layered demands of a shared history. Lakshman may draw the line, the cordon sanitaire with which men have tried to protect their territorial rights over the female body. Sita will step out of it.
Already, it would seem the horrendous and tragic history of the young woman who was kidnapped and butchered so brutally by a group of men, unknown to her, has passed into the myth-making process with which societies deal with the unspeakable. If we do not include rape to the list, it is that by making a fetish of the act we are, in fact, adding to its secretly lustful aura. The mythologising of rape distracts us from the more vicious suppression of the female body, or its more potent manifestation, female sexuality that has always been a source of fear and fascination in the dual images of the feminine force rampant or supine that we find in our traditional images.
Sita's ankle bells, kinkini, have an ancient resonance that echoes through the chapters of the Ramayana. Brother Lakshman consoles grief-stricken Rama who has lost Sita, a victim of the most well documented case of kidnapping and abduction by a powerful individual, the demon-King Ravana. Sita has tied her ornaments into a bundle made from a portion of her sari and thrown them down as she is being carried away.
Lakshman, the faithful brother, says, "I cannot recognise the yellow cloth of her sari into which she has tied her earrings, her bangles and her chain. But I can recognise her ankle bells. For that is all I see when I greet her every morning. " It is a delicate moment as rendered in dance and music.
Lakshman is the epitome of the decent god-fearing individual. He has not only left his own wife, Urmila behind at the palace to take part in the fourteen years of exile with his brother, he has willingly been deprived of his need to sleep.
Urmila, we are told, has asked for an additional boon, that Lakshman be spared from the need to sleep so that he can keep vigil all through the lonely nights of those fourteen years in the forest. She, on the other hand, will take on the burden of sleep and be perfectly still during his absence, a nice touch, one might add to keep her from straying!
At the same time, there is Lakshman's treatment of Surpanakha that is as brutal as it is significant. Of course, the standard excuse is that she is after all the 'other', a vile demoness;the sister of the despicable would be ravisher of Sita.
Consider, however, Surpanakha's own history. She was in love with her husband, who was cut down by her brother Ravana, who suspected that he was plotting to overthrow him from the throne of Srilanka. Like many other women in her position, she transferred her affection to Rama.
As she says, "When I saw him, I felt the stirrings of the love that I had once felt for my husband. " She became a woman obsessed. She had what may now be called an image make-over, using perhaps the professional skills of a dermatologist to lighten her skin, a trichologist to straighten her hair, a dental surgeon to whiten her teeth, a beautician to render her body tender and fragrant with special body soaps and unguents as we see advertised continually on our screens and presented herself to Rama as the most beautiful of women. Do we need to add that she may have been swayed in these matters by the dreaded 'Western' influence?
It left Rama unfazed. There the matter might have ended, but what does the brave Lakshman do? He takes on his role of protector of his brother's virtue;maybe all those sleepless nights have rendered his tetchy. He cuts off the nose, the ears, and the breasts of Surpanakha. In short, exhibits a bestiality that our reading of the Ramayana condones since, after all, she is a member of the Ravana faction. She goes howling to her brother and sets in motion the war of good and evil.
Even more intriguing is a reading of the seduction of Shiva in the episode known as the Lure of the Enchantress, rendered today as the famous Mohiniattam dance. The gods and the demons are fighting on who should partake of the pot of nectar, amrit, that may be a code-name for the Bosun's Particle of today's churning of the elements that they have been struggling to obtain. To stop from the demons getting at the amrit, Vishnu takes on the form of the beautiful woman Mohini. She succeeds so well in her seduction that Shiva himself is aroused and Vishnu as Mohini allows himself to be impregnated. The child that is born of the union is the deity that draws thousands of devotees today at Sabarimalai, in Kerala.
Does it say something about female sexuality we ask? That even in its most seductive manifestation as Mohiniattam, the official sanction for flaunting it has to come from the essence of a male god, Vishnu taking on the lure of the enchantress?
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