View-Points by Rita Banerji

Rita Banerji

Rita Banerji
January 13
Founder, Director
The 50 Million Missing Campaign
Writer and gender activist. Author of 'Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies,' (Penguin Global, 2009). Founder and Director of The 50 Million Missing Campaign (a global, online advocacy campaign fighting female genocide in India).

NOVEMBER 4, 2011 9:09AM

Diwali In The White House

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Diwali lamps on sale. Instead of oil these ones use electricity! And the as the labels and boxes indicate, they are "multipurpose!" Can be used for Christmas too!

Last week India celebrated Diwali — what is also sometimes called “the festival of lamps” because everyone lights their houses with lamps.  It is becoming a popular festival that the world associates with India, specially after President Obama began the tradition of celebrating Diwali in the White House by lighting a lamp.

As Obama pointed out, the symbolism of this festival, that of lighting a lamp in the dark — is of  "victory of light over darkness, hope over despair" etc. — which is what makes it so appealing to people visiting India at this time.  That in addition to the fact, that everything looks so pretty with hundreds of lamps lit everywhere.

The story behind Diwali, that millions of us in India have grown up with, is that of the victory of the Indian king Ram.  Ram’s wife, Sita, is said to have been kidnapped by the Sri Lankan king Ravana.  After a massive, bloody battle, Ram rescues Sita and brings her home.  And to welcome him home and celebrate his victory over evil, the people of India lit lamps.  Thus today essentially marks Ram’s victory in battle over Ravana — who in India is considered a force of evil.

Across the strait, in neighboring Sri Lanka, however, there is another version of this story that claims that Sita actually eloped with Ravana.  He just seemed like a more exciting prospect to her! And Ram — whose ego couldn’t take it, came down with his huge army and dragged her back.

Well, as used as we are in India — to swallow traditions, customs, myths and stories without thought, reflection and introspection, I have to say that there is an aspect of Rama’s story, that with or without the Sri Lankan twist to it, never appealed to me!  When Rama returned to India — and Sita had settled back in, the story goes that people in India started talking about how unfit a wife and queen she was having lived in a strange man’s house for so long.  As the debate on her condition of sexual “impurity” escalated, Ram, probably felt his masculinity challenged again, and decided to throw her out of his house.  Poor Sita, now pregnant, spent the remainder of her life, in exile, in a forest. A certain sage and poet, Valmiki, took her into his cottage and helped her and her children.

Rethinking this story, and the whole point of the festival — which is contending with certain basic moral principles of good and evil — the question I have wondered about, which I wish millions of Indians would too, is: Does a man who rescues his wife only to establish the supremacy of his virility, who kicks her out, pregnant and helpless, to avenge his smarting ego, deserve to be the symbolic hero of this day? In 3 generations we’ve killed more than 50 million women — unblinkingly in India!  Is this what the problem is? That somewhere, what we hold as sacred, what we hold as a moral meter, is what is fundamentally screwed up?

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