Thursday, December 8, 2011

The fantastic Indian role models

As anyone who knows me, offline or through my blogs, knows – I am, and always have been unhappy, irritated, angry and disappointed with the way I see many of the people around me behave, and with how they ARE. While venting about my understanding of the “why” behind how the new generations are turning out (Kids today!), I got to thinking about why the people I hate are the way they are. When you really think about it, it is hardly surprising, given how problematic I find most of the greatest cultural role models that we grow up with.

The epics are more than just books in India. They are all pervasive, underlying a huge number of festivals, traditions, daily lore, and even anchoring much of the language. So, we grow up with the stories and the characters, and overtly and covertly they are set up as role models, as ideals for us to follow or emulate. Considering what some of these characters and ideals are about, this can be a hugely problematic thing.  

Possibly our biggest ideal, the most IDEAL of role models, the one beacon that pretty much all men are supposed to aspire to be and all women are supposed to aspire to marry or give birth to is Ram. The title character of the ubiquitous Ramayana (practically THE cultural icon of India – worldwide), is otherwise known as the maryada purushottam – literally the best among men. Held up as the shining example of the ideal dutiful son, the perfect brother, the perfect husband, and the ideal warrior and king, he is the man who does no wrong, whose every move, every decision is another step on the path of righteousness.

This is drilled into us, in myriad spoken and unspoken ways, from the day we are born. Most of us never bother to think about or question these assumptions, and as I attempt to do so now I am expecting a large amount of flak, especially from the orthodox, traditionalist, narrow thinking, blindly following majority. If you really think about it, how does the life, and actions, of the great role model Ram stand up to scrutiny? Not very well in my opinion. What I find instead is a sometimes selfish, sometimes callous, sometimes egotistic, sometimes unethical MAN. Not a god, not an avatar, not the shining example of all righteousness, not the ultimate perfection in manliness, not an ideal anything, just a man, and not a particularly likable one either.

A man who kills from hiding (the Bali episode), kills someone he has no personal enmity with, who has done no harm to him or his, merely to form a political alliance may be human, and even shrewd, but is certainly not an epitome of ethical behaviour in my book. A man who spends roughly 10 years planning and executing a revenge for a slight to his ego, fighting a war in the process, killing thousands and laying waste to an entire nation, is hardly the best of men. OH wait! The war was supposedly about getting his beloved kidnapped wife back…right? WRONG! If that was true, the first reaction after rescuing her would not be “walk through fire to prove you have not been fu*#ing your brains out with that demon everyday”.

Even as an average woman with an average man as a partner, I know that the moment I have to PROVE my innocence/purity/chastity whatever is the minute I walk out of the relationship. And here we are talking about a GOD! An incarnation of Vishnu himself! One would expect a modicum of trust in his long suffering wife who has followed him into exile and lived in hardship all those years just to be near him! Also, she was kidnapped. So if she is no longer “pure” how is that her fault? RIGHT! It’s that old monster of victim blaming. Rape is the fault of the woman right? Now we are told in the Ramayana how Sita fended off the amorous advances of the demon with the sheer power of her fidelity … good for her, but unrealistic. If someone is strong enough to kidnap you, and really wishes to do further harm, chances are, he will. Does that mean the woman no longer has the right to be a wife? And is unacceptable to her family? No wonder we are still murdering the VICTIMS in the name of honour.

So what are we to learn from this IDEAL man so far? It’s ok to drop or ignore all your so-called much vaunted ethics if you have something to gain. Hmm that sounds about right, sounds like most of the people I know, and most human beings. It is ok to cause as much harm as necessary in order to avenge a perceived or real slight or insult. And it is not just fine, but divine to suspect your spouse and demand proof of purity and blame the victim. My! What an amazing role model so far. Already I begin to feel my insides churning in that special way that is reserved for the narrow minded MCP’s of the world.

So, now that the war is over, and the wife rescued and PROVEN 100% pure, one can head back to the long abandoned kingdom being looked after by the brother. Arrival, ascension to the throne, blah blah. Once he gets a taste of the throne, like all others who get one, he does not want to give it up. He is willing to throw his pregnant wife out of the kingdom, into the forest, because people gossip about her CHARACTER (a word which means only sexual purity in India), rather than relinquish the throne.  Not only that, he does not have the basic guts to face her, and tell her to her face that she must be sacrificed under the wheels of his royal ambitions. So, he sneakily sends his brother instead to take her for a nice drive, and then abandon her without any warning! The word of one narrow minded washerman, beating his wife for having stayed out all night, is worth more to him than any trust in his partner, any sense of the respect due to her, or any love she is owed. WOW! How perfectly divine!

So now, the pregnant wife lives in the forest, without any knowledge of what caused her fall from grace. She is lucky that she is taken in by a sage and gets to live, and give birth to her twins, in his hermitage. She could equally easily have become a fine meal for some wild animal, or been murdered or worse by bandits. Now, many years pass. In the meantime the chariot of royal ambitions rolls on until just one nation is no longer enough, and he sets out to perform an Ashwamedh yagya, a proxy way of establishing dominion over the neighbouring nations. In the course of this great proxy war, the horse is captured – and its escort regiment soundly defeated – by two children, preteens who live in an ashram, and appear to be the offspring of some ascetic.

Now what does our paragon of all virtues do? Does he go to bow to these amazing children? Does he laugh it off and move on? Neither! He sends an ARMY against two kids, again not led by himself, but by others. When this too loses, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna sent back in shame, and hanuman captured, he finally arrives himself, not to laud and praise the children, but in anger, to fight them. Presumably he too would have been soundly defeated, if the sage Valmiki hadn’t intervened to prevent the fight. He still doesn’t seem too interested in such amazing children (as any normal human being not jealous of their prowess would have been) and makes not much attempt to find out who they are, returning to his own capital instead.

When the sage Valmiki finally takes matters into his own hands, and takes Sita and her two sons to court, and their identity is finally revealed, much melodrama occurs. Of course, now that heirs have been found for his not inconsiderable empire, much of it newly acquired, the past is forgotten, and all imagined and real trespasses forgiven. Until, that is, another murmur arises about Sita’s chastity. After all, if she could have slept with Ravana during her captivity, how much more opportunity for being unfaithful in a jungle hermitage full of handsome, fit, young sadhus? So, YET AGAIN! Sita must walk through fire to prove she is PURE.

FINALLY! She shows some backbone, refuses this new test of her chastity, and basically leaves the man! Should have happened much earlier…but whatever, better late than never and all that. But what, let me ask again, does all this say of this paragon, this role model, this demigod? Nothing particularly good as far as I can see, and mostly things I would not stand for in anyone, let alone my partner or significant other!

No wonder we are the way we are. No wonder we have such screwed ideas about duty, love, relationships, marriage, honour, and what have you. And this is just one of the role models which permeate our consciousness as a nation. I will continue to analyse more, both men and women, in the next few blogposts, in an attempt to understand where a lot of our TYPICALLY Indian thought processes come from. 

1 comment:

  1. The great beauty of contemporary Indian culture is that the Ramayan is as influential as it is, with us having a far far greater epic at our disposal. Though, which models from the Mahabharat are celebrated is questionable, there is no doubt about its (inherent) complexity and actual engagement with many questions of ethics. There are many fatally flawed characters in the Mahabharat but they are much more real because of that.

    It has to be said that the Ramayan's popularity may be partially due to its simplicity as compared to the great epic. Also, in recent TV adaptations the Ramayan went on for much longer, and was even more distorted than in its native form.

    * There are of course many major problems in the Mahabharat, but they are presented as problems, though their current interpretation may make them appear less so.

    ** The problem also is, to a great extent, that very few Indians actually delve much deeper into these epics, or say for that matter into the life of a leader such as Gandhi. This leads to less questioning, and an overall poor understanding. You and I have all met people who recite from the epics but who as observed by their daily lives and general notion of ethics have very little actual, intellectual engagement with them.

    *** Finally, making those epics a religious tome, does the classic Bible effect. It becomes excruciatingly difficult to critique an Avatar of GOD. GOD is beyond reason.

    **** Though Krishna the most fascinating creature/character of all.