Jean Houston tells the most delicious story of visiting a remote Indian village where the Ramayana was evolving right before her eyes...
Some years ago I found myself sitting on the ground in a small village in India watching a television dramatization of the Ramayana. The village's one television set was a source of great pride, and all the villagers had come in from their fields and houses to be inspired and entertained by the weekly hour in which the many episodes of this key myth of the Hindu world were so gloriously produced. The story told of Prince Rama (an avatar of the God Vishnu) and his noble wife, Princess Sita ( a human incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi) , and how they had been betrayed and banished to live in a forest for fourteen years. Nevertheless they are very happy, for Rama is noble, handsome and full of valor, while Sita is virtuous, beautiful and completely subservient to her husband. They are, in other words, the archaic ideal of the perfect married couple. Unfortunately, their forest idyll is brutally interrupted when Sita is abducted by the many headed, multi-armed demon, Ravanna, who promptly carries her off to his own kingdom of Sri Lanka. Enter the saintly monkey Hanuman, who with his army of monkeys and bears, along with Rama is eventually able to vanquish Ravanna and his formidable troops of demons and rescue Sita. Rama takes her back, however, only after he is convinced of her virtue and the fact that she not once "sat on the demon's lap".
There is never a minute in the Hindu world when this story is not enacted, sung, performed in a puppet show, a Balinese shadow play, or a stage or screen performance. It is the core myth of the Hindu psyche. And this television series was a lavish treatment, filled with spectacular effects, exotic costumes, thrilling music and dance, and acting appropriate to the playing of the gods. The villagers were as entranced as I, for this was religion, morality, and hopping good musical theater all in one. Furthermore, they were joined together in the knowledge that all over India at that moment hundreds of millions of people were watching this program with the same fascination. Suddenly, the old Brahmin lady who owned the television set and who was sitting next to me on the ground turned to me and said in lilting English, "Oh, I don't like Sita!"
"Pardon?" I was aghast. This was like my Sicilian grandmother saying that she doesn’t like the Madonna.
"No, I really don't like Sita. She is too weak, too passive. We women in India are much stronger than that. She should have something to do with her own rescue, not just sit there moaning and hoping that Rama will come. We need to change the story."
"But the story is at least three thousand years old!" I protested.
"Even more reason why we need to change it. Make Sita stronger. Let her make her own decisions. You know, my name is Sita and my husband's name is Rama. Very common names in India. He is a lazy bum. If any demon got him, I would have to go and make the rescue."
She turned and translated what she had just said to the others who were sitting around. They all laughed and agreed, especially the women. Then the villagers began to discuss what an alternative story, one that had Sita taking a much larger part, might look like. It was a revisionist’s dream, listening to people whose lives had not changed much over thousands of years actively rethinking their primal story. It was like sitting in a small town in southern Mississippi, listening to Christian fundamentalists rewrite the Bible. Astonished and exhilarated, I sensed that I was experiencing in this village a beginning stage of the re-invention of myth, the changing of the story. No matter that this primal tale was ancient beyond ancient, and venerable beyond venerable; it belonged to an outmoded perception of women and their relationship to men and society, and it had to change or go.
I should tell you that back in that village in India, when the beautiful episode from the Ramayana ended, and following the commercial interlude, the next program that all of India was watching was the prime-time soap opera of some seasons ago, Dynasty ! As I watched the dubious comings and goings of the characters, I didn't know where to hide my head. My hostess saw my embarrassment at the comparative low level of American television and patting my arm said, "Oh, sister, do not be embarrassed. Don't you see? It is the same story."
"How can you say that?"
"Oh, yes, indeed," she continued, her head wagging from side to side. "It is the same story. You've got the good man. You've got the bad man. You've got the good woman. You've got the bad woman. You've got the beautiful house, the beautiful clothes, the people flying through the air. You’ve got the good fighting against the evil. Oh, yes, indeed, it is the same story!"
Thus are myths and metaphors recast, so redesigning the human fabric and all our ways of seeing..
Today we are witnessing an even more rapid evolution of the story of women. With the viral rise of the “Me too” movement, how women are treated, what they can and cannot do is transforming before our eyes. And the impact of the change on our culture will be no less dramatic than thousands of years ago when the patriarchal cultures subsumed the earlier Goddess cultures.
What’s emerging now is a new story of the relationship between the masculine and the feminine never before experienced on this planet, which requires letting go of the old story, leaning into the future, trusting in our capacity for resilience, and being willing to move forward and be present to the emerging moment. These are skills that we can learn.