Monday January 22, 2018

Vivaha Panchami: Celebrating Rama’s marriage to Sita

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Vivaha Panchami
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By Nithin Sridhar

Vivaha i.e. marriage is a sacred bond, a commitment between two people who take a vow to pursue their desires, dreams, and duties together. And Hinduism, which has always upheld Grihasta ashrama (the stage of marriage) as one of the most important stages in society, cherishes this beautiful bond by celebrating every year the ‘Vivaha’ of Lord Rama and Devi Sita.

Every year the festival, which is named as ‘Vivaha Panchami, is observed on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of Margashirsha month. This year the day has fallen on December 16, i.e. today.

Lord Rama is called as ‘Dharma Murti (the symbol of righteousness/duty) by Maharishi Valmiki in Ramayana. The Hindu tradition has always looked up to Rama as an epitome of the best in humans- as a King, as a son, as a brother, and of course as a Husband.

But, in modern times, Rama’s treatment of Sita has been seriously questioned and severely criticized by many liberals, feminists, and even common Hindus. In view of such criticism, the celebration of Rama’s marriage to Sita as ‘Vivaha Panchami’ may appear as incorrect or without any meaning, or downright misogynist to many people.

Thus, it becomes very vital to examine the life of Rama and his relationship with Sita especially in the context of Rama’s actions that have been criticized.

There is nothing wrong per se in questioning and criticizing, but an analysis of the past, especially the judgment of morality of characters from the past should never be done by imposing current notions of morality on the past. Such, impositions of our own pre-conceived notions without taking into account the essence and worldview of the scriptures which speak about a particular incident will almost always result into distortions.

The criticism of Rama’s treatment of Sita is on two counts: One, after the slaying of Ravana, Rama did not go straight away to meet Sita. He, instead, made her prove her purity by ‘Agni Pariksha’ (trial by fire). Two, Rama abandoned a pregnant Sita in the forest because some of his subjects raised questions about her character.

These two actions of Rama have been used to portray Rama as a bad husband and a misogynist. Further, Sita is portrayed as a submissive woman who is forced to follow her husband’s whims and fancies. But it is conveniently ignored that Rama went to war with Ravana for saving Sita and that Rama never married again even after sending Sita to the forest. In fact, he conducted Yajna’s with an idol of Sita beside him.

Also Read: Marriage is a commitment, not contract

Let us, for a moment, forget that Rama was an avatara of Lord Vishnu. As far as Valmiki Ramayana is concerned, Rama perceives himself just as a Man. But, the Ramayana tells that he was such a man whose every action was taken after examining all available paths and the righteousness of each path. He tried to stick to his duties even in the most difficult situation despite enormous sufferings he had to face.

Now, coming to the episode of Agni-Pariksha, a careful reading of Valmiki Ramayana shows that it was Sita, who said she would enter the fire and not Rama (Yuddha Khanda 116.18-19). Though, Rama did not stop it and, in fact, allowed it to happen, it is wrong to say that he specifically asked her to enter the fire.

In any case, the question to be asked is, why did Rama allow Sita to enter fire? Does it show that Rama doubted her character?

In answer to the second question, Rama himself has given a clear ‘No’. In Yuddha Khanda 118.13-20, Rama explicitly stated that he knew that Sita is without blemish and no one can violate her. He has repeated this statement that he never doubted Sita again and again.

But, he adds, as if in answer to the first question, that Sita was allowed to go through Agni-Pariksha because otherwise people would have questioned her character as well as his decision to accept her. He further adds that she deserved to be proven innocent and without faults in front of the whole world.

Thus, his actions were not only guided by the fact that he was about to become a King and Kings do not have the privilege of ‘privacy’ and have a duty to be morally unquestionable, but also by his desire to show to the world that his wife is innocent and hence, no person should ever raise a finger against her. Rama was simply trying to do his duty as a husband as well as his duty as a future King. The episode can serve as the best example of nuanced and deep love which do not always become obvious.

The fact that after the Agni-Pariksha, when Sita heard Rama’s explanations, instead of refusing to go back to Rama, she was happily united with him, establishes beyond doubt that Sita did not view Rama’s actions as misogynist, instead she clearly understood the compulsions and subtle love that made Rama act the way he did. Rama, in fact, calls Sita as being non-different from him, the way sunlight is non-different from the Sun which again goes to show his deep commitment and love for Sita.

Another issue raised regarding the Agni-Pariksha episode is that it portrays Sita as meek and submissive to her husband. Sita was no doubt a dedicated wife, but she was by no means meek or submissive. This is clearly brought forward in the chapter 117 of the same section, where Sita criticizes Rama’s behavior towards her. She boldly calls out the wrong treatment being meted out to her, though she was without fault. Sita was so self-confident and assertive that she decided to enter the fire to prove her innocence.

Now coming to the episode when Rama abandoned Sita when some people in his kingdom raised doubts over her chastity. The episode is a fine example of what is called as ‘Dharma-sankata, wherein a person sees himself in a situation where various duties clashes and no path is completely right.

Rama could have simply ignored the citizens’ questions about Sita’s chastity and his acceptance of her as his wife. But then the rumors would have spread like fire and defamed Sita. Further, many people would have misused it to justify their own acts of cheating and adultery. As a husband, Rama could not allow his wife to be defamed like that and as a king, he could not allow adultery to be accepted as a virtue especially by wrongly quoting Rama-Sita as an example.

Rama could have punished all those people who questioned their queen’s character, but then he would be called as an oppressor who oppressed his people! Rama loved his citizens, he never wanted to cause suffering to them on his account. So, he obviously did not choose it.

Rama could have simply abandoned his Kingdom and went away with Sita to the forest. But then it would have meant that he abandoned his own children because a King is like a father to his subjects. A King’s duty towards his citizens always comes before other duties just as a father’s duties towards his sons and daughters comes before other duties. Would Sita, who was well versed in Vedas and Dharma, have approved of such abandonment of duty by Rama for her sake? It is highly unlikely.

Rama could have called Sita and asked her to take another Agni-Pariksha. But, this would have been an insult to his wife, whom he loved dearly. So, instead of taking any of the above-mentioned options wherein he would have either abandoned his duty as King, or caused insult to Sita, he took the path which caused him, and Sita, enormous personal suffering, but it neither insulted Sita nor caused abandonment of his Kingly duties.

Thus, Rama’s act of leaving Sita near Valmiki’s hermitage was not an act of misogyny. It was an act of supreme sacrifice, wherein he chose to suffer from pangs of separation from Sita and subjected Sita- his better half to such a suffering as well. The love and bond between Rama and Sita remained intact despite their separation. This is clearly established by the fact that Rama never married another woman and he kept a golden statue of Sita with him and Sita never taught her children to hate their father.

The relationship between Rama and Sita should not be perceived in black and white. Life is not black and white. Their life, just as ours in today’s society, had many complications and difficult situations. Rama took the decision he perceived as the best among the various options available to him at that time. He was always united with Sita in his heart and Sita with Rama.

This unity in the hearts and minds despite physical separation or innumerable challenges and obstacles posed by life is the ultimate ideal of ‘Vivaha’ and this is what should be remembered and celebrated by everyone, especially the couples during ‘Vivaha Panchami’.

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Respected Holy Father: You need to walk the talk and stop Conversion, says Maria Wirth

Holy Father, if you are serious about respecting other religions, the claim of exclusiveness must be scrapped and Hindus who have given to the world a deep philosophy and a great culture, must be respected

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Pope and Conversions of Hindus
Pope visits to Asia are often seen with suspicion of boosting religious conversions. Pope Francis greets believers as he arrives for a mass in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 1, 2017.

This was in December of 2013. Prominent spiritual activist Maria Wirth- who has made India her home- wrote this open letter to Pope. Maria says that on her recent visit to South India, she came across an increasing number of Churches and decided to bring this to the attention of Pope and appeal to him to stop conversion as Hindus do not need it.

Here is the letter. 

Respected Holy Father,

Great hope for a positive change in the Catholic Church is pinned on your Pontificate and recent statements indicate that this hope may not be misplaced. The future, your Holiness said in November 2013, is in the “respectful coexistence of diversity and in the fundamental right to religious freedom in all its dimensions, and not in muting the different voices of religion”.

This statement makes eminent sense and would need to be implemented by all who presently do not subscribe to a respectful coexistence of diversity in regard to religions. However, I sense (wrongly maybe) that it is a plea for other religions to respect Christianity, rather than a commitment by the Church to respect other religions. To be precise, since Christians are occasionally persecuted in Islamic countries, it seems to be an appeal to ‘live and let live’ between the two biggest religions on earth.

Your Holiness is aware that both, Christianity and Islam, claim to be the only true religion and their God, respectively Allah alone is true. Both religions further hold that all people on earth have to accept this claim and join their particular religion to be saved and reach heaven or paradise. Both give a serious warning to those who don’t join: they will land up eternally in hell. These claims of exclusiveness are made without any evidence whatsoever, apart from the fact that the claims contradict each other, as both cannot be true. They require blind belief, and as blind, unreasonable belief is not natural for human beings, for many centuries it was enforced with state power and indoctrinated right from childhood with the fear of hell as the boogeyman.

May I ask Your Holiness to ponder how the respectful coexistence of diversity and the fundamental right to religious freedom is possible as long as these claims of exclusiveness are in place? Were these claims originally made to gain political power or were they made in the interest of the spiritual welfare of humanity? And may I also ask whether Your Holiness personally believes in these claims?

I trust that privately, Your Holiness does not believe in them, as media reported your statement that good atheists also will be redeemed. In other words, they won’t go automatically to hell. However, the Vatican took pains to clarify that Your Holiness did not mean it. Even my mother, 95 and a staunch Catholic all her life, expressed dismay that a perfectly sensible statement by the Pope was watered down.

Your Holiness may feel compelled for worldly reasons to stick to the claim of exclusiveness as dropping it would entail wrapping up all conversion attempts and in the process lose power, wealth and influence. Further there may be fear that other Christian denominations will not go along and will gain an advantage over the Catholic Church. Still another worry may be that Islam will not drop the claim of exclusiveness and will push aggressively for conversion.

However, the Catholic Church was the first institution to put up this baseless claim, which has brought unspeakable disaster upon humankind. From this claim the Church derived not only the ‘right’, but the ‘duty’ to storm across the globe and impose forcefully her ‘belief system’ – in Europe, in the Americas and in Africa and now in Asia. It was no doubt an ingenious ploy to claim that God wants everyone to become Christian. . Mark Twain famously said, “Religion was born when the first con-man met the first fool”. I would change it, “Dogmatic religion was born when ….”.

Some centuries later, Islam followed suit, claiming that Allah wants everyone to accept Islam, and we all know the violent conflicts resulting from those unsubstantiated claims. Since the Catholic Church started this disastrous trend, she needs to reverse it. The welfare of humanity as a whole has to be the concern and not the welfare of a religious institution. Hopefully Your Holiness has the courage to make a real, clear change for the better and will not fall for hairsplitting theological arguments, like ‘redemption is possible but not salvation’, etc.

Most Christians especially in Europe don’t believe anymore in unreasonable claims. The sad thing is that together with the dogmas, many reject belief in God altogether. They have not learnt to listen to their conscience and to enquire into truth, as the Church has played the role of the conscience- and truth-keeper for too long. The consequences for our societies are there for everyone to see.

However, many Christians do start pondering and believe in a ‘great power’, but not in the Christian God. For example, when I asked some fifty Christians in Germany whether they believe that Hindus who heard about Jesus Christ, but do not convert, will go to hell, nobody said yes. Even a priest said no. And not a single German I met was in favour of missionary activity in India. Yet Pope John Paul II declared in India the intention of the Church to plant the cross in Asia in the new millennium and considered India as a field for a rich harvest, which goes completely against ‘respectful coexistence’.

I live in India since 33 years and can assert with full confidence that India has no need of Christian missionaries, and yet huge sums of money are being pumped in to lure converts with material benefits and to build churches. I am aware that Your Holiness is responsible only for Catholics and not for the myriad of other Christian denominations that prey on poor Hindus, but if the Catholic Church made a start of truly respecting Hindus, it would have a big impact.

Maybe Your Holiness is under the impression that Hinduism is a depraved religion and Hindus would do well to accept the Christian God instead of their multiple gods. Such an impression would be completely wrong. There is no other religion that is –unjustly – denigrated as badly as Hinduism. Sorry to say that Christian (including Catholic) missionaries are in the forefront of this vilification campaign. Few people in the west know how profound India’s ancient tradition is. A solid philosophical basis for our existence and helpful tenets for a fulfilling, meaningful life had been known in India long before ‘religions’, as we know them today, came into being. The only addition Christianity brought in anew, are unverifiable dogmas that cannot possibly have a bearing on the absolute Truth. Can an event in history impact the absolute Truth? Will Truth make a distinction between people who are baptized and those who are not? “There is no salvation outside the Church” is, and I may be excused for using strong language, ridiculous.

The Indian rishis had discovered ages ago that an all-pervading Presence is at the core of this universe, indescribable, but best described as absolute consciousness. Further, the Hindu law of karma preceded the Christian dictum “as you sow so you reap’. A Council stopped Christians from believing in rebirth which would explain many riddles that trouble them, for example why there is great injustice already at birth? The advantage of having a perfect person as a friend and guide on the spiritual path was known in India, but till some 2000 years ago nobody claimed that ‘only’ Krishna or ‘only’ Ram or ‘only’ Buddha can lead to salvation and that whoever does not believe it, goes to hell. “Truth is One, the wise call it by many names”, the Indian rishis declared and listed different names of gods. That was at a time, when Christianity was nowhere in sight. Surely they would have included ‘God’ as another name and Jesus as an avatar, not expecting to be backstabbed by followers of “God” declaring: “Truth is one and must be called only by one name and is fully revealed only in one book.”

Hinduism incorporates oneness with the divine, says Maria Wirth
Maria Wirth. Twitter

The multiple gods in Hinduism are personified powers that help to access the formless, nameless Presence that is in all of us. Christians in India are told that Hindu gods are devils. At the same time, Christianity tries to revive (possibly inspired by Hinduism) belief in angels, as devotion for the Invisible is easier by focusing on images.

Hinduism is not a belief system. It is a knowledge system. It is a genuine enquiry into what is true about us and the world. Hindus are not required to believe anything that does not make sense and can never be verified. There is complete freedom. Yes, most believe in rebirth, which makes sense. Most believe in an all pervading Brahman (many other names are in use) that is also in humans. Most believe that this divine essence can be experienced in oneself, if the person purifies herself by certain disciplines coupled with devotion. This belief is verifiable. It is not blind. There were many Rishis who realized their oneness with Brahman. In Christianity, too, there were mystics who experienced oneness with the Divine like Meister Eckhart did. Sadly, he was excommunicated by the Church. Why is the Church resisting scientific insight that there is some mystery essence in everything? And why is it difficult to accept that in the long, long history of humanity, there were several, not only one, outstanding personalities who showed the way to the truth?

Holy Father, I request you in all sincerity to be such an outstanding personality who guides his followers on a path of expansion, and does not straight-jacket them into an unbelievable belief system, which among others demands converting Hindus to Christianity. Your Holiness is venerated as the representative of the Highest Power in this universe by over a billion of Catholics. Many of your predecessors were not worthy of this veneration. Utmost truthfulness and integrity are required. Calculations about worldly power must not come in the way. The Catholic Church surely would benefit, not lose out, if it honors Truth and gives up its claim that there is no salvation outside the Church. Truth cannot be cheated; neither can it be contained in a book. Truth is what we basically are. Hindus, whose religion is universal and all-encompassing, respect diverse traditions. They are one of the most cultured, gentle and peace-loving people on earth who live and let live, unless greatly provoked.

Holy Father, if you are serious about respecting other religions, the claim of exclusiveness must be scrapped and Hindus who have given to the world a deep philosophy and a great culture, must be respected. Many of us look forward to hearing truly good news from the Catholic Church under your stewardship. The main issue that plagues the Church is not whether women should be priests or whether divorcees can take Holy Communion .The main issue is the unfounded claim of exclusiveness regarding ‘salvation’. It divides humanity into us who are right and saved, versus them who are wrong and damned. Kindly drop this harmful claim and make your Pontificate truly memorable and beneficial for all humanity.

Yours Sincerely

Maria Wirth

Posted as registered letter to Pope Francis on 10th  December 2013 from Puducherry, India.

The open letter was posted at Maria Wirth’s blog.