With the Supreme Court of India clearing way for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, we have arrived at the summit of masculine Hindu nationalism. Liberal Hindu writers like Pratap Bhanu Mehta are disappointed that the new temple will not embody their vision of an ideal Ram. After all, for most North Indian Hindus, Ram symbolises kindness and martial power.
Dravidian and Bahujan movements, though, have competing narratives about the Ramayana and advance their own sharp ideas about Ram. Among those who had other visions of Ram was BR Ambedkar. In Riddles in Hinduism, he referred to Ram as the “hero” of Ramayana but wondered if he was worthy of deification.
While Ram is the focus for nationalist Hinduisms, progressive, liberal Hindus need to recover the icon of Sita from her husband’s shadow. There is urgent reason to do so. In India, girls continue to be deprived of resources that their brothers receive. Forty percent of girls aged 15-18 are not in school. India ranks in the bottom section of the Asia and the Pacific region in the Gender Equality Index – at 95, it is close to Bangladesh at 102.
As India advances the idea of Ram Rajya, Hindutva seems to reaffirm patriarchal and masculine status anxieties. But there is hope – and that hope could lie in the figure of Sita. In her book, The Liberation of Sita, the Telugu writer Volga suggests such newer mythical interpretations and feminist possibilities.
Possible role models
Moving from the realm of mythology to real life, two women present themselves as role models: Shyamala and Kamala Harris. The humanistic life and achievement of these women could offer hope to progressive Hindus. Could we call them Cosmopolitan Sitas, women who hold out a promise of emancipation beyond religion, nation and caste?
Cosmopolitanism calls for alterity, based on free-flowing dialogue and possibilities of a new compassionate self. Rather than being guided by communal bonds tied to tradition, cosmopolitanism requires producing a set of new social relations through spontaneity and impulse that is artistic, free-flowing and based on pure humanity.
Shyamala Harris was lucky to have exceptional parents who believed in supporting her desire for education and to make her own decisions. Studying in the US in the late 1950s, Shyamala Harris evolved into a person with conscience. She went on to participate in the Civil Rights movement and to love and marry a Black man. Love and adventure knew no boundaries of caste, race or religion.
These qualities of adventure and compassion are what many immigrant Hindus in the US lack as they attempt to position themselves as honorary Whites. In some way, they reflect the attitudes of controversy-seeking Hindi film actress Kangana Ranaut, who vociferously criticises nepotism in Bollywood but holds on to caste pride and ethnic bigotry. Kangana Ranaut calls herself a proud Hindu-Rajput and Kshatriya, a religious woman who is fiercely independent but claims to be a feminist as well.
This is a seductive version of privileged cosmopolitanism that requires no revamping of culture or evaluation of regressive traditions. As caste sentiment dominates her purported humanism, Ranaut opposes social justice measures like reservations and is known to harbor anti-Muslim sentiments. This purported Hindu cosmopolitanism has caste hubris as its foundation and only aggravates hierarchical order of incivility. Kangana’s Hindu cosmopolitanism is seductive for members of the upper castes as it marginalises members of the lower castes and Muslims while reinforcing masculine Hindu nationalism.
Merely a lack of education cannot be blamed for such a caricature of cosmopolitanism. The cultural conditions for this idea have been aggravated by economic mobility and increased urbanisation in neo-liberal India. Privileged social groups have rolled forward economically but they have at the same time become socially conservative. A lack of liberal education has aggravated this problem.
A genuine cosmopolitanism
On the other hand, we see both the influence of liberal education and subaltern cultures reflected in Shyamala Harris. She was a renowned scientist and single mother. Before she died of colon cancer, she called for donations to a cancer foundation in lieu of flowers. Shyamala Gopalan seems to have attempted to practice the idea of vasudhaiva kutumbakkam ( the whole world is one family) not merely as rhetoric or a cunning strategy but rather as an attempt towards genuine cosmopolitanism.
While Ram is reinvented as mascot and saviour of masculine Hindutva, the Cosmopolitan Sita of the future will need to stand for universal compassion. This Sita cannot have caste pride: she will need education and genuine freedom. She may prefer a vegan diet and not caste-based pure vegetarianism – a broader canvas of love for non-human animals will need to be painted. Marriage does not need to be for seven lifetimes and divorce is a way of re-affirming that women can live happily without it.
Shyamal Gopalan’s daughter, Kamala Harris, is now the Democratic vice-presidential candidate. Despite her part-Brahmin roots, she underplays her upper caste ancestry. Instead, Kamala Harris deploys a broader discourse of freedom and universal brotherhood for the rights of non-white minorities in the US.
Mythical icons are important for contemporary Hindus and icons could take newer forms in keeping with needs and demands of justice and equality in changing times. Shyamala Gopalan and Kamala Harris in many ways symbolise the Cosmopolitan Sita and progressive future full of possibility. The making of the Cosmopolitan Sita requires the trust and investment of parents in their daughters’ freedom. More importantly, the Cosmopolitan Sita remains neither Brahmin nor Hindu: she is multi-racial and multi-religious as she takes up a humanist role – vasudhaiva kutumbakkam in actual practice.
Suryakant Waghmore teaches sociology at IIT-Bombay. He is author of Civility against Caste (Sage 2013) and co-editor of Civility in Crisis (Routledge, forthcoming). His Twitter handle is @Suryakant_Waghm. Views are personal