We grew up listening to stories from the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Narrated by Grandma, later got introduced to the stories through comic books and television series. If you have lived in India, it is just not possible to miss these stories. Even today, people choose the names of their children from the characters of these great epics.
One story that stuck with me is the story of Ramayana, 7000 years old Epic. There are seven episodes to this epic. It is the story of a prince called Rama, who fell in love with a beautiful princess called Sita, Rama and Sita got married. The king wanted Rama to become king but one of his wives asked that her son be made king and Rama to be sent into the forest for 14 years. The king was very sad but he had promised his wife she could have anything she wanted, so he sent Rama and Sita away. Rama’s step-brother Lakshman also went with them. They obediently and peacefully lived in the forest for 13 years, until one day a golden deer ran by them and Sita asked Rama and Lakshman to catch the deer for her as it was so beautiful. It is this episode that remained in my mind for a long time.
Rama chased the deer but it had all been a trick to get Rama away from Sita. On hearing Rama’s cries of help, Sita insisted that Lakshman go to his rescue. Lakshman hesitated. If he went out to help Rama, who would protect Sita? He came up with a solution: He draws a chalk outline, the ‘Lakshmana rekha’, around the cottage and casts a spell on it that prevents anyone from entering the boundary but allows people to exit, ‘Stay within!’ he told his sister-in-law, ‘Within is culture, where you are safe. Without is the forest, where no one is safe.’
And Lakshman went to look for Rama, while Sita was alone. An old holy man came by, he asked Sita for somewhere to rest and have some food and drink. The holy man was really the ten headed asura, called Ravana, who wanted to capture Sita and make her his wife. Sita offered alms to Ravana (who was in the disguise of a holy-man), from within the ‘rekha’. But Ravana refused to accept it until Sita would come out from the ‘rekha’. In those days Holy men had great power, if they were offended, their wrath could bring curse upon the offender. Sita was tricked into leaving the chalk outline/lakshman rekha, and was then forcibly carried away by Ravana to his castle on a remote island. This has been the turning point of the story.
The term lakhman rekha is loosely used in our culture, to remind one to stay within one’s limit. Staying within those limitations keep us safe, yet curb our potential. In the fear of the unknown consequences from crossing those limits, we forget to explore and evolve. In the story of Ramayana, Sita is depicted as an ideal wife who accompanies her husband and stays by his side, chooses to leave the comfort and luxury of the palace for a life of hardship in the jungles. She is supposed to follow the guidelines created for her safety; for how much noble she is, she needs a man to protect her. The story of the great epic shows how written Rules are created to protect organizations. Rules create efficiency while others de-risk the organization. Together they ensure the organization becomes controllable, predictable, and manageable. The moment she fails to abide by the rules, what happens? Her worst nightmare comes true. The war between the good and evil begins, killing so many and creating disharmony. In the end the good wins over evil, but we cannot tell what might be the story like, if Sita had stayed within the Lakhman rekha!
In today’s context, transferring the metaphor of Ravana to COVID-19. “Stepping outside the ‘Lakshman rekha’ of your house will set the nation backward, will jeopardize the safety and security of its people. Social distancing or self-isolation has been described as the act of staying away from public areas, avoiding mass gatherings, staying indoors and maintaining a distance is vital in curbing the spread of the Corona virus. Today, this Lakshman rekha isn’t just for the women, like Sita. This Lakshman rekha is as much for Raavana as it is for Rama and for Lakshman too. Because we believe that we are defenseless in front of COVID-19 as much as Sita was in front of Ravana in Ramayana.
Girls, like me, who grew up in this culture were made to believe that Sita is the role model who we should follow. And gleefully we would sacrifice our comfort, our career, and our dreams to fit into the archetype of Sita. What if the story was like this; Sita grew up in a mindful society, where she knew that Ravana existed within us, he is our Shadow-self, but he cannot harm you if you are aware of his nuisance value and you have the will to empower yourself by looking within. If Sita was, instead, taught to handle her Shadow-self, ‘the dark knight of the soul’; and learnt how to transform her darkness into knowledge, then Sita would not need to be protected. She would act responsibly, use her own potentials for her own safety. The society would not have to pay the price for her gullibility. Self-awareness is so vital today, knowing who we are in context to everything around us will make the planet harmoniously co-habitable. We would not need to look within only in the times of crisis. We would not need to stay within our ‘Lakshman Rekhas’, because of our vulnerability, or the fear of risking our lives to the Ravana outside. Ravanas today do not hide in the jungle, and they do not come in the disguise of holy men. They can guise themselves as a virus, to teach us to be self-aware, mindful, reflective, caring and nurturing.