Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In Sickness and In Health

Sita Rama “Oh dear husband…father, mother, son, brother, daughter-in-law, all of them abide by the consequences of their own actions, it is the wife alone, Oh best of men, that shares the fate of her husband; it is therefore that ever along with you I have been ordered to live in the forest.” (Sita Devi speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Section 27)

In Western society weddings are typically held in churches with a priest presiding over the ceremony. The bride and groom make their way to the altar, and then recite vows usually prepared beforehand. Recitation of these vows in the presence of a priest makes the wedding official. As part of the standard vows recited at most weddings, the bride and groom both promise to love each other in “sickness and in health”. The phrase that then follows is “til death do us part.” Even though such vows are made, we see that many marriages still end in divorce. So what goes wrong?

Starting with the women’s suffrage movement in 1920s, women have gradually been given more and more independence in society. Unlike the past, women play a prominent role in the work place and are given the same educational opportunities as men. Now free to pursue their own careers, women’s roles in marriages have drastically changed. In the past, they played the traditional role of a housewife, someone who would take care of the kids and manage the household affairs while the husband would go out and earn a living. In the modern age, both the man and the woman typically work in order to support the family. During the day, children are often dropped off in daycare centers or left under the care of babysitters or family members. The cost of living has dramatically increased, so in many instances two incomes are required to maintain a family.

The motives behind wanting independence and a career are very noble. There is nothing wrong with it in general. However, when we focus on our careers, other things in our life naturally will receive less attention. This holds true for both men and women. What can happen over time is that the husband and wife will gradually drift apart. Putting their personal interests ahead of their partner’s, the relationship suffers. Jealousy, anger, and resentment subsequently follow, all of which inevitably lead to divorce. The original marriage vows become dissolved in an instant through the help of the legal system. The marriage in essence doesn’t amount to anything more than a piece of paper.

Divorce is a tragic thing and it leaves us searching for answers as to what could have been done to prevent it. Authors of self-help books and relationship advice doctors make millions trying to solve this very problem. Television programs hosted by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil often deal with the subject of husband-wife relations, and these shows get very high ratings. The general consensus seems to be that relationships need more communication. The modern theory is that the husband and wife should both have equality in the relationship and that there needs to be compromise. We see this message being preached everywhere, but it doesn’t seem to be providing any results.

So what can be done to actually solve the problem? The answer can be found in the Vedas, the ancient teachings of India dating back to the beginning of time. According to Vedic doctrine, each one of us is responsible for our actions. We suffer both the good and bad consequences of our actions through the laws of karma. This belief is universal and is found in all religions. The Vedas make an exception however, in the case of married women. For a married women, her only dharma, or religious duty, is to serve her husband. Now many people often misinterpret this to mean that the wife should be the slave of the husband. That is not the case. On the contrary, the Vedas teach us that both the husband and wife have equality, but not how we think of it. Their equality lies in their fate. They are both spirit souls, with the wife’s spiritual fate being bound to her husband’s. It is for this reason that a girl should be married off to a man who is very pious. If a wife faithfully serves a pious husband, then she earns all the religious merits of her husband. If her husband is very sinful, then the wife will also suffer the consequences of his actions. It is for this reason that the Vedas instruct the wife to faithfully serve the husband and ensure that he remains on the proper path of virtue.

Lakshmi Narayana Lord Rama, an incarnation of Krishna, appeared in Ayodhya many thousands of years ago. As the eldest son of the king, Maharaja Dashratha, Rama was the heir apparent to the throne. On the day He was to be coronated, Dashrata instead banished the Lord to the forest for fourteen years. This order was enacted due to a promise the king had made to one of his wives, Kaikeyi. After hearing of the new plans, Lord Rama went back to His palace to tell His wife Sita the bad news. In telling her, the Lord instructed Sita to remain in Ayodhya and faithfully serve the king and other family members until His return. Sita Devi vehemently disagreed with the Lord’s decision not to take her, and gave a stirring speech in hopes of persuading Rama to allow her to accompany Him. Sita was the incarnation of Lakshmi, who is the eternal consort of Narayana, or God. Sita never wants to be separated from Rama and it for this reason that she refused to remain in the kingdom.

From her statements, we can see that she was the perfect woman. Her husband was the king’s favorite son and had all the riches in the world. Now that He was banished to the forest, where He would live a life akin to a homeless person, Sita still didn’t think any less of Him. “What happens to You, happens to me. Don’t think of me as being a separate person from You. We are one.” is what she thought. She stood by Her man, in sickness and in health. This is the example of a perfect wife.

Sita Devi spoke eloquently about the duties of a wife, but in actuality she was teaching us how to be perfect devotees. Sita’s decision to go to the forest was completely up to her. She could have easily remained in the kingdom and lived very comfortably. Instead, she voluntarily chose to subject herself to the austere conditions of forest life. She did this so that she could remain with Lord Rama, who was God Himself. This is the path laid out for all of us. The Vedas refer to the voluntary acceptance of austerities as tapasya. Tapasya means performing austerities for a spiritual benefit and for no other reason. Sita performed tapasya so that God would be pleased with her. We should follow her example and perform our own tapasya by abstaining from the four pillars of sinful life, namely meat eating, gambling, intoxication, and illicit sex life. Just like Sita, if we give up material pleasures as a sacrifice to the Lord and always chant his names “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, then we too will get to follow Him wherever He goes.