Saturday, May 15, 2010

Identity Value

Sita Devi “All blessings upon you, I am the daughter of Janaka, the great soul [mahatma] and King of Mithila. My name is Sita and I am the beloved queen of Lord Rama.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 47.3)

The concept of identity politics seems to have really taken off in recent times, but it is actually an age-old technique. Politicians running for office try to align themselves with various factions, or groups of people who base their identity off a certain trait or interest. For example, politicians will try to identify themselves as being for women, blacks, Hispanics, labor unions, gun owners, etc. This type of strategy is considered very important in regards to winning elections.

The White House In democratic elections, you can’t win over every voter. In two-man races, a simple majority of the vote is required for victory, meaning a large portion of the electorate can still be against you if you end up winning. Therefore most political strategists advise candidates to look at the voting base as a collection or amalgamation of groups and factions. For a candidate, the goal is to energize their base. The base is determined by the political party or set of ideas that the candidate stands for. As soon as you take a stand on any important issue in politics, people will immediately choose sides, resulting in some people being for you and some people being against you. The strategy is to adjust your stances on the issues in the just the right way so that more people are for you than are against you.

Identity politics is a great way to pick off various factions of voters and get them to become solidly in favor of your candidacy. Identity politics works because it tells voters that they can trust such and such candidate because they are similar to them in nature. For example, a black candidate will claim to identify with black voters. “I have been through the same struggles that you have. Therefore, if I am elected, I will fight for you every day.” This same principle applies to other voting groups such as women, minorities, and labor unions.

American flag While identity politics may help people get elected, its logic is seriously flawed. It makes the assumption that all people of a certain skin color, gender, or occupation think exactly the same way. If we give this idea any serious thought, we will quickly realize the flaw in its premise. All women don’t think alike. Every person in this world has certain qualities they inherit at the time of birth, and they also have certain desires that manifest throughout the course of their lifetime. This holds true for any person. The famous saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, is appropriate in this regard. The cover of a book serves as its presentation. Some book covers look nice, while others do not. However, the actual content of the book is a different issue. The book cover may be appealing, but it’s the actual words contained within the book that matter. The famous civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr, declared that it is the content of a person’s character that matters, and not the color of their skin.

Hanuman keeping Sita and Rama in his heart The idea of equality originates from the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India. Vedic information tells us that every living entity is a spirit soul at the core, and that the body simply serves as a covering for the soul. It is customary for a government to protect the citizens of its own country more so than the foreigners, or immigrants, who take up residence. A person who takes birth inside the physical boundaries of a country is classified as a national, and is automatically granted citizenship rights. Thus it is the duty of the government to take care of and protect all of its citizens, regardless of their physical attributes. By playing identity politics, groups and classes of people are pitted against one another. This goes against the very nature of government, and thus it is not surprising that most people remain unhappy with the politicians that run their country.

“If we can’t base our identity on our physical attributes, where should we get it from? The Vedas tell us that we are spirit souls, but what does that mean? What is the origin of the soul?” The Vedas tell us that we are part and parcel of God, or Lord Krishna. Our souls are mere fragments of the supreme whole, or the great soul who is known as Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. There is no difference in quality between a particle of gold and a huge block of gold. However, the huge block of gold is certainly greater in value, and thus more important and powerful. In a similar manner, God is the creator and origin of everything, thus His soul, Paramatma, is supreme. Our souls, jivatma, are similar to Paramatma is quality, but far inferior in quantity.

Since we are spirit souls, part and parcel of God, our original nature is that of servant to the Supreme Lord. Everyone serves something, whether they know it or not. Some serve their husband or wife, others serve their children, and others even serve their pets. This service attitude is there in people because that’s what makes them happy. This happiness is a watered down version of the pure bliss that the soul experiences when it engages in bhakti yoga, or devotional service to God. Based on these facts, we can see that every living entity’s true identity comes from their relationship to God. This is precisely how Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama, identified herself.

Sita Devi During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, Lord Krishna, God Himself, descended to earth in human form as Lord Rama. Maharaja Dasharatha was ruling the kingdom of Ayodhya at the time, and he wished for a son to whom he could pass down his kingdom. Also at the time, the demon race was quickly ascending to power throughout the world. To grant Dasharatha’s wish and to also curb the influence of the demons, God decided He would come to earth as a human and take birth as Dasharatha’s son.

When Rama reached the appropriate age, He was married to the daughter of the Maharaja Janaka, the King of Mithila. Janaka’s eldest daughter was a beautiful girl named Sita, whom he had found one day while ploughing a field. Sita was just a baby when Janaka found her, but he raised her and treated her as his most prized possession. After twelve years of marriage, Sita and Rama embarked on a fourteen year journey through the woods with Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana. On one particular day, the Rakshasa demon Ravana came to the group’s camp and created a diversion whereby both Rama and Lakshmana left Sita’s side. Ravana, in the guise of a mendicant, approached Sita and she responded by identifying herself.

Sita was an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, the wife of Lord Narayana. Lord Krishna is the original Godhead, but He has many direct expansions classified as vishnu-tattva. Lord Narayana is one of Krishna’s primary expansions, and thus He can be considered to be as good as God Himself. There is no difference between Krishna and His incarnations, meaning that one can worship Narayana, Rama, Krishna, Vishnu, etc. and they will be worshiping the same original God. Lakshmi is exquisitely beautiful, as was Sita. Sita also had many other great personal features and characteristics. Yet we see that when asked to identify herself by a stranger, Sita didn’t reference anything relating to her exalted personal status.

“He who attributes his virtues to You and holds himself responsible for his sinfulness; who fixes all his hopes on You and loves Your devotees-in his heart dwell, You and Sita.” (Maharishi Valmiki speaking to Lord Rama, Ramacharitamanasa, Ayodhya Kand, 130.1-4)

Sita identified herself in terms of her relationship with Rama, God Himself, and Janaka, a devotee of God. This is the behavior of a great soul. Devotees of the Lord know the truth, and thus they never take themselves to be exalted. The devotees are the true mahatmas, for Sita even referred to Janaka as being a mahatma when she identified herself. At the time of this incident, Sita had already compiled a great resume of pious deeds. She was famous throughout the world as an exemplary daughter, wife, and woman. The group was travelling through the forest because Rama had been punished by Dasharatha. Rama insisted that Sita remain in the kingdom, but she refused to abandon her husband. Given the chance to identify herself, Sita downplayed all her personal traits and instead used the opportunity to praise Rama and Janaka.

The lesson here is that we too should strive to base our identity off our relationship with God and His devotees. God is our original friend and object of affection, but due to our conditioned state, we have forgotten Him. It is through the mercy of the pure devotee, the spiritual master, that we can rekindle our loving relationship with God. If we take up the process of devotional service, and remain committed to honoring and serving the devotees, we will give up the false bodily designations we currently apply to ourselves. Instead of claiming to be Indian, American, black, white, man, or woman, if we simply view ourselves as humble servants of Sita and Rama, ours will be an identity worth having.