Senior Spotlight: Marissa McFadden ’17

Marissa McFadden in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re proud to announce that Marissa McFadden is one of this year’s recipients of the Department’s Outstanding Senior Award. 


Why did you major in Religion?

Marissa McFadden ’17 (left) during a study abroad program in India.

Being a religion major is the one part of my life that has not changed these past four years. I started my first year at UVM as a biochemistry and religion double major. I primarily majored in religion because I genuinely had a passion for thinking about world systems, languages, cultures, interactions and intersectionalities. But also, I thought that it would be a unique characteristic that I could present to medical school admissions. In high school I had an ounce of exposure to “world religions” and I knew that I wanted to take religion classes at whatever school I decided to go to. I do not think that I consciously knew it then, but my decision to major in religion was the beginning of my move away from the sciences, and more towards thinking about the world in an activist and highly critical manner. Religion is what countered my work in science and fostered my interest, and eventual switch from biochemistry to history, and eventually, social work. I have also found all of the Religion faculty members, even the ones that I have not had as professors, to be endlessly encouraging and supportive of my interests, goals, and wellbeing. 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I see myself working as a social worker in Vermont communities of high refugee and/or immigrant and/or low-income populations. I want to work on improving public health and academic equity in communities around northern and rural Vermont. I see myself critically thinking and applying all that I have learned in history and religion–but especially religion, to my work in a field which will presumably be filled with experiences, big questions, theories, intersectionalities, and policies relating to critical race theory, immigration, gender, culture, religious practice, and human rights.

[Editor’s note: Marissa will begin work toward her goals this Fall as a Master of Social Work candidate at UVM!]

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

Even thought it is a requirement, I would highly recommend a theory course, like Interpretation of Religion with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst. I took this course as a first year, with one intro religion course on my transcript. When I realized what I had gotten myself into, it absolutely scared me to death. I felt like this class was far beyond my years and I had no idea that it was a-typical for a first year to take this course. But, I loved every second of that class. It is the class where I learned how to think critically and develop my voice as a scholar of religion, and as an activist. Most importantly, it made me work hard, but not without enjoying the work that I was doing. I think about and use the things that I learned in that class on a daily basis and will probably continue to do so for the rest of my life.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

If I could write any book, it would be about the environmental devastation and public health injustices that have resulted from the U.S. military occupation in Vieques, Puerto Rico during the era of the Manhattan Project up through the early 2000s. There is very little scholarship on this and I think that writing a book on this topic would bring my history and religion majors together with my interests in public health, social work, and the history of my own family.

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

481 Main is the ultimate home away from home. I think I’ve spent some portion of at least 75% of my total waking days in the religion department over the years; mostly doing homework or reading… and an occasional nap on the couches. But the conversations I have had in that building are by far, my favorite—there is just something magical about that seminar room—and every professor in the department!

 

Senior Spotlight: Stephen Franze

Stephen Franze in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re proud to announce that Stephen Franze is this year’s recipient of the Department’s Outstanding Senior Award. 


Why did you major in Religion?

Stephen Franze '16, Outstanding Major Award recipient

Stephen Franze ’16, Outstanding Major Award recipient

My undergraduate career brought me all over the College of Arts and Sciences including Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, and Psychology. Up until a year ago I was actually on a BS track for Psychology. However, the Religion Department was finally the place I felt at home. I decided to switch to double major once I realized that Religion is the crossroads between all the disciplines I had been studying. What really won me over was the emphasis on critical theory and the fact that, for once, the professors were actually interested in what I thought about the material we were reading. Instead of regurgitating the information I was supposed to know, a major in Religion challenged me to express what I had learned.

 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Well, for one thing, I’m hoping to be debt free! Besides that fantasy, I see myself having finished at least a Master’s program in religious studies with an emphasis on Religion and Media. I think American culture has tried so hard to label itself as secular that religion has become a taboo at worst and “That thing my grandparents still adhere to” at best. Media has done a disservice to religious scholars and adherents across the country by not engaging the public with religion generally and not just in regards to terrorism or controversial social justice issues.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

Without hesitation I can say the one class people should not miss out on is REL 100 with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst. This was the class that made me say “I must be a Religion Major.” I cannot think of another class in any department where you can engage such a wide variety of theoretical topics and issues while being constantly invited to share the things with which you agree and disagree. It was the first time I actually felt like I was a scholar participating in the contemporary discourse.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

If I could write one book, it would be a satirical novella reflecting the current role and function of religion in contemporary US society. I want to find a way to get readers engaged so they can start to see and explore the ways religion impacts and constructs their lives regardless of whether they explicitly adhere to a particular religion.

Congratulations on receiving the 2016 Outstanding Senior in Religion Award! In addition to your actual award, you’ve also won the opportunity to answer an additional question:

How to you think what you’ve learned in Religion might helping you navigate challenges in your future?

The fact is we never stop learning, so I guess you could say Religion taught me how to learn. Some say we are living in the Information Age and thus we are constantly being bombarded with supposed facts and claims, with the worlds wealth of information sitting right at our fingertips in the form of the Internet. In a time of so much noise and so many voices, it is invaluable to learn the skills necessary to weed out the superfluous details and invalid arguments in order to find those kernels of truth that can so often get lost in all the noise. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Religion taught me how to critically approach anything that I want to learn and to identify the guise of misinformation which leads people to fully accept claims such as “A Glass of Red Wine a Day is the Equivalent to an Hour at the Gym.” (Yes, this is an actual article being shared by major news outlets!)

Senior Spotlight: Cristina MacKinnon

Cristina MacKinnon in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

Cristina MacKinnon '16

Cristina MacKinnon ’16

Why did you major in Religion? 

I decided to switch into a Religion major pretty late in my college career (Spring of Junior year?) because I realized how much I enjoyed the critical thinking and engagement we do that intersects with a variety of disciplines. Religion is never simply just religion, but something that is constantly interacting with history, politics, lived experiences, authority, and power – just to name some of my favorites. I have also found all of the Religion faculty members that I have worked with to be endlessly encouraging and supportive of my interests and goals, which makes me feel truly validated as someone who aspires to be a scholar.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Either pursuing a graduate degree in Religion (ancient/early Christianity, in particular) or happily teaching. Probably a dog-mom!

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would recommend Anne Clark’s “Religion and Ways of Knowing” because it stimulated conversation around a topic at the heart of the study of religion throughout the semester by using a variety of different traditions. It also introduced me to the book, the Impossibility of Religious Freedom by Winnifred Sullivan which I think provides an insightful and impactful look into how religions are understood and its practitioners treated in an American context.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

NOT Religion-related but — I am a huge music nerd and engaging in local (and even online) music scenes has had a huge influence on who I am today. So, I spend a lot of time thinking about how gender and race/ethnicity show up in localized music communities. I would love to explore these ideas more critically and write about it!

Senior Spotlight: Lily Fedorko

Lily Fedorko in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

Lily Fedorko ’16

Why did you major in Religion? 

When considering a major at the University of Vermont, I was stuck because my interests derived from history, politics, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology. I found that I could pursue all of those subjects in the religion department.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I hope to be living abroad and pursuing a career in the direction/administration of a Museum.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would have to ask which subject she’s most interested in. I love religious history and if she is likeminded – she cannot miss Anne Clark’s Christianity course. But if she wants to engage with a text through a more conversational course, she shouldn’t miss studying with Sugarman.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

It would be on post-Holocaust art resistution and its effects on Jewish identity recreation. It is also the subject of my colloquium paper (on a much smaller scale). I have fallen in love with the topic and want (and hope) to pursue it past this one paper.

Reflections of a Summer Intern

Over the summer, I was granted the wonderful opportunity to intern at Americana Community Center (ACC) in Louisville, Kentucky. ACC is an organization that specializes in refugee and immigrant services, with programs such as GED and English classes, a sewing class for adult women, after school kids programs, citizenship classes, and taxes and computer help. Louisville is a commonly chosen area for refugee resettlement, and the services that ACC provides the city and its refugee community is invaluable. The Youth Program, which is where I spent my time, is particularly important. My primary role at the Center was to teach art classes to middle and high school students.

My first day on the job, I messed up. I messed up in a way that I never expected. I pride myself on being a socially aware Religion major, where a major part of what I’ve learned is to see and confront privilege (including and maybe especially my own). On the first day, as the students filtered in, the other interns and I were doing a get-to-know-you exercise that involved moving around the room and switching seats. While one of the other interns was explaining how the game worked, I noticed two girls on the edge of the room murmuring to each other. Thinking to fulfill my role as one of the persons in charge, I confidently decided to discreetly quiet them so that it would not be distracting to the other kids. As the murmuring continued, as well as my efforts to shush them, I became extremely frustrated. I’m in charge here, I thought to myself. Why won’t they listen? Then, I started to listen to what they were actually saying to each other—and it hit me. These girls weren’t gossiping like I expected of two middle school aged girls; one of the girls was translating what was being said for the other.

Any time you are working with kids, there are always moments of both joy and frustration, amplified in this case by the language barrier that some of the children and I experienced. Most recent statistics for ACC note that there are families coming from 99 different countries all seeking services in some form or another, and while I consider myself a culturally conscious person given my background in religious studies, it was impossible to remain fully culturally competent in a way that catered to each and every child. Our ACC training in the area consisted of a brief training session and a few handouts (as examples, the two images below).

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“How is Culture Like A Car?” Handout

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Brief list of nonverbal cultural norms from a handful of contexts.

I spent my time at ACC very self-conscious of my own position and point of view (me, being a white, middle class, 20-something college student), and I came to understand the full extent to which my Religion major influences the way I act in multicultural contexts. I was very careful, perhaps overly so, to be sure not to offend any of the children I was working with (especially after shushing a translating student on my very first day) and to be understanding of the hardships many of them had faced as refugees or first-generation Americans. My position as an intern, an authority figure, and my background, all became very apparent to me in this context. We all know the horror stories of scholars on anthropological missions in the world, who, quite frankly, simply did not understand their position in the grand scheme of things, or used it to further racist, eurocentric aims–you know the ones I mean: middle-aged, white, Euro-American men who traveled around “discovering” people and who used words like “orient” and “exotic.”  Studying scholarly works over the past three years (which included the mistakes and assumptions that many an ethnographer and scholar before me has made) fostered a sense of caution that I myself didn’t even realize until being thrown into an environment where that sort of caution served me well.

Navigating the changing currents and whims of middle and high school aged children, new to the cultural landscape of America, simply would not have been possible without the knowledge and sensitivity I have gleaned over the years as a religion major. Yes, I made some embarrassing mistakes while at ACC, but also learned valuable lessons in the recognition of my own position, and the difference between recognizing this in theory (sitting in a classroom critiquing others and myself) and in practice (being immersed in the lives of children of variegated cultures and backgrounds).

Religion@UVM: The Class of 2015

Our Class of 2015 graduated on May 17, 2015. As we’ve come to know and love, they weren’t shy in proclaiming their success!

They are an accomplished bunch! As we featured before, Maeve Herrick won the Robert D. Benedict Award for the Best Essay in the Field of International Affairs. Kathryn Meader received the Outstanding Senior in Religion Award. At commencement, the Class of 2015–and their families and friends–learned that Joseph Oteng was a recipient of the prestigious Class of ’67 award. We are always honored to our students so visibly recognized for their hard work and achievements.

This class has impressed us throughout their careers. They’ve presented at the UVM Student Research Conference, served in our undergraduate Religion Club, served organizations across the University, and–most importantly–learned, worked, read, wrote, read more, and rewrote about religion.

This class, too, had the special distinction of helping us launch our new REL202 and REL203 sequence, which comprises a practicum for extended research and a colloquium, where one’s research is revised and expanded in the context of the graduating cohort and a faculty mentor. This year’s colloquium was led by Prof. Borchert, who took the seniors bowling, perhaps indelibly making a pin the Class of ’15 totem.

We’ve spent the better part of four years listening to these students argue, engage, and wrestle with ideas ranging from religion and pop culture in America to racialized religious formations to Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka to the very term “religion” itself. As their faculty, we’ve listened to their presentations and papers, read their blog posts and research, and written recommendation letters. Prof. Borchert even saw them bowl. These are animated, thoughtful students alumni, and we cannot wait to see what lies in store for them as their post-UVM lives unfold.

We don’t know what comes next, but we hope the Class of ’15 keeps in touch; we hope some of them will be featured as alumni bloggers soon; but we ask very little–only that they continue to think religion, with breadth and depth, in whatever comes next.


As is our ritual, the department hosted a post-commencement reception for our graduates and their loved ones. These are a selection of the photos; for more, visit our Facebook page here.

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Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst, graduate Zach Warner, and Prof. Thomas Chipumuro

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graduate Shakir Stephen

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graduate Maeve Herrick, Prof. Brennan, and Prof. Andrus

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Profs. Trainor and Andrus, graduate Kathryn Meader, Profs. Borchert and Brennan

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The Class of 2015! Joey Oteng, Kathryn Meader, Maeve Herrick, Shakir Stephen, and Zach Warner

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Prof. Thomas Chipumuro and graduate Joey Oteng

 

My Conference Experience: Presenting Research as An Undergrad

Selfie from L to R: Marissa, Ellen Eberst, Lily Fedorko, and S. Brent Plate

Selfie from L to R: Marissa, Ellen Eberst, Lily Fedorko, and S. Brent Plate

In March, I had the privilege to give a paper at the Syracuse University Undergraduate Conference on Religion and Culture. I have to say that it was one of the most tiring and stressful, but awesome experiences that I’ve had so far as a religion major. I met a lot of brilliant scholars, like S. Brent Plate (the Author of A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects), and I also met a lot of more senior undergraduates. But before I tell you what this experience was like for me, this intro wouldn’t suffice without giving a shout-out to Lily Fedorko and Ellen Eberst for driving the 5 hours there and back with me, and all of the moral support!!

I am interested in religion and gender, and the conference paper that I presented dealt with these topics; but this blog post needs a trigger warning, because in my paper, I explored cultural concepts about gender as well as the contemporary legal issues that surround the sensitive but important issue of rape. In my paper, “Gender in the Age of Contemporary India: Aspects of Masculinity, Femininity, and Contemporary Legal Issues in a Predominantly Hindu Society,” I wanted to sketch out some of the realities of rape in India as well as the ways in which it is impacted by Hindu traditions. This paper specifically discusses motives behind rapes that occur in India, and drew upon various sources including: article publications, legal texts, news articles and the Ramayana, a Hindu religious text. The Ramayana was significant in my research because there is a present theme of gender and women’s bodies, and how these are affected by power and honor. Being that the Ramayana is a historical and culturally influential text, I used it as a touchstone to talk about how Hindus might mobilize religious ideas about rape. To some extent, I found that rape in India is a gendered desire for honor and power (specifically in terms of males), in many of the cases that are reported by females. This may be simple, but I argued that texts are interpreted, and used in many ways, and one of the ways in which the Ramayana seems to be used is to structure patriarchal systems, including rape culture.

This project started out as an blog assignment for my Studies in Hindu Tradition Religion class with Professor Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst. She also helped me to edit my paper very short-notice and very extensively, for which I am eternally grateful. I was so happy to have my paper accepted to the conference, but to give a paper on my own research, that I was completely interested in, was both absolutely nerve-wracking and fulfilling. For me, there was a way in which I had this knowledge that I was presenting that I was seeing uniquely, and that was exciting; but I also had a looming sense that someone might be an expert and ask a question that I should know the answer to—but didn’t. I was scared of drawing blanks, or stuttering over my paper. Plus, I was nervous about the fact that I was presenting on a touchy issue.

IMG_6056-768x1024So with that said, I think fear deserves a lot of the credit in my success, at least during that point in time, because I was imagining things so hugely out of proportion to the point that when I got there, things seemed much smaller. I was still intimidated, but when I saw that I was in a classroom like those in Lafayette, rather than in a room like Billings Lecture Hall (which is colossal) I felt a lot better. There is a way in which I over-prepared, and that proved to be helpful in my situation.

The most important thing that I learned from this conference is that there is nothing to be worried about when you’re the center of attention in a room full of people, at a low-key conference because you have the same thing in common with (almost) everyone else there: you’re there to speak and they’re there to listen to you speak. I think that giving a paper is a great experience if you are interested in becoming an academic because it provides a way to get your name out there, conduct research for a purpose, and practice a key element of academic work.

If there was one thing that I was not expecting from this conference, it was that people (like, real-life PhD candidates and Professors) were impressed by my work (or so I was told!). I was shocked, and still am. But I am also humbled. I think that as undergrads, we might feel that our work is not important because we only do it for a grade in a specific class. In fact, our work is always given a letter, which in a lot of cases, is the only thing that we care about as students. But the conference that I went to showcased everyone’s work as something more than a grade. At the conference, each panel had moderators, who guided us in the sense that they told us how we could, and should do better work; that is, if we were willing to put in the effort. For example, one of the more significant critiques that I received was that my paper was solid, but could be part of some kind of bigger research and therefore, was a work-in-progress. And this makes sense to me because (at least in my universe) everything can, and should be better.

Now that I have participated in a conference, I know that I will probably continue to do so if I have the opportunity again. I have learned that conferences are actually awesome because you have the opportunity to network with great scholars and to hear what they have to say about your own work. To me, this is important because they’ve been where I am right now. Talking to PhD candidates and post-doctoral fellows, about their work and what they had to endure to get to where they are now, was kind of like looking at the light at the end of the tunnel, in terms of all of the hard work that is put into becoming an academic.

In terms of viewing myself as a future academic I have thought about the ways in which I could re-work this research. Ideally, I would like to narrow my research down to a more specific time frame. Right now, the partition of India is the historical context that I have in mind. In this context I would like to look comparatively the motives and dynamics behind the gender violence that occurred among Hindus and Muslims after the establishment of Pakistan as a state for Muslims, and India as a state for Hindus. I hope to find an answer to at least part of this question, as I continue to do work on this project in the future.

Senior op-ed highlights Religion

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Joey Oteng ’15 (image via UVM Orientation website)

In a recent article in the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s student newspaper, senior religion major Joey Oteng discussed religion and religion classes, and asked his readers to join the conversations so prevalent here at 481 Main Street.

Joey’s piece, “Why Religion Should be Discussed,” highlights some of the key questions religion majors are asked to tackle: religion in the public sphere; appropriation, adaptation, and adoption within and across religious traditions; how to talk about a subject fraught with politics and that might transgress mores of “polite dinner conversation.”

He wrote:

“We should want to study religion because it is all around us. Daily rituals as simple of rolling over every morning to check your phone, to mindful practices of yoga or even the culturally appropriated Hindu spring festival of Holi repurposed as secular color runs.”

Do read his whole piece, and then be sure to follow his advice: join us in the conversation.

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Student Research: Complications Within a Feminist Sita

This post originally appeared on the REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions blog. An explanation, introduction, and justification for my class’ final research project can be found here (and also here).
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Complications Within a Feminist Sita
by Kathryn Meader

Sita is often heralded as the ideal woman, the ideal wife, and the ideal mother. A monumental and intimidating character, she is almost more central to the Ramayana than Rama himself. She is the mother of Rama’s children, and cares for them as the poet Valmiki recounts her story. When Sita arrives on the banks of the Ganga, Narada says to the poet, “Get up, save her life, and let her live here with you and your companions; and make in measured words the song of Rama”(Buck, 6). She frames the story, and she sculpts the story, all while still maintaining an outward appearance of a demure, submissive wife. The image of an ideal wife as dependent upon her husband is an attractive one to a mainly misogynistic society, but what happens when women take ownership of Sita as a role model? Do they see a demure, restrained woman, or is she transformed? In feminist readings of the Ramayana, Sita is still seen as an ideal for every woman to strive for, but she is far from quiet. She is fierce as she endures a trial by fire to prove her faithfulness, and is strong as she defies her husband when he asks her a second time to walk through the flames. In many ways, this moment within the text can be used as a focal point from which to see the various ways in which her image is manipulated popularly in both feminist and traditional reads of the text.

In Madhu Kishwar’s article, “Yes to Sita, No to Ram” she explores the popular understanding of Sita as a woman “whose sense of Dharma is superior to and more awe inspiring than that of Ram – someone who puts even maryada purushottam Ram – the most perfect of men – to shame”(Kishwar,1).  This deeper read of Sita’s character is much more compelling than the simple, surface level understanding. She is not a meek woman who allows herself to be enslaved and mistreated by her husband. She is a fierce creature with a sense of pride and duty, whose rejection of Rama is the ultimate representation of dignity.

Looking at her actions within the Ramayana, one can open up the possibility for a feminist read of Sita that is at once empowering and quite complicated. It is complicated simply because if she is the ideal woman, and he the ideal man, how can the reader comprehend and rationalize the horrid mistreatment that Rama puts her through? In Linda Hess’s article “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife” she goes into an analysis of the various versions of the Ramayana and how these versions betray the cultural attitude towards Sita’s treatment, and what we can learn from these variations. She attempts to understand the issues involved with using such a complicated character as an image of empowerment, while she is simultaneously being used as an image of oppression.

Today more than ever before, Sita is a site of contestation. The Sita who clung to the dharma of worshiping her husband and bowing to his will, even when he repeatedly and cruelly rejected her, is still embraced as the ideal woman by many Hindus of both sexes. But others, increasingly, are describing that ideal as concocted by and serving the interests of dominant males from ancient times to the present. (Hess, 27-28)

The culminating moment of Sita’s story in the Ramayana comes during her trial by fire when she and Rama return victorious to Ayodhya. Her devotion to Ram is so complete that she is willing to walk to fire to prove that she had not touched or been touched by another man during her absence. His lack of faith in her, and unwillingness to prove to his people her innocence is what causes her eventual exile. This moment of Sita within the flames has been depicted countless times. Images have many layers of meaning, and every character in these depictions is giving us insight into the commentary of the artist. Sita is often shown serenely within the flames, with Agni by her side as Ram and Lakshman look on coldly. Hanuman is sometimes turned away from the sight. Each character is giving an opinion of the trial, as well as their opinion of Rama’s actions, through their body language.

“Sita’s Ordeal by Fire” (c.1895) from the British museum

In this popular depiction of the scene from c. 1895, Sita is as serene as ever, and the god Agni is faithfully by her side, but what is going on in the audience is very interesting. Rama is being restrained forcefully from entering the flames to save his love, while Hanuman shields his eyes (whether in aversion for the sight or disapproval of Ram, one cannot be sure). This version of the image is interesting because it illustrates the mixed feelings that Ram must have had about the ordeal for Sita. This image emphasizes the popular belief that Rama was wrong to exile her from the palace after she had proved herself to him, not to mention the fact that she was pregnant with twins. These opinions are not found within the text, and are a clear example of popular understanding of the story working its way into more widespread imagery.

Another important arena where a more feminist read of Sita flourishes is within the folk tradition of songs. In Rashmi Luthra’s article she goes into the connections between main female characters in the epics and the way they are represented in popular folk songs. The re-articulations within this setting create greater space for the elaboration and positioning of post-colonial Indian feminisms. The epics continue to be an important part of the cultural field and these appropriations are placed within the debate over the use of traditional narratives, in order to garner insight into the potential of the narratives as a resource for feminist projects. (Luthra, 35). Usha Zacharias is engaged in the same project of examining post-colonial feminisms in her article “Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation.” Zacharias moves between the development of Indian feminism and various instances of Sita’s character within the Ramayana, and serves to illustrate how Sita’s image is used to create the modern ideal of female citizenship. The ideal being pushed is that of a strong woman who stands up for herself, but also understands her place within the larger scheme.

Sita is a character that does not receive the development that she deserves within the text of the Ramayana. When she is understood in the hearts and minds of the readers, her personality and actions are elaborated in ways that are not always the way that the text intended. She can be used by the most traditional of men to set forth an example of their perfect, subordinate wife, while simultaneously being used as a rallying point for women who have had enough of their husbands. All who read her story carefully witness the strength within her character, but the way her image is employed in the popular arena illustrates the variations to be found within this ancient text.

Works Cited:

Buck, William, and B. A. van Nooten. Ramayana. Third Edition. Berkeley, Calif.; London: University of California Press, 2012.

Hess, Linda. “Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 67. No. 1 (March, 1999).

Kishwar, Madhu. “Yes to Sita, No to Ram: The Continuing Hold of Sita on Popular Imagination in India,” in Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Luthra, Rashmi. “Clearing Sacred Ground: Women-Centered Interpretations of the Indian Epics,” Feminist Formations 26, no. 2 (2014): 135–61.

Zacharias, Usha. “Trial by Fire: Gender, Power, and Citizenship in Narratives of the Nation.” Social Text 19, no. 4 (2001): 29–51.

“Sita’s Ordeal by Fire.” British Museum. (Click on image above for link)

Student Research: Rama and Ravana’s Divine Antagonism

This post originally appeared on the REL131: Studies in Hindu Traditions blog. An explanation, introduction, and justification for my class’ final research project can be found here (and also here).
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Rama and Ravana’s Divine Antagonism
by Celia DeLago

Standard depiction of Rama and Ravana's divinely antagonistic relationship.

Standard depiction of Rama and Ravana’s divinely antagonistic relationship.

Through this post, I will be exploring both the mystical relationship of Ravana and Rama; as well as how their characters were viewed moralistically at the time through the use of Tulsi’s views on society; to explore how Ravana and Rama’s relationship affects how we view the deeper messages that Valmiki gave us within the Ramayana.

The symbolism of Rama and Ravana’s relationship within Buck’s Ramayana, as well as through the lens of Tulsidas’ Ramacaritmanas, conveys complex philosophical concepts, such as the nirguna (supreme formless reality) and saguna (manifestation of god in form) aspects of reality through their, at times, antagonistic guru-disciple relationship. The multifaceted relationship of Rama and Ravana is not covered in every version of the Ramayana. However, William Buck’s retelling of this epic allows us to explore their deeper relationship through poetic language.

The potential guru-disciple relationship between Rama and Ravana shapes our perception of the philosophical concepts presented within the Ramayana. The narrative of the nuanced relationship between “good” and “evil,” encapsulated in Rama and Ravana’s feud, attempts to shape our views of reality. The acknowledgment of the ambiguity of “good” and “evil,” accentuated and played with by an eternal, infinite timeline, encourages and, at times, forces the reader to open their minds to a deeper understanding of reality. The infinite change that occurs as a result of the infinite timelines of the various deities leaves much room for the changing and developing of characters. The use of themes like telepathic communication, divine powers and mystical experience among the deities gives the readers a glimpse into the deeper, “true” reality beyond the epic of these characters. Ultimately, Ravana is defeated by Rama. Suka delivers a stone from Ravana to Rama, and we learn that Ravana is actually Rama’s devotee. Ravana lauds Rama as Lord Narayana, as the Supreme, and reveals that even while Rama is unaware that he is secretly a deity, Ravana has been aware all along, because his bhakti towards Rama and his desire to attain moksha through devotion to Rama has allowed him to always see Rama’s true form. Rama dismisses this revelation out-of-hand; and through this seemingly simple gesture, the dharma of Ravana is perfected and completed, as Rama lives on as king of Ayodhya (Buck).

As an interesting cultural observation: I decided to Google search phrases like "Rama's negative qualities" while doing research for this paper. Many people have posted questions such as, "Why is Ravana considered evil?," "What are some of Rama's negative traits?," etc. Here were some interesting responses (perhaps of Rama devotees and traditionalists) that I found.

As a cultural observation: I decided to Google phrases such as “Rama’s negative qualities” while doing research for this paper. Many people posted questions previously such as, “Why is Ravana considered evil?,” “What are some of Rama’s negative traits?,” etc. Here were some interesting responses that I found.

We can acknowledge the goodness within Ravana, and the lack of moral integrity and humanity within Rama; And ultimately, we must acknowledge their deeper relationship. Ravana’s goodness is highlighted and emphasized at important times (often before he is beaten down by humility once again). Ravana earned his boon through engaging in austerities for almost 10,000 years to Lord Shiva; was released from Lord Vishnu’s mountain-cage for his beautiful songs; and, ultimately, confessed his sincere guru-devotion to Rama (12, 35, 350-351 Buck). On the other hand, Rama engages in mutual deformation of Surpanakha and disrespect to Ravana; and continually treated Sita in reprehensible ways, requiring her to undergo Agni Pariksha (trial by fire), and ultimately banishing her while she is pregnant with two children (Buck).

The morality (and amorality) of both Rama and Ravana shapes the applicability of these concepts to our own lives: we may be intrigued by Ravana’s asceticism or beautiful singing, but his actions, such as killing the virtuous, saintly Vulture King Jatayu, may make us question the efficacy of, say, certain rituals, or moralistic beliefs and alliances. These multifaceted characters exist as animate representations of important archetypes and symbols found, for example, within various religious traditions: the duality of the yin-yang, as well as the tomoe; the boisterous behavior of the Greek and Roman gods, etc. Humans can relate to characters that have many facets, who fail and act in evil ways but also strive for goodness.

It is also important to investigate the ethics and morality of Ravana and Rama, informed by Tulsidas’ approach to society and his views on ethical, spiritual and social qualities found within Savitra Chandra’s article on Hindu social life (49, Chandra). Evaluating the characters of the Ramayana through the lens of the cultural attitudes of the time, we can gain a better understanding of how norms shaped the epic and thus informed cultural attitudes. It is easy to display some of the strange cognitive dissonance that seemingly comprises most of the characters in the Ramayana: Rama is held as the ultimate, the Supreme, but still performs actions that are deplorable. Ravana is a rapist, a misogynist and a murderer, as well as being a previously-devout ascetic for almost 10,000 years. The complexity of these characters affects how we interpret the philosophical concepts of Buck’s Ramayana by giving us these messages through questionable characters.

In Chandra’s “Two Aspects of Hindu Social Life and Thought,” we learned that, although Tulsidas was a bhakti devotee of Rama, a man considered a saint, he also held worrisome views about his basis of qualifying members of society (49, Chandra). Through Chandra’s description of uttam, we can conclude Rama falls within the high first category, and had obviously lorded over Ram-Rajya (the kingdom of Ram; the greatest kingdom in history before the fall into Kali Yuga): “The ethical and spiritual qualities…include humility, absence of arrogance, straightforwardness, equanimity, lack of attachment to worldly things, and above all, a sense of discrimination or understanding of good and bad” (49, Chandra). Chandra goes on to say that “Tulsi includes good rulers and their agents in the category of uttam” (Chandra, 50). Rama also committed negative deeds, towards Ravana and his sister Surpanakha, in a way that was lacking in humility. To summarize: “He seems utterly unaware of having done Ravana any harm” (97, Goldman).

It is also hard to decipher where Ravana belongs within Tulsi’s view of society. Chandra "Depiction of Satan," Gustave Doré c. 1868discusses nich, a person of low quality or status who needs to be kept firmly under control (Chandra, 52). We may very easily draw this parallel to Ravana, who is portrayed as the lowest of the low throughout the epic. We, as the readers, are encouraged to hate Ravana from the beginning solely based on the title of the epic. But Ravana is not evil through and through; Ravana is more akin to Satan, a fallen angel capable of goodness but prescribed by the fates to committing negative deeds until his death. At the same time, however, Ravana, like Rama, ruled over a kingdom (Lanka), and had devoted servants. He was born a Brahmin, and was an ascetic devotee of Lord Shiva.

Interestingly enough, those who would be considered nich by Tulsi have come to express sympathy for Ravana, often as a political gesture against oppression:

“Glorification of Ravana is not unknown. According to a minor tradition, the demons of Vishnu are successive reincarnations of his attendants, who take this form in order to be near him…In modern times, Tamil groups who oppose what they believe to be the political domination of southern India by the north view the story of Rama as an example of the Sanskritization and cultural repression of the south and express their sympathies for Ravana and against Rama.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Ravana has been utilized as a cultural, political symbol that extends beyond his original intended purpose within the myth, and for good reason. If we cannot clearly decipher the moral integrity of the designated antagonist, it is fair to say that we cannot trust that the appointed protagonist is worthy of our admiration.


Bibliography:

1.Eck, Diana. Darśan. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

2. Buck, William, and Vālmīki. Ramayana. Berkeley: University of California, 1976.

3. Velchuru Narayana Rao,“Rāmāyaṇa,” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Edition, ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 7616-7618.

4. Rama and Lakshmana Fighting Ravana (India, Pahari, Bilaspur School). 1750. Painting. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Edward L. Whittemore Fund, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

5. Savitri Chandra, “Two Aspects of Hindu Social Life and Thought, as Reflected in the Works of Tulsidas,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Feb., 1976), pp. 48-60.

6. Goldman, R., and J. Masson. “Who Knows Ravana?–A Narrative Difficulty in the Valmiki Ramayana.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 50.1/4 (1969): 95-100. JSTOR. Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/416942

7. McCrea, Lawrence. 2010. “Poetry beyond good and evil: Bilhaṇa and the tradition of patron-centered court epic.” Journal Of Indian Philosophy 38, no. 5: 503-518. ATLA Religion Database, EBSCOhost (accessed October 24, 2014).

Hyperlink Bibliography:

8. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Ravana.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

9. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Rama (Hindu Deity).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

10. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Tulsidas.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

11. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Ramayana (Indian Epic).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

12. “Ramcharitmanas.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. .

13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guru-shishya_tradition

14. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/653297/yinyang

15. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/585989/telepathy

  1. http://symboldictionary.net/?p=1660

17. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/244670/Greek-mythology

18. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/507866/Roman-religion

19. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/63933/bhakti

20. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/387852/moksha

21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surpanakha

22. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanka

23.http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/90/GustaveDoreParadiseLostSatanProfile.jpg