Sita, Ramayana, nature, and the Committee for Green Foothills

In the parks and along the trails of the Peninsula and South Valley, Indian families can be a common sight, with older women sometimes wearing saris and sandals picking their way along the dirt paths.

All cultures demonstrate a desire to be in nature and to seek wisdom. The strength of that interest in Indian and South Asian cultures transplanted to the Bay Area will have many sources, but one of those sources dates back to one of the most important epic stories from India, the Ramayana.

The myth, over two thousand years old, primarily concerns Prince Rama and a war he fought to recover his wife Sita from abduction by the demon king Ravana, followed by Rama’s ascension as a king himself. The story goes far beyond a simple plot to outline relationships and duties in a community and how to achieve the wisdom needed to perform one’s duties. Much of that wisdom comes from the extensive time spent in nature.

Prince Rama himself and one of his brothers spend fourteen years in “vanvas” (hermitage/exile) in a forest, where they lose their royal softness and learn from the spiritual hermits they encounter. In turn, Rama’s sons Lava and Kusha are born and grow up in vanvas under the tutelage of the sage Valmiki, and only returning to civilization when they become adult heirs of Rama.

The one person connecting these two episodes is Sita, who spent both periods in exile, first with her husband and then with her sons. Her willingness to be in nature, even during hardship, exceeds that of any other figure.

There almost seems to be a connection between this strong foundational figure of Indian literature living in nature with the many strong women that founded the nature conservation groups here in the Bay Area. Other connections between Ramayana and Bay Area nature include a positive attitude to animals – a monkey king and his army fight alongside Rama to retrieve the kidnapped Sita from demons. Even vultures, commonly sighted here but not looked on that fondly in European culture, are represented in Ramayana by the vulture demi-god Jatayu, who fights the demon Ravana to prevent Sita’s kidnapping from their forest home. Failing to stop the abduction and mortally wounded, Jatayu survives long enough to tell the frantic Rama the direction to search for his wife. Someone from this cultural background might not be disappointed to learn the big bird they see flying is a vulture instead of a hawk.

Sita even ties into the environmental concern with agriculture as much as nature. According to the myth, she was found as a baby in a plowed field, a daughter of the Mother Earth Goddess Bhuma Devi.

The Bay Area’s ethnic diversity will help strengthen its environmental commitment. The obvious enjoyment among Indian families for our local natural open spaces helps verify this, as does the wisdom of myths and legends from a diversity of cultural backgrounds.


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