Sita Sings the Blues & Joseph Campbell

Sita Sings the Blues & Joseph Campbell

On occasion it seems wise to re-read some Joseph Campbell.

Last August, I saw a post on Boing Boing announcing that Nina Paley had generously released the original source files to her award-winning animated feature: “Sita Sings The Blues“. It noted that she was encouraging anyone to freely use the files in works of their own. I had seen and loved the film, and found this announcement very interesting.

At the time, I was working on a new song called “Can We Still?” and wondered if I might be able make a video for it using some of Ms. Paley’s animation. I downloaded several of the source files, and over the next several months worked on it with my rudimentary Flash and iMovie skills. Great fun.

As I neared completion, I read a tweet from Paley, that a petition had been started to “ban the film from the internet”. This sounded absurd. I had heard there was some controversy regarding the film, but “banning from the internet”?

I started reading the petition, and the overt hostility expressed by some of the petition-signers shocked me. It made me wonder if I should not release the video. I thought about it for days and then felt prompted to re-read some Joseph Campbell:

“All our names and images for God are masks, signifying the ultimate reality that by definition transcends language and art. A myth is a mask of God, too – a metaphor for what lies behind the visible world…

…Read the myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts – but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message…

…Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.”

“Truth is One; the sages call it by many names” (Rig Veda 1:164:46).

– Joseph Campbell speaking to Bill Moyers in “The Power of Myth”
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On my trip to India in 2007, my understanding of the importance of sacred objects, words and symbols was greatly enhanced. It was amazing to see how a sacred quality could be infused in everything from sidewalks to mountains.

However, isn’t the source of that sacred quality ultimately behind the symbols?

We all get offended by things on occasion, and I’m not arguing against someone’s right to feel offended. However, to express such hatred over someone else’s non-malicious interpretation of symbols strikes me as holding far too tightly to one’s mode of communion.

If we could keep in mind the symbolic and metaphoric nature of sacred objects, would it help ease offense and stop it from crossing over into hatred and violence?

Several of the petitioners imply “how would you feel if your religious symbols were reinterpreted?”. Personally, I am not bothered by it. I was exposed to Christianity growing up, but have no problem with Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”, in fact I think it’s both funny and important.

Anyways, the song and video remix are almost ready, I intend to put them out, and I’m grateful to Paley.

UPDATE April 26 / 2010: Appreciated this related article on BoingBoing :

What one Muslim guy thinks of South Park death threat/Mohammed controversy:

I am a Muslim and I am a fan of South Park. To make those terms mutually exclusive is polarizing and frankly, unproductive. Aasif Mandvi over at the Daily Show summarized my sentiment exactly when he said last night, ‘Yes, it [the depiction] would make me uncomfortable and I can understand people being upset about it…but here’s whats more upsetting. Someone, in the name of a faith that I believe in, threatening another person for doing it.'”—Kalsoom, at the Changing Up Pakistan blog (via Bassam Tariq)

Pick up some cool Sita gear like this t-shirt:


NOTE: This post doesn’t touch the other issues that she and her film raise – copyright, new distribution models. For more on that, check these links:

Ramayana isn’t Exclusive Property of Hindus: Nina Paley

– and this short documentary: