Poornima Laxmeshwar takes a look at three iconic protagonists of Hindu Epics and unravels the spool of women identity the way it existed a long time ago.
Indian Mythology is rife with women characters true to the values of the times in which they occurred and were recorded. Though some of the female characters display a feminist spark, verve and defiance, the trend really is towards submissiveness and obedience. Manusmriti, considered to be the referring guide of code of conduct for women has been appreciated by few scholars, feminists but discarded by the rest.
The two major Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were written by men in the patriarchal system. It is largely believed that the epics were also interpreted and transmitted by a particular class of men, the Brahmins, who had vested interest both in maintaining their status and in controlling the female population. Women were not allowed to read or hear the scriptures as per the rules across all classes of the society. This gave the men immense freedom where the women lost any chance to disagree to anything that was being addressed and thus, created enough monopoly to shape the mythological characters as per the will of the men.
Sita: The first trait that strikes us when we hear Sita’s name is that of submissiveness. But what is noteworthy is that even though Rama was adamant about going to Vanavas alone, Sita challenged him. She did not heed his command and firmly followed him to the forest. At the end of the epic drama, when Rama refused to believe her chastity and asked her to take the Agni Pariksha for the second time, Sita agreed but decided to never return to Rama despite several pleas from him. These incidents suggest that Sita had a mind of her own and did what any wise woman would have done. Though there have been instances that her second Agni Pariksha was entirely removed from few scriptures to appease the patriarchal society what cannot be ignored is that she was an intelligent woman who was unafraid to stand for what was right.
Draupadi: Wife of the five Pandava brothers, Draupadi is known for her well rounded, intelligent and spirited character though not exactly ‘ideal’ as per the societal norms. Draupadi, who represents the most famous case of polyandry in Indian mythology, has an interesting background. Shared by the brothers in a cyclic manner, Draupadi is portrayed as having excellent wifely skills who never fails to please her husbands. Every husband got to spend one entire year with her while others waited for four years for the next turn. No other brother would intervene during this period and the arrangement was made keeping privacy and emotions of everyone involved. But when compared to any other female mythological character Draupadi is not the one who takes suffering easily. Her interest and discussions about Dharma often reflect her keen interest in philosophy and knowledge. Yudhishthira is very supportive of her opinions and encourages their discussions which may be why she is so articulate. But when he stakes her in the gambling, she questions his right. She is unforgiving and pledges revenge.
Kunti: Daughter of King Sura and wife of the king of Hastinapur, Pandu, Kunti has a life full of ups and downs. Kunti upon being reminded of her maternal responsibility chose not to jump in her husband’s pyre and chose to take care of her children instead. The decision wasn’t easy but she made sure that her sons had a good upbringing despite the negativity that they faced with their enemies Kauravas around. And throughout this period, she stood with patience and perseverance in a way befitting Kshatriya dharma.
One of the most controversial point in Kunti’s story is that Kunti purposely didn’t go back on her decision to make Draupadi the common wife of her five sons even after realising that Arjuna was talking about a person and not an object. It is said that she wanted to bind her sons and having five separate wives would have made that difficult. It is also important to know that wwhile Kunti was indifferent to the loss of Indraprastha she was aggrieved with the manner in which Draupadi was treated. She provoked her sons to fight for justice even if that could lead to war against family and friends.
If you notice, the women characters in Indian mythology have traits that surprise us at times and at other times appear inexplicable. The fact is that that these characters were curated and edited to suit the needs of a patriarchal society. While Sita has been hailed for her sacrificing nature, Draupadi has been known for her sharp oratory and comments and has been branded as being the centrifugal force that caused the Mahabharata. The epics have survived several revisions that ride high on opinions. Hindu religion through its mythology and epics, continues to keep the women at a subjugated level.
However, there have been instances which indicate that these women had a will of their own too. But it is immediately established that the consequences of defiance are brutal, punishing and unforgivable. For instance, Sita did not adhere to Laxman’s instructions of staying within the boundary drawn by him and hence was subjected to suffering and ridicule. Also, another noted example is of Ahilya who was cursed by her saint husband on charges of infidelity and turned to stone. There’s an important lesson lurking here somewhere which our epics are trying to convey even up until these modern times. Are we missing a point somewhere? Or are we now trying to establish that women have the right to defy norms and procedures and are well equipped to bear the consequences of their actions. Or more primarily, do there need to be consequences at all? The point is open to debate.
Citing examples of cases from mythology where when women defy, the consequences are always negative, are now being challenged by contemporary writers. While the famous characters discussed above have enjoyed the limelight, books like Sita’s Sister and Karna’s Wife, Yuganta, Yajnaseni explore other important characters and voice out their injustices with equal importance and compassion. Even Chitra Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions talk openly about Draupadi’s love for Karna and gives a view of Mahabharata as imagined by her. Hopefully, this movement will retain its momentum and tell the world what a woman’s actual potential is.
Poornima is a Freelance content writer, Academic and Research writer and Proofreader based in Bangalore.
Cover Design: Vinita Agrawal