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Women In The Itihasas And Puranas


Our epics and Puranas, far from being relics of the past, continue to have significance even today– in our names, art, music, literature, theatre, folklores and ballads. And the contemporary revisioning and reinterpretations telling us stories of not gods and goddesses but Man, and his follies and fallacies which serve as lessons to the reader.

And in this great gamut is interwoven the lives of various women too. The ancient texts are much more complex when it comes to gender roles. Women in our epics are as diverse as it’s vastness. Besides Draupadi and Sita – the women protagonist of the respective epics – , we often do not register the significance of the other women of the ancient texts- the rishikas, the apsaras, the queens and the princesses, the mother, wife, daughter and sister who were all as much involved in the sociopolitical matters of the day. Can you imagine the Mahabharata without a Kunti? They remain in the sidelines for a reason. Because we do not see the epics through the women’s eyes, rather through men like Ram and Ravan, Krishna and Bhishma and Arjuna and Karna and Duryodhan often overlooking a Gandhari, Satyavati Hidimba or Shubadra in the Mahabharat or Ahalya and Urmila and many others in the Ramayana.

There are these women who play specific, significant roles: the good, the bad, the greys though myopically they have been bracketed into extremes of black and white, the Devi or the devil. By slotting them into antipodes, the women get turned into oversimplified embodiments, limited in their conventional images. If you are not good, you are bad. If you are bad, you can’t do good. Remove this lens of myopia and misogyny and we can find and recognise each woman as a person of conviction, strong and assertive in manner and measure.

In studied contrasts to the good like Sita, Mandodari and Gandhari are the vamps – Surpanakha, Kaikeyi- those wicked women who transgress from the roles assigned to them and are subsequently punished for their errant ways.

Such a myopic view can blind the reader with either prejudice or ignorance. All my protagonists have been women – minor characters who have been given a voice, who ask questions and demand answers.

But above all she is an individual, a free person to people, thought or system. In my debut book, Uruvi in Karna’s Wife – a fictional character – chooses to seek her freedom to love and to marry an outcast, the loss of social status she is ready to suffer. Urmila in Sita’s Sister carves out her worth and value from years of separation and loneliness with expression of intellect. In Menaka’s Choice, is Menaka the beautiful apsara as sexually free as is presumed? Does one see her sacrifice or again, are we blinded in associating an apsara with selflessness?

Lanka’s Princess is the story of Surpanakha, the female antagonist of the Ramayana. But more importantly, she is the trigger which propels the plot forward. Surpanakha is often seen as the brazen, brutal woman who dared to openly reveal her attraction for a man – Ram and later Lakshman. She was confident, sexually assertive and unapologetic about her feelings, neither coy or demure or submissive coming from the golden land of Lanka, a cultural contrast to Ayodhya. But she had to pay for her brashness. In revenge, she turns into an evil genius manipulating a war. But this one episode changes not just the narrative of the epic as the turning point but it questions the very character of Surpanakha. If she is said to have started the war, does she become a vamp or the victim? Was her boldness taken as brazenness?

Satyavati the protagonist of The Fisherqueen’s Dynasty is the grand matriarch of the Kuru royalty was perhaps the most powerful woman in the epic. With an astute political mind, from a fisher girl she rises in rank and status to become the queen of her land and in her quest for power and prestige, she witnesses hate and hostility, tragedy and death which echo long down in her family to culminate in the internecine Kurukshetra war.

Ahalya is one of the most paradoxical characters in the epics, morphing swiftly from a doting wife to an adulteress. Her story in Ahalya’s Awakening is the irony of righteousness and sin, crime and punishment and more importantly the irony of justice and judgement which culminates in the punishment by purification as you termed it. There’s a very fine line between retribution and redemption, between penalty and penance.

These women are small characters playing major roles in the narrative be it be Urmila, Menaka, Surpanakha , Satyavati or Ahalya. That by placing the spotlight on them, they can be fully seen , recognised and registered. That they get a voice to tell their story, a voice to ask questions: of which they demand answers. These neglected, often overlooked characters have their own tales to tell by not changing the plot, but the course of the narrative and thereby provide an alternative perspective.

The answer to their identity is always in themselves , never in others that’s what each woman character – big and small – claim and prove in our mythology. They spoke up and spoke out. Be it the Rishikas – female scholars – like Gargi, Lokmudra Sulabha or Arundhati. Draupadi questions each time she sees injustice. Surpanakha took her terrible revenge. Gandhari revolted in a silent way through her blindfold. There were some like Satyavati, who was not just outspoken but wielded enormous powers – emotional, royal,familial and political – to get what she wanted. So was Kaikeyi who did defy rules. Sita questioned Ram in both personal and royal matters of the state. Parvati is the Shakti of Shiva. After all what is Shiva without Parvati. Or Rama without Sita? Or the Pandavas without Draupadi?

We often see Ramayan as an exposition on ideal brotherhood where the inherent affection among brothers and respect and regard for the elder siblings are never totally sacrificed for selfishness, power or greed; the theme of which runs across through four sets of brothers: Rama and his three brothers, Vali and Sugriva, Jatayu and Sampati, and finally Ravan and his two brothers. And against this grand symbolism of brotherhood, are interspersed the little stories of women and the subtle stream of sisterhood, mostly relegated to be buried under the massive heft of the larger themes in the Ramayan, while struggling for cognisance as they refashion the narrative to reveal a series of stories of women – first through her sister Urmila, her cousins Mandovi and Shrutakirti when the four sisters marry the four princes of Ayodhya. And later As Sita meets one woman after another– Lopamudra, Ansuya in the forests and Mandodari, Sarama, Trijata in Lanka she questions her own situation, her identity and the complexities of the idea of love and loyalty, duty and doubts.

While the Ramayan provides an in-depth and multi-layered exploration of brotherly love, there is a nuanced undercurrent of the theme of sisterhood and women solidarity, lest we forget that Ramayan is a story not essentially of Rama and heroism, but also of Sita. And through Sita we meet a brave world of remarkable women: some gritty, some gracious, some maleficent – all minor characters playing major roles. And through each one of them in their relationship with Sita, is told a story of sisterhood.

In other words, perhaps the different shades of sisterhood in the Ramayana remind us of the different dimensions of solidarity, unanimity and harmony that can exist among women; a loyalty, a connect greater than friendship which is unconditional and forever.

Even our goddesses have been feminist icons. But we often limit feminism to its Western definition of feminist rebellion. A mild-mannered Lakshmi or the quick witted, quick tongued Saraswati or the bloodthirsty Kali are but recognition of the various roop of a woman. The goddesses are not just a symbolic resource, their range reveals the potentiality of every woman. If Lakshmi is gentle ( which is supposed to be an un-feminist characteristic for some) the giver of good fortune and wealth, Durga is aggressive, striding on the lion of patriarchy, defiant and invincible. Each representative role is the mood, the emotion the character and courage prevalent in every woman. Challenged, she will retaliate.

Besides the great symbolic value and veneration of the female and the feminine, the element of power, choice and freedom is incorporated in each of the goddesses. Be it in Parvati or Saraswati. Or Rati the goddess of female sexuality or Ganga and her power of plenty to nurture or Radha and her freedom a to love) or Sati for her power of choice. Power in all its hues is acknowledged,recognised and respected. It’s a different issue altogether how our society has not been able to assimilate this feminist celebration.

Our mythology could handle female sexuality , why can’t we now? Besides the bohemian apsaras, there are many other sexually liberated women in our mythology – Devyani and Satyavati in the Mahabharat, although Draupadi seems to be seen as a more visible figure. Both clawed their way to get their man and power. Then there is Tara who desired Chandra the Moon god and refused to go back to her husband Rishi Brihaspati and had a child from her lover. Radha is the symbol of romance, or rather forbidden love – that of an older, married woman but it is her freedom and courage to love, that broke the shackles. Shakuntala falls in love with a stranger, a king and does not hesitate to enjoy the man she loves. She is feisty and fiercely proud who refuses to succumb to her situation. Instead she brings up her son singlehandedly and independently without the presence of the father. Mohini, the only female avatar of Vishnu is portrayed as a femme fatale, besotting anyone who looks at her, leading them to their doom or death but thereby saving the world. In the Ramayan, Tara and Kaikeyi and in the Mahabharata Satyavati, Sharmistha and Kunti affirm their identity on strongly political lines.

The texts later down the ages became a victim of patriarchy – Sita, Ahalya and Shakuntala are classic examples. To desire is sin, to want is avaricious and to translate this into action is an act to be punished. Ahalya quickly transgresses from a devoted wife to a promiscuous woman. Shakuntala is no damsel in distress. She could well be called the first single mother to be followed by Sita later. Unlike in Kalidasa’s version, she returns to Dushyant only when her 12 year old son wants to know who his father is. She like others defied societal scripts demanded from them.

The interpretation of the texts largely remains influenced by the interpreter’s beliefs and biases. In the later renderings, instead of the creative tool which they originally served with enormous literary and philosophical concept and content, they in turn, became a convenient tool for patriarchy, shaping the socio-cultural ethos and redefining images and roles of women in society. In the effort to deconstruct these characters, arts and literature has employed them as a creative device to question and contest these very stereotypes. If we are to be unified by cultural hegemony, we need to use the texts to understand their huge significance . In today’s confused world, if we decide to see the women , through less black and white lenses, we could glimpse the steel in Sita, the vulnerability of loneliness in Surpanakha, the guilt of Ahalya or the resentful rage of a blind-folded Gandhari. Draupadi has never been taken up as the perfect role model though she is lauded for her devotion and her handling of her five husbands. She is the reason for the rise and the fall and the rise of the Pandavas. She wins the war for them. But what about her humiliation and her fury at the injustice heaped on her not just by others, but by her five husbands themselves?

The texts respect and honour the women and gender and given the great symbolic value and veneration of the female and the feminine, we need to recognise the shades of greys within the blacks and the whites. In them, is the story of each woman, be it a Sita or a Surpanakha, Mandodari or a Manthara, Kunti or a Kaikeyi, Tara or Holika, Devaki or a Devyani.


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