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The heroines of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are suprisingly contemporary for modern women

I grew up hearing the tales of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as it was a tradition in all Hindu households. My grandmother enthralled me with stories from the epics. As a child I was fascinated by characters like Sita, Kunti and Draupadi.
Now I realise that I was drawn towards them not merely because of my gender but because of the poignancy with which my grandmother depicted their sorrows and strengths. She at once became the abducted Sita, helpless yet proud and undaunted in her refusal to submit to Ravana; the patient one waiting to be rescued by Ram; the one humiliated by Ram in front of his army to prove her chastity. She, the pure one, entered the fire and came out purer and smiled at male vanity.
Grandmother made me suffer the pangs of Sita, made me weep when Sita asked mother earth to swallow her up when Ram doubted her chastity. The seeds of feminism were sown in me then and there.
In grandma's narration, it was Sita's story and not Ram's. It is strange to think how she, having been nurtured in a patriarchal and feudal society, unconsciously reinvented the characters and contemporised them. I have always been intrigued by the way women in the epics have been interpreted and perceived, and how the interpretations keep changing in accordance with the gender relations of the day. While men interpret it as they perceive the role of women should be in a given society, women have understood it in the way they themselves would be affected. In doing so, they deviated from the common perceptions of one's cultural traditions.
The making of a tradition is a dialogue with the past-a perceived past which helps construct history. Analyses of the content and structure of the epics, especially of the Mahabharata, show that the original texts were subjected to many additions and interpolations. The historical context of these epics is a lineage-based society with chiefdoms that transformed slowly into kingdoms. Didactic texts were added focusing on social obligations and "thus converting the epic from bardic literature to a high culture text," as historian Romila Thapar points out. Interpolations legitimised not only religious cults and sects but also the socio-political changes involved in the transition from a lineage-based society to monarchy. The conversion of the epics into religious literature changed their character.
The historical context being feudal, the transfer of authority was closely linked to birth and closeness to the ruling clans. Genealogies and purity of the clans were, therefore, important. Conservation of such purity was possible only by guarding or protecting and indirectly controlling the sexuality of the woman, who alone could assure the continuance of the lineage. Such pressures existed even during the time of the Mahabharata as is evident in Kunti abandoning Karna, whom she conceived before she was married.
But women are important to such societies, where being the mother of the first male child provided immediate status. For the mother, who has saved the male of the house from hell called puth by giving him a puthra, the status symbolised property. Without a son she was bereft of everything including status. It is in such a backdrop that our women of the epics must be viewed. It is, therefore, amazing to see that the women of the Mahabharata and Ramayana are strong personalities, cherishing their autonomy and having no qualms about arguing for their rights.
It is doubtful if the original conceptualisation of characters like Sita, Draupadi, Kunti, Mandodari or Gandhari was to project them as the ideals of Hindu womanhood-the complete women. It may not have been so even when didactic texts and code of conduct for women were interpolated during the course of social changes. Orientalism of the 18th and 19th centuries influenced many cultural choices of the Indian middle class and created a perception which was regarded as the Indian cultural tradition. Indian womanhood was an important dimension of this perception.
Everyone now agrees that traditions are invented. Parampara (tradition) is not handing down unchanged beliefs and practices. It needs to be defined what exactly is to be handed down. "Every generation selects what it requires from the past and makes its innovations," says Thapar. In a colonial context, cultural tradition became an invention necessary to counter the colonial impact from a nationalist perspective. It was then that the epic heroines became devis, symbols of womanhood to be emulated. In the process they lost their original character, which was one of strength and dignity, and turned into demure and obedient women who dare not cross the lines drawn by the male hierarchy.
It is necessary that we now reconsider the culture of the past and reread the characters and reinterpret their true forms while questioning the reasons for digressions. Says Thapar: "The contemporising of our cultural past to make them a part of the present is a process which requires both awareness and analysis."
It is astonishing to see how contemporary each of these characters is and how easily women can identify with them today. I was deeply moved by dancer Mallika Sarabhai's interpretation of Sita in her Sita's Daughters. All women are Sita's daughters carrying her agony and deprivation. Sita today is a symbol of strength and love; of hope to those who are unable to decide. We are also daughters of Draupadi, experiencing her humiliation and outrage at one time or the other.
Several years ago in Delhi, I saw a 12-year-old girl from a remote village in central India enact Draupadi's humiliation in the royal court after her husbands lost their wealth, kingdom and wife in a game of dice. She held a sword in her hand like a warrior and raised or lowered her voice depending on the character she portrayed. She was at once the haughty Duryodhana, the hapless Pandavas and the crude Dushasana dragging Draupadi by her hair. The audience sat in silence utterly mortified, waiting for the worst. Draupadi entered, shocked more than anything else, and looked at her helpless husbands. It was not mere shock that was on Draupadi's face. It was utter contempt that said "you cowards, you despicable wretches". There was a kind of arrogance on that young face that no texts of the epic describe. "Pull my sari you fool," she screamed. "You cannot humiliate me." It was her vision, not of Vyasa, who wrote the epic.
It is time we looked beyond the image of the ideal womanhood, and penetrated the layers that have shrouded their real faces. Revelation comes when we are touched by the spark of a visionary. Much like the highly sophisticated Mallika Sarabhai or the illiterate tribal girl.
The writer is a well-known columnist and author of Cut Outs, Caste and Cine Stars.


Paragon of virtues

By S. Janaki

The Ramayana is in reality Sita's saga: Sitayah charitam mahat. Sage Valmiki, author of the Ramayana, has described the epic thus in the Bala Kandam. He has conceptualised Sita as the paradigm of virtue, a nonpareil among women. Writer V.S. Srinivasa Sastri describes her as an embodiment of beauty, tenderness of heart, compassion, fidelity, endurance, courage and wisdom.
Inspired by Sita's story, Prof. K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar has retold the Ramayana as 'Sitayana', epic of the Earth-born. Vishnu and Lakshmi reincarnate as human beings-Ram and Sita-to experience the blossoms and thorns of life in their determination to uphold dharma. The values that Sita enshrined are held sacred by generations of Indians.
Sita was so named after she was found in a furrow by the childless King Janaka. She marries Ram, prince of Ayodhya, in a swayamvara. Sita is bold in speech and not passive as many believe. She argues with Ram when he plans to go to the forest without her to uphold his father's promises to Kaikeyi. She is determined to accompany him, and Ram is struck by her courage. He tells her: "Be my partner in all that I have to do in the forest." She tells Ram that her dharma is to follow her husband. Their relationship was based on love, mutual respect and free exchange of views. The happiest period of her life was the first 12 years in the forest.
While in the forest, Sita voices her misgivings to Ram on his fighting the demons even though he is supposed to lead an ascetic life. When Ravana, in the guise of a sanyasi, reveals his true identity and declares his intentions, Sita bursts out and warns him: "You are doomed if you dare desire Ram's beloved." Sita bears the torments of the rakshasis and staves off Ravana's lustful advances in the Asokavana for almost a year.
Driven to despair by Ravana's ultimatum, she contemplates giving up her life but breathes revenge on Ravana and Lanka.
At times she is very human. Her craving for the golden deer and her cruel outburst against Lakshman urging him to rush to Ram's rescue reveal her vulnerable nature. On the other hand, it is Sita's prayers that save Hanuman when his tail is set on fire. She has the power to destroy Ravana, but does not do so to uphold the purpose of Ram's incarnation-to kill Ravana.
Sita is one of the five satis (chaste wives). Yet Ram asks her to prove her chastity twice in public. In Lanka after Ravana is killed she proves her chastity through the ordeal of fire.
After a blissful but brief period in Ayodhya with Ram, a pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forest. The courageous Sita gives birth to the twins Lav and Kush in Valmiki's ashram. After 12 years, Ram again asks her to prove her chastity. Sita is now resigned to her fate and declares: "This earth is not for me, nor this husband, nor the people of Ayodhya whom no proof can ever convince." On the strength of her fidelity to her husband she appeals her mother to take her away to her origin, and Sita is drawn deep down into the eternal embrace of mother earth.
If Ram is revered down the ages it is in no small measure due to the quiet and selfless role played by Sita. She was the woman behind this very successful man! From the earth she rose and unto the earth she returned, probably reiterating the philosophy that life is a challenge and from dust to dust is the ultimate truth!
S. Janaki is deputy editor of ?Sruti magazine.

In Tamil poet Kamban's version of the Ramayana, Sita is Ravana's daughter. Ravana abducted her because he didn't want her to suffer in the jungle.


Joyless wife

By V.R. Devika

Draupadi is portrayed in the Mahabharata as an aggressive, strong-willed woman whose life is a continuous battle to assert her individuality in a patriarchal society. She is one of the panch kanyas (five virgins) extolled in the scriptures.
Born out of a sacrificial fire to King Drupad, Draupadi possessed half the strength of Kali and would be the means of destruction of the Kauravas. As a young woman, she was called Krishna, because of her dusky skin, large dark eyes and graceful figure.
She was a princess of impressive lineage-King Drupad was a cousin of Lord Krishna-yet her life was one of struggle and tragedy. She had five husbands, but she had none to husband her. She had five sons and yet was never a mother. The Pandavas gave Draupadi no joy, no sense of victory, no honour as a wife and no respect as a mother. They only gave her the status of a queen in the end.
Three episodes dominate her story-her marriage to the Pandavas, her disrobing in King Dhritarashtra's court and her presence in the Kurukshetra battle, constantly egging on her husbands with the taunt of her unbraided hair.
Many commentators have attempted to analyse how and why she married the five brothers. One story is that she wanted a husband with five great qualities and ended up with five brothers possessing one each. The accepted version is that Kunti asked her sons to share her equally. Did Kunti think that a beautiful woman like Draupadi might have problems in being just Arjuna's wife with four other young men around her all the time? Was Kunti afraid that she might become the cause of dissent among the brothers?
Draupadi had absolutely no say in the decision, and she was placed in an impossible situation-being wife to one while being sister-in-law to the others, by turns.
Draupadi's story and her humiliation in the royal court are played out through the length and breadth of India in several forms of art. The episode Draupadi tugil is the most popular one in Therukoothu, an art form of Tamil Nadu.
Her questions and arguments on whether Yudhishtira had lost her before he lost himself in the game of dice, as he had no right over her if he had lost himself before her are too much for Dushasana who dragged her to the court by her hair. Her angry speech would put any husband to shame. Her refusal of the third boon from the blind king reflected her pride as a high-born princess. And then she vowed that she would tie her hair only after washing it with Dushasana's blood.
She accompanied her husbands and served them loyally during their exile. At the end of 13 years when they expressed doubts about going to war, she reminded them harshly of their vows. Vengeance is finally hers. But even then the male gods had their say, denying her entry into heaven because she had loved Arjuna more than the others.

According to Bheel Mahabharata, Draupadi is not a pativrata (devoted to her husband), as she was raped by Vasuki, the serpent king.


Unsung heroine

Extolled in the Ramayana as one of the five virgins but little known among Ram bhakts is Tara, a woman of unusual intelligence, foresight and confidence. Queen of Kishkinda and wife of Vali, the monkey king, Tara loved him despite his arrogance. Ignoring her pleas, Vali fought his brother Sugriv, only to be shot by Ram from behind a tree.
As Tara watched her husband's fateful battle with Sugriv, she was torn between her love for her husband and deep concern about the safety of the kingdom, herself and her son Angad. Could Sugriv protect the kingdom like Vali? Would people accept him? As Vali died in her arms, Tara faced the crowd and said, "With his last breath, King Vali begs you, his faithful subjects, to follow his brother as your rightful king."
With that everything changed drastically in her life. She married Sugriv though she never believed her heart could make room for another man. Tara had married Vali because she loved him. With Sugriv she hoped that she might eventually love him because she had married him. Nevertheless, she loyally served Sugriv. It was the reversal of an earlier incident-Vali had usurped Sugriv's wife Ruma when he drove his brother into exile. Tara stayed on in Kishkinda to ensure Angad's position as yuvaraj.
The episode of her encountering an angry Lakshman who came to remind Sugriv of his promise to help Ram rescue Sita is compelling. Sugriv, sleeping off a hangover of a merrymaking bout, asked Tara to pacify Lakshman.
Tara spoke to Lakshman with supreme intelligence and succeeded in assuaging him. She gave him information about the steps taken to help Ram. "It is said that Lanka has hundred thousand crores of rakshasas. To help you Sugriv has already ordered to assemble strong and innumerable vanaras for the war." She was treated like an equal and her opinion mattered as if she were one of the lieutenants.
The relationship triangle in Tara's story is not different from the situation in today's families. The death of a spouse or a new marriage changes the family dynamics. When a partner remarries, the person carries the baggage of a previous life into the new one. It is hard to find balance and peace in such a situation.
V.R. Devika is a cultural activist
and freelance writer.

Tara agreed to marry Sugriv because ?Vali had earlier usurped Sugriv's wife ?Ruma. It was a kind of role reversal.


Dignity in suffering

By Dr Prema Kasturi

In the mythologically instructed community, there is a corpus of images and models that provide the pattern to which the individual may aspire, a range of metaphoric identity.
Jerome S. Bruner, psychologist

Queen Kunti was the central figure in a complex political drama which led to a fratricidal war for the throne. Despite her sufferings, she found an inner wisdom and strength that carried her sons through crises.
She upheld the principles she believed in, despite her travails. When her husband, Pandu, left Hastinapura, she followed him, taking the change in her fortune with grace. She also followed her sons to the forest and even survived an assassination attempt by the Kauravas. She was responsible for Draupadi marrying all the Pandavas, for she insisted on equal sharing of prizes they won.
Kunti tried hard to avert the war. She revealed her secret to her illegitimate firstborn son, Karna, and requested him to join his brothers. Karna, in his depth of gratitude to the Kauravas, refused to join them. Was she trying to save Karna from the path of adharma? But when Karna died, she courageously acknowledged his valour.
Kunti knew Krishna's true nature and sought his guidance. Her teachings are simple and illuminating outpourings of a saintly woman, who combined emotions with intellect.
After the war, she accompanied Dhritarashtra and Gandhari to the forest to undergo austerities and penance during her last days.
In Kunti, we see a dutiful yet inquisitive maiden, a responsible wife, who respects elders and is a source of comfort to her husband. But she predominates as the archetypal devoted mother, advising and guiding her children, and sacrificing her comforts for them. Women like her have led to the concept of Bharat Mata. All the same, are our women burdened forever with the sacrificing motherhood image?
She displayed tremendous mental strength and spiritual maturity. She is one of the panch kanyas and is worshipped in Nepal. She was also human, because societal mores prevented her from acknowledging Karna as her son. Societal pressure is a fact of life.
Kunti gets children from different gods, which reminds us of the importance of progeny, and a liberal ancient concept that "the seed is from elsewhere, but the owner of the field owns the crop." (This reminds one of modern sperm bank.)
In spite of imperfections, Kunti's dignity sends a positive message to the modern woman: be fearless, individualistic and confident. As feminist philosopher Judith Butler said, "Gender is a fact rather than an arbitrary set of concepts."
The writer was the head of the department of history, Women's Christian College, Chennai, and specialises in women's studies.

Kunti's real father was Surasena of Yadu clan. She was adopted by the childless King Kuntibhoja. Hence, she was called Kunti.


Political mother

By Geeta Chandran

In my recent dance Kaikeyi, I was tempted to look at why we prefer stigmatisation as a social therapy to protect status quo. Kaikeyi demanded her rights and drew the ire of an entire culture. But, what would be left of the Ramayana without Kaikeyi?
No scheming manipulator or heartless queen, Kaikeyi emerges as a brave, sensitive, accomplished and beautiful woman who, in asking for what is rightfully hers, is condemned by a patriarchal society that refuses to acknowledge its murky political scheming. Her character cannot be dismissed in a uni-dimensional portrait of stigma and horror. She was neither pure as Kausalya nor selfless as Sumitra. No wonder, Kaikeyi was Dasaratha's favourite.
Kaikeyi marries Dasaratha on the condition that her son would inherit the kingdom of Ayodhya. But without informing her, Dasaratha declares Kausalya's son, Ram, as his heir-apparent. Kaikeyi's assistant Manthara reminds her of her husband's broken promise. That is when she comprehends Dasaratha's intrigue. She immediately reminds him of the promise and utilises his commitment to grant her two boons in order to win back her son's birthright.
Nothing stops her from safeguarding her son's inheritance-neither the threat of widowhood nor the outrage of all Ayodhya. Kaikeyi's tragedy lies in the rejection of her sacrifice by the very person for whom she went through fire-her son, Bharat. That is when she repents her action and languishes in Ayodhya as a detested woman.
She is a symbol of womanhood that has been maligned for the simple act of daring to choose to be an active participant in the politics of Ayodhya, a woman bent on getting her way even if it ultimately destroyed her happiness.
The melange of intrigue, broken promises, rumours and lies forces Kaikeyi to demand what was due to her. She defines the pulsating elements of modern Indian women. She is beyond stereotyping.
The writer is a dancer and choreographer.

Kaikeyi's son, Bharata, refused even to see her till Ram returned from the exile.


All my sons

By Dr Prema Kasturi

Gandhari, the model of female propriety, was the daughter of Subhala, the king of Gandhara. Blessed by Lord Shiva to be the mother of a hundred valorous sons, and thanks to her sterling qualities, she was married to Dhritarashtra, the blind king of Hastinapura of the Kuru dynasty. (Did she have a choice or was it a marriage of political convenience?) Gandhari was committed to satya and showed her devotion to Dhritarashtra by blindfolding her eyes for her entire life.
Gandhari was respected and admired by all, including the Pandavas. Endowed with mental strength and rationality, she was a source of sound advice to Dhritarashtra. She urged her husband to restrain Duryodhana and reinstate the Pandavas. Gandhari sat by her husband's side throughout the war, listening to the narration of Sanjaya, the Kuru minister. She was saddened by the tragedies of the war.
Twice she manifested the true shakti of a pativrata. She tried to cover Duryodhana with an invincible aura to prevent his death at the hands of the Pandavas, but failed as he was supporting adharma. She cursed Krishna and his clan to suffer the same misfortunes as the Kauravas for she believed Krishna could have prevented the tragedies. Gandhari's curse came true as the Yadavas destroyed themselves in a civil war. In her final days, Gandhari accompanied her husband to the forest and led an austere life.
Gandhari's dedication to duty, family, spouse and dharma is praiseworthy. She represents rationality and sound judgment amid selfishness and confusion. But could she have averted the war by supervising her sons and correcting their negative traits? Also, instead of blinding herself she could have been her husband's physical as well as spiritual eyes. Perhaps, epic heroines were expected to be sahadharminis (partners in the path of dharma) and pativratas only.
In the modern context, Gandhari's motherhood is a precursor to the marvels of natal sciences, and her life emphasised the need for women to be balanced in their perception and performance of the many roles that a woman has to play in a competitive and changing social environment.

It was Lord Shiva who blessed her that she would give birth to 100 valorous sons. Besides, she had a daughter named Dushala.


Blind ambition

By Dhanalakshmi Ayyer

In the Mahabharata, Satyavati is the embodiment of the driving force of womanhood, with motherly ambition blinding her vision at every turn. Daughter of a ferryman, she agrees to marry Santanu, the king of Hastinapura, on the condition that only her children should inherit the throne and not Bhishma, Santanu's son by his first wife Ganga. To fulfil his father's yearning, Bhishma vows celibacy.
After Santanu's death, Satyavati rules the kingdom with her sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. They die childless, and Satyavati asks her first-born Vyasa (son of sage Parasara) to impregnate Ambika and Ambalika, Vichitravirya's wives. They give birth to Dhritarashtra and Pandu, respectively. But Bhishma, the rightful heir to Santanu, outlives them and is remembered to this day as an embodiment of virtue, loyalty and valour.
In a way, Satyavati exemplifies what Rudyard Kipling succinctly put:
The Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same,
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.
Satyavati uses all her guile to get all that she perceives as the exclusive rights of her sons, and at the same time, goes to any length to protect the lineage of her dead husband, as Vyasa's siring of Dhritarashtra and Pandu shows.
Satyavati's decisions dominate the epic, which is a parable of the human race and its greed. It carries the universal message that ultimate victory comes to one who takes the righteous course and makes an abject surrender to his maker.
For her, the end matters, not necessarily the means, and that produces a generation that is largely mean and greedy. Greed devours with them not just the throne of Hastinapura but also the Kuru clan, whose propagation was her life's only purpose, ambition and goal.
Satyavati's story teaches the new generation women that determination and commitment are different from avarice and calculation. One should know where greed takes over from ambition.

Enamoured by Satyavati's beauty, sage Parasara gave her the boon of fragrance. The sage said that the perfume that emanated from her would spread for a yojana, a distance equal to nine miles. Hence, she also came to be known as Yojanagandha.


Pure aswater

By Dhanalakshmi Ayyer

Mandodari, demon king Ravana's wife, is depicted in Ramayana as a pious and righteous woman. She is devoted to her husband and tries to keep him on the path of dharma. At his own peril, Ravana ignores her wisdom and embarks on a reign of terror over the entire universe.
At every turn, Ravana does not heed the sagacious advice of his wife. She advises him against subduing the Nava Grahas, the celestial planets, to ensure that an invincible son is born to them, and not to seduce Vedavati.
Blinded by lust, he steals Sita from Ram. Mandodari tries to persuade Ravana to return Sita to Ram. Intuitively, Mandodari knows that her husband's lust for another man's wife would bring doom to himself, his throne, clan and race. But in the end it is Mandodari who alone is by his side.
Unbiased in her judgment, she is a perfect foil to Ravana. She is the countervailing steadying-force to Ravana's exuberance. Mandodari is reckoned among the five great women of Indian lore, one of the panch kanya. Her story is a reminder that the universal denigration of a group, based on the behaviour of a few, cannot cloud the greatness of the individual. Mandodari defies the stereotype of this racism.
She is simple, unswerving and self-effacing, driven by the light of knowledge which gives meaning to solid materialism in an age that is shrouded by impulse, passion and desire. She is the instrument that awakens the mind and counsels reason when irrationality becomes the core being. That she goes unheard and unheeded does not change her path.
Among the five elements, Mando-dari is associated with water-turbulent on the surface and deep in her spiritual quest. The turbulence is of superficial experiences of the being, and the deep core is the soul, where wisdom resides.
To her, the dharmic part is inward-looking, while the role of the dutiful wife is the external self. Mandodari thought that her duty to her husband on issues of morals and values ended with her telling him what she thought of his actions. She neither put up any brave fight to stop him nor considered it her duty to do so.
The lesson is simple and straight for the contemporary woman. She needs to know that it is not enough to speak about wrong-doings by those near her, but she needs to demonstrate that she would not live with it. As Shakespeare said, "The evil that men do live after them, but the good is oft interred with the bones." The world remembers Ravana but not Mandodari.
Having faith and belief is one thing; translating them into effective action is another. Without action, the principle gets nowhere. It is not enough for the woman to be a sheet-anchor, she also has to be the bulwark that upholds the craft. For values to prevail, they have to be exercised.

Mandodari had a striking resemblance to Sita that even Hanuman, Sita's ardent devotee, mistook her for Sita.

Source: THE WEEK

Gaurav Mittal

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Re: Women of substance - October 28th, 2006

Whoa! This was some brush up on our Indian Mythology!!! lol...good work...
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Re: Women of substance - October 29th, 2006

oh man gaurav kuch summarize karke bhej yaar

man i got crazy looking at it
but its k good job
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Re: Women of substance - May 14th, 2007

acchha khasa lecture hai
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