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  • Sanya Sethi

Feminists in Hindu Mythology

Since the beginning of time, India has been an extremely stratified society, when looked at through the lens of caste, class and most importantly, gender. All these notions that promote caste and gender-based hierarchy draw their authority from cultural, mythological and ritualistic texts, which serve as a source of validation for such structural oppression. But it is paradoxical for Hindu culture to have texts like Manusmriti, which serve the sole purpose of controlling a woman’s autonomy and downgrading her function to only servitude of upper-caste men, with conditions over her freedom and sexual autonomy and expression of will. On the other hand, mention concepts of Shiva-Shakti, which is seen in the iconography of Ardhanarishvara, a Hindu deity who is half male and half female, when taken into metaphysical consideration, is the epitome of how both masculine and feminine energy are co-existent and complementary to each other, and responsible for creation and destruction both. Shakti, here manifests itself as Kali or Durga, representing the feminine aspect of the divine force, and actively participating in creation which is an exclusive feature identified with women.

Thus, the portrayal of women in Hindu mythology has not been consistent. Narratives of women have been ignored and excluded from the mainstream viewpoint, and those of Dalit, tribal, forest dwellers or lower caste women have never been represented or even take into account. Be it Ram, Shiva or Krishna, all mythological stories and anecdotes we grew up listening, had a man as the central character, accompanied by the glorified tales of his greatness and power asserted by different versions of the same story. Women as goddesses were merely represented, and only seen in polar terms, either they were subordinates to their husbands, obeying and honouring them and only a mere extension to their husbands with no individuality at all, or otherwise those women who lived an eccentric far away from the conventional style of living and played problematic roles of witches or monsters, probably a way for people to reduce those women who dared to have an individual and independent identity. Here, we talk about those women who dared to differ, who denied their traditional roles and who, in some way, broke the cycle of continued oppression and laid the foundation of rebellion among women.

A painting housed in the British Museum depicting Sita’s Agni Pariksha

Talking about one of the most monumental epics of the time, Ramayana tells us the adventurous stories of Ram and mentions many female characters like Sita, who is an inspiration to us, even today. Though Ramayana is full of valiant performances of Ram, it also encompasses the journey of princess Janaki to queen Sita.  Sita, who was the wife to Ram ‘the perfect human’ was the one with most multivalent roles and perfect at all roles expected out of her. According to patriarchal standards, she was the perfect, obeying and subordinate wife who went along with her husband and bore the obligations that came with being the wife of a king. A perfect mother, who was single-handedly responsible for parenting her children after being abandoned by Ram, disappeared only after uniting the family. However, her protest was about passive resistance. Even after announcing her virtue bypassing the Agni Pariksha, unharmed, she was banished by Ram based on his doubts of her unfaithfulness.  Thus, she chose to go back to where she belonged, the Earth instead of going back to her husband, who disowned her and their children. This, however, has not been glorified but continues to be a sign of non-violent protest against what she was subjected to. This was silent yet a powerful non-agreement, highlighting the right to her individual opinion. She is the country’s most popular single mother, who was exiled and took care of both her children in an ashram, a narrative which has been ignored for far too long, owing to the patriarchal nature of storytelling. She chose to give up on a happy life with Ram and her beloved children because she believed in doing what is right.

Kaikeyi with Ram and Lakshman. The painting is housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Other examples from Ramayana include Kaikeyi, who has been vilified over the years and is viewed as a mean and hateful character, whenever she is talked about in Ramayana. However, what we fail to notice is how she was a true trend-setter. She was one of the first women to go to combat with her husband, and not only ceremonially, but as the charioteer of her husband. If this is not what heroic is, then I don’t know what is!

An essential epic of India, the Mahabharata comprises legends and stories revolving around the contentions between Kauravas and Pandavas. The plot of Mahabharata is set in Kurukshetra, with one of the major epics being the contest to win the hand of Draupadi, a contest which was won by Arjuna, and then Draupadi became the wife of all the Pandavas, an arrangement which has been misunderstood by people throughout the history. Draupadi is traditionally frowned at for being the opposite of pure since she was in a polyandrous relationship. However, people fail to take into account how Draupadi was not voluntarily into such an arrangement, and was forced into the same by Kunti’s declaration that the Pandavas must share whatever was brought into the house equally. Draupadi was neither the perpetrator of this social transgression, nor did she enter into this polyandrous contract out of her own accord. One of the most shocking incidents mentioned, wherein Draupadi was dragged into the assembly, while she was menstruating only to be objectified, degraded and stripped off her garments in front of everyone, and later to be ameliorated by the divine intervention later remains as the highlight of the epic. Draupadi then takes up to ask the noblemen present in the court, how could they? This was not only a plea from a helpless woman but a way by which her outraged modesty found an outlet when she questioned all the learned men sitting there, about how they could be silent spectators to such degradation. Whenever provoked, she challenged the male ego without the typical cause and effect analysis, something which was a hindrance for women in her time, those who wanted to raise their voice against male atrocities. After the incident at the court of Kurus, Draupadi emerged as more powerful than ever, with her individuality and voice stronger than ever, becoming a paragon of gender and resistance.

Hidimba with Bheem. Painting by Amruta Patil.

Other accounts from Mahabharata talk about Hidimba, who has been classified as a rakshasi, which is synonymous with a person who practices cannibalism and leads an eccentric non-Brahmanical way of life. Hidimba fell in love the first time she met Bhima and took it upon herself to marry Bhima. But, the union could only be together for some time since Bhima chose to live with Hidimba, only till she procreates. Thus, Ghatotkach was born, and Hidimba, took care of their child all alone, another case of single parenting. She later sent Ghatotkach to help his father, who was in the middle of waging war. She can be seen as a parallel to a modern-day single mother, who raised her son with all the great qualities without the influence of any patriarch-figure in his life. She was a good wife to Bhima, but her residence in the forest makes her untrustworthy. She, however, has not been given any special mention for the same, but the fact that she could survive the onslaught of such a society which looked down upon her, without the support of a man needs to be talked about more.

Satyavati was another wise and smart woman, to whom the Kuru lineage owes their existence to. Often looked at as an opportunist, she was the wife of emperor Santanu and the mother to Vyasa before she married Santanu, the king, only on the condition that her sons would only inherit the throne. After the death of Santanu, Satyavati’s two sons from Santanu died young and left behind two wives. This was a problem, to which Satyavati suggested to bring his son, Vyasa who was sage Parashar and Satyavati’s child. Thus, Vyasa fathered two children, Pandu and Dhritarashtra. Thus, this could not have been possible without Satyavati’s intervention. Her image has been sexualised historically, with her ultimate aim being to get what she wants; however, she wants. Although, she was a wise and strategic woman who knew how to use things to her advantage, and went on to create a place and identity of her own, and is responsible for the whole Kuru clan existence. Women like these exist in every realm and at the heart of every story but are often villainised and ignored.

Kanakki burns the city of Madurai housed in Kauai’s Hindu Monastery.

Apart from these two main epics, we find parallels across cultures, like the Tamil literature, with the best example being the Silappadikaram, the tale of the anklet, that is centred around a woman named Kannagi, who confronts the King of Madurai in what is described as a miscarriage of justice. The work is divided into three main parts, with the second part talking about how Kannagi’s husband Kovalam attempts to sell her anklet and is then wrongly accused and convicted of stealing the queen’s anklet. He is executed by the state for the same. This is where Kannagi comes into play, and makes a connection with a justice-seeking woman who moves Agni, and ends up burning down the whole city of Madurai, proving that her husband was wrongly convicted and the anklet was hers and not the queen’s. Thus, she is seen as a symbol of seeking justice and standing up against an unjust and structurally unequal system in those times.

Lastly, talking about Savitri here, who finds mention in the term ‘Sati-Savitri’ usually as an epitome of being subordinate, obeying and all the things an ideal woman in a patriarchal society should be. This is an example of how people have been ignorant and choose to highlight only certain characteristics which promote the image of a chaste-ideal wife. Both Sati and Savitri were contrary characters, but were independent, had a mind of their own and were assertive. Here, I talk about Savitri, a wise and smart woman who, with her wisdom, was able to reclaim her husband from death. Savitri was a beautiful woman, who exercised the right over her sexual agency and chose Satyavan as her husband even after knowing that he will die in a year. She was an assertive, independent and a woman who honoured her word. After a year, when Yama came for her husband, she did not argue with him but followed Yama and her husband to death and impressed by her determination, Yama granted her three boons, and with her presence of mind, she fooled Yama, the God of death due to which she got her husband back and was able to relieve the distresses of her family. She was a brave, smart and a wise woman who was able to release her husband from the clutches of death.

Thus, the mythology talks about so many women, whose stories have been systematically excluded, ignored and in case of inclusion, misinterpreted. Tracing the existence and importance of women, we can look at how during the period of Indus Valley Civilisation, the Mother Goddess was the central figurine and historians believe that she was worshipped and deified by locals. There have been cases where strong women characters have been ignored, not mentioned or given a different moral stage. Strong woman characters have been subjugated, ignored and vilified. The same is reiterated when we continue to share these narratives to people around us, especially children without a thought. Efforts to reinterpret and provide alternatives where women are showcased as important as men are necessary in order to unlearn the narratives we have been subjected to. Be it Ahalya who was turned into a stone, but was able to mitigate her curse with her charm and seduction or Shakuntala who bore the first Emperor of Indian Mythology as a single parent or Chitrangada, who is clearly mentioned as the son her dad never had; all these women have been a rebellion in more than one way, some by adopting inherently masculine functions and some by resistance against a system which is inherently patriarchal, actively or passively. It is time these narratives are brought into the mainstream viewpoint and form an important part of discussions and contributions made by women in the world that we live in today.

By Sanya Sethi


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