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Gender and the Epics

“Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men.” — Joseph Conrad

Hinduism is probably the only major religion in the world to have a recognized sect which worships a Goddess. Hindus who worship Shakti, the embodiment of feminine divinity and power are called the Shaktyas. The Hindu mythology has a plethora of stories extolling the feats of Durga, Kali and goddesses who symbolize power apart from other significant goddesses like Lakshmi and Saraswati. With such a robust tradition of worshipping female deities, India should have been one of the forerunners of gender equality.  However, we are no different from any other religion when it comes to placing men and women on an imbalanced scale, and it would be redundant to mention which one topples the other.

I won’t argue on the much debated subject of Manusmriti or the historical credence of the mythological texts, but will try to establish how patriarchy and misogyny are ingrained in our entire set of moral beliefs. The whole logic of morality and what is considered ‘righteous’ is deeply paradoxical in our society. To substantiate what I am trying to state, let us take the example of the two men who are considered to be the epitomes of truth, righteousness, piety and integrity of character in history- Rama and Yudhisthira. The Ayodhyan monarch Rama, in the epic Ramayana has been titled Maryada Purshottam- (The Supreme Being). The fact that he attributed nuptial disloyalty to his wife and placed his subjects above her. He was estranged from Sita, his wife, for the period when she was abducted by the ‘villain’ of the story, Ravan, the king of Lanka. Heeding to hearsay and myriad conjectures, he asked his wife to undergo an ordeal unto fire to prove her chasteness. Not once, but twice, even after she had been proven to be ‘pure’. Such was the position of women. Sita, though she was the Queen of the kingdom, but was, nonetheless, stationed beneath unsophisticated rumours. Our internalization of gender imbalances is such that we don’t even let our gods surpass these, hence, inking their magnanimity.

Similarly, the eldest Pandava brother in Mahabharata, the world’s longest epic, is renowned for his honesty and rectitude. He is said to be the only human to have entered the gates of heaven alive- a prize for the virtuous life he had lead. He deserved the award nonetheless, there was nothing morally ‘wrong’ in pawning one’s wife and brothers in a gamble or being a mute spectator while one’s wife was being publicly disrobed and made subject to lurid comments. How could it be wrong, when the very interpretations of sacred texts enlist the ‘wife’ as just another property a man has complete right over! And wait, the bumper prize- there is nothing impious about gambling in the first place.

Draupadi, the main female character of the epic and the wife of the five Pandava brothers, was the first one to be denied direct entry to heaven. In the concluding chapter of the Mahabharata, “The Mahaprasthan”, Yudhisthira, being the paradigm of ‘Dharma’, explains the characteristic flaws with each of his brothers and their wife. Draupadi’s flaw, as he explains is that she did not love all her husbands equally. Arjun on the other hand is seen as flawless in this respect, even though he married numerous times and treated his wives far from equal. Women in India were to commit ‘sati’ upon their husbands’ death which was an important parameter for assessing their virtue. However, in a female-worshipping country, no gender equivalent for ‘sati’ was ever known. I have heard people saying ‘Swayamvar’ was a ritual which proved royal maidens were on equal footing with their male counterparts. Conversely, Swayamvar also authorized kidnapping of the bride and repeatedly such ‘kidnappers’ have been celebrated- Bishma being the prime example. How much choice or opinion did women have even in Swayamvar then?

Thanks to the architects of our constitution, the gap between the genders has been bridged now, at least legally. But has the implementation been possible, or will it ever be possible? Recently, the 16th December 2012 Delhi rape case shook the entire nation. Few people who consider themselves upholders of Hinduism blamed the incident upon western culture and outfits and asserted that such an incident was unseen in Indian culture. Probably their knowledge of the very Mahabharata is incomplete- they forgot the molestation of Draupadi in an open court or how Arjun kidnapped Subhadra (Krishna’s sister). I do not mean to derogate any religion. Being a god-loving Hindu, I see my God in Sita, I see divinity in Draupadi and I see godliness in the all those women who have selflessly served the egos of the men around them. I am a proud Hindu, and my pride comes from realizing Hinduism’s core philosophy- Aadi Shakti (The Quintessential Feminine Energy) which embodies supreme oneness. Nothing can be more heinous than giving the spirit of such a religion a bad name by indulging in the justification of something as ghastly as rape in terms of ‘women’s independence’.

What then is the result of the millennia long cult of Shakti worship? A flourishing business? The biggest irony in action? Unfortunately yes. Unless people cease to associate religion with perpetrating inequalities against women, nothing can change. After all, every religion in the world has striven to attain natural balance. In fact, Hinduism is a pioneer in this field as it is one of the earliest doctrines to talk about natural balance in terms of gender balance where it imputes Prakriti (Environment) to femininity and Purush (Human) to masculinity. Without the synergy and symbiosis between these two constituent units, as is explained by the ancient Chinese symbolism of Yin and Yang, humanity will cease to exist. No religion has characteristically advocated inequality. It is the people who have conveniently molded the philosophies to suit the selfish interests of one party to belittle the other. There is serious brevity of wisdom in those ‘proponents of religion’ who consider it their moral duty to discipline and ‘tame’ the women around them. They do not realize that in the process, they deride their own cause- they project their religion in poorer light. The basic essence of any religion is to provide fortitude and moral direction; let us not defy that truth by using it as a means to attain selfish ends.


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