Friday, October 21, 2005

Gods, Myths and Women

Amit Varma links to this interview with Mallika Sarabhai where she says that Draupadi "is the epitome of the 21st century woman." In the same post, Amit Varma also links to this blogger who disagrees with the above quote and instead says that Draupadi "comes out like she has no personality and personality is what defines a 21st century woman... That was then; this is now."

Personally, I prefer to view these people as literary characters rather than historical figures. I find it's easier to discover the divinity in them that way. And, I have to agree with Mallika Sarabhai when she says:

"I have always felt that our mythological women and historical women got a
raw patriarchal deal. The writers of history were men: the priests were men, the
storytellers were men, the historians were mostly men. And they ended up by
reducing all the women into cardboard cutouts – wimps, in fact."
I had a similar feeling when I read the Ramayana and pondered the problem of Sita. Mallika Sarabhai follows up the previous statement with this:

"And yet they (the women) could not have been so. Think of this -- why are
all the men identified by their women? Radheshyam -- Radha's Shyam; Umashankar -- Uma's Shankar; Sitaram -- Sita's Ram etc?"


Alternatively, couldn't one argue that the women are defined by their men? In fact, that's exactly the case with the women of the Ramayana. Here's what I wrote last year about that epic (after reading R.K. Narayan's adaptation):

"The female is treated very unfairly (from a modern and feminist persepective)
in the entire 'Ramayana', and Sita's trial [by fire] is just the culmination of
that sentiment, developped through the epic. The major female characters in the
story are Sita, Kaikeyi, Manthara (Kooni in this version), Soorpanaka and Tara
(Sugreeva's wife). None are given their full due as independent characters, and
all seem to exist solely for the men in their lives. Sita's sense of dharma
compels her to follow Rama into exile. Had she chosen otherwise, it is clear
that the moral judgement would be negative. Kaikeyi's disobedience of Dasaratha
forms part of the ethical charges made against her. Kooni's evil nature is made
clear by her attempt to interfere in the male-centric ritual of succession.
Soorpanaka, the one independent female in the story is given a very unflattering
portrayal, and even she ends up with a Rama-centered identity. Tara is flung
from one husband to the next with no concern for her preferences. Even Ahalya,
is forced to live an eternity as a rock for being raped by Indra.

All the classic feminist critiques apply to the Ramayana. While stacked with
powerful male characters like Rama, Ravana, Hanuman and Vali, the Ramayana lacks strong female characters. Sita's greatness lies not in her independence or
strength, but devotion to Rama. Given all this, it is easy to see why Sita's
trial by fire fits in with the general narrative of the Ramayana and with Rama's
own code of ethics...

This is not to say that Sita's trial by fire is excusable. In fact modern re-tellings of the tale can quite easily skip the sordid chapter and not lose any of the narrative. Sita's trial by fire, like Vali's killing is inexcusable and indefensible, but the latter is also inexplicable."

I wrote this as part of a larger essay on "Rama's Moral Lapses". The main focus of the piece was Rama's killing of Vali, but as mentioned above, Sita's trial by fire is just as revealing, if not more so, about Rama's character. I'll post the full piece on this site one of these days. Today I just wanted to add my two cents to the issue of women in our epics.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

When the Lord incarnates on this Earth, it is very easy to consider him like us, consequently we think he has traits like is implied with "Rama's Moral lapses." But the Lord incarnates solely for the benefit of the universe and whatever actions he does are divine, although we may not immediately see the divinity behind them. His actions cannot be taken just as they are, they require contemplation and are sometimes beyond our intelligence. This is why it is important to understand God's past times through a Guru.

About Sita's trial by fire. When a woman stays with another man, it is quite possible that people will doubt her chastity after such an event. Although devotees know that she is the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi and is totally pure. However, the world is very sceptical. Consequently, in order to stop the world from having such doubts in the future, Rama made her take the fire test. From the wordly point of view, it may seem like unfairness but in fact, Rama did it to protect Sita. Goddess Lakshmi is the eternal consort of Lord Vishnu and so nothing is kept from each other, however, from a worldy point of view, a demonstration of Sita's purity was necessary.

Azygos said...

Your entire argument that Sita is a weak character is absolutely illogical. Is resilience a character of the strong or weak? Is forgiveness a character of the strong or weak? Is nobility a character of the strong or weak? Tolerance? Unconditonal love? Respect for one's spouse? All these characteristics can be attributed to Sita. Inspite of all her suffering, never does she utter a word against Rama. And herein, lies her greatness and nobility which is inimitable. Even the conceptualisation of such a degree of exalted unconditional love is unimaginable in the literary history of mankind.

Rama asks Sita to stay behind as she was not one who was accustomed to living a life of hardships in the forest. Yet, Sita has the audacity to rebuke Rama for his heartlessness. In the forests, Sita once again questions Rama on whether it was ethically correct to slay the Rakshasas because they had not transgressed in their affairs. She is also aghast at Lashmana's abbhorent dealings with Surpanakha. The sweet intimacy of their relationship is evident throughout the story.

Coming to the trial by fire, at no point in time, does Rama doubt Sita. Yet, as a king his raja dharma supercedes his pati dharma. Remember, in the context of the story Rama Rajya is a utopian state where adultery is unknown. Ultimately immorality is nothing but an act of violaton which destabilises the inherent order and stability of a society. The accusations against Sita had the potential to destabilise the very foundations of Ayodhya. Hence, the trial by fire and subsequent exile.

But doesnt Rama suffer for that. He never remarries, not even when he insisted upon by his kingdomers during the Ashwamedha rites, where he substitutes Sita with her golden image. And at the end, he commits suicide to escape from his pitiful life.

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multisubj yb said...

I agree mythical women were treated badly. www.ramayanayb.blogspot.com. You can know more about Kausalya and Sita.