Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Epic Chaos between Power, Politics and Gender

image from Dainik Bhaskar

Womanhood is a big brand in India and is often equivalent to family honor. Indian women are supposed to be conscientious daughters, obedient wives, diligent daughters-in-law, sacrificing mothers, hardworking employees/laborers and more importantly son-bearers. One of the widely preferred Dharmashastras- ManuSmriti by Manu, describes women of lesser ability than men. Manu suggests that a woman can never be left independent and should always be in command of her father, brother, husband and or son.

Speaking of religious texts, both Hindu religion and culture symbolize women as goddesses:

Saraswati- one who holds knowledge of the universe,

Laxmi- one who bestows wealth,

Parvati- the nurturer and

Annapurna- the giver of food and nourishment.

Some extremely popular and widely worshipped goddesses like Kali and Durga are known for their uncontrolled violent rage. A common portrait depicts violent Kali standing over her husband-Shiva’s chest. According to the folklore, after killing the demons, Kali was intoxicated with her victory and began a mindless bloodbath. No gods could stop her, until finally Shiva lay amongst the slain demons and furious Kali stepped on his chest. Realizing she was hurting her husband, her mad rage resolved to regret and she bit her tongue in shame. More generally accepted interpretation of this picture treats Shiva as the underlying force of the universe whereas Kali is considered energy. In other words, neither force nor energy can work independent of the other. This interpretation certainly indicates gender equality but the folklore indirectly hints at the ultimate power of husband’s control over his wife. 

Another gender equation under the Hindu religion derives inspiration from the conceptualization of ardhanarishwar form. It symbolizes an idol that is half Shiva and half Parvati (also referred as Shakti), or a god that is half man-half woman, suggesting the incompleteness of one without the other. However, some researchers to who have studied the deity in detail, suggest that ardhanarishwar is literally translated as Lord that is half woman and thus “in essence is Shiva, not Parvati.” On a closer look at the images of ardhanarishwar, one notices male figure on the right (logic dominated) and female figure on the left (emotion dominated), with female figure’s foot little behind of the male counterpart.

The Hindu mythology often finds anecdotes of gender bias. Some popular Hindu epics depict incidents of kings and queens conducting sacrifices, and holy yagyas to acquire sons. In Ramayana, King Dasharatha and his three queens bore four sons after the Putrakameshthi yagya.

In another popular epic- Mahabharata, Kunti, the wife of an impotent King Pandu, had a magical boon that she could call upon any god to beget a child. She shared the boon with Madri, Pandu’s second wife and had five sons amongst the two. Kunti had one more son while she childishly tested the boon, before her wedlock, but due to fear of unacceptability and shame, she abandoned the boy. Of all children Kunti and Madri had, interestingly, none was a daughter. There is lack of clarity whether the boon was limited to having only sons? And even if it was, it only creates a doubt over such discrimination. 

In the same epic, King Drupad was blessed with a daughter Shikhandini. Drupad trained her in statesmanship and warfare and raised her like a son. There are also references suggesting Drupad even got Shikhandini married. However, the bride was furious when she learned that her groom was actually a woman. Ashamed, Shikhandini ran off to a forest to commit suicide, but apparently returned with a sex change. Also referred as Shikhandi, she was a fierce warrior and commanded Drupad’s army. However, Shikhandini failed to defeat Drona (her father’s best friend turned worst enemy) who acquired Drupad’s entire kingdom and mockingly returned it all as a gift to Drupad. Extremely disappointed, Drupad blamed Shikhandini for his humiliation. Thoroughly convinced that only a ‘real son’ can take revenge against Drona, Drupad performed a yagya for gods to grant him a son. The holy fire granted him full-grown twins- Dhrishtadhyumna- a boy who would slay Drona as desired. And an unasked, undesired daughter - Draupadi. Ironically, till date, Draupadi remains more popular than her brother, and in a way, carries forward her father’s name and legacy! Draupadi went on to become one of the most important characters of the epic and a cause of war between Kunti’s sons and nephews. Similarly, Sita - the heroine of Ramayana, is also referred as a reason of war between Ram (good) and Ravan (evil). She suffered abandonment since her mysterious birth to her forced death, while most of her own life was spent in proving her worth.

Unfortunately, the ingrained male supremacy continues until today with India wanting more and more sons, or at least one son! Some son-obsessed parents have shamelessly approached the judiciary pleading justification to sex selective abortions. In an unusual case, a couple challenged the validity of the PCPNDT Act stating that it violates the right to life and personal liberty guaranteed under the Constitution. They pleaded that right to life and liberty should expand to include the right to choose the nature of one’s family and thus, the sex of the offspring.   The Supreme Court came down heavily on the issue and held that right to life and liberty concerns with the question of terminating life and no parent can be entitled to the right to terminate a life merely based on the sex of the fetus. The court dismissed the petition by adding that a fetus has not just a right to life but also the right to full development under the Constitution of India.

India’s biggest irony is that in spite of being brutal to its women, India stands out to be one of a few nations to have had women hold the most powerful and influential political positions of Prime Minister and President.  India also boasts about fifteen women chief ministers for various states and woman Speaker for the lower house of Parliament. It is unfortunate that we have been unjust to the womankind, who are unabashingly leading India in various fields, at various fronts. Let us take pride in our Shikhandinies, Sitas and Draupadies, and raise each daughter to be equal to ten sons.

This blog has excerpts from author’s unpublished research work. For details, clarifications, references, please contact us at
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