Skip to main content

Feminism in Sanskrit classics? Sita refused to prove chastity before kingdom, gave up life

Model of Sita going into Mother Earth, Sitamarhi
By Kabita Ghosh, Arup Mitra*
There is a strong view that western feminism made the world aware of gender equality and talked about women empowerment openly. Some of the Indian women writers dealing with gender issues contested this view through their writings and held that western feminism may have influenced the feminist movement in India, giving it a concrete shape, but to say that it made India fight for equality is rather an exaggeration.
Ashapurna Devi, for example, in the first volume of her trilogy “The First Promise” shows that Satyavati had no access to the western intellectualism, she overlapped with the late 19th century when the western feminism was just emerging in an explicit sense though writings had become voluminous by then, and more importantly she belonged to a very traditional family. Yet, she revolted against vulnerability of women whenever she came across either through her experiences or others around her and such a rage she was born with, had a nourishment from her father. 
However, people may still argue that Ashapurna Devi herself belonged to the twentieth century and her writings, even while portraying the past generations, may have been influenced by the feminist movement of the western world. In this short portrayal we, therefore, take recourse to the ancient Sanskrit literature to analyse the women issues.
The Vedic literature has ample instances of establishing equality between gods and goddesses and also often projecting the supremacy of the feminine power over her male counterpart. We do not intend to visit these materials as they are widely known, both religiously and philosophically.
Some of the folklores in the name of gods and goddesses also highlight the importance of equality in society which we realise as we deconstruct them in terms of human beings. The "Luxmi Purana" of the rice growing states, in particular, establish the supremacy of the feminine power even within the realms of patriarchy and cautions the male folk of dire consequences should there be any domestic conflict.
The "Luxmi Purana" from Odisha does not end with an apology coming from the male consort after suffering for his domination and misbehaviour; the goddess accepts the apology only on a condition that hits and concretises the core of all freedom for women. That she should not be questioned on when and whom she would visit negotiates for space for women and her basic right over her time to which none else should have recourse.
On acceptance of this condition by her male consort she finds solace and agrees to return to the temple. The message is clear that rice cultivation which requires the support of female members from the household to a very great extent, may suffer invariably should there be a non-cooperation due to domestic rift or domination by the males.
From the epics like "Ramayana" and "Mahabharata" the heroines’ fight for dignity is distinctly evident. Sita, who is otherwise painted as the most obedient and loving partner, does not hesitate to give up her life when she is urged to appear for a chastity test in front of the whole kingdom.
When Draupadi, after the episode of disrobing in the royal court was requested by Dhritarashtra to forgive and ask for boons, her self-respect did not allow her to utter a word more than what she thought was basic to human dignity: her own freedom and the removal of the bond of slavery thrust upon the Pandavas. It was Dhritarashtra who out of fear and in an attempt to nullify the grave mistakes of his sons returned the kingdom to the Pandavas, hoping to pacify the situation.
In Kumarsambhavam, Pravati breaks the norm of gendered role in the prevailing society and sets out her journey in search of purity, the Shiva
Most celebrated Sanskrit poet Kalidasa (presumed to have flourished in 5th century CE) in his mahakavya "Raghuvansham" recognises the importance of female power. In the very first benedictory sloka (mangalacharan) of "Raghuvansham" he mentions male and female power to be complementary to each other like vak (a word) and arth (its meaning). He implies the two powers to be the two sides of a same coin.
In Kalidasa’s "Abhijnanasakuntalam", Sakuntala does not argue in the royal court when the king Dushyanta fails to recognise her or acknowledge the romantic relationship he had with her. Howsoever pained and lost she was, she did not beg of his mercy. Her dignity is more important than getting any shelter under the kindness of someone who refuses to be the husband.
Similarly, when the king had asked for her hands in the beginning at her foster father’s hermit, she had not lost her sensibility to cross the feminine dignity and poise and reply affirmatively: let silence be interpreted by the proposer.
In "Kumarsambhavam", Pravati breaks the norm of gendered role in the prevailing society and sets out her journey in search of purity, the Shiva. The tapasya or the path of penance which was seen to be the pursuits of male seekers, was adopted by Parvati in the toughest form, even after the refusals coming from her parents.
In Banabhatta’s "Kadambari", Patralekha resides close to the prince and both being young it is natural that a delicate romantic feeling may be offing. But again, her gravity is so overpowering that desire gets completely subdued, allowing only duty to take the supreme position.
In Bhasa’s "Charudattam" drama, Basantasena, a glamorous prostitute, tries to win the heart of a poor Brahmin, Charudatta whom she loved so dearly. The powerful villain who was the brother-in-law of the ruler of the land could not succeed in turning away her attention from her objective. She attains her goal through patience, poise and sacrifices, handing over all her dearest ornaments to Charudatta’s wife. Bhasa paints her as a powerful personality.
In "Malavikagnimitram", the queen Dharini has dignity, forbearance and uprightness. When Malavika came to the attention of the king in a dance scene contrived by the clown, she rebuked the king in the words of harsh satire that such efficiency would be profitable if shown in the administrative affairs of the state.
The huge spectrum of characters that were created in the literature represented gravity, power and forcefulness, all unique in their own way and creating space for themselves without endeavouring to replicate poorly the male attributes or sacrificing their own stability and steadiness that would build into the feminine grace they possessed. Firmness combined with equanimity and the clarity of thoughts fetches rationalisation in defining the ambit of their actions that help them claim dignity and individuality.
---
*Kabita Ghosh is independent scholar, Nagpur; Arup Mitra  is professor, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi

Comments

TRENDING

India's GDP down by 50%, not 23%, job loss 200 million not 122 million: Top economist

By Our Representative One of India’s topmost economists has estimated that India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decline was around 50%, and not 23%, as claimed by the Government of India’s top data body, National Statistical Organization (NSO). Prof Arun Kumar, who is Malcolm S Adiseshiah chair professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, said this was delivering a web policy speech, organised by the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.

JP advised RSS to give up Hindu Rashtra, disband itself: Ex-IAS officer tells Modi

Counterview Desk
Major MG Devasahayam IAS (Retd), chairman, People-First, in an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of Jayprakash Narain’s (JP’s) death anniversary (October 11) has wondered whether he remembers “a patriot called Jayaprakash Narayan”. Recalling what JP thought on issues such as communalism, freedom, democracy, Hindutva etc., Devasahayam says, Modi has been been doing “the very opposite of the principles and values for which JP lived and died.”

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

By Our Representative
Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book, "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

UP chief secretary, DGP have 'surrendered' to political diktat: 92 retired IAS, IPS officials

Counterview Desk
In an open letter to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, 92 retired IAS, IFS and IPS bureaucrats, commenting on “blatant violations of the rule law” following the Hathras incident, have blamed that the Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police for abjectly failing to exercise control over a “highly compromised” administration the state.

Gujarat literati flutter: State Akademi autonomy curb a Sahitya Parishad poll issue?

By Dankesh Oza*
The 115-year-old Gujarati Sahitya Parishad is in election mode. More than 3,000 life members of the Parishad are set to elect its 52nd president and 40 plus central working committee (CWC) members, which in turn will elect its executive and two vice presidents, six secretaries and a treasurer for the coming three years (from 2021 to 2023).

Hathras reflects Manu's mindset dominates: 'Women are false, it's in their nature to seduce'

By Parijat Ghosh, Dibyendu Chaudhuri*
The woman died and then we woke up to protest. She was alive for two weeks after the heinous incident. Many of us even didn’t notice what had happened at Hathras, how she fought during the next 15 days. Those who noticed, many of them were not sure what actually had happened. So much so, we as a nation were more busy in finding out who among the Bollywood actresses were taking drugs, who smoked weed, who had ‘inappropriate’ or more than one relationship, what kind of private conversations they had in their chat boxes and what not!

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur*
Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

Atrocities against Dalits: Why don't MPs, MLAs from the community ever speak up?

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*
In Gujarat, a young Dalit activist lawyer Devji Maheshwari, belonging to the Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMSCEF) was killed in Surat, allegedly by a goon who was warning him against his Facebook posts not to speak up against Brahmanism. Facts have come to light suggesting there are other issues also which led to the murder, mostly related to land disputes, many a time ignored by activists.

Delhi riots: Even British didn't accuse Bhagat Singh of reading Lenin, Jack London

By Vikash Narain Rai*
After the #BlackLifeMatters movement seriously tested the credibility of police across America, the Houston police chief Art Acevado talked of ending “lawful but awful” policing. No comparison, but in India, a citizens’ committee comprising former top judges and bureaucrats is now set to inquire into the role of the state machinery and media in handling the February 2020 Delhi violence, which followed protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), “as the investigation by the Delhi Police has evoked extensive critical commentary in recent times.”