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

Vaccine nationalism? Covaxin isn't safe either, perhaps it's worse: Experts

By Rajiv Shah  I was a little awestruck: The news had already spread that Astrazeneca – whose Indian variant Covishield was delivered to nearly 80% of Indian vaccine recipients during the Covid-19 era – has been withdrawn by the manufacturers following the admission by its UK pharma giant that its Covid-19 vector-based vaccine in “rare” instances cause TTS, or “thrombocytopenia thrombosis syndrome”, which lead to the blood to clump and form clots. The vaccine reportedly led to at least 81 deaths in the UK.

'Scientifically flawed': 22 examples of the failure of vaccine passports

By Vratesh Srivastava*   Vaccine passports were introduced in late 2021 in a number of places across the world, with the primary objective of curtailing community spread and inducing "vaccine hesitant" people to get vaccinated, ostensibly to ensure herd immunity. The case for vaccine passports was scientifically flawed and ethically questionable.

'Misleading' ads: Are our celebrities and public figures acting responsibly?

By Deepika* It is imperative for celebrities and public figures to act responsibly while endorsing a consumer product, the Supreme Court said as it recently clamped down on misleading advertisements.

Magnetic, stunning, Protima Bedi 'exposed' malice of sexual repression in society

By Harsh Thakor*  Protima Bedi was born to a baniya businessman and a Bengali mother as Protima Gupta in Delhi in 1949. Her father was a small-time trader, who was thrown out of his family for marrying a dark Bengali women. The theme of her early life was to rebel against traditional bondage. It was extraordinary how Protima underwent a metamorphosis from a conventional convent-educated girl into a freak. On October 12th was her 75th birthday; earlier this year, on August 18th it was her 25th death anniversary.

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

Palm oil industry 'deceptively using' geenwashing to market products

By Athena*  Corporate hypocrisy is a masterclass in manipulation that mostly remains undetected by consumers and citizens. Companies often boast about their environmental and social responsibilities. Yet their actions betray these promises, creating a chasm between their public image and the grim on-the-ground reality. This duplicity and severely erodes public trust and undermines the strong foundations of our society.

'Fake encounter': 12 Adivasis killed being dubbed Maoists, says FACAM

Counterview Desk   The civil rights network* Forum Against Corporatization and Militarization (FACAM), even as condemn what it has called "fake encounter" of 12 Adivasi villagers in Gangaloor, has taken strong exception to they being presented by the authorities as Maoists.

No compensation to family, reluctance to file FIR: Manual scavengers' death

By Arun Khote, Sanjeev Kumar*  Recently, there have been four instances of horrifying deaths of sewer/septic tank workers in Uttar Pradesh. On 2 May, 2024, Shobran Yadav, 56, and his son Sushil Yadav, 28, died from suffocation while cleaning a sewer line in Lucknow’s Wazirganj area. In another incident on 3 May 2024, two workers Nooni Mandal, 36 and Kokan Mandal aka Tapan Mandal, 40 were killed while cleaning the septic tank in a house in Noida, Sector 26. The two workers were residents of Malda district of West Bengal and lived in the slum area of Noida Sector 9. 

India 'not keen' on legally binding global treaty to reduce plastic production

By Rajiv Shah  Even as offering lip-service to the United Nations Environment Agency (UNEA) for the need to curb plastic production, the Government of India appears reluctant in reducing the production of plastic. A senior participant at the UNEP’s fourth session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-4), which took place in Ottawa in April last week, told a plastics pollution seminar that India, along with China and Russia, did not want any legally binding agreement for curbing plastic pollution.

Mired in controversy, India's polio jab programme 'led to suffering, misery'

By Vratesh Srivastava*  Following the 1988 World Health Assembly declaration to eradicate polio by the year 2000, to which India was a signatory, India ran intensive pulse polio immunization campaigns since 1995. After 19 years, in 2014, polio was declared officially eradicated in India. India was formally acknowledged by WHO as being free of polio.