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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.
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*Kabita Ghosh is independent scholar, Nagpur; Arup Mitra  is professor, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi

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