A Patriarchal Mythology

I have always cordially hated the Ramayana, even as a child. My C. Rajagopalachari copy of the Mahabharata is in tatters from frequent reading whereas the Ramayana lies pristine. In light of the recent gangrape in Delhi, and even more, the spate of violence against women which seems to be spiraling upwards, I am increasingly convinced that the Ramayana was a text written to enforce the patriarchy. Rama, the ‘Maryada Purushottam’ whom all men must strive to emulate is either misogynistic, a disrespecter of women or a spineless coward. Beginning with blind obedience of a father’s unjust command, to humiliating Shoorpanakha whose only crime was that she desired him, to killing Vali by foul means because Sugreeva coveted Vali’s wife, to making Sita go through an Agni Pariksha because she had the misfortune of being captured – where was his agni pariksha for having remained sans spouse in the forest, may I ask? – to his final rejection of Sita because of what an uneducated man said, rather than showing intelligence, compassion and a better sense of equity by rebuking the washerman for his attitude, what is there to emulate in this man? And Sita too does not cover herself in glory, with her final sinking into Mother Earth – I would have thought better of her if she asked Rama to undergo an agni pariksha too or gave him a stinging slap when he dared question her again. But that would never happen in a text written for the purpose of enforcing a patriarchal worldview, would it?


What are the lessons that can be drawn from this mythology?

1. To blindly respect and obey elders no matter what they command. Well, our elders today include Shiela Dikshit who says women should not be adventurous and Asaram Bapu who thinks that appealing to a rapist’s compassion and saying, “Bhaiya, Bhagwan ke liye mujhe chhod do” will prevent rapes (PS. That line didn’t work in countless Hindi movies, why would it work in real life?), and Sushma Swaraj who thinks rape is a fate worse than death.

2. To understand that ‘good women’ should not feel desire or they will get their noses cut off (Naak kat jaayegi – just understood the origin of this phrase) a la Shoorpanakha, and that it is the right of ‘good men’ to humiliate such women.

3. To not cross the Lakshman Rekha – lines in the sand drawn by men that tell women where the limits of their freedom lie – or else there will be a Raavan waiting in the wings.

4. That it is the fault of the woman in such cases and she must pass an agni pariksha (or the 2 finger test) to prove herself innocent.

5. That even if she is innocent, her husband has the right to reject her, because…please read learning #4.

I’m not surprised that so many of the politicians and godmen and such like crawling out of the earth right now espouse such views. They are wedded to the patriarchal view, a) because they are older, and hope the Ramayana rules about blind respect and obedience will work in their favour, and b) because many of them are men and see the Ramayana as a salutary way to teach women what happens when they step out of the boundaries drawn for them by men.

In the Mahabharat, written later than Ramayana going by the chronological order of the Dasha Avatar, and set in the beginning of Kalyug, by the way, women have a much better role to play. First of all, they are not passive doormats who say “Jo aagya” meekly to their lords and masters. Even while they do not actively participate in the war, they are catalysts, opinion-makers and take decisions in their own right. From Kunti who has a child out of wedlock – and then is catechised not for that but for keeping it a secret and giving away the child – to Gandhari who voluntarily binds up her eyes to keep her husband company and eventually, is the only one who curses Krishna, to Amba who vows revenge on Bhishma and becomes a warrior, Rukmini who takes the ‘bold’ step of writing to Krishna asking him to elope with her, Subhadra who similarly chooses Arjuna against her elder brother’s wishes, Draupadi, of course, who is the only one to fight back against the Kauravas while the entire court full of men sits silently, who later goads the Pandavas into fighting the war – the Mahabharata is full of women who dare to live and think and breathe freely, rather than cower meekly in corners. No wonder that the familiar trope in our society is to advice women not to read the Mahabharata when they are pregnant. No wonder no one in Indian society tells women to follow Draupadi or Kunti’s example – that would upset the patriarchy, wouldn’t it?

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