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Portrayal Of Women In The Hindu Epics

By Lawrence Rayappan

11 April, 2013

The ancient Hindu-Indian society in respect to women is seen from two
different perspectives. One is by Brahmins/Upper-caste originating
from Indian antiquity, secondly by Dalits/liberalists.[1] During the
Vedic period, roughly 1500 to 600 B.C, Manusmriti also known as Manu
Dharma Shastra, the ancient Hindu Code of conduct for domestic, social
and religious life was written in Sanskrit by the Manu. Even today
this Manusmriti is quoted both by liberal and conservative groups.
Liberal groups opposing current use of the practices of this ancient
Indian code is seen as a culture that dominates women and denies the,
freedom and empowerment. Conservatives, on the other hand, consider
modern culture to be evil to India and desire the return of the
Manusmriti. The conservative group has many political wings such as
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiva Sena who ruled India from 1999
to 2004.

The pro Manusmriti people, including some Indian feminists, argue that
women are treated well and respected by Manu. They ask the modern
feminists to take examples from Manusmriti.[2] But Indian Liberal
feminists and Dalits view the Manusmriti as anti-women and anti-Dalit
text, where women and Dalits are degraded. Ambedkar in his article
“The Rise and Fall of Hindu Women” argues that Hindu religion through
its religious texts, such as the Manusmriti always degraded women.[3]
Sita Agarwal's analysis of the degradation of women in the Vedic
period, argues that the continuation of the Vedic religions which
collectively referred to as Brahminism is the reason for degradation
of women.[4] Ruth Manorama, a Dalit Christian feminist scholar and
social activist from Tamil Nadu, traces the roots of the degradation
of Dalits and Dalit women to the Manusmriti.[5] According to Manu,
women are not allowed to do any work independently either inside the
house or outside the house. In the childhood she has to be under the
control of her father and brothers and after marriage she is under the
control of her husband.[6]

Surendra Jondhale observes that the ancient Hindu text Chaturvanya
treated women as Dalit. Undeniably, in the ancient Hindu religious
texts, the “entire Dalit society including men and women did not have
equal economic rights. Lower caste women are doubly discriminated:
caste and gender. Manu considered women as slaves.”[7] Surendra
Jondhale has the same criticism of Manusmriti for making the women and
Dalits inferior to other people; thus the “[p]sychological, social and
cultural proscriptions unleashed by Manu restricted her autonomy.”[8]
This lower status of women continued even in the 1000 years of the
Muslim rulers and through the Medieval India.

The laws of Manu still are practiced at present time. As Sonia Mahey
observes, “[t]he horrendous Laws in the Manusmriti were incorporated
into Hinduism because they were favourable only to the Upper castes
which form the majority of India. Even today, in modern times, we see
the severe oppression and exploitation of Dalit women.”[9] Certainly,
the Indian social order has been built upon the pillars of the
Manusmriti says Kumud Pawde.[10] Since the Code of Manu (Manusmriti)
intermingles with the Indian culture and Hindu religion, it is very
hard to remove those anti- Dalits and anti-women texts in Manusmriti;
people consider it as sacred. Therefore, Sita Agarwal suggests; “Since
such passages cannot be deleted in modern times, nor can the Vedas be
modified, it hence follows that all Indian feminists must fight
against any and all forms of Vedic religion. Unless they do so, Indian
women shall forever remain enslaved to Vedic tyranny.”[11]

Unlike Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) or even
like Buddhism, there are supreme goddesses in Hindusm. Shakti (a
female goddess) is considered the mother of all gods, a creator and
destroyer. Shakti means power. She is powerful goddess. In the Hindu
tradition there are three supreme gods: Brahma, the lord of creator,
Vishnu, the lord of protector, and Shiva, the lord of destroyer. These
three supreme god´s consorts, namely, Saraswati (wife of Brahma),
Lakshmi (wife of Vishnu) and Parvati (wife of Shiva) are also
considered as goddesses and patrons. Saraswati is the patron of
knowledge, Lakshmi is the patron of wealth and Parvati is the patron
of power. Even now there are numerous Temples dedicated to this
goddess. Apart from these three big female deities the other important
deities are: Kali and Durga are considered as both creative and
destructive power of time.

However, Hindu religion through its mythology and epics continues to
keep the women at the low level. In the Hindu-Indian mythology five
women are portrayed and showed as role model for other women. They are
Sita, Savitri, Draupadi, Ahalya and Arundhati. Sita is the obedient
wife of the Ramayana epic's god, Rama. Her obedience is shown also to
her brother-in-law. In the case of failure of this obedience, she will
face problems and hardships. The epic tells that Sita disobeyed her
brother-in-law and, consequently, was abducted by the evil person
Ravana. The lesson from this epic is that wife should obey if not she
will suffer.

Another story of suffering and obedient wife is contained in the
Mahabaratha epic. This second “model” woman is Savitri. She is a queen
chooses a blind the one who is going to die soon, as a marriage
partner. She is given as model as the one who suffered and scarified
her life for the sake of her husband. Savitri is shown as an ideal
wife.[12] Dr. R. Dhanjal observes that for the low and degradation
position of women is due to the ongoing cultural and religious mind
set up imposed on Indian women. Dhanjal says; “All men want their
wives to be like Sita – long suffering and obedient. The lot of most
Indian women today is similar to that of Savitri and Sita, but with a
slight difference.” Dhanjal further says; “Modern-day Indian women put
up with indignity and degradation from sheer economic necessity, being
not trained for any profession. Taught from childhood that a husband's
word is law, most find it easier to suffer rather, than leave the
security of the home to look for a job to support themselves and their
children. That is one reason for the low divorce rate in India.”[13]

The third role model for women is Draupadi. Her story comes in the
epic of Mahabaratha. Draupadi is the wife for five princes. Although
she was married to only one prince later she was asked to be the wife
for her four brother-in-laws. She kept silent and obeyed her husbands
even in the extreme situation when she was gambled away by one of her
five husbands. In the gamble her husbands were defeated and they were
sent to exile for 13 years. Even in these critical and painful
situations she kept quiet, obeyed and accompanied her husbands
wherever they went. Never raised her voice against her husbands

Ahalya an epic woman narrated in the Ramayana is the fourth one.
Ahalya is the wife of Gautama a Hindu rishi (hermit). She was seduced
by god Indra and had sexual relationship with god Indra when she was
unconscious. Due to her infidelity she was cursed by her husband to
become stone. Ahalya´s life is shown as an example to Indian women
that if any wives are seduced by other men will be punished by their
husbands even if it happens without the consent of the women. Even
though the wives are not responsible for the seduction they have to
undergo punishment. The fifth woman is Arundhati the wife of Vashishta
a sage. Her story is narrated in many Hindu epics. She is shown as
model for her chastity.

The Hindu-Indian tradition again and again imprints in the hearts and
minds of the women that women should obey to her husband undergo
suffering and should be chaste. If they violate this tradition they
will face the same problems as the Hindu epic women faced. Margaret R.
Higonnet observes it was the duty of the women to prove that they are
chaste. She says; “As traditional narrative model, these legends
(Ahalya and Sita) propose purification for the violated woman through
symbolic death (transformation into a stone, passage through fire), to
resolve the crisis of rape or attempted rape.”[14] Kailash
Vijayavargiya, a BJP political party minister in Madhya Pradesh,[15]
quoting Ramayana, Vijayavargiya said just like Sita was abducted by
Ravana, a woman will be punished if she crosses her limits,”[16]
commented following the gang rape and murder of 23 years old girl in
New Delhi. In the same context, Mohan Bhagwat the RSS (a Hindu
fundamentalism part) leader, commented that “A husband and wife are
involved in a contract under which the husband has said that you
should take care of my house and I will take care of all your needs. I
will keep you safe. So the husband follows the contract terms. Till
the time, the wife follows the contract, the husband stays with her,
if the wife violates the contract, he can disown her.”[17] Commending
the Bhagwat statement, Brinda Karat, CPI (M) communist political party
leader, said the Hindu fundamentalist groups want to create a new
Indian constitution based on Manushriti.[18]

Some modern Indian feminists, however, re-interpret those epic model
women in the eyes of modern-liberal feminism. Sunita Thakur tries to
re-envigorate people's memory and honoring of those disobedient
characters from those five role model Hindu epic women. Thakur says
Sita when she was to prove her chastity by her husband, refused,
instead returned to her mother house. In the same way, Draupadi when
she was gambled away by her five husbands, refused to obey but
demanded war for justice.[19]

Lawrence Rayappan ,Ph.D student, Freiburg University, Germany


[1] Vedic period, roughly from 1500 to 600 B.C, is an ancient period
for Hindu-Indian culture. Four Vedas (Sacred Texts) Rig, Yajur, Sama
and Atharva were written during this period. Most of the Hindu
religious texts, (Upanishads - supporting texts to Vedas), two great
epics of Ramayana (history of god Rama) and the Mahabharata (great
story of Indians) were written during this Vedic period.

[2] Some of the texts that show pro-women in Manusmriti are: 3.55,
3:57, 3:59, 9:26, 9:96. See. Agniveer, “Manu Smriti and Women,”
http://agniveer.com/manu-smriti-and-women/ accessed 4. Februray, 2012.

[3] Mahey, The Status of Dalit Women, 150; Thind, Our Indian
Sub-Continent Heritage; Sita Agarwal, Genocide of Women in Hinduism
(Jabalpur: Sudarshan Books, 1999),
http://www.geocities.ws/genocideofhinduwomen/   accessed 24.09.2011.

[4] Agarwal, Genocide of Women in Hinduism.

[5] Manorama, Dalit Women Downtrodden among Downtrodden, 159.

[6] The Law of Manu, translated by Wendy Doniger, (Londen: Penguin,
1991), 147-148.

[7] Surendra Jondhale, Theoretical Underpinning of Emancipation of
Dalit Women, in Dalit Women in India: Issues and Perspectives, ed.,
P.G. Jogdnad (New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 1995), 107.

[8] Jondhale, Theoretical Underpinning of Emancipation, 105-106.

[9] Mahey, The Status of Dalit Women, 151; Thind, Our Indian
Sub-Continent Heritage; Agarwal, Genocide of Women in Hinduism.

[10] Kumud Pawde, “The Position of Dalit Women in Indian Society,” in
in  Indigenous People: Dalits – Dalit Issues in Today´s Theological
Debate, ed., James Massey, (New Delhi: ISPCK, 1994), 145 (143-158).

[11] Agarwal, Genocide of Women in Hinduism; Grey, The Unheard Scream, 12.

[12] Apam Nath, Savitri: The Ideal Wife, See.
http://www.apamnapat.com/entities/Savitri.html . (accessed on 28
January 2003).

[13] R. Dhanjal, Status of Women in India, See.
http://www.tribuneindia.com/2000/20000324/mailbag.htm (accessed on 11
February 2013).

[14] Margaret R. Higonnet, Borderwork: Feminist engagements with
Comparative Literature (Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press, 1994),

[15] Madhay Pradesh is one of the states in India

[16] India Today.in, “MP BJP Leader says Women who cross Laxman-Rekha
will be Punished,” January 4, 2013 New Delhi edition. See,
(accessed 18 February 2013)

[17] Bagish KJha, “Marriage is Like Contract Between Husband and Wife:
Mohan Bhagwat,” in The Times of India. January 6. 2013. See.
(accessed 28 January 2013).

[18] Ibid.

[19] BBC, February 2, 2013. See.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p013vqxs (accessed on 20 January





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