Most of the important leaders have exhorted that the measure of a society’s progress can be gauged from the way it treats its women. Swami Vivekananda was pained looking at the discrimination women faced in India when “the Vedanta declares that one and the same conscious self is present in all beings”. Gandhi took serious objection to calling women the “weaker sex” and blamed men for the “injustice”. “If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably the man’s superior”, he insisted.
Yet, women in India face serious challenges. They are subjected to two extremes – either the extreme sense of protection whereby they are denied freedom and rights, or the extreme vagary of objectification wherein women become commodities to be traded for pleasure and power. The safety of women has become a hot political topic with increasing laws for the purpose and severest measures like capital punishment.
Laws and punishment are necessary, yet, what is more important is a reform in societal mores and attitudes. Dignity and honor of women, unconditional, should be taught to our generations. A woman as a human should be respected, since the “same conscious self” dwells in all. This is not an imported feminist idea. But something the ancient Indian sages and saints sought to teach through various epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. In fact, the twin evils of over-regimentation and objectification are a Western import, from the Victorian era and after.
One of the best contemporary works to understand the dignity, honor and freedom that women enjoyed in the epic era of India that I have come across is the book “Feminine Journeys of Mahabharata – Hindu Women in History, Text, and Practice” by Prof. Lavanya Vemsani. Prof. Vemsani teaches History at the Shawnee State University in the USA and is also a Visiting professor at the JNU, Delhi.
Vemsani’s book narrates the stories of eleven women characters in the epic Mahabharata, some of whom like Kunti, Draupadi and Savitri are relatively better-known to Hindus in general while others like Satyavati, Madhavi, Damayanti and Amba are lesser-known. Even those women, whom Hindus know better, are largely the objects of reverence and worship as the ‘feminine-divine’.
The beauty of Vemsani’s book is to present all these epic women not just as the ‘feminine-divine’ or the objects of worship, but as ‘feminine-heroic’ – examples of courage, freedom and dignity. Her choice of the word ‘feminine’ in the title instead of the usual words like ‘female’ or ‘woman’ has a deeper connotation. “Classical Indian understanding of personhood is reflected through the blend of masculine and feminine in the innate nature of a human being”, she explains. By ‘journeys’ she means the arduous journeys most of these women undertook “either alone or with their partners as part of exile”, that exhibited the dimension of their steadfastness, courage and free-will.
Vemsani’s portrayal of these eleven women leaves the reader spellbound. It opens a completely new window to look at womanhood and how it was cherished and respected in ancient times in India. The women introduced in this book – from Shakuntala to Urvashi – demonstrate exceptional qualities of female agency and choice. They are courageous; firm in their convictions; laying out conditions to their male partners; standing by them in adversaries; challenging fate; and discarding their partners without hesitation when history demands it.
Of the eleven characters discussed, Draupadi stands out for her independence of thought and action. But no less independent were others like Madhavi or Amba or Urvashi. Vemsani introduces the stronger side of women like Kunti, Savitri and Damayanti, who remained in popular lore as ‘Maha Pativratas’ giving rise to several ritual fastings and worship.
“Superwoman and Wonder women are modern adventure heroines, but our classical heroines are no less adventurous. Some have travelled to forests, while others have transformed themselves; they always expressed what they desired. They were not afraid to stand up to authority to support what they believed was right”, sums up Vemsani about the women she introduces in this book.
The portrayal of women in Indian classical literature stands out when compared to their portrayal in ancient Western societies of that period like the Greeks. In the Western civilisations, women had to endure enormous indignity and ignominy through millennia. The status that women in the Eastern civilisations enjoyed was relatively superior. Prof. H.H. Wilson says: “It may be confidently asserted that in no nation of antiquity were women held in so much esteem as amongst Hindus”.
The most influential and controversial myths about women were those from the ancient Greeks and Judeo-Christians. The depiction of Pandora in ancient Greek mythology and Eve in the Judeo-Christian creation myth – as beautiful but cunning women – speaks volumes about the way women were viewed and treated in those times. This theme continues through the story of the Trojan Wars and the fall of Troy in Homer’s epic poems Iliad and Odyssey. Supposedly written in the 8th century BCE, these classic works of Homer present Helen as a hapless and weak woman. The story of Eve, the female companion of the alpha male, Adam, as described in the Book of Genesis, has had a profoundly negative impact on women in the West throughout the history of the last two millennia.
Classical texts of the middle ages were of great influence over Indian society. But they too suffer from serious interpolations and fictionalisation leading to a different portrayal of women reflecting the societal mores of those times. A Shakuntala’s story of Kalidasa or an Ahalya story of Tulsi need not be the same as it was portrayed in the original texts of Mahabharata and Ramayana by Vyasa and Valmiki.
What Vemsani does in this book is to introduce us to the women through the eyes of the original author sage Vyasa, thus giving us a glimpse of the status, dignity and freedom of choice that women enjoyed in those times.
Vemsani’s book is an exceptional addition to the available literature on Hindu women and will certainly help in dispelling several myths and misconceptions. More importantly, it helps in clearing lopsided understanding about womanhood within the Indian society, which is struggling to understand the way to treat women with dignity. One shortcoming in the book, which can be ignored, was the proof-reading. I am sure the author will work more diligently on that part in future editions.
(The article was originally published by Chintan – India Foundation Blogs on August 3, 2021. Views expressed are personal.)