Everyone, without exception, agrees that India is wonderfully blessed in its ancient and beautiful epics, of which the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the best known. The Tamil culture of the South has also, along with its sister languages,given the World masterworks like Silappadhikaram [“the story of the anklet”]. There are also the wonderful plays of Kalidasa, Bana and Bhavabhuti which are the jewels in our cultural crown. I want to focus here on a very peculiar paradox of modern India. The works named tell tales of very remarkable men and women. In particular, they relate with extraordinary integrity, the courage, fortitude and sheer strength of character which women exhibited in equal measure with their menfolkin ancient times. Recall that the poets who wrote these marvellous epics were generally (as far as we know) men. Yet they celebrated the qualities of Sita, Draupadi and Rukmini to the extent of regarding them as incarnations of the great goddesses of the Hindu Pantheon. All this is well-known to almost every Indian, even to those who do not profess to be Hindus: after all, literary heroines can be admired whether or not they share one’s religious affiliations. If this is broadly accepted, why do we now encounter in our beloved Bharat so much misogyny and bloody-minded behaviour towards one half of humanity?
Not a day passes without the media reporting yet another outrage against our long-suffering womenfolk. The very people who would glorify our culture as the most ancient, the most wonderful and peerless in the world talk about our “traditions” as though they are uniquely incomparable. I do not know how supposedly educated lawyers can justify “honour killings”, rape and indescribable violence meted out to a young woman and her boy-friend and can attribute their horrific treatment by a vicious band of drunken thugs to the dress, deportment and “un-Indian” behaviour of the victims.
For want of a better word, the people who do “honour killings” of their own daughters and sisters in the name of India’s hoary traditions should be labelled “anti-traditionalists”. What does Valmiki say of Sita? He is quite honest about her failing: she unjustly accuses Lakshmana of desiring her in Rama’s absence, quite mistaking his brotherly devotion and reverence towards her and thedepth of his love and understanding of Rama. He also says that her joy of being re-united with her beloved was shattered by Rama’s apparently cold and legalistic demand for the first trial by fire. And yet, she undertakes it with dauntless courage and burns Agni in the process! Later, in the continuation of the story, we learn that she tells Rama and his court that the second fire test is unworthy of a great and just emperor. The culture that produced this amazing yettragic work should not be sullied by ignorant, uncivilised people who use it to justify their abhorrent activities towards womankind.
What then do we learn from that even darker epic, the Mahabharata? Draupadi is indeed a very remarkable woman. She is vilified by Karna and many others for her polyandry. And yet, she and her five husbands work out a reasonable conjugal arrangement which all the elders of the family including Krishna accept as chaste! When she is dragged clad in a chemise, to the court in what she herself calls her “impure state” by Dushasana, the way she berates the assembled court, the King, his senior advisers and her own husbands, in particular Yudhishtra (who shamefully used her as a gambling stake) in no uncertain termsmakes wonderful reading.Her salvation comes about through a Divine Intervention-a result of her devotion to Krishna. What is clear is that Vyasa thinks that all the elders (supposedly the repositories of Dharma) in the court and the King himself misbehaved dreadfully in their horrific sexual abuse of a defenceless woman: note that she was not defended by her powerful husbands due to their mistaken adherence to a “code of obedience” to rules which, strangely, did not distinguish between fair and unfair gambling! Indeed, as I recall, her only defenders besides Krishna himself that fateful day were Vidhura and Duryodhana’s brave and just brother Vikarna.
The epics also tell us about many other remarkable women. Thus we learn of Savitri who takes on the God of Death himself in argument to save her husband. There is Rukmini, who defies her family to elope with Krishna. Wefind that Kaikeyi (usually portrayed as a baddie who sent her step-son to exile to get her son crowned)actually took on the driving of her husband’s chariot in battle to save his life. Finally, there is Kannagi who destroys the city of Madura and drives the Pandyan King to suicide to avenge the unlawful murder of her husband. These, among many other examples, are all instances of the importance, independence and formidable authority women could exert on occasion even in those far off times in an apparently male-dominated culture with institutionalised misogyny embodied in various shastras (including Manu’s) written by self-aggrandising men.
Presumably, the “honour murderers” rife in many parts of India these days would have killed both Rukmini and Krishna, had they been powerful enough to destroy the Lord!Driving a chariot? Clearly women should not be given a licence to do that, should they? Perhaps the traditionalists would want to change the Law to ban women drivers as in certain kingdoms to this day.
I find it paradoxical that all Indians want to bask in the glories of Indian (inclusive of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim, Christian and well-known non-theisticSankhya contributions of immense value and splendour)literature, art, music, philosophy, medicine, mathematics and astronomy, and yet treat women as worse than “holy” cattle in many ways. Of course, such generalisations are by definition imprecise, and yet, we hear of many reports from India of physical and sexual abuse, sex-discrimination in the work-place, “eve-teasing”, and brutish disrespect shown to women young and old, so much so that I wonder how many yugas of education will lift our present-day contra-cultural ethos to a genuinely democratic, tolerant and civilised level. Yes, we have had a woman Prime Minister anda President. This is a sign of democratic and cultural good health, whatever one may feel about the individuals in each case. It is however rather shameful to have to witness the inhuman events narrated in the BBC documentary, “India’s Daughter” and, even more, to find that it is banned in India because it is offensive to women! The truth here is rather revealing: in reality those who are offended are the perpetrators and their defenders-the rest of us hang our heads with shame and sadness.
Anantanarayanan Thyagaraja was born in Thanjavur India and was educated in India (IIT Madras) and the US( California Inst. of Tech.). He is a theoretical physicist who retired after working at the Culham Science Centre (1978-2010). He continues to do research on plasma physics and astrophysics at Culham, Bristol University, the Institute of Plasma Research (Ahmedabad) and the Chennai Mathematics Institute in an honorary capacity.