Jun 2, 2011

Women in Mahabharata

(Photo courtesy: R-10.80 @ flickr)

A few years ago, I did a small research on the role and portrayal of women in Mahabharata. Now, looking back at this one, I realized that there are glimpses of some of these women in our modern society too. I am sure you too would have come across some of the attributes in your life. Anyway, here it comes..

Like Ramayana, Mahabhaarata too is dominated by male characters. The women provide only supporting roles, and from the various verses, it is possible to know how the women were treated.

Freedom of the women: It appears that women were allowed to be independent, and more so in the ancient times before Mahabhaarata. In a statement to Kunti, Pandu says “there were no restrictions on women in ancient times. They were independent. Their discarding their husbands was not considered irreligious. This practice, favorable to women is the eternal DHARMA, which is still respected by the sages”. Also, Soorya says to Kunti that all females are free, which is the natural course of the world.

Maidens: The issues regarding women’s freedom, pre-marital sex and the concept of virginity are discussed while dealing with maidens in Mahabhaarata. Perhaps the most important maiden in Mahabhaarata is Kunti. She pays a heavy price for testing the mantra invoking the sun (Soorya) and eventually bears his child. Soorya threatens Kunti that he would curse her, her father and the Brahmin who gave her the mantra if she doesn’t gratify him. From her reply, it is clear that she considers maidenhood an important virtue. Soorya’s response to Kunti that a virgin is, by nature, free in the world and that it is natural that all the men and women should be bound by no restraints, suggests that maidens were allowed to be sexually free in the male-dominated society. Similarly Satyavati had to oblige to Parashara’s desires for the fear of suffering from the rishi’s curse. Both Satyavati and Kunti are deemed virgins by Parashara and Soorya respectively after the affair.

When Arjuna wins the contest in the Swayamvara, Draupadi placed the garland around his neck, hoping to become just his wife. Vyasa doesn’t record her reaction when she learns that she would be the wife of all five brothers. Her decision hardly mattered, since it was her father, brother, Kunti and the Pandavas who decided how she would live her married life. Here again, the concept of Swayamvara was based on a man’s skill in succeeding a challenge, rather than the maiden’s choice.

Wives: The law says that a woman should be with one man throughout her life and her connection with another man is unlawful. According to a story narrated by Pandu to Kunti, a wife getting to sleep with another man who loathes her, albeit her discontent, was a sanctioned practice, which was changed only later, by a Brahmin. Thus, it is clear that the men created, broke, twisted and recreated the rules regarding the sanctity of a wife.

There are a few cases of wives acting according to their will as well. Ganga leaves her husband when he questions her and thus breaking his promise. Satyavati gets what she wants from the king, her husband, though through her father; after his death, she feels responsible for the future of the kingdom. On the other hand, Ambika and Ambalika let others decide as to whom they marry and how they become mothers.

Gandhari, the wife of Dhrtarashtra, was known for her loyalty to her husband. She decides to deprive herself of eyesight to experience the handicap of her husband. She participates in the decisions relating to the kingdom. He never lives away from her husband.

Kunti, at Pandu’s suggestion to be impregnated by a Brahmin for progeny, refuses it steadfast, calling it an ‘unrighteous act’, which she does eventually though. Even at that moment, she doesn’t tell him of her earlier affair with Soorya. Though she remarks that death is a blessing to women without husbands, she chooses to live for several years after Pandu’s death. Madri, the other wife of Pandu, feels responsible for his death and decides to end her life.

Arguably, the most important character of wife in Mahabhaarata is Draupadi. She marries the five Pandavas, which is considered ‘immoral’ practice according to her own father. Probably her choice was never going to be considered; so she decides to obey the words of Arjuna who is her first husband. It is further exemplified by the act of Yudhishthira who places her as a wager during the game of dice. We see the wife being considered as just another property by the Pandavas in the process, a valuable one though, considering that she is the ultimate bet placed by them. When she is stripped by Duchathana, the Pandavas merely act as spectators, bound to the law that the loser has no say on the treatment on a lost bet, but forgetting the vow they made during the wedding that the wife should be protected at any cost. She is abducted by Jayadratha during their exile but (fortunately) is accepted by husbands without any test to prove her chastity.

Mothers: Some fortunate mothers left an ever-lasting impression on their children. Some of the children were called as ‘Son of their mother’, e.g., Bhishma as ‘Gangaputra’, Krishna as ‘Devaki putra’, Karna as ‘Radheya’ (after his adopted mother Radha) and Arjuna as ‘Partha’ (after his mother Kunti’s another name Prithaa). Ganga is shown to be kind to Bhishma and is credited for raising Bhishma to be the best character. Similarly, Kunti raises her sons who honor every word; they commit even what is considered immoral just to obey her unintentional command. She abandons Karna due to the fear of being branded immoral; and she shows her selfishness in requesting Karna to spare her other sons’ lives.

Gandhari is portrayed as a jealous mother. Upon learning about Yudhishtra’s birth, she becomes impatient and breaks the lump of flesh she has given birth to. She tries to be impartial towards the Pandavas but always envies their achievements. She loves her son to the extent of tolerating and sometimes supporting his meanness.

Widows: Satyavati gains power in her widowhood. Kunti is respected all the more by her children. Kandhari and Madri end their lives after the death of their husbands, Pandu and Dhritarashtra respectively.


Diva said...

Not only in Ramayana and Mahabharata..

I would say the world of man domination started from the day mankind existed..
As per bible, Adam and Eve were the first and second human, I could always hear people blaming Eve for the act she did that day..
I just wanted to say Women are creators…if Eve wouldn’t do that act, mankind wouldn’t exist..

Also in stone age, women used to do all house hold work wherein men went for hunting and took advantage over women..

Finally my small research says:
I guess man does this because God created women from man’s ribs..!? So it has been rooted deeply inside him from the day 1..

God could have created women first :(

Raju said...

Diva, Cant comment on the Adam-Eve theory. I guess the higher physical strength and less limitations made man the stronger of the two.
LOL on ur 'small research'.. How did u do that research? ;)

Me too said...

We also get only the male perspective because the authors are male. Co-incidentally, I just read "Palace of Illusions" by Chitra Divakaruni which is Mahabharatha thro' Draupadi's eyes!

Raju said...

Aparna, I agree with you abt the male perspective.
Interesting book that. Was that very different from the usual one? Almost all characters have a grey shade in mahabharata. Though the actions of most are defendable, it would be interesting to see how they go about it.

Vicky said...

quite interesting, if you can plz give the citation where you found Pandu or soorya quote on freedom of women will authenticate your statements.

Anonymous said...

no offence, but please do your research beforehand. Ramayana and Mahabharata revolve around women. There might be more male characters than female ones, but that doesn't mean that the female characters were merely supporting characters. In fact, if it were not for the female characters, both the epics would not have existed. And in the Mahabharata, the women had the autonomy to choose their lives. According to Vyas Mahabharat, Draupadi was the one who decided to marry the 5 pandavas. During the game of dice, Yudishtra placed Draupadi as a property to be gambled. However, the elder courtiers and the other 4 Pandavas protested, and Yudishtir's act was considered immoral, and he accepted it.