We need to read, and, understand our epics

Indian epics

Ever since the December 16 gang rape the and brutal murder of a young physiotherapist, scores of articles have been written analyzing what prompted those men, and thousands of other men every year, to commit such unspeakable atrocities upon women. Is something contemporary driving people insane and barbaric, or is there something rooted in our culture and upbringing that makes us consider our women as objects and assets?

There are many people who find faults at the very crux of our culture, mythology and religious practices. According to ancient texts, they say, a woman is a possession: like a slave or livestock, she can be sold and purchased, she can be abducted and held against her will, she can be punished publicly if she goes against the wishes of her master known as her husband and it is her foremost duty to consider the male members of her family in general and her husband in particular, divine (and hence, above reproach).

Do our epics and religious texts actually mean that, or they have been contorted to suit vested interests? Although this thought has been playing inside my mind for a very long time, what has prompted me to write this is my recent reading of two entirely different chains of thought when it comes to correlating mythological/religious texts and the way we treat our women.

Nilanjana Roy begins her recent Business Standard article with:

In times of trouble, turning to the great epics is always useful: their ancient bloodstained lines are reminders that we do not have a premium on violence, rape and corpses.

Then, citing various instances from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata she explains how abduction, confinement, abandonment, revanchist disfiguration and rape of women are sanctioned in these epics. Whether it is the abduction of Sita by Rawana, her abandonment by her own husband Rama, the cutting of the nose of Surpanakha (Rawana’s sister), the abduction of Amba and later on her abandonment by Bhishma or the stripping of Draupadi in front of everybody, these epics are filled with atrocities on women. According to this logic, the same attitude percolates our society today and makes our men look at women with contempt or consider them an object of sleaze and sexual fulfillment, not to mention a sense of ownership.

Nilanjana further writes:

Five stories of rape and sexual assault from the epics are particularly useful. The Ramayana has the abduction of Sita by Ravana, and, running parallel to it, the disfiguration of Surpanakha by Rama and Lakshmana — two atrocities, not one, that trigger a war. The Mahabharata has the public assault on Draupadi at its heart, the abduction and revenge of Amba, and the sanctioned rapes of Amba and Ambalika by Ved Vyasa.

The tale most often cited in the aftermath of assaults on women, such as the tragedy of the young woman who died this December after being gang-raped and injured by six men, is Sita’s abduction. This is raised explicitly by pseudo-Hindus, usually as a warning to women to stay behind a Lakshman rekha, an arbitrarily drawn line of protection. It echoes the widespread views of many who blame women for being sexually assaulted, saying that they should not have gone out in public.

I came across this particular article via Sandeep’s lengthy response to her article in a series of blog posts titled “The Rape of Our Epics”. He begins his first blog post with

Nilanjana Roy’s Business Standard piece on Jan 08, 2013 entitled A woman alone in the forest is just the latest in what has become a much-lauded fad. A fad whose staple diet consists of a distorted reading of Indian epics, misinterpretations aplenty, sleights of hand, concealment, and open falsehood. We’ve seen the disastrous results of what happens when such untruths come to be accepted as truth—simply put, they multiply and over time gain such wide currency that even when the truth is pointed out, people simply dismiss it as propaganda or ranting or both. This problem is made worse in a country like India where the English media refuses to give voice to opposing and/or honest viewpoints.

He further says

it’s interesting that Nilanjana chooses to see only bloodstained lines, violence, and rape in them instead of a wealth of learning, high philosophy, a harmonious worldview, a divine view of women, and a solid value system they contain and espouse.

So which chain of thought do you follow? In this regard I am not a learned person. My best exposure to Ramayana is Abhyudaya by Narendra Kohli in which he has tried to retell the epic from a human angle (so nobody has supernatural powers and God-like abilities). I haven’t read the original Valmiki Ramayana. The same goes with Mahabharata. I intend to change this very soon.

But really, how much do we know about our epics? You can easily make out in Nilanjana’s article that she hasn’t done proper reading of the epics and she writes with a preconceived notion that she has acquired via certain type of reading. Sandeep’s style of expression may seem acerbic, but he is right when he says that the English media not only distorts facts when it comes to the cultural interpretations, it also refuses the alternative opinions to be expressed. That’s why you see so much anger and cynicism in the way he writes. I totally agree that there is this particular section of writers and intellectuals who don’t write for scholarly analysis, but to perpetuate an agenda. There is this ongoing effort to paint a dark aura around our ancient scriptures, especially when it comes to Hinduism, and I say this as a non-Hindu. I’m not sure whether they do it intentionally or unintentionally, but this happens, and it happens with amazing frequency.

This brings me to the topic of this blog post. When it comes to knowing our epics, there is very little that we know. We normally read opinions and interpretations, or at the most the digest forms of these monumental works of literature. We know individual stories – maybe 5-6% of them – and a big chunk of the epics remain unread. A person like me knows more about Greek mythology than our own (thanks to some issues of the National Geographic magazine).

There needs to be a concerted effort so that these epics become more accessible in terms of language and availability. Not everybody knows Sanskrit and not everybody knows which are the best available interpretations. Just like there are book reading sessions, there can also be epic-reading sessions, not only sponsored and promoted by religious institutions. I’m not sure if universities encourage their students to have discourses on Indian epics, from all corners of the country. What about schools?

9 thoughts on “We need to read, and, understand our epics

  1. Jay

    Hi Amrit,

    Well, as far as the quotes which you have cited, I don’t find them to be completely wrong. Agreed, that all of us are not learned scholars but we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that in Indian mythology, women have always been shown as objects of pleasure. How would one explain dividing Draupadi among the five Pandavas or winning the girl’s hand by participating in an event. A woman is not a prize to be distributed in a ceremony or among people.

    Our texts do show that women have always been looked down upon and that is precisely what we need to teach our youth. We need to teach them one cannot take women for granted and play around with them as one wishes. Women are humans just like everyone.

    I would suggest a deeper insight into the Gita Updesh should be taught to all children from their primary school days. in today’s world, ethics matters more than ivy league degrees.


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    1. Amrit Hallan

      Hello Jay.

      Thanks for your feedback. As per my knowledge, both the things that you have alluded to are described differently in the texts. Regarding Draupadi it was prevalent in those times to have more than one spouse both for husbands and for wives. She was never forced, otherwise, being a strong character, she would have definitely objected.

      Regarding swayamvar (winning the girl’s hand by participating in an event), it was a way to let the girl decide who was the best among the suitors. As the name suggests, it is “swayam var”, that means choosing your own husband.

      Again, as I mentioned in my blog post, my reading, and consequently my knowledge, is limited.

      1. Jay

        Hi Amrit,

        That’s what I’m trying to put across, why is it so simple and taken for granted that women have to undergo such things. Why was it prevalent at that time? In fact, why is it even prevalent today?

        There are cities, villages, rural areas where women are married off at the tender age of 15 or even 10. And that too, they are just ordered, they don’t even get a chance to see their spouse’s photos.

        Why has society been made like this, that we are taking the discussions about the aspects in this post, so much for granted. I don’t think it is wrong to ask for equality in a society.
        As it is humans don’t consider animals to be worthy neighbors on planet earth and now we wish to add women to that list as well?

    2. Victor

      If a man has four wives, would you classify that society as male dominant? Not hard to answer, is it? Then why are five husbands considered to represent “sharing an object”?

      Draupadi spent an year with each of her five husbands, turn by turn. It is not that the five of them were ravishing her.

      Have you spent some time studying how other cultures treat their women? Here is an article about what is happening in the US Air Force Academy, the equivalent of our NDA/IMA. http://t.co/QOsW8R2K

      And how can you consider a Swayam Var where suitors try to win the affection of a woman, degrading to women?

      Suppose you were in a position where Miss India was guaranteed to become your consort. Would you call yourself a “prize” for Miss India, or someone who is lucky enough to have the land’s most beautiful women fight it out to win your affection?

      It is become fashionable to just detract from Indian epics with very superficial understanding.

      1. Jay

        Well, firstly, I’m not a scholar of religion or religious texts otherwise this would not be a platform that I would be using. I do not disregard the references you have made regarding the US Army
        Secondly, about the ease with which you spoke about sharing and trying to win affection of women. Even if we disregard the Draupadi Vastraharan for some time, what right did Yudhishthir have to put her own wife on a bet and then lose her as well? What is the justification for that?
        You’re talking of kings and princes, a handful few but let’s leave mythology aside. In the real world, how many men would accept a woman who has multiple flings or husbands?
        Talking about the affection part, is that not colluding to a behavior analogous to animals, all of us very well know how animals need to fight it out over blood to win the perfect mate. Is the case similar to humans as well?
        I’m interested in knowing, why a female has to leave her home after marriage? Why does the female have to change her surname? Why do male portray tendencies of rage when there is a female involved in an incident?
        You’re quite true about people detracting from the texts but I’m talking of the good aspects, the Updesh, the path which shows how life is to be led. I’m not concerned about these desires and rage tendencies. Desires always leads to troubles, everytime.


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        1. Victor

          You originally wrote “that in Indian mythology, women have always been shown as objects of pleasure”. You also wrote “I’m not a scholar of religion or religious texts”.

          Do you see the irony? You make a strong unqualified assertions, strengthened by an “always”about a topic you then claim to have limited knowledge about.

          What you miss out is that Indian epics recognize the difference between men/women.They are not also afraid to address questions of desire & rage. There is no escapism here. Further while men/women may wield power in different forms, they are not treated as unequal. Indian epics are full of strong female characters who wield enormous power and influence.

          If you have read the epic, Yudhisthir first put himself on line, and all his brothers. After having lost everything else, and with nothing else left, he was goaded to put Draupadi on line.

          You might question his authority to bet on behalf of others; but there was no sexist bias in his betting. He bet himself, and his male brothers first.

          You reveal your own prejudice when you ask the question of “men accepting a woman with multiple flings”. Polyandry still exists in parts of rural India. With the skewed sex ratio, it is likely to become more common.

          The whole point was that a woman with multiple partners was not considered a whore or a deviant. That the epics acknowledge her role; and compared to others, are significantly more liberal in both their philosophy & fables.

          Your questions about why females leave their homes etc. are questions about a patriarchal society; they have nothing to do with Indian epics.

          The last thing which I wanted to address is the use of the word mythology. When I was growing up, I was told that the Saraswati was a mythical river which did not exist. Over the past few decades there has been enough scientific and archeological evidence collected to prove the existence of the river. They may be not as mythological as we were made to believe.

          1. Jay

            Please provide examples of instances where women leaving their homes during marriage is not mentioned in the epics. Do the epics explicitly deny this fact?

            What are your thoughts on that? Along the lines of your argument, why don’t men leave their houses, or change their surnames first before asking the women to do so?

            It is very easy to say and maintain the epics in high regard, why does the society still follow its teachings, especially the ones which portray males in high regard?

            What is the logic behind the women having to take the brunt?


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          2. Victor

            Please read my comments first.

            I said that women leaving their homes or changing names are an example of a patriarchal society. That has nothing to do with Indian Epics per se; it is a pretty universal phenomenon.

            Even in the 21st century most of the world, including the most liberal societies, continue to follow patriarchal norms.

            While you are free to view patriarchal society as unequal, there is nothing which makes the Indian epics stand out in this regard.

            Incidentally, India also has its share of matriarchal communities.

            It will also behoove you to study how other societies treat their women.

            Do a web-search on the Saudi cleric who has been asked to pay blood-money to his wife for assaulting and murdering his FIVE year old daughter, under the suspicion that she was not a virgin. Or that under Sharia a man can not be held responsible for the murder of his wife or daughter?

            What about the status of women in the Bible? The one woman Mother Mary is worshipped is because of her virginity. The other woman, Mary Magdalena is discredited as a whore when she was very likely Christ’s consort.

            It is fashionable to make fun of Indian epics in an absolute sense, without doing any comparative analysis. Do a little bit comparative analysis before condemning Indic epics.

  2. Nilesh

    i do not believe that teachings in our epics are wrong, it is just that we interpret /apply it wrong. we say that Sita was punished for crossing the line. but what we should see and teach is fate of Ravan after this crime. his brother went against him, and his kingdom and race was destroyed.

    same thing for Vastraharan of Draupadi. after that she took an oath to destroy Duryodhana/Dushashan and Duryodhana and all his 100 brothers were killed and even those present in that room watching silently (mighty Bhishma and Dronacharya, Dhratrashtra) had to suffer.

    Swayamvar was also done by Sita and Draupadi out of their own will and was never forced upon them.

    tell me an incident from any epic where women was married of at an age of less than 18.

    why a female has to leave her home after marriage? – probably it was done for convenience of Society as there has to be some rule. so parent will marry off their daughter and she will go to her husband home and their son will marry and bring someone else daughter to their home. here woman was chosen to change home instead of man probably because man is bread winner and protector. you will again argue that why man is considered bread winner/protector. this is not specific to human and basic animal instinct as in most of animals male is supposed to be hunting/collecting food and protecting females.

    i can counter many of things like that but wont be possible over here. also i do not only say this only for Hindu epics, probably in kuran/bible also there are good teachings but these so called clerics/fundamentalists interpret them to suite their own idiosyncrasies.

    so in short , i agree with Amrit that their should be public discussions on our epics and they should be part of our curriculum.

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