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?