Women in the Epics
Even in the major epics, women have had a tough time. They were blamed as the cause of misery in both the Ramayana and Mahabharata. At the same time, if we observe closely, it was actually the women characters who move and take the story to its logical conclusion.1 In fact women’s roles and characters generally dwarf their male counterparts in both epics. I’d love to see a deeper study on this.
Though Panchali was the main cause for the enmity between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, she was the one who redeemed the Pandavas through her powerful argument when they lost everything in the gamble. It was the boons given by King Drudharashtra to Panchali that ultimately gave the Pandavas their freedom.2
If it were not for Kaikeyi and Sita (along with Surpanaka) the entire Ramayana would stand still. Both Panchali and Sita epitomise the two side of a woman’s extreme nature: anger (revenge?) and patience.
Though there are only a few historical records, it is a common fact that the queen was generally the strength of a king behind the throne. In fact, the honour and glory of a king is centred around the queen, and the modesty of the queen is related with the success or defeat of the king.
This is true in the Puranas. When Sankhacuuda was unable to be defeated, Vishnu (at the advice of Siva) violated the modesty of his wife Tulasi by taking his form, and then later managed to kill him.3 In fact a king increased his military strength by marrying several princesses of the smaller kings under his rule and also with neighbouring countries. In this way, the queen and queen-mother played a more crucial role in the affairs of the Kingdom than the ministers. So beginning with the family and ending with the rulers, it is the women who actually run the family and not men.
Manager of the House
One of the main reasons that women remain as the backbone of the family is the way they manage the family – keeping a balance with her personal interest with that of others. In many debates, people suggest that the reason men become corrupt is because the women in their life are forcing them to earn more through any (even illegal) means. They say women always compare their lives with other women and out of jealousy demand so many unrealistic demands from their husbands.
This could be true in a few cases. But if we closely observe their lives, even their jealousy is limited to very few things, which often become the savings for the family: jewels, saris, and household things. On the other hand, men will waste money on unnecessary things that do not last, just to parade their greatness. The recent lust for updated and newly introduced electronic gadgets is the best example. The sound system and home theatre that costs so much time and money is just a show piece, and will never be useful for him and others in the family. The lavish parties for friends and relatives, used to uphold status and prestige, often become a serious contention among couples.
I may be over-exaggerating, but the way women can save little by little out of their daily budgets (both in cash and kinds) is the backbone of our economy. The word ‘siruvadu’ is known for this in Tamil and the success of women is proved by how much she manages to save out of the family expense. In the past I heard that when elders select a girl for their son, they will test the saving nature of the girl by asking to wash many dishes with little water.
I learned this from a tribal woman:
When I was living among a tribal group in the North back in 1983-84, we had to go downhill to a common well to get water. So we go there to take a bath and wash our cloths and on the way will bring two pots of water for cooking, drinking and washing.
One time when I become sick, I requested the village elder to ask one of their women to wash the vessels. To my surprise she washed all my kitchen vessels more neatly and cleanly than I used to do with one-third of the water that I used for the same purpose. First she put ash and then with the old water which I poured on the vessels she cleaned them. Then with one mug of water she will clean them again and with the final mug she will do the last rinsing and spare that water for the next wash.
This observation helped me later when I was in Ranikhet in 2000 where I faced a similar water scarcity. In fact I remembered the way she saved the final rinsing water for next washing. I also learned to save the water from my bath to use for flushing the toilet.
Another area where we can see very clearly the major role of woman is in religious and spiritual activity. Whether we agree with them or not, they are the ones who still keep both the religious and cultural traditions of our land alive. When it comes to all the minute details of any function and ritual, it is mostly women who are consulted for the details — what needs to be purchased, when certain rituals need to be done and why, etc. Even before the particular function begins, it is women who will began make all kinds of arrangements well in advance and will carefully prepare the list for various purchases (which men will always mess up, and then be rebuked by the women, a common phenomenon in every function).
For example, in Tamilnadu before a marriage, several kinds of pulses need to be ground on small mud pots known as ‘palikai’ for the marriage day ritual. This needs to be done not only before the marriage but in precious time and in the proper way, which only women have managed to do till this day.
Similarly women attend religious and spiritual events in great numbers than men. Even in seeking and perusing their personal spirituality women will never run away renouncing their responsibility, which a man will easily do in the name of taking sannyasa. Likewise, we hardly ever see women going alone on a pilgrimage, whereas men will leave their women behind and go alone for one. Although the dharmasastras favour husbands, the puranas support wives that a woman should accompany her husband when he goes on a pilgrimage.4 One reason they give is that it is very difficult to take a women to certain difficult pilgrim centres but wives will get half of the merit (punya) of the men when they touch the feet of their husband once he returns home.
Similarly in giving ‘dhana’ (alms), women have a more discerning spirit than men. They will even carry certain rituals and vows which are opposed by their husbands. There is a common saying in Tamil that ‘an oil lamp kept inside a pot and a tiny bit of cow dung used to clean the front side of the house saved the home’ (குடத்து விளக்கும், குந்துமணி சாணியும் குடும்பத்த கரையேத்தும்). The context for this is a woman whose husband is an atheist, opposed to his wife doing any religious ritual in the home. But she secretly lights an oil lamp and hides it within a mud pot in the kitchen and always mixed a tiny bit of cow dung when she cleaned the front side of the house (a common practice in Tamilnadu—which is fast disappearing from the cities). Using cow dong to clean the front side of the home will welcome the goddess Lakshmi and an oil lamp will ward off all the evil spirits and forces from the home.
Taking care of elderly people, sick people, and helping neighbours all come naturally and easily to women. This does not mean that men lack many of these things. Without the help and cooperation of a husband, a wife cannot accomplish many things which I have narrated so far. But if he cooperates, a wife can do it more efficiently. But even without much cooperation (and even with opposition), a woman knows how to do many things which a man cannot do naturally and easily.
There are so many areas that I can narrate to present the greatness of women. Exceptions are always there in every case, but exceptions can never become normative for us to evaluate everything in our lives. Men can also do all these things, but only if they are cultivated, inspired and trained for them. Many of these things that are important for our lives come naturally and spontaneously to women.
Whatever might be the reason for it — on which no two persons are going to agree completely, we are created equally there is something special in women that places them ahead of us in so many areas. This one poem is sufficient to show what a woman actually is:
She cooked the breakfast first of all,
Washed the cups and plates,
Dressed the children and made sure
Stockings all were mates.
Combed their heads and made their beds.
Sent them out to play
Gathered up their motley toys,
Put some books away,
Dusted chairs and mopped the stairs,
Ironed an hour or two
Baked a jar of cookies and
A pie, then made a stew
The telephone rang constantly,
The doorbell did the same,
A youngster fell and stubbed his toe,
And then the laundry came
She picked up blocks and mended socks,
Then she polished up the stove
(Gypsy folks were fortunate
with carefree ways to rove!)
And when her husband came at six
He said: ‘I envy you!
It must be nice to sit at home
Without a thing to do!
(Mothers) work on our behalf is never done.—Prev, un-known author
about mothers in Good News Broadcaster, in 1985.
But to console men I can also say as a joke with Miller:
O Woman- born first to believe us
Yea, also born first to forget
Born first to betray and deceive us
Yet first to repent and regret.
- I once listened an interesting debate about Kaikei’s as a ‘victim or a traitor’. Prof. Revathi Prabakaran (a Christian) arguing in favour of Kaikei and Prof. Parvin Sultana (a Muslim) against Kaikei and Dr. Sarasvathi Ramanathan as the judge. Finally the judgment was given in favour of Kaikei as a victim than a traitor.
- I cannot give the exact reference as Mahabharat is at the ashram library. But anyone who is interested can easily get the information from Internet, particularly Draupadi’s argument with the King and other elders at the hall when she was dragged before them to handover to Duryodhana as she was lost by her husband Yudhisthira in dice to him.
- Visnu thus snatched off his armour by means of deception. Then in the guise of Sankhacuuda Visnu approached Tulsi.(0) Lord Visnu, an expert in wielding magic went there and deposited his semen in her vaginal passage for the protection of gods.— — ANCIENT INDIAN TRADITION & MYTHOLOGY; Translated by A board of Scholars, Edited by Prof. J.L.Shastri, Delhi; Mothilal Banarsidass Pub. Pvt. Ltd. (1970), 2002, The Siva Purana Four Volumes, Rudra-Samhita, Section V, Yuddha Khanda 40:20-21, p.971
[Tulasi said] “O Visnu, you are ruthless. Your mind is like a rock. Since my chastity has been outraged my husband is doomed.(33) O wicked one, being ruthless you are like a rock. Hence due to my curse you will become a rock.(34) Those who call you ocean of mercy are erring. There is no doubt. How was a devotee killed for another man’s sake, even without any offence?”—ibid. Rudra-Samhita, Section V, Yuddha Khanda 41:33-35, p.976 According to Valluvar, ‘There is nothing nobler than a wife who upholds chastity in life.’ –Thirukkural, trns. M. Rajaram, New Delhi, Rupa & Co. 2009, Kural, 54, p. 13
- According to the Brahmapuraana [Vide P.V.Kane, HD, IV, p. 568] a householder whose wife is alive and is chaste, must go on pilgrimage with her, otherwise he would not reap the fruit of pilgrimage….Such a liberal stance displayed by Puraana composers with regard to woman’s freedom to visit tiirthas is at complete variance with the Smrti injunction which lays down that japa tapas, pilgrimage to holy places, becoming an ascetic, efforts to attain mastery over mantras and worshipping deities in a priestly capacity—these six lead to sinfulness in the case of women and suudras [Kane, HD, IV, p. 569].— Vijay Nath, Puraanas and Acculturation: A Historico-Anthropological Perspective, Munshirma Manoharlal, New Delhi, 2001, p.131.