Women vs. Men, Part IV: Women and Literature

Though I glorify women for something special and peculiar in them, this is not an ‘extravagant celebration of motherhood’ as pointed out by Sumathi Ramaswamy. It is worth reading what she further says:

And yet Indian women themselves—as indeed women in so many other parts of the world—had been radically reconfigured by bourgeois discourses of modernity, for if a woman was idealized as the repository of all that was glorious and wonderful in one’s culture, she was also firmly put into her place, in the home and amid her family as ‘mother’ (George L. Mosse. Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985). Many studies have demonstrated that the consolidation of nationalist ideologies in different regions of the world was accompanied by an ‘extravagant celebration of motherhood’ (Maxine L. Margolis. Mothers and Such: Views of American Women and Why They Changed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984:28). This was especially true in Western Europe, which provided the model for so many ideologies that crystallized in colonial India. There, bourgeois nationalist discourses were marked by the discursive and symbolic separation of the ‘home’ form ‘work,’ and of the ‘nation’ from the ‘world.’ The home and the nation were hallowed as noncompetitive, depoliticized arenas, and as sacral repositories of moral values and virtue. The reproduction of these arenas, as such, was ensured by insisting that women are ‘by nature’ self-sacrificing, virtuous, unambitious, and nonpolitical beings, destined to be child bearers and nurturers. As George Mosse notes (George L. Mosse. Nationalism and Sexuality: Middle-class Morality and Sexual Norms in Modern Europe. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1985: 97), ‘Women as national symbols exemplified order and restfulness. Woman was the embodiment of respectability; even as defender and protector of her people, she was assimilated to her traditional role as woman and mother, the custodian of tradition, who kept nostalgia alive in the active world of men.’ Such a representation was only further consolidated within nationalist ideologies seeking to put the nation on a pedestal as an iconic object of platonic affection and unconditional devotion, for how much more successfully could this be done than by recasting the nation itself as a selfless, compassionate, and de-sexualized Mother, disaggregated from the public realms of politics, self-interest, and sexual competition. — Sumathi Ramaswamy, Passions of the Tongue. Language, Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970. University of California Press, Ltd. London. 1997. pp. 122-23

However I glorify women for their noble role in human life, I first see them as ‘human’, sharing all kinds of shortcomings that are common to both women and men. So my approach is not with any nationalist ideology but pointing out the realities that I closely observe in women. Though the ‘bourgeois discourses of modernity’ tries to idealize woman as ‘the repository of all that was glorious and wonderful in one’s culture,’ pre-modern literature (both religious and secular) presents a bad picture about them. Not only Indian literature, but also most of the scriptures from other religions as well. So quoting or reading the text from any literature (particularly a religious one) to endorse one view (favour or against) about women won’t do full justice to the topic.

For example, Manu in no uncertain terms condemned women. But what Olivelle says will help us to have the right perspective not only about Manu but also about the texts’ view on women:

…As in literature and poetry, so in religious, didactic, and legal literature hyperbole is simply a literary device. Failure to recognize this can only cause serious misinterpretation of texts. So, it is not a contradiction when Manu (9.14-6), in warning husbands to guard their wives, waxes eloquent on the evil tendencies inherent in women:

They pay no attention to beauty, they pay no heed to age; whether he is handsome or ugly, they make love to him with the single thought, ‘He’s a man!; Lechery, fickleness of mind, and hard-heartedness are innate in them; even when they are carefully guarded in this world, therefore, they become hostile towards their husbands. Recognizing thus the nature produced in them at creation by Prajapati, a man should make the utmost effort at guarding them.

And in urging men to respect women, he eulogizes them (9.26-8):

On account of offspring, a wife is the bearer of many blessings, worthy of honor, and the light within a home1; indeed, in a home no distinction at all exists between a wife (stri) and Sri, the Goddess of Fortune. She begets children; and when they are born, she brings them up—day in, day out, the wife, evidently, is the linchpin of domestic affairs. Offspring, rites prescribed by law, obedient service, the highest sensuous delights, and procuring heaven for oneself and one’s forefathers—all this depends on the wife.

And warns against abusing them (3.56-8):

Where women are revered, there the gods rejoice; but where they are not, no rite bears any fruit. Where female relatives grieve, that family soon comes to ruin; but where they do not grieve, it always prospers.2 When female relatives, not receiving due reverence, curse any house, it comes to total ruin, as if struck down by witchcraft.

Patrick Olivelle, Manu’s Cod of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Manava-Dharmasastra, New Delhi, Oxford, 2006, p. 36

But such a scholarly view on a text does not make for the common view of the people. In practice the common saying is: ‘a woman can either make or break (ஆவதும் பெண்ணாலே; அழிவதும் பெண்ணாலே). I still remember what my father often said about this:

இந்திரன் கெட்டது பெண்ணாலே
சந்திரன் கெட்டது பெண்ணாலே
இராமன் கெட்டது பெண்ணாலே
இராவணன் கெட்டது பெண்ணாலே

Indran was spoiled because of woman; Chandran (moon) was spoiled because of woman; Raman suffered because of a woman and even Ravanan perished because of a woman.
Of course I need not say that such criticism of women is done by men who might be personally affected by them. Endorsing this view what Prof. Kane says is worth noting, as it echoes what Olivelle said above. Such understanding about text is important for us also to understand this subject in its context:

…It has to be borne in mind that many of the passages condemning women are put in the mouth of persons who were for some reason or other angry with women or wronged by them or dissatisfied with their conduct. Further in assessing passages disparaging the character of women one maxim of the Purvamimamsa system must not be lost sight of. The maxim is stated by Sabara [on Jaimini II.4.21] as follows: ‘the purpose of a text censuring anything is not censure pure and simple, but the purpose is to enjoin the performance of the opposite of what is censured and to praise such performance.’ The object therefore of the authors that censured women was to inculcate the great value of chastity and obedience for women and not merely to paint a dark picture of them…—History of Dharmasastra, Vol. II. Part. I. Ch. Estimate about Women. p.581.

Menski points out the pluralistic nature of Indian tradition, and cautions quoting the text to ‘prove’ one’s own point of view on this subject:

…neither female enslavement nor systematic suppression of women would, in the ideal Hindu order of things, be seen as appropriate. The basic problem of evidence, namely that everyone seems to quote statements from ancient texts to ‘prove’ their point of view, feeds on an inadequate understanding of how ‘tradition operates and what role the ancient texts actually played. Clearly, ‘tradition’ is more internally plural than modernist writers would wish to know. Despite definite male biases, it remains dishonest to claim that women are, within Hindu cultural traditions, little else than commercially useful chattels. — Werner F. Menski, Hindu Law, Beyond Tradition and Modernity, Oxford, (2003), Second impression, 2005, p.58

But one fact cannot be denied. Whether personally affected or not we cannot fail to note the male bias in most of the texts, particularly religious ones that woman is one of the main fetters for a man to attain mukti — which is first a man’s prerogative. Sometimes it really shocks me the way some noble saints who promoted love and compassion (like Ramalinga Vallalar) among all living beings (including for plants) accused women in all ways. Beginning from the Veda and down to recent times, in literature and scriptures, the picture of woman is not great compared to the way they are glorified in few scattered places.

One time when I was staying with Prasad, his mother asked, “Why are women always treated as an object for enjoyment by men?” I was a bit embarrassed as she asked this question to me directly without any hesitation to ask such a question to a sannyasi. Though I gave some answer to console her, I pointed out that it is a common problem for all humans in spite of gender differences.

But when I deeply thought on this subject, I realized that the main reason for such negative views about women, particularly in religious literature is not only the male bias but also his love-and-hate relationship with sex. Though, ‘Like the attitude of the Greeks, the ancient Hindu attitude towards sex is liberal and natural. The ascetic view was, however, prevalent throughout the history of Hinduism3….Very few Hindu religious leaders have spoken kindly of women, and celibacy was always considered to be a great virtue. The only image of woman that received respect from Hindus in their religious life was that of mother. The Vaishnavas, it is true, recognized the power of human love and sublimated the sex-based human love into a sex-less divine love.” — Sisir Kumar Das, Shadow of the Cross: Christianity and Hinduism in a Colonial Situation, New Delhi, Munshirma Manoharlal, 1974 (1973) notes. 3. Pp. 162-63

And giving a global picture about this, Gurcharan Das further says:

All cultures, I suspect, contain the seeds of violence when it comes to female sexuality, and I learned something about Draupadi’s situation from Tolstoy’s famous novella The Kreutzer Sonata. The novella grew out of the Russian writer’s own relationship with his wife, and it describes the events that led to her murder. The husband has violent and humiliating sex with her, and he feels miserable each time he rapes her. Since she is merely an object of bestial desire, he decides that he must kill her to put an end to his misery. After her death, she becomes ‘human’ in his eyes, and he even begins to have compassionate feelings for her. The murdering husband concludes that women will never be treated as full human beings as long as sexual intercourse exists. They will always be humiliated….— Gurcharan Das, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the subtle art of dharma. Penguin, New Delhi, 2012. p. 43.

As I said above, when a man seeks pleasure, he is selfish and focused on his satisfaction. But women seek pleasure plus security, though she will always be blamed by male chauvinistic religious texts as lustful creatures even though lust is common one for all. In fact a woman has to pay a higher price whether she is abused or succumbs to her lust as compared to a man. In other words, a man walks away without much physical, mental, moral and social effect/affliction on him, whereas a woman has to pay a heavy price for it. And when she is abused violently without her consent then she is doubly punished more than the man.

The late director K. Balachandar brought this very sensibility and powerfully in his film Aval Oru Thodar Kadai (She is a continuous story4, a film in which the suffering of women is presented in its true nature). A girl has to have an abortion when her boyfriend refuses to marry her shares with much sorrow to her friend, “But it is a terrible experience. Not because it is sinful (not a moral issue), but VERY PAINFUL one (physical)’.

29-1-15 To be continued…..


1. மனைக்கு விளக்கு மடவாள் மடவாள்
உரை: வீட்டுக்குத் தீபம் போல்பவள் மனைவியாவள், — தனிப்பாடல் திரட்டு, உரை கா. சுப்பிரமணிய பிள்ளை, சென்னை, நல்லறப் பதிப்பகம், 2007, ப. 466

2.  “…The common saying that the tears of loyal women do not fall on the ground in vain, has proved only too true in your case.” — N. Raghunathan (tr.), Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Vighneswara Publishing House, Three Volumes Madras, 1981, Vol. III YUDDHA KANDA AND UTTRA KANDA. p. 325

The common saying and a practice in most Indian homes is that a girl born in the family, particularly after being given in marriage should not shed tears when she visits her parents due to any kind of suffering. The one common statement that is said to the bridegroom is that ‘let us not see tears in our daughter’s eyes except joyful ones.’ Whenever a married daughter visits her parents and goes back she won’t be sent with an empty hand. Even after the parents passed away, a brother has the responsibility to do his part till the end of his life to his sister and her children. In several cases this responsibility will be carried by his sons. A maternal uncle has precedence over all other relatives when it comes to the major events of his niece’s or nephew’s life. In south India the maternal uncle has the first right to marry his sister’s daughter or to negotiate her for his son, if he is already married. In a few communities, for any reason if he cannot marry his niece or arrange for his son, a big compensation should be given to his sister if he takes a girl from outside the family. In all these the main driving fact is that a girl born in a family should not shed tears for any reason and it will destroy the fortune of one’s family. That is why when it comes to the ‘Sridan(am)’ brothers won’t interfere or demand as the mothers’ personal jewels or property naturally go only to the daughters. Some special things of antique will be passed to the daughter generation after generation. I have a swing which belongs to my mother’s grandmother, which will go to my sister after my mother passes away. (Now as my sister has her granddaughter (her daughter’s daughter), it should go only to her. This means she will inherit an antique which belongs to her great-grandmother’s great-grandmother – there is something to celebrate in our culture and tradition! Is in it? Similarly when in all major functions in a home the daughter (particularly married one) gets precedence over the daughter-in-law of the family.

3. “…Although it is true to say that the female is revered within Hindu culture, as the Samkhya example […Saamkhya Kaarikaa 59 and 61 where prakrti is compared to a dancing girl (nartakii)] illustrates rather well it is the male qualities of detachment and reflection or sentience that have been most highly valued in Indian culture as a whole….” — Richard King, Indian Philosophy, An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought, ANE Book, New Delhi, 1999 p. 181.

4. I think the original story was written by R.S. Nallapperumal, which came in Tamil weekly. It is a painful story of a daughter who has to suffer for the entire family—deserted by her father, hopeless brother who do not earn to take care of his wife, children and leaving them with her sister to take care. She has to give up her love as her lover demands ‘both her and her youth’ and arranges his marriage with his sister. In the song which she sung to her lover that time portraying her inner struggle as a woman written by Kannadasan will depict her true nature that will move everybody’s heart. In one stanza she sings to her lover pouring her heart out when he asks her to marry him not delaying too much she will say, ‘fire can be quenched by water; water too will boiled in fire; but the fire that I have within me is quenchable but who will do is left with God’. @ In this song Kannadasan very subtly present her personal desire to have a husband and normal life but how her responsibilities deny that to her is commendable.

But she was very strict and nobody dare to talk with her in the home. Finally her boss, knowing her situation and character comes forward to marry her. But that time too, as her brother who repents and become responsible was murdered, she will make her other sister as his boss’s wife continue to stay back at her home to take care of her brother’s family and other siblings and mother. One time when his father returns back, she refuses to take him back though her mother pleads for that. On the other her hand her close friend is a daredevil and doesn’t care about anything. She is the one who does the abortion without any remorse. Finally she was shattered when she saw her mother (the girl who had done the abortion) sleeping with her own boyfriend. Then her mother commits suicide. The entire film presents powerfully suffering of a woman to its extreme because of the hopeless life of so many men.

@ நெருப்பென்று சொன்னால் நீரிலும் அணையும்
நீரென்று சொன்னால் நெருப்பிலும் வேகும்
நான்கொண்டநெருப்போ அணைக்கின்ற நெருப்பு
யார் அணைப்பாரோ இறைவனின் பொறுப்பு.