Ramayana and Mahabharata are the major epics of our country and both the epics deal with the same topic - respect of women, and consequences of disrespecting women.The Hindu society has remained a patriarchal society since the Vedas where men were at the forefront and women had to be subservient; women were expected to be obedient, tolerant, servile and live with the sole aim of excelling at the job of being a homemaker. This was the main reason for all the discrimination that women faced then, and unfortunately, even now.
Sita and Draupadi - the two protagonists of our epics, were the women who stood up for the discriminated treatment and suffered thereafter.
In the Ramayana, Sita voluntarily followed her husband Ram for the 14 years long Vanvaas, Kaikeyi pronounced the Vanvaas on Ram, however Sita accompanied him because she truly loved Ram and believed that she should stay with him in his good and bad days, and thus out of love and duty, she accompanied him for the exile.
Laxman had insulted Surpanakha by cutting her nose to take revenge for his sister’s insult - Ravana abducted Sita, what was her fault? Was being Ram’s wife and Laxman’s sister –in-law her fault? If Laxman had insulted Surpanakha then Ravana ought to have taken revenge from him but he did not do so instead he abducted Sita .She had to stay in Lanka for 9 months and a war was fought in order to free her from his clutches thus depicting Lord Ram as a hero in every sense who saves his heroine from the evil guy but was this a happy ending?
Before taking her back with him to Ayodhya, Ram asked Sita to prove her chastity through the “Agnipariksha” or “fire trial” to which she obliged. On returning to Ayodhya a washer man told Ram that if he was in Ram’s place he wouldn’t take his wife back since she had spent such a long time in another man’s house ,what followed was Sita’s 12 year long exile and orders to leave the kingdom.
Ram too had stayed away from Sita for as long as Sita had stayed away from Ram but nobody questioned his chastity and no one asked him to prove it.
Similarly, in the Mahabharata there are several instances of a male chauvinistic society. The Kuru clan patriarch Bhishma forcefully abducts the three princesses of Kashi and brings them to Hastinapur to get them married to his good-for-nothing step-brother Vichitravirya; when Amba, the eldest of the three sisters speaks up for herself, objecting to her marriage with the prince as she was in love with another man, she was allowed to leave however the man she loved, King Shalya of Madra rejected her stating she now belonged to Bheeshma since he abducted her. It was believed that once a man claims his right over a woman she belonged to him. Even though Amba tried to reason with him, Shalya asked her to leave.
Amba then turned to Bhishma and asks him to marry her, as everyone believed she belonged to Bhishma. Bhishma rejects her giving his oath of celibacy as the reason, not once did he think that this would ruin her life.
Dhritarashtra was to be crowned the King of Hastinapur, implying his immediate marriage as per norms, Bhishma attacked Gandhaar and wrecks havoc in the kingdom murdering all the royal family members except Gandhari and her brother Shakuni. He gets Gandhari married to Dhritarashtra against her wishes and without her consent as to whether she wanted to marry the blind man. Bhishma is regarded as one of the most prominent and heroic character of the epic but he too had many faults and one was male chauvinism.
Draupadi’s cheerharan was the turning point of the epic which proved the fact that women who speak up in a patriarchal society are always made to suffer for it. The game of dice was played between the Kauravas and the Pandavaas, all the bets were placed on materialistic things but since when did a women become something that could be put to stake in order to win back the lost wealth, Yudhisthir not only staked his wife but when she questioned him over it he justified his deeds by quoting the scriptures, neither him nor his brothers stood up in order to protect their wives instead they sat quietly with their heads bowed and watched their wives being ill-treated. The other men present in the royal court of Hastinapur did nothing to stop it, in fact Karna called her a whore just because he was harbouring a grudge against her as she had refused to accept him as a suitor in her Swayamvara.
What was wrong in refusing someone to be her suitor? Karna, a charioteer’s son, was crowned as the King of Anga Pradesh, even it was a kingdom that was given to him by Duryodhana. The daughter of a Kshatriya King could not marry a man who did not belong to the Kshatriya clan. Karna wanted to prove himself to all Kshatriya warriors and so he took part in the Swayamvara. His ego was hurt when she rejected him even though there was a practical reason behind her action. It was then he decided that one day he would avenge this insult and that day was the day vastraharan or cheerharan took place. Duryodhan who had a cold relation with the Pandavas decided to take revenge, by insulting and molesting their wive, because like all men, he believed women were to be servile. Draupadi spoke against this treatment and refused to listen to anything he said, he lecherously asks her to sit on his thigh to insult her and her husband’s further. This shows men always considered women as objects of pleasure and nothing more.
Even though Dushasan tried to undress and molest her, Draupadi did not bow down to them and took an oath of revenge for this grave insult, and she did so, so fearlessly - proclaiming that she would leave her hair open and not tie them up until they were washed in the blood of Dushasana. This oath had an huge impact for the men and women of that period since according to the Hindu culture a woman once she gets married has to keep her hair tied up and not leave them open, she could only leave them open when she is a maiden or a widow. Draupadi’s decision of keeping her hair open depicted the strength she had, to break against the rules that society had laid down. She believed that women should have the choice to live life on their own terms. The act of letting her hair down was also to let her husband’s know that if they could not keep the vows of their marriage and protect her when she needed protection the most, then all five of them were as good as dead for her and that she would tie them up once they avenged her insult.
Our mythology and scriptures have had contradicting views about the position of women ranging from feminine leadership in the form of goddess to being an obedient and servile daughter, wife and mother who were to be dependent on the father, husband and son all through her life. Even in our epics we can see the contradictory reviews from heroic characters at one place Bhishma talks about how women must be adorned and honoured as the place where women are revered, God’s rejoice and shower their blessings but where they are not, no sacred rites or worship of God will bear any fruits and it was in the same epic Bhishma stood silently and watched his granddaughter-in-law being undressed.
Even in Ramayana, Lord Ram uplifts the curse on Ahalya, the wife of Gautama Rishi who had cursed his wife to become a stone after she failed to recognize Indra, who disguised himself as her husband and come to fulfil his lust for her, Ram believed that Gautama Rishi ought to have controlled his anger on his wife and given her an opportunity to speak but he did not do so and in the same epic he exiled his wife for 12 years because he felt if he did not do so his clan and kingdoms respect would be at stake.
There are many such examples from our epics where the Patriarchal Indian society has respected and disrespected women at the same time and it is this which has been still continuing in our society and country even today.
Our epics tried to teach the future generations a lesson from the lives of our heroines and other female characters but instead of looking at the positive aspects people started looking at the negative aspects, blaming women for the family feuds and the wars that were fought in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as long as people change their thinking our society and our country will continue to be a patriarchal society and as it is said in the scriptures there will be no prosperity in a place if they women are ill-treated and disrespected no matter how hard one worships god and performs various sacred rites, respect for women will always lead to prosperity in every place in this world.
Edited by - Diya Mathew