Indian mythology has served primarily to promote patriarchy. It moves women to bottom of the social ladder, and does not allow them to have their own identity. Women are depicted as completely dependent on their fathers, husbands and sons. From India comes the epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Each, individually, longer than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (Read my article on Homer’s depiction of women in his stories) combined, tell stories of warriors that battled demons, the win of good over evil, the importance of karma and dharma. Yet it does not give due credit to the strong women that drove these heroic men into action.
Draupadi, without a doubt, is considered one of the strongest women in Hindu mythology. She was born 5000 years ago in a time when women’s roles were set in stone. Despite the limitations, she learnt many art forms, mastered politics and could read and comprehend books beyond her years. When it came time to marry, Draupadi married five men; brothers. She won the favor of her husbands due to her intelligence and many times advised them in running the kingdom and matters of war. In a time when women were not expected to look men directly in the eye, being the wife of five men led to mockery and many labelled her as the “prostitute-queen”. This insult led her to demand a war to regain her honor and issue a warning against men who mistreated women.
One fateful day, one of Draupadi’s husbands gambled away his possessions and his own freedom, as well as that of his four brothers, to their evil cousin, Dhuryodhan. He placed his last wager on his wife hoping to roll the dice in his favor and win everything back. Again, he lost, and Draupadi was dragged by her hair into the courtroom. (Hair was considered the symbol of a woman’s pride and honor. To drag a woman by her hair would was an insult to her honor.) She stood in the assembly and demanded her husbands protect and defend her honor. They were unable to respond as they had given up their personal freedom. Draupadi argued, in a full court, if her husbands had no autonomy over themselves they could not wager her away. Her logic fell to deaf ears, so she turned to the family elders demanding that they protect her as they would their daughters. Again, she received no response. Her rage palpable, Draupadi argued again and again that once a husband gave away his independence, he lost control over his wife’s. She was no one’s puppet and she be allowed to return to her rooms.
Dhuryodhan taunted her that, as the wife of five men, it should not be shameful if any other men wanted to marry her as well. He claimed, now that he owned Draupadi, she had to marry him. Draupadi, however refused to be associated with him in any way. Furious, Dhuryodhan ordered that she be stripped of all her clothes in public assembly. Getting dragged into the courtroom by the hair was already one of the highest insults that could be given to a woman, now she was being stripped of any remaining bodily autonomy.
Draupadi stopped demanding help from the men in the room. She prayed to lord Krishna to save her. When her sari is pulled off, it stretches. It is pulled for hours; the entire palace is filled with the silk cloth but still, Draupadi remains clothed.
Finally, Dhuryodhan’s friend Karna orders the disrobing to stop. After this Draupadi is granted two wishes from the king, Dhuryodhan’s father, as compensation for her ill treatment. Draupadi asks that her husbands be freed from their enslavement and all their wealth be returned. She does not ask for her own freedom because she does not believe that she was ever under anyone’s control. Despite traditional views that women are to be subjected to the same fate as their husbands Draupadi announces her independence from her husbands.
Of course, Draupadi doesn’t stop at just determining her independence. She turns to her husbands and berates them for not being able to protect her. She promises to not wash, brush or tie her hair up again until they bring her the blood of the men who dishonored her. Only the blood of the men who dishonored her will repair her ego. She pushes her husbands to wage war and reclaim their honor by avenging the mistreatment of their wife. Her self-respect and attitude of independence were so strong her husbands had no choice but to fight the war at the expense of losing all their children and killing their own family members while also being remembered as the most righteous men and soldiers.
Draupadi must manipulate the men in her life to maintain her independence and be remembered for her own actions rather than those of her husbands. All the while setting an example for other men on the result of insulting and dishonoring a woman.
Indian women for centuries were expected to follow the standards of behavior set by Sita in the Ramayana. She was soft-spoken, docile and compliant. All characteristics that were expected from a good daughter and wife. Her self-respect was overlooked by many as she was a woman in a man’s world. She also demanded respect from her husband. Initially Sita insists on following Ram into the forest for 14 years. She argues as Rama’s wife she cannot live in the palace off the pity of his brothers, while he roams in the woods.
After being kidnapped by evil king Ravana, she threatens him with her divine energy. Ravana tries to convince her to sleep with him. Sita warns him to not come near her. She claims if Ravana touches Sita against her will Sita’s inner radiance will turn him into literal dust. Ravana is so afraid of this threat he does not dare touch Sita in the months he keeps her trapped in his palace. The demon king, so well-known for his ability to trick women into sleeping with and marrying him, fears Sita’s dedication to her husband. Sita’s purity in mind and heart become her armor that a man with all the wealth and man power cannot hurt her in any way physically or emotionally.
Sita also displays her strength when monkey soldier Hanuman finds her. He asks her to climb on his back and return to her husband, Sita refuses. Sita is more willing to stay in a place with demons that terrorize her daily so that her husband can come rescue her himself. She is willing to undergo constant emotional and psychological abuse because she is aware of the fame her husband will receive from rescuing her from a demon king. Sacrificing her own comfort Sita calls her husband to action to make him more famous and in hopes that he will show her more affection when reunited as she refused to even return to him with one of his own soldiers because it was another man and not her own husband. Sita must call her husband to action multiple times in her life and manipulate him to agree with her wishes so she can voice her own opinions.
After the end of the 14-year banishment Sita and Ram return home. Ram resumes his role as king and promptly thereafter Sita is kicked out by her husband because the subjects believe she had an affair with another man during the banishment. Despite proving her innocence multiple times, Sita is forced to leave and she does so without hesitation. Sita returns to living in the woods and single-handedly raising her twin sons. Years later when Rama finds out about his sons he asks Sita to come home and undergo one last test to prove her innocence. If she passes she can live comfortably in the palace once again. Sita however rejects this offer. She announces that she does not feel the need to prove anything to anyone anymore. She will not have her fate and future determined by the judgement of men who will use the smallest of flaws to find her guilty of a crime she never committed. After multiple instances of submission to others Sita rejects the injustices imposed upon her by society and chooses to make her own life apart from everyone.
Like Sita and Draupadi women today are still faced with the challenge of manipulating the patriarchy to make their own place in the world. The smallest of flaw and women are deemed incompetent for their jobs, men are more likely to be given the benefit of doubt. If a woman chooses to maintain relationships with multiple men she is looked down upon whereas men who do the same are praised.
Yet even the use of words such as “manipulate” to define how women maneuver their way through societies rules connotes that women are conning others to achieve their goals, whereas they are simply demanding the same amount of power and respect men are given naturally. Although technology and fashion have progressed, the problems women face has ultimately stayed the same.
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