Arti Dhand of Toronto University has researched the Mahabharata’s sexual ideology regarding women focusing on the religious premises that constitute its basis, her professed purpose being “to clear the cobwebs for a new age” on this subject, consciously skirting the danger of being labelled as a feminist study. She seeks to identify the links between gender and social location on the premise that “sexuality is a social construct localized in cultures”. Despite the Manusmriti and the epic’s Shanti and Anushasana Parvas, it would be erroneous to posit that a generalized archetype of woman exists to which Vyasa’s female characters conform. Indeed, the singular attraction of the Mahabharata lies in that despite its creator being a male, the women he portrays are spectacularly diverse in nature.
Dhand provides an overview of Mahabharata research that is particularly valuable because it covers the trends in Indian scholarship. Where the Occident is occupied with diachronic studies of textual development, Indian scholars today are more interested in the inner meaning of the epic and have stepped away from Western criteria to study the work in the Indian literary context. Dhand makes the excellent point that what are generally regarded as inconsistencies in the Mahabharata may well represent different literary genres and meet the needs of varying audiences and ideologies. She also warns us that facile generalizations about gender roles will not help with the highly polymorphous Mahabharata.
For instance, placed against the expectations of classical Hinduism regarding womanly conduct is the behaviour of Satyavati, Kunti, Draupadi, Amba who “represent real Vedic (sic.) women” operating freely in the public arena before it was monopolised by upper-class men. By what criteria Dhand characterises them as “Vedic” remains a puzzle. Her view is that whoever composed the epic was interested in covering different thought-currents, which is why the women espouse varying ethics and what we perceive as contradictions in the way sexuality is presented in the Mahabharata. Thus, narrative is seen as an instrument to establish religio-cultural prejudices regarding gender.
One of the most interesting propositions Dhand puts forward, pace G.P.Upadhyay, is that the Mahabharata was composed possibly during the Sunga dynasty to freeze archaic Brahminical culture being swept away (c. 600-400 BC) by a pluralist way of life indifferent to ancient religious traditions heralded by the shramanic movements including Buddhism and Jainism, the Agamic and Pancharatra cults, the Shudra Nanda rulers and the Yavana invasions. Hence the composer(s) deliberately glorified ancient sages as superior to gods and spun a wonderful story “to educate and socialise successive generations” into those ancient values. Vedicisation of non-Vedic deities was deliberately undertaken, animal slaughter and other sacrificial rituals questioned, the shramana concepts of rebirth, devotion, liberation taken over. The compositions of Vyasa and Valmiki are “rehearsals of Hindu identity…fundamentally tools for the creative reflection, crafting, refinement and ultimate public political assertion of Hindu identity.”
Dhand’s approach is to explore what sexuality means in the two types of religious activity the epic deals with: nivritti dharma and pravritti dharma. The former is the way of ascetic renunciation leading to liberation from the world of suffering while the latter is that of firmly controlled sexuality within the householder’s life that leads to rebirth. Both reveal a strongly misogynistic view of women’s sexuality as a clear and present danger and are preoccupied with finding ways of managing it. By categorising the Vedic Chitrashikhandin seven sages as founders of the pravritti option, which Brahma and the gods follow, the path of renunciation espoused by Narayana and seven eternal brahmacharis (Sanat, Sanatkumara, Sanatsujata, Sanaka, Sanandana, Kapila, Sanatana) is implicitly upheld as superior. The conundrum Vyasa has to solve is how to reconcile the nivritti way of existence with a world where sex and violence are inevitable; how to “imbue life-in-the-world with the consciousness of its soteriological goals”. The solution is to “manage” both through rigid control in terms of what is appropriate according to time, place, situation and characters. Dhand explicates this in some detail, suggesting that karma yoga mediates between the ethics of pravritti and nivritti and studies the place of women in both systems of philosophy.
How are women seen by ascetic renunciants and what role do they perform as sanyasis themselves? Sex is taboo for the practitioner of nivritti and is carefully regulated for the pravritti follower through four “ashramas” each of which includes an element of renunciation. Woman has no independant status in the “ashrama” system except as partner in the householder stage and companion in the forest. Curiously, the only persons who transgress sexual ethics are the forest-dwelling hermits, not the Kshatriyas who retire there in the third stage of life. The Shanti Parva repeatedly warns against women, seen only as sexual objects ensuring entrapment in the world. In this world-view, the Mahabharata adopts the purusha-prakriti philosophy of the Samkhya where man is the wisdom of the kshetrajna slicing through the illusory mists of sensual worldliness (kshetra) that is woman. In the pravritti mode, however, woman is specially important, marriage being indispensable even for the ascetic to ensure that his manes attain heaven.
Simultaneously, however, there are several instances of women ascetics performing severe austerities to achieve specific goals. Uma, Savitri and Amba (Dhand inexplicably omits Draupadi in her earlier birth) are the most memorable of these, sanyasini Sulabha even outdoing the legendary royal sage Janaka in spiritual attainments. The Mahabharata’s ability to hold together diametrically opposite viewpoints contributes heavily to its appeal as a text. Balarama’s pilgrimages include one sanctified by a female ascetic achieving liberation without marriage and another made holy only because Kunigargya finally underwent marriage to attain salvation. Though both sexes populate the forests as ascetics, only women are regarded as dangers to salvation. The challenges they face are not described and sexual temptation aroused by the male body does not feature at all, except fleetingly in the cases of Ahalya, Renuka and Ruchi. The woman giving in to sexual temptation is brutally punished while the male hermit loses nothing except, temporarily, the merit accrued through penance. Thus, while the perspective adopted in the Mahabharata is exclusively male, within it no distinction is made in moksha being equally available to both sexes through practice of karma, bhakti and jnana yogas. Nor, as one might presume, is attachment to children cited as a hurdle to be overcome by women ascetics in particular.
Monogamy is strongly upheld in the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas and prohibitions against Brahmins bedding lower caste women abound. However, the narratives provide plenty of instances of the latter (including the father of Vyasa himself) and of both polygamy (among kings) and polyandry (Svaha, Draupadi, Jatila, Varkshi, Saradandayani, Kunti) besides indicating that in ancient times women were not faulted for having free sexual relations, the dictum of monogamy being Shvetaketu’s later imposition on women. Karna echoes this in warning that it is vain to try separating Draupadi from the Pandavas because women desire several husbands. Actually, of the major female characters only Draupadi and Gandhari have no pre-marital liaisons.
The epic, typically, presents viewpoints that are at variance with each other regarding mores of female sexual conduct, with Draupadi posing the greatest conundrum of all. Similarly, although didactic passages abound regarding the honour due to women, the incidents presented are often in sharp contradiction. There is great concern over women’s crucial role in preserving the integrity of class (varna) through chastity and many a story is told to illustrate that strict controls must be imposed on women to ensure they do not break the taboo and produce children whose progenitors are of a different (lower) class (varnasankara). The myth of Brahma dissipating Indra’s sin of brahminicide—the worst sin—locates a quarter of it in women, ever lurking to spot male weakness. But the remainder is split up amongst fire, water and trees which, unlike women, are never seen as intrinsically sinful. Yudhishthira adds to the female’s burden of sin by cursing Kunti that women will never be able to keep secrets. The Anushasana Parva relates that Brahma created a type of women specially to delude men so that they no longer equalled gods in merit. These were intrinsically addicted to all types of sensual delight and morally frail. Vyasa depicts both types of women.
Dhand concludes that with the epic presuming a male audience, soteriological aspirations of women are rarely acknowledged. The disgusting images of women asleep that Hanuman sees have only one parallel in Pingala viewing her male lovers’ bodies as forms of hell, narakarupinah. Typical of the paternalistic hegemony projected is the dichotomy between condemning woman as innately sinful and extolling the mother as weightier than earth, greater than ten fathers. To complicate matters, in association with Skanda the mothers are terrifying infant-slayers. Through the nymph Panchachuda and king Bhangasvana’s sex-change women are condemned as undiscriminating nymphomaniacs who throw propriety to the winds. In the totality, however, Vyasa’s women do not substantiate this assertion. Stephanie Jamison has attempted a reconciliation by arguing that woman’s strong personality indicates sexual aggressiveness that is very difficult to restrain.
Dhand suggests that the numerous negative accounts about women’s sexuality are intended to stress the normative conduct expected of the ideal woman who controls her sexuality. This is the paradigm of the pativrata in the pravritti path (Oghavati being the extreme instance, lying with a guest at her husband’s command) that replaces the Vedic ideal of sahadharmini and of equanimity in the nivritti way. We can see this in action when, most uncharacteristically, Draupadi is made to administer a stern homily on the subject to Satyabhama in which “woman as fire” suddenly becomes “woman as dumb servitor”. Such control invests them with fiery power displayed in Damayanti consuming a molester and Gandhari scorching Yudhishthira’s toenails. However, Dhand’s statement that Draupadi restrained herself from cursing the Kauravas for the greater glory of her husbands (p.175) is unsubstantiated in the text. Actually, unlike Damayanti but like Sita with Viradha and Ravana, Draupadi is unable to ward off molestation by Duhshasana, Kirmira, Jayadratha and Kichaka. The fiery aspect of woman is not adequately covered by Dhand. It obviously appealed strongly to the public at large because in several vernacular versions we find warrior princesses who prove to be virtually invincible and Arjuna has to overcome Alli, Pramila and others by trickery.
Widow remarriage occurs only once (Damayanti) and is not criticised. In later times, however, in the Bakasura episode the Brahmin’s wife states that a wife may not remarry, though a husband can. The she-pigeon states that a widow’s life is miserable (Kunti’s is pretty distressful; we know nothing of the widowed lives of Ambika, Ambalika). Although the epic heroines are visible in public life, in the Stri Parva we find a changed scenario of seclusion. A controversial contrivance to perpetuate the family is niyoga—, levirate, non-erotic coitus—which Satyavati forces upon her daughters-in-law (Ambika prevaricates the second time) and Pandu on Kunti (who refuses to oblige after the third son). The only instance of a wife abandoning her husband and receiving divine approval besides producing a son autonomously is that of Atri’s wife in the Anushasana Parva. The explicit approval given by sages to Amba’s mission of vengeance is a remarkable instance of the composer’s sympathy for the wrongs women suffer. There is no condemnation of Svaha for her unbridled passion for Agni, nor of Devayani, Sharmishtha and even Renuka. In the case of rape, the text clearly supports the victim (Mamata, Raibhya’s daughter-in-law, Bhadra), never blaming them for what happens. The composer is clearly on the side of Shakuntala in the encounter with Dushyanta, upholding the position of wife as equal partner, sahadharmini and not projecting the subsequent devoted-to-husband pativrata paradigm.
A unique feature that Dhand fails to explore is the unsullied virginity of women despite multiple sexual relations and birthing children (Madhavi, Satyavati, Kunti, Draupadi, Ahalya, Tara, Mandodari, celebrated in the panchakanya shloka*). This remarkable feature of the kanya is a unique contribution of Valmiki and Vyasa to womanhood. Further, it is not only the non-Aryan women, seen as the “other/outsider”, who openly solicit men, as with the Rakshasi Hidimba and the Naga Ulupi; celestial Ganga and Urvashi also do so. Such autonomy regarding sexual desire was women’s undenied right in the hoary past, as Pandu tells Kunti. Dhand also misses Vyasa’s remarkable picturisation of Draupadi’s use of sexual power to coax Bhima into overcoming his initial reluctance to kill Kichaka immediately. An interesting feature shared by the autonomous women is their extraordinary birth or their non-Aryan ancestry: Satyavati is fish-born; Kunti’s maternal side is Naga; Ulupi is a Naga; Shikhandini and Chitrangada are born from sacrifices to Shiva; Draupadi, kritya-like, emerges from the flames of a black-magic (abhichara) rite; Savitri’s birth is a special dispensation.
Dhand holds that the epic calls itself the fifth Veda because it tries to reconcile disparate traditions, attempts to make sense of them in the context of social and political turmoil caused by foreign invasions, the emergence of heterodox faiths, weaving in new values like patrivrata dharma within the backcloth of old tradition so that the new appears as ancient and is accepted. She argues that the epic’s presentation of sex and gender is part of this “project of synthesizing tradition” while perpetuating Brahmanism and concludes that sexual conduct is seen to be dependant on the individual’s personal soteriological goals. Hence, it is fluid, open to reformulation in altered circumstances. Amidst this complexity it is impossible to make generalizations about women in the epic, let alone in Hinduism. It is a strong case that she makes out, the only problem being that its foundation rests largely on the twelfth and thirteenth books of the Mahabharata that are much later additions. The book has excellent endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography, but the Index is not useful being puzzlingly devoid of all female epic characters except Sulabha. One hopes that Dhand will work on a second edition incorporating her insights from study of Kevin McGrath’s Stri and the Panchakanya national conference papers (2003).
Arti Dhand: Woman as Fire, Woman as Sage—sexual ideology in the Mahabharata, State University of New York Press, pp.254; $18.95 paperback
A shorter version of this review was published in the 8th Day Literary Supplement of the Sunday Statesman dated 31 May 2010.