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Feminine Journeys Of The Mahabharata: Hindu Women In History, Text, And Practice By Lavanya Vemsani


Dr. Lavanya Vemsani, Professor of History at Shawnee State University, USA, has published a book on selected women characters from the repository of the Itihaasa of India, the Mahabharata.

Satyavati, Kunti, Draupadi, Madhavi, Damayanti, Savitri, Subhadra, Amba, Ganga, Shakuntala and Urvashi; eleven women whose heroic and epic journeys remain engraved in our collective memories have been discussed and analysed in this book. They are all central players in the Mahabharata, the story of the mayajaal of Shri Krishna, the embodiment of Dharma on Prithvi – a larger than life complex of stories, an oral tradition of the culture, stories and traditions of Bharat.

The Mahabharata has often been understood in terms of its purusha protagonists and reams have been written on the centrality of Shri Krishna, the Pandavas, Karna, or Duryodhana as the center of the story-complex, or even Arjuna’s son, Abhimanyu and Ghatotkacha.

Think back to Bhasa, for instance, the playwright of extreme antiquity, pre-Mauryan, at least more than two millennia old. His plays, Panchratram, Balcharitam, Dootvakyam, Madhyamvyayoga, Urubhangam, all revolve around Krishna, Duryodhana or the Pandavas. Although it should not be forgotten that Sanskrit playwrights have treated women with delicate sensitivity and understanding and respect.

In the deep vein of lived experience in Sanatani culture the influence of the women of the Itihasa-Purana tradition is all encompassing and immanently influential. In art and music, both classical and folk, invocations in daily life and collective memory, festivals and pilgrimages our ancestresses speak to us in many voices, in all the languages and mediums of Bharat.

Dr. Vemsani has taken these sources into account apart from the texts which she relies on. The 1883- 1896 translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli has been mainly relied on apart from three others. The Harivamsa as well as the works of Kalidasa, Bhasa, Sri Aurobindo, Rabindranath Thakur have been analysed. The Telugu Mahabharatamu has also been included in the sources.

Given the innumerable versions, stories, folk tales and Mahabharata tales in all Indian languages it is not perhaps possible to consult them all and this makes for a fair enough source distribution though one could have wished for more.

The problem is understood, though. The three ancient story clusters of India, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bada Kaha have all taken so many forms and spread across the world that collating and collecting all of them is not possible during one lifetime.

I have called this book a breath of fresh air and for good reason; it takes a critical and new look at Indic ideas of women by and large free from western academic shibboleths. In fact she discusses these shibboleths in her introduction and each of these should act as a wake-up call to those who mindlessly ape the western tradition of understanding the Mahabharata.

In the context of the feminine, overemphasis on female sexuality, objectification of subjects, labelling, problems with the theoretical frameworks are the main points she notes.

These points are well made and need to be highlighted. Coming from the Abramaic framework of meaning a skewed view of feminine sexuality is a corollary. The western framework thinks of the “Eve” as the fountainhead of original sin, the seat of lust and concupiscence and the vehicle through which sin is transferred across generations. The eternal temptress who needs to be punished for being the one who caused the “Fall” of Man from paradise and must thus remain in the submission, indeed slavery of marriage and punished with childbirth and menstruation. One merely needs to read the works of Augustine of Hippo, whose views were canonized in the Council of Orange in 529 CE, reaffirmed at the Council of Trent in 1545 and taken over wholesale by Luther and Calvin to realize that western frameworks need to be abandoned. It is true that no academic worth her salt will agree with or subscribe to these views in any treatise but basic frameworks die hard. The opposition is also couched with reference to the same ideas because these are the categories in which western academics are taught to think.

Look at the excessive focus on the sexuality of the women of the Mahabharata mentioned by Vemsani, the insistence that they must have been meek submissive characters without any independent thinking and the bias shows up, clear as day.

The invention of “categories “ of Hindu “Goddesses” is a scandal and needs to be abandoned forthwith. “Breast Goddess”, “Tooth Goddess”, “Wild Goddess”, “Spouse Goddess” or that ubiquitous and meaningless “Mother goddess” are ridiculous and meaningless apart from being misleading and demeaning. A whole spectrum of feminine figures can be called mother goddess depending on the size of their breasts, thighs, womb or some other part of the anatomy. “Wild Goddesses “ need to be “tamed “ and spurious evolutionary paths have been seriously expounded by academics who ought to have known better but are caught in the web of the West’s aggressive and problematic relationship with sexuality. Vemsani rightly calls this out.

Overemphasis on sexuality, objectification and application of modern Western theories are all interconnected.  Academics coming from an Abramaic background, are not able to come to grips with the place of Kama is the Indic framework of the four purusharthas. Instead of a healthy and self realised balance between different aspects of life including sex (although Kama is not merely sexual relations but includes it) they have an unhealthy and aggressive relationship with the body and with sex. This leads to an all round lack of understanding and conclusions which are bizarre but form cornerstones for western academics “studying” Indian women. I have had occasion to discuss this in detail while reviewing the works of the notorious Wendy Doniger and her appalling use of the discredited Freudian theory.

As I have written elsewhere, “Freud and his methodology have been heavily criticised and discredited; he has often been marked out as a charlatan, also a product of Victorian mores and times which cannot be universalised. Carl Shorske, William McGrath, John Toews among others have highlighted the normative considerations of Oedipal Theory and its cultural rootedness. Feminists, Queer Theorists, post-colonial theorists and even strands of leftist theory have been left dissatisfied with psychoanalysis and rejected it partially or completely.

The postulation of the feminine as a passive object of desire and repudiation of its agency is particularly problematic in the context of Indic culture and religion with its pronounced emphasis on the power of the feminine. Psychoanalysis is all about sexual repression and its resolution in ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ ways. In the context of ancient India, a sexually liberated place if there ever was one, the choice of this method seems even more foolishly inspired.”

Vemsani points out that the model of the nuclear family on which Freud’s analysis is heavily dependent does not apply to the time of the Mahabharata.

She therefore sets out to analyse the “feminine” in its own context of leadership, away from comparisons with the heroic journeys of men. Each heroic feminine’s journey has been divided into 5 stages depending on her life events and considered through stories in the different versions of the story, most ancient, some modern.

In her own words; “My central goal in this book is not to formulate frameworks or to find overarching models of femininity, but to focus exclusively on the actions of women; Analyze the activities and thoughts of women to understand their personal choice, courage, and leadership; To study the stories of women to understand their roles and influence on the larger culture, society, and life around them. Did the feminine leaders demonstrate agency? Did they influence others around them through their actions and thoughts?”

Dr Vemsani has eschewed the usual narratives of analysing women in their traditional roles and in relation to the men in their lives for a focus on the extraordinary in their journeys; exile, forest domicile etc.

She divides the lives of these extraordinary women into 5 stages (not for the divine women but the mortal ones) with special focus on exile and forest sojourns with their impact on the lives and actions of these women.  Choice, agency, impact are all examined in new ways.

To read the delightful and evergreen stories of these beloved women you will have to read the book, or the Mahabharata. Given that this is a review. I will have to confine myself to a few comments.

Devi Satyavati was the woman who did the sthapana, so to speak, of the Bharatas, the great- grandmother of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, who fought so disastrously in a fratricidal and annihilating war. She was also the young, unwed mother of Krishna Dwaipayan who would compose the Mahabharata and the Ashtadasa Puranas making him the Veda Vyasa of his age. It was an extraordinary life with extraordinary choices and far reaching consequences, guiding the political fate of the Kingdom. She is indeed a heroic figure whose story needs to be repeated.

Kunti’s is a tragic figure, a life with more downs than ups and ultimate tragedy. Her link to Krishna, the Prince of the Yadavas and the real Sarathi of the Mahabharata story is very significant. Indeed, giving up her eldest son and watching the fratricidal war between brothers as well as the violent ups and downs of her life may look like an unfolding of tragic events. Vemsani writes, however, that she is a sthitapragya; “The story of Kunti is a demonstration of motherhood and the virtues of all giving mother akin to the mother Earth. She is also an accomplished yogi living her life with equanimity with love for all and enmity towards none.” “Kunti’s life is a demonstration of unbridled strength of the feminine leader in the midst of numerous misfortunes.”

For Draupadi the author says, “It is through Draupadi’s veracity and courage that the lineage of Pandu survives the Mahabharata war and is blessed with progeny to continue into the future generations. Draupadi’s deviance is noticed in every major event of her life including her marriage. Draupadi remains an inspiration to modern women, her story endures in a variety of recollections. Born of fire she is a fiery warrior woman and the links to Durga and Kaali are much discussed. What has been lost unfortunately is the strength of the concept of Draupadi as an incarnation of Shachi, the original Rigvedic warrior Goddess who was worshipped along with her husband, Indra during the Indra DhwajaMakha festival of yore; the festival also now lost. Shachi herself is now only seen as a pale follower of her husband, Indra.

It is through Madhavi and her sons that her father Yayati ultimately attains moksha, a function generally understood to be fulfilled by sons. Her story with the bearing of four sons by different fathers, rejection of marriage and final embrace of sanyasa is completely different from any of the trajectories of other women.

The story of Damayanti is one which has strong parallels to the fabulous tales of the ancient Prakrit tales of the Bada Kaha and indeed perhaps a line can be traced to the Gathanarashamsi mentioned in the Rigveda ; the stories of mortals rather than larger than life epic heroines and Devis. In her character can be seen a reflection of the whip-smart and savvy women who populate that treasure house of stories which was the inspiration for the Arabian Nights, the Jataka Tales, Aesop’s Fables, a play of Shakespeare and so many other classics of the world. The methods of Damayanti are similar to the ones used by Muladeva’s wife in the story of the most famous thief of ancient India which has spread across the world.

Subhadra is on the surface the simple story of the Yadava Princess who falls in love with Arjuna and elopes with him linking the Pandavas and Yadavs and bearing a son whose son would carry the future of the Kurus and Hastinapur. At the subliminal and symbolic level she is the incarnation of Yogamaya, the adi-shakti of the Universe who also incarnates as Eknamsa, the 8th child of Devaki. Yogamaya is the creator of the Universe, the power behind Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh in the Shakta tradition and there is a good analysis of the multiple presence of Yogamaya/Nidra in the Mahabharata and Subhadra’s links with foetuses in the womb and childbirth. One could wish for an analysis around the Sankhya and Yoga concepts of Purusha and Prakriti, too.

Savitri is the traveler of all the worlds and the vanquisher of death as she brings her husband Satyavan back from the clutches of Yamaraj and restores the health and prosperity of both her clan and her husband’s. It is an exemplary story in world literature and Vemsani also discusses Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of Savitri. One aspect which is underplayed here is the learning and intellect of Savitri who knows of the exact hour of Satyavan’s “death” through her knowledge of Jyotish. Her shastrarth with Yama is, of course, discussed in detail.

Amba is what mother is affectionately called in Sanskrit but Mahabharat’s Amba has nothing to do with motherhood or children. She is forcibly abducted at her Swayamvar by Bhishma for his nephew, rejected by her beloved, Shalva when she returns to him and then centres her existence around revenge on Bhishma. She practises austerities and extreme penance, battles through the curse of Bhishma’s mother, Ganga which makes her half a river and ultimately is born as a daughter of Dhrupad who will turn into a son, Shikhandi, and kill Bhishma. This is revenge through many lifetimes and exhibits the fluidity of gender in the Mahabharata. As does Brihanalla, the discourse of Sulabha in the court of Raja Janaka and also the husband of Urvashi,Pururavas who is born of a man who is also a woman, both Budha and Ila.

Ganga is a river which flows in divine as well as mortal world as well as the wife of Shantanu and the mother of Bhishma Pitamah on whose shoulders the Kuru clan rests, through almost to the end of the Mahabharata. Vemsani points out that she blurs the lines between nature, humanity and divinity. I would add it is the perfect exposition of Bhagwat Geeta’s “Ekaanshensthitojagat”, all of creation rests on an ansh, a particle of paramatma, there are no artificial differences between jada and chetan, man and his environment. The implications of this Hindu thinking are very beneficial to a crisis ridden earth today.

Shakuntala is the mother of Bharata, after whom Bharat desh is named; our illustrious ancestor. Nature, innocence and trust war with the Kingly world of inheritance, ambition and deceit as she enters into a Gandharvavivaah with Shantanu and is then repudiated and left with her son Shantanu. She and her son are reinstated after an intense story but the courage of the wronged woman shines through.

The last selection is Urvashi, a feminine power, a divine apsara, difficult to place in a box. She exemplifies independence as she marries Pururavas when sent to earth from Swargaloka due to a curse, sets conditions on him and leaves him without compunction when those are violated. No amount of pleading will make her return and indeed her dialogue with Pururavas shows that she tires of his impassioned pleading and begging. It is not perhaps a very attractive character but who said that divinity has to conform to any norms?

The guiding principle of Indic / Hindu society is varnashrama dharma and the four purusharthas.  It would have been interesting for the analysis to be structured around this, especially the four ashrams of brahmacharya, grihast, vanprasth and sanyas. A good deal of illumination on choices, events and actions could have been cast by using the ashrama formulation and the objectives of Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.

Gautama Rishi’s formulation of ashramas as “vikalp”or a choice between four different modes of life (corresponding to the descriptions of the four ashrams) could have been used as a very strong analytical tool when considering agency and choice of women. Madhavi’s choice of sanyas, Draupadi’s special grihasti, Sulabha’s brahmacharya all fall into a pattern.

The entire question of exile and forest could also have been analysed through the ashram category of vanprasth or even sanyasa in some cases.

Overall, the eleven selected feminine journeys are treated with depth and precision and it is a book well worth reading for a fresh view of the age-old story of the Mahabharata and its intricacies. Female Agency, the centrality of the journey rather than its end and the symbolism of nature are emphasised by Dr. Vemsani in her conclusion.

The importance of this book lies in the fact that it looks at Western Indological categories dispassionately and does not hesitate to critique and jettison them as needed. For Indic women to have a voice of their own such books are the need of the hour.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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