Today when I was reminiscing about the much acclaimed novel ‘Palace of Illusions’ I couldn’t help but remember how beautifully the novel traces the princess Panchaali’s life, beginning with her birth in fire and following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom.
Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at their side through years of exile and a terrible civil war involving all the important kings of India. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her strategic duels with her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands’ most dangerous enemy. Panchaali is a fiery female redefining for us a world of warriors, gods, and the ever-manipulating hands of fate.
But is this reality or a sheer illusion of misinterpretation of the Indian society, where ‘Panchali’ was an object to be divided ‘equally’ amongst the five Pandavas Or was her honour not worthy enough to be protected by the mighty ‘Pandavas’ who were known for their valour and who sat there like mute spectators to see her getting disrobed by Dushasana.
If we go further back in history, Sita is often heralded as the ideal woman, the ideal wife, and the ideal mother. A monumental and intimidating character, she is almost more central to the Ramayana than Rama himself. She is the mother of Rama’s children, and cares for them as the poet Valmiki recounts her story.
The image of an ideal wife as dependent upon her husband is an attractive one to a mainly misogynistic society, but what happens when women take ownership of Sita as a role model? Do they see a demure, restrained woman, or is she transformed? In feminist readings of the Ramayana, Sita is still seen as an ideal for every woman to strive for, but she is far from quiet. She is fierce as she endures a trial by fire to prove her faithfulness, and is strong as she defies her husband when he asks her a second time to walk through the flames.
His lack of faith in her, and unwillingness to prove to his people her innocence is what causes her eventual exile. This moment of Sita within the flames has been depicted countless times. One of the few other things that I guess would make feminists take umbrage is the treatment of Shurpanakha by Lakshman. Well chopping of a woman’s nose isn’t something that you can really justify. There are instances in the Ramayan that talk about Viswamitra taking Ram around to kill Rakshasas, women included. Sita bhi yahaan badnaam hui”, sang Rajesh Khanna soulfully in Amar Prem, and I simply lamented on the plight of women in this male chauvinist society.
It must be remembered that Sita, though abandoned by her husband, did not lose heart. She lived her life bravely and even went on to become India’s (and perhaps the world’s) first single mother! Draupadi was often addressed as “Krishna” means dusky beauty. This clearly shows there was no discrimination on the grounds of skin colour. She was educated, intelligent, beautiful princess of Panchal.
This means that there was no discrimination on gender basis for education, she was given equal chance by her father Drupad. Drupad organised a Svayamvar for Draupadi’s marriage where she had full right to choose her husband.
So let’s reform the age old stereotypes and celebrate the beauty of being a woman in the society that has a dichotomy between an egalitarianism and biases against women. Each of the aforementioned characters i.e Sita and Draupadi had their share of patriarchal treatment but we must learn from the positivity that our ancient scripts have to offer us.
The beauty doesn’t lie in taking a stand and underplaying our ancient stories and scriptures, the beauty lies in critically analysing the rights and wrongs so that justice can be met out to all the women who are socially conditioned not to question their men in this patrilineal society.