In every era intellectuals are faced with two fundamental questions. Who am I and where do I come from! Both these questions are basic but disruptive till contextualised because it relates to one’s identity. The response can never be linear. Too many influences from diverse horizons are factored into the identity construct—ranging from gender, caste, religion, geography, colour and education to the environment, beliefs, custom, culture and suchlike. How the questions impact individuals can be inspiring or destructive, depending upon how they see their identity playing out before the broad society, and what they find in the place they call their home. From society they seek recognition after casting favourable impressions upon people with words, action, productivity and progress. In seeking this recognition, the presentation of the best self is obvious, covering up for everything that is perceived as disgraceful by popular opinion. This natural human tendency that attempts to correct whatever is not in order or seems dissatisfactory in its present form is the very genesis of gender politics.
Identity begins at home. In Indian, especially in all Hindu households, the first stories that are told to the children are from the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. These stories of fantasy and mystery are instrumental in flowering out the imagination of young minds while simultaneously shaping the pride for their race, culture and homeland. The ancient literatures unveil life and livelihood from a distant past while assembling glorious elements of the country—warring or allied—under one historical roof. The texts are also complex philosophies exploring dharma and karma over interpersonal relationships of humans and their relationships with nature. The epics are generously quoted in every era, to lay the social, religious and political fabric of the country.
The stories talk about the splendour of enchanting dynasties, the virtues and vices culminating into great wars, and great sacrifices of the brave to establish the foundation of good and evil. For children, the mode of consumption of these stories is primarily oral storytelling narrated by the voices of their elders, thus building a strong attachment with the characters of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata through sources that are trustworthy to them. Other than that, there are chants, music, art, graphics to reinforce their faith in understanding the grand past of their homeland. It consolidates a fair context for them to comprehend who am I and where did we come from.
A child’s mind is a fertile ground for fantasy. They consume the stories told to them with their ingrained magical elements and are thrilled by the contributions of wonderful mythological icons. At this stage of life, the child asks many questions, not because they are resistant but because they wish to accept what they hear with fair support of the known that can explain the unknown. They are the believers.
Oral storytelling traditions summarise the stories with characters who are brave warriors and fight great wars. The children hear the stories of Rama and Lakshmana fighting the evil Ravana who kidnapped Sita. They are thrilled by the Pandavas fighting with the Kauravas because the latter had insulted Draupadi and deprived the former from their rightful share of property. From the story of Ahalya they understand that if a woman is wronged, she will be severely punished whether or not it is her fault! They learn about queen Kaikeyi who conspired with her attendant, Manthara, to send Rama to exile which eventually brought sufferings to the family. Seldom is a child told that Kaikeyi was a warrior princess who was the charioteer of Dasharatha and even saved his life in war. The children don’t know Chitrangada, the warrior princess of Manipur. They are aware of great sages holding immense knowledge but are never made aware of scholars like Gargi and Maitreyee. Quite naturally, the child starts believing that the men are capable of great accomplishments, women are victims and weaklings, falling prey because of their foolishness and need to be rescued from their situation by the men-folk. This very thought that finds its way inside the child’s brain at a very nascent stage, can never be completely washed away by any level of activism later when they are tuitioned with the doctrines of feminism. They might agree to the logic of gender equality as grown-ups but deep inside, they can’t uproot from the patriarchal belief system.
The children understand from the narratives that whatever is wrong needs to be corrected. Correction is a virtue. One of those things that they feel responsible towards in order to take corrective measures are, women! The section of the society that is prone to foolish actions, can divert with obnoxious demands, are not capable of brilliant warfare, would be punished if their actions cause consequences not approved by society—those that can bring sufferings if not contained. The one-sided narratives they consume from the epics are supported by the news of crimes against women, the skewed representation of women in comics and graphics, the sexist jokes that play out colloquially and more. They are quick to capture the abusive words exchanged happily between friends, most of which are reflective of one’s relationship with women. Having embedded the gross disrespect for a section of the society, they start looking at women as inferior beings who can’t be leaders, who need to be told what to do, must be controlled on what to wear, and shouldn’t be taken seriously. The male child imbibes a feeling of supremacy and dominance, which is often applauded by social influencers. The female child ends up fighting many battles right from the beginning, ranging from forced acceptance of the dominance, to fighting it out to establish her own self-respect. Bold women, however, are still shamed and called out for their choices even in 2022.
Who am I and where do I come from!
Are these questions merciless towards the progressive women searching for evidence of validation and equality in history and in mythology? Not really. It is perhaps the case of convenience-gone-wrong. Indian society may have started the trend of men venturing out and women managing the home simply from anatomical and emotional perspectives, to suit the convenience of both genders. The sector allocation was obviously not merit-based. What happened eventually was, the network of men expanded since they were going out and meeting more people. For women, the world remained smaller, confined within domesticity. Like every social disruption, men found themselves stronger and united as a gender far more than women. They started using that to their advantage, exerting pressure and calling themselves bigger, better, more knowledgeable, better resourced and hence more powerful.
A lot of this hierarchy has been challenged and reversed in recent times. What remains unaltered in most households is the profiling of women in oral storytelling, which is instrumental in shaping the minds of children in favour of women’s power. Indian mythology offers the story of Durga, Kali, Saraswati along with Maheswar, Vishnu, Brahma. The epics have left behind evidence of fiercely-liberated women like Ahalya, Kunti, Damayanti, Draupadi, Gandhari, Mandodari, Tara, Sita, Amba and others. Kunti, for example, is infamous as manipulative. However, a more modern study of her decisions and actions will rediscover her as an ambitious leader—far more demanding and intelligent than the men of her times. Her truth is conveniently under-represented in oral traditions, inversely impacting the understanding of women and the idea of motherhood in India and broadly, South Asia. Another extraordinary woman was Damayanti who outwitted moral-gatekeepers and set an example to understand how even the worst form of ill-fortune can be outlived. Amba’s story exposes furious leadership which makes one overhaul the complete identity to acquire skills and allies that help achieve goals. Draupadi’s story is tremendously influential in explaining the status of women upon whom a crime as horrendous as molestation is inflicted.
Stories there are many, and characters are exemplary as long as they are understood and interpreted effectively. The Indian epics have been immensely metaphoric in the way the sagas are narrated and philosophy is crafted. This sole quality makes the epics relatable to the readers of every era, where all kinds of politics would find their frameworks sustained. The literatures have been used and abused over many patriarchal eras, their relevance convoluted to shove a regressive concoction down the throats, trying their best to cage women by brainwashing generations with explanations where women seemed peripheral, unworthy and burdensome. A lot would change if the parents and grandparents are conscious and inclusive about their oral storytelling, presenting the fantasy of both men and women before the child audience, helping them internalise the boons of harmonious living, equal rights and excellence of individuals irrespective of gender.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Who Am I")
(Views expressed are personal)
Koral Dasgupta (is an author and literary entrepreneur)