W is for the women in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana

As a child and well into my youth and adulthood, some of the stories in the epics made me very uncomfortable. It had to do with the way women and other marginalized sections of society were treated. I will be talking about the treatment of women today.

The two main female characters in the epics are Sita in the Ramayana and Draupadi in the Mahabharata. They are queens of mighty god like kings. Their stories are not about how random bad men treated them, but how their noble godly husbands treated them in keeping with the law of the day.

Sita is the virtuous wife of Rama. And we are told that Rama too loves his wife dearly. She leaves the luxuries of the palace, follows her husband into the forest. There she is abducted by Ravana, the villain of the epic and held captive by him. Rama cries his heart out to the trees, flowers, birds and monkeys and fights a whole war in Sita’s name. As soon as the war is over, the victorious and righteous Rama calls his freshly ‘rescued’ wife in public and these are his words to his beloved wife.

“I have done my duty, by rescuing you from the enemy and avenging the insult to myself. You should know that this heroic war, which was won by the heroic efforts of my friends, was not fought for your sake. I did it to vindicate my honour and to save my noble family from disgrace. I have terrible suspicions about your character and conduct. The sight of you is as painful to me as the light to a man with diseased eyes!

You are free to go wherever you want. The world is open to you. I have no more use for you Sita. How can a man born into a noble family, lovingly take back a woman, who has lived in the house of a strange man? I am proud of my noble lineage. How can I take you back, when Ravana has touched you, and when you have lived under his lustful gaze? I have regained my reputation. That was the sole motivation for rescuing you. I do not want you any more. You can go where you like.

I am saying this to you, after a great deal of deliberation.”Go to Laxman or Bharata or anyone else who pleases you! To Sugreeva, the king of the monkeys, or Vibhisana, the king of the Rakshasas. Go wherever you want. Ravana was aware of your beauty and your good looks. He cannot have kept you in his house for so long, without touching you.” from Arshiya Sattar’s abridged version of Valmiki’s Ramayana.

Later, he puts her through the fire test, which she passes and he brings her home. He impregnates her and because of the rumours of her being with another man gets his faithful brother to abandon her slyly in the forest. Still later, having met his sons, having heard his own life story sung in a beauteous metre by them, he tries to put her through the fire test again.

And the questions arose again and again, like unwanted bile, in my mind, “Rama you too were alone in the forest, for the same time as Sita was alone in Lanka. If chastity was your problem, why did you too not take the fire test, that you subjected Sita to?” If you had to abandon her while she was carrying your twins, so that your subjects would not see you as weak, why did you do so surreptitiously? Why did you not explain your situation to Sita? Why did you not leave her with her royal parents? why did you not follow her to the forest as she had followed you? You could have asked Bharata  to look after the kingdom, he had done a pretty good job last time!….”

Draupadi, is willy nilly married of to the five righteous brothers, the Pandavas, She is not asked once as to what her preference is. The eldest of the brothers is Yudhishtira; the son of Dharma. This godly man, gambles away himself, his brothers and his wife… and leave her vulnerable in the court of Dhritarashtra, to be abused, dis-robed and leered at. Had he not gambled his wife off, she would not have found herself in this vulnerable position.

Strangely, it is Yudhishtira who alone makes it to the gates of heaven in his human form, as a special reward for his virtuous life on earth. But it seems, he has committed one mistake in his whole just life, for which there is a slight detour through hell, before he can reach the heavens… ah, you think! At least here, he will be pulled up for the abusive use of his wife! But wait, he is pulled up for telling a white lie on the battle field and there is no mention of the wrong of gambling away the woman he promised to protect, love and take care of!

And the epics are full of good women, killed, abandoned, mutilated, shamed and punished by God like men without so much as a gentle rap on their god like knuckles!

As a child, I thought, I was not getting the story right because I was too small to understand, I would understand when I was older and wiser.

Years later, much older and maybe a little wiser, I understand, that these men were not to blame, for they were acting according to the laws and social mores of their times, that were written by a highly revered ancestor of Rama, called Manu.

Steel yourselves for here are a few of Manu’s laws with regard to women and their place in society.

In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, and when her lord is dead, to her sons; a woman must never be independent.”

“Women do not care for beauty, nor is their attention fixed on age; they give themselves to the handsome as well as to the ugly just for the fact that he is a man.”

“A husband should be worshipped as a God.”

“Even in the home nothing should be done by a child, a young or even an old wife (woman) independently.”

“A wife, a son, and a slave, these three are declared to have no property. The wealth which they earn is acquired for him to whom they belong.”
“Women, shudra (or sudra, lowest of four castes), dog and crow embody untruth, sin and darkness.”

“It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world, for that reason the wise never remain unguarded in the company of female.”

“A man can leave a barren woman after eight years and one who only gives birth to daughters.”

“If a woman should happen to merely to overhear recitations of Vedic mantras by chance, hot molten lead should be poured into her ears.”


It was a different world then and its a different world now, but these laws have somehow got deeply embedded in our collective consciousness. May true awareness wash away these erroneous ways of looking at women and all other marginalised sections of society.

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8 Responses to W is for the women in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana

  1. Tarkabarka says:

    Yes, this is a huge discussion around telling traditional stories (especially from other cultures): How do you get your audiences to understand that these stories were created in a different time, in a different society? And how do you keep telling them despite the flaws?…

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

  2. modhukori says:

    Csenga, you’ve hit the nail on the head…..
    And there are a different set of problems, when they are from our own culture 🙂

  3. Jemima Pett says:

    In case anyone thinks this is the product of mainly one culture, I point you at Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. In summary Katherine must not think for herself, she must become obedient to a man. And in some interpretations the man beats her into submission. It’s an ending that has become so uncomfortable that the musical Kiss Me Kate, based directly on the play, often gets its final song cut or adapted these days.

  4. josna says:

    Eloquent, Modhukori. Glad you told these stories toward the end, so that they are left ringing in our ears., as a reminder that the epics, timeless as they are in some respects, nevertheless have to be continually remade as times change.

  5. modhukori says:

    thanks josna, i hope you know, that your comments are appreciated. These are difficult to tell. At a certain level, it feels like washing dirty linen in public, but deep love and engagement, necessitates this.

  6. kristin says:

    Well, that was depressing. I do think that it is universal to view women and other perceived “inferiors” this way, not just in literature but in the way that history has been written. I think one thing that is important is to remember who is telling the stories and not just think, well different times, different values. If women had been telling those stories, I believe they would have been different. At least gambling away his wife would have gotten a mention during his tour of hell! Once they’ve been internalized by the culture, perhaps it’s harder to find even a woman to tell the story differently. “Until Lions write their own history, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”

  7. Arti says:

    It incensed me to read Manu’s laws. I was blissfully oblivious to these.
    Thank you for writing this post because it’s a sign that despite the age old narrative and laws, we, the women of today have the courage to ‘wash this linen’ in public, and the gumption to retell the stories to reflect our point of view without bitterness.

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