Indian Culture and Traditions - 3

Indian Culture and Traditions

Hindu Women As Life Partner
By Dr Usha Kapoor

Hinduism regards man and woman as the two halves of the eternal Being, each constituting a vibrant, existential part, quite incomplete in itself. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Prajapati, the primordial God, divides himself into two-man and woman, the symbols of cosmic polarity deriving sustenance from the same source.1 In the cosmic scheme man represents Purusha (the Person, Spirit) and woman Prakriti (Nature, Primal Matter), both of whom unite to keep the world going. So goes the Vedic verse: ‘I am He, you are She; I am song, you are verse; I am heaven, you are earth. We two shall here together dwell becoming parents of children.’2
The Matrimonial Ideal
Marriage is the coalescence of complementary opposites for pleasure, progeny and self-fulfillment. The cosmic model of the marriage of Surya, the daughter of the Sun, with the Asvina twins (who defeated the prime suitor, Soma, in a racing contest) determines the praxis of the Hindu concept in this respect.3 Being equal halves of one essence, husband and wife are parents in joy and sorrow and in the fulfillment of the fourfold aim of life-dharma (ethical perfection), artha (material advancement), kama (pleasure) and moksha (liberation). Neither is superior to the other as each has different natural functions to perform and social obligation to fulfill. Hinduism expects the partners to shed their individual identities to become one at the physical, mental and psychical levels before transmuting the material relationship into a spiritual one. Says the Rig Veda in the context of ‘Surya Vivaha’: Bless now this bride, O bounteous Lord, cheering her heart with the gift of brave sons. Grant her ten sons; her husband make the eleventh’ (10.85.45).
Nowhere do the Vedas say that woman is man’s property, as she came to be considered in certain periods of history. Nor it is enjoined that her role shall be subordinated to that of her husband. This is evident from the sukta of Surya’s bridal in the Rig Veda: Enter your house as the household’s mistress. May authority in speech ever be yours!’ 10.85.26).’Watch over this house as mistress of the home. Unite yourself wholly with your husband’ (10.85.27). ‘Here dwell ye, be not parted; enjoy full age, play and rejoice with sons and grandsons in your own house’ (10.85.42). ‘Act like a queen over your husband’s father, over your husband’s mother likewise, and his sister. Over all your husband’s brothers be queen’ (10.85.46).
In the Hindu rite of marriage, when the bridegroom holds the hand of the bride, he in a way promises his companionship on equal terms. When he asks her to tread on the stone, he wants her to be strong like it and not show weakness of any kind in any situation. ‘Resist the enemies; overcome those who attack you.’4 Subsequent rites of marriage like the oblation of parched grain, circumambulation of fire and the tacking of seven steps by the bride are equally dignifying for the girl. After the seventh step is taken the bridegroom tells her that they have come closer to each other. ‘With seven steps we become friends. Let me not be severed from your friendship. Let not your friendship be severed from me’.5 Obviously  ‘friendship implies equality, not submission.’ Before the departure of the bride from her parental home, the bridegroom touches her heart and reiterates the same feelings, adding that the Lord God has brought them together: ‘I hold your heart in serving fellowship. …You are joined to me by the Lord of all creatures.’ After reaching her husband’s home, the bridegroom makes her look at the polar star after sunset and exhorts her to ‘be firm with me’ ‘bear children’ and stay together ‘a hundred years’ (1.8.19).
All this shows in an ideal Hindu marriage the girl is not a commodity but a respectable human being. Although monogamy is preferred and divorce discouraged, as the couple is believed to be united for ever in this and the next world, the smrtikaras and other like Kautilya allow the dissolution of some forms of marriage such as the brahma, daiva, arsa and prajapati with the consent of both parties in certain circumstances.
An Equal Half        
The Hindu woman as life partner has a fourfold character: she is ardhangini, one half of the her husband, metaphorically speaking; sahadharmini, an associate in the fulfillment of human and divine goals; sahakarmini, a part to all her husband’s action and sahayogini, a veritable cooperator in all his ventures. Husband and wife together are called dampati, joint owners of the household, sharing work in terms of their biological, psychological and individual dharma. The former provides the seed (bija) and the latter the field ( ksetra) for its fructification, so that humans could be perpetuate in the cosmic process of evolution. Both have the joint responsibility of helping their children grow in all respects, but the contribution of the wife is always immense.
As life partner the Hindu woman has equal right to participate in religious right to participate in religious rites and ceremonies; in fact, certain sacrifices like the Sita harvest sacrifice, the Rudrayaga for suitable sons-in-law or the Rudrabali sacrifice for material prosperity are performed by women alone. Hindu lawgivers like Gobhila and Asvalayana ordain that no ritual or sacrifice can be complete (sampurna) without the presence of the wife. Even Rama had to order for Sita’s statue in gold to make up for her absence during this asvamedha sacrifice. In the Ramayana, Rama’s mother Kausalya offers oblations to the fire god Agni and Tara performs the Svastyayana ritual for the success of her husband Vali against Sugriva. Women of those days were quite learned in the Vedic lore. Draupadi was a brahmavadini and Tara an adept at reciting mystic syllables. Oghavati, Arundhati and Sulabha possessed a thorough knowledge of the Vedas and imparted religious knowledge even to rishis. The spiritual attainments of Savitri and Anusuya have become legendary. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad one meets women of wisdom such as Maitreyi and Gargi. The former abandoned wealth for wisdom and the latter entered into a debate with sage Yajnavalkya at the court of King Janaka. Much later, Bharati, the wife of Mandana Misra, carried forward the tradition by acting as judge in the philosophic debate between her husband and Shankaracharya. When she found her husband losing the debate, she emphatically told Shankaracharya that his victory would be complete only if he could defeat her, since she constituted her husband’s better half.
The Vedas give a married woman the right to talk and debate independently. The wife is the home (jayedastam), says the Rig Veda.7 Besides, she is treasure house of happiness,8 a point elaborated by Manu in a much more explicit way: ‘Women must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law who desire (their own) welfare.’9 Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rites yield rewards, (3.56). ‘Offspring, (due performance of) religious rites, faithful service, the highest conjugal happiness and heavenly bliss for the ancestors and oneself depend on one’s wife alone’ (9.28).
Manu declares that the perfect man is one who constitutes a trinity made up of his wife, himself and their offspring (9.95), The wife being a gift from the Gods (9.95),she ought to be supported to the end of her life. If Manu points out of seductive nature of women (2.213-4), he is equally unsure of the unbridled passion of men. He advises that wise men must not be in the company of even their own mothers, sisters or daughters in a lonely place, for they may deviate from the right path (2.215)! Manu regards woman as a precious unit of the family and of society but denies them absolute freedom due to their physical vulnerability. He, however, distinguishes between the noble and virtuous and the degenerate women, and like other smrtikaras, criticizes those who are faithless, fickle, sensuous, immodest, quarrelsome and loose. ‘Day and night women must be kept in dependence upon males and if the attached themselves to sensual enjoyments they must be kept under one’s control’ (9.2). Manu prescribes capital punishment for killers of women, exempts pregnant and old women from paying fines and suggests that as mater of courtesy, they should be given precedence when crossing the road.
Such is the protection given to the Hindu wife in the Dharmashastras that she cannot be abandoned by her husband even if she in dulges in sexual congress outside marriage or is raped. Both Devala and Yajanavalkya opine that a raped woman cannot be divorced as she becomes pure after menstruation. The latter adds that the wife can be abandoned if she conceives a baby from another person, kills a brahmin or insinuates against her husband; if she is a habitual drinker, suffers from prolonged illness, is cunning, treacherous, sterile, exceptionally extravagant, or uncouth. But even in these cases she should be fed and clad well and properly looked after.10 An abandoned woman without an issue or a male protector becomes a social responsibility, says Manu.11 If anyone grabs her property during her lifetime, that person deserves to be punished like a thief (8.29.352).

When Kalidasa wrote that women go the way of their husband as moonlight follows the moon or lightning the cloud,12 he meant thereby that they were not different from each other. The Hindu scriptures lay emphasis on harmony between husband and wife that is so essential for family peace and prosperity. Harmony requires understanding, which can only be among equals. In the Rig Veda, the couple jointly pray: ‘ May all Devas and Apas unite our hearts. May Matarisva, dhata, Destri all bind us close.’13 The highest duty of man and wife says Manu, is to be faithful to each other. While the supreme duty of the husband is to safeguard his wife, to care for her needs and necessities, and to keep her happy with gift and presents, the wife is expected to be pious and chaste, sincere and faithful to her partner, gentle, suave, skilled and sweet- tongued.
The Pativratya Ideal
The observance of the pativratya dharma by women is not tantamount to servility and subordination. Marital fidelity is greatly valued in the Hindu tradition as it leads to family harmony and bestows occult powers. A woman who sees the Lord in her husband and makes him her very life cannot deviate from the path of virtue; and virtue is power itself. There are many examples of Hindu women who as life partners made great sacrifices, underwent trials and tribulations, and some times showed their thaumaturgic powers born of chastity (satitva). Gandhari covered her eyes with a strip of cloth as her husband Dhritarashtra, the king of Hastinapura, was blind. Madri, one of Pandu’s wives, burnt herself on the funeral pyre of her husband, a practice which remained current in some Indian communities and regions down to the British period, when it was banned in 1829. Sita accompanied Rama to the forest during the days of his exile, kept her chastity intact while in the custody of Ravana, the king of Lanka, and went through the agni pariksa so that her husband could fulfil his raja dharma. Savitri confronted Yama, the god of death, and saved the life of her husband. Sati Anusaya turned the Hindu trinity of gods into children. Littérateurs like Kalidasa and Tulsidas became men of learning because of their wives. During the Muslim invasions, many women committed jauhar (the custom of entering a bonfire when the defeat of their menfolk was certain) in order to preserve their chastity. The resistance put up by Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi (widow of Gangadhar Rao) and the Rani of Ramgarh (widow of Raja Lachman Singh) against the British during the rising of 1857 has few parallels in history. Countless Hindu women participated along with their husbands in India’s struggle for independence.
Although the concept of pati-paramesvara (regarding one’s husband as god) has suffered an erosion in the wake of women’s empowerment, respect for the husband continues, as is evident from the observance by Hindu women of such traditional vows as Vata Savitri, Haritalika and Karka Chaturthi - all aimed at a long and happy conjugal life.
Nowhere do the accredited Hindu scriptures ordain that women should be abused, disgraced, chastised without reason or divorced in ordinary circumstances. Yet expectation from women as life partners have been many and varied. The best female partner, according to a popular Sanskrit adage, is one who renders advice like a minister, obeys like a maidservant, feeds like a mother, pleases like the nymph Rambha, acts as a veritable companion, and has the forbearance of Mother Earth.
1. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.4.3.
2. Atharva Veda, 14.2.71.
3. Rig Veda, 10.85.20-47.
4. Sankhyayana Grihya Sutras, 1.13.12.
5. Hiranyakeshi Grihya Sutras,
6. paraskara Grihya Sutras, 1.8.8.
7. Rig Veda, 3.53.4.
8. Atharva Veda,
9. Manu Smriti, 3.55.
10. Yajnavalkya Smriti, 1.72-4
11. Manu Smriti,8.28.
12. Kalidasa, Kumarasambhava, 4.33.
13. Rig Veda,10.85.47.
1. G Buhler, The Laws of Manu (New York: Dover,1969).
2. P V Kane, The History of Dharmashastra (Poona:Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941).
3. Usha Kapoor, Women and Welfare : A Study of Voluntary Agencies (New Delhi : Indus,1995).
4. Raimundo Panikkar, The Vedic Experience: Mantramanjari (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1977).
5. Herman Oldenberg, Grihya Sutras (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1973).
Partner in Faith
The sage [-woman] placed her hand on the head of Sita and said: ‘It is a great blessing to possess a beautiful body; you have that. It is a greater blessing to have a noble husband; you have that. It is the greatest blessing to be perfectly obedient to such a husband; you are that. You must be happy.’
Sita replied, ‘Mother, I am glad that God has given me a beautiful body and that I have devoted a husband. But as to the third blessing, I do not know whether I obey him or he obeys me. One thing alone I remember, that when he took me by the hand before the sacrificial fire-whether it was a reflection of the fire or whether God himself made it appear to me-I found that I was his and he was mine. And since then, I have found that I am the complement of his life, and he of mine.’
      -Swami Vivekananda, ‘ The Women of India’  

Five Elemental Women
By Vimla Patil 





Indians believe that between the real and the divine worlds, there is a mid-level world of mythology.  Here, mythical heroes and heroines play out stories of love, valour, courage and righteousness as well as revenge, hatred and mindless cruelty. Five women from the epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata – have played such crucial roles in our tradition, that every Indian woman, even in this tech-savvy age, continues to be influenced by their life-graphs…With the International Women’s Day on March 8 2008 coming soon, it is time to remember the Panchakanyas and see how Indian women relate to them even today!
Are you an ‘earth’ woman? Do you feel an affinity to the element of ‘fire’ because of your passionate and temperamental nature? Do you flow serenely through life like ‘water’? Is your spirit free and elusive like the ‘wind’? Or do you dream of being light as air and vast like ‘space’? As an Indian woman, it is likely that you have a little of all these elements in you and that you combine all qualities of the five elements. If this is so, you should not be surprised, for all Indian women carry the legacy of their icons, the most celebrated Panchkanyas of mythology.
As inheritors of the Panchkanya concept for centuries, Indian women are unique, to say the least. Like their icons, they have dual personalities. They are bound by the strictest norms of society on the one hand; yet on the other hand, they are left free to prolifically use the chinks in the armour of social and traditional laws made by a staunchly male-oriented pecking order. Within the scope of social boundaries, they can still express their personalities and design their own life-graphs. The female icons set up by Indian tradition for women to follow therefore are admirable and confusing at the same time.

Among the feminine icons of Indian tradition, five epic characters stand out prominently. These are Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana and the wife of King Ram of Ayodhya; Draupadi, the heroine of the Mahabharata and the wife of the five Pandava princes; Mandodari, the wife of Ravana, King of Lanka; Ahliya, the wife of the Sage Gautama and Tara, the wife of Bali, the tyrant monkey king who usurped the kingdom of Kishkindha.

Each of these women is described as extraordinarily beautiful and virtuous. As a matter of fact, tradition says that their character was so strong, that no calamity could diminish their spiritual power or their worshipful places in the hearts of generations of people the world over. In fact, the five women have such a powerful hold over the hearts of millions of Indians that they are called the Panchkanyas (five women) whose very names ensure salvation and freedom from all evil. It is not uncommon for devout Hindus to recite their names each morning in a Sanskrit Shloka to remind them of the power they symbolised because of their purity of character and spiritual strength.

Yet another interesting aspect of their life-graphs is that all of them are legendary beauties in their own right. Their lustre and beauty caused kings, sages and sometimes even minor gods to kidnap them or covet them. Both the epics describe gigantic wars fought because the beauty of Sita and Draupadi, made evil men like Ravana and Duryodhana lust after them. It is perhaps fitting therefore, that considering their beauty, character and personality, Indian tradition links each one of them to an element.

In an uncanny way, the life-graph of each of these women is somehow replicated in the lives of millions of Indian women even today. Whatever suffering and traumas each of them went through during their lives, are repeated ad nauseum in the lives of millions of Indian women. It is clear that Indian society, at its deepest core, still thinks that man is born to rule and woman to be ruled!

Janaka, the King of Mithila, as is well known, found Sita while his fields were being ploughed. She is the wonderful daughter of the earth, stable, forgiving, patient and pure. The story of her kidnapping by Ravana and her suffering at the hands of the people of Ayodhya is read every day in millions of homes. It continues to inspire devotion and compassion among all women. Briefly, Sita, the Princess of Mithila, was married to Ram, the Prince of Ayodhya. Soon after, she chose to follow her young husband into the forest, when he was banished for fourteen years by his stepmother. Ravana kidnapped her during this forest sojourn. A bloody war followed across the sea and she returned to Ayodhya with Rama for his coronation.

Alas, because of the suspicions of his subjects about her purity, Ram banished the pregnant Sita once again to the forests on the banks of the Ganga. Here, she lived in the Ashram of Sage Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, where she bore her twin sons Luv and Kush. When she was finally re-united with Ram, she chose rather to return to her mother, the earth, than go back with her husband as his empress.  In this last defiant gesture, she showed her inner strength and rejected the continued injustice she had suffered all her life. Yet, Indian men are quick to say that she asked for all the suffering she was subjected to because she did not stay within the Lakshman Rekha drawn for her protection by Lakshmana, her devoted brother-in-law. She, they say, was punished by fate for overstepping the authority of the men who were her familial lords. Today’s women are similarly expected to observe the unseen but clearly delineated Line of Control drawn for them by the men in her life. Her career, her social activities and her behaviour must be governed by strong male-designated social and familial rules. If she disobeys these rules, trauma and abandonment become her certain fate.

Draupadi was the copper-toned beauty born of fire. Fiery, gorgeous and strong-willed, Draupadi was born out of her father’s prayer for revenge against his enemies. She personified this quality throughout her life. Her burning passion for revenge against the Kauravas, who disrobed her in a full assembly in the presence of her five husbands, caused the epic war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas in Kurukshetra. Draupadi’s oath that she would tie her long tresses only with bloodstained hands is symbolic of her personality. Her anguish at being disrobed and humiliated in the Kaurava court led to her curse that a country where women are reduced to such ignominy, would never prosper. Even today, many Indians believe that women’s anguish and their cries against monumental injustice have left India with centuries of suffering, slavery and bloody conflicts. Draupadi’s anguish and anger are a commonly used theme in many dance ballets, music renditions and poetic compositions in all Indian languages. Famous research scholars like Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy and Dr. Irawati Karve, who believe that gentleness and vengeful anger are just two sides of Indian womanhood, have juxtaposed her character with that of Sita. Here too, orthodox Indians and researchers believe that Draupadi asked for the humiliation piled upon her because she not only rejected Duryodhana as a suitor but ridiculed him by calling him “the blind son of a blind father”. Most Indian women would agree that like this passionate heroine of the Mahabharat, millions of women are publicly humiliated and even raped as a punishment for challenging the male will or for ‘talking back’ at a man. Many men are known to use violence against wives merely because they ‘back-answer’ them!

Mandodari, the wife of Ravana, is associated with the element of water, turbulent on the surface yet deep and silent in her spiritual quest. The beautiful Mandodari tolerated the misdeeds of Ravana till his death. Ravana, it is said, abused numerous women and kidnapped Vedavati, daughter of a sage, whom he wooed with vigour till she, in disgust killed herself, saying that she would be reborn as Sita, who would be the cause of his annihilation. Mandodari was a woman of character, virtue and relentless faith and tried her best to make Ravana mend his ways, though she was unsuccessful in the end. Mandodari’s fate is shared by millions of women today. A staunchly male-oriented society overlooks the affairs and illicit liaisons of a husband and expects the wife to love and honour him despite his misdemeanors.

Ahilya is the beautiful wife of a Sage Gautama, whom Indra, the chief of the gods, coveted. He cheated her by assuming the persona of her husband and seduced her. Angry beyond reason, Gautama cursed her and turned her into a rock. Upon hearing the truth, he pronounced the Rama, during his banishment in the forest, would touch her with his sacred feet and would bring her back to life. Ahilya, admired by women for her forbearance and ethereal nature is likened to the freshness and active nature of the wind. Though Ahilya’s seduction was a fraud, she suffered for by being turned into a stone. This story too, applies to modern Indian women. Whoever, falters or is offended in the family – husband or children – she is held accountable and bears the brunt of the misdeeds.

Tara, wife of the monkey king Bali, was also a woman of great virtue. Bali was a tyrant who usurped his brother Sugriva’s kingdom and abducted his wife Ruma. He died a valiant death at the hands of Rama and left Tara to live piously for the rest of her life. Tara is associated with space and has the quality of intelligence, compassion and large-heartedness. There are two other Taras in mythology: Taramati, the wife of king Harishchandra and Tara or Rohini, the consort of the Moon god and mother of the planet Mercury or Budha. The theme of Panchkanyas may include any of these three women, all equally lustrous and virtuous. All the three Taras show that women were considered the ‘property’ of men in India for millenniums. They were kidnapped, punished, abandoned, left to live miserable lives as widows and even sold as slaves by powerful men. Things are not much different today. Women suffer the same humiliations even in modern India.
In spite of this, the Panchkanya theme has inspired Indian women for ages. They believe that even today, they have great affinity to each elemental woman by the way they look, feel or react to the world around them. Most Indian women believe that they tolerate and accept the worst kind of injustice like Sita and remain steadfast in their duty and devotion to their husbands and families. Yet, surprisingly, like Draupadi, they also hide storms of anguish, anger and revenge in their hearts. They believe that the curse of a virtuous, strong woman can ruin the most powerful of men. Like Mandodari, they live a life of duality, with the turbulence of varied experiences on the surface and a deep, silent core in their souls, where wisdom originates. Like Mandodari, they have an inherent gift of distinguishing between right and wrong. In a crisis, they know how to insist on doing what they consider right. Like Ahliya, they have a dormant power buried deep down in their psyches. They have the strength to move like the wind and the compassion to forgive wrongs done to them. Like Tara, they seek a special lustre of their own. They seek a sacred place - which is their right - in the vastness of space. From this niche, they spread their compassion and tenderness.

It is for every woman to study the life-graphs and personalities of the Panchkanyas and decide which element they empathise with. However, in truth, every Indian woman has shades all the Panchkanyas within her soul!


Om Tat Sat

(My humble salutations to  Dr. Usha Kapoor ji, Vimla Patil ji and hindu samskrit dot com  for the collection)


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