Religious texts, history, and even mythology often tend to ignore and forget women who don’t conform to society’s patriarchal standards. In Indian mythology, one can argue that most women are single dimensional and lack complexity in their character. Although often contended, Sita is seen by many as an epitome of the ideal Hindu woman, as dictated by patriarchy. She is filled with loyalty for her husband, and even in the face of hardships, her love for Rama fails to waver. Meanwhile, others who were more vocal about their demands and desires, like Surpanakha and Ahalya, were vilified and insulted. Their names are even used as cuss words in cultures today.
The retelling of Indian mythology by authors like Kavita Kane and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has helped resuscitate tales of these misunderstood and forgotten women. From Savithri to Mandodari, there are few female characters in Indian mythology that, we believe, have not been given their due.
Her unbridled desire for Rama was the reason Ramayana happened. Yet, in texts, Surpanakha has been vilified and presented as evil incarnate. Her advances were rejected, and her appearance was ridiculed; when she expressed her desires to Lakshman, he chopped off her nose. Here’s a woman who was vocal about her sexuality, and in return, was demonized. She was neither demure nor dependant, and hence was written off as a lustful villain. An excellent read, Kavita Kane’s Lanka’s Princess, attempts to humanize this demonic figure of Indian mythology
Using her words and wit, Savitri tricked the God of death to save her husband’s life in the Mahabharata. Despite knowing that her husband, Satyavan, was fated to die in a year, she stood her ground and married him. Her beauty was legendary, and there were many suitors, but she chose someone she loved, even though he was poor and came with a death sentence. When Yamaraj came for her Satyavan’s soul, she refused to leave his side and followed the God of death. She then went on to outwit him and released Satyavan’s soul. With her fearlessness and intelligence, Savitri made destiny work in her favour.
One of the Panchkanyas from Ramayana, Brahma created Ahalya to be the most beautiful woman. She was Brahma’s prized possession, and after an open contest, she was married off to one of the greatest sages of all times - Gautama. Infatuated by her beauty, Indra, the king of gods, seduced Ahalya disguised as the sage. While some argue that she was hoodwinked, others believe that Ahalya was asserting her right to choose by knowingly committing adultery.
Filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh’s take on this tale is refreshing and demands a special mention. Unlike the saga, in Ghosh’s short film, Indra bears the brunt of infidelity and is turned to stone. Not Ahalya.
Wife of the demon king Ravana, Mandodari is another woman of note in the Ramayana. Like the other four women of the Panchkanyas, she is the epitome of chastity and purity but suffers for no fault of hers. Loving a man with vices is not easy, but Mandodari accepted Ravana for who he was, wickedness and all. Her undying love for him, however, did not blind her. She knew her rights from her wrongs even attempted to counsel her husband, trying to lead him on a righteous path. She stood up to her husband in the era that propagated patriarchy and where women virtually didn’t have the right to speak.
Always relegated to the sidelines, Urmila is Sita’s younger sister; she is also a wife to Lakshman. When Rama is exiled, Lakshman prioritizes his brother over his wife and leaves her behind to care for his parents. Her unparalleled sacrifice was overshadowed by Sita’s and remained largely unsung.
A version of the tale even goes on to say that Urmila was given Lakshman’s 14 years’ worth of sleep so that he could commit to his brotherly duties unfailingly. Headstrong, calm, and committed, Urmila comes across as one of the strongest yet underrated characters in Valmiki’s Ramayana.
One can safely say that the Mahabharata lends itself to slightly more complex female characters when compared to the Ramayana. They seem to have a more distinct personality, influence political affairs in some cases, and are sexually liberated, but largely, the epics are about obedient and sacrificing women.
However, books like The Liberation of Sita, The Palace of Illusions, and Karna’s wife: the Outcast Queen, are reimagining these mythologies with a feminist spin. Refreshing and bold, these retellings help give the women the spotlight they deserve.
(Edited by Neha Baid)