A woman’s body

Indian Mythology 49 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, August 07, 2011


For most of human history, the woman’s body has been treated as man’s property, in reality as well as representation. So adultery (where the woman participates) and rape (where the woman does not participate) were both seen as an insult to a man’s honor.

In the story of  Parashuram, his mother, Renuka, experiences a momentary desire for another man. For this crime of ‘thought’, her own son beheads her on the orders of her husband, Jamadagni. She eventually comes to be associated with the goddess Yellamma, who is associated with prostitution.

In the story of Ram, Sita’s abduction by Ravan so taints her reputation, and makes her the subject of such gossip, that Ram eventually abandons her.

In neither story is the woman actually assaulted. It does not matter. The idea of being violated is terrible enough. The idea that what is yours has claimed another in ‘thought’ (Renuka’s story) or has been claimed by another in ‘thought’ (Sita’s story) is enough to deflate honor.

When we want to put Hinduism on the defensive, and want to establish that Indian traditions are patriarchal, these are the stories we tell. We do not tell stories from the very same scriptures that state say something altogether different.

We do not tell the story of Ahalya, a certified adulteress in some versions, a rape victim in others, turned to stone by her angry husband, who is cleansed and liberated by the touch of Ram’s feet.  This is the same Ram who abandons Sita. Why is the patriarchal Ram cleansing the adulteress ? No explanation offered ! Why is the patriarchal Ram not remarrying after abandoning tainted Sita ? No explanation offered ! Why are plots that reinforce patriarchy given more attention than tales of grace and forgiveness (liberating Ahalya) and tales of commitment (refusal to remarry)?

We do not tell the Upanishadic story of a boy who goes to Gautama for education and is asked “Who is your father?” to which the boy replies, “My mother told me to tell you that she is a servant and has served many men in every way. So she does not know who my father is. Please accept me as Jabali, whose mother is Jabala.” For this honest answer, the boy is named Satyakama, lover of truth, and made a student.

We do not tell the Mahabharata story of Shvetaketu who is horrified to find his mother with another man. When he complains to his father, Uddalaka, the father says, “A woman is free to do as she pleases.” When the son questions his paternity, Uddalaka says, “It is not my seed that makes you my child, it is my love.”

Yes, there are stories where a woman’s body is treated as property. But there are also stories where a woman’s body is not treated as property, where women are seen as sovereign of their own lives. Why are the latter stories not told in schools and colleges and by secular, Left-wing and Right-wing intellectuals?

I feel there is an imagination that is repeatedly reinforced that ancient times were misogynist and modern secular laws will repair the damage. This is absurd. Jerks who disrespect women in particular, and people in general, existed then, exist now and (I shudder as I write this) will continue to exist, Khap or the Indian Penal Code notwithstanding. Can we please put the spotlight on the non-jerks please?

  • sri


    This article is thought provoking.
    I like the way you presented the examples from epics in a newer perspective.I read your book JAYA and cheers for the work you have done on the back cover of it that attracted me to read JAYA.The way you summarized the entire MahaBharata in 20 lines made many people curious about the epic! Congratulations!!GoodDay.

  • Sunil

    Good idea indeed!

  • Beautiful… simply too good..

  • Abhiraj

    Perhaps one of the reasons for these stories not being highlighted is because they aren’t as popular.I would like to congratulate you on bringing these stories to light. Great Work.

  • aarthi raghavan

    Hi Devduttji,
    Thank you for writing something I always wanted to tell. But still I didn’t know the story of Shvetaketu or the Upanishadic story. So I now know something new too. Thank you very much.

  • priyanka

    if indian society had been more respectful n forgivin to women, they would hv loved, respected n committed to their spouses more genuinely…. nt out of some fear or pressure. indian value patterns r mostly propagated by merely educated women who mindlessly, sometimes out of jealously tend to suppress women. also, dere r men whose mind r fed right frm dere childhood tht women r some sort of their property… of fathers( to b given as alms in marriage), of brothers( restrictions on sisters as honor of their household), of husbands…

    • …indian value patterns r mostly propagated by merely educated women who mindlessly, sometimes out of jealously tend to suppress women…

      Yes, you are right, it is ilk of these merely educated women who are post colonial reclamation feminist scholars are asserting that not everything was bad in the Desi system as said by the white man and as enthusiastically accepted by the nationalist elite hell bent on proving their modernity and worthiness to self rule.

      In their enthusiam to modernise the Desi nationalist reformist elite imposed Victornian femininity of Desi women and eliminated all traditional spaces women had to excercise agency and subvert power dynamics. Where as the nationalist revivalist elite committed to spread and strengthening cock and bull stories to prove the supernatural strength of Desi women as compared to white women.

      But the bottom line remains in patriarchy men generally thrive collectively even when they may be oppressed individually and women in particularly are collective oppressed and some may individually benefit in patriarchy.

      Desi Girl

  • paresh patel

    many thanks for this thought from a dimension normally undiscovered.

  • Sharat

    I see a different Dev in this topic. I liked the way you take on those defensive appologetic Left leaning “intellectuals” who consider everything ancient of Hinduism is abhorrent, without doing proper research and knowing it’s contest. They have given such a bad name to such a great and practiacal belief system inspired by no doubt historians of western ilk funded by their govt to spread misinformation to denigrate hinduism and india’s traditions.

    • Manish

      well said

  • Suchira

    This article very precisely puts forth the social understanding of gender and gender roles which are discriminatory to both men and women and treat them more like puppets in the face of social honour more than human being in their own rights!

    The objectification of women has been reinforced through different medium, education and media being the most powerful in our society to continue the patriarchal system of domination. It is really important now to empower both men and women to go beyond the existing social norms and read beyond what society has to offer to understand their true roles as human beings who respect and love another human being without the barriers of gender, caste, class.

  • Manish Sharma

    @devdutt sir i too respect women and i get angry when i see the mindset of people for women(as a property)….and not only the aged people or people from the villages with a traditional approach but many educated people who lives in a urban society, carries this approach……….
    sir though what shri ram ji did was not right at all…..but did u call him jerk or the society which raise fingers on mata sita???

    though in my point of view both were wrong(d society and shri ram)…..and should we listen to the justification of it???

    • When Ravana abducted Sita, Ram fought for her. After killing Ravana, there was murmur in Ram’s army that Sita lived with Ravana so she had to give agni-pariksha to silent such murmurs. Ram never doubted Sita and thats why he fought for her and her honour. Later in Ayodhya, same about Sita having lived with Ravana resurfaced. Despite trusting Sita, Ram had to abandon her – this was a lesson to all future ladies that they should never cross the “Lakshman Rekha” or their fate would be that of Sita. But Ram never remarried – this was his punishment to Ayodhya and its people to made him abandon his beloved. You will notice that in all his actions (even during his battle with Demons) Ram established a “Maryada” (a Rule/ principle). As a son, brother, student, husband, soldier and King, Ram established a rule.

  • aapkiparwaaz

    Hello Devdutt Sir,
    This is really a very good article..
    But indeed our indian society still reads such articles and all the expression of thought are closed in their mind… They never express it or implement it outside their mind.. as the fear that it may linger in thier courtyard.. and inturn affect the society..still prevails

  • Balsu

    Dear Devdutt ji
    Truly another gem from your khazana.
    I radiate the same thoughts here among my people and I am happy that you are taking this to a bigger level of audience.

    congratulations once again sir ji

  • tess

    It could have been longer more substantiated, since I have read many of your books. Very thought provoking.

  • optyagi

    what people expect from awoman should apply to themselves.I donot find any logic,in my view if man has freedom of movement,why should the woman be denied? A perfect understanding is must.

  • Nikhil

    Loved the article!

  • vijay

    I have been through the story of Uddalaka Aruni and his son Swethaketu referred to in the upanishads.nice and thought provoking story indeed…It is Swethaketu who introudced the system of marriage and framed laws by which men and women are bound to one another throught life.This might be,to reduce sensual indulgence and the shift the human mind to higher ideals of civilization which can be attained when one remains aloof from basest emotions like lust.
    Good article indeed…thanks.

    • Hi devdutt g. please give references from mythology about how a husband should treat his wife now in this society.

      • Devdutt

        Hindu scriptures give no prescription….it is not a rule based religion

        • shekhar varshney

          that’s rightly said. Well, i m reading ur articles for past 1year, and you have made me think logical towards the symbolism in hinduism rituals and practises.
          You r one of my inspiration.

  • Anita

    While I opened this post expecting a good feminist argument, I was very disappointed by it! While I have lots of things to say, the most important thing that struck me was that in both ‘stories’ where women took ownership of their own bodies, she remains *only* a sexual object … . And, then a [male] child is then rewarded for speaking the truth of his mother’s sexually deviant behavior … the story shows that he was given student status in spite of his mother’s behaviour and not because of it. its doesn’t speak to ‘ownership’ or ‘liberation’ in any way!! this post has reinforced my age-old problem where I have had to do some serious rule-bending to reconcile my identities as a feminist and a hindu… which feels almost impossible.

    • Preeti

      I feel exactly the same way. I am slowly beginning to believe that it is impossible for a woman to simultaneously claim both identities, as a feminist and a woman.
      I too think that Dr Pattnaik’s analysis lacks nuance.

      That Satyakama was accepted as a student despite his mother’s “promiscuous” behavior tells me that ancient Hindus had the same problems with female sexuality that modern Hindus do.

      Moreover, most Hindu wedding traditions are blatantly sexist. For example, the ritual of “kanyadaan”, which assumes that women are property.

      The woman is “gifted” during a Hindu wedding by one man to another (father to husband).

      I also find the ritual of “Kashiyatra” problematic, where the groom is dissuaded from renouncing the world by the bride’s father, who promises him his daughter’s hand in marriage to persuade him to change his mind.

      Again, the bride and the bride’s mother have no part to play in this ritual, it is quite clearly a transaction between men, the bride is simply a carrot that the bride’s father dangles in front of the groom.

      There are numerous Hindu traditions that underline and reinforce women’s subordinate status.

      Wives touch their husbands feet to show respect, they fast for theur husband’s health and well-being, but there are no corresponding rituals where husbands show their respect for wives or desire their well-being.

      Indeed it seems, that for Hindu husbands, wives are imminently replaceable, since in the past, so many Hindu men remarried after being widowed.

      What did widowed women do? Well, we all know the answer to that.

      No, I disagree with Dr Pattnaik, Hindu traditions as a whole, are not particularly women-friendly.

      They are largely responsible for the glaring asymmetry in the way modern society treats men and women, boys and girls.

      • Well said. I agree.

      • I differ.

        Except in Kalyug, the ladies were always addressed as “Devi”. They were respected and even worshipped.

        During swyamwar, the girl was free to select her groom. In fact, no man would dare reject girl’s proposal for love or marriage. No Yagna could be performed without wife’s presence. There are number of instances where woman initiated for “Rati” (make love). There was no gender discrimination. But this all changed when Islamic invasions started.

        I dont think there is any word HINDU in Vedas or Purans.

        • jyothirmayi rallapalli

          Why is she revered? Because she did what patriarchal society EXPECTED out of her…
          Why is she reviled? Because she didn’t..
          Why is she banished? Because she was a blow to his “honour”
          Why is she forgiven? Because she promised not to mess with his authority..
          Get my point?

    • Willfull errors of omision are part of history and folk lore across the globe, there is nothing new about it. These errors of omission are part of previlege/ the one who has the pen writes the history and one who has the loud voice leads the chorus, each incumbent has vested interest in prevesrving its position/previlege. Patriarchy serves the master and it also serves the foot soldier who deligently fights for it, men as custodians of patriarchy, honor, shame and guilt and women trying to preserve the oppressive customs and rituals respectively.

      My favorite part of the story is the agency of women is never sung in these folklores be it Sita refusing to see Rama ever again or be it Tara, Ravana’s wife protesting abduction of Sita or Draupadi declaring she’ll not marry Karna even if he won the contest, what option did she have- declare him disqualied. Princess Amba, who was abducted by Bhishma for his brothers pledged to destroy him.

      All these tales are fewer and sparsly spread for a purpose to show the critics and those challenging the establishment there is scope of women exhibiting agency. It is like a carrot for women to wait for the right time to be able to use their right. It is like an oppressed and tormented young bride to be waiting to become MIL to get her day in the field. In either way their whole existence is to serve patriarchy in some or the other form.

      Patriarchy is a system in which women are not just replaceable they are also dispensible that makes replaceability easier.

      Desi Girl

  • I have often thought writing along these lines but never did. Thanks.

  • Manish Parmar

    Good and Evil are feeling and exist complimentary.

    Truth can be either of them and our conscience tell us on which feeling it can be related to.

    Our conscience tells us to communicate those feelings which would make the world better.

    So the stories which are felt to be for good cause are highlighted often rather then those which would mark otherwise message.

    So I guess stories what ever are told in a way to give some moral and not based on absolute truth.

    • Devdutt

      Evil is a word that cannot be translated in any Indian language

  • baba

    nice thoughts but you have implicitly assumed that only women can be raped which is not true.

  • Prem Prakash

    A Baba I spent time with is a Ram bhakta and great knower of Ramayana. He told me there is an oral tradition that states that Ram did not want to exile Sita. It was Sita’s will, as she had loved living in the forest, free in nature and amongst the yogis. The life of royalty in Ayodhya was stiffling for her.

  • Vandana

    Your article was very informative, I just
    Don’t agree with one point, Ahalya.
    She was not an adulteress. It was Indra who
    Came in disguise as her husband and uses her.

    • Devdutt

      There are over 16 versions of the story…how can you be so sure?

      • Gautam chopra

        Only valmiki ramayan is original.. others are just interpretation

    • Guruprasad

      His story about Parashurama is also told to aid his point…so please read these epics urself…if anything this is an illustration of how our stories are being twisted by our own ppl…shame

  • Sunil Nagi

    Reason why we do not tell these stories is, we (the men) still want the women to remain our property. we are much afraid of her freedom.

  • shirish

    Its great to see how most of the people here commenting are in agreement to the freedom of women’s sexuality. Nice to see even women are opening to it. Cheers Ladies.
    I do get a sense from the article of yours that myths were designed for thought provocation, and not for concreting a prescriptive/prescribed law. In that sense, there are instances in mythology which sees women as a sovereign of their own..
    But, to the large ours is a men dominated society and the mythology by at large tells the same that it was a chauvinistic society..

    But by the end, it is us who have to decide the future.

  • Jaya

    Hi, A very interesting article. Tell me one thing, why is it that sita asks to share the 14 years of vanvasa with her husband. she pleads with him to take her along, when she could have easily stayed in the palace and lived a life of a princes or q queen for those years. But when SIta is blamed as unpure and she is told that she is not fit to be queen and she decides to leave the palace and go to the forest, why does Ram not go along with him? why does he not leave his throne and place and acompany his wife. This would have clearly told people that atleast he belived in her!!

  • jyothirmayi rallapalli

    The only thing women will not agree with, which men have no answer to, is the fact that infidelity is seen as a feminine trait. “Levity thy name is a woman” is it?? :)

  • Guruprasad

    you need to read the original ramayana by valmiki and mahabharatha by vyasa…none of this interpreted, translated and or transliterated nonsense….you will then stop writing these half stories…parashurama asks his mother’s life back from jamadagni when he offers him a boon for being such a good son…let me know go even to Rama…u are not ready

    • shrinathv

      The question is, why does the son have to curry favor with the father for this? Isn’t Renuka being objectified here?

      • Rudra

        So even look at the story of uloopi and arjuna.. wasn’t the latter objectified? Isn’t the adultery between Radha (Ayan’s wife) and Krishna (a younger cowherd… a “stud” or a womanizer in those days) being whitewashed and worshipped? Weren’t the pandavas themselves procreated out of the (niyogas) of Kunti and Madri? Why can’t we decide from an angle that Kunti was wanting to have an affair with other people or that she was lustful?

  • There are so many versions of each of these stories. Ramayan itself has several contradicting versions. Was ‘Sita’ really a woman, or just an etymological reference to a furrow in a field, Or was it a derivative story from the ancient Harappan goddess of fertility and agriculture… was ‘Ahalya’ a woman, or about an infertile land ‘A-halya’, a land which cannot be tilled, that was made fertile by Ram… as he reached it… thus Ramayan could be just a compilation of folk lore or ancient symbolic wisdom about a society of people on the brink of an agrarian revolution.

    In mythology it is interesting to note that both Draupadi and Sita were borne by the fire and earth, not humans, thus they were brought into the world as catalysts of change, of bigger wars of retribution.
    This goes to show that the epics were not written by one person, but by several people, or compiled by one person, drawing from several oral stories. So it cannot be misogynistic in totality. Some parts can be seen as regressive, but then there are several other that are very powerful stories of strong women.

    The seers will conveniently omit parts of these stories which talk about the empowered woman. Whether about Sita’s refusal to give agni pariksha, Kunti and Madri’s choice of having children from various other men and gods etc.
    The problem is that those who are lettered & cannot read the texts, believed for centuries whatever the seers told them. And now those who do not want to read the text, because of their preconceived notions towards it, tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. :-)

    The beauty of all these epics is that they have the scope & freedom of interpretation. The lesser we associate these stories, or some selective parts of these stories, rigidly with fanaticism and religion, and more we look at it from a historical, anthropological and literary point of view….deeper will be our understanding about our ancestors, their society and their cultural viewpoints.

  • shrinathv

    Devdutt, wasn’t Shvetaketu the one who, despite his father being liberal, is so aghast by the thought that he then declares that a woman can only be with one man, and thus firmly establishing patriarchy? There are many other common readings of the scriptures which have been unfair to women: Kunti declaring “share equally amongst you” when the Pandavas announce that they have brought home something, and later sticking to her guns despite finding that it was a woman and not property; Gandhari being promised to a blind husband without a choice in the matter; Draupadi’s public humiliation when she is used as a stake by Yudhisthira during the throw of dice; and many more such instances. While you could argue that there are multiple versions of the story, many in India have grown up listening to these gender biased versions. The chief women archetypes seem to be the devout wife (Sita/Gandhari/Savitri), or the inflamed avenger (Kali/Draupadi/Amba). Where are the normal women in our epics – the ones who are independent and don’t need men to be fulfilled?

  • Raghav Venkataraman

    A splendid article… guess i missed many as i started to read from this site only after 2011 :(

  • komal daal

    Ok so I want to know the recent stories where woman’s body hasn’t been treated as property.

  • Deepak

    Why do you call Ram a partriarch for sending Sita to the forest? In those days, if a woman was touched by another man, it was the man’s duty to abandon her. Ram, however, loved Sita. He did not want to abandon her. But he had to do so because, as a king, he had to do what was expected of him. He had to always do the right thing and set an example for others.