A shield made of women

Indian Mythology, World Mythology 10 Comments

Published in Speaking Tree, June 12, 2011


Nari-kavacha means a man for whom women (nari) serve as a shield (kavacha), defending him against possible attack. In all societies, killing women is considered a greater sin than killing a man, and clearly many have taken advantage of this belief to ensure their survival, the latest being Baba Ramdev.

The value for women over men has less to do with nobility and more to do with fertility. Sacrificial beasts were always male, never female, because the number of animals a farmer had depended not on the number of males he had but on the number of females. A single male is enough to ensure procreation of an entire herd.

In the Puranas, the womb of a woman is equated with the Amrita-kumbha, the pot containing the nectar of immortality. Through it the family tree survives, which is why the arrival of a bride into a household was associated with great pomp and ceremony. That is the reason why traditionally women were forbidden to participate in battle or carry arms.

But while economics made women valuable in ancient times, in modern times things have changed which is why so many people have no qualms about killing newborn baby girls, skewing the sex ratio of modern India against women. Be that as it may, even today, killing women is still condemned in most societies as an uncivilized act,  which has encouraged many people to turn women into human shields.

The story goes that Parashurama, the warrior-priest, had sworn to kill all the Kshatriyas because their unrighteous behavior was burdening the earth. With his axe he hacked all the kings and warriors filling five great lakes with blood. But one man escaped. His name was Ashmaha. Some say the one to escape was Ashmaha’s son Balik. He knew that it was unrighteous to kill a woman. Parashurama who wanted to establish righteousness on earth would therefore never harm a woman. So he ran into the women’s quarters, hid behind the women and escaped Parashurama’s wrath. Because of this he came to be known as Nari-kavacha. He also came to be known as Mulaka, the origin, as all the widows of the warriors killed by Parashurama went to this sole male survivor to beget a child. From him, sprang the next line of Kshatriyas.

In Greek mythology, a mother turns her son into Nari-kavacha in order to protect him. The nymph Thetis dressed her son, Achilles, up as a girl and kept him hidden in the women’s quarters of King Lycomedes, when she learnt that the Greek warlords were conscripting young men to do battle against the city of Troy. While in the women’s quarters, Achilles seduced the king’s daughter who bore his only son, Neoptolemus. The Greeks knew that Achilles was a great warrior and were determined to find him. The clever Odysseus therefore entered the women’s quarters disguised as a peddler of women’s wares. Amongst the comsetics and the jewellery and the clothing was a sword and spear. Odysseus noticed that one of the girls, a red head called Pyrrha, kept eyeing the weapons; he concluded the girl was Achilles in disguise. To draw Achilles out, Odysseus signalled his colleagues to blow war trumpets from outside the palace gates. On hearing the war trumpets, Achilles, bored of female company and itching to do battle, grabbed the sword and spear and ran out, unmindful of his female attire. The Greek soldiers caught hold of him and encouraged him to join in the expedition against Troywith promises of glory.

  • NR

    …and even Gadhaffi had a army of women as his bodygaurds …looks like he was applying the same logic but failed :)

  • What an amazing article. The way you have drawn stories from Indian mythology and World mythology(Greek) is awesome. Hats off to you. You brought out the reason why females were never sacrificed. It is sad that in India people kill newborn baby girls but we forget “A son is a son till he takes him a wife, a daughter is a daughter all of her life”. Slowly things are changing..for better. Looking forward to more..

  • optyagi

    cowards goes for NARI KAWACHA.Mother’s shield for son is OK.

    • Sunanda

      For the male candidates the NAARI KAVACHA is anyways harmful…..If the kavacha is from wife, the mother is dissatisfied and if the kavacha is from mother, the wife is dissatisfied …… and the viscious cycle continues…

      • optyagi

        there is adifference between love and affection. You can continue have affection from mother simultenously enjoying love with wife. of course it is difficult in real life. I therefore, agree with you. A very good analysis of the conflict.

    • Deep Biswas

      First of all, improve your grammar. Your opening sentence does not only start with a small letter, it is also grammatically incorrect. Either it’s “cowards GO for Nari-Kawacha” or “only A coward(no ‘s’) goes for…”. Brush up your language, then we’ll consider your stupid opinion, maybe.

  • Interesting idea – as the first person killed by both Rama and Krishna is a woman – Tadaka and Putana.

    Arjun used Shikhandi as a kavach to stop Bhishma attacking him.
    But in the same Mahabharta, Drupadi the proto-female was insulted in the court of Kurus and Matsya.

    Yes, women were exempt from war, but women were also warriors. Durga, Kali, Chinna-masta being just some of the warrior like incarnations of the female principle.

    Reason female children are killed in some communities now-a-days is not because the parent hate women per se – but because dowry costs are high and daughters do not contribute to the up keep of family fortune once they marry and move out.

  • Kinara

    It is so sad that women are/were valued only for their capability of giving birth. The existence of man is not rationalized based on their capabilities then why is a woman’s existence rationalized? When mankind cannot accept differences based on gender how do we expect people to understand racial apartheid?

  • Sri Parshurama went to the extent of killing his mother (chopping her head off) on instructions from his father (due to perceived lack of chastity).
    How then, can we see justification in sparing a king who took a female shield, in his course to cleanse the earth from wrong doers ???!!!

    Must admit that guy was lucky not just for being saved but then being able to do what you said post his survival ;)

  • shirish

    many cud see using nari-kavach as cowardice. But, having once own existence is the formost need.. The last kshatriya knew he cudn’t survive the parashurama’s wrath. Facing parashuram when u already know you cannot survive is not bravery by any means, but wud be a stupidous sucide..