Life Lessons From Mahabharata's Kickass Women
Olympics, sexism, and lessons from the Mahabharata...
Our Indian medal winners being all women, released a flurry of ‘us and them’ tweets and opinion pieces. Elsewhere, a woman broke a world record and the media gave the headline and credit to her husband. Then there were stupid debates on whether female athletes should use make-up… the sexism in this year’s Olympics was epic.
It got me thinking of how our own epics actually treated women. The Mahabharata in particular. The Mahabharata is full of some really kickass women. The men were tough but pretty black and white. The women on the other hand were layered, nuanced, witty and self-reliant. They made choices and most often their choices steered the story forward.
“Ahalya Draupadi Kunti Tara Mandodari tatha
panchakanya svaranityam mahapataka nashakam. »
This is a well-known Sanskrit stanza. It actually says that thinking hard about the virtues of these five virgins can destroy even the greatest of sins. It is interesting to note, that amongst the five virgins mentioned are Draupadi and Kunti. Draupadi who had five husbands at the same time – the Pandavas. And Kunti the mother of the Pandavas who gave birth to Karna out of wedlock.
Why would that be? How are these two women, who obviously had a lot of sex, be considered chaste? Here, ‘virgin’ probably meant purity in thought. These were guileless women who did what needed to be done without malice. It’s worth thinking about.
Here are some life lessons they’ve left for us:
Gandhari: She was the mother of the Kauravas. She married Dhritharashtra the blind king and blindfolded her eyes in solidarity with him. There is, however, an alternative thought that she did this to protest at being married off to a blind man. Either way, this act of hers made her a very powerful woman and her powers were vested in her eyes. In fact she is said to have gazed at Yudhishtra’s toe and burnt it with all her pent-up anger at what became of her sons at the end of the war.
Lesson: Make your stand clear, stick to your guns.
Kunti: The mother of the Pandavas is the quintessential Indian mother, but with a twist. She loved her children and did all she could to ensure their success. But it was all within the parameters of society. A penance perhaps, for having had a child - Karna, out of wedlock. The child she notoriously used, to safeguard her child Arjun, born to her actual marriage. This shade of grey makes her so relatable. Moms are women too, moms make mistakes too.
Lesson: You decide when to have children. Your body, your rules.
Ganga: King Shantanu’s first wife, she agreed to marry him on her own terms. The terms were bizarre and her actions were even more so. The terms were:
1. He would not ask her where she was from.
2. He should stand by her at all times.
3. He would never question her actions, no matter how heinous he thought they were.
She then proceeds, over the years, to drown seven of their children in the river Ganga and disappears from his life for a long time when finally questioned by a grief stricken King Shantanu. But she returns with their eighth child to the King years later, after making him an accomplished warrior fit to be king, taught by the best and most erudite.
Lesson: Marriage is the coming together of equals. Enter the relationship on your own terms.
Satyavati: She is probably the strongest and most grey character in this epic. She is almost wholly consumed by her own ambition. Losing all sense of propriety when it becomes clear that her own flesh and blood would not ascend the throne she connived to get her bastard child Sage Vyasa to impregnate her legal son Vichitravirya’s widows Ambika and Ambalika.. The children, Dhritarashtra and Pandu, became fathers of the Kauravas and Pandavas, respectively. She was a far-thinking master of realpolitik. But utterly unscrupulous in her means to achieving her ambition. Quite a woman. Many like her abound in today’s society too. We hate them but cannot help admiring them for their drive and single mindedness.
Lesson: Watch your back. You do, what you have to do.
Hidimbi: She was an unusual character. She was a rakshasi, or demon, whose brother had sent her to lure Bhima to an area where he could eat him up. However, she fell in love with Bhima. And after Bhima killed her brother, she married him. Their son, the mighty Gatotkacha, later in the Kurukshetra, war wreaked havoc on the Kaurava army. He was stopped only by Karna who used his Vasavi Shakti a boon given to him by Lord Indra. A boon that he wanted to use against Arjun but could not, as it could only be used once. Hidimbi is a good example of a woman who goes after what she wants. And in all purity of thought, regardless of her roots.
Lesson: Love, lust, get what you want, who you want.
Draupadi: She is the pivot of the epic. The reason for the Kurukshetra war. She is a feminist in the true sense of the word. Witty, charming, logical and extremely well networked, she is a better role model for the modern woman than perhaps Sita will ever be. She embodies power and passion, yet is tempered by pragmatism. She doesn’t ever shy away from her duties nor become powerless, no matter what the situation. She is called a whore by Karna, treated like chattel by her own husband who places her as a bet, she is ordered to be disrobed in public… yet she comes out of it all a champion. A remarkable character.
Lesson: You are the embodiment of power, passion, pragmatism. Let it show.
The Mahabharata goes beyond a woman’s attire, her looks, her place of birth. It actually venerates her for who she truly is. Forgiving her questionable actions in the light of the reasons why she did them. It validates her emotions and treats her as an equal. Recognizing a woman’s worth is the first step to a more powerful and equal society. The balance is missing in today’s world. It’s lost in the cacophony of words. It needn’t be. The Mahabharata shows us. In so many words.
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