In this paper, I will attempt to explore the relationship between myth and gender, and examine how mythology is used and misused by patriarchy to enforce a subordinate status on women. By providing women with idealized role models and creating their own definition of morality, patriarchy uses myth as an instrument to impose their ideology on women. In this paper, I will attempt to analyze literary texts that have tried to reinterpret mythology from a feminist perspective, and in so doing, have subverted mythical stereotyped images of women.
The popular definition of the term “myth” refers to stories passed down from generation to generation. Myths, however, have an additional function, which, according to Alan Swingewood (1977), is “to eliminate the historical basis of institutions and processes, and create within popular consciousness an acceptance of the inevitable facts of class inequality and power” (p. 119). This brings us to the relationship between myth and ideology which appear to be inextricably linked. Terry Eagleton (1976) defines ideology as “that complex structure of social perception which ensures that the situation in which one social class has power over the others is seen by most members of the society as ‘natural’ or not seen at all” (p. 6).
Myth, which plays an important role in shaping the cultural heritage of a nation, thus functions as a significant tool for patriarchy (the dominant group) for imposing its ideology on women (the subordinate group). It does so by providing women with a series of role models who are glorified, revered and rewarded precisely because they uphold the morals of patriarchy. Myths also provide contrasting images of evil women who transgress from the roles assigned to them and are punished for their deviant behaviour. The “good” woman like Sita in Ramayana is passive, submissive, docile and self-sacrificing, and devoted to her husband, while the “evil” woman, like Surpanakha, is sexually aggressive and assertive. Patriarchy is therefore very clear in its stipulation of the qualities that a woman should and should not possess.
However, if myth has been used as a tool by patriarchy to impose its ideology on women, it has also been used as an area of negotiation, conflict and contestation by the subordinate group. The control of myth therefore is very significant for the achievement of some kind of cultural hegemony. As is seen historically, for a subordinate culture to establish its status, it needs to gain control of a myth by undermining and demythifying the “original” or popular myth.
In the rest of this paper, I will examine literary texts that have challenged, and tried to question and subvert popular myths by portraying mythical characters from a feminist perspective. I will also analyze the subversion of the characters of Sita, Gandhari, Draupadi and Ahalya by feminist writers.
Of all the characters in Hindu mythology, the most popular role model all women seek to emulate is undoubtedly Sita. The epitome of self-sacrifice, chastity and virtue, Sita is glorified because she unquestioningly follows her husband into exile, and remains devoted to him despite the hardships she has to endure. Bina Aggarwal (1988), analyses the character of Sita in her poem, “Sita Speak”. The poem is a series of questions posed to Sita, who is urged to put an end to her silence and speak out her side of the story. In her poem, Aggarwal questions patriarchal authority, holding it responsible for contributing to the injustices meted out to Sita and forcing upon her a silence which appears to be uncharacteristic of her otherwise strong self. Aggarwal further criticizes and condemns each male member of the family and society who is in a way responsible for Sita’s sorry fate. She begins by critiquing Sita’s father for his role in moulding her into a passive human being, training her to be flexible, adjusting and obedient to her husband:
Your father married you to a prince
told you to be pliable as the bow
in your husband’s hand (p. 104)
In the next stanza, she adds, “Didn’t you note Ram broke the magic bow?” (p. 104). Sita thus becomes a metaphor for the bow for she too was figuratively “broken” by Ram when he asked her to prove her chastity and subsequently banished her. The ideal image of Ram is thus questioned. Sita is later referred to as “the victim twice victimized”, first by her oppressor Ravan who abducted her, and then by her own husband who made her undergo “the chastity test on the scorching flames” (p. 104).
Her brother-in-law Laxman is not spared either, for although he did not directly cause her pain or suffering, he remained silent in the face of her humiliation, lacking the courage to oppose an act which was undoubtedly unfair. The sons, who Sita had nurtured with love and care, are chastised in the poem for not standing up for their mother’s rights in the face of their own self-interest:
Unhesitatingly, they joined him –
future rulers of his land.
Their lineage was accepted
Yet your purity still questioned. (p. 104)
The society thus accepts the ancestry of the sons but refuses to accept the mother who bore the sons, and thus also becomes a target for attack. Finally, the persona criticizes those poets who wrote Sita’s story and who claimed that women were not worthy of hearing the Ramayana but only fit for being beaten like a beast. The poem ends with a provocation to Sita, who, despite her inherent strength, is characterized by a passive and submissive acceptance of her predicament. Sita’s sacrifice of her love for her loved ones without a word of protest is questioned, and she is asked to explain her silence:
You who could lift the magic bow in play with one hand
Who could command the earth with a word
How did they silence you? (p. 104)
Although the most glorified of all mythical heroines, Sita certainly does not stand alone in mythology in her passive acceptance of her fate. Gandhari, the wife of Dhritarashtra, shares this quality with her. She takes a decision to blindfold herself for the rest of her life in order to share the physical disability of her visually impaired husband. Her decision is traditionally taken as a symbol of self-sacrifice and a perfect example of a wife’s devotion to her husband.
Githa Hariharan (1992) subverts the image of Gandhari in her novel The Thousand Faces of Night. The story of Devi’s mother Sita parallels that of Gandhari to a certain stage in the narrative. Sita, who loves music, broke the strings of her Veena (musical instrument) which “came apart with a discordant twang of protest” when her father-in-law accused her of neglecting her duties as a wife and daughter-in-law. She gave up her passion and became “a dutiful daughter-in-law the neighbors praised” (p. 30).
This seemingly self-sacrificing act was more an expression of her anger and protest, just as, according to Hariharan’s interpretation, Gandhari’s would have been. Moreover, Sita, who appears to her husband to be the ideal woman “who did not complain, a woman who knew how to make sacrifices without fanfare” (p. 103), is actually a strong and dominating woman who takes decisions on behalf of both her husband and daughter without shattering the ideal image they have of her.
She tries to make her daughter Devi conform to the role of a woman which society expects of her, and is consequently displeased upon hearing of Devi’s elopement. The Gandhari myth is subverted when Devi hesitantly approaches Sita’s door after her affair comes to an end and hears the strains of the Veena wafting through. Sita takes up the Veena again, thus discarding the Gandhari-like role of the ideal wife, mother and daughter-in-law that she has been playing, and opens her eyes to those parts of her personality which she had tried to deny and suppress.
While the mythical Sita and Gandhari are perceived as ideal women, Draupadi, a complex and multi-faceted character is a bold and outspoken woman who does not hesitate to express her opinion; nor does she make an effort to control her anger and rage in response to the humiliation inflicted upon her. It is significant that although she is praised for her devotion to her husbands, she has not been taken up as a role model in popular media.
Mahashweta Devi (1990), in her short story, “Draupadi” presents us with an interesting subversion of the Draupadi myth. The protagonist of the story, Dopdi Mehjen, a Naxalite, is captured by military officials. Like her namesake, Dopdi, who asserts herself by refusing to answer the questions of the authorities, becomes a victim of male lust. While the mythical Draupadi escapes humiliation when she appeals to divine authority for help, for Mahashweta’s Dopdi, there is no miracle. Her multiple rapes ordered by Senanayak leave her physically wounded and bruised, but do nothing to her determination and morale. While the mythical Draupadi cannot be stripped because of divine intervention, Mahashweta’s Dopdi refuses to accept the piece of cloth thrown towards her before taking her to the Burra Sahib’s tent. There is no trace of shame when she confronts Senanayak, who has never before felt afraid to stand before an unarmed target. “You can strip me,” she tells the Senanayak defiantly, “but how can you clothe me again?” (p. 104). She challenges the values of a male dominated society and exposes the brutality of her oppressors, going much beyond her mythical counterpart.
While the mythical heroines discussed so far have been revered, mythology is also replete with images of the “bad” woman. One such woman is Ahalya, who allows herself to be seduced by Indra. She is punished for her curiosity by being turned into stone and can only be revived and purified by the touch of Ram.
A short story by K. B. Sreedevi (1993), “The Stone Woman” subverts the Ahalya myth. Ahalya is filled with awe at the first memory of Ram, who had brought her back to life. “One could go on listening to that voice which resonated like the peal of temple bells. The moment she saw him she knew that her long penance had not been in vain. She was drowned in the heavenly pleasure evoked by his gentleness” (p. 48). She compares him to her “detached and saintly husband” (p. 51), who, she observes, is “incapable of uttering such (gentle) words” because he has “mastered the art of the all-destructive curse” (p. 48), and wonders who is the more compassionate of the two.
Her illusion of Ram as the ideal man, the epitome of compassion and greatness, however, is shattered when she hears that he has forsaken his pregnant wife, Sita. “The fire has abandoned its own flame,” she mourns and laments that “Nature [is] deserted by its Protector” (p. 52). The irony of the situation is that Ram, the only man who has the power to bring her back to life, the “protector” of nature, questions the chastity of his virtuous wife and abandons her. He thus seems to be no different from her own husband who cursed her and turned her into stone. It is here that Sreedevi’s story deviates from the myth. Rather than be indebted to a man who has been unjust to his wife, Ahalya rejects the salvation he offers her, and expressing her solidarity with Sita, turns back into stone. She thus challenges the false morals and values imposed upon women by a patriarchal system where a woman must constantly prove her purity and chastity to the world.
These literary texts have therefore attempted to question and subvert the stereotyped images of women in mythology. This new subverted image no longer upholds patriarchal ideals, but creates its own morality. Thus, by the process of social change, there is a “remythification” which includes the idea of “demythification” of the original myth—that is to say, a reconstruction of the “original” myth, and the creation, in its place, of a new myth which subverts, demystifies and deconstructs the original myth.
Aggarwal, Bina. (1998). Sita speak. In Vimal Balasubrahmanyan, Mirror image: The media and the women’s question (pp. 104). Bombay: CED.
Devi, Mahashweta. (1990). Draupadi. In Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak (Ed.), The inner courtyard (pp. 95-105). London: Virago Press Ltd.
Hariharan, Githa. (1992). The thousand faces of night. Delhi: Penguin Books.
Eagleton, Terry. (1976). Marxism and literary criticism. Great Britain: Methuen & Co Ltd.
Sreedevi, K. (1993). The stone woman. In Inner spaces: New writing by women from Kerala. New Delhi: Kali for Women.
Swingewood, Alan. (1977). The myth of mass culture. London: The Macmillian Press Ltd.
Monica Khanna has a PhD in English Literature from SNDT University and is currently working as Associate Professor at Indira Institute of Business Management, Navi Mumbai.