Indian or Hindu Mythology is replete with examples of virtuous and devotional wives. Wives whose devotion was wholly and completely towards their husbands and their families and their entire existence was centered around the lives of their husbands. Wives who did not cater to their husband’s wishes or who expressed their individuality were generally depicted as negative characters. Let us begin with the good and virtuous.
The first example that comes to my mind is the myth of Savitri-Satyavan, which also gave us the phrase ‘Sati-Savitri’. In the entire myth, Satyavan is a dead-body, but his name still finds a mention in the myth. I won’t discuss the myth in details, but what is important here is the character of Savitri. The entire myth is seen as a woman’s devotion towards her husband and how she pursues the god of Death, Yama, to get her husband back from death. The fact that Savitri was an extremely intelligent woman and gets the better of the powerful, unmovable god of Death through sheer determination and the gift of gab, has been totally missed by one and all.
The second character that comes to my mind is that of Sita. Here too, she is seen as a devoted wife, who does not question any act of her husband or in-laws. She does not even protest the charges leveled against her of probable infidelity and that too in public and finally leaves the comfort of the palace to raise two children in the forest all by herself, without even a word of complaint. In spite of such virtuosity, the modern man does not forget to comment on her naari-hath (womanly-tantrum), a reference to her insistence on Ram fetching the golden deer for her! Nor does one forget to mention her using her own mind of crossing the Laxman-rekha, which is what supposedly led to the entire battle! Wasn’t the battle between Ram and Ravan pre-destined?
This takes us the third character, that of Sati Ahalya. Sati Ahalya was cursed by her husband for having sex with Lord Indra, who had come in the disguise of her husband. The accusation was that a woman who did not distinguish between the touch of her husband and another man (irrespective of the guise) is no better than a stone! Modern-day feminists have written tons on this male-chauvinistic act, but that is it.
Besides the above, there are many women who have stood by their husbands, irrespective of their stand, be it Mandodari (Ravan’s wife) or Kaushalya (Dasharatha’s wife) or Sumitra (Lakshman’s wife), all from Ramayana, like many other such women.
So what is behind these symbols of devotion and sacrifice? Was it a male conspiracy to send subtle (though some of them were hardly subtle!) messages to the women folk? Was this setting of social expectations from the women in terms of their roles and duties? Or was this again a statement that woman was just an aspect of man’s existence and everything around a woman was related to the man in her life, depending on the stage of her life, which was either a father, brother, husband or a son? A woman was what the man in her life expected her to be.
In spite of such qualities being ingrained in the modern woman, through rituals and katha’s, how much has such devotional aspects being imbibed?
The modern woman is no Savitri. Not that she would allow her husband to die, but if dead she would pick up the threads and move on in life, which is a sign of modern-day practicality. She is no Sita – in that she would not take a banishment lying down and nor would she stand wrong charges of infidelity and definitely not leave the husband and fend for herself. Finally she is not an Ahalya too as she would not fall short of expressing herself sexually and would definitely press charges of impersonation and rape on Lord Indra and mental and marital torture on her husband.
So which one is better, the archaic image of a devotional, suffering-in-silence woman or the woman with a mind of her own expressing every aspect of her individual self?