Voices, stories I don’t hear

Topical is the way to go, for topicality can get you a Booker prize! So here goes.

 It’s the major festive season of the year now. Down south (and in the Bengal) Dasara and Deepavali celebrate female power, female gods. For me this is also the time when relatives, close and distant, renew their efforts to dilute my irreverence  “for there are female gods you can worship, you see!” 

But look at the pantheon of goddesses that Hindu India worships Sita, Durga, Saraswathi, Lakshmi. . . .  Women whose status derives as much from their being wives of powerful male gods as from their own achievements. I’m not about to anachronistically deconstruct these mythical women/godesses  after all, they were “created” and deified at a time  when women were defined in terms of the men in their lives.  Today we can choose not to revere them, so I see little point in castigating them.

What intrigues me is that among these mythical/divine ideal wives, some have become more powerful and popular than others.  And some stories have gone untold.  Take Yashodhara  the wife of the the Buddha. Why is there no cult around her?  OK, forget the deification. Why doesn’t she even figure in our collective memory  myths and legends?

In an age when a woman’s status hinged entirely on her husband, what could being deserted have  meant to her? How did she cope? What was her story?  Why is she not cited as an example of female strength?

There are some stories about her. (Yes, I’ve been researching!) Apparently she chose to follow the rigorous austerity that the Buddha practiced in the first six years of his quest for enlightenment; and refused to let the child in her womb (conceived on the night Siddhartha left her) grow. Consequently she had to endure accusations of infidelity when Rahul was born six years later. There is also a story that years later the Buddha came back to see her. And that she joined the order of his monks. What would she have said to him?  

There’s  a poem on her by Maithili Sharan Gupt: Sakhi veh mujhse keh kar jaate, which you can read here. It’s  a beautiful rendition of Yashodhara’s anguish: she wonders why Siddhartha did not tell her before he left. And I see subtle, ironic indictment of a woman’s lot in the lines where Yashodhara says that she would not have stopped Siddhartha, that like all good wives who willingly sent their men to the wars, she would have let him go.

 I’d like to think that Yashodhara was a strong woman, too. And that maybe her voice is not heard enough because she speaks a discomfiting story. Much as I admire the Buddha’s rational attempt to understand human suffering, for me he is also a man who left his wife without so much as a by-your-leave. 

Maithili Sharan Gupt wrote another fascinating epic Saket (which I’m struggling to read with the help of a charming young colleague from the Hindi Department). In Saket you hear another voice silenced by our selective amnesia Urmilla, Lakshmana’s wife. And she speaks of life in Ayodhya sans Rama and Lakshmana: a  little known part of the Ramayana and a perfect example of alternate histories. While plenty has now been written about Sita’s victimization and Rama’s patriarchal role in it, what of Urmilla? Why are there few stories about her? Amidst the glorification of the “ideal son”, the “ideal brother” and the “ideal wife” (who accompanies her husband), what does Urmilla’s story mean?

Yashodhara, Urmilla … forgotten women on the male road to salvation and greatness. Their stories were different from those of the devoted, suffering, self-sacrificing wife.  What accounts for their relative obscurity? Is it because separated women whether by choice or by force are not ideals that Hindu India is comfortable with?

Speaking of voices  the number of lurkers on this blog has been steadily increasing. Who are these people who come here regularly, (syndicated readers too, mind you) read and go away without a word? More voices I’ll never hear I guess.

Damn. I don’t hear voices.

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10 Comments »

  1. Space Bar said

    😀 what a suspicious thing you are!

    Excellent post. And for someone who claims to dislike poetry, you seem to read a lot of it.

    (You shoulda been there y’day, btw).

  2. Prasanth said

    Hmm…seems you are very hard to convince on the ‘virtues’ of goddesses 😉 That said, I guess it would be relevant to keep in mind the fact that many of these goddesses(or some of their forms at least) were initially not worshiped on account of their marriage into the family but for entirely different reasons. It is true that they were later incorporated and ‘tamed’ but I guess it is some consolation that there have been other narratives as well.

    We actually studied the Maithili Sharan Gupt’s poem in standard 12 although those hours were the few where the mind could be held inert (i studied in the science group you see) and therefore saw little critical thought.

    One thing I am curious about is the presence(absence) of such works in English. There have been quite a few reworkings of mythical themes in regional languages(with special reference to various political angles) but I cannot recollect many in English.

    Last but not the least check this out. It is truly stupendous.

    Prasanth.

  3. apu said

    very interesting post. reg the goddesses, I must say – the Amman (in all her various forms) in TN, is pretty much an independent power, without affiliation to any male god – this is of course distinct from Parvati who draws her power from Shiva, but is also sometimes linked to Shakti. I think this is also the case with Kali and Durga in Bengal. Another important goddess who comes to mind is Annapoorani, the giver of food.

    I am also wondering if with modernization and the loss of an oral culture, we are losing out on some of the ‘female’ stories and legends. As a child, I remember being told the stories of goddesses such as Bhoo-Devi, who were presented as significant powers. But as religion gets more commercialised and standardized, a lot of that seems to be going. (This is just a personal observation, perhaps I am wrong… )

  4. apu said

    Sorry for hogging the commentspace, but another thing which struck me : is the privileging of male gods in any way related to caste hierarchies? As a brahmin from tamil nadu, I have noticed that many amman temples were not usually patronised by brahmins, and i have even heard relatives say that oh, these are for the “others”. Is there any evidence to show that pre-caste system, goddesses had greater power?

  5. All:
    Apologies. Have been busy with organizing a seminar and workshop, and so was offline all week.

    @ SB:
    The ‘lurker’ reference was not to you, anyway!
    The reading is treatment. And poetry the problem. 🙂

    @ Prasanth:
    Agree with you that some goddesses, mainly avataars of Shakti, were worshipped in their own right. More in my response to Apu’s comments.
    Oh, mythical themes are fairly staple in IWE, though largely as irony or parody. You might want to check out Ashok Banker. The little I’ve read is good.

    @ Apu:
    Not at all. I’m happy you revisited!

    Yes, even in Andhra, “Ammavaaru” is worshipped independently and in many forms. In fact , our village goddesses are powers in their own right. However, as you rightly pointed out, these are “subaltern” goddesses. And in most Andhra villages the washer-women have the keys to these temples and regulate activities. (Aside: My mom was very upset recently, when she saw a temple of Pochamma – one of these subaltern goddesses – very near where I live. These temples should be on the outskirts, she said. And I reminded her that my home is on the outskirts! Urban India.)However, I’m sure you’ve noticed that these goddesses exhibit clear signs of being married. As Prasanth above says, many of these goddesses have episodes of ‘taming’ in their histories. And they are often spoken of as avataars of Parvati born into “lower castes” for specific purposes.

    There is a dominant view, yes, that the earlier “fertility-and-nurturance female figure” worshipped in Ancient India was later appropriated by the Aryans as Shakti, the wife of Shiva. But since the view that the Aryans “conquered” the earlier Dravidians now stands disputed, perhaps this is just a reflection of the way people and customs, especially the caste system, evolved. Caste and gender are indeed intricately linked in our history, and equally oppressive for women.

    The sociologist MN Srinivas has written extensively on Sanskritization – the process whereby certain “lower castes” adopted practices of “upper castes” thereby moving up the social hierarchy. Some castes in Andhra are believed to have been “created” this way. I wonder what one would call the reverse process of caste Hindus appropriating the customs of their “lower” brethren!!

  6. davematt said

    SS, another inciteful and brilliant piece. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Thanks, davematt. The pleasure is entirely mine.

  8. Quirky Indian said

    SS, I might be entirely wrong here, but Durga was never anyone’s wife…..she was created, called forth – put it whichever way you want – to deal with villains the males couldn’t handle. In fact, the root word here is ‘durg’, one meaning of which is ‘impregnable’.

    Ditto, I would think, for the other Devis – Chamunda, Vaishno Devi etc. As far as I know, no derivative status here.

    Excellent post. As always.

    Cheers,

    Quirky Indian
    http://quirkyindian.wordpress.com

  9. @QI:

    Thanks. Hmmm… I’ve removed comment moderation, so wonder why your comment was held up.

    Yes indeed, Durga, Kali, Mahishasuramardhini … all of these were”created”, avataars, specifically to slay some or the other male demon. A couple of other commenters also alluded to this. But the story is that they’re all “avataars” of Shakti. (Kali for instance is s’posed to have arisen from the tip of Parvati’s tongue, which her spouse chopped off for something she said. Gruesome marital spat, no? 🙂 ) And Shakti is spoken of as the female companion of Shiv.

    And in several temples of these goddesses you will find a small alcove for a Shiva linga somewhere … Like that. But I grant , your observation is correct.

  10. […] Oh, and last year along the same lines . . . […]

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