An introduction to Feminist mythological characters
“Ahalyā draupadī Sita tārā mandodarī tathā ।
pañcakanyāḥ smarennityaṃ mahāpātakanāśinīḥ “
– Panchakanya sloka
Hindu mythologies have been a forum of men where women generally don’t have much role to play. But we need to re-visualize this statement. Women characters were always considered either ‘ideal’ or ‘negative’. And if you thought women were just accessories in mythological stories, you need to think again! If women were always portrayed as mothers or wives, one might need to shed light on the more vulnerable characters of Urmila, Hidimba, Mandodari, Sita, Savitri, Draupadi, or even Shurpnakha. These heroines were savage, trusted their sensibilities, and were blessed with a sharp sense. They did not stand for patriarchal norms and fought fiercely for their rights.
Feminist mythological characters who were incredibly powerful
When we talk about the character of Draupadi, a lot of valour, courage, outspokenness followed by humiliation and distress comes to our mind. While several versions of Mahabharata describe Draupadi divergently, the famous Ved Vyasa version symbolizes Draupadi as a sacred woman who wasn’t belittled even by the attack on her chastity. Even though the fire-born Draupadi was in fact a noble character in the epic, she never was treated fairly. At first, she wasn’t born out of choice but was forced as a daughter on Drupad king. Secondly, she was forced to marry five men while initially being in love with only one of them. Thirdly, from time to time she was questioned on her morality and chastity, not forgetting to mention the episode of “cheer-haran” in the epic Mahabharata where Draupadi was forced to undress in front of the Hastinapur’s court. However, her celibacy was protected by Lord Krishna.
Yet how we remembered her is not of the atrocities she was forced upon but due to the courage, she showed in the aftermath. Even though the world portrays her as a damsel in distress, she never believed herself so. She never let any criticism affect her and was always seen as a defiant feminist in the epic Mahabharata.
Sita is one of the most iconic characters in the epic Ramayana, a symbol of self-sacrifice and purity. She is the daughter of King Janak and wife of Lord Ram. However, today Sita is not remembered by her relations but because of her fierce yet calm conduct. She had her own struggle, at a young age she was faced with the choice of either living in the palace or going to exile with her husband, among which she chooses the latter. She is recalled as a woman of great compassion, dignity, love, and a true warrior.
When she was abducted by Ravana, she didn’t lose her courage and believed in her husband. She lived in her abductor’s house for almost 11 years yet never put her sword down. Sita was a brave woman who never succumbed to Ravana’s advances. Even when Lord Ram refused to accept her after winning the battle, Sita was devised on giving the ‘Agni-pariksha’ to prove her integrity and loyalty for her husband. Moreover, she spent her life as a single mother raising two kids and giving them the best education needed as heir of Ayodhya. Even when Ram returned to her she didn’t go back to him and choose to return to her mother ‘Bhoomi’. While many people refuse to see the steel in her, we believe that Sita was indeed a true feminist who cherished her choices and knew how to say ‘NO’.
We all have to admit, that no matter how much the world hates the character of Shurpnakha, there would have been no Ramayana without her. What the world remembers her is the reason why Ravana abducts Sita and the war that resulted. What we miss to see is that she was no villain but just a woman who put forth her sexuality and proposes to Lord Ram with courage. However, her resistance made her pay an unjustified yet cruel punishment for transgressing the society that believed otherwise. The Shurpnakha narrative helps us understand two things- that women who are considered ‘good’ or ‘pure’ are worshipped as Goddess, while a woman who chooses control over sexuality is considered a villain.
Mandodari’s role in the epic Ramayana is outstanding. Wife of demon King Ravana, Mandodari is remembered as a woman who bravely counsels the king to return Sita to Lord Ram with honor. She was the woman who despite seeing the end of Lanka, stood beside her husband and refuse to abandon him even when his own brother ‘Vibhishana’ chooses to do so.
There was a custom in Lanka that unless the wife of the King (who is killed) does not support or marry her husband’s younger brother, he was not able to be crowned as a King. Thus in order to protect Lanka, Mandodari bravely chooses to marry her brother-in-law Vibhishana. Mandoadari was indeed a woman, who hides her anger or anguish in her heart and choose to live a life of wisdom.
Hidimba is the most side-lined character of Mahabharata. She raised the mighty king Ghatotkach as a single mother yet was never respected as the first queen of Pandavas just because she was a ‘Rakshasni’. Hidimba’s struggle and sacrifices were not celebrated as that of Draupadi’s. She married the man (Bheem) who killed her brother, and took care of his family, even when he abandoned her- she never complained. And if this not enough, the son whom she raised alone was too sacrificed the battle of Kurukshetra, so that the Pandavas could win the war.
But these instances don’t state that Hidimba didn’t have her voice. It was her who proposed to Bheem to marry her and also persuaded Kunti for the same. While in the 21st century, it is still uncommon for a woman to propose marriage, Hidimba on the other front did it successfully. She is an inspiration for all the women to pursue their choices with passion.
The story of Savitri is told in 300 ślokas or 600 hemistichs in the book of Mahabharata. It’s a perfect example of true love and wifely devotion that measures no limit even in the face of death. Firstly, she married a man of her choice despite knowing the fact that he was prophesized to die within a year of their marriage. However, when the day arrived, Savitri refused to leave her husband and followed Yama with no fear to the land of death. Savitri’s greatness is that she upholds herself marvelously facing the god of death himself and yet managed to save her husband’s life. She was indeed a very powerful character in Hindu Mythology because of her inerasable impact on the world.
Talking about the feminists mythological characters of the bygone era, not referring to Goddess Kali would be a sin to commit. She is the feminist icon that the world desperately needs! The culmination of strength and power yet had a soft heart of a mother. Just another form of Goddess Parvati, Kali was fierce and aggressive yet calm and composed. Goddess kali normalized women’s anger and embraced the dark side. Even the clothes in which she is represented also shut the patriarchal society’s norms. She is fury but doesn’t live with anger, she is wild yet tamed, her power isn’t symbolized as ugly or tensed in fact as modest and brave.
These were the few most iconic feminist mythological characters!