Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Willing Woman: On Epic Women and Will Power

I was surfing channels on the TV the other day when I came across an episode of the original Mahabharata serial being re-telecast. It showed Duryodhana coming to his mother Gandhari just before the war begins and seeking her blessings for victory. Gandhari refuses to bless her eldest son. All she would say is ‘Where dharma is, victory shall be’. Yato dharmah tato jayah.

It requires enormous courage, will and determination for a mother to say that to her son going to the battlefield.

Gandhari invariably appears in the Mahabharata as a woman of iron will and determination. When we first meet her as the young bride of blind Dhritarashtra, it is with a blindfold over her eyes. Traditional interpretation says she blindfolded herself out of devotion to her husband – to deny herself the pleasures that were denied him. If the world of sight did not exist for her husband, then she did not want it for herself either. Many modern writers, including myself [See The Brides of the Bharatas – http://www.boloji.com/women/0076.htm], see it as an act of revolt by a woman who was betrayed rather than as one of self-denial.

Whatever her reasons, it requires enormous will power to keep that blindfold through a lifetime of joys and sufferings. Any woman would want to have a look at the man she has married – the man with whom she is going to spend a lifetime, the man whose children she is going to bear, but not Gandhari. She denies that pleasure to herself. And perhaps a woman feels a still greater need to see the face the children she has given birth to. But in Gandhari’s case, she denies that privilege too to herself. As the children she brought to life come to the world, her blindfold remains firm on her face. All her one hundred sons are killed in the Mahabharata war. Gandhari visits the battlefield after the war is over. But her blindfold remains in its place. It is only through the powers given to her by Vyasa that she sees their dead bodies lying scattered all over the battlefield. She never sees her husband’s brother Pandu, or his wife Kunti. She does not see her own daughters-in-law or grandchildren. She does not see Kunti’s celebrated daughter-in-law Draupadi, or her other daughters-in-law. She never sees Bhishma. She never sees Krishna. Once that blindfold is on, she does not see her own brother ever again, though he spends the rest of his life with her at Hastinapura. [The story that she removes her blindfold and looks at a naked Duryodhana before his final mace fight, making his body diamond-like, finds no place in the Sanskrit epic.]

After the great war Bhima and Yudhishthira come to see her. Not one of her sons has survived the war. And the last of them, the eldest, the most capable, her mighty warrior son who had come to her day after day seeking her blessing for victory but had received only one answer – yato dharmah tato jayah: where dharma is, victory shall be – that master of thirteen akshauhinis of army has just been killed treacherously against the rules of battle, forcing her to question what she had told him every day about dharma succeeding. Bhima was the one who had killed every one of her sons. Yudhishthira is the man for whose sake the war was fought. Gandhari seethes with anger. Her eyes fall on Yudhishthira’s toes from within her blindfold and his toenails turn black. And yet her blindfold remains firm on her eyes.

Later in the battlefield, through the powers given her by Vyasa, she watches the dead bodies of her sons, while birds pulled out their intestines with their beaks and animals tore at their flesh. She watches the measureless grief of her daughters-in-law who weep over their dead husbands. She watches other mighty warriors, including those who fought against her sons, like Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu, lying dead there. She listens to the heartrending cries of the widows of these men. In her helplessness, she takes out her anger on Krishna. She holds him responsible for all that has happened – he had the power to stop it, she says, and yet he did not stop it. She lays a curse on the one man whom she had admired unreservedly, on the man in whom she saw the perfect manifestation of Godliness. But all through this, her blindfold remains in place.

Later, after having lived for a while under Yudhishthira as king, she goes to the forest along with her husband and Kunti, to spend her last days leading an ascetic life there. She fasts there, avoiding food and surviving on water. Kunti, the mother of the ruling king Yudhishthira, becomes her eyes as well as her husband Dhritarashtra’s eyes. Eventually a raging forest fire engulfs the whole place. She takes her seat on the forest ground, along with Kunti and Dhritarashtra, withdrawing her senses into herself, her mind calm and serene, allowing the forest fire to consume her body along with that of her husband and sister-in-law. As fire begins to turn her body into ashes, her blindfold is still there covering her eyes.

That is Gandhari. She is will power itself, in a woman’s form.


But Gandhari is not the only woman of powerful will that ancient Indian literature portrays. Several more of our epic women who have become role models for millennia ever since their time had equally powerful wills.

If Gandhari’s will power is unshakeable, so is her sister-in-law Kunti’s.

Kunti gives birth to a son while she was still unmarried – a child born with golden armour and earrings. One dark night, weeping in uncontrollable sorrow and yet afraid to produce a single sound, she puts her child in a box and floats him down the river, with the woman who attended on his birth as her only witness. Her heart would weep forever after that night for the son she floated down the river. But her sorrow would remain her private secret.

She chooses Pandu as her husband in a swayamvara and lives with him for years. She lives with him as his queen in Hastinapura for a short period and then in jungles and mountains for several more years. All through these years, she holds on to her secret with almost superhuman tenacity. Not once does she give her beloved husband a single clue that she had given birth to a child before she married him. Not even when he begs her again and again to beget children with other men because he couldn’t beget children of his own. The prolonged discussions about this issue might have lasted weeks and months, for she wouldn’t be persuaded to do what he wanted her to do. And yet she gives him not one clue that she has already given birth to a son by another man while she was a maiden. Eventually Pandu succeeds in persuading her to do what she hated to. She begets three sons for him by three different men – but the secret of her first born son will remain her secret.

Years later she has an encounter with her abandoned son. He is a glorious youth now, known to the world as Karna. In a single verse, the Mahabharata compares him to the sun, the moon and fire – so brilliant is he. He is the very embodiment of warriorhood, glowing with everything that makes a warrior great. He is tall, strong and built like a Palmyra tree. When she sees him first, it is as a challenger to her other dear son Arjuna in an arena where he, along with his brothers and cousins are displaying their learning in martial arts and she is sitting among the royal audience and watching it all.

She takes one look at him and she instantly recognizes him. The unmistakable signs are there – the golden armour and earrings he is born with. Her heart cries out for him, and yet, once again, she cannot allow a single sound to come out of her. He is both her pride and her shame.

He is standing there as a challenger to her other mighty archer son, Arjuna, who has just proved himself to be the greatest young warrior of the day. The abandoned first son does everything that the younger son has done to be called the greatest archer of the day. And then he challenges his younger brother for a duel – he does not know he is challenging his own brother.

His parentage is questioned. Only royalty can enter into a duel with royalty. When he stands silent, unable to answer, he is crowned king on the spot by Duryodhana, his brother’s rival.

He had grown up as the son of a lowly chariot driver. Seeing him crowned king, the old charioteer walks into the arena. Karna, in humility, bends down and touches his father’s feet, declaring his parentage to all the world.

Karna, arguably the greatest warrior of them all, her son, is now loudly called low-born and ridiculed by another of her sons, Bhima. Bhima asks him to pick the charioteer’s whip in his hand as befitting a driver instead of the bow and arrow which is fit only for warriors.

One moment her son is crowned a king and the next he is mercilessly ridiculed on the grounds of his lowly birth. His mother is a queen and she knows that the man who begot him has nothing about him that a son should be ashamed of. Karna raises his eyes and stares in helpless fury at the Sun God watching it all from the skies.

Watching it all, Kunti faints in the royal galleries. Those who see that assume that it is because of the threat which her son Arjuna had faced and from which he has narrowly escaped. As for herself, her secret would remain deep in her heart, with not a clue to anyone. She had long ago determined to guard her secret and she will keep guarding it.

There come innumerable occasions when her revelation of the secret would have changed the situation entirely and avoided untold sufferings to her children and their families. But not once does she reveal it. She witnesses her sons being defeated in a game of dice and made slaves to their worst enemies, losing their kingdom and all else they owned. She endures her beloved daughter-in-law, Queen Draupadi, being dragged by her hair into an assembly of kings when she was in her monthly period and wearing a single piece of bloodstained cloth. Humiliation after humiliation will heaped upon Draupadi – on the orders of that son Kunti had abandoned as a baby. She endures her sons’ and daughter-in-law’s sufferings for twelve years in jungles and another year of humiliation they lived in hiding as dependants in another kingdom. But she does not reveal her secret.

On the eve of the terrible war, she meets and talks for the first time to her son, begging him to join her other sons’ side. He refuses, but promises to spare the life of all her other sons, except that of Arjuna. This meeting and this promise too she keeps a secret from all.

In the Mahabharata war her son Karna is killed treacherously by her son Arjuna and yet the secret remains with her. It is only when death rites for the family were being performed after the war that she for the first time acknowledges before the world that Karna was her son and asks her eldest surviving son to perform obsequies for him, shocking him, and everyone else, with her revelation.

Sometime after her son Yudhishthira is crowned the king of Hastinapura, when Gandhari and Dhritarashtra decide to spend the rest of their life in the forest leading an ascetic life, Kunti is with them as they take leave of the citizens. As the old couple walks towards the forest, she too walks on with them. The Pandavas are aghast! She has not told one word to them about going to the forest, she has given not a clue. They all beg her again and again, giving reason after reason why they need her with them, why she should not abandon them, but it is of no use. Kunti has made up her mind to live the rest of her life with old Gandhari and Dhritarashtra in the forest, serving them, and no power in the world can alter her mind. It is with them, the mother and father of the men who caused her sons and daughter-in-law such untold sufferings, that she meets with her end – welcoming the forest fire that consumes them all, seated in meditation like them, as calm and serene as they were.

The Mahabharata tells us that her sons were fathered by gods – Arjuna by Indra, Bheema by Vayu, Yudhishthira by Dharma and Karna by the Sun god. If we refuse to accept gods siring children in human women as a possibility, then Kunti’s secret still remains with her: we do not know who the fathers of her sons are. But of course, her sons themselves never discovered it.


If Kunti is a woman of unbeatable will power, no less is her daughter-in-law Draupadi. It is not only in the dice hall into which she was dragged by her hair that she shows her power, but throughout her life. In fact, the very first time we encounter her in the Mahabharata, she shows she is truly a woman born of fire. As Karna puts arrows to the bow with the aim of hitting the target and winning her, she, a bride standing amidst all those kings, appearing for the first time in an assembly, has the presence of mind and the courage of heart to say she shall not wed him. We may not agree today with the reason for her refusal – it is based on the caste of the man who was trying to win him. But what she is asserting is a woman’s right to decide who she shall wed.

Much later in the dice hall it is her courage that saves not only her but the Pandavas too. It is bending before her dignity and courage that Dhritarashtra eventually asks what was going on to be stopped and then, through boons offered to her, releases her and her husbands from slavery and gives them back their kingdom and wealth that they had lost in the game of dice.

She takes a vow in the middle of her humiliation there – that she would tie up her hair only after it has been smeared with the blood of Dusshasana. Her hair remains unbraided for the next thirteen years, including the one year she spends at Virata as a maid to the queen.

Before Krishna goes on his peace mission to Hastinapura, Yudhishthira asks him to work for an amicable solution – he wound be contented with just five villages if war could be avoided through it. Of all the Pandava brothers, it is Bhima we associate most with battle hunger. Perhaps the life he has lived for the thirteen years has tired him or maybe it is the fear of the Bharata family being wiped out of existence – whatever his reason, he too asks for peace. He too speaks of peace and tells Krishna that the Bharata family should not come to an end because of them – if necessary, they would accept Duryodhana as their lord, be subservient to him and walk behind him in humility. Krishna’s first response is a smile. But when he speaks, it is like a whiplash. He accuses Bhima of cowardice and fear, of behaving like a eunuch. Krishna ends his speech with the powerful words: yad ojasā na labhate kṣatriyo na tad aśnute – a kshatriya does not enjoy what is not obtained through valour. After Bheema, it is Arjuna’s turn to speak of peace. He asks Krishna to act in such a way that there is peace between them and their enemies. But Draupadi remains determined: the war should be fought, enemies should be crushed, she needs her vengeance. Thirteen years of suffering and privation hasn’t weakened her will – if anything, it has become more resolute.

When Krishna offers to go on his peace mission to the Kauravas in a final attempt to avoid the war, she comes before him and, taking her long, thick, curly black hair in her hand, eloquently appeals to him to remember her hair as he talks of peace at Hastinapura. It is not peace she wants, it is not even the kingdom she wants, but vengeance. Her desire for vengeance would see that all hundred sons of Dhritarashtra are killed in the war.

According to a folk tradition, Krishna and Arjuna, dressed as ascetics and looking for warriors to join their side before the great war, encounters Barbareek under a village tree. Barbareek is Ghatotkacha’s son and Bheema’s grandson. He is going to Kurukshetra to join the war. Krishna tests Barbareek’s skill with arrows, which proves to be amazing, and then asks him whose side he will join. On hearing that Barbareek will join whichever is the losing side, Krishna the ascetic asks for ‘bhiksha’ from him. Barbareek promises whatever he is asks for and Krishna asks for his head. The noble Barbareek gives it, taking from Krishna a promise that he would be given the privilege of watching the war from a tree top.

After the battle is over, there is a dispute about who the greatest warrior in the battle was. They decide to consult Barbareek’s head – which had watched the whole war from the treetop. Barbareek confesses he did not see any mighty warriors in the battlefield. All he saw was Krishna’s Sudarshana chopping off head after head, and Draupadi drinking up all the blood that spurted out.

The folk tradition is inspired by a popular perception: the Mahabharata war was fought to quench the blood thirst of Draupadi. She wanted vengeance and nothing would change her determination. Such was her will.


Draupadi is popularly symbol of female determination and will. But in a way even she becomes soft in the end. After Ashwatthama butchers her sleeping brothers and children in the Pandava camp after the war is over, she demands his head. Eventually, though, she becomes satisfied with a jewel of supernatural powers taken from his head and does not insist that he be killed. The Draupadi we meet towards the end of the Mahabharata is a mere shadow of her earlier self.

But one epic woman whose resoluteness of will never weakens through a lifetime of sufferings is Sita of the Ramayana. Our first encounter with her as a woman of will is on the day her husband was to be crowned the crown prince of Ayodhya. After Rama is told by Kaikeyi that the kingdom will go to Bharata and he himself will have to go on an exile to the Dandaka forest for fourteen years, Rama comes to inform Sita about it and to take leave of her. Unlike Rama who is deeply affected by the news and just manages to hold himself together [See Rama: A Study in Self-Mastery – http://www.boloji.com/perspective/323.htm], Sita is untouched by it. Not once does she mention the loss of kingdom. Instead, all she is concerned about is that Rama should not leave her behind when he goes to Dandakaranya. She just will not have it.
She tells Rama that she has decided to go with him. Just like that. It is not a request. She does not plead to Rama to take her with him. She makes a statement of fact: she is going with him to the jungle. And nothing in the world can alter it, nothing in the world can stop her. She does not change her mind once she has decided something. [Sāham tvayā gamiṣyāmi vanam adya na samśayah; nāham śakyā mahābhāga nivartayitum udyatā – literally translated: for that reason, have no doubt, I am coming with you to the jungle today. Once I decide to do something, I cannot be turned back. VR 2.27.15]

Sita here is pure will and determination.

She assures Rama she will make no demands on him. She will live with him as a brahmacharini. She shall be happy with whatever food the jungle provides. She requires no comforts. And she shall walk not behind him, but ahead of him – crushing the thorns and stones on the way with her feet and making his path smooth for him. Agrataste gamishyāmi mrndantī kuśakantakān. [VR 2.27.7]

Rama refuses to listen to her. He describes the pains and privations of the jungle. He describes the dangers of the jungle. But none of that scares her. She is sure of one thing. Come what may, her place is with him. And with him near her, the forest is no forest for her. And without him near her, the palace is no palace to her either. Heaven for her, she tells him, is being with him; and hell, being away from him.

Rama still refuses. And when he does that, the gentle Sita becomes ferocious like a wounded tigress. In her fury, she would stop at nothing. She insults Rama in the most hurting way possible. “Did my father make a mistake when he gave me to you by thinking that you are a man when in fact you are only a woman in a man’s body?” she asks him. Eventually Rama realizes his error and announces he shall take her with him, it was only his love for her that made him ask her to stay back in Ayodhya.

Indian culture in general sees Sita as a very accommodating, submissive woman. But in seeing her so, it misses the core of her personality – her iron will, which she displays again and again throughout her life. Such is her will that a man like Ravana is reduced to impotency before her determination – that too while she was his captive.

Subsequently when Sita is brought before Rama after the war with Ravana has ended, Rama insults her and rejects her publicly, telling her he does not want to see her, her sight is as unpleasant to him as light is to a man suffering from an eye-disease. He asks her to go and live with whomever she chooses – Lakshmana, Bharata, Shatrughna, Sugreeva, Vibhishana or whoever else. She responds by declaring her purity in strong words and her decision not to live thus humiliated by Rama. She asks Lakshmana to prepare for her a pyre – the word she uses, chita, means only one thing: a funeral pyre – and jumps into it, with a prayer to the Fire god on her lips in the name of her chastity and constancy towards Rama. This is what we commonly understand as the agnipariksha, Sita’s ordeal by fire. Whatever it is, whether is an ordeal or an attempt to end her life, it is not on the orders of Rama that she does it, but on her own. Just as the decision to go to the jungle with Rama is her decision, the decision to jump into fire too is her own.

Sita’s iron will is never displayed more clearly than in the last scene of her life. Summoned by Rama, she accompanies Valmiki to Rama’s temporary assembly in Naimisharanya where he is performing the horse sacrifice. She is in Rama’s presence after sixteen long years – she had last met him in her palace gardens in Ayodhya the evening before he abandons her. That evening was one of domestic bliss and tender love. Rama practically forces her to ask for something she wishes – a pregnant woman’s wish, for she is five months pregnant – and after refusing many times, telling she does not want anything, at length she expresses a wish to visit Valmiki’s ashram. He promises to fulfil her wish the very next day. It is that night that Rama hears of the rumours among common people of Ayodhya about her chastity and decides to abandon her. He calls Lakshmana and commands him to take her and leave her in the forest. When she comes to his assembly in Naimisharanya, it is the first time she is in his presence since that sweet evening of sixteen years ago in Ayodhya.

And yet, throughout the encounter, she never once looks at Rama, never utters a single word to him. She still loves him – that is her other strength, apart from her will. But that love has changed. Years ago in Ayodhya she had declared she wouldn’t be able to live one moment without him. Today through her action she says she cannot live one moment with him, such is the pain he has given her. When Rama declares in the assembly he will take Sita back if she proves her purity there, in that assembly, she proves it, and through that proof ends her life. She steps forward from behind Valmiki, her head still bent, her eyes still looking down. “I have not once thought of a man other than Rama in my heart. If this is true, Mother Earth, accept me unto yourself,” she demands of her mother. “With my words, with my deeds and with my heart, I constantly worship Rama. If this is true, Mother Earth, accept me unto yourself.” The earth splits open before her, Goddess Earth appears, and she takes Sita away with her.” She still loves Rama beyond words – but the Rama she loves lives only in her memories. He had died the moment he ordered Lakshmana to take her to the forest and abandon her there. As for the king of Ayodhya, she had never cared for him.

Incidentally, her will, in Sita’s case, is not always her strength. Sometimes it becomes her weakness. Such is the case when she forces Lakshmana to go after Rama, who was chasing the golden deer for her. Lakshmana, unable to stand her fury, leaves her to the safety of the ashram, and weeping in his heart, goes in search of Rama. She will be able to see the brothers only after one year – after untold sufferings for herself, for Rama and Lakshmana, and a war that killed Ravana and all his sons and his brother Kumbhakarna, and masses of warriors on both Rama’s side and on Ravana’s.

Continued 2

1 comment:

  1. Here you see the evidence of the weakness of women, as mentioned in my comment on the blog following this. Draupadi goes soft on Ashwatthama, not as one person to another but as a woman in relation to a man. Likewise, did she join with so many men to enjoy the responsibility of so many children or could she simply not resist the temptation of needy and attractive men?