Women in The Ramayana
We take a look at the some of the female characters and categorize them as meek/bold and good/evil.
Kaushalya was Dasharath’s first wife. Not only had Kaushalya accepted, as was traditional then, the fact that Dasharatha had two other wives but she had also accepted that her husband no longer had any sexual relations with her, that being reserved solely for his second wife. However she was the blessed wife as she was chosen to be the mother of Rama, God incarnate. Kaushalya was meek and good.
Sita was one of the main characters. After a lifetime of devotion and service to her husband she was publicly humiliated by being forced to take a trial by fire and was later banished. She was the incarnation of Laxmi and hence the epitome of virtue. Madhur Jaffrey, a leading actress and author, refused to play the role of Sita stating that Sita has nothing to do except be good. Sita definitely falls in the meek and good category.
Kooni (known as Manthara in some versions) was Kaikeyi’s maidservant, who poisoned her mistress’s mind. In doing so she took on the might of the nation. Her Machiavellian machinations brought sorrow to everyone in the royal household for fourteen years. Kooni was bold and evil.
Soorpankha was Ravana’s sister. She tried to trap first Rama and then Lakshmana to a sexual relationship and was disfigured in the process. She then sought revenge by provoking Ravana to abduct Sita, thereby causing total destruction of her race. Soorpankha too was bold and evil.
If the female characters are analysed in this manner it will be seen that they are either meek and good or bold and evil. The message to women was clear. If you remain within the bounds set by the male dominated society you will be ‘deified’ like Sita was. But if you break the barriers you will become an outcast.
The males on the other hand act according to will without giving a thought to the sensitivity of the women. Lakshmana’s accompanying Rama in his exile is a case in point. His cause was noble, of that there is no doubt. But one must not forget that he had got married at the same time as Rama. His filial duty was so strong that it crushed his duty as a husband. His wife Urmila was willing to accompany them to the forest. But even that was not acceptable to Lakshmana. He felt that his wife’s presence would be an obstruction in his performance of his filial duty. Lakshmana performed his duty exceptionally well. But he was busy all throughout the fourteen years and he had no fears over his wife’s safety. Urmila spent those fourteen years in front of an oil lamp, continuously feeding it with oil in order to keep the flame burning – always afraid that the flame would be extinguished and with it her husband’s life.
There is one female character that is bold and yet good. This is Trijata, a she Demon who is in charge of Sita while she is in Ravana’s captivity. She has been instructed by Ravana to browbeat Sita to submission. However, at the risk of her life, she encourages Sita to resist. As they say the exception proves the rule.
Prepare a presentation (3-4 minutes) comparing and contrasting the roles of women in early Indian society as portrayed in the Ramayana, and the role and position of women in modern American society.