You might probably be wondering why I am so bothered about the two of the greatest epics of all times when we are all dealing with a bigger problem of the pandemic. There are many characters in these epics, how can we possibly talk about all of them in one small blog? So, I am going to put a filter and talk about the actual warriors in the texts who never received much appreciation until now, when the world is changing: Sita and Draupadi.
Let’s take one at a time. Valmiki’s Ramayana is one of the most celebrated and sacred epics in the Hindu mythology. As the name suggests, we clearly have one hero, Ram. The epic glorifies Ram for his valour and bravery, he is absolutely heroic. The storyline, in the simplest way, goes like this: Sita is married to Ram and right after they get married, Ram is sent to exile for 14 years. Now, Ram, Laxman (Ram’s younger brother) and Sita leave the palace and go to live in a forest. Meanwhile, many things happen, but in the fourteenth year of their exile, Sita is abducted by the mighty villain, or the binary opposite of Ram, Ravana, the King of Lanka. Sita is now a damsel in distress and Ram takes it upon him to protect his wife and get her back to his kingdom from the evil Ravana.
And now, let’s just pause and question ourselves where the notion of a man protecting a woman comes from. Well, you already know the answer. But the real question is: does Sita really need saving? Was she nothing more than a sincere wife? Who was Sita anyway, and why did we never get to know more about her in the Ramayana? Why is she only remembered as a “pativrata (husband-worship)” and a figure whose footsteps should be followed by all the women? Why is only one part of her character glorified, celebrated and used as a weapon to enforce patriarchy?
Sita was the daughter of Goddess Earth and later adopted by King Janaka, who found her in a furrow. So, one thing is for sure, she was no ordinary girl. Being the daughter of Earth, she was as powerful as Ram. We know that the world is made up of four elements: Earth, water, air and fire. This gives her an edge because she was symbolic of fertility or vegetation, meaning that she harboured all the power to give “life to life”.
So now, coming back to my questions, had it not been Sita, Ram’s character would have never been so idealised. She compromised on all the values she held within to make Ram “Maryada Purushtam”. How, you ask? Imagine Ram without Sita. Imagine what would have happened had Sita retaliated, fought against Ravana and freed herself. Well, one thing I know would have happened certainly is that with the example of Sita, women would have understood that they do not need a man to protect or complete them and that they are equally powerful or, as we say these days, “aatma nirbhar (self- reliant)”.
What would the men do then? Because in order to be Ram, they need to be the protector. It was Sita who helped in the bildungsroman of Ram. He would have not escalated to such a status if his wife weren’t that meek and fragile. And for all I know, in Hindu tradition, the name ‘Sita’ is celebrated only because she was not promiscuous. So, whoever is named Sita is supposed to meet up to these pre-determined norms.
Now, you might consider it as another feminist notion of mine, but if you look further, it is about what it takes to be a hero. Most of the times, the one who carries bows and arrows isn’t the real warrior. Especially when you are reading the Ramayana from the male point of view, it is extremely hollow, one doesn’t ever know what is on the the other side of the mountain.
Now, I am going to move ahead with my favourite, Draupadi, who was also called Panchali. She was the one to take the high road. You know her as the proud, ill-mannered woman who got what she deserved when she made a joke on Duryodhana by saying, “A blind man’s son is a blind.” But I call her a woman who is dangerous in a good way, who is unforgiving to those who have wronged her, and who knows her way!
Draupadi rebukes her husbands, questions the morality of each and every one present in the court who was a mute witness of her “cheerharan (disrobing)”, which is why she is dangerous. She makes sense and asks questions that make men around her uncomfortable. She throws darts on their fragile male ego and nonchalantly questions their toxic masculinity. You might think that all these things make her a vamp, but instead, they make her one of the strongest, boldest characters in the Mahabharata.
Draupadi is fierce. She has made herself remembered unlike Sita, who was mute and always only supposed to be Ram’s wife. In a culture of polygamy, where only men or kings, to be precise, were supposed to have multiple wives, Draupadi easily handled five husbands. Which is why you will always see that nobody wants you to follow her footsteps. That would make you dangerous in the eyes of society, when you are supposed to be harmless, just like Sita.
I cannot help but draw a comparison between the, which is why I talked about Sita earlier because her character didn’t get enough space in the epic; we should have known more about her. We have so less information about her that either one can worship her for her chastity and sacrifices or one can view her as the quintessential element in building up of Ram’s character. But with Draupadi, you can have multiple dimensions to look upon. From her dominant nature to her tremendous confidence, you can never satisfy yourself completely by just reading one or two things about her. There is a craving to know her more.
At times, you can label her as the earliest epitome of feminism in Hindu mythology. Draupadi doesn’t need protection, her words are like poisonous arrows that can kill anybody who wrongs her. She speaks her mind unabashedly. Now, one thing if you must notice is that more or less, both Ram and the Pandavas fought for their respective wives. But the difference is that Ram fought the war for his wife, whereas Pandavas fought the war with their wife. This involvement, the sharing of space is what makes the Mahabharata more engrossing to a larger audience.
The fact that Draupadi has a voice not just within the closed walls of the bedroom but even politically in the court is itself an achievement, because in that time, women had no say in the political matters of the kingdom. While one can call Sita the queen, Draupadi was the empress.
Now, apart from the feminist view, what is also interesting is that the Ramayana happened in the Treta Yuga, which comes before the Dvapara Yuga (the Mahabharata). This is why the Ramayana is less confusing than the Mahabharata. The complexities of life and relationships have been spoken about more in the latter one. In fact, I like to look at it like this: the Ramayana apparently laid principles for life. There was no place for sin and one could always follow the path of redemption. But the Mahabharata starts where the Ramayana ends (not technically, of course), in the way that it shows what happens if you follow the principles mentioned in the Ramayana.
The practicality comes out. There is even a possibility of diversion when it comes to the plot of the Mahabharata, whereas the Ramayana is a strictly and tightly gripped plot in which there are less chances of open endings, although there is a lot to deconstruct there also.