Five men marrying one woman. A king asking his wife to walk through fire in order to prove the purity of her character. A king gambling away not just his entire kingdom, but even his brothers and his wife. What if instances from the epics, Mahabharat or the Ramayan were to occur in today’s world? Or worse, are they?
1. The Sharing of Draupadi:
In the Mahabharat, when Arjun earns Draupadi’s hand after winning the task set in the Swayamwar, he proceeds to bring her home to introduce her to his mother and four brothers. In a cruel twist of fate, he cheekily asks his mother to see what he received in donation (bheeksha) today. Hearing the same, Kunti, unaware, responds- “Whatever you have received, share it with all your brothers.”
Polygamy, as well as polyandry may be a part of our epics, but have been outlawed amongst Hindus since the passage of the Hindu Marriage Act in 1955.
2. The Swayamwar:
In the ancient times (and in our epics), it was the inherent right of a royal female to choose her husband. A “Swayam- var” ( translating to choosing your own husband) was an event where princes from various provinces would participate and go through various tests, in order to win the hand of the princess. The swayamwar is an integral part of both the Mahabharata as well as the Ramayana. While Ram had to string and break Shiva’s arrow in order to win Sita’s hand, Arjun had to pierce the eye of a moving fish, while only being able to see her reflection in a container full of water.
On first thoughts, shows like “The Bachelor” come to mind- where multiple women compete for the attention of one man. Back home, we’ve also had “Rakhi ka Swayamwar”. Ironically, even today, a major portion of women in the country (with the royalty being no exception) have little choice or agency when it comes to choosing their life partners. Inter-caste or inter religion marriages in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh usually end with honour killings.
3. The Agnee Pareeksha:
Lord Ram is also called the “Maryada Puroshottam” (the male having the highest level of integrity in the entire world). After the entire battle of Lanka which culminates in Raavan’s death, the victors finally return home, to Ayodhya. It is at this juncture that Ram asks Sita to walk through fire in order to prove her chastity. After facing the insult, Sita prefers to go into the earth (as she was born from the earth).
Over the years, many people have tried to justify the Agnee Pareeksha on various grounds- Lord Ram was only following his “Rajdharma”, or that he needed to think about setting the right precedent for his kingdom. However, even today, the Agnee Pareeksha remains an act that was incorrect not just politically, but across every sphere of reasoning. That, however, is not to say that the position of the average woman is much better today. Chattisgarh seems to have actually taken the “Agnee Pareeksha” seriously, with dowry deaths and wife burning being the trend. A woman’s “honour” is still a question adjudged by the society at large.
4. Shabree ke ber:
In another instance, Lord Ram and Lakshman stop at the hut of an old woman, who offers them refreshment in the form of a fruit. However, before offering even a single fruit to Lord Ram, she takes a bite from each one. On being questioned as to why she does this, Shabree replies that she wants to ensure that Lord Ram only eats fruits that are sweet. On seeing such devotion, Lord Ram decides to eat only those fruits which have been tasted by Shabree. By doing this, eating the fruits already bitten by a woman of a lower caste, he grants her social inclusion.
We have seen stories on the media of national level leaders trying to emulate similar behaviour. From washing the feet of sanitation workers to going into village and breaking bread with farmers- our politicians have apparently aced the art of inclusion practiced by Ram. And yet, in some parts of the country, young men are tied to trees and repeatedly beaten up, and asked to chant “Jai Shri Ram”. Irony, thy name is religion.
5. Royal Vicky Donor – The birth of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidur:
In order to ensure the continuation of the royal lineage, Bhishma abducted three princesses to wed the to his half brother, Vichitravirya. As fate would have it, Vichitravirya met his demise before he could fulfill this noble purpose. It was then that Satyavati, his mother, called her other son, Ved Vyas to fulfill his deceased brother’s destiny and provide heirs to the kingdom, a la royal Vicky Donor. Interestingly, the details of their conception played active parts in their lives. Ambika closed her eyes, which is why Dhritarashtra was born blind; Ambalika shivered with embarrassment, and hence, her son, Pandu was born of a weak physical constitution. Their handmaiden executed the act unabashed and thus gave birth to Vidur- strong of physique as well as mind.
Surrogacy and sperm donation and adoption have come helped a large number of couples fulfill their dreams of being parents, in real life and epics. However, the average Indian still shies away from discussing these procedures.
6. Ekalvya- a tale of caste and merit:
We have all heard the story of Eklavya- a meritorious tribal boy who wanted to learn archery under Dronacharya’s tutelage. After being refused by him, Eklavya built a statue of Dronacharya, and continued to practice before it. Many years later, on discovering him to be a better archer than Arjun, Dronacharya asked Eklavya for “guru- dakshina” (Tutor’s fee) in kind- he asked him to cut off his thumb, thus disabling him from using a bow and arrow.
Even though the scenario as it stands in our epics, would probably never occur in today’s times, we see its parallels in essence every single day. The practice of untouchability has been outlawed by the Constitution more than six decades ago. Yet, more than seven lakh individuals in the country are forced by the society to perform manual scavenging. Dalits in a village in Gujarat are not allowed to draw water from the common well. Hundreds of thousands of Eklavyas lose their chances to Arjuns, every day, due to the circumstances of their birth.
From the time of our epics, till today, not much seems to have changed. Casteism, patriarchy, nepotism.. the evils in our lives and our society remain constant.