Wo Chahte Hain Jaage Na Koiiiii, Ye Raat Ye Andhakar Chale Har Koi Bhatakta Rahe Yunhi, Aur Desh Yunhi Lachar Chale
Thursday, 31 December 2015
The moderns of ancient India
Rigveda, Kamasutra, Arthashastra – A rich legacy of abjuring violence against women
Nirbhaya’s rape-murder and the outpouring of protest and anguish that followed invites us to imagine a society in which women are free agents. One which fully accepts that women have the right to make independent decisions – whether in their romantic and sexual lives or in the pursuit of education and work.
A society that discourages violence against women and condemns even marital rape. If violence occurs, society does not stigmatise the woman victim or blame her for somehow having incited the violence but does its best to offer her support and sympathy.
Such a society sounds like a utopian dream – particularly in a country still plagued by khap panchayat judgments ordering gang rape as a punishment for women suspected of “inappropriate relationships” and statements by politicians blaming women for rape. However, we wouldn’t have to travel far in space to find this utopia. We simply need to board a time machine, and jump straight into Rigvedic India.
The Rigveda does mention a rape. The victim is Ushas (Dawn), who flees to a cave, traumatised. She is then befriended by minstrel rishis who track her to her hidden dwelling, and offer praise and support. Singers gather in front of Ushas’s cave praising her radiance and lustre and persuading her to come out, which she eventually does.
In one of the hymns the rapist is punished; an arrow is shot at him. Society did not judge Ushas. It rallied to her aid, boosting her morale and helping her emerge from post-traumatic depression into a happy and normal life.
The society of the scriptures stigmatised neither the rape survivor nor the children born as a result of rape. A father who abandoned such a child was looked down upon, whosoever he might be.
Several Puranic texts chronicle the mighty Brihaspati’s rape of his brother’s wife, Mamata. The child was raised by his maternal grandparents before being adopted by King Bharata. He also became extremely learned. He and his descendants composed the hymns that constitute Book 6 of the Rigveda. While the child prospered, Brihaspati was despised. Mamata was neither stigmatised, nor abandoned by her husband.
In the Ramayana, the Suryavanshi prince, Danda, a serial rapist is exiled by his father to the Dandakaranya forest, where he proceeds to rape his teacher Shukracharya’s daughter Abja. Incensed, Shukracharya curses Danda – he and his entire clan perish.
Meanwhile, the regent discovers that Abja had conceived from the rape. He brings her to the Suryavanshi capital, Ayodhya, with great honour. She becomes queen and her child, Harit, later ascends the throne. Not only did the rape victim and her child flourish; no one questioned their rights to the throne. Illegitimacy carried no stigma.
Besides sexual violence, physical or psychological violence against women is discouraged in the Rigveda, as illustrated by the famous funeral hymn. A woman who lies down, depressed, beside her dead husband is urged to get up and embrace the world of the living – with laughter, good food and song. She is even encouraged to take the hand of a suitor who could be a potential second husband.
Some Vedic women, far from being helpless and victim-like, were very martial. In a famous hymn about Mudgala’s wife, robbers steal his entire stock of cattle. The couple is left with an old bull and a creaky wooden cart with one wheel missing. After Mudgala makes some ad hoc repairs, the couple give chase, his wife holding the reins and driving the cart drawn by the bull. Her skill ensures that they capture all their own cattle as well as some of their raiders’.
Other Vedic hymns mention a woman warrior, Vishpala, who fought at night in the Battle of Khela. Losing a leg in battle did not faze the lady. She got an iron leg made and rejoined the battle.
Leap forward now in time to Vatsyayana and his Kamasutra. Vatsyayana warns husbands (especially in the context of arranged marriages) not to force themselves on their wives: “Women, being of a tender nature, want tender beginnings, and when they are forcibly approached by men with whom they are but slightly acquainted, they sometimes suddenly become haters of sexual connection, and sometimes even haters of the male sex. The man should therefore approach the girl according to her liking.”
Vatsyayana is equally against date rape; he points out that it has similar effects on the woman who is “forcibly enjoyed” by “one who does not understand the hearts of girls”: she begins to hate sex and mankind in general. Again, no disposition to blame women for being raped; the responsibility lies squarely with the rapist.
Nor does marriage give a man an inalienable right to his wife’s person – quite a revolutionary idea when marital rape is not criminalised even in modern society. Both Vatsyayana and Kautilya, the author of the Arthashastra, maintain that wives could resort to divorce (with the option of remarriage) under some circumstances. Thus, women trapped in violent marriages were not without an exit strategy.
It would be ideal if violence against women simply didn’t exist. If this is impossible, the best alternative is a society where a woman’s self-worth and honour are not diminished simply by a crime against her person. Hopefully, we can use our distant ancestors’ social norms for inspiration in moving towards such a society.
The writer is associate professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University