‘One is not Born but (Rather) Becomes a Woman’: Glimpses of Mahabharata through the lens of Women Studies

Sagrolikar Kapil Irwantrao

PhD Scholar, the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. ORCID ID is 0000-0002-4375-2267

Volume 2, Number 2, 2017 I Full Text PDF

Article DOI:  10.21659/bp.v2n2.05


Simon De Beauvoir’s influential statement “one is not born but becomes a woman”, an important statement/realisation in the domain of patriarchy, shook the world compelling it to ponder over the very essence of women. Male intellectuals have constructed such essentialism with the help of discourse, state apparatuses and the local machineries to sustain and perpetuate male supremacy in the society. Various discourses- religious, cultural, social, political, and the like have played a vital role in the process of constructing women as born with these essential qualities. Along with a prescribed set of rules and norms in the society, these discourses very tactfully have supplemented different narratives so that women could imbibe these qualities right from their birth. Narratives of the religious discourses, the most effective and successful tools and also the storehouse of different everyday life stories have grappled (in)directly with the Hindu women’s life and have prominently and actively participated in the process of constructing the very essence and identity of the Hindu women. That is to say, stories that have grappled with the life of women in the religious discourses like Mahabharata and Ramayana have reflected upon the everyday life of the Hindu women and the same has been replicated in the actual world.

My study will focus on the way one of the greatest epics of the world the Mahabharata has been instrumental in the process of constructing Hindu women. To do so, I shall rely on Foucauldian formulations like- discourse, discursive and non-discursive machineries, norm, and the like.

Revisiting the Mahabharata

When looked at the Mahabharata from the perspective of women as a discourse and storehouse of a Hindu way of life and worldview, we are confronted by questions such as: ‘Why did the narrators narrate different stories along with the main plot of ‘rise and fall’ of Bharata Vansha or Kuru Dynasty?’; ‘Why were the women placed at the receiving end?’, ‘What were the reasons behind marginalizing women in general?’ and ‘How had marginalization impacted the Hindu ways of life?’.

The Mahabharata, though attributed to one hand (Vyasa- the narrator or at least the compiler of the epic into eight thousand slokas or verses) is narrated by different persons throughout history. Due to the re-editing and the additions of more slokas (ranging from twenty-five thousand to one lakh) by the Bhrigu Dynasty, complexities and complications are affixed to the women characters of the Mahabharata which again have undergone changes according to the needs of the narrators to further easily channelize the male preeminence in the society. The roots of such changes can be traced back to two hundred BCE to the production and the aftermath of the influential seminal work, Manusmrti by Manu. It was the time when complexities and complications in terms of social values, social norms, customs, rituals, and Hindu ways of life started taking place. Male-dominance started strengthening its roots firmly and patriarchy took its charge coercively. The seminal epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, have been re-narrated with a view to uphold the renewed patriarchal values, customs, rituals and the like. During the time of such transformation, the role of women had been adjusted merely as the keeper at the receiving end of the repository of renewed patriarchy. The portrayal of women characters based on her behaviour in the Mahabharata too had been reintroduced with the added qualities. She had but only two things to do- giving birth and warming the hearth. Evidently, this dependability is the result of Manu-effect with his declaration, “पिता रक्शति कौमरे भर्ता रक्शति यव्वना | पुत्रः रक्शति वार्धक्ये न स्त्री स्वतन्त्र्य मर्हति ||” (Manusmrti, 9/3) (Meaning: she should be taken care of and her freedom to be infringed right from her birth by her male partners: father, husband, and son)… Full Text PDF>>