A Review of “Gender and Narrative in the Mahãbhãrata”
By Dr. Jitendra Kumar Suman
In terms of gender studies, British rule in India stands as a point of initiation of debates around the modern contextual understanding of the nature of ancient Indian literature in the form of myth, story or legal-administrative scripture about the individual and social position of women in Indian society. These debates were largely conducted by the social reformers and the conservative section over the issue of banning the practice of sati, against the feudal caste society, sustained by the native political arrangement of restoring classical order. In this debate British Imperialism, trying to reap the benefit to present itself as a force of modernizing agency, supported the narrative scripture-based legitimization and creation of the modern agency of knowledge interlocutors. During the post-independence period debate about the historical analysis of gender in India further developed along the lines of broader class-based analysis of caste categories, which try to homogenize vast gender diversity under the impact of western feminist movement, based upon the hypothesis of a single bipolar dimension of feminine and masculine. By the end of 1980s a second wave of feminism was questioned in the background of newly emerging third world women’s studies, which stressed diversity regarding gender roles within the traditional binary categories and the diachronic evaluation of gender in Indian tradition. “Gender and Narrative in the Mahabharata” is published by Routledge under its Hindu studies series in collaboration with Oxford Centre for Hindu studies. Edited by Simon Brodbeck & Brian Black it contains eleven papers presented at a July 2005, SOAS conference. While trying to identify intra-gender diversities in the social environment of ancient India, these papers try to incorporate newly emerging theoretical orientation in feminist studies. Recognizing the transforming landscape of women’s studies both in its structure and its constituents, Simon Brodbeck and Brian Black in their introduction outlined the priority to incorporate these changes in the south Asian studies about gender and Religion. Placing the Mahabharata as a significant reference point in ancient Indian literature it stipulates that “the Mahabharata is one of the definitive cultural narratives in the construction of Masculine and Feminine gender roles in ancient India, and its numerous telling and retelling have helped shape Indian gender and social norms ever since”. Mahabharata which in its entire texts grapple with the idea of patriliny and inheritance as discussed in the introduction that “who is to be the king in the Kuru capital Hastinapura brings out issues of primogenitive birthright and a behavioral fitness”. In the background of this debate female gender roles as crafted through different characters are not fixed. The fluidity of feminine gender of the entire network of female characters in the epic, asserted divergent views about the real and expected woman’s behavior, which shows a constant struggle between Ideal and real. As V. S. Sukthankar agreed, the basic core of Mahabharata is to depict the dilemma of its characters when they are faced with a situation where they are confronted with the true nature of Dharma. In “Listen But Do Not Grieve: Grief, Paternity, Time in the Laments of Dhritarashtra”, Emily T. Hudson picturized the wounded consciousness of Dhritarashtra who had foreseen the imminent destruction of his house in the events which he witnessed. The first was the humiliation of Draupadi after the game of Dice. The objective of making women characters like Gandhari and Draupadi to passively listen to all the information which is addressed to male characters is also a unique element in the Mahabharata narrative. Brian Black in the in the chapter “Eavesdropping on the Epic: Female Listeners in the Mahabharata”, analyzed how due to their marital and caste prerogative they both had privilege to access knowledge. Although not ritually sanctioned, still both Gandhari and Draupadi constantly accessed passive participation in the androcentric events and knowledge and tried to play overtly in the unconventional acts of speakers. Denying the possibility of a singular hermeneutic of gender in Ancient India, Laurie L. Patton in “How Do You conduct yourself?: Gender and the Construction of a Dialogical Self in Mahabharata” is analyzed. Agreeing to the change which occurred in the non-western feminist perspective, Patton accorded that now we cannot see woman in the Mahabharata as a singular category of queens, goddesses, farmers and courtesans by lumping them into a single hermeneutical pile. The plurality of gender model in the Mahabharata is rightly shown in the character of Draupadi who in her answer to Satyabhama in Vanaparva, declares herself as a dutiful and obedient wife of Pandavas while at the same time constantly resenting the injustice and being the only character to openly question Yudhishthira. Gender fluidity, in the characters of Arjun and Amba/Shikhandi, is analyzed through psychoanalytical Freudian and Lacanian approach in chapter ten, “‘Show you are a man!’ Transsexuality and Gender- Bending in the Characters of Arjuna/Brhannada and Amba/Sikhandin” by Andrea Custodi. Custodi interpreted that although being male, both Arjuna and Shikhandi undergo gender transformation and their further alliance in the killing of invincible warrior Bhisma and the sacrifice of a third gender south Indian god Aravan, could be interpreted through the psycho-analytical model of the Oedipus complex. Further, the character of Bhisma is scrutinized in “Bhisma as a Matchmaker” by Nick Allen and “Bhisma Beyond Freud: Bhisma in Mahabharata” by James L. Fitzgerald. In a setting of state politics, where Hasitnapur constantly suffered from impotent rulers and abducted brides, the lifelong celibacy of Bhisma turned into a moral /Dharmic battlefield. The present book, “Gender and Narrative in the Mahabharata” is an important contribution in the debate around gender orientation in ancient Indian epic literature. Its new interpretations about the various characters in the Mahabharata from the perspective of stridharma, Moksha and celibacy and their legitimization using western psychological models as an interpretation tool, is noteworthy and significant.