Beyond Devi or Devil: The Myriad Faces of Women in Myths

Lost Indian Goddesses photo series

By Kavita Kané

The devi or the devil? The winner or the vamp? The good or the bad. The answer, of course, will be as stereotyped as the question itself. It is far easy and presumptive  to bracket characters and people in mythology into stereotypes and to paint them either black or white than see them in their moods of greys, grace and disgrace. But mythology is much more complex when it comes to gender roles.

Also Read: The Devi Or Dayan Phenomenon: Are women still stuck in that trap?

This interestingly was a topic of discussion at a recent lit fest. By terming a character as a devi or a dayan, how easily we have fallen into the trap of cliches even as it is important to understand stereotypes and their relation to prejudice and discrimination.

Mythology, in the later centuries,  has been thought of as entirely patriarchal, often defining women into conventional images. Sita, the epitome of womanhood and the role model for many, seems to be the biggest victim. If she is the devi in the Ramayan, Surpankaha has been cursed to be the dayan  –  the demon as her contrast. By slotting them into two extremes, both the women, both the characters were turned into oversimplified embodiments. If you are not good, you are bad. If you are bad, you cant do good.

Mythology itself seems to have become a victim of patriarchy. By the stories passed down through centuries, from generation to generation, mythology is supposed to make the people think, not judge.

In studied contrasts to devis like Sita, Mandodari and Gandhari are the vamps, those hair-flying, sneering, wicked women who transgress from the roles assigned to them and are subsequently punished for their errant ‘sins’ . The devis are often portrayed as submissive and self-sacrificing, loyal to their husband, while their wicked counterparts like Surpanakha are sexually aggressive.

Such a myopic view can blind the reader with either prejudice or ignorance. All my protagonists have been women – including both the so-called dayans (Surpanakha, Menaka) and the devis –  Urmila or the feisty Uruvi, Karna’s wife, a largely fictitious character who dares to question the societal scripts thrust upon her and the unfortunate Karna.

Goddess of All Things

Surpanakha is often seen as the brazen, brutal woman who dared to openly reveal her attraction for a man – Ram and later Lakshman. She was a confident, sexually assertive woman who was unapologetic about her feelings, neither coy or demure or submissive. But she had to pay for her brashness. Slicing off of her nose is one of the most violent acts in the Ramayan, but it is seen as an act of punishment to be vindicated. But this one episode changes not just the narrative of the epic as the turning point but it questions the very character of Surpanakha. If she is said to have started the war, does she become a vamp or the victim? Was her boldness taken as brazenness? The demon has to be humanised to see her in a kinder light.

Surpanakha is often seen as the brazen, brutal woman who dared to openly reveal her attraction for a man – Ram and later Lakshman.

Also Read: Revisit the Ramayana with Arshia Sattar

Again, as an apsara, was Menaka limited in her portrayal as the selfish, manipulative temptress who destroys a man she is assigned to seduce? The devi becomes the beautiful devil to revert to  a devi again to redeem herself , her love and the man she loves.

Ahalya is another character, punished for her transgressions. From a  doting wife, she quickly gets condemned as  a promiscuous woman who dared to be with another man, besides her husband. It is only when Ram, redeems her, that she gets her status as ‘devi’ back. Yet, in sharp contrast we have the story of Tara who refused to leave her lover Chandra and return to her husband Briahspati and has a child from him.

The interpretation of mythology largely remains influenced by the interpreters beliefs and biases. In the later renderings, mythology became a convenient tool for patriarchy, shaping the socio-cultural ethos, supplying enough role models to be worshiped and glorified, revered and rewarded, laying down moral norms to redefine women.

Also Read: Poets Discuss Religion, Caste and Myths 

Mythology itself seems to have become a victim of patriarchy. By the stories passed down through centuries, from generation to generation, mythology is supposed to make the people think, not judge. Through its legacy of stories and tales, it tells us of human follies and fallacies. But by trapping the characters into misogynic denotations, the narrative takes on a different hue, coloured by a largely parochial bias.

In the effort to deconstruct and ‘demythify’ these characters, arts and literature have used mythology as a creative device to question and contest these very stereotypes. If we are to be unified by cultural hegemony, we need to use mythology itself to understand popular myth. In today’s gender-neutral world, if we decide to see some devis and dayans, through less B/W lenses, we could glimpse the steel in Sita, the vulnerability of loneliness in Surpanakha, the undeserved suffering of Ahalya or the resentful rage of a blind-folded Gandhari. Draupadi has never been taken up as the perfect role model though she is lauded for her devotion and her handling of her five husbands. But what about her humiliation and her fury at the injustice heaped on her not just by others, but by her five husbands themselves?

Also Read: Kavita Kane Tells Stories of Unsung Women from Mythology 

Mythology and gender are intertwined, and given the great symbolic value and veneration of the female and the feminine, what we need to recognise is also the shades of greys within the blacks and the whites. In these strands of grey, is the story of each woman, be it a Sita or a Surpanakha, Mandodari or a Manthara, Kunti or a Kaikeyi, Tara or Holika, Devaki or a Devyani.

Views expressed are personal. Kavita Kané will be sharing a monthly column on SheThePeople.TV. She tweets @kavitakane


Feature Image: The “Lost Indian Goddesses”
(From the Instagram series by conceptual photographer Victoria Krudysheva and designer Paarul Bhargava)