Speaking at the Women Writers’ Fest in Ahmedabad, Devdutt Pattanaik explored the topic of the gendered gaze in mythology in an engaging talk. Pattanaik wowed the audience into silence and forced them to contemplate differing ways to look at patriarchy, how the male body is considered purer than the female and how most religions have different rules for men than women. We bring you some highlights from the session.

What is mythology?

Pattanaik said that to explore the gendered gaze in our mythology, first, we need to understand what is our mythology. “We are a democratic country with so many different kinds of people and communities. We don’t have one mythology, we have many mythologies. People when they use the word mythology on social media or in general conversation, use a 19th-century definition of mythology and not a 21st-century one.

Mythology has changed over the years. In the 19th-century the word mythology was used as a synonym for fiction.  Further, he explored, What is fact? He said, “Everything the Europeans tell you is fact. Everything that the Europeans don’t tell you is fiction. That was the world we lived in. Before the World War we had empires. What the king said was true. Truth was the king’s word. So monotheism was true, polytheism was myth or false. But today mythology has a different meaning.”

“Fact is everybody’s truth. Fiction is nobody’s truth. Myth is somebody’s truth. Mythology is stories, symbols and rituals that communicate somebody’s truth.”

Male body is privileged

One of the things in India that we must understand is that the male body is privileged over the female body. It is considered purer and this something that you find across traditions. Which is why when a woman menstruates, she doesn’t enter the kitchen. This is where power comes from in India – shubh and ashubh. This is the basis of both caste system and gender discrimination.

Shubh and Ashubh

“With shubh and ashubh we have established power. Everywhere in this world hierarchy is created through money and power. So everybody understands words like wealth and agency. But no one understands purity. If you don’t understand purity you will never understand Indian mythology. We all want to remove toxins from our body. Who doesn’t want to be shubh? Purity simply means removal of impure things. When you make a list of ashubh things, one of them is blood.”

“The goddess is called Raktavilasisni, she who bathes in the blood and enjoys blood. Why? Because whatever you consider ashubh, she considers it shubh.”

He further added, “Holy men in our scripture are never born from women’s body. They will take birth from her armpit or from a lotus flower or will be born without a woman’s intervention. And they will be celibate, they will stay away from women. They won’t marry, they won’t get seduced by any apsara. So as long as a man stays away from women or is not even born of a woman, he becomes a superior being. On the other hand, whoever is born from a woman’s womb will be punished with death, he has to die. “

Women writers festival India

On Counter-Traditions

Devdutt said that while Buddha was a married man who gives up his wife and son and becomes a hermit, the Shiva Purana is quite contrary. “Shiva is a hermit, whom the goddess tells to marry her. Goddess makes Shiva into Shankara, she domesticates him. So this is the counter-tradition. One tradition is saying that purity happens when you give up women, household, when you give up the world and you are single (male). But the other tradition says that unless you get married and participate in worldly matters, you won’t acquire knowledge.”

“Questions need to be asked about the invisibilization of women through political and spiritual discourse.”

He added, “The key point is that gendered gaze exists. In India it manifests through this notion of purity. So look closely, why did somebody decide that a woman is impure? On what basis? And then how did women like Gauri, Tara and Laxmi fight back, saying this is not the way it works. I feel that this counter-movement is on the rise today. We should be asking who is cutting women out of the stories? Questions need to be asked about the invisibilization of women through political and spiritual discourse. I am very wary of gurujis, because the moment I talk in terms of celibacy, I am saying the rejection of women. There is a position given to someone rejects the woman, and a superior one. And we must ask why?”

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